The surprising secret to learning endurance

How do I keep going? At some point, all of us will probably ask this question as we face one situation or another that seems to go on and on: the challenging marriage, the noisy neighbors, the work or the pain or the child or the pager that keeps us up all night.

How do we hang in through the challenges and let them do their work in us, not breaking us, not making us bitter, but pushing us closer to Jesus and deeper into God’s love?

There’s a place for discernment: Am I being asked to stay in this situation? Is there some change I’m being invited to make, some attitude or belonging or position I’m being invited to let go of at this time?

But often the challenges come in work to which we’ve been called, a relationship to which we’ve committed, or a situation that arises unbidden and must be lived: the illness, the eviction, the normal phases of personal and family life.

How, then, do I learn endurance?

I’m surprised by words in a passage I long ago memorized. How have I not noticed them before?

“[I]f we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (2 Cor 1:6, italics mine).

I’m learning what Paul knows: Determination might be able for a while to produce gritting-my-teeth endurance, but only the comfort of being loved and accompanied can produce patient endurance, that kind of love-based endurance that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).

The startling implication keeps rolling around in my head: We develop endurance not by trying harder but by learning to receive Love’s comfort.

I usually think of endurance as the opposite of comfort. I endure discomfort of one sort or another, and when comfort finally comes, I would no longer say I’m enduring; it feels more like relief or pleasure. But this is one more place where God’s thoughts are not mine, where he turns my perceptions and assumptions up-side-down. Or, rather, right-side-up. The world’s comfort is a comfort that cannot co-exist with suffering. It has to drown it, fix it, or remove it, and therefore it leaves me alone and helpless in the face of suffering, still fearing suffering and trying desperately to fix it. God’s comfort, on the other hand, comes from finding myself loved and accompanied in the suffering. The worst part of suffering is its loneliness, so the more deeply I know I am loved and accompanied, the more fear releases its hold on me.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23).

How, then, in my real daily life, do I learn to receive God’s comfort?

Often it’s a matter of just showing up. When I make the space to come, I find Jesus waiting to comfort me through a few words of Scripture, a lightening of the burden as I hold it out to him, or a simple sense of his presence.

But sometimes there are other barriers: my own fear or anger or sense of failure, or a sense of God’s absence without me knowing why.  What then helps me receive God’s comfort?

  • Reminding my heart that God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). I’m not bothering him, not being wimpy or a failure when I come again for comfort. He wants me in his arms.
  • Being honest with myself and God about my emotions. I can’t receive comfort if I’m trying to hide. (And when it feels too hard to be honest, I can at least be honest about that and receive Jesus” gentle love in that place.)
  • Paying attention to the small things. God is creative and often sends comfort in the hug of a friend, the words of a song, or a few quiet moments with a mug of lemon-ginger tea. As I notice and savor these small gifts, writing them down and turning them over in my memory, I settle a little more deeply into trusting His love that is new every morning.
  • Asking God how he wants to meet me in this place. Sometimes the answer comes through the memory of Jesus’ own suffering and the reminder that someone who understands is walking with me. Sometimes it comes through a few words of Scripture that stand out, or a picture that shapes itself as I prayerfully ponder whether there’s a picture that portrays how I’m feeling.

Over these months as I’ve been waiting to find my new home, I’ve felt like the ground beneath my feet has been removed. (Apparently at least some of where I was finding my security wasn’t so solid!) A picture came of myself suspended in midair, with nothing beneath my feet, my arms clinging to God because he was all I had to cling to. But as I sat recently with the friend who helps me listen, she wondered aloud whether there might be further gift for me in that picture. We sat in silence together, asking Jesus if there was a gift he wanted to give, and my attention was drawn to new parts of the picture. Before, I’d noticed only my arms clinging to Him; now I could now see His strong arms around me. I’d been so focused on the empty space beneath my feet that I hadn’t noticed that I was held, nor realized that I am much safer where I am than standing alone on my own small feet. As the search for housing continues and I seek to learn patient endurance in this place, I’m returning often to this picture, listening again and again to God’s comfort, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.”

 

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Photos (in order) by Emma Simpson and Echo Grid on Unsplash.

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.

I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.

So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.

I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.

I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.

 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Healing in his wings

On Friday morning, I sat at the breakfast table with my blue pottery mug of lemon-ginger tea. I’d sat there first with my bowl of cereal, but I had a little extra time before the Good Friday service, and the sun pouring through the windows, warming and soothing me, summoned me to sit longer and savor its gentle, healing welcome.

Most often in this temperate rain forest where I live, I experience the sun as a gentle force, a longed-for and welcome presence. But as I sat at the table on Good Friday, I was reminded that the sun that welcomes me with its warmth is an unthinkably immense, brilliant force with the power to nourish life or take it, to turn darkness to light, ice to steam, and clouds to clear skies. It summons leaves to bend toward it, holds planets in their orbits, and turns winter to spring with its coming.

