When you long for stillness

There’s something about being out of the city that gives me life.

Maybe it’s the silence, or at least the exchange of engines roaring on the streets outside my window and heavy feet on the floor above my head for the gentler sounds of birdsong and wind in the leaves.

Maybe it’s that, immersed in the expansiveness of creation, I slow enough to remember myself small again, in a good way, and hand over the burdens meant for God’s shoulders.  There in that smallness I find myself part of this world which goes on minute by minute being created and sustained in love.

Maybe it’s the rich beauty that summons and soothes and draws me toward the One who is Beauty itself.

Whatever the mix of reasons, some nameable, some not, I come a little more alive when I can run in the woods or walk on the beach or drive along roads framed with white trunks and hay bales and the sun playing on water.

On the early morning ride back to the airport, the sun played tag with the fine morning mist, darting, disappearing, leaving a trail of gentle brightness behind her.

What could have felt like a long drive filled with sadness to be leaving was instead a joyful play of light and shadow, a final life-filled gift from the One who knows me well as I headed back into the city and into a busier stretch.

I know you. I love you. I am going with you and I will give you rest.

The day after I arrived home, not feeling quite ready to plunge into the fall busyness, the mailman knocked on my door and handed me a gift that was as unexpected and as grace-filled as the early morning hint of a rainbow and the empty seats beside me on both of my flights home.

I know what you need and I delight to give it to you.

The gift the mailman handed me was Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat

I love pretty much anything Ruth Haley Barton writes, and her newest book is no exception. It’s warm and welcoming and freeing, offering, as all her books do, not only life-giving encouragement and gentle challenge, but wise steps and insightful questions to help me move forward. She begins by lifting the burden of retreat being yet another heavy ‘should’. It is, rather, an invitation, with the implications of freedom to say yes or no, and the affirmation that I am wanted.

“. . .[W]e know instinctively that to be invited means we are wanted, and, in the very best scenario, wanted by someone we find interesting, intriguing, or just plain cool.

And that is exactly what makes the invitation to retreat so compelling. It is a winsome call from this intriguing person we call God—the One who loves us, the One who is inexplicably drawn to us, the One who knows so intimately what we need in order to be well.” (p. 3)

I long for quiet time alone with God in much the same way I look forward to the times I can escape the bustle of the city. I know I need still time to keep hearing God’s voice and to keep from wearing out, and I do my best to prioritize it. But, even knowing that as deeply as I do, sometimes a persistent little voice still tries to convince me that retreating is selfish or lazy or just plain impractical.

What that little voice fails to remember is that retreat is not my idea. It is Jesus’ idea.

Right smack in the middle of the disciples’ first ministry report (Mark 6:30-31), when the disciples were all excited about what they had been able to do and eager to get on with it,

“Jesus invites them to retreat. Literally! His words, ‘Come away to a deserted place. . . and rest a while,’ shut down the conversation they wanted to have and redirected it to the conversation Jesus wanted to have—about retreat! I can see them ceasing their breathless chatter, cocking their heads a bit in disbelief and thinking, Well, that’s different! What a wonder it is, as Jesus’ disciples, to be invited by him to conversation and communion, self-care and replenishment.” (p. 3)

The One who knows me better than I know myself, knows my tendency to lose my way and think too much depends on me, gently interrupts my chatter about the article I’m writing and the workshops I’m preparing. He sees my mix of excitement and weariness and my need and longing to step back and be re-centered in who He is before moving any further into the busyness of the fall, and He graciously calls me to close the door and turn off the phone and the laptop and let Him settle and recenter me in His love. He reminds me once more that this is not a luxury, but a necessity, a part of being human. And that He has led the way.

“Of all people who might have been able to convince themselves they did not need to retreat in order to hear God, Jesus would have fit the bill. But instead we see him regularly retreating to the mountain, into the wilderness, across the lake, and into the garden in order to stay in tune with God’s heart and plan for him.” (p. 90)

When you wonder if you have enough faith

I’m rereading the intertwined stories of the sick girl and the bleeding woman in Luke 8—a duo of stories that I love—and I discover yet another layer of grace.

