What to do with mixed motives

dsc_0061I can’t help but wonder: Why, after Peter had gotten over the shock of seeing Jesus walking towards them on the water, did he ask to join him in that adventure?

What was behind Peter’s request, impetuous Peter who later cut off the ear of the soldier in the garden, who resisted Jesus washing his feet and then wanted his whole self washed, who, the first time he saw Jesus after he had denied that he knew him, when he happened to be in a boat and saw Jesus on the shore, put his heavier clothes back on and jumped into the water, running to Jesus.

What motivated his request in the middle of this dark, stormy night, to come to Jesus on the water? Could he just not wait the few more seconds to be close to Jesus? Or was it bravado? A need to feel significant or prove himself special or worthy of love and respect? A sense of adventure? A desire to be with Jesus and do as he did? Or some mix of all of these in various unidentified proportions?

The wondering came as I was puzzling over something in my own story. How do I hold together the sense that God called me to Afghanistan and that I went out of love for him with the awareness (that I didn’t see at the time) that I was probably also trying to prove myself loveable or worthy or special or important or somehow find my place in the world?

It seems like such grace and generosity from our creative and very adventuresome Master that Jesus didn’t try to sort through all the layers of motivation, of brokenness mixed with love and desire. It was enough that somewhere in the mix was Peter’s desire to be with Jesus, and Jesus responded to that. Peter asked Jesus to call him to come, and Jesus said, “Of course. Come. Always.”

It feels like an invitation to me too, not to bother trying to dissect all the layers of my motivation, just to ask Jesus for what I want—him to call me close—and trust him to see and honor the truest level of my desire.

Jesus knows that being close to him is exactly what is needed to take care of those other bits in the mix.

Why you can dare to step out

DSCN5739_2

Immediately: I don’t always love the word. It can feel pressured and pushy and rushed, someone demanding something now. But in Matthew 14, it’s full of comfort, and turns the story on its head for me, helping me see what the story is really about.

Matthew 14 is the story of Peter walking on water, and I read it repeatedly last week, trying to understand. At first, I got stuck on Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I wanted to say, “That’s not fair, Jesus! Peter had huge faith! I don’t know anyone else who’s had enough faith to step out of a boat and walk on the surface of the water, especially in the middle of a storm, even for a few steps!”

But on about the fourth day, things started to come clearer. Dallas Willard helped me see that the Greek word Oligopistos, Littlefaith, is a sort of nickname that Jesus coined for his disciples,and I realized that it’s not a condemnation, just a statement of fact, and one with a promise attached, like those verses I love in Isaiah 41:13-14:

“’I am the LORD your God, who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel,

for I myself will help you,’ declares the LORD,

your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

Oligopistos, yup, that’s me. Littlefaith. That’s why I need Jesus with his ability to trust his Father perfectly on my behalf. Once I have accepted the truth about my smallness and, and along with it, the love of the One who delights to care for me in it, it’s no longer a threat, no longer something that upsets me or that I have to prove otherwise.

And then I started to notice the way the story unfolds.

It begins at the end of a long day, the end of a long stretch of ministry (Mark 6:30-45). Everyone is tired and needing a break. The previous miracle is over and the leftover loaves have been gathered and the disciples have seen that this God, their God enfleshed among them, somehow makes meals where even the leftovers far exceed the quantity of original ingredients. And immediately Jesus sends his disciples off while he dismisses the crowds. He cares deeply enough about their need for rest to do by himself what we used to call in medicine the “scut work”—all those important details that no one wants to do but that are essential for smooth running of the day.

Then, a few hours later, when the disciples are far out on the lake, paddling into a storm, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water and, not surprisingly, they are terrified. (How often have they seen that before? What would you think?) And immediately Jesus comforts them. “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” He sounds a lot like a parent comforting a child who’s afraid of the monster under the bed or the ghost in the cupboard: “It’s okay, Daddy’s here. Don’t be afraid.” And they are comforted.

