A live coal in the sea

dscn6195editYou know how sometimes there’s a theme that comes at you in surround sound? A song in the grocery store, an ad on a bus shelter, the words of a friend—all seem to carry some thread of the same theme that is pressing for your attention. A few weeks ago, what was front and center for me was the difference between how I see sin and how God sees it.

I picked up one book and read Alan Jones’ startling statement:

“I have become even more convinced that the generosity of God—the fact that the Divine loves everyone without exception—is what bothers so many religious people. The moralists among us find such generosity intolerable.” (Exploring Spiritual Direction, ix)

I opened another and read Serena Woods’ story:

“I was the adulterous woman for whom Jesus was standing. He didn’t have to convince other people to forgive me. He had to convince me . . .

Every avenue I once used to get to God was no longer open to me. I was kicked out, dismissed and excommunicated. Every Christian song on the radio, book on the shelf and sermon I could remember never spoke to the sinner. It spoke to the victim. Marketed Christianity, I learned, was about saving Christians. But here was Jesus, standing with his feet next to mine. Immanuel was justifying me.” (Soul Bare, 34)

That Sunday my pastor spoke of the accusation against Christians that “You talk a lot about grace but dig down deep enough and what you’re really excited about is judgment.”

I smiled when he spoke of Jonah sulking about grace at the same time he was preaching it. Too many times my heart, too, has held a greater desire for judgment (“they shouldn’t just get away with that!”) than for forgiveness that names sin and removes it and forgets.

Jesus takes sin seriously. Enough to die for it. Enough to insist that people who come to him leave their life of sin. But he never lets sin get in the way of giving or receiving love.

He takes sin and makes it a place to give and receive love, not a barrier to it.

How did we, who often build walls and burn bridges, get this so wrong?

Jesus eats with sinners. He lets them wash his feet, unworried about the opinions of religious folk. He tells sinners he came for them, not for the ones who seem to have it all together.

Jesus lived in front of our eyes the truth that David saw a thousand years before:

“[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10,12)

I have appreciated forgiveness; now I am learning to love it. I am becoming freer to trust it, to delight in it, to savor the joy of it for myself and offer it more freely to others.

But I wonder, when forgiveness (for us and for others) is such good news, why does it often take so long before it feels like good news?

Is it pride? Do I want to separate myself from others, to prop up the illusion that I am better—at least able to pay for my own sin if not actually prevent it?

Does fear lie beneath the pride, fear that love is scarce and there isn’t enough to go around? Do I still think I have to earn love and acceptance with my goodness?

I turn back to Psalm 103 and read the verse tucked between the two about forgiveness:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:11)

This is when forgiveness becomes good news, when our hearts finally believe that forgiveness flows from God’s free and limitless love.

As William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, wrote in the fourteenth century, “All the wickedness in the world that man might work or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped into the sea.”

Societally sanctioned sins. Sins that put people in jail. My own grasping for control. Each way someone else has hurt me. All are bits of that same burning coal begging to be dropped into the limitless ocean, swallowed up, extinguished, forgotten.

It’s true, friends, and pleading to be savored. Time to dump the judgment and come home free.

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I’ll be taking a course next week, savoring this limitless love and learning how better to accompany others on the journey to trust it. See you back here in two weeks!

What your heart needs for the next steps

Photo by Chris Watts

Nine year old Lucia steps down into the baptismal tank and then up onto a stool placed there specially for her. I can’t keep tears from spilling as I listen to her soft, confident voice declaring that Jesus is her Lord and her Saviour and she will follow him all of her days.

It’s a season of new things. For us in the northern hemisphere, the beach is being left behind as children pack new notebooks into new bookbags and head off to a new grade. In the southern hemisphere, spring is in the air.

A baptism, a birth, a wedding: any season of new things is an invitation to celebrate newness in our own life (we are new creations!), to reaffirm commitments once made and to know the joy of being alive and loved all over again.