Jairus, a dad who has come desperately pleading for Jesus’ help, has just received the news he has been desperately trying to prevent: his beloved daughter is dead.

Jesus says to him, “Don’t be afraid, just believe, and she will be healed.” (v. 50)

If I’m honest, I struggle with that. Jesus hasn’t yet been raised from the dead. Lazarus hasn’t been raised. How is Jairus supposed to believe? This dad has his feet on the ground. He’s well-educated, a ruler of the synagogue. He’s seen death before. He knows that when it’s over, it’s over. Sure, there have been one or two stories of people being raised in the distant past, but those are far removed from his life or experience. And sure, someday people will be raised, but can he at all  conceive the possibility that what Jesus is promising might actually come true now, in his lifetime, not in the world to come? (c.f. John 11:23-24)

When what Jesus promises does happen and their daughter is raised, Jairus and his wife are “astonished” (v. 56). In other words, for all that Jairus might have wanted to believe Jesus’ words, he didn’t, seemingly couldn’t, believe deeply enough not to be surprised when his daughter is raised.

Here is incredible grace, and comfort for the many times I find myself unable to picture the fulfillment of what Jesus promises, or rustle up faith big enough to melt my fears and let me feel like I am really trusting. Jairus’ faith apparently was enough, for his daughter was healed. What, then, was Jairus’ faith, if it wasn’t the ability to imagine the promised outcome being given? Just this: he let Jesus in.  He didn’t give up in despair and send Jesus away. He kept walking with himHe took him home, let him into his house, and brought him to his dead daughter. Jairus didn’t have to get rid of his sadness, didn’t have to visualize his daughter on her wedding day or bearing his first grandchild. All he had to do was let Jesus come close enough to put his hands on the situation that seemed hopeless. That was trust. And that was enough.

It reminds me of another time Jesus was talking to his disciples who were puzzled by their inability to cast out a demon and were questioning Jesus about it.

When the disciples had Jesus off to themselves, they asked, “Why couldn’t we throw [the demon] out?”

Because you’re not yet taking God seriously,” said Jesus. “The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn’t be able to tackle.” (Matthew 17:19-20 The Message)

“Just believe,” Jesus said to Jairus and he says now to us. Believe what? Not the strength of my own faith, but the power and love of God who knows my humanness and sees my need and delights to meet me in it with gifts greater than I will ever be able to imagine.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. (Ephesians 3:20, The Message)

I’ll leave you with that for the next few weeks. I’m taking a little break to spend some time with family and friends before the fall begins. I’ll see you back here in mid-September. In the meantime, may we each have the courage—the faith—to let Jesus come close enough to put his hands on the parts of our lives that need healing. And may we have the grace to rest in the certainty that the outcome does not depend on the strength of our faith, but on the goodness of the One who loves us and simply asks us to take him home with us.

When Jesus shows up in the kitchen

A few weeks ago I was, with help, finally finding a couch and hanging my paintings, making this new apartment feel like a home. We found the only places the paintings would work. My friend Linda’s lovely painting of the woods got a home on the wall around the corner from the patio door where it looks like a third window looking out into the woods. I’ve always loved the woods, and to have a “window” which lets me see into the woods instead of the kitchen of the home a few feet away is a gift.

The other, Patricia Jagt’s painting of a sunset that had been particularly significant for me, only worked on the wall over the look-through into the kitchen. I wrestled with that. Tricia painted it for the place of honor over the fireplace in the home we shared for a while, and though we only tried the fireplace once and the place smelled like smoke for a week, still the fireplace made a perfect base for the painting to rest above, constantly calling me back to the words Tricia wrote on the back, articulating the promise the painting seemed to hold: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Now that painting hangs over the look-through into the kitchen. When I sit on my couch I see not just the painting but, below it, the lived-in clutter of dishes drying in the rack, family photos on the fridge, the top of the toaster and kettle and microwave.  I can no longer see the painting without seeing the everyday details of my life.

