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

When you struggle with surrender

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Surrender and receiving: The juxtaposition of the two words hit me so forcibly that I didn’t catch the rest of the sentence and, two sentences later, had to interrupt my conversation partner to admit that I’d missed everything she’d said since.

I usually think of surrender not as receiving but as giving. Giving up. Giving myself up.

Words can be dangerous, lugging baggage that colors our perception even when we’re not aware of it. In our world, surrender is often a word of defeat, carrying with it a sad, grey picture of soldiers who, knowing they are conquered, give up control of territory and their own freedom. What was once fear has become incontrovertible reality so they give in and stop fighting, hoping at least to preserve their lives.

But surrender as receiving? My wartime picture has no room for this. A suspicion creeps in: Might the fear I sometimes feel of surrendering to God and his will reflect this underlying picture that I didn’t even know was there until I was stopped and asked to think about it? Are there other pictures which might hold space for a truer understanding of what it means to surrender to God and his will? Slowly, they begin to appear:

A swimmer floats on her back, letting the water lift and hold her.

Be still and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)

A boat surrenders to the current and is carried much farther and faster than if its occupants had poured all their power into paddling.

The LORD will fight for you, you need only to be still. (Exodus 14:14)

A drowning man stops flailing and fighting his rescuer and lets himself be dragged ashore.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. . . . He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” (Ps. 18:16,19)

I walk in Van Deusen Gardens with a good friend. I have no sense of direction. She has a great one, and I am glad to put myself in her hands and let her choose our route.

“Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for GOD’S voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.” (Prov 3:5-6 MSG)

A screaming toddler, exhausted and not knowing what to do with herself, slowly surrenders to the strong and gentle arms that enfold her, letting her eyes close and her head rest on the shoulder of one who loves her, letting the weight of her body, her too-big emotions, her needs for security and comfort be held by someone bigger and more competent than her. She lets go of striving, grasping, trying to figure out things too hard for her and allows herself to settle into the love of the one who brought her into being.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.” (Ps 131)

As the pictures flow past, their common theme becomes clear: God is love, so surrendering to God is always surrendering to love.

Letting go is letting go of that which keeps me from enjoying that love.

Giving up is giving up whatever gets in the way of my living freely in that love.

Giving myself up is giving myself fully into the care of that love which loves me deeply enough to slowly, gently, set me free to become my true self in God, a self free enough to love in return.

When we surrender to Love, giving and receiving are two sides of the same act.

Why you can dare to enjoy the process

Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera

Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera

Its colors grace my living room now, a tangible reminder of the resurrection hope who lives in me even when I can’t feel him. Today, as I remember the painting’s beginnings, it offers another hopeful reminder: the Artist who is shaping me into my true self is skilled enough to welcome me freely and fearlessly into the creative process.

The painting began one day about four years ago. I was to be the first to put paint on the fresh canvas.

I could hardly wait. That in itself was a small miracle.

The teacher in my mandatory high school art class once told me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.” If I hadn’t been afraid to pick up a paintbrush before that, I certainly had been since. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what people would think.

So why my excitement? What had changed?

I was sharing a home with an artist. This was her idea. She had done it before with people who, in their words, ‘can’t paint.’ She told me I couldn’t ruin the picture.

Sometimes, for people afraid to begin, she would take a brush and scribble across the canvas to emphasize: they could not spoil the painting.

She went before, showing me how to hold the brush and where to start and how to mix the paint. She came behind, and however my brush stroked the canvas, the brush of the master artist incorporated and surrounded, and the first strokes of a not-so-timid-anymore but still-mostly-untrained artist became a seamless part of the beauty.

I could let go and enter the process with joy, knowing that my strokes were small and few in the bigger picture, trusting the promise and the promiser: As I worked together with the master artist, I could not ruin the picture.

There are days I need that reminder again. Most days, if I’m honest. Every day, actually. I need the Master Artist to whisper again and again in my ear, “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” I need him to remind me once again that I can relax and enjoy the process because I’m not the sole creator of my life. The Master Artist, brush in hand, is not only coaching but coming behind, filling and surrounding and incorporating dark and light into unbelievable beauty. He promises that, as we work together, every stroke I make on my canvas, the careful ones, the let-go-and-have-fun ones, the ones where I really mess up badly, as well as every loving touch or careless scribble or angry slash that someone else makes across my canvas, will be used in the shaping of the final glorious image—Christ in me.

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son. . .  (Romans 8:28-29 NLT)

Of circus mirrors and true reflections {OR How to survive accusation}

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She stands in the doorway, glaring down at me and listing all the ways I’ve failed.

Lined up behind her, peeking over her shoulders, are the others from around the world who have asked more of me than I was able to give, all of them, through her agonized voice and angry eyes, accusing me, “Look at this face—it’s a person you hurt.”

The husband and children of the mother of seven who died under my hands with an ectopic pregnancy that I diagnosed too late. The teenage mom whose blood poured out all over the black plastic delivery mat, all over my skirt, all over the floor, less and less in her veins until within a few impossibly short minutes her blood pressure dropped and she stopped speaking sense and she died, my hands in her trying to staunch the flow. The father of the ten year old, his only son, with the distended belly. I thought he was turning the corner, that if I waited and reassessed him in the morning I would find that he didn’t need surgery. There was no other doctor to ask. I had been on call all week and was too tired to operate safely. He died overnight.