As I gear up to co-lead a community group and prepare to start the next level of training to accompany people in their lives of faith, I’m excited—and often very aware of my inadequacy. And so as I step into newness with its mix of delight and excitement and trepidation, I’m pausing to watch the smile on the face of my Creator as he formed me, pausing to listening to his affirmations spoken then and spoken again now.

He speaks as a parent to a beloved child, reminding me that I can’t flunk out of his love, that I am precious just because he brought me into being, not because of anything I do or don’t do. That he is with me.

The truths are simple, but I need to hear them again and again, in every season, as I prepare to step through fear into something new, or in the middle when the journey is long. Fear fades here as I listen to God whisper his love and sing his delight and tenderly shows his care.

“I’m glad you are you.” I look up into his smiling face. Hearing him speak this over me makes it much easier for me to affirm, “I’m glad I’m me too.”

“Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;

you formed me in my mother’s womb.

I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!

Body and soul, I am marvelously made!

I worship in adoration—what a creation!” (Ps 139:13-14, The Message)

“You belong here.” Here, first and always, in his love. But also here in this city, this church, this training program. Here writing this blog post, this book, walking alongside these particular people.

“Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;

all the stages of my life were spread out before you,

The days of my life all prepared

before I’d even lived one day. (Ps 139:16)

“I love you and I care for you willingly.”

“Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? . . . Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.” (Luke 12:27-28, 32)

As I watch Lucia and wipe tears from my eyes, I’m sitting in the pew in my dream dress, the long navy one with the flowers and the white beadwork that looks like it was made for me. The one God provided for $8 at Value Village a few weeks ago. I was going to save it to wear first at my graduation, but when I looked in the closet yesterday it called out to me to wear it, to share in God’s joy of loving me and providing for me. And so I wore it and savored all day the feeling that God was cherishing me, that he was celebrating all over again the memory of dreaming me and knitting me together, that he was delighting in newness, in love, in me! as we step together into this year.

Love that delights in each of his children like this—this is a love I can trust.

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Photo by Chris Watts. Affirmations in bold from Clarke and Dawson, Growing Up Again.

Beach grace: the summer truth that could change my fall

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Sunlight dances on wind-ripples, frosting the edge of each wave.

The tide is going out and little rivers trickle and rush their way between sandbars, braiding the surface of each waterway into a slightly different pattern.

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Between the larger sandbars pools have gathered, hosting hermit crabs and tiny shrimp that tickle my invading ankles and toes.

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At the other end of the beach, incoming waves meet outgoing ripples in a tic-tac-toe grid, each ripple passing through the perpendicular ones without cancelling it.

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I run back along the shore, delighting in the feel of the sandy ridges that massage the soles of my feet.

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A week into our two-week beach holiday I realize: every one of the treasures I am most deeply enjoying at the beach this year is a product of the interplay of the resistance of the beach and the ever-active, ever-pursuing touch of the water. Ridges, rivers, ripples, braided patterns on the water’s surface, sparkles frosting glittering wave-edges, tide pools hosting tiny lives—none of these would exist without the interplay of resistance and grace.

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There is so much hope here for me!

I dislike resistance. I desire to live with my heart open to God, and I grieve the ways I resist his love with my own fear and pride and desire for control. Yet though I grieve, I seem to have about as much ability to change my own heart as the sand does to remove its own bumps and ridges.

But as I watch the water, I begin to see. My resistance, and my inability to fix it, doesn’t shock God, frighten him, or perturb him. He knows that in the physical world of which he has made me a part, resistance to movement and change is a universal part of being. (That’s one of the few things I remember from Physics 101.) Resistance to change is a psychological reality too, and since something in me knows that opening to love will change me, I resist. And God has compassion on me and is patient and gentle, forgiving, healing, crowning. Remembering that I am dust (Ps 103).

He knows too that resistance can be an important part of becoming. The repeated “no”s of the “terrific twos” are an essential part of the child growing from an extension of her parents into her own God-created self. As God keeps loving me through my childlike “no”s, they often become grace-places in which I experience most deeply that I am loved, as myself, not just as part of Christ’s body. I am loved even when I am insisting on my separateness. And my knowing of myself as a separate person, and the other’s acceptance of me as a separate person, turns out to be a prerequisite for the development of intimacy. There must be separateness for there to be union.

