Sometimes I look at someone else and think, “They’re so strong (or gracious, or gifted, or smart). I could never do what they’re doing.”
I’ve heard it from others. “You’re so brave. I could never go to Afghanistan!”
The truth is, I didn’t feel brave at all. I was terrified. But I was called. And where we’re called and willing, and for as long as we’re called, there’s grace for that calling.
And then when God calls us out of a place (Afghanistan, say) and into another, different life situation, grace keeps pace. I couldn’t now return to Afghanistan without a fresh call. That grace is gone, replaced with the grace that I need for each moment in this day and this place.
When I put someone else on a pedestal (“They’re so brave. I could never do that.”) I miss the point of the conversation between Mary and the angel. She wasn’t asked to do the impossible. She was asked to let God do the impossible in and through her. (Luke 1:26-38)
That’s all we’re ever asked.
The Joseph of the coat of many colors knew this. His boss, the ruler of Egypt, said to him, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replied, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)
Daniel of the fiery furnace knew this. His boss, the ruler of Babylon and even more unreasonable than Joseph’s boss, also had a dream. He insisted that his advisors not only interpret the dream but first tell him what the dream was (otherwise how was he supposed to know if they were telling him the real meaning of the dream or making up an interpretation for the minor purpose of keeping their heads attached to their bodies?) Daniel said to him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Dan 2:27-28) And that God who reveals mysteries did the impossible through Daniel and told the king his dream and its meaning.
The Joseph who became Mary’s husband learned this. God had to give this righteous man faith to believe something that the rest of the world thought was ridiculous. (“Come on, man! Don’t tell me you actually believe your fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit!“) Or, perhaps God gave him the courage to act and take Mary as his wife even if he couldn’t make sense of the whole story. Either way, God did in Joseph the inner work needed to free him to step into his place in the Grand Story.
When the angel told Mary that God had chosen her to carry and birth His Son, Mary asked a very understandable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) I can finish Mary’s question a million different ways when God shows me the next bit I’m asked to play in the story He is writing. “How will this be, since . . . ?”
But no matter how the question ends, the answer is always the same: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Because here’s the thing: We are never called to do the impossible.
We are, however, daily, called to let God do the impossible in us. And sometimes that “impossible” that God does in us overflows into Him doing the impossible through us in and for the world.
I’ll be taking these next couple of weeks to rest and celebrate and be available for what I sense God might be wanting to do in me in these days, so I’ll see you back here at the start of the new year. As we continue to prepare for the coming of God among us and in us in new ways, this is my prayer: May God continue to do both in us and through us what only God can do.
Much of this last decade has been, for me, about learning to live my smallness—learning to be a child, finding myself safe and held, discovering that limitations can lead me to where I can find and feel the truth that I am loved just as I am. I don’t have to be in control to be safe. I don’t have to earn love or prove my worth or try to make myself bigger than I am.
There is a goodness to knowing ourselves small. In one very real sense, the life of faith is a life of smallness: of humility, of Jesus increasing and us decreasing, of recognizing that without Jesus we can do nothing. God is Creator and we are his beloved creation and he will continue to carry us right through our old age and grey hairs and on into eternity.
But there is also a smallness that is not faith but timidity, not humility but hiding.
Children grow. And are meant to. (Eph 4:15, 1 Peter 2:2)
The truth is that sometimes it’s not faith that keeps me small. It’s fear. Fear of stepping out. Of failure. Of what others will think. Of what God might think.
But here’s the thing: Precisely because I am and will always be small compared to God, I can be my strongest, truest, self, unafraid that God will be threatened by me growing to my full stature. He wants me to grow into my fullest, freest self, and He does all he can to facilitate that process.
I turn again to the page that stuck with me from a book I once read:
‘They who wait for the Lord. . . shall mount up with wings like eagles,’ our pastor read from Isaiah 40:31 one autumn Sunday morning. As a small, bored child fidgeting in the pew, those words caught my surprised attention. Just the day before, my parents had called me outdoors to watch the wild geese, soaring in V-formation, flying south. They filled the air with the sound of beating wings and exultant cries. Every fall and spring it was a shared family thrill to watch the wild, free, yet disciplined power of these geese flying over Michigan.
