When you feel unworthy

Most moments in life are much more multi-layered than they appear. They are filled with echoes and harmonics, with chords and counterpoint and grace notes pointing beneath the surface to what lies deeper.

Sometimes the first notes seem playful and welcoming, inviting me into rest or fun, sometimes rich and harmonious, inviting me to linger and listen more deeply. And sometimes there are sequences that, when I first hear them, hurt my head. Their dissonance unsettles me.

Last week began with a sequence, lovely in itself, that quickly turned dissonant. A friend invited me out to dinner the following week at a fancy restaurant with her and another friend. I paused (Am I being invited as a guest, or to share the cost?) then accepted (I’d like to spend time with her and meet her friend. And when she has invited me there before, it has been as a guest. Surely she knows me well enough to know that a place like that is beyond my means.) It felt too awkward to ask directly.

But that night the niggling voice woke me at 4 am. (You know you really can’t afford that. And if you don’t find out her expectations now, you’ll be worrying about them until the meal. You won’t be free to enjoy the gift, if it is a gift.) But how do you ask something like that? All the best options I could think of still felt like they would come out sounding way too close to “I really want to spend time with you, but only if it costs me nothing,” which, translated, seemed to imply, “I like you. Sort of. But not that much.” Which was exactly what I didn’t want to communicate.

I decided there was nothing for it but to back out as gracefully as I could. When she responded, “Bistro 101 is my treat. So if it is just cost causing the retraction, you can silence the voice,” I should have left it there and gratefully accepted the gift that I wanted to receive. But the beat of insecurity was pounding hard within me that day, so I pressed on, notes of anxiety and fear of rejection clashing with enjoyment of the friendship and desire to honour her, the dissonance growing. “You’ve treated me so much lately. Wouldn’t you rather invite someone who can share the cost?”

“Not really,” her answer came back. “This friend has been a missionary in Russia for 20 years and you would understand her joys and challenges better than most. We would love to have you, and I invited you as my guest.”

Most often it’s the dissonant chords, the uncomfortable ones that hurt my head, that bring to my awareness the deeper dissonances that lurk within me, just beneath the level of awareness. What are the beliefs—about the world, God, myself, and others—out of which I actually live? What fears and insecurities are keeping me from freely enjoying this gift?

Over the next couple of days I sat with my discomfort and with the fear that in my bumbling efforts to ask the question I’d needed to ask I had done precisely what I was hoping to avoid: raised doubts about my enjoyment of her and my commitment to the friendship. But into the discomfort came hope, a bright little note pointing the way first to a mistaken belief, then on to a truer understanding. “Grace,” it sang. “Grace is what makes relationship possible.”

Grace is what makes space for two people of different means, different personalities, different priorities and lifestyles, to be friends.

Grace is what brings to light the false belief out of which I still too often live—that I have to be perfect (i.e. have no insecurities or eccentricities, ask no uncomfortable questions, make no mistakes, and have unlimited resources, or at least enough always to pay my own way) to be appreciated and enjoyed.

And grace is what unlinks the impossible standard of “perfect” from the possible status of “loved,” freeing me to love and receive love, to forgive and receive forgiveness, and to know that sometimes asking the difficult questions and confessing the messy insecurities can be the door not to the  breaking of a friendship, but to the deepening of it.

Grace reminds me that God has given us different things to share, and my job is not to question that but to freely give the things I can and freely receive the many lovely gifts that come through others.

And grace takes all this a step deeper still, drawing me into eternal echoes as Jesus whispers, “Are you so surprised that a friend would enjoy you enough to gladly pay your bill so you can share a feast?”

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

  Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

  From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

  If I lacked anything.

 

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

  Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

  I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

  Who made the eyes but I?

 

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

  Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

  My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

  So I did sit and eat.

   —George Herbert

 

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I’ll be in another intensive week of classes next week, so won’t be posting here. See you in two weeks!

Photos (in order of appearance) by Valentino Funghi, Andre Benz, Cristian Newman, Ryan Holloway, and Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash. Used with permission

Looking back to move forward

“For all that has been—thanks.

For all that will be—yes.”

(Dag Hammarskjold)

I stand in the crack between what has been and what will be, scanning the years, gathering courage from past memories and present Presence as I move toward the not yet.

The word “remember” comes 176 times in Scripture, and as I read through the verses containing the word, I realize I’ve just read the whole story told in terms of what God remembers (or doesn’t remember) and what we are commanded to remember.

God remembers his covenant. He remembers our human frailty and has compassion on us. He doesn’t remember our sin.