The tide turns. At first nothing seems to happen. The ridges lie exposed, the beach bare. The waves continue their patient lapping. Then, slowly, gently, the water begins to inch back up the beach, following, like a well-mannered gentleman, the channels between the sand ridges, flowing left, then right, a pilgrim passing through a maze.

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Then, as the water continues to rise, the truth becomes clear: the bumps and ridges are no barrier to the water at all. Laughing with the holy delight of limitless love, another wave forms and breaks, and another, the lover pursing the willing beloved. The walls of the maze give way and the water rushes through its newly formed channels then floods over the tops of the ridges.

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I turn to look at another stretch of sand and when I turn back a moment later the sand has disappeared, enveloped, embraced.

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Above all, trust in the slow work of God,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ’s words ring once more in my ears. I’m sure I’ll forget and fear again, but standing here on the beach watching the water rise I realize: at least in this moment of seeing, I’m not afraid of resistance. Here I see that—incredibly!—what seem to me like barriers often turn out to be landmarks on the way into union, the very places I experience myself most deeply loved. Glory glimmers at the interface of resistance and grace.

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The bumps of my resistance which seem so obvious when I walk over them barefoot or see them lying naked on the shore, seem almost irrelevant as I watch the water rising over them, no match for God’s ever-flowing love.

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I wander back down the beach and smile at the gulls perched on the last remaining island of sand. They remind me of myself, huddled on a bit of resistance while love is lapping the edges away. I wonder how small the island will have to shrink before they surrender and float or fly. Before I surrender and float or fly.

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High tide nears, and I stand in the edge of the sea as wave after wave washes over my feet, adorns me with an anklet of sea grass, then tugs a layer of sand from beneath my feet on its return to the sea.

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As each wave rolls over then under my feet, resistance is worn a little thinner, settling me a little more deeply into the love that surrounds and welcomes me.

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“Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean

In its fullness over me

Underneath me, all around me

Is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward

To Thy glorious rest above.”

(Samuel Trevor Francis)

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The first and the last two photos are courtesy of Marny Watts. (Thanks, Mom!)

What (many of us) grown-ups have forgotten

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I sit with the friend who most intentionally helps me listen for God’s voice in my life and confess that lately I’ve been coming up against the hard truth that every single thing I’d like to be able to think about myself is not true, not the way I’d like it to be. I’d like to think of myself as disciplined, but the chocolate in the kitchen drawer could tell another story. I’d like to describe myself as gentle, but then I hear the harsh voice in my head berating me again.

She listens and questions and shares how she’s been back in the story of the little boy’s lunch again and has been realizing, That little boy probably had no idea that what he was offering was utterly inadequate. He’d simply overheard the adults asking if anyone had any food. “Here, you can have mine,” he’d said.

I picture Jesus smiling at him as he accepts from the boy’s hands the five little rolls of bread, a bit crumbly and squished, and the two small fish that have been sitting all day in the hot sun. Jesus smiles at the boy and winks, the two of them sharing a secret. The little boy smiles and winks back. He doesn’t yet know the whole secret and he might not be able to put into words the part that he does know, but somewhere deep down his heart knows the truth that the worried grown-ups have forgotten: Placed in the hands of Jesus, what I have to offer is enough for whatever Jesus wants to do with it. 

Babies hold out soggy cheerios in their newly-mastered pincer grip and toddlers extend dandelion bouquets in chubby fists with full confidence that their offering will bring delight. Only grown-ups are ashamed of their gifts.

Little children seem to know something else we adults have forgotten: It’s not really about the gift at all. It’s about the relationship. The children are offering their love, their trust, themselves, to someone who loves them. What could be not to love about that?

Jesus isn’t critiquing our soggy cheerios; he’s savoring our love and our trust.

Here, you can have me, I say to Jesus, watching him smile and open his arms to receive the gift. I can’t keep myself from smiling back.

