Balancing needs: the freeing truth

How do I balance my own needs with the needs of others? It’s one of the places that has caused the most tension in my life, and it showed up again in a dream last week.

In the dream, I was walking back toward my apartment (calmly, I thought) when a friendly-looking policeman asked me if anything was wrong. I was surprised he asked, but I answered that I was heading back to my place because I had heard that there was a fire, or a burglar, and I was going to check it out.

“Why don’t you let me do that for you?” he offered.

I unlocked the back door and let him into the stairwell, following behind him. As we began to ascend, I almost ran into a man squatting against the wall of the stairwell as though trying to avoid attention. His unshaven face matched the scruffiness of his clothes. But it was the sneer on his face that bothered me. What was he doing camping out in the stairwell of our secure building? I asked him to leave, and he began to shout unprintable words at me, making sure I knew what a horrible, selfish person I was. Despite the risk to my home, I had felt very little emotion until this point in the dream. But here guilt surfaced, and shame, in tension with the persistent sense (now confirmed by the profanities being hurled at me) that this person was trouble and I was right to ask him to leave. But this homeless man had needs too—big ones. What right did I have to put my own first? The tension paralyzed me.

Returning again to the dream in my awake state, my paralysis eventually gave way to a reminder that a First Responder was with me. And that he had offered to help. And that the stairwell wasn’t a great home for this man. And that probably the First Responder had resources to offer this man that I didn’t. Even realizing all that, and even in my awake and supposedly rational state, I struggled to trust the policeman’s word that he would take care of the man and find him a better place to live. “Will you really?” I asked. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Carolyn Joy,” I sensed God say to me later, “’Let Me be God’ means that you are not solely responsible to meet the needs of everyone around you. You can do what I ask you to and leave the rest with me, knowing that I will do my job well.”

Slowly I began to see: The question is not whose needs matter most (which is what I seem to think when I feel guilty and selfish about saying no); it’s whether I’m the right person to meet this particular need at this particular time. Am I able? Willing? Called?

Take up your cross and follow Me. Not take up the cross of everyone within your reach. Take up the one I give you to carry. And follow Me, not your own overblown sense of responsibility.

I watch Jesus heal a lot of people—and leave others unhealed as he goes off to be alone with his Father.

I see him feed crowds—and sit on a well, resting, while his disciples go in search of lunch for them all.

I see him walk on water and calm storms—and sleep in the back of a boat while his disciples  fight their way through the worst storm of their lives feeling like Jesus doesn’t care.

Even Jesus was called to meet some needs and not others. Even he learned to trust his Father with the rest.

Sometimes balancing needs means getting off the teeter-totter and kneeling down.

I’d taken the dream to my counsellor, and as I walked home in the crisp fall air I heard a friendly voice, “Hey, it’s Carolyn!” I turned and saw two men with bulging bags of recycling slung over their shoulders. Their faces boasted several days’ growth, but they looked well and happy. The one who had called out saw me trying to place him and smiled, “Under the bridge. They’ve found us a place inside now.” I hadn’t dreamed he would remember my name. Sure, I’d stopped to chat when they lived under the bridge, and I’d taken them home-cooked meals a few times. And once I’d asked if I could bring enough for myself too and sit and eat with them. It hadn’t seemed like much. I hadn’t offered a bed, hadn’t found them a home. But it had been enough. The One who had promised I could do my bit and trust him with the rest had kept his promise, and had stepped out of my dream into my waking life to tell me so.

 “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 

The surprising question for a deepening spiritual life

I’m flipping through a book I was sent, and I’m only a few pages in when Phileena Heurertz’s words stop me:

“According to Father Thomas Keating—a Cistercian monk—at the time of conversion we orient our lives by the question, ‘What can I do for God?’ Seems appropriate, right? But when we begin the spiritual journey our life is dramatically altered toward the question, ‘What can God do for me?’”

My guard is up already. A journey built around the question, “What can God do for me?” It feels self-centred. But she continues:

“This isn’t a narcissistic, exploitative question toward a disempowered God. It’s the exact opposite. This is the central question of a humble person who has awakened to their true self and to the awe-inspiring adoration of an extraordinary God.” (Pilgrimage of a Soul, p. 15-16)

For days I turn her words over in my mind. Could she be right? Is the direction of a deepening spiritual life a move from ‘What can I do for God?’ toward ‘What can God do for me?’ rather than the other way around?

As I ponder, I realize my journey has already been taking me in that direction. I’m discovering more and more deeply all the time how, in myself, I have nothing to offer. At first that felt shameful. Now it feels freeing. Jesus knows this truth, and wants me to know it too: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants to set me free from trying to be God so I can enjoy being my own small self and letting God be his all-sufficient self in me. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with my smallness, and with that settling into smallness has come a deepening trust and peace. But still. I wouldn’t have been daring enough to put it in those words. A shift from “What can I do for God?” to “What can God do for me?” the mark of a deepening faith? Really?

It seems God wants me to hear this, because he starts to speak in surround-sound. First I notice the Lord’s prayer.