We are to remember that we were slaves and God brought us into freedom. That He has blessed us not because we deserve it (we don’t!), but just because He loves us. We are to remember how He has led and provided for us all through the years, and are to pay special attention to how God has been toward us in the years of slavery (seeing our misery, hearing our cries, being touched by our need, and coming down to set us free) and in the desert years (tending and caring and providing when we weren’t able to provide for ourselves, and, not for the last time, causing life-giving water to spring from stone and bread to descend from heaven).

Above all, we are to remember the One in whom all this protection and provision, this sin-removing, freedom-bringing, covenant-keeping love is embodied: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

I skim through my own story, seeing the unmistakeable fingerprints of the same life-saving, freedom-giving God. The right person in the right place at the right time to help me make the impossible decision to leave Afghanistan. The friend who came to set up my apartment when I was too sick to shop for bookshelves and wastebaskets. The right course at the right time all the way through my degree, my path twisting in ways I never anticipated but each turn tenderly, thoughtfully placed by the One who was leading though I couldn’t always see Him.

I see the way this whole story—at times painful, but also beautiful—has been leading me deeper into freedom to trust His love, freedom to be myself—and to be His!—without fear. I see how the most painful places have also been the places He has tended me most gently, and the most terrifying places (the ones where I felt trapped between the Egyptians and the deep red sea) my passage into freedom.

Standing in the present Presence and looking back and remembering, I say with all the others who have stood through the ages and looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness, “For all that has been—thanks.”

And as I remember that this same God who has shaped my past and cared for me in it, leading me toward freedom and providing when I couldn’t care for myself, is going with me into the future, my heart says with Mary and with all who have, like her, opened themselves to the thrilling, painful, miracle of God coming to live and grow in and be born through them, “For all that will be—yes.”

When you lose sight of the truth

Dear Self,

You know those times when things that were clear before now seem confusing, or even clear in the opposite direction? (“How could you ever have thought God was calling you to write, or to help others listen? Look at you! You can’t even listen yourself!”) Those times when everything seems dark and you’d rather eat chocolate than stick with your prayer time because Scripture doesn’t seem to have anything to say to you and what’s the point anyway? Those times when you’re restless and it’s hard to settle and you’re afraid to say anything because what if your wise friend or spiritual director agrees that you aren’t cut out for this after all?

There are a few things you need to remember in those times, Self. But since those are the times you’re most likely to forget these things, I’m writing them out for you here so that when those times come you can reread them and remember the truth.

First: take a deep breath and remember that it’s okay. You are not the only screwed up mess in the whole wide world even though in those moments it might feel that way. You’re just experiencing the down of the ups and downs that are a normal part of every serious disciple’s life. It doesn’t feel like it right now (that’s part of the nature of this—it claims past and future and absorbs them into its apparently eternal present), but this will pass and you’ll come back into the light and feel close to God once again. Saint Ignatius called the downs—the times when you feel empty and confused and far from God, when you lose sight of who He is and who you are—spiritual desolation.

Second: When did you last eat? Take a day off? How’s your sleep? In other words, does this desolation have physical, psychological, or spiritual roots? You’re human, remember, and one of the surest ways to set yourself up for spiritual desolation is to act as if you aren’t.

Your Father doesn’t forget that you’re dust, so let your heart line up with his gentle heart and go for that walk you need.

Take the nap. Get the counseling. But in the process don’t forget that your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Remember that, as strong as he may seem, he’s a coward and a bully, always aiming for your weakest spot (so know yourself!) and convincing you to keep quiet about the struggles (because, like an illicit lover, he knows the game is up when he’s exposed). He’ll chase you to the ends of the earth if you turn tail, but if you stand up to him, you’ll find he’s quick to disappear.

Now: if the sadness and confusion are more than physical or psychological—

(and, Gallagher says, we can be sure the enemy is at work in someone who

  • is growing in love for and service to God,
  • has “considerations” or reasons concerning their spiritual life which seem convincing to them, and,
  • arising from those considerations, is discouraged or disquieted in a way that reduces their emotional strength in serving God)

—then don’t forget these things:

You’ll be tempted to change decisions you made in the light. DON’T! As Saint Ignatius reminds us, in times of spiritual desolation it’s the devil whispering in your ear, so to change decisions in a time of desolation is to let the devil be your spiritual director. (But note that this rule applies to spiritual desolation; if you’re exhausted from overwork, changes in your schedule to permit rest might be precisely what you need.)

All those things about how pathetic you are that sound so obvious and convincing and true? This is not the time either to go along with them and beat yourself up, or to get into an argument with them. Just accept that the voice you’re hearing is not God’s voice and move on to the next step.