Or at least Peter is. He trusts that voice enough to say, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus smiles at this eager student who wants to try what the teacher is doing and says, “Sure. Come.” And Peter comes. But in a moment Peter discovers that even though he’s no longer afraid of Jesus, he’s still afraid of his situation, and he cries out again in fear, but this time he cries to Jesus. And immediately and effectively, Jesus reaches for his hand and saves him. Always present, always attentive, perfectly able to deal with whatever arises.

I see the heading to the passage in my Bible, Jesus walks on water, and I see why it has taken me so long to understand the story: My focus has been on Peter walking on water.

But like all gospel stories, this story is not first about Peter’s faith, but about Jesus’ faithfulness.

It’s not about a growing ability to walk on water, but a growing relationship.

It’s not about the disciples’ failure but about Jesus’ attentiveness and care and how safe his followers are with this teacher—safe enough to risk stepping out and trying the tentative steps of trust. Each new attempt to trust and try something new, each failure of their faith, becomes a place to learn a little more of Jesus and then to trust him a little more as they discover how safe they are with him. And by the end of the story, they have a much better idea who he is—“Truly you are the Son of God!”—and they are brought to worship.

And as I write my prayer for the year—that Jesus would help me learn to trust—I hear the disciples’ similar prayer, “Increase our faith,” and Jesus’ surprising response. “You have enough faith. Just get out there and use it” (Luke 17:5-10 paraphrased). Jesus doesn’t condemn small faith. He knows we’re Oligopistos and he alone trusts his Father perfectly. And He knows what I’m learning: that the presence of this gracious, generous, creative, and very adventuresome God is a perfectly safe place to risk baby steps of faith, and that, like a muscle being strengthened, faith will grow as we step out, accompanied by Jesus, and discover his perfectly faithful care in every situation.

___________

1Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Franciso: HarperSanFranciso, 1998), 211.

How to learn to trust (OR Good news about the God leading us into this year)

DSCN0512

Several weeks ago, I heard someone use four words to describe God. They’re not a complete description, of course—all the words in the world couldn’t accomplish that—but they’re true and beautiful and I’m heading into the New Year wanting this view of the Master to shape my year.

I heard the words in a sermon by Darrell Johnson. He was speaking about three servants to whom the Master had entrusted a significant treasure. (Did you know that a talent was worth twenty years of a day laborer’s wages, something over half a million dollars today?)

You know the story. The servant entrusted with two and a half million dollars invests it and doubles that amount. The servant handed a million dollars ends with two million. But the servant who receives a half-million dollars buries it and, when the master returns, digs it up and returns to him the exact same amount, excusing himself by saying that he knew the master was a hard man and he was afraid.

There’s a lot more in the sermon, but it’s this line about the two faithful servants and their view of the Master that I keep hearing: “They risk, they invest, because they know the Master is gracious and generous and creative and very adventuresome.” Gracious. Generous. Creative. And very adventuresome. That is the truth about the Master that I want to shape my year.

If I’m honest, looking ahead at a new year can raise all sorts of emotions. The excitement of newness. Anxiety about the unknown. The weight of expectations.

What does my mix of emotions about the new year tell me about how, deep in the place I live from, I really see the Master?

I may think I believe something about God, but how I feel and act shows what I really, deep down, believe.

My prayer for this year is that God will teach me to trust. It seems that God, knowing this is a big prayer and I’m a bit of a slow learner, has given me a head start in bringing these four adjectives across my path a few weeks before the new year begins. Because, you see, the first step (or, some say, the only step) in trusting God is knowing him truly:

“To know God is to trust God.  It’s as simple as that.  And the opposite is just as true.  To not trust God is an indicator that we do not really know God.  In other words, the “god” we do not trust is not really God, but rather a false imagining of our own making.” Rob Des Cotes

“Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.” Psalm 9:10

Oh, God, let me know you, and so free me to trust you!

