Finding grace in a fearful word

Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word. 

And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it. 

Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.

The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection. 

Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.

But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love. 

Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.

But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.

This kind of “my burden is light” expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I’m only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.

I’m not responsible for an outcome, another person’s response. I’m just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.

“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good. 

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Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.

Photo by Chris Mai on Unsplash

One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

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PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

When change feels slow

Last year, for the first time, I had a little balcony. I tucked four small Impatiens plants into each long planter and watched as they quickly spread and poured over the edges, framing my space with a cascade of color. I didn’t know where their name came from, but watching them grow, it seemed to fit. They seemed hungry for life, for growth, eager to escape the bounds of the container in which they were planted and fill the space with beauty.

I’ve since learned that the Impatiens walleriana in my little garden share a genus with touch-me-nots and take their name from the seed capsules which burst vigorously, spewing seeds up to several meters.

This year, for the first time, I’m growing my own Impatiens from seed, and as I watch them slowly unfurl into new life, I’m being given a broader perspective.

Even in ideal and identical situations, we all unfurl at different rates.

Six of the thirty-six seeds I planted were the first to sprout, a tiny shoot, then two green leaves.

For days, maybe a week or more, I saw only those six. I’d almost given up on the others. If I’d had more seeds, I might have replanted.

Now fourteen more shoots have pierced the earth, a few at a time, and I’ve regained hope for the sixteen seeds that haven’t yet come to life.

They’re all in the same soil, receiving the same sun, same temperature, same water. I don’t understand. A friend tells me it’s always like this—that they always appear in batches. She’s never managed to trace them through to their bloom, because by the time of bloom they’ve all caught up, but still she wonders. All her tulips of the same color bloom at the same time. Might the six Impatiens that first woke to the light turn out to be sisters, bearing the same color bloom?

I take a photo of my tiny plants all lined up in their rows to test her theory.

But in the midst of trying to uncurl the mystery and unfurl the science, I pause to listen to the deeper layers:

  • the good and healthy urge within me to live fully, to let life flow through me, filling the space around me with beauty.
  • the healthy desire to understand, a desire that can be twisted into a compulsive need to predict and control.
  • the marvellous grace that reminds me that, in ministry and in my own spiritual life as in gardening, some steps I can understand and predict and even, to some extent, control. Others are known and accomplished by God alone. I plant and water. God makes seeds grow, in His own time. 

As this 50-day season of Easter continues, I’m reminded that what seems lifeless may not always be—it just might not yet be time for its unfurling into new life. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, some of my Impatiens seeds a week in the soil, and others two or more weeks before new life appeared, and it has been eleven years since I last assisted a mother to bring new life into the world. This weekend I finally stepped back into a group of doctors, now with not only my long-past medical training, but also my experience of life as a patient, and my training in theology and spiritual direction. Past training that had been long planted in darkness reappeared in a new form, sending up green shoots to offer my fellow doctors.

Soul work is slow work, my spiritual director has reminded me many times. Yes. And within myself as within my garden, some work is mine to do, and some only God can do. He doesn’t always do it according to my schedule (thank God!), but he is at work in each of us who are opening to Him, patiently and persistently bringing to completion his beautiful work in us.

There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

(Philippians 1:6, The Message)

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PS. Our church has developed a lovely practice of taking turns sharing a glimpse of God at work in our lives. Yesterday it was my turn, and I shared one of the places I’ve seen God at work, bringing new life—a different kind of life—out of something that at first didn’t seem very hopeful. Curious? Watch below, then scroll down for news about a gift I’m creating for you.

I’ve been thinking again lately about Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, to learn from him and keep in step with him, and his corresponding promise that as we do so, we’ll find his yoke easy and his burden light. I’m turning those ponderings into another free email course for you. (I needed a single word for that sentence so I settled on “course.” By “course” I’m referring to a contemplative mini-devotional series that I pray will offer encouragement, help, and peaceful space for those of us seeking to settle a little more deeply into the rest that Jesus offers in the middle of whatever life holds. Phew. See why I needed a single word?) More details to come, but if you’re already aching for rest, click here and enter your email address to receive the course as soon as it is released.