If someone asked me what I most love about Jesus, I’d probably name his gentleness. That’s what has made me feel safe enough with him to love him. He always summons me back again, welcoming me to come and find myself loved no matter my condition.

But on this devastating, triumphant weekend, I saw again the strength that lies behind the gentleness. A strength to bring unending life into the darkest and most hopeless of dark places, the blackness of death itself. A strength that announces victory with his last breath, shatters the grave, and restores hope to the hopeless. That brings long-forgotten prisoners out of their tombs, and sets the captives free. A strength with the authority to judge, but the will  instead to heal both captives and captors who are willing to be healed.

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23; c.f. Jonah 3:10-4:2; 4:11; 2 Peter 3:9; John 3:17)

This is blinding light, all-powerful holiness, but a holiness that is for us, intent on healing and setting right all that is wrong, on freeing and making whole and bringing to life again all the good that has been crushed and crucified. Easter weekend is where we see most clearly that God’s holiness is another name for his goodness, that his holiness and his love are two entwined sides of his same brilliant and overflowing life that he is always pouring out for our hope and healing.

“The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all.

But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.” 

(Malachi 4:1-2 NLT)

 

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Photos (in order) by Julia Caesar, Kent Pilcher, Johannes Plenio, Lukas Budimaier, and Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash.

Finding our place in his story

When we entered the sanctuary yesterday, we saw them: hundreds of little paper crosses strung between the balcony and the large wooden cross raised at the front of our place of worship. Our lives, our worship, our suffering, all connected to each other’s and to His.

It reminds me of how  a magnet held under a sheet of paper covered with scatted iron filings shapes lines of intricate order out of the chaos. Here, joined to his cross, our stories settle into place and begin to make sense.

It seems so right as we begin this Holy Week to find once again our small place in his big story. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. It was also Annunciation Day, and in the juxtaposition of the two, Mary’s yes to God’s invitation merged with Jesus’ yes, the human story intertwined with God’s story at yet another node. To Mary the invitation to bear God’s Son into the world. To Jesus the invitation to bear fallen humanity back into into intimate friendship with God. Both said yes. Both knew the deep joy and the deep suffering of their calling.

And now we too are invited to take up our crosses and follow, to enter more deeply the privilege of sharing both in Christ’s resurrection and in his sufferings.

We’ve been coloring the crosses for weeks, each Sunday School class, connection group, seniors’ gathering setting aside time for each person to color a cross in a way that expressed their gratitude for grace or shared what they wanted to bring to the cross. Each cross was a little bit of someone’s love, their surrender, their yes. And now the crosses hang as we enter Holy Week, our lives all linked to his: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Our lives all linked to his, and to each other’s. I can’t find my own cross. It doesn’t matter. I know that it’s here somewhere, here in the stringing of connected lives, the singing of worship linked to the cross and, through the cross, to the multitudes around his throne who continue to sing to the One in whom all of history finds its proper place, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

When you feel the wind

Photo by Tim Stief on Unsplash

Each summer in Prince Edward Island, I pause on the dirt road and watch the gulls on the grassy field. I pull my jacket tighter around me against the wind, tug my hood over my head, and maybe, if the wind is strong enough to snatch my breath, turn and walk backwards into the wind. But the gulls stay standing, dozens of them, or hundreds, all facing fearlessly into the wind as though watching, waiting, sharing a single mind, a single attentiveness.

Out here in Vancouver, I sit by my window and watch the PEI gulls’ west coast cousins soar on windy currents, carried. They swoop and ascend again, circling, scarcely moving their wings. It looks like joy, like play. I want to soar too, to surrender to the wind and let it carry me rather than turning my back and pulling my jacket tighter.

What do the gulls remember that I don’t? How can they face so fearlessly into the wind, even play with or in or on it?

They don’t seem to care that wind collapses houses, tears up trees, and sinks boats.

They’re probably not aware that it also flies flags and dries towels, scatters seed and powers lightbulbs.

They don’t know that, for individuals and nations, it has often been God’s messenger, parting the Red Sea, removing the plague of locusts, and bringing quail for the people to eat. Or that the Spirit first came with a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.

Somewhere deep down they might know that it cleanses—sweeping the sky clean of clouds and blowing away chaff.

Something in them seems to simply accept that the wind is. That in it, or beyond or behind it, is a greater, stronger Reality, and if instead of fearing it, fighting it, or trying to figure it out, they turn into the wind and take off into it, trusting it to hold them, it will lift them, carry them.

Is it any wonder that their surrendered soaring looks like joy, freedom, play?

Their flight seems a fully alive game of tag with the God who also soars on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:10; 104:3-4)

The gulls know by instinct what I need to practice remembering:

Winds, even ones that threaten to snatch my breath, are God’s messengers and are under his control, carrying the power of his presence to both uplift and uproot, to scatter seed and offer energy and sweep life clean again.

It’s only when I think power needs to be my own, held in my own small grip, that I fear the wind.