The too-good-to-miss news of where Jesus was born

img_4570

It was two nights before Christmas and I’d slipped into my common refrain of wishing I had a better self to offer Jesus—less fearful, less selfish, better able to trust. I didn’t sing that refrain long, though, because I let the thoughts become a conversation with Jesus, and he has a way of speaking into these conversations exactly what I need to hear.

So I told Jesus that I wished I had a better self to offer him, but I didn’t have a better self, and I couldn’t seem to make the self I do have better, so I was offering him again the only thing I have to offer (which just happens to be the thing he really wants)—my real self. I told him that even though I sometimes hold back in fear or selfishness or pride, the deeper part of me longs for him to be at home in me and to live his life out in and through me. Peace began to creep in, as though that deeper part of me sensed that Jesus had accepted my ongoing welcome and was loving me in it. And then the thought came, and with it, tears:

Jesus was born in a stable.

The warm, though prickly, straw of the manger welcomed him, the gentle lowing of cattle sung him to sleep, the breath and bodies of animals warmed the space in which he was born. And those same animals dropped pungent cow pies and sheep dung and wakened him with their noise just after his mama had finally rocked him to sleep.

Jesus’ newborn lungs first gasped air thick with the scent of dung.

He made his first home, as he’s made every earthly home since, where homely welcome and glimpses of earthy holiness sat side by side with all manner of things that irritate and smell and need to be disposed of.

Jesus is no stranger to mess. He is not afraid of my brokenness, not ashamed of my sin. He has breathed it in, carried it inside himself all the way to death, then come out the other side having left sin and its consequences gasping their final death-rattling breaths in the grave.

Jesus just asks for a stable. He can be born just as well in a stable as in a sterile delivery room—thankfully, since I for one do not have a sterile delivery room to offer him. He just asks for a welcoming stable, and his presence, as he grows there, slowly turns it into a clean and beautiful home.

Christmas’ surprising announcement

IMG_0140

The cheerful postman wearing a Santa hat delivered Mom’s package, and as I opened it and hung the ornaments she had sent, I found myself both grateful for her care and sad about not being with my family this year (though I know it’s right, and I’ll enjoy being adopted for the day into a friend’s extended family here.)

I let myself feel the sadness and gave thanks for the gift of family that I want to be with, then lit the Advent candles and put on Handel’s Messiah. I suppose I was looking for Someone to be with me in my loneliness. Someone who had experienced loneliness himself.

I was surprised how quickly peace began to settle in. Perhaps it was simply that Someone was with me and in feeling his presence I didn’t feel alone anymore. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed.

At first I thought that peace had come as I’d heard the choir sing and had been reminded that the story is not about me, lifting me out of my too-small focus.

And then I realized that was exactly backwards: the story is, incredibly, about me, and it was that reminder of immense, tender love that comes looking for me that was settling me into peace.

This is the good news of Christmas—we matter this much.

To us a child has been born and a Son given. To us angels sing good news and God announces the arrival of comfort and presence and peace. To us God comes and makes his home not merely among us but in us.

I reread Mary’s familiar song and for the first time I notice how unashamed she is to celebrate what God has done for her.

He hasn’t forgotten me! she sings. “He took notice of his lowly servant girl.” (Luke 1:48 MSG)

I matter! she sings. “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (v. 48-9 NIV)

And so do you and you and you! she cries to all generations. “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” (v. 50 MSG)

As crazy as it seems considering our earthy beginnings, the One who has always been at the center brings us right in to stand with him at the center of this story. Christmas happened because of you and God’s love for you, because of me and his love for me. The omnipotent God left his home to come among us, weak and needy, to die and rise to make us his forever. What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?

Christmas is about me and my mattering. But not just about me, but about a love so big, a story so beautiful, a God so worthy of praise that I can take my small but significant place beside Mary and the angels and sing Hallelujah! to the One who loves (loves me!) like this.

 

Taking it deeper:

What arises within you as you read the question, “What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?”

What, if anything, is keeping you from stepping confidently into sharing God’s conviction that you matter?