Life in this world often feels like a misty afternoon on False Creek. We can only see what’s right in front of us.
Here’s to paying attention to the beauty in what we can see, and to remembering that just because we can’t see what lies beyond doesn’t mean it isn’t a firm and solid reality.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)
Sometimes the challenge is in hearing the heartbeat of God.
Maybe just as often the challenge is in letting my heartbeat line up with God’s. I don’t want to let go of my comfort, my security, or my control; my favorite couch, the freedom to plan my days without worrying about someone else’s schedule, the quiet space I’ve come to love.
Yesterday, words that helped me face the truth came through someone who is not one of my usual spiritual directors:
“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in William Bridges, Managing Transitions, p. 77)
When God has, at least for the short term, closed all the doors to moving to an unfurnished apartment with my own belongings and living on my own, and is graciously opening the door to sharing a friend’s furnished apartment, might God be showing me a place I’ve confused the path with the goal and am in danger of clinging to the path I’ve chosen instead of letting him lead me to the goal by the route he knows is best?
The goal is not silence or solitude or order. Those are paths, and, for me, exceptionally helpful ones, to make space to listen to God’s heartbeat. The goal is union with God such that his love fills me. The goal is receiving God’s love, loving him back, and letting his love flow through me to my neighbour.
And, right now, opening my arms to God’s embrace and my hands to his gifts means letting go of my paths and plans, my couch and tables, and letting God teach me once again how to live and love and listen in community, and how to find in that new setting whatever stillness he knows I need to hear him.
There’s freedom here. And often joy. But there have been moments and days in the letting go when I’ve felt confused. Sad. Angry. Fearful. I can slip into the temptation to feel like what I want doesn’t matter and God doesn’t really care about me. That’s when I need to go back and remember that God is the God of unfailing kindness, and look for the little and big ways I’ve seen his kindness in the past and I see it in the present. Getting to stay in the same building. First month’s rent almost free. The memory of meeting my new housemate a year or two ago and thinking I’d almost prefer sharing a place with her to living on my own. I find myself excited, if a little nervous, to see how God will meet us as we walk this new path together. Even when the path looks different than the one I’d chosen, this I know—that God is for me. He is giving me his best—Himself—and in the process, everything else besides.
And in the moments I struggle to trust, I’m awed at the grace that meets me there too. I encountered it again in Exodus 6 one morning last week. The Israelites are still in Egypt. God has just given them his very clear promise that he will deliver them and be their God and they his people, and that he will bring them to the land he promised their ancestors. God knows the path to the goal. “But they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (v. 9). And instead of getting angry at their lack of trust and giving up on them or retracting his promise, our Father who is gentle and compassionate, remembering that we are dust, responds to their disbelief with a command to Moses, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country” (v. 10-11). God’s faithfulness does not depend on my faith. God responds to their struggle to trust with a settled determination to keep his promises and thus slowly, gently teach his people whose trust has been broken by discouragement and cruel bondage that it’s safe to trust again. That he is not like the taskmasters under which they currently serve. That he is for them. And always trustworthy.
“If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)
As we climb into the car I’m awed by the delicate ferns hand-drawn on the windshield. New every morning. God strews new beauty across the world each night. Does he do it for the sheer joy of creating? Or for the joy of surprising his beloved with never-fading, never-stale love? Does he smile when I sit in awe, letting the marvel of his unfailing kindness sink deep?
We run at the park and as the sun finally peeps her face above the horizon I pause. I have to. The tiniest lights are sprinkled across the grassy field, strung up and down each blackberry vine, draped on each twig of each bush. Winter’s barrenness has been transformed into a delicate, magical fairyland, only better because it’s real. It’s as though God’s joy could no longer be contained and he poured it all out like a child with a bottle of silver sparkles, making everything shimmer with glory. It’s as though his love could no longer be contained and he sprinkled it all over everything, willing me to notice and enter into his delight.
