Living Your Right Size

Much of this last decade has been, for me, about learning to live my smallness—learning to be a child, finding myself safe and held, discovering that limitations can lead me to where I can find and feel the truth that I am loved just as I am. I don’t have to be in control to be safe. I don’t have to earn love or prove my worth or try to make myself bigger than I am.

There is a goodness to knowing ourselves small. In one very real sense, the life of faith is a life of smallness: of humility, of Jesus increasing and us decreasing, of recognizing that without Jesus we can do nothing. God is Creator and we are his beloved creation and he will continue to carry us right through our old age and grey hairs and on into eternity.

But there is also a smallness that is not faith but timidity, not humility but hiding.

Children grow. And are meant to. (Eph 4:15, 1 Peter 2:2)

The truth is that sometimes it’s not faith that keeps me small. It’s fear. Fear of stepping out. Of failure. Of what others will think. Of what God might think.

But here’s the thing: Precisely because I am and will always be small compared to God, I can be my strongest, truest, self, unafraid that God will be threatened by me growing to my full stature. He wants me to grow into my fullest, freest self, and He does all he can to facilitate that process.

I turn again to the page that stuck with me from a book I once read:

         ‘They who wait for the Lord. . . shall mount up with wings like eagles,’ our pastor read from Isaiah 40:31 one autumn Sunday morning. As a small, bored child fidgeting in the pew, those words caught my surprised attention. Just the day before, my parents had called me outdoors to watch the wild geese, soaring in V-formation, flying south. They filled the air with the sound of beating wings and exultant cries. Every fall and spring it was a shared family thrill to watch the wild, free, yet disciplined power of these geese flying over Michigan.

Now, as our pastor read about God calling forth our strength like that of soaring eagles, I remember the exultation of the flying geese.

So, God likes that kind of thing, I mused. How had I got it into my head that God preferred things to be very quiet, subdued, and resigned?

Then something even more surprising rose within me. The Bible is saying that God wants me to be like that! I thought this over. I felt excited. I also felt a little afraid.

Twenty years later, a young mother, I stood at the door of my baby daughter’s room. She was sitting up for the very first time, holding the crib bars with one hand. Her back was toward the door, so I could not see her face, but I could see her delight in her new empowerment in every muscle of that little back.

This was another vivid, symbolic moment for me. As I felt that wave of joyful pride at sharing in her joy in her new power, I remembered again the awed delight I felt as I watched the wild geese in their released power. Does God feel this way? I wondered. Does God feel this way, only immeasurably more so, when sharing our births, our rebirths, our awakenings, our risings up, our responses, our giftedness, our growing empowerment? (Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer, Fear, and our Powers, p. 11-12)

 Smallness is not the goal. Love is. Receiving it, and giving it.

Living aware of my true smallness often helps me receive God’s love, and opens me for that love to flow through me to others. But keeping myself smaller than I need to be shuts me down from receiving and giving that love.

The questions I asked some time back come to mind again, returning me to Paul’s reminder in Galatians 5:6, “. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” These questions, and the emotions that arise along with them, help me notice whether I’m living in the smallness of faith, a beloved child knowing herself held, and free to love God, others, and herself with the overflow of that love, or the smallness of fear, timidly holding back. These questions help me live my right size.

Does my choice flow out of faith in Jesus? Does it help me trust him more?

And does it express that faith through love—for God, for others, and for myself in a healthy, respectful, stepping-into-God’s-love-for-me way?

Then it is a good choice.

 

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Photos (in order) by Photo by Echo Grid,  Kevin GentAbigail Keenan Anna Samoylova, and MD Duran on Unsplash.

What to do with your wounds

It was a gorgeous Saturday morning, a few weeks back, and I was on my usual morning run. I was breathing deeply the crisp air and looking up at the brilliant red trees and missed seeing the uneven pavement stone. In less than a second, blood was dripping from both palms, my face hurt where my glasses had twisted against it, and, though I couldn’t see my knee beneath my leggings, I could tell it had felt the blow as well.

We all have wounds. It’s part of living in this creation with uneven pavement stones and dogs that bite and parents and teachers and friends who, like us, have their own wounds.

We can’t escape the wounds. But we can learn how to tend them so that even the most painful of wounds, while not chosen, can be stepping stones leading us into gift.

So how? How do we tend them so they’ll heal rather than fester? How do we care for them so a small problem doesn’t turn into a bigger one?

One thing I know: it doesn’t help to keep picking at them. And it doesn’t help to beat myself up about having them. There’s already enough of me hurting without adding more bruises.

