When a door is open

Lately I’ve found myself returning again and again to the first few chapters of 2 Corinthians for the perspective and comfort offered here. In just a few pages, Paul offers insight into so many key questions:

  • How does God feel toward us in our suffering? (1:1-11)
  • How can we be confident without being proud? (3:1-6)
  • And how do we proceed when a door is open for ministry but we don’t feel peace? Why? (2:12-14)

This week it’s that last question that has held a gift for me.

Here’s how Paul shares his own experience:

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

(2 Corinthians 2:12-13)

It’s quite striking to me that Paul can say “The Lord had opened a door for me” and “I left” and not offer more of an explanation. If I was the one writing, I would have felt obliged to clarify my intent. Was I offering the situation to my readers as an example to be followed—that if God opens a door and we don’t have peace, we should follow our emotions? Was I saying, “I didn’t do things the best way here but it’s okay because. . .”?

But Paul doesn’t say either of these explicitly. He just offers the facts as he sees them:

  1. God had opened a door for him to preach the gospel.
  2. He had no peace because he was worried about a missing co-worker.
  3. In the midst of this tension, he chose to leave and go looking for the co-worker rather than walking through the open door. 

And Paul seems fine to leave it there, not needing to analyze or agonize or explain because he is confident that wherever he goes, God is with him and in him and flowing through him.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

Yes, we prayerfully and carefully look at all the aspects of the situation. An open door is a precious opportunity not to be taken for granted. So is peace of mind. There are whole helpful books written about how to navigate this tension. (Hint: peace matters).

But this week the gift for me was this simple reminder: There is a spaciousness and freedom in this place where God’s work and ours overlap. As we prayerfully listen and choose as best we can, we can rest in the truth that God’s presence is limitless and his loving work in the world is vast. Wherever we end up, God is with us and in us, and can through us spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. 

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

When life takes a detour

As I was biking this morning—my own ongoing rehab exercise which I’ll need to do for the rest of my life—I was praying for someone else who has encountered a detour on his path. He followed God into a new job for which he seems so clearly gifted, and then encountered unexpected illness which, at the moment, is making that role impossible for him. I pray for him because I know how desperately difficult it was for me to go from being the carer to the cared for. I wonder if it’s hard for him too.

As I pray, I remember the pain of that process, but also the grace of a Sunday morning a few months after my return from Afghanistan. I was still too sick to go with my family to church, and lying there in my bed, wrestling with how thing seemed to be turning out, I sensed God say to me, “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”

I’d followed God, and when the route he took me looked different than I expected—passing through the wilderness of illness instead of travelling longer in the mountainous desert of Afghanistan—I needed to be reminded that the different route didn’t mean I wasn’t being led, or that I hadn’t heard right or followed well. It just meant Jesus knows the way and my job is not to map out the route but to trust his love and cling close to him wherever that takes me.

We’re each led into particular ministries and roles and opportunities, and some of them are difficult enough that we need to feel that specific call quite strongly to stick it out. Part of faithfulness is persevering in the task we’ve been given for as long as it’s entrusted to us. But this is important: Our ultimate calling is never to a role, but to a Person. The role may change; the Person, and the call to cling close to Him, will not. 

I’ve thought often of God’s invitation to me that Sunday morning. But until this morning I’ve mostly thought of it in relation to that big and obvious shift in my life. This morning I realized that it relates every bit as much to the blog post that I don’t have words for as to the lines of patients needing a doctor: “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.” 

How do I know when I’m clinging to the call rather than the One who calls? Most often it takes me a while to realize it. I find myself feeling anxious and unsettled, or tired and dry and pressured. I realize I’m trying to control an outcome. Saturday, for example, I felt this heaviness: “I still have no words and Monday is blog day and what am I going to write?” It’s a choice to plant my few mustard-seed grains of faith, to let go of expectations and receive the reminder that it would be fine to repost an older piece of writing this time. And as I pause and sit in stillness with Jesus, soaking in the goodness of being his and he mine, loved regardless of what I accomplish, I realize that the yoke has stopped chafing and the burden become lighter. Then and only then, I realize I’d yoked myself once again to the call rather than the One who calls, and that He has graciously helped me once again remove the heavy yoke of my self-imposed expectations that come with clinging to the call and take up, instead, the easy yoke of walking and working in step with the One who calls to me in love.