Today a new year begins. At the start of a year I often sense myself drawn to a word to focus on during the year. Until now, that word has been some way I wanted to grow: courage, for example, or faithfulness. Last year, my word was trust. I’m not ready to leave that word behind. I need another year with it, or, more probably, the rest of my lifetime.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve sensed myself invited to carry a different sort of phrase with me into the new year. This phrase is not about who I am or what I need to do. It’s about who God is and what He does. Isn’t that how trust develops, after all, not by looking at myself, but by looking at God? Not by trying to create trust, but by letting it grow naturally as I keep paying attention to His actions and discover that He is trustworthy?
The phrase comes in a psalm I’ve lived in and mostly memorized, but somehow these couple of words have never caught my attention before like they have now. They come in the last verse, a sort of summary of God’s character that has been lived and noticed throughout the psalm.
“He shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” (Psalm 18: 50 NIV 1989)
This unfailing kindness is not just for David, nor even just for David’s biological descendants. We who are in Christ are all now David’s descendants, grafted into David’s line as we’re grafted into Christ. And the unfailing love is not a matter of who we are anyway, but of who God is. At the heart of God’s character is hesed, that wonderful Hebrew word that is sometimes translated love, and sometimes lovingkindness, and here in Psalm 18 is translated with that phrase that has caught my attention: unfailing kindness.
Kindness: God’s love is a practical love, at work on my behalf in ways that extend beyond the essentials, overflowing into extras that will make my moments a little more special.
Unfailing kindness: I don’t need to fear that this is a honeymoon, that God’s kindness will disappear once he has me hooked. His kindness will not fail. It’s a kindness that paints even ordinary moments (if there are such things) with extraordinary glimpses of beauty, wakening me to newly painted ferns frosted on the windows and sparkles strewn across the grass. It’s mercy new every morning, touching even the coldest and most barren of places with the tender truth of his love.
It’s a kindness that arranged (even in this busy travel season with mostly full flights) for two empty seats beside mine on the five-hour Toronto-Vancouver segment of my return flight, offering space for me to stretch out and nap between a lovely but busy time with family and a return to house-hunting and packing. It’s a kindness that is going before me into the future, an unfailing kindness that I can trust even when I don’t yet see exactly how that unfailing kindness is shaping the future.
The certainty of that unfailing kindness is freeing me to enter this new year with deep joy, trusting the truth of the words written on the front of the journal my sister gave me for Christmas, words that showed up again in a hand-written card from a friend: The best is yet to come. That statement doesn’t imply the absence of challenge or suffering. It does declare that no matter what this year holds, there is someone stronger entering it with me, inviting me deeper into his heart that beats with unfailing kindness, bringing beauty wherever he goes.
We sang Once in Royal David’s City in church last week, and I couldn’t help notice how the words were about home—the home Jesus left, and the home he entered here in order to make for us a home and bring us, in him, home again:
“He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall. . .
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heav’n above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.”
Even though I believe that the home God is creating for us will be the new earth, the point is the same. As Jen Pollock Michel points out in her beautiful book, Keeping Place, God is a homemaking God, a God who longs for us to be at home with him, with each other, and with ourselves, and is working to that end.
“The biblical narrative begins and ends at home. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem we are hardwired for place and for permanence, for rest and refuge, for presence and protection. We long for home because welcome was our first gift of grace and it will be our last.” (Jen Pollock Michel, Keeping Place, p. 33)
The longing for home has been stronger in me this Advent than usual as I’ve scanned Craigslist and visited possible apartments and waited to see where God will place me next. But that longing for home is not unique to this year, nor unique to me.
Could it be that, in one way or another, home is what we’re all longing for? In busyness, a place to rest. In the fuss and show, a place we can safely be ourselves. In a world where wildfires and war, illness and uncertainty remind us of our transience and vulnerability, a place to feel safe and rooted and at rest. Welcome. Intimacy. Security. Permanence.
Might this be why Christmas can be both so painful—because our longings for home won’t be met perfectly until we’re face to face with the One who is our true Home—and so poignant and beautiful—because we taste the beginnings of hope fulfilled in the One who came to bring us home?