So when the same old wound catches me off-guard and I find myself feeling like a failure, this is the question that helps me most: “I wonder how Jesus sees my wounds?” I may see them as failure, but he doesn’t. He sees them as wounds—something that I didn’t choose (though I can choose now what to do with them)—and something that I can no more heal than I could heal the weeping wounds on my hands after I fell. I can tend them—protect them, keep them clean as best I can—but I can’t make them heal. Only God can do that.

But there’s more. Not only does Jesus see my persistent triggers not as failure but as wounds, he also sees them as a place of connection.

During a recent series of challenging conversations, over and over I sensed the invitation, “Press your wounds into Mine.” The still-tender parts of my palms were a daily reminder of the invitation, and I pictured myself again and again with my palms pressed against Jesus’ palms, my eyes looking into his, into that place where I always find myself seen and known and loved. And somehow, there, the pain decreased. It turns out a lot of the pain of wounds is the loneliness beneath—the fear of failure and the rejection we’re sure will accompany it.

It’s a very intimate act, this pressing of wounds together, this mingling of blood—a bit like young girls who prick their fingers and let their blood mix in an act of declaration that they are now “blood sisters,” something deeper than friends, connected and committed forever. But Jesus is more than a playground friend. This is God who takes on flesh so he can share my blood. This is God who goes much farther than pricking his fingers to let his new-made blood mingle with mine in a symbolic act of security and belonging. No needles here, but nails piercing his wrists, a sword his side. No symbolic act but a real sealing of my security with his life.

His hands still carry the scars, an eternal invitation to press my wounds into his and there remember that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. For, mystery of mysteries, His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.

 

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“His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.” For further meditation on this thought, see 2 Cor 5:21, Is 53:5, 1 Cor 10:16 and 12:27, Col 1:18-20 and 2:9-13. What feelings surface as you read that statement? What might it mean for you to know this is true?

Photos (in order) by me, Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash, and Milada Vigerova on Unsplash.

When you want to know God is pleased with you

As I was praying recently about a couple of difficult situations, I wrote in my journal, “I think, ultimately, what I need to know to let both these situations go is that You are pleased with me.”

There is some truth in that. Disappointing people is an inevitable part of being human and a necessary part of discipleship. Even Jesus chose just twelve disciples to receive much of his teaching, and only three close friends to come into his most sacred experiences of transfiguration on the mountaintop and agony in the garden. He left crowds that were pursuing him, and went off by himself to pray. In other words, he shut down the laptop, turned off the phone, and did what he knew he had to do to fulfill his calling. Even when people wanted it otherwise. When I let God’s view of me be my measuring stick, I am not bound by the feelings of guilt and shame and fear that tag along if I disappoint a person who is holding up to me their own, different, measuring stick. In that sense, I need to know that God is pleased with me. When my focus is on Him, I can let my worries about what others might think go.

But sometimes I find myself obsessively trying to figure out if I could have or should have done something differently. Most often that second-guessing comes from unthinkingly assuming that if I’ve disappointed another person, I’ve disappointed God. It sounds ridiculous even to write that. But some part of my heart has grown up believing that if someone is disappointed with me, I must have done something wrong. And if I’ve done something wrong, then obviously God must also be disappointed with me.

I too easily assume that God being pleased with me equates to my getting everything “right” (according to a set of vague rules that live in my head and seem to change depending on what another person wants from me). Perhaps what I need to know is exactly the opposite: that I am still safely held and accepted and loved even when I don’t get everything “right,” or when, despite careful thought and prayer and counsel from others, I don’t even know what’s “right” in a complex situation.

I’ve always assumed it was a good thing to want to please God. Slowly I’ve come to see that there’s a healthy desire to please God, and an unhealthy, obsessive distortion of that desire.

The distorted desire is more than a desire to please God; it’s an obsessive attempt to figure out what he wants in a particular situation so I can be assured of his pleasure and acceptance. It is knuckles clenched around the steering wheel, trying to control every detail of the situation and putting my trust not in his love but in my ability to get things right. It misses the adventure of freely giving my whole self—my limited, broken, beautiful self—to God and seeing where we end up together.

The healthy desire, on the other hand, flows from love.  It is open-handed and open-hearted, freeing me to listen and follow, to do my best and leave the outcome to God. It is adventurous, trusting and full of hope—a response to the One who calls:

“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (SS 2:10)

 

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

 

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Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

What the trees are teaching me

The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.

The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of  life to come.

To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.

To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.

Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.

When God builds you a house

I had to smile when the Scripture was read last Sunday. Sometimes God isn’t subtle.

