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

The crazy mystery of our words

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I walked to the hospital in the bitter cold, those mornings on the other side of the world, layered in long underwear and wool sweaters and a down coat. Some of the children I passed wore bare feet in jelly shoes. The snow hadn’t yet begun to fall, and the ground lay brown and bare, frozen into hard bumps and ridges beneath the heavy grey sky. It was a few days before Christmas.
Someone had sent a tiny Christmas tree, and we’d woven red crosses and rigged some way to hang them on the painted mud wall of the dining room where we sat cross-legged on cushions and ate off a plastic tablecloth spread on the floor. Our Christmas decorations were the only ones in our little mountain village, the only ones in our whole region, probably. There were no white lights stringing the streets, no storefront trees with baubles and icicles.
I felt it most strongly those years when I woke up on Christmas morning and realized that the world around me was oblivious to the miracle that had just happened. God had come among us, and most of the world just kept going about their daily business, unaware.
There was a sort of sadness and emptiness about it, a wistfulness, the cold, short days of mid-winter begging for the hope of Light’s coming. But there was also a sense of wonder as I quietly watched the miracle unfold. This God who came, came hidden. He came, not seeking applause or affirmation but a backwoods stable in which to meet the woman and man who had quietly chosen to give their simple, difficult, yes to a crazy miracle of love. In the midst of the great silence, I am struck by their choice, by the power of their solitary voices.
And then as I begin again to read and listen, I hear more voices calling to me, speaking hope, singing invitation.
Angels inviting Mary and Joseph and the shepherds to play their part in the Grand Story.
Old Simeon speaking his life’s desire in the moment of its fulfillment.
John the Baptist calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
I headed toward Advent this year feeling the darkness in the world around me, aching for the Light to break through. I arrived at the first Sunday of Advent service hungry for hope. The lit wreathes helped, and the colorful banners, the organ and the row of children with their violins. But it was the voices, young and old and in between, speaking and singing, alone and together, that seemed to peel back the dark and reveal the light that will keep shining for all eternity.
Could this be one more layer of what it means to be made in the image of the Creator—that we are graced with the power to push back at least a corner of the darkness with our words, to help fill emptiness with love, to speak peace into inner chaos?
I return to the Story, and the mystery grows: the Word who created all things by his word did not only speak into us the power to change reality with our words, he then, for a while, silenced himself, letting us find our voices and feel the magnitude of this gift. The Word himself became speechless while those to whom he had given the power of speech spoke for him (“Prepare the way”) and to him (“It’s okay, little one, Mama’s here.”)
As I enter Advent, I am pondering the Word and the power of our words. I am praying my longing that the Word would grow within me and speak Himself through me, that my voice would sound with the echoes of his. I am asking for grace so that my silence is not cowardice, not hiding, but grace-filled space welcoming the hearts and words of others, and that my words, wherever they are planted, bear the fruit of hope and peace, freedom and life.

Oh, Living Word, grow in me! May I not silence the words You wish to speak through me, and may all the words I do speak be an overflow of Your life within.

Christ in you: surprise!

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I walk with Dad along the wooded trail. It’s colder than when we walked a few days ago, and I wonder whether the puddles on the stretch ahead will still bear the delicate fenestrations, the windows of water between gentle curves of feathery ice.
It’s frozen this time. We crunch ungently through a thin place. Witnessing the ragged edges left by our shoes, my heart mourns. How coarse our footsteps compared to the gentle fingers of God that come in the night and leave fresh love-art all over the world, where we see it and where we don’t and even in places we’re more likely to step blindly than to kneel and worship its Creator. Our Creator.
I feel again my same coarse clumsiness each time I approach the mystery of incarnation. So gently God comes, yet so clearly—God looking out of a pair of human eyes, jumping in puddles, lying on the grass he spoke into being, snuggling close to the mother whom he first formed and then entered. So clearly he comes—God among us, in us—yet the layers of mystery shimmer like fragile fronds that I fear will break under the weight of my words.
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I kneel and marvel once more at the mystery: God in us. In us!
Before He came, even God-among-us was seen as a sacred gift for a chosen few (Deut 4:7); God-in-us was unthinkable.
He is Creator, we are his creatures, and the difference between us is vast.

“It is he who made us, and we are his. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” (Ps. 100:3 )
“He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.” (Is. 40:22)
“This is what God the LORD says—he who created the heavens and stretched them out. . . who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it. . .” (Isaiah 42:5)

And then—surprise!—in the womb of a willing young woman, the inconceivable was conceived. God knelt and knitted himself to human flesh. God embraced not-God, and, in the person of Jesus, God and not-God became one.
This is the mystery of the incarnation: that God so loves that which is not God that He would knot himself to us forever, the start of a holy marriage in the person of Jesus.
And as I kneel at the manger and ponder the love that comes so small and quietly, without even words to explain Himself, I worship.
Exactly how Christ lives in us is as opaque a mystery to me as exactly how God knitted Himself to human flesh in Mary’s womb. There are glimpses and windows, of course—the cross and the empty tomb and Jesus ascending to the Father and returning to live in us through the Holy Spirit—but through all the centuries of pages written, which of them can finally explain something inexplicable?
Only this I know: as surely as the dark readiness of a womb became the place of holy mystery, of love so unthinkably creative and wise and humble, so surely, with a simple “yes,” can our darkest places become the cradle of profound love.

