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.

__________________________

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

When change feels slow

Last year, for the first time, I had a little balcony. I tucked four small Impatiens plants into each long planter and watched as they quickly spread and poured over the edges, framing my space with a cascade of color. I didn’t know where their name came from, but watching them grow, it seemed to fit. They seemed hungry for life, for growth, eager to escape the bounds of the container in which they were planted and fill the space with beauty.

I’ve since learned that the Impatiens walleriana in my little garden share a genus with touch-me-nots and take their name from the seed capsules which burst vigorously, spewing seeds up to several meters.

This year, for the first time, I’m growing my own Impatiens from seed, and as I watch them slowly unfurl into new life, I’m being given a broader perspective.

Even in ideal and identical situations, we all unfurl at different rates.

Six of the thirty-six seeds I planted were the first to sprout, a tiny shoot, then two green leaves.

For days, maybe a week or more, I saw only those six. I’d almost given up on the others. If I’d had more seeds, I might have replanted.

Now fourteen more shoots have pierced the earth, a few at a time, and I’ve regained hope for the sixteen seeds that haven’t yet come to life.

They’re all in the same soil, receiving the same sun, same temperature, same water. I don’t understand. A friend tells me it’s always like this—that they always appear in batches. She’s never managed to trace them through to their bloom, because by the time of bloom they’ve all caught up, but still she wonders. All her tulips of the same color bloom at the same time. Might the six Impatiens that first woke to the light turn out to be sisters, bearing the same color bloom?

I take a photo of my tiny plants all lined up in their rows to test her theory.

But in the midst of trying to uncurl the mystery and unfurl the science, I pause to listen to the deeper layers:

  • the good and healthy urge within me to live fully, to let life flow through me, filling the space around me with beauty.
  • the healthy desire to understand, a desire that can be twisted into a compulsive need to predict and control.
  • the marvellous grace that reminds me that, in ministry and in my own spiritual life as in gardening, some steps I can understand and predict and even, to some extent, control. Others are known and accomplished by God alone. I plant and water. God makes seeds grow, in His own time. 

As this 50-day season of Easter continues, I’m reminded that what seems lifeless may not always be—it just might not yet be time for its unfurling into new life. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, some of my Impatiens seeds a week in the soil, and others two or more weeks before new life appeared, and it has been eleven years since I last assisted a mother to bring new life into the world. This weekend I finally stepped back into a group of doctors, now with not only my long-past medical training, but also my experience of life as a patient, and my training in theology and spiritual direction. Past training that had been long planted in darkness reappeared in a new form, sending up green shoots to offer my fellow doctors.

Soul work is slow work, my spiritual director has reminded me many times. Yes. And within myself as within my garden, some work is mine to do, and some only God can do. He doesn’t always do it according to my schedule (thank God!), but he is at work in each of us who are opening to Him, patiently and persistently bringing to completion his beautiful work in us.

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.

(Philippians 1:6, The Message)

______________________

PS. Our church has developed a lovely practice of taking turns sharing a glimpse of God at work in our lives. Yesterday it was my turn, and I shared one of the places I’ve seen God at work, bringing new life—a different kind of life—out of something that at first didn’t seem very hopeful. Curious? Watch below, then scroll down for news about a gift I’m creating for you.

I’ve been thinking again lately about Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, to learn from him and keep in step with him, and his corresponding promise that as we do so, we’ll find his yoke easy and his burden light. I’m turning those ponderings into another free email course for you. (I needed a single word for that sentence so I settled on “course.” By “course” I’m referring to a contemplative mini-devotional series that I pray will offer encouragement, help, and peaceful space for those of us seeking to settle a little more deeply into the rest that Jesus offers in the middle of whatever life holds. Phew. See why I needed a single word?) More details to come, but if you’re already aching for rest, click here and enter your email address to receive the course as soon as it is released.

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)

_____________________
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)