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P.S. In case you missed it last week, here’s a link to a free five-day contemplative course offering you space to reflect more deeply on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to come to him in our weariness and find rest, trading in the yoke that chafes us for his that fits perfectly.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

One way to dive deeper into God's love

As I was pondering and praying about this blog post last evening, I felt like I was standing on the end of a high diving board—as though I’ve been climbing a very tall ladder for a very long time and once I take this next step, there’s no turning back. As I pictured myself standing there, toes curled over the edge of the board, a song from twenty years ago that I still have on my exercise playlist came to mind:
The long awaited rains
Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground
And carved their way to where
The wild and rushing river can be found
And like the rains
I have been carried to where the river flows, yeah
My heart is racing, and my feet are weak
As I walk to the edge
I know there is no turing back
Once my feet have left the ledge
And in the rush I hear a voice
That’s telling me to take a leap of faith
So here I go
I’m diving in, I’m going deep, in over my head I want to be
Caught in the rush, lost in the flow, in over my head I want to go
The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive
So sink or swim, I’m diving in. . . (Steven Curtis Chapman, “Dive”)

It’s strange to think that when that song was released in 1999, I was partway through my first year of obstetrics specialty training. Five years of that residency training, four and a half years in Afghanistan, and ten years recovering and discovering God’s love from a whole different vantage point—I’ve done a lot of diving into new situations in those years. (And yes, sometimes finding myself in over my head!)
When I completed medical school and began obstetrical specialty training, I had no idea that I’d only get to witness and assist the birthing of new physical life for ten years—five years of training, and five of practice as an obstetrician. Nor did I know either the pain or the (even bigger) gift that would follow.
While I was working as an obstetrician, though I did glimpse the holiness of the process, my focus was on managing the situation, keeping mom and baby safe, and trying to stay more or less (preferably more) in control of an often uncontrollable process.
Then when my body could no longer handle the stress of being, for a time, the only doctor for 150,000 people in a little mountain village in central Afghanistan, I was forced to face head-on the reality that I am not in control. I couldn’t even manage my own body, let alone anyone else’s. I could barely sit up for a meal, and one long night it took two tries to drag myself, crawling on hands and knees, to the outhouse to empty the little bucket for which I had become increasingly grateful. It has been a long journey back to some semblance of health—much longer than the week it took me to get home, stopping en route to rest for a while and then be flown business class the rest of the way because I was too sick to sit up.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because one of the loveliest gifts of these past ten years has been the surprise that just as I stepped out of practicing obstetrics, I unknowingly stepped into experiencing obstetrics in a whole different way, from a variety of different angles.
I’ve discovered that I’m the baby, carried safely in the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I’ve lived and pondered the privilege that we have of carrying Jesus within us and bearing his life into the world. I’ve experienced God midwifing me wisely and gently through the whole process.
As I’ve pondered these roles, it has been impossible for me to avoid the sense that God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry. Each of these roles has offered me comfort and encouragement and help in understanding many aspects of our relationship to God as we live this holy, mysterious, and sometimes painful life with him.
I’ve shared a few bits of this here over the years, but mostly I’ve written about other things on this blog while I’ve been completing a theology degree and spiritual director training and writing a book about learning to trust God’s love as illustrated by the story I’ve just told you in brief above. The book hasn’t yet been published, but in the meantime I’m bursting to share some of what the professor who supervised my book-writing termed “obstetrical theology,” and it seems now is the right time to share it. In case the mention of theology frightens you, don’t worry. There’s nothing abstract or dry about the way God has revealed himself in the birth drama. We’re all carried and born, after all, and in revealing himself in these roles that we can all in some way relate to, God offers us the kind of practical, tangible comfort I suspect we all need when life feels a bit out of control. So will you join me over the coming weeks as we dive a little deeper into the love of God as he has revealed it to us through all the different roles in the birth drama? I’m excited to share this with you!

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FOR REFLECTION:
When you relate to God, do you relate to him more often as your father, your mother, your husband, your baby, or your midwife?
Do any of the roles seem strange or uncomfortable to you? Do you have any sense why that might be?
Is there anything you’d like to say to God about all this as we dive in?