I’ve been confronting my limitations again lately—not just physical, but in every area of life. And I’ve sensed God inviting me to accept them. I’ve found myself asking the question, “Can I be okay with it if all I am ever able to do consistently is write a weekly blog post and listen with the few people who come to sit in the stillness with me and listen together for God’s voice in their lives?” I’m not saying that’s what will happen, only that I’m being invited to accept still more deeply this body, this personality, this small, good work entrusted to me as a gift from the One who created me and delights in me as I am. This time, I find myself able to  say, with freedom and joy (at least for this day!), “Yes. If that’s what you have for me, I can be fine with that.” Maybe I’m finally receiving more fully the rich gifts of being small—of being significant not because of what I do, but simply because God has created me and, because He treasures me, I matter.

Back to last Sunday. The reader ascended to the pulpit and began to read from 2 Samuel 7 the story of David asking to building a temple for God. Surely, David thought, after all God had done for him, it was time David gave something back. Surely it wasn’t right that David live in a palace of expensive cedar wood while the ark of God, the focal point of God’s presence, continued to live in a tent. At first the prophet Nathan, hearing David’s suggestion, agreed. “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”

But it was only a few hours before God spoke to Nathan correcting his assumption and telling Nathan to return to David with these words from God: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? . . .  The LORD himself will establish a house for you.” (v. 5, 11)

I’ll never be able to hear that passage again without my mind jumping back to a time in the tiny Afghan village I called home for four years. After my first year working as a doctor in the project, I was asked to take on the role of project leader. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that the weight of being project leader as well as doctor was too much for me. Three months into the project leader role, agonizing over the possibility of having to admit I couldn’t do it, I was journaling my prayer. Lunchtime came, and I left the prayer on pause, grabbing Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall to read while I ate. Peterson was speaking about David’s natural desire to build a temple for God who had done so much for him:

““[David] quite naturally wanted to do something for God, who had done so much for him. He decided to build God a sanctuary. . . . God had blessed him with a place of honor and repose; he would bless God with a place of honor and repose. . .

But there are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are. . . a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. . .

God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: ‘You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. . . .

‘Then King David went in and sat before the LORD . . .’ (2 Sam 7:18) David sat. This may be the single most critical act that David ever did, the action that put him out of action . . .

What we don’t do for God is often far more critical than what we in fact do. God is the beginning, center, and end of the world’s life—of existence itself. But we’re often unaware of God’s action except dimly and peripherally. Especially when we’re in full possession of our power—our education complete, our careers in full swing, people admiring us and prodding us onward . . . At these moments, we need prophetic interference. We need Nathan. We need to quit whatever we’re doing and sit down . . .” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 157-164, bold mine.)

My body was my prophetic interference. Like Nathan it was confronting me. Like Balaam’s donkey, it was lying down in the road and refusing to go on, seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the path where I was trying to drive myself onward, too blind or too stubborn or proud to see him.

“When David sat down before God, it was the farthest thing from passivity or resignation; it was prayer. It was entering into the presence of God, becoming aware of God’s word, trading in his plans for God’s plans, letting his enthusiasm for being a king with the authority and strength to do something for God be replaced with the willingness to become a king who would represent truly the sovereignty of God the high King.” (164)

And then, a page later, Peterson writes these words about David’s response to God. I’ve underlined them in my journal.

“And courage it does take, immense courage, to relinquish control, to resign our so recently acquired prestigious positions, to ‘quit our jobs’ and simply to sit at Jesus’ feet.” (165)

God was guiding me as I’d asked, and affirming me at the same time, assuring me that once again he was calling, and that the willingness to let the role go was not failure but courage and obedience. He was turning things right-side-up again, reminding me, as he would remind me many more times, that he was God and I was not—and that he loved me.

“David sat down;” Peterson writes, and “the real action started: not David making God a house but God making David a house.” (165)

We are given small parts to play. We get to hammer in a few nails, a four-year-old working alongside his father. Peter takes the metaphor in a different direction, going so far as to say that we get to be part of the house—and the stones that make up the walls are clearly not able or responsible to put themselves in their right places to make a sound and solid house (1 Peter 2:4-10).

God is the one who builds us a home. It was God who created the world and placed us in it, our home for time, and it is Jesus who is preparing a place for us, our home for eternity (John 14:1-3). We can’t build God’s kingdom; that’s why we pray for Him to do it (Matt 6:9-10). And He is building it, and welcoming us into it—and will even someday hand it over to us, a rich gift of a safe and beautiful home forever and ever (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27; Luke 12:32).

But the news is better still. Since before God brought us into being, He has been making a home for us not just out there somewhere, in earth or in heaven, but in Himself, in that truest and safest of places, that loving heart at the centre of reality for which we were made and where we will always belong. Here our small, loved selves can rest.

“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)