My family doctor once asked me two questions that I return to again and again. She asked them when I was struggling with depression, but she could just as well have asked them in one of the times my physical illness has flared and I’ve felt hemmed in by my limitations, or, for that matter, by a situation outside of me.
What kind of person do you want to be?
What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?
The questions could, I suppose, feel heavy, but to me they feel like grace. No matter what is going on inside me or outside me, I still have choice. No matter how much is beyond my control, there’s always something I can do to cooperate with God’s work in me. These two simple questions lead me out into a spacious place where I am no longer trapped or helpless but remember again that God gives me choice and agency and authority at least in the small bit of creation that is myself.
Among all of God’s creation, he honours us humans particularly with this: we get to participate with God in shaping ourselves. We are, of course, completely dependent on God to sustain us in being, to give us choice, to do in us the many things we cannot do in ourselves. (“Without me you can do nothing” John 15:5.) Yet also, as part of our bearing the image of a sovereign Creator, God makes us co-creators with him in the shaping of our own selves and lives.
I want to be a person who hears God’s heartbeat. Today I can be still in his presence even for a few minutes, opening my heart to him.
I want to be a person who is honest. Today, rather than trying to push away the uncomfortable questions and emotions, I can sit with them in Jesus’ presence and tell him what I’m feeling.
I want to be a person marked by gratitude. Even on a difficult day, after I’ve let Jesus into the hard feelings, I can look for his grace in the day and write out the things I’m thankful for (starting with his welcome of me just as I am).
It’s a big responsibility, but also a gracious one, this participation in our own transformation. It’s a plan designed by a God who loves and honours and cherishes us, and who is so gentle and gracious and kind that He receives our smallest attempts to cooperate with Him like a mother delights in the bouquet of dandelions brought to her by her two year old. He well knows that we can’t transform ourselves, not deeply and thoroughly like Jesus can. But still He honors us and the choice He has given to us, and invites our consent and cooperation in the process, and even on the hard days (maybe especially) on the hard days, our job is to open to this One who loves us and do the bit we can to cooperate with what he is doing.
What kind of person do you want to be? What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?
I bike the Greenway in the early morning light. I don’t even mind the spots of rain landing on my glasses; I’m so grateful that I’m able to bike my whole route again, and that it feels good again.
The freedom feels like my first days home from the dust of Afghanistan, when every new morning I delighted in the emerald grass, the new flowers that had opened during the night, and the feel of the breeze in my (uncovered!) hair. Even still when I get into the shower, I often give thanks for hot, running water.
Sometimes one only recognizes the value of a gift when it’s taken away.
And sometimes one only realizes how much a certain freedom has been missed when it’s given back and the joy overflows into thanksgiving.
And yet, while I give thanks for energy on the days I have more of it, I also give thanks for these past five difficult weeks, and continue to ponder the gifts in them. There are gifts we can only receive in the hard times, and when life spreads a rocky stretch of path before me, I want to bend and pick up every gem hiding among the rocks.
But there’s another gift that has been fluttering around the edges of my thoughts recently in the form of a question: What does it mean to share in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church?
Paul’s words in Galatians and Colossians have long been familiar to me:
“. . .I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Who gets to live those verses? Every life has its suffering, but who can say that their suffering is part of Christ’s affliction, useful for the church? Until last week, I assumed that the cause of the suffering was key, that only those undergoing explicit persecution for Christ’s sake, people like Paul who are stoned and beaten and imprisoned because they speak of Christ, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Now I wonder if it’s not just the cause of the suffering, but their response that joins their suffering to Christ’s. And, as a result, whether suffering of any cause, or at least a much wider range of causes, can be part of sharing in Christ’s afflictions, depending on how we bear it.
Jesus took into his own body not only our sin, but also our sickness and suffering and pain (Isaiah 53:4). When we, now as part of Christ’s own body in the world, carry in our bodies sickness and grief and the other systemic effects of brokenness that entered the world with the first sin, and when we let Christ in whom we live turn those deaths into life for us and for others, are we not also sharing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church and the world?
“Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).
“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 receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)
Paul himself sometimes lumps his personal, likely physical, sufferings, in with insults and persecutions, seeing them all as places to experience God’s life-giving strength being made perfect in his weakness.
“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Everything we suffer was carried by Jesus on the cross, and since it is all part of his sufferings, we can share in his sufferings if we live our sufferings with him, letting them press us close to Christ and become part of the way he both transforms us (James 1:2-4) and uses us to encourage others as they see God’s sustaining presence and comfort in our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
As I bike the return route, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through the leaves that are at their most glorious in their dying, all shades of ripe tomato and sun-tinted goldenrod and the orange of a Thanksgiving pumpkin.
Many summers, as I’ve walked with camera in hand, I’ve ended up with hundreds of sunrise and sunset photos. This summer, different things caught my attention: spiderwebs pearled with morning dew, bright red mushrooms and white bracket fungi, children learning to balance.
And roots, roots, and more roots.