Why Jesus kept his scars

Scars speak.

We know this. We see a scar and want to know the story behind it.

The white scar on a friend’s palm tells where a sharp piece of ice punctured her skin when, as a child, she fell. The red scars on my left knee tell how, as a friend says, “the sidewalk came up and hit me” while I was running last fall.

A scar on a cheek may tell of combat faced and battle survived.

Sometimes people ask about the wide scar that peeks out at the neckline of my shirt. I can read the questions in their eyes. Was it heart surgery? An injury in Afghanistan? I tell them the much less dramatic story of teenage acne, a body that forms keloid scars and a dermatologist who biopsied that scar to make sure it wasn’t anything else. My over-keen body took his well-intended gesture and turned it into a bigger, bolder scar.

The scars Jesus still carries on his resurrected body speak too. 

To the first disciples, they said, “This is no hoax. It’s really me, Jesus!”

To me, they say, “You are loved this much!”

They say, “Don’t forget. Nothing can separate you from my love. Not even your sin—see the everlasting proof that it has been removed?”

Jesus’ scars speak hope.

They say, “There is life after death. Wholeness can rise out of brokenness. And wholeness doesn’t mean that all sign of the wounds disappear. It means they are no longer wounds, but scars, no longer the constant and limiting center of attention but a quiet reminder of courage and love and life that spring up in places of pain.

Jesus’ scars speak truth.

They question the world’s words that beauty must be unscathed and unscarred and young, reminding me instead of the lesson of the Velveteen Rabbit, that in order to become real you have to love and be loved and fall apart a bit. They whisper that all that is worth it to really live.

Jesus’ hands remind me that scars can be beautiful, marks of courage and love, of a life well-lived and a death well-died, of battles fought and won and challenges survived. Scars can be places of life, like a nurse log which, in its own death, offers life to others.

His scars tell me I don’t need to be ashamed of mine. Scars are marks of love—in some cases, maybe, my own small love and the love of Jesus in me that led me to stand up for something that mattered; but always, the love of Jesus for me as he carried me through that challenging time. 

They say, too, “No servant is greater than his master. I suffered and you’ll suffer too. But not alone—not if you let me come close in your suffering.” 

Jesus’ scars are a place of hospitality.

They offer paths along which to line up my life, a hiding place, a place of stability and security—a home. They remind me I’m welcome to come as I am, to make my home in his love, to settle down and cling tight and anchor my life to his, for here I am wanted and welcomed and safe.

They say to us all, “I get it. I know the pain of loneliness and rejection, of physical and emotional agony and feeling the heartache is bigger than you can bear. And I am with you. Press your wounds into my scars. Let my love touch your most painful places.” 

They remind me that, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The deepest pain can become the place of greatest intimacy as we press our wounds into Christ’s and let him turn our wounds into scars. And our scars in turn become places where we can accompany others most deeply and compassionately.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

(2 Cor 1:3-4)

Each scar carries a memory and tells a story.

The weather-worn scars of the huge trunk on the beach whisper of years of being tossed and beaten, cracks formed and crevices shaped and smoothed by sand and waves and time.

Paul’s scars offered irrefutable proof that he was a committed servant of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:17).

Jesus’ scars tell me his story, and where I fit in it. My own scars—in my case the unseen ones more than ones on elbows and knees—fit together with his to tell the other half of our story of life together.

Jesus’ scars also question me, asking about my own.

Are they still gaping wounds, or have they healed into scars? How do I think about them, feel about them? Am I ashamed, trying to fill or fix or cover them, or am I opening them to Jesus, letting his love enter and fill and flow through them like water through the scar in a mountainside, turning a wound into a waterfall of grace?

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(PS. The free five-day email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, suggests some ways we can open our wounds to Jesus’ free-flowing love and grace. Check it out and sign up here.)

The gift of holy confidence

“You sound like an abused woman.” She was speaking to me.  I stopped mid-thought, trying to make sense of what she had said. I’m one of the far-too-small percentage of women who has never been sexually or physically abused. After a moment to catch my breath I asked, “Can you say more?”