And so during August I’m setting aside (as best I can) the part of me that thinks I always have to do more to make my gift acceptable. I’m stepping back from blogging and other writing so I can be fully present to Jesus and family and friends, giving myself rather than what I produce and polish. And while some critical adult voice in my head says, “I can’t believe you’re going to write that,” the little girl part of me that is smiling at Jesus smiling at me shrugs and takes Jesus’ hand and skips off, borrowing my parting words from Lynn Ungar’s poem, “Camas Lilies”:

                                         “. . . Gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back

when I’m through with blooming.”  

Above all, trust . . .

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Twenty-three days ago, a friend who came for dinner brought three yellow roses. Two aged as expected, their heads drooping after seven or ten days, begging to be laid to rest. The third chose a route I’ve never seen before, its face straight up as though transfixed by the light, still standing tall and strong while age continues to creep in from the edges, crisping its petals from a silky baby yellow to a richly veined gold.

It makes me think, somehow, of my Grannie whom I watched deepen in grace through her eighties. Just a few days before she died, less than two months short of her ninetieth birthday, she wrote in her Bible next to Luke 2:25, “New Year’s resolution: everything for God.”

Rob Des Cotes often used to ask young people with whom he was walking what kind of old person they wanted to be. He encouraged them to start preparing now for the kind of person they want to be then because the journey to the character of a wise elder consists, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully described it, of “a long obedience in the same direction.”

I’m not so young anymore but I’m not old either and I’ve been considering Rob’s question this week as I’ve been drawn again and again to the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. I read them first punctuating a fellow pilgrim’s blog post. I posted them on facebook, wrote them in my journal, began to memorize them: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God . . .1

What kind of old person do I want to be? I want to be characterized by what Paul said is “the only thing that counts”—“faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6) I have a long way to go. But I have realized that each time I come face to face with my own inadequacy or fear or sin, I am given a chance to develop the character I want. I can focus on my failures (which leads me away from faith and love into self-condemnation and a drivenness born of a desperation to make myself lovable) or I can focus on the gentle, ongoing work of God. Actually trust it. Not just bemoan its slowness, post the poem on my bathroom mirror, or write it in my journal. Trust in the slow work of God. Lean my weight on it. Tie my hope to it. Look at Jesus again and again and see him loving me. Linger in one of the images of surrender I wrote about last week, knowing myself embraced, carried, cared for rather than conquered. Get up and go out in the sun to reach between the thorns and pick, one by one, the graces that hang ripe and juicy and sweet on the vines, begging to be brought home and savored and shared.

Trust in the slow work of God: It seems a slightly altered echo of the words I’ve been hearing for weeks, “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

God’s work is slow. I wonder how many of the graces that I saw grow in my Grannie in her eighties she had asked for in her forties, or in her teens? And God’s slow work is beautiful. I see Grannie again, sometime in her last few years, setting aside her proper British upbringing with a chuckle and a glint in her eye to lick her dessert plate in response to a dare. I want to be that kind of young old person—the kind with soft baby yellow peeking out between deeply-veined gold, the kind with increasing freedom and playfulness born of opening to love and choosing again and again to trust God’s slow work.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. I can because, as the apostle Paul assures, “there has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears” (Phil 1:6 The Message).

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1Here, for the curious among you, is the rest of the poem I’ve been savoring:

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.


We are quite naturally impatient in everything


to reach the end without delay.


We should like to skip the intermediate stages.


We are impatient of being on the way to something


unknown, something new.


And yet it is the law of all progress


that it is made by passing through


some stages of instability—


and that it may take a very long time.

 

And so I think it is with you;


your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,


let them shape themselves, without undue haste.


Don’t try to force them on,


as though you could be today what time


(that is to say, grace and circumstances


acting on your own good will)


will make of you tomorrow.

 

Only God could say what this new spirit


gradually forming within you will be.


Give Our Lord the benefit of believing


that his hand is leading you,


and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself


in suspense and incomplete.”

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

excerpted from Hearts on Fire