I saw them knuckled and gnarled, poking up through the carpet of spruce needles. I watched them lifting slabs of concrete sidewalk into uneven planks. And I noticed them hanging free where waves had worn away the soil in which they’d first settled and grown.
Perhaps I noticed them more than usual because at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Tacklind’s book, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility. It had arrived in the mail a month or so before my August vacation, and after I’d read the first few pages, I set it aside to take with me. I could tell from those first few pages that it was a book I wanted to linger with, reading slowly and letting it question me as much as I questioned it. I was not disappointed.
Near the beginning of the book, Tacklind tells how he sensed God saying to him, “This is who you are.”
“I looked up and in front of me was this thin, white tree, standing alone in the midst of the creek bed. A white alder. It caught me off guard.
This tree? This unimpressive, wan, frail-looking specimen?
My heart pushed back, resisting the image and the calling that came with it. It wasn’t just the tree itself that made me withdraw, but where it grew, this rocky middle place. . .” (p. 15)
It’s not easy living in the middle places of life. And yet it’s in the middle places, the uncomfortable, lonely places where we recognize our lack of control and our desperate need for God, that our faith deepens.
“. . .[T]he white alder alone remains in this barren space. This is because of several unique strengths the tree possesses that allow it to endure where other trees are uprooted and perish. It is incredibly flexible. When the floods come, it concedes. It bends. . .
But it is not simply the pliability of the alder wood that allows it to remain. Its root system also is distinct. It possesses what is called a taproot: essentially the trunk of the tree continues to grow down and down, digging deeper and deeper in its thirst for more of the water it needs to survive. Not only does the taproot allow the alder to endure the floods, it also allows the tree to survive when the creek’s water level is at its lowest. Oak and pine trees have breadth but not necessarily depth. Their shallower root systems cannot endure the barrenness of the middle place when the soil and nourishment they need have been leached away.” (p. 16)
Everyone I’ve met who is wise and grace-filled has suffered deeply. Those who shine with Christ’s beauty have allowed suffering to press them deep into Christ, pushing down to find the water that they need in that barren place.
Wise men and women throughout the ages agree: suffering is a necessary part of becoming truly alive and holy and whole:
“Wisdom comes only through suffering.”—Aeschylus
“To be most fertile, the soil must first be torn up; and shall not thy soul accept suffering for the sake of better growth?” —Ivan Panin
“The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust – not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.” —Brennan Manning
It’s not suffering itself that brings about transformation. It’s grace. And it’s choice. Will I put my energy into fighting the suffering, or will I let it press me into Christ? Will my roots spread wide as I seek relief in things around me, or will they go deep as I turn again and again to God, pouring out the honest emotions and lingering in God’s presence long enough to let him meet me there as the One who is both the slain Lamb, suffering with and for me, and the Lion of Judah seated on the throne?
I’ve been pondering all this again in the midst of the worst flare of my chronic illness that I’ve had for years. For me, both the greatest pain and the greatest gift comes not in the physical limitations, but in what those limitations show me about the strength and location of my roots. Sure, it’s unpleasant feeling exhausted and light-headed and finding my eyes unable to focus. But it’s more painful to discover, as I need to back out of commitments and accept help with shopping and cleaning and cooking, how much I still care about what people think of me. (Will they think I’m lazy? Selfish? Irresponsible?)
I see how my roots spread wide, seeking affirmation from those around me. The seeing is painful, and yet it’s a gift. Seeing makes sense of the struggle within me. It calls me to keep opening this part of myself to God’s healing love, to choose again and again to follow him and not let my fears of what others might think guide my decisions. In other words, it invites me to pray and act in ways that let my taproot grow deeper and deeper into the spring of Life rather than relying on my superficial root systems for runoff.
The process isn’t comfortable, but I’m grateful for the dryness of this place that is pushing me to dig deep for water. And in the moments I don’t know how to proceed, how to let my struggles press me into God? Here I’m encouraged by the promises that accompany the challenge:
“Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing. If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.”
When life seems faded and pale, a dim echo of glory, or surreal, too busy and bright,
you can rest, friend, and trust the Artist, because you are not self-made. “We are God’s masterpiece” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT), all of us being loved together into a Life more magnificent than we can dream.
Masterpieces aren’t made in a day. There are stages and phases and layers, and if you try to rush the peach onto the blue, you just end up with mud. “Soul work is slow work,” a wise friend says, and the master Artist delights in each step of the process. “We who with unveiled faces all (already!) reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 2:18)
And we can be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
We are His masterpiece, continually being loved toward completion by the One who delights to claim us as His own and sign His name to us.
Painting and photos of the stages by Patricia Herrera.
I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”
I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!
So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?
The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.
Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.
I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.
I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I’d rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I’d prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.
As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers.
I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: “Where did you go?” In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, “A bother,” “A drain,” “Alone.”
After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?” Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, “How might you want him to be with you in this?”
The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus’ body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.
This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.
And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl’s instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.
As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus’ arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I’d made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus’ arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus’ arms.
It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.
Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I’m being invited to speak Jesus’ words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.
As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:
“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”