Christ in you: when life gets messy

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It was time for my requisite nap and I was lying down asking Jesus, “How do you see last night?”
I’d led a soulcare group. We’d listened to what Jesus was saying to each of us through the story of the angel’s surprise announcement to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God into the world. We’d talked about bits of our stories. And throughout, a critical voice had kept interrupting my soul’s stillness with doubts and accusations. Were we connecting? Was I moving too slowly? Too quickly? Did anyone even understand what I was trying to express when it was my turn to share my experience?
I had brought with me a prayer, a few verses of Scripture, and some lines I’d previously written, thinking they tied together Mary’s experience with our experience of carrying Christ within us and bearing Him into the world. I’d planned to offer them as a gift to my group, but, unsure whether they’d connect with where the group was at, I’d ditched them all. Was I listening well to God and to the group, I wondered, or was fear getting the upper hand? I left feeling I’d failed.
“Jesus, how did you see last night?” I questioned. “How did you see me in it?”
Rest, favored one,” I sensed him respond, using the word the angel used of Mary and Paul uses of us1. “You gave me your yes, and that’s all I ask.”
How easily I forget that it’s my job to give my yes and God’s to make life flourish.
And how quickly I forget that Mary’s yes didn’t exclude her from morning sickness and mood swings and postpartum bleeding; her yes brought her into the painful, messy, miracle of carrying God’s life in her and birthing Jesus into the world.
Through vicious village gossip and the gnawing pain of pelvic bone separation, through teary conversations as she and Joseph let go of the dream that their first child would be the child of their shared love, through questions and fears and hours of inadequacy—“how on earth can I raise the son of God?!”—what is remembered is Mary’s yes and what God did with it.
 
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1.In the original Greek of the New Testament, the verb charitoo, “to cause to be the recipient of a benefit, favor highly, bless,” is used just twice, once of Mary in Luke 1:28 (where it is a participle and is translated “highly favored”) and once of us in Eph 1:6 (where it is an active verb and is translated “freely bestowed” or “freely given”).

What Jesus does with chains

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For half an hour, Pastor Darrell leads us through Acts 16, showing us how Jesus is setting every person in the passage free. He invites us to write on a slip of paper our answer to the questions, “From what do you want to be free today? Of what do you need to be free today?”
I’m hungry, hungry for freedom. I write and write and when Lilac prays, acknowledging that some of us are thinking we’re okay and others are wishing for a thousand slips of paper, I know where I fit.
We file forward for communion, placing our slips of paper in a basket then receiving a piece of bread to dip in the cup, trading chains for freedom, letting ourselves be emptied of death to be filled up instead by the One who is Life. I dip the bread into the juice and look up into eyes that hold mine as though to press the truth deep into my heart, as though to burn through the chains with his eyes and his simple, astounding words: “Jesus shed his blood to set you free.” I return to my seat and sit, tears filling my eyes, watching Jesus hold out his body, his freedom, Himself to every person that comes near, offering each one the chance to be set free into His love.
And then, when we’ve eaten and drunk and been filled with Jesus and His love, Pastor Darrell tips the slips of paper into a metal bucket and lights a fire inside. Flames lick at the papers and smoke curls upward, our thanks rising with the smoke as all that has bound us crumbles to ash. “Long my imprisoned spirit lay,” we sing, “fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray: I woke—the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
I trace the word “free” through Scripture and see once more that the whole history of God’s people is a story of freedom, of God setting us free from one bondage or another:

“Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them. . .” (Ex 6:6)
“I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” (Ps 119:32)
“Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (Luke 13:12)

Sometimes Jesus sends an earthquake to shake chains free. Sometimes he burns through them with his fiery eyes, or slices through them with the always-sharp sword of the Word. He has been known to sever chains with a few simple letters scratched in the sand with his finger, with a bit of spit on someone’s eyes, or with a touch. But always, always, Jesus responds to chains the same basic way: by removing them.
If we will let him.
God offers freedom. He doesn’t force it.
Sometimes I think I want freedom with my whole heart, and other times, when I look at the practicalities of it, it seems just a little too scary and though I feel like my answer should be “of course!” a more honest answer is closer to “ummm. . . maybe?” or perhaps even “no, not really, not right now.” Or, when I’m really honest, “Sure. But on my terms.” Which, when you’re talking to God, is the same as “no thanks.” There’s a security, of a pitiful sort admittedly, but a security nonetheless, in my small, familiar prison.
A fellow Regent student nails the issue in a class paper:

“No matter how long I have been paralyzed, the awful question remains valid: ‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6) Do I want to be really well, imbued with true-new life, or is what I am really seeking somehow to have my cake and eat it, too, to be in the world and of it?”

A few lines later he adds words that I can’t get out of my head,

“Here is the awful question behind the awful question: can God be trusted?” (James Holmlund)

That’s where I was lingering in the days leading up to the encounter with fiery freedom. Can God be trusted? I refused to settle for “yes, of course.” Our hearts are made to need details—that’s why God tells us so often to remember. So I started a list: God making a path for his people to walk through the sea on dry ground; Jesus lifting himself for one more breath to cry out, “It is finished!”; God answering prayer after desperate prayer through years overseas and providing for me caring friends and a beautiful place to live and His own close and gentle presence through these years of illness and loss and beauty and gain and being led into a new way of living.
I’ve been looking, every day, into the eyes of Jesus, because I know that, like Peter, when I’m gazing into the eyes of Jesus I remember that He can be trusted—enough to step out of the boat and begin walking toward Him. I need to keep looking at Him, keep seeing Him looking at me, because a lifetime of freedom is a lifetime of moment-by-moment choices to trust.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)