"You've got a problem, God."

“You’ve got a problem, God. What are you going to do about it? I’m available to help if you want my help.” Several years ago, a friend told me of hearing the leader of a large and flourishing ministry in India say that when a problem arose, this was how he responded. I haven’t forgotten it. In a way that I’ve seldom seen, he modeled boundaries even in his relationship with God. He didn’t forget that the ministry was God’s work, not his. He was available to do whatever part God gave him to do, and he worked hard and with great love, but he refused to carry weight that was not his to carry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of fearless directness with God as I’ve been reading Ruth Haley Barton’s wonderful book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. In it, she weaves profound insights from the life of Moses with modern day stories and prayer practices, helping us learn to live the truth that genuine Christian leadership can only be sustained by a life deeply rooted in God.
As I’ve read her book, I’ve been struck by the many remarkably honest conversations between Moses and God. One of those conversations was in Numbers 11 when the people of Israel whom Moses had been leading for so long were yet again complaining.

“The burden of leadership had become too much, and Moses did what he always did: he went marching into God’s presence to tell him that he just could not go on this way.
At first he blustered, accusing God of giving him more than he could bear. He even resorted to throwing out cynical rhetorical questions. ‘Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child?’” (v. 12). But cynicism and anger were just a cover for the more tender emotions of sadness, despair and loneliness. Eventually Moses got to the heart of his frustration and despair and said, I give up. ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once’ (vv. 14-15).
This was an extreme statement, to be sure, but it brims with such unedited honesty and truth that one has to at least admire Moses for saying it. And it definitely took the conversation where it needed to go. Moses’ ability to be honest about his desolation brought him to the end of his self-reliance, which in turn opened up space for God to be at work.” (Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening. . ., 169-170)

At first this kind of “talking back” to God, in addition to feeling somehow freeing, felt jarring, almost rude. (Okay, more than almost.) How, I wondered, does arguing with God fit with abiding in the vine, or with submission and obedience and taking up your cross? How do we live the truth of our oneness with God through Jesus while wrestling openly with God?
Well, there’s this:
Deepening intimacy invites deepening honesty, and the deepest of honesty doesn’t stop to ponder how to word things politely. It trusts enough to pour out the pain.
And maybe the truth of our oneness with him is part of what holds open space for this kind of honesty. If we already know we are safely and eternally welcomed and held, maybe we can stop fearing the aloneness that for many of us is a reason we avoid conflict, and dare to be honest with God. (Or, to say it another way, surrendering to God is first of all about surrendering to love, stepping deeper and deeper into relationship and the honesty that entails, and accepting a call to a particular task flows out of that.)
And maybe, in Jacob and Job, the Psalmists and Jesus, we’ve been given plenty of examples of wrestling with God because God knew it would be hard for some of us to go there, and wanted us to know it is not only safe, but a (perhaps essential?) part of the journey into deeper trust and the freedom to get on with living our calling at each stage of life.

“Jesus himself used his solitude in the Garden of Gethsemane to wrestle with God about whether there was another way for him to fulfill his calling than the hard road of the cross. All of his life he had known what he was on earth to do, but when it was time to walk all the way into it, he had a few things he needed to say to God about it. He stayed in that garden until he knew for sure that this was God’s way for him—until he had really come to terms with it—and then he emerged to walk the path that was laid out for him. Perhaps this kind of passage is characteristic of all true calls. There is a difference between knowing your path and walking your path.” (Ibid, 82)



Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

One word your fall can’t do without


A number of people tried to shush him yesterday before he could speak the words: “the end of summer.” I wondered why. Is it simply that we like the beach? Warm sunshine and grilled corn and sitting outside to watch the sunset; in summer the world seems colored gold. Maybe we dread the coming of winter with its rain or snow. But my guess is that more, even, than we want to postpone the winter weather, we want to run from the return of busyness.

Some busyness is good. Life has its seasons; there is a time to work and a time to play. But maybe more of us than care to admit feel trapped by busyness and unable to change it.

We don’t know how to say no. Or we think we can’t.  We believe that the Christian life is one of constant availability (known, in Christianese, as “selfless service,” but meaning, in practice, that saying no – whether to a committee or to a someone who phones at mealtime – betrays a lack of love for God).

I have good news for you.

“The concept of boundaries comes from the very nature of God.” (Cloud and Townsend, “Boundaries.” p. 35). Really? They go on: “God defines himself as a distinct, separate being, and he is responsible for himself. He defines and takes responsibility for his personality by telling us what he thinks, feels, plans, allows, will not allow, likes and dislikes.” (Ibid) God says an unequivocal “no” to some things to say a wholehearted “yes” to others. And, in entrusting us with our own bodies and souls, our emotions and talents and choices, He calls us, likewise, to protect our treasure. Or, better, to protect His treasure, placed in us.

There is no question: God calls us to a love willing to suffer.  That will mean hard work. Being stretched. Bleeding in some way or another.

“And yet. And yet. . . . If love is a matter of holding fast to, and identifying with, and suffering for, the ones we love, it is a matter also of standing back from, of leaving space for, of letting go of. To become, through loving and needing them, as involved in the lives of others as I was involved in the lives of my children is in the long run to risk being both crippled and crippling. . . . I think of Jesus himself, who in the profoundest sense bled for people but was never what is meant by “a bleeding heart”; who did what he could for the sick and suffering who came his way and then moved on; who wept for Jerusalem but let Jerusalem choose its own way; who kept his own mother at arm’s length and, when Mary Magdalen reached out to embrace him at the end, said, ‘Do not touch me.’” (Frederick Buechner, “Now and Then,” p. 103-5)

Our life is in our yes. Fullness is found in pouring ourselves out, not in selfishly guarding our own interests. But our no enables our yes. When our no is so weak that our bodies and souls are stretched thin, our yes becomes thin too. Our tired, distracted selves are unable to do anything, let alone everything, “with all our hearts” (Col 3:23). And, sometimes, our no enables the yes of others as well, allowing them the space they need to grow into their fullest selves.

Think with me, will you? What do you want to say a wholehearted “yes” to this fall? Where might you need to say “no” to free your “yes”?


Need help (like me) learning when to say yes and how to say no? Try Cloud and Townsend’s “Boundaries.” Highly recommended.

Need the motivation to learn? Check out Gabor Maté’s “When the Body Says No.” More often than we like to think, our body learns to say no when our mouth won’t.