There are a few things you can do to help yourself in these times: 1) Ask God for help 2) Remind yourself—through meditation on Scripture and remembering past experience—of God’s loving faithfulness. 3) Pay attention to what is going on in you. Prayerfully try to understand if you’re in spiritual desolation, where it began, what caused it, and what actions will help you reject it. 4) Act in the way opposite to what you’re tempted. If you’re being tempted to skip or shorten your prayer times, be careful to stick to them, and stay even a few minutes longer.

Know that this pain isn’t pointless. As you choose to lean into God in the tough times, he uses them to strengthen your faith. To grow in him, you need these painful times as much as you need the times of spiritual consolation.

Those are a few of the basics, Self. They’ll get you started. But also don’t forget how helpful you’ve found Gallagher’s The Discernment of Spirits with its deeper exploration of the rules of Saint Ignatius and its many case studies in which you’ve seen yourself. From time to time you’ll probably want to pull it off the shelf and review all this more deeply again.

Until then, may you deeply savor God’s love in times of consolation, and stand firm in his truth in times of desolation, receiving them both as gift. You are His and He won’t let go.

Love, Me

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Photo #1 by Macie Jones on Unsplash. Photo #2 by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Settling into smallness

Photo by a-shuhani on Unsplash. Used with permission.

I stand awkwardly in the large open space shared by the physiotherapy reception and exercise areas. I’ve shed my sneakers and jeans in the examining room and now I stand with my black socks slouching around my ankles, the white shorts I brought with me riding a little higher up my thighs as I stand on one leg and lower myself into a one-legged squat, trying to keep my opposite hip from sagging toward the ground. I’m glad that my fingers are hooked over the edge of the sink. I need the help with balance.

The exercise I’m doing with my body feels like a fitting image for something happening more deeply within me.

A month or two back, Holley Gerth published a blog post sharing how, after a stretch in which God had led her into new freedom, she sensed him saying to her, “Settle.” In other words, “Live here. Let this be your home, your place to dwell and thrive.” I’ve been carrying that word “settle” around with me since then, sensing it was an invitation for me too, but waiting for that vague sense to crystallize into something specific enough to  curl my fingers around and step into.

Anyone who has been around here for long will recognize themes that keep resurfacing. One of those is smallness. I regularly return to God’s promise in Isaiah 46, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will carry you.” I find myself sitting on his knee, held by the hand, walking along on his feet like a child standing on the feet of her father and letting herself be carried along. I’ve found myself carried in the womb of God—“In him we live and move and have our being. . . we are his offspring”—and cupped in his hand. As I settle into smallness, I settle into rest, into being loved, into hope and joy and peace. I know this is who I am and where I belong. I know this is where fullness of life begins and where it grows—my small self carried in His all-sufficient one.

But despite all that Scripture and all that experience, somewhere, lingering, has been a nagging doubt. What if smallness is a season? What about the calls to “grow up into Christ,” the summons to adult maturity?  What if I’m meant to experience myself small and loved and then be able to grow through that to a new phase which is somehow bigger and broader and more “out there.”  The Terrifying Question has slithered around the edges: What if my focus on smallness is a way of hiding from the real responsibilities of the Christian life?

A couple of months ago, I wrote Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small as part of my process of working this through. I saw again that, as a branch in the Vine, I can only reach maturity and fruitfulness through staying small and dependent. In the Christian life, we don’t outgrow smallness as we mature; rather, we settle more deeply into the reality of our smallness as we mature in trust of the One who holds us in his strong and gentle hands.

Paul confronts the Galatians in their temptation to believe the slippery thinking that  grace isn’t enough, they have to take charge and start doing things themselves: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (3:3) In other words, “Don’t you remember? This whole life must be lived the way it began—in the smallness of complete dependence on the only One who is able to grow His life in you.” As I read his words, I see The Terrifying Question for what it is: another version of the age-old apple-shaped lie that growing up means stepping from smallness into the independence of being like God.

Again He whispers, “Settle,” and now I can hear the rest of the invitation: Settle into living your smallness not as a season of life, but as a way of life. Savor the freedom. Celebrate the gift. Settle here, making your home in my love that delights in you as you are: small.

Photo by Lara Crespo on Unsplash. Used with permission.

After reading last week’s post, a friend reflected, “This catches my attention: it is in leaning into your smallness that you are free to live into your full stature.” She’s right. I am most free to listen, to trust, to love, and to step out in service when I know myself small and securely held, a tiny but treasured part of God’s life and work in the world. Only in embracing my smallness can I step fully into the joys and responsibilities of the Christian life. 

