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 hands that keep holding

There’s a huge, turreted home that I pass on my morning runs. It sits well back from the road, peeking out from behind giant rhododendrons heavy with mauve blossom and trees squat or tall, blue-green or russet, leafy or needled. A black, wrought-iron fence surrounds it all, a boundary preserving the peace.

It’s beautiful. But for a while, when I ran past it, I could only feel the lead ball of grief in my gut.

It is a children’s hospice, and one morning when I’d passed it, I’d seen a woman sitting in her SUV with the lights on. She was still there when I ran back past. I wondered if she knew that the lights were still on, or if she would be surprised when she tried to start the car and her battery was dead. I walked to her window to ask. She thanked me. But when I said goodbye, wishing her a good day, her “thank you” seemed to hold a sadness that couldn’t be hidden even by her calm graciousness.

For days, the car was there each time I ran past. And then it wasn’t. And I could no longer run past without picking up once again the grief that I’d sensed in that mother. I was willing to share it, glad to pray for her and for them and for all the families and staff in the hospice. But some days it seemed too heavy and I wondered whether I’d have to change my route. Until a friend challenged me to change my perspective.

She’d been inside, in where they have king-sized beds so the whole family can sleep together. In where there are always fresh-baked cookies and home-made meals, a room for art and another for music and a grand staircase welcoming families in. “It doesn’t feel sad inside,” she said. It’s a place where smiles are treasured, pain is soothed, and grief is shared. It seems, in many ways, more about life than death. About finding life and hope and even joy in the same place as the devastation of death.

Here, where life and death walk together, neither laughter nor tears have to be checked at the door. Whole families come and stay for breaks before the final days arrive, continuing with play and school, and when that final time comes, they return here to a place where they already know themselves loved and cared for. In between, they can call from home in the middle of the night and find a familiar voice ready to help. And after their child dies, families continue to receive care.

Now, when I run past, I give thanks. I see in my mind a pair of great Hands cupping the whole estate, and I feel welcomed in through the open gate, into that place of knowing myself held. I feel the tenderness in those hands, the strength, the love that is stronger than death. I relax and breathe more deeply, soaking in the peace that comes from knowing that these families are being cared for, that I am too, and my own family. That no matter what comes, we will be held. I can breathe in the world’s pain, and then let it go into the hands of the One who has already lifted it and let it crush him and has come out the other side, strong and vibrant and still perfectly loving, and always ready to care—often through human hands (whether they know it or not)—for all of us in all of our pain.

“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)

 

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Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Walking shoeless (OR When you feel unfinished)

Sometimes a particular dream catches my attention, as though it is wiser than I am and wants to tell me something if only I’ll pay attention. When I pause to ponder and pray about it, I often notice things that seem obvious once I see them, but I was too blind, or my mind too busy, to see them in my waking life.

One of those dreams came last week. In it I was feeling inadequate next to a friend whom I love and respect, and afraid that she’d tire of our friendship. We were at a course together, and as she came by my room to pick me up on our way to the next session a few steps across a small, dry courtyard, I observed aloud that we were both in sock feet. She looked at her feet, seeming mildly surprised, then smiled and shrugged as though she was used to discovering that she wasn’t quite put together. I, meanwhile, stopped to try to find my shoes. I couldn’t find them, but I wouldn’t stop looking—under the bed, in the closet, again and again searching places I’d already looked. The next class was beginning. Eventually, my friend went on ahead.

As I lingered with the image of being shoeless, I noticed that we were both in sock feet. None of us in this life has it all together, no matter how it may seem when I make the mistake of comparing my inside to someone else’s outside. The difference between my dream friend and myself was not that she had it all together, but that she had learned not to let her lack of togetherness derail her from her calling.

I remembered, too, God’s command to Moses: “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Standing there together, both of us shoeless, my friend and I were on holy ground. Maybe we’d find that we always are, if we paused to pay attention, for where can we flee from God’s presence? My incompleteness, our incompleteness, is never the end of the story because God is alive and active and at work in both of us, as well as between us and through us. God is as eager to show us more of who He is as He was to show Moses more of Himself when He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. And He’s still perfectly able, through that knowing of Him, to complete us with Himself—whether that means offering faith in the face of fear or, as it did with Moses,  transformation from being someone with such severe anger issues that he murdered a fellow human, into being one of history’s greatest leaders. That completion comes in the following, though, in the leaning in and clinging close and paying attention not to my inadequacy but to God’s sufficiency. The question is: Will I follow, shoeless, my attention on the wonder of the bushes burning around me, or will I stop and refuse to move until I find my shoes?

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Photo by Marjorie Bertrand on Unsplash

The doorway into not-so-ordinary time

As I enter the sanctuary, it looks like it is dressed for a party. Red, apricot, and gold streamers twist their way from the wooden cross standing tall on the stage to the edges of the balcony where we bow in prayer and stand to sing praises.

Streamers of crosses have laced the sanctuary during the Lent and Easter seasons.

They have now been gathered and draped over the large wooden cross still standing on the platform, our lives that have been being woven into the life of God as Jesus walked this earth no longer strung out across the sanctuary, connected to his cross but still at a distance. Our little crosses, our little selves, are now pulled close, cascading from his cross like a bride’s long veil or the pouring out of a waterfall, pooling in a basket at the foot of the cross, the overflow of his life now pouring through us, springs of living water to quench a parched people.

It’s as though the streamers are summoning us into the party already going on in heaven, drawing us in toward the cross, toward the dove, toward recognizing the magnificent mystery that is taking place. The cause of this glorious, holy celebration? The marking of that moment when Jesus’ life became ours.

We’ve been living the milestones along the way for months. Waiting through Advent to see the mystery of God, God!, in human flesh. Walking with Jesus, watching as He lived God’s life among us and lived our life in God’s moment-by-moment presence, showing us the union that we were made to live.

A dove tops the cross, the sign of God’s pleasure in his Son, descending at his baptism, now also falling onto us, into us, at Pentecost, proclaiming that we also, in Christ, are now bearers of God’s full acceptance and delight.

The streamers are shimmering in the light.

It’s the perfect day for a party, this day of Pentecost when all that Jesus has done for us through Advent and Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, come together, and we receive the pouring out of all that God is coming not just to us in flesh (that in itself was astounding), but into us, God’s Spirit filling and animating our flesh. We no longer simply witness God’s life lived among us, we can welcome God’s life lived in us. We are now Christians—not simply observers of Christ at a distance, but united with him, and through him, with God. In us God continues the wonder witnessed first and perfectly in Jesus: God’s Spirit and human flesh come together once again in a human body, Creator and creature united. Should we not celebrate?

How is it that the church calendar calls these next six months “ordinary time”? Could an event such as Pentecost be the door into anything ordinary? Can time ever again be ordinary when we walk through each day with God himself walking it not just beside us but within us?

As we enter these months of (not-so-)ordinary time, let us walk in the awareness that God himself now lives each moment within us. And let us celebrate.