“Our Father in heaven,

Reveal who you are.

Set the world right;

Do what’s best—as above, so below.

Keep us alive with three square meals.

Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

You’re in charge!

You can do anything you want!

You’re ablaze in beauty!

Yes. Yes. Yes.” (Matthew 6:9-13, The Message)

The starting line for this prayer is that I can do none of this on my own. No matter how much I might want to do something for God, the truth is that there’s nothing I can do. I’m completely dependent on God—for food, forgiveness, setting the world right, and protection (even—or especially—from myself). All I can do is ask God to do in me and in the world, for me and for the world, what only He can do.

I’m starting to catch on. The question that startled me and started all this wondering is the heart of the gospel, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I need to hear it again. It’s like Jesus walked up beside me and I didn’t recognize him. But then I realize that this itself, this learning to recognize the gospel where it shows up and live it in all my daily moments, is one more place to practice the humbling truth that I can’t do even this work in me—I can only open myself to God to keep doing in me what only He can do. And even this opening, while a choice, is summoned and enabled by grace.

I pick up Emily P. Freeman’s Grace for the Good Girl to read the next few pages, and within two pages of where I pick up, she speaks of Mary’s choice to trust when the angel came to tell her she would conceive a child. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38 NIV). Emily writes,

“I love that Mary uses the word servant here, because it communicates that service is an act of faith. It isn’t me doing work for God, but it is me trusting God to do the work in me.” (p. 63)

Over the page, speaking now about Martha when Jesus comes to dinner, she writes,

Martha’s desire to please clouded her willingness to trust. I understand this mistake of Martha’s perhaps more than any other. Given the choice to please God or to trust God, good girls become conflicted. We know we’re supposed to trust God, but trust is so intangible. It almost seems passive in the face of all there is to do. . . .

Choosing to please God sounds right at first, but it so often leads to a performing life, a girl trying to become good, a lean-on-myself theology. If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. But when I trust God, pleasing him is automatic” (64-5).

If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. This is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please God—except when it keeps me from trusting Him. And it does that often enough that trying to please God might, for some of us, sometimes, actually be the opposite of trusting him. A fixation with pleasing God all too often pulls my focus away from Him and puts it on myself. I hear again the words that God has been speaking to me daily for at least a couple of years: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

Emily’s words ring in my head, “Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ. He doesn’t want my service. He wants me. And from that life-giving relationship, ‘streams of living water will flow from within’ (John 7:38 NIV).” (p.65)

The surround-sound conversation seems to be fading (until the next time Jesus sneaks up on me unawares), and God leaves me with words spoken through the apostle Paul to ponder:

“The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you” (Galatians 3:11 The Message).

The challenge and glory of change

We speak of four seasons but isn’t each day a shifting and merging and flowing like the colors in the rainbow blend into each other or a baby becomes a toddler becomes a teen with no clear break in between?

In my corner of the world the bushes have started to burn and the leaves to let go their firm hold on the trees while flowering hearts still bleed. Roses bud and bloom and fruit all on the same morning. Flurries are predicted for later this week. I suppose this is fall, but it carries the lingering notes of summer while it leans toward winter.Do we live any day without changing a little in one direction or another?

I run past the roof under construction and somehow it seems right that there are both trees blazing glory and containers collecting garbage out in front. And more than a single warning sign.

There’s a part of me that thinks the signs have it just about right. Change can be a lot about letting go and throwing out, recycling and relearning and the pain-filled messiness of becoming. Danger: construction zone. I wish I could have a redo of an hour last week, find some kinder way to offer thoughts so that both of our becomings might have been less painful.
I grieve the leaving of another beloved pastor.
I mourn another aspect of illness.

Even good change involves loss and to heal we need to feel and we need to grieve. But creation seems to remember what this human often seems to forget: Change is not only loss, and there can be brightest glory in the letting go.

I see another tree and on it the One who shone brightest in the dying.

Every death into Christ carries the promise of resurrection, every letting go an invitation to let go into God and find ourselves more deeply loved than we could have imagined.

Each truly beautiful person I’ve met has had their share of suffering. They’ve been rolled and polished like pebbles tumbled by the waves. They’ve let go of possessions, certainty, dreams. They’ve learned to live with hands held open, reaching for the hand of God rather than clenched around anything else. It’s a lifetime’s learning.

Change can be messy and grief-filled. But change can also be grace, opening us to God, re-tinting us so we blaze glory. Change can make us more human, more awake, more fully alive. It can show us who God is and who we are and keep us clinging close, our imaged glory flaming to life as we fill with light from the Source.Why do I fear the little daily dyings that life holds when the One in whom life holds together holds me?

The sun sets to rise again, and with its rising, always new mercies.
Leaves fall and new buds spring.
An infant leaves the comfort of the womb to begin a fuller, freer life outside.

What, today, am I being asked to let go of so something new, in its time, can spring?
Knowing myself rooted in the One who is Life, can I let go with hope, maybe even with celebration?

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.”