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If you’re excited about this series and haven’t yet subscribed to receive my weekly blog posts by email, would you consider doing so? That helps me serve you in multiple ways: you won’t miss any of these posts, you’ll have access to the extra little surprises I’m preparing for those on my email list, and you’ll help me get the book I’ve written for you published. (Not surprisingly, potential publishers want to know people are interested in reading an author’s words!)
My sincere thanks to so many of you who share the posts you find helpful with others who might be interested. I can write these words, but only you can get them to that friend of yours who might be helped by them today.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When you're waiting (and when the waiting's over)

I checked my email too many times on Saturday, waiting for the results of the contest. I’d been shortlisted. Would my manuscript make the final cut? Was it going to be published?
Maple keys, fallen, waited on the stony ground where I stopped my morning run to stretch. Paused, there, in that middle place, the keys are no longer attached to their former life, but not yet given ground to sprout into their new life. They don’t even know, for sure, if they will be given that ground, or if this middle place of waiting and being held in existence by the One in whom all things hold together will be their long-term life.

They looked more than a seed lying there, tiny, fragile animals, almost, with mouth and eye and a single translucent wing laced with a mesh of finely-woven veins. I wanted to pick them up, to touch them gently, to reassure them it would be okay, they would have their turn to finish the process of falling, of dying into the darkness of the earth and being born into new life, in their time bearing thousands, hundreds of thousands, of keys, each carrying the potential for new life within it, each aching for that bit of earth that would let them be blessed and broken and given.
In God’s economy, waiting, like pain, is not a waste, but an opportunity—the place where new life is nourished, love learned, and surrender can take root a little more deeply.
“How are you doing in the waiting?” a friend asked at the end of the day when I let her know I still hadn’t heard the results of the contest. I loved it that I could respond, in all honesty, “Actually, I’m fine. Even delighting in God’s timing in it all.” It had been a lovely day, a day of coming close and reading and listening and of being a bit or a lot awestruck by something new God was opening up for me about his love—another piece for the new book I’m working on. At the time, it helped me realize that if he loves me like that I really can trust him to look after me no matter how these coming months unfold, including in the results of the contest and all that that does or doesn’t open up. Later, I realized that being given the next piece for my new book held echoes for me of Is 41:

“But you, O 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 farther corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and have not rejected you.’

Whether or not I won the contest, whether or not other people chose me, I had already been loved and chosen, and I wasn’t being un-chosen. God was, at one and the same time, loving me by sharing a breath-taking glimpse of his love for me, and loving me by giving me the next bit for the next book, assuring me that I hadn’t lost my job. I was still wanted and chosen and given important work to do with him, even if the process didn’t unfold quite the way I would have planned.
It felt, that day, like the results of the contest hardly mattered. I was still curious and still hoping, but also trusting. I knew God had it and I knew he had me, and no matter what came I was loved and cherished and safe.
The day after I heard that I hadn’t been chosen, though, I felt sad, and wrestled with what felt like tension between disappointment and trust. If I feel disappointed, does it mean I don’t trust? No, I realized all over again, it just means I’m human. Trust doesn’t mean that I won’t have the whole range of human emotions. Trust means bringing all those feelings to God, confident that he can handle—and even delight in—being with me in the ups and the downs of the journey.
“But I had hoped. . .” As I prayed the words, my own words, I realized that I’d heard them before. On the road to Emmaus. When Jesus invited the grieving travellers to tell him their disappointment. “But we had hoped.” The words come right in the middle of their story—right after they’ve told how the loved and respected prophet Jesus had been crucified, and right before they mention how confused they were by the women’s story of the angels and the empty tomb. “But we had hoped”—their perspective was the hinge that kept them in their sadness even while all the pieces of the incomprehensible story—which turned out to be a story of breath-taking love and hope-giving victory—were coming out of their own mouths. And speaking that perspective to Jesus, and walking with him, and listening to him, and inviting him into their home, was the hinge that finally let their sadness turn to amazement and their confusion to lightness and joy.
There’s an invitation in disappointment, and it’s not to push it aside. It’s to bring it to Jesus, to accept his welcome to tell him my sadness, and, whether or not he explains all the details, to receive the comfort of his loving presence and perspective.
The maple keys still lie on their rocky bed, waiting their time. Beside them, the St. John’s Wort, at home in its sandy soil, is starting to open. Dozens of upturned faces reflect back the sun’s glory, red-tipped stamens splayed wide like a spray of fireworks or a celebratory pom-pom. The God who loves like this, who meets us in the waiting and the sadness and makes it a place of encounter and transformation—He is worth celebrating.

“And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 New Jerusalem Bible)