Now, as our pastor read about God calling forth our strength like that of soaring eagles, I remember the exultation of the flying geese.
So, God likes that kind of thing, I mused. How had I got it into my head that God preferred things to be very quiet, subdued, and resigned?
Then something even more surprising rose within me. The Bible is saying that God wants me to be like that! I thought this over. I felt excited. I also felt a little afraid.
Twenty years later, a young mother, I stood at the door of my baby daughter’s room. She was sitting up for the very first time, holding the crib bars with one hand. Her back was toward the door, so I could not see her face, but I could see her delight in her new empowerment in every muscle of that little back.
This was another vivid, symbolic moment for me. As I felt that wave of joyful pride at sharing in her joy in her new power, I remembered again the awed delight I felt as I watched the wild geese in their released power. Does God feel this way? I wondered. Does God feel this way, only immeasurably more so, when sharing our births, our rebirths, our awakenings, our risings up, our responses, our giftedness, our growing empowerment? (Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer, Fear, and our Powers, p. 11-12)
Smallness is not the goal. Love is. Receiving it, and giving it.
Living aware of my true smallness often helps me receive God’s love, and opens me for that love to flow through me to others. But keeping myself smaller than I need to be shuts me down from receiving and giving that love.
The questions I asked some time back come to mind again, returning me to Paul’s reminder in Galatians 5:6, “. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” These questions, and the emotions that arise along with them, help me notice whether I’m living in the smallness of faith, a beloved child knowing herself held, and free to love God, others, and herself with the overflow of that love, or the smallness of fear, timidly holding back. These questions help me live my right size.
Does my choice flow out of faith in Jesus? Does it help me trust him more?
And does it express that faith through love—for God, for others, and for myself in a healthy, respectful, stepping-into-God’s-love-for-me way?
Then it is a good choice.
The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.
The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of life to come.
To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.
To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.
Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all 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 3:17-18)
I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.
Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m trying to remember a verse and there’s a word that I can’t remember or that I misremember, that is quite possibly the word that, when I look up the verse, will hold the greatest gift for me. It has almost come to seem like one of God’s ways of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Pay attention here.”
It happened yesterday with a couple of verses from the story of God’s delivery of Israel through the Red Sea. As the people stand at the water’s edge with the Egyptian army coming after them, Moses says to them:
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Ex 14:13-14)
As I was pondering these verses that had been in the morning’s Scripture reading from the pulpit, the phrase “stand still” came to mind. But when I looked up the verses again, “stand still” was not there. Rather, the two commands are to “stand firm” and to “be still,” or, more accurately according to the Hebrew, “be silent.” For me the two commands to “stand firm” and “be silent” carry quite a different, and richer, layer of meaning than simply “standing still.” And, funnily enough, they speak directly into a struggle of the past couple of weeks. (Thanks, God.)
I’ve noticed these weeks, as I’ve been trying to get back into the fall rhythm after weeks away with people, how unsettled I am. It has taken me time to understand what was going on, and it has likely been a combination of things—simple transition and jet lag, a busier than usual schedule, and a medication dose that was too high. But it was when I sat to be still and silent before God, putting down my pen and my journal and closing my mouth, that I finally began to feel more settled.
I am to stand firm in what I know to be the truth of God’s character and my calling—not just what I’m to do, but more importantly who I’m to be and how I’m to live out that calling in a posture of listening and utter dependence on God. But I’ve been learning all over again these weeks that I can only stand firm when I make time to be still, to let not only my hands and my mouth but my thoughts (as much as possible) be silent for a stretch of time each day.
Ruth Haley Barton shares how a wise spiritual director once said to her, “Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.” (Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 29)
Her words ring true as I settle into silence with God, put down my pen, open my hands and say, “Here I am.” Sometimes all that I’ve noticed in those times is the racing of my thoughts. This time I could feel myself able to breathe again, and could sense the loosening of my anxieties.