In this upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the way up is down, is it surprising that growing up means getting smaller and maturity equals humble dependence?

I hold onto the sink and lower myself again into a one-legged squat, noticing the way the two sides of the pelvis are connected. Is stability always about the way two things are connected?

When I lose sight of my smallness, I lose stability, as surely as I do when my eyes slip from the greatness of God. (. . . perhaps because trying to live bigger than my true size is a sure sign that my eyes have slipped from the true size of our great God?)

I am only free to rejoice in my smallness when I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on the true God who loves me in my smallness and has promised to carry me forever. With this God, it is safe to be small.

And I’m only truly free to rejoice in God’s greatness when I’ve stopped fighting my own smallness.

Here, then, is my stability—not in my own strength or greatness, but in the unfailing strength of the One who holds and loves me in my smallness.

Photo by Mathias Reed on Unsplash. Used with permission.

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Want more? Here are links to a few other Scriptures and posts to help you settle more deeply into your smallness, as well as a link to the book that, more than any other (except the Bible, of course), has helped on my journey toward celebrating my smallness:

Isaiah 40-41, 46:3-4; Psalm 103; Mark 10:13-16

Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small

Making Peace with Smallness

Eight Reasons it’s Okay to Stay Small (and how you are made great)

Dust You Are: Growing Small

Emily P. Freeman, Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World

Beneath busy: one way to slow down when the world is spinning

Busyness: it might be the single biggest threat to my vocation to listen to God’s heartbeat and help others listen. Busyness, or, rather, hurry—the soul counterpart that too often accompanies the body’s busyness. My body operates under restrictions, and so, compared to most other people’s schedules, mine will never be truly “busy.” I don’t have the externally imposed busyness of young children pulling at me, the 9 to 5 requirements of an office job, nor, as I once did, the 80+ hour a week demands of a medical career. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t stop the soul-virus of hurry from attacking my system. Maybe I’m even more aware of its insidious attack because my schedule is necessarily limited, so I’m forced to admit that the problem lies inside me.

I remember again the advice Dallas Willard gave to John Ortberg when Ortberg, a busy pastor with a young family, called Willard long distance to ask what he needed to do to be spiritually healthy. There was a long pause, and then the answer came, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

“Ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” The words stick with me because I need them so badly.

The words of another wise pastor challenge me even more deeply. He’s speaking as a pastor to other pastors, but I’m certain these words apply to me too, and perhaps in some way to all of us who are set apart to be Christ’s bride. How can we who are his hear his voice if our souls are always running off in one direction or another? How can we follow the great commands to love God and love others if our souls are racing too fast to pause and listen and love?

“The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my waste-basket is the letter addressed to the ‘busy pastor.’ Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

‘The poor man,’ we say. ‘He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.’ But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 17, bold mine)

Over the page, he challenges me further.

“Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reason; both are ignoble.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? . . .

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. . . .” (Ibid, p. 18)

For me there’s a third reason, perhaps tied up in the vanity he mentions, or hidden beneath it. That reason is fear. I fear rejection so I say yes to avoid disapproval. I fear I’m not enough so I try to prove myself by what I do. I fear missing out so, instead of trusting that what I have is enough, I hold out hands to take everything offered, even when it’s too much. Sometimes I don’t know exactly why I’m tempted to say yes when I probably should say no. But here I find a lovely gift, because no matter what the root issue is, I’m finding one simple practice that helps me more than any other to settle and rest: a return to the truth of my smallness. A return to the joy of my smallness, and the freedom of it.

I picture myself sitting on Jesus’ knee, or held gently in his hands, treasured. Or, as I prepare to sit and listen with another, I picture myself as a little girl holding the hand of my Father who is taking me to work with him. This is his work. For this hour, he’s giving me a front-row seat and a little part to play, but the work is his and the weight of the responsibility remains with him. As I smile up at him, my smile mirrors his own.

Here in this place of smallness, I know myself treasured, so there’s no need to race around trying to earn love.

Here in this place of smallness, I remember that someone else is in charge, that it’s not my job to meet all the needs in the world, only to take the hand of the One who orchestrates it all and show up with him at the places he invites me to join him.

And only here in this place of knowing myself small and loved do I begin, slowly, to find myself free enough to say the yeses and no’s that let me live fully without succumbing to the soul-numbing race of hurry.

I don’t have all the answers for how to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” I don’t always faithfully live the answers that I do have. Drivenness runs deep within me, and the call to ruthlessly eliminate hurry will be for me a daily process of listening and choosing for the rest of my life. I do know that here, small and held, is the only place I can hear clearly enough to sense the moment-by-moment invitations, and know myself safe enough in God’s love to dare to follow.