Sometimes it’s another person accusing me. More often I am my own prosecutor, the trial taking place in the hiddenness of my own thoughts and imagination.

My prosecutor stands, embodying all of the people I have ever failed, laying out the details that best support her case, refusing to admit any other evidence or listen to any counterargument. She demands an apology. I try to word one. I am not sorry I asked her to leave.

“You can use your ordinary voice,” she demands again. “There’s a person in there. I know you have a normal voice.” She paces at the door, her tall body taut with anger.

“This is the only voice I have right now,” I respond, barely able to squeak out the words from my chair in the corner.

There is truth in what she says, enough that I can’t deny it, but it is so manipulated and distorted and removed from the context that it seems a set-up, a circus mirror. I can’t argue with her—it is me in that mirror. I can’t apologize either, since I can’t agree that the picture is true. I am left, once again, voiceless—exposed and angry, terrified and ashamed and confused, all in the same paralyzing moment.

Here I finally understand: the Accuser who stands behind all other accusers is at the same time a liar and the father of lies. Some part of me has unthinkingly assumed his accusations are truth—ugly truth presented in a nasty manner, but truth nonetheless. They are not. Our Accuser is a distorted mirror, himself so bent and twisted that he cannot offer a true picture. He cannot speak truth, he can only twist it.

Still, however distorted, it is me in that mirror. “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner,” I pray with the tax collector (Luke 18:13). There is freedom here. In the midst of confusing accusations, I don’t have to figure out which bits are true and which aren’t. I am a sinner—that is clear enough in my idolatrous fear of seeing sin in myself, a fear grounded in my reliance on the opinions of others for my self-worth. The prayer isn’t a list of specific sins but a confession of the distortion in my heart which makes me unable even to see my own sin clearly. All I can pray in this place—and all I need to pray—is “Have mercy on me!” as I turn back to Jesus who is at once my Defence and the only mirror who, being of true cut himself, can reflect me to myself truly.

Jesus comes full of grace and truth. The two are inseparable. Even before we get to what grace does with the truth of my sinfulness—forgiving, removing, healing, setting free—there is so much grace in truth. It doesn’t confuse or distort, shame or manipulate. It may not be pretty but it’s wonderfully, freeingly true. All the details, fully seen, in context—the context of our past and present and of the truth of God’s enfolding, sovereign love.

Making peace with smallness

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“Who dares despise the day of small things?” God asks the prophet Zechariah (Zech 4:10).

“Ummm . . . I guess I still do. Sometimes.” I whisper, not really wanting to be heard.

The days of writing—or deleting—a single paragraph. The days of small choices made a million times to turn my thoughts back to gratitude, to God, to how he wants to meet me in the present. The days of asking forgiveness when I haven’t turned my thoughts to him and receiving the grace to begin again. Again.

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Being okay with smallness: this seems to be a theme God is wanting me to hear again these days.

In last week’s sermon, the challenge rang through the little prophet Haggai:

“Who of you is left who saw this temple in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:3-5)

In yesterday’s sermon, it was Zechariah who reminded me:

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ declares the Lord Almighty . . . . ‘Who dares despise the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Photos courtesy of Brian Whitacre

Photo courtesy of Brian Whitacre

The pastor (who had, he confessed, felt very small while preparing this sermon), reminded us that God accomplishes world-transforming things, but always through the small:

  • Israel, the fewest of all peoples, chosen to be God’s special nation.
  • Gideon, the least man from the least clan from the least tribe of Israel, (the one whom God called while he was cowering in a winepress), called to defeat the Midianites—but only once God had reduced his army from thirty-two thousand to a mere three hundred, armed only with trumpets and torches inside clay jars.
  • The young boy David with his slingshot chosen over trained, experienced warriors to defeat the biggest, meanest giant.
  • And of course the little boy’s lunch which fed five thousand, and the tiny embryo in Mary’s womb, the lonely figure hanging on the cross, and the small group of followers who became three thousand in a day when the Spirit of God fell on them.

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I continue the list:

  • A caterpillar forming a cocoon.
  • Character forged by years of moment-by-moment decisions to stay true in the small things when no one is looking.
  • A forty-year-strong marriage made of little, daily choices to love the other.
  • A scientist working in a top-notch research lab on projects my brain can’t begin to comprehend who has learned to persist through a whole list of ideas not working to find one that does. And who started out once upon a time with someone else not despising the days of dirty diapers and 2 a.m. feedings, toilet training and sounding out letters.

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A lot of things start flashy and fade, but doesn’t everything that turns out to be anything start small and grow through thousands of baby steps?

Perhaps it has to be this way, for everything that lasts is rooted in God, who gives himself to us in each small moment. This small moment—the only place we can meet God and be joined to him, filled by him.

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“Spiritual formation,” says Mulholland, “is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things.” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 33)

Perhaps making peace with smallness is one of the greatest challenges—and greatest steps—in our discipleship. Maybe, in our culture obsessed with bigger, better, faster, discipleship is a lot about becoming smaller, learning to release our attempts to prove our significance and cling to our control, and rest instead in the love of our strong God who delights in working with smallness.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)

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“Be still and know that I am God”: One of the practices that is most helping me make peace with smallness is to simply sit in silence before God. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The words call me to stillness. When I realize that my mind has wandered off (again) to try to solve another problem, I let the thoughts go and return (again) to the words that keep calling me to prayer. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”