One way to stand firm

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)

 

When the way seems slow

Often it’s not something new I need to hear, it’s something familiar I need to be reminded of. Today it’s just this simple thought: When the path to hopes fulfilled seems slow and winding, it may well not be because I’m doing something wrong, or because an enemy is opposing me (though either of those could be the case). It might be the kindness of the God who knows not just the destination but the ones travelling, and chooses the surest, kindest route to get us there:

 “God intentionally led the Israelites by ‘the roundabout way’ rather than the most direct route, because God knew that they weren’t ready to take on the challenges that a more direct route would have brought: ‘When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness’ (Exodus 13:17-18). Even though they might have preferred a more direct route to their dream, it was actually a great kindness that God prevented them from encountering more than they were ready to handle. (Ruth Hayley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 93)

Whatever this season of our life holds, friends, may we be aware of the kindness of our loving God leading us gently through it.

“For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear, I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13)

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Photo by Lili Popper 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)

The Master Jigsaw Puzzler

A month ago, I spent six days on an island with fifteen classmates and several facilitators who were helping us settle more deeply into God’s love ourselves and learn to accompany others on their unique journeys deeper into God’s love.
Near the end of the week, one of the exercises involved putting together a three-piece jigsaw puzzle. I couldn’t get mine to work. At other times that might have felt to me like failure. That day it made me smile, because though I hadn’t had a clue that a jigsaw puzzle exercise was coming, I’d already been living that day in the image of God as the Master Jigsaw Puzzler.
I’d brought a few key questions and struggles into the week, places I couldn’t figure out on my own and hoped God would help me understand more clearly or set me freer to trust. And, through the week, I’d watched God take the questions and desires I offered him and carefully and intentionally put in one piece after another until the answer came clear in a way that I could not only grasp it with my mind but receive it with my heart. A line in a song, a Scripture verse that came alive, a few words that someone else said, or that came out of my own mouth—God was working on all my questions simultaneously, as though taking pleasure in putting together a complex, multidimensional puzzle with masterly skill and ease, and in watching me delight in his creativity.
That’s one of the pictures I keep returning to during this in-between time of knowing I need to move but not yet having a new place to go. The same wise and creative God who showed himself perfectly capable of putting in one piece after another in just the right order and position is still doing the puzzle. Only this time it’s not only pieces inside me and around me he’s removing and replacing. This time he has picked me up and is moving me from one place to another. And this time it’s as though God is doing the puzzle in the dark, and I’m not allowed to see the pieces that he is moving, nor to feel his hand most of the time. All I can feel is the absence of solid ground beneath my feet, and the disorientation of not knowing where I belong. And in that disorientation I’m being asked to remember the picture and to trust that the same God who allowed me to see him doing the jigsaw puzzle a few weeks ago is still at work in my life, and that I don’t have to know where I belong, nor even to feel his hand, to be safe. Whether I feel him or not, whether I can see what he is doing or not, the Master Jigsaw Puzzler has me in his hand, and he knows where I belong and is getting me there.
As we begin the season of Advent, I’m noticing the hand of the Master Jigsaw Puzzler at work in the larger story too. Nothing was random. “But when the right time came, God sent his Son. . .” (Gal 4:4) Jesus came exactly as predicted, born in the right town, at the right time, through the right family line. All exactly right. And yet all totally surprising to those involved in the story. His mother was asked to trust. Her fiancé was asked to trust. And we who, like Mary, are asked to give our “yes” to his coming to live within us are also asked to trust that He is wise, and good, and infinitely, beautifully creative, and that we don’t need to understand when the promises will be fulfilled, or how they will look, for them to be true.

“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.” (Phil 1:6, The Message)
 

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Photo credits:

Jigsaw Puzzle photo by Hans-Peter GausterBlack wire art  photo by William Bout. Complex cubes photo by Sebastien Gabriel. Macro snowflake photo by Aaron Burden. All photos from Unsplash.com. Used with permission.

When you can't see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.
But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.
That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.
It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.
Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.