Hope for the messy moments

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.”

Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)

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Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

God writes a better story

I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It’s so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control. 

“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.

Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.

As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me. 

Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits. 

What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?

A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That’s not just a different story, it’s a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.

Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I’d love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it’s the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.

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Photo by Aaron Burden 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

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.

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