“They find it so hard to leave because it’s what they know.” 

Her words came in the midst of a conversation with three friends who were helping me listen. I was telling them about a moment in which I’d been given a tiny glimpse of the pattern that God is weaving out of the broken bits of my life—a pattern that, in that moment, led me by its beauty into delight in what God is doing, and gratitude for the deep privilege of also having a small role in what he is doing in someone else’s life. I was worshipping. And then I wasn’t. All of a sudden my delight was replaced with fear. Was I slipping into pride? Was it okay to enjoy so much the work I was getting to do with God? I had slipped from worship to being anxious about not being anxious. 

As we talked, I said, “I’m used to doing this work with some anxiety running in the background. I know how to do it that way—how to be small and held and let my anxiety press me closer to God, keeping me dependent on him. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to feel confident without it feeling wrong or dangerous somehow, prideful maybe, even though I knowI can’t do this work without God, and I’m fairly sure this is a holy, trusting confidence into which God is inviting me.”

That’s when her words stopped me and helped me see. I knew how to live with anxiety, how to let it press me deeper into God’s love. But if I was invited to step into a holy confidence, could I let the anxiety go? Could I dare to step into an unfamiliar freedom? How would I stay in healthy dependence without anxiety to remind me of my unceasing need for God?

The questions kept coming:

  • What if God wants you to be big? 
  • What if you’re being invited to leave a comfortable space?
  • Might the uncomfortable place of confidence be the place of dependence?

It’s a fact: we are small and dependent and held(Isaiah 40:6-8; 41:10,13-14; 46:3-4). Without Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It was trying to escape their dependence on God that got Adam and Eve, as well as the folk at the tower of Babel, into trouble.

It’s also a fact: we are created in the image of God, given authority over creation, entrusted with talents to steward and people to serve and tasks to faithfully complete. We are created a little lower than God and intended to judge angels and rule nations as we share in the reigning over God’s kingdom (Ps 8; Dan 7:18,22,27; 1 Cor 6:3; Rev 2:26-27). Love has indeed stooped down to make us great (Ps. 18:35).

Precisely because we are and always will be small compared to God, we can grow into our truest, fullest self, unafraid that God will be threatened by us stretching to our full stature. Like a parent who delights in a child’s first steps and growing vocabulary, God wantsus to grow into our truest, fullest, most able self. He knows that that can only happen as we make our home in His love, and He does all he can to facilitate that process. 

Trust can look many different ways.

In moments of anxiety and feeling small and vulnerable, trust can look like running to the place I know myself safe and letting myself be held. There, I’m trusting that I’m known and loved and welcomed, that God is gentle and kind and will never let me go.

When God calls me to step out, trust can look like moving forward, relying on the God who promises to be with me even when I’m afraid. There, I’m trusting that God will give strength, and that He is enough for whatever may come.

And in those moments of grace when I’m called to step out and am given joy and confidence in doing it, trust can look like fearlessly savoring the gift and celebrating the One who gave it. There, I’m trusting that God is with me and for me, delighting to see me enjoying the work he equips me to do. Paul models for me this kind of healthy, holy confidence which is unafraid to acknowledge that we can’t do anything without God, and equally unafraid to trust that, in Christ, we are made competent for the work to which we are called.

“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. . .”  

(2 Cor 3:4-6)

As I pondered all this, I wondered, “We’re walking toward the cross with Jesus and have less than two weeks to go. How does all this fit?” It felt odd and uncomfortable to be considering confidence—or thinking about myself at all—when I’m walking with the One I love toward his death. 

But as soon as I asked the question, I sensed an answer. This is part of what the cross is about.Jesus went to the cross to restore right relationships—with God, first of all, and also with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. He died to rescue us from our fallen, crushed state, to place us back into our relationship with him and to enable us again for our intended roles as sub-rulers under God and even co-rulers with him (Dan 7: 18,22,27; Rev 2:26-27; Rom 8:17). We honor the cross and Jesus’ great sacrifice when we step as fully as we can into the new chapter his death has opened up—a chapter of hope and freedom, of love conquering fear, and of confidence that Jesus will complete in us the work he has begun.