As Michel points out, we can understand the whole story of the Bible as a home story: God makes for us a home, we take leave, and he makes a way for us to come home again. This, then, is Christmas: our homemaking God leaving his home to come and find us in our wanderings and bring us back to our true home. And I’m not just talking about heaven, or about the new earth, but about something much closer, much more now.
The Spirit overshadows and Jesus makes his home not just among us but within us, in the womb of a woman, in a body like ours. God knits himself into our flesh, beginning the life-death-resurrection process of knitting us into his body as surely and beautifully as he knit each of our bodies and souls together in our mother’s womb. God entwines himself into human cells to make us once more at home in him, in our own selves, and in fellowship with each other. We are in him and he is in us. We carry our home with us now wherever we go, because God is our home and nothing can separate us from his love now that he has woven that love, woven home—woven Himself—right into our flesh.
When I think of John the Baptist, I tend to think of the tough, slightly intimidating prophet clothed in rough hair and eating insects for supper with a side of wild honey which he has harvested with his own hands. He’s brave and a little scary, his skin as tough as his words. It’s hard for me to relate.
But this week, with the help of a painting, John’s story is touching me in a different way, and making me kneel in worship at another aspect of the Christmas story. In Bette Lynn Dickinson’s beautiful painting (above), Zechariah and Elizabeth stand close together, marveling at the gift they have been given, this miracle baby born in their old age. The train of baby John’s swaddling clothes flows away into the distance, paving the path Joseph and Mary and the donkey walk, making smooth the way for the Lord. Our Lord, still hidden in Mary’s womb, rides a donkey into Bethlehem as he will later ride into Jerusalem, his way made smooth with coats thrown onto the road before him.
As I look at Bette’s painting, I am struck by the smallness of John, his fragility, his humanness. It’s this little baby held in Elizabeth and Zachariah’s arms, this fragile gift who can do nothing for himself, who will grow to smooth the rough places, preparing the way for the Lord. But it’s not just a task for when he’s strong and grown. At the most fragile time in his life, when he still needed the safe, cushioned warmth of the womb to survive, this baby was already preparing the way for the Lord, leaping inside his mother at the approach of his unborn cousin, Jesus. How amazing that we in our human frailty, as well as our moments of strength, can go before the One who goes before us—the One who invites, summons, and does for us everything we cannot do for ourselves—to prepare his way!
I love the way Bette’s Advent paintings all show our story interwoven with His story. The infant Jesus doesn’t just descend from heaven, invading earth to save it as one unconnected to it. He grows as a shoot from the apparently hopeless, severed stump of Jesse, the slowly unfurling fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and Isaac and David. To be sure, Jesus is fully God—Emmanuel, God with us. But he is also fully human, with (very!) human ancestors; he is Mary’s biological son, David’s great, great grandson. Heaven doesn’t just touch earth, visit it, or invade it. Heaven enters it in the fullest way possible, God weaving God’s self into every cell of a human being, and thus into the personal histories of us all, for we are all, through Adam, connected to Jesus’ story and he to ours.
Baby John, tiny and helpless, miracle and sheer gift (as every human is!), this vulnerable little package of flesh and spirit, is filled with Spirit and given the honor of going before the Lord, smoothing his way. John’s story is interwoven with Jesus’ story, John himself filled with Jesus’ Spirit to enable this interweaving. Our stories are all interwoven with Jesus’ story, each of us graced with a unique way to pave his path or bear him into the world, a way that flows as much from our own personal set of frailties as our strengths. Yes, John was specially chosen and called. But so are you. And so am I.
Advent may be almost over, but it’s not too late to let Bette’s beautiful Advent paintings and accompanying devotional help you soak in the wonder of the Christmas story. Explore Bette’s work here, savor her Advent devotional, “A Pregnant Pause” here, or sign up here if you’d like the devotional deposited directly into your inbox.