At first that drove me crazy. Crazy enough that I tried to switch the paintings around and find another home for this one. But I couldn’t. And so instead I followed the wise advice in Sharon Garlough Brown’s Sensible Shoes series, “Linger with what provokes you.”

And as I did, the painting took on another layer of promise: my life doesn’t have to be like that picture-perfect wall over the fireplace—all whiteness and beauty and space—for Christ’s glory to be revealed in me. Now every time I sit on my couch, I’m reminded of the truth that when Christ is in us, he goes with us into the everyday places, the places that may sometimes feel a bit cramped and dark, the kitchens that, no matter how much I tidy, will still look lived in because they are. And here he lets his glory shine, a foretaste of the fuller glory that we’ll enter with him someday.

Now I love it that this painting wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Sure, part of me would still rather have it on a pristine wall above a fireplace—part of me would like my heart to be that pristine wall—but its new home is the place I need to see it day after day. I love it that Jesus knows that and wants to give me the gift of this reminder every day: we are the home Jesus has chosen for himselfNot just the spotless walls over the fireplace, but also, and maybe especially, the bits of our hearts that are lived-in and messy, where we do the everyday work of feeding ourselves and others and washing the dirty dishes.

Jesus does, after all, seem to have a particular fondness for revealing his glory—his grace and his love—amidst the shame of wine shortages and dirty feet and betrayals that show up around a meal.

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For further reflection:

Here are a few of the stories that involve Jesus and a meal:

The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11); the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17); the woman at the well (John 4:1-42); Jesus anointed (Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-11); the last supper and washing of the disciples’ feet (Luke 22:7-38; John 13); the miraculous catch of fish and Peter’s reinstatement (John 21); the road to Emmaeus (Luke 24:13-35); the appearance to the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36-49);  the promise that Jesus will continue to eat with us if we invite him in (Rev 3:20; John 14:23); the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9; Luke 14:15-24; Luke 12:37) and, of course, Jesus as the good shepherd who feeds his flock (John 10:9 and Psalm 23).

Which other stories would you add to this list? What touches you most deeply about Jesus in these stories? I’d love to hear!

When your heart grows faint

“These are the words of him who is holy and true,” Jesus’ message to the church at Philadelphia begins (Rev 3:7). The words that follow offer reassurance for the moments we realize even more acutely than usual that we are not in control.

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”

As much as I love that following promise that there is Someone who holds the key to everything and is not afraid to use it, I find myself being drawn back again and again to those first few foundational words, because what comfort is it to know that someone holds the key unless we also know that that someone is good?

“These are the words of him who is holy and true.”

As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,

“What is this holiness? Quite simply, it is goodness by another name” (Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, p. 65).

“In biblical thinking, then, God is good, and he intends good. He is, to quote the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, ‘for us’ (Romans 8:31)—intent on blessing his creation, on loving it faithfully, and on rescuing it where necessary” (Ibid, p. 64).

Holy and true. This combination of words is only used in one other verse in the Bible—three chapters later where the martyrs are crying out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Here, those who stared into the hate-filled eyes of death, who felt its claws and its teeth and its breath hot on their necks, now address God from the other side of the grave. In doing so, they testify that this is true: in the presence of the most terrifying injustice, violence, and  violation, when the universe seems out of control and evil seems to have won, Someone—a good Someone—is still on the throne.

The martyrs crying out don’t have the answers to why or when or how. And they don’t ask why these things happened to them. Perhaps in those moments of torture and death they saw the burning hatred of evil and felt its ravenous viciousness too deeply to need to ask that question. The searing pain of flames or blade or slow suffocation left no doubt that evil exists. Instead of dwelling there, they look back to the One who is stronger than evil and ask when he will bring justice and freedom and life. That he will is not a question. It can’t be otherwise, because that sovereign Someone is holy and true.