“In solitude God begins to free us from our bondage to human expectations, for there we experience God as our ultimate reality—the One in whom we live and move and have our being. . . In silence we not only withdraw from the demands of life in the company of others but also allow the noise of our own thoughts, strivings and compulsions to settle down so we can hear a truer and more reliable Voice.” (Invitation. . ., p. 34-35)
Solitude an silence, even for twenty minutes a day, allows the stirred-up sediment in my soul to begin to settle.
Solitude and silence help me cease striving as they turn me from looking at the army of thoughts and needs and fears that pursue me to look instead at the God who is always working to set his people free.
They help me accept God’s own invitation, spoken through the Psalmist,
“Be still [“cease striving”] and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
“He tends his flock like a shepherd;
he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
I’ve long loved Isaiah 40:11. And I’ve always felt a little left out of it. I’ve wondered if it really applied to me, or if I just wanted it to so badly that I was stretching it to make it fit. I am, after all, neither a baby, nor a mother carrying or nursing young.
But yesterday God used a little stuffed lamb to answer my questions.
(As an aside, I’m often surprised by how God speaks, but if he can speak through a donkey (Num. 22) and surprise Elijah by showing up not in wind or earthquake or fire but in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19), why should he not speak through a stuffed lamb?)
My sister gave me this little stuffed lamb some years ago. The lamb arrived with a tag saying her name was Shalom. It sounded to me like a perfect name. (Isn’t the wholeness and peace of shalom always a result of knowing we are, as Psalm 100 reminds us, sheep in the care of a shepherd who is faithful and good and whose love endures forever?)
Shalom stayed tucked in my cupboard for years, then somehow managed to creep out and sit on my bed during the day. She looked at me pleadingly every time I came near. Finally, the longing in her eyes won me over and, though I never would have let on to anyone, I let her creep into bed with me at night and snuggle up close. She loves that.
Recently I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful new book called Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller (a fellow Regent College grad). I already had suspicions, but as I’ve read the book I’ve become increasingly sure this little lamb represents some hidden, vulnerable part of me that is begging for care. I hear the question: Isn’t this all a bit too sentimental? But I’ve learned that I can only pass on the love that I let myself receive. And as Kim writes, “When lovingly held within healthy boundaries in our hearts, vulnerable parts of our souls can transform into beautiful aspects of our humanity —channels of empathy and grace.” So I’ve been paying attention, trying to learn more about that vulnerable part of me and what it needs from me and from God.
Sometimes its needs and longings feel overwhelming to other parts of me that are listening. But yesterday something shifted as I picked up Shalom and Isaiah 40:11 immediately came to mind. I’d been thinking about submitting my manuscript to an agent and I recognized that some part of me was frightened that if I stepped back into a busier, more public life, the shy, vulnerable part of me would get lost and trampled again, its needs neglected. My own attempts to comfort that part of me and assure it that it was seen and would be cared for were not enough. It was still frightened that it wouldn’t matter.
And that’s when it felt like God himself was speaking deep into me in his gentle whisper, comforting me with the reminder that he tends his flock like a shepherd, and gathers the lambs—including the hidden, vulnerable parts, of each of us—in his arms and carries them close to his heart. And that he gently leads the stronger parts of us that are doing their best to get on with life, valiantly care for the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, and love others who also have (sometimes prickly) protective as well as vulnerable parts.
As God reassured me, I realized that even though most of me knows better, that hidden part of me had still felt I needed to protect myself not just from the busy world but from God and his demands. I’d needed his reassurance that each part of me matters to him and will be gently cared for. Faith, after all, is a life-long journey of intentionally opening ourselves to God and letting him teach every part of us what he is really like.
God tends his flock like a shepherd, a good shepherd who knows what each of his sheep needs and provides it. Sometimes we need to be carried, sometimes protected from a predator with a rod, or guided by a staff, or led to still waters, or accompanied through a dark valley. The promise is not that God will always care in the same way for every person or every part of us, but that he will always be attentive and loving, caring in the unique ways that each of us, and each part of us, needs in that moment.
“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.“