He is holy—perfectly, brilliantly good. He will, therefore, in the end, put to right everything in this universe that he he loves.

And he is true—he doesn’t mess around with half-truths and promises that turn to mist the moment we put our weight on them. He is solid, authentic, and trustworthy. A Rock we can put our whole weight on.

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;

lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.

I long to dwell in your tent forever

and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 61:1-4)

 

Shepherded into Shalom

“He tends his flock like a shepherd;

he gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)

I’ve long loved Isaiah 40:11. And I’ve always felt a little left out of it. I’ve wondered if it really applied to me, or if I just wanted it to so badly that I was stretching it to make it fit. I am, after all, neither a baby, nor a mother carrying or nursing young.

But yesterday God used a little stuffed lamb to answer my questions.

(As an aside, I’m often surprised by how God speaks, but if he can speak through a donkey (Num. 22) and surprise Elijah by showing up not in wind or earthquake or fire but in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19), why should he not speak through a stuffed lamb?)

My sister gave me this little stuffed lamb some years ago. The lamb arrived with a tag saying her name was Shalom. It sounded to me like a perfect name. (Isn’t the wholeness and peace of shalom always a result of knowing we are, as Psalm 100 reminds us, sheep in the care of a shepherd who is faithful and good and whose love endures forever?)

Shalom stayed tucked in my cupboard for years, then somehow managed to creep out and sit on my bed during the day. She looked at me pleadingly every time I came near. Finally, the longing in her eyes won me over and, though I never would have let on to anyone, I let her creep into bed with me at night and snuggle up close. She loves that.

Recently I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful new book called Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller (a fellow Regent College grad). I already had suspicions, but as I’ve read the book I’ve become increasingly sure this little lamb represents some hidden, vulnerable part of me that is begging for care. I hear the question: Isn’t this all a bit too sentimental? But I’ve learned that I can only pass on the love that I let myself receive. And as Kim writes, “When lovingly held within healthy boundaries in our hearts, vulnerable parts of our souls can transform into beautiful aspects of our humanity —channels of empathy and grace.”  So I’ve been paying attention, trying to learn more about that vulnerable part of me and what it needs from me and from God.

Sometimes its needs and longings feel overwhelming to other parts of me that are listening. But yesterday something shifted as I picked up Shalom and Isaiah 40:11 immediately came to mind. I’d been thinking about submitting my manuscript to an agent and I recognized that some part of me was frightened that if I stepped back into a busier, more public life, the shy, vulnerable part of me would get lost and trampled again, its needs neglected. My own attempts to comfort that part of me and assure it that it was seen and would be cared for were not enough. It was still frightened that it wouldn’t matter.

And that’s when it felt like God himself was speaking deep into me in his gentle whisper, comforting me with the reminder that he tends his flock like a shepherd, and gathers the lambs—including the hidden, vulnerable parts, of each of us—in his arms and carries them close to his heart. And that he gently leads the stronger parts of us that are doing their best to get on with life, valiantly care for the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, and love others who also have (sometimes prickly) protective as well as vulnerable parts.

As God reassured me, I realized that even though most of me knows better, that hidden part of me had still felt I needed to protect myself not just from the busy world but from God and his demands. I’d needed his reassurance that each part of me matters to him and will be gently cared for. Faith, after all, is a life-long journey of intentionally opening ourselves to God and letting him teach every part of us what he is really like.

God tends his flock like a shepherd, a good shepherd who knows what each of his sheep needs and provides it. Sometimes we need to be carried, sometimes protected from a predator with a rod, or guided by a staff, or led to still waters, or accompanied through a dark valley. The promise is not that God will always care in the same way for every person or every part of us, but that he will always be attentive and loving, caring in the unique ways that each of us, and each part of us, needs in that moment.  

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his;

we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;

give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;

his faithfulness continues through all generations.

(Psalm 100)

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The second photo is mine. The others, in order, are by Mónica Obando MolinaBiegun WschodniRod Long, Yoal Desurmont and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash.