Reason to celebrate

“Pause here. Listen. Look.”

Last week I wrote of the unexpected benches in our lives inviting us to pause and really look before hurrying on. This week transition has been one of those benches, and as I’ve accepted its invitation, the view has been well worth the look.

A few weeks ago, after a mere eight years, I finally finished a degree at Regent College. One might have thought I’d be dancing all the way across the stage at graduation. In truth, I didn’t feel much—maybe because I’ve graduated more than once before. Or because I’m more aware than ever that I’m not really a master of anything. Or because, increasingly, I find my comfort and joy in simply being loved in my smallness. Maybe the uncertainty that always comes with endings and beginnings was stealing my attention. But as I accepted the invitation of the bench this week, I realized that if I look more deeply than the signed and sealed paper in my hand, there are gifts from my time at Regent that awaken celebration in me. This reminder tops the list:

The journey may not look the way I expect, but I can trust God to get me where I need to go, and to fulfill my deepest longings in the process.

I came to Regent hoping to learn to read the Bible in the original languages. I took a year of Hebrew and a year of Greek. I loved both. But I discovered that I had to be writing, and studying Biblical languages turned out to be all-consuming. So I changed tracks. And as I sat on the bench and looked back, I realized: my hope to read the Bible fluently in the original languages wasn’t fulfilled, but my deeper longing, the one that was driving that desire, was met. I wanted to learn Biblical languages because I wanted to hear God’s heartbeat more clearly. Turned out God knew that, for me, a different path would bring me closer to that goal, and he led me by that route.

I came to Regent hoping to study under Darrell Johnson. Shortly before I arrived, I learned that he was leaving. Turned out he was leaving in order to pastor a church, so instead of taking a course or two from him, I was able to sit under his preaching most weeks for five years, the truth of Jesus slowly working on the stony places in my heart, deepening the path for His life to flow in me.

I came to Regent looking forward to enjoying the rich multi-ethnic community. I never had the energy to make it to a Regent Retreat or a Taste of the World. But God knew whose friendship would be a rich gift for me (and, I hope, mine for them) and seated one new friend next to me in Greek class, put another in my Vocation of the Artist seminar, and several more with me in a Tuesday noon community group where we connected over soup. Those friendships are now some of my closest, and a means through which God is continuing the deepening process.

Often we’re asked to live in the uncomfortable middle where we don’t yet see how the details of our stories reach resolution. As we live in that middle, the times we are given the grace to look back and see God’s faithfulness are gifts, fuel for further faith as we rise from the bench and continue our journey. Gifts, and invitations: Will I trust that even if the route God takes me on looks different than the one I might have planned or chosen, God is taking me by that route because He loves me and wants to meet the deepest desires of my heart with the best He has to offer—Himself?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8-9

An unlikely invitation

At first when we came upon the rough boards nailed between scraggly pines off to the side of the mountain trail, we wondered why they were there. Had someone tacked them up to frame a lean-to? “Nice place to sleep,” I mused, “up away from the town in the quiet, though a little too close to the edge for my comfort.”

We walked past the mystery boards and came around to the other side. A third board had been placed horizontally beneath the other two. A bench! A gift from someone who had gone before, inviting, “Pause here. Turn and look from this angle. Don’t miss the beauty in this place.”

We sat.

We savored.

Ever since I’ve been wondering: how often do I fail to recognize the rough-hewn benches in life as invitations to pause and savor beauty and truth? How often am I so consumed with critiquing the bench that I fail to turn and look at the beauty beyond?

Sometimes the benches show up in my life disguised as illness, a traffic jam, a long line at the checkout. “Pause here. Listen. Look.”

Lately I’ve been reminded that even fear might be one of these unlikely, well-camouflaged benches.

My instinct is to see fear as something to be quickly fixed: nails pulled, unsightly boards carted away. I can become so preoccupied with dismantling the bench that I miss its invitation.

But if each time I feel niggling anxious fear I receive it as an invitation to slow and turn and look, I can see beauty in many directions:

I can look back and count the ways Jesus has been faithful.

I can look around and remember that this moment is a gift from the One who loves me, and savor it.

I can look outward and consider that the world I can’t see with my eyes is alive and active and at work in the world that I can see.

And I can look inward and remember that the One who created the universe lives in me and promises never to leave.

It’s a tall bench—a bit hard to climb up on, but once its invitation to sit and rest and savor is accepted, I soon find myself swinging my legs like the beloved child that I am.

Loved in our frailty

I’ve just returned from ten days in the Rockies—ten days of feeling small. Majestic mountains towered over the towns where we stayed and lined both sides of the highway. A road was closed because of an avalanche.

I loved the mountains, loved running up the mountain trails in the early morning and discovering the vista at the top. But as much as I’ve thought and written about smallness, there were moments on this trip when the exterior landscape imaging my interior one left me unsettled by my smallness.

The trip took place just after graduation. I’ve been slowly working away at my Master’s for eight years—the last few of those spent writing a book. I’ve learned many things, chief among which is my smallness, and my lovedness in my smallness. And now? This is where that learning gets tested, here where I step out of studies and into the real world. Here is the place for trust, here where I face the world and feel my smallness and vulnerability. Sometimes, to be honest, it’s terrifying.

But as I settled into my window seat yesterday on the flight home and let my heart and mind run back over the trip, I realized something important: my fear was not the result of facing my smallness, but of forgetting that I’m cherished and tended in my smallness. Fear accompanies not the mere awareness of smallness, but the attempt to carry responsibility meant for Someone bigger.

The plane rose through the clouds, the wind shaking our small plane and reinforcing my sense of smallness.

In this world that so often equates bigger with better, it’s not hard to equate smallness with insignificance. Small is frail, small is vulnerable, therefore small is insecure and out of control and scary and to be avoided or upgraded or supersized. But as I panned back over the trip, two moments stood out, inviting me into a truer view of my smallness.

The first came when we climbed the stairs at the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site. At each landing, we leaned over the railings and peered into the pools and streams, searching for the apple-seed sized Banff Springs Snails that now survive only in this one place in the world. Each time we were disappointed.

And then, at the final stop, we saw them clinging to dead leaves and bits of wood in a partly shaded pool. The joy I felt was more than the joy of finding something we’d been searching for. For a moment the curtain lifted and I sensed myself on holy ground, feeling for an instant the worth of these tiny creatures. Their smallness and vulnerability didn’t negate their significance; it made them candidates for special attention and care.

 

The second invitation into a truer view of smallness came through an encounter with an elk. Two consecutive days we saw her on our morning walk as she lingered in the same patch of woods, separate from the herd and moving slowly. She lifted her head to look at us but didn’t run away. Was she old? Sick? But she looked too plump to be ailing.

Then we learned that when the time of their delivery nears, mama elk leave the herd. The third day we did not see her. Was she in labor? Had her calf been born? We’d been running on that trail because the trail on the other side of town was closed while a grizzly feasted on the carcass of an elk. Would this mama and her calf survive this vulnerable time of their lives?

And then I remembered God questioning Job as Job wrestled with his own vulnerability:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?

Do you count the months till they bear?

Do you know the time they give birth?

They crouch down and bring forth their young;

Their labor pains are ended.

Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;

They leave and do not return.” (Job 39:1-4)

Comfort is found not in overcoming our smallness, but in knowing the One who sees and tends us in our smallness.

Tiny snails, big elk, and we humans in between—all as frail and vulnerable as wildflowers that bloom for a day or two and then wither (Isaiah 40:6-7).

And all of us loved and tended in our frailty (Psalm 104).

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Photos #1, 3, and 6 by Marny Watts.

On the other side of the cross: the grace that carries you forever

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has wound its way through Lent, summoning me to surrender to love in all sorts of ways. But it’s in one moment on Good Friday that I experience the magnitude of this grace most clearly.

For a moment on Friday morning as I read John 19 I am his mother, watching him hang on the cross, hearing him speak to me, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to his best friend standing beside me, “Here is your mother.”

I want to protest, “Forget about me! Look at you! You are scarcely able to breathe for the pain, the weight of your own body suffocating you!” I’m wringing my hands now. “Oh, how can I help?” It’s all so backwards, so upside-down. Surely this moment at least, this moment of his suffering and death, should be about him, about me caring for him.

But, no. Here on this day when the world is coming to an end, when my heart is hanging there with him on the cross, he tells me that my needs matter. Even here.

This love is too big. I can hardly breathe. I watch him rise again, pressing his feet against the stakes to gulp another lungful of air, and as I watch, I realize:

It’s not “even.” It’s “especially.” Especially here on the cross my needs matter.

That’s why he’s on the cross at all—because I matter to him. Because my needs matter to him more, even, than his own life.

This is the wild, crazy, ridiculously extravagant love that dies to meet my needs for healing, forgiveness, and a certain knowledge that I am forever loved. And this is the love that rises again, carrying me with him into the present, the future, always enfolded in this strong and gentle love that is enough for every need.

Someone sends me Flora Slosson Wuellner’s meditation and I find myself pausing over every line, noticing how the risen, living Christ is with me on the other side of the cross, still carefully tending every need within me and loving me into strength and wholeness.

“The risen, living Christ

calls me by my name;

comes to the loneliness within me;

heals that which is wounded in me;

comforts that which grieves in me;

seeks for that which is lost within me;

releases me from that which has dominion over me;

cleanses me of that which does not belong to me;

renews that which feels drained within me;

awakens that which is asleep in me;

names that which is formless within me;

empowers that which is newborn within me;

consecrates and guides that which is strong within me;

restores me to this world which needs me;

reaches out in endless love to others through me.”

~Flora Slosson Wuellner
, in Prayer, Fear, and Our Powers, Upper Room Books, 1989.

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I’ll be away from the blog for the next few weeks, first for the next intensive week of classes in my journey deeper into listening and helping others listen, and then for a couple of weeks of rest and celebration with family. As this new season of resurrection life begins, may you know Jesus loving you in each place of longing and need, and I look forward to listening with you again here soon!

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Paintings by Patricia Herrerra.

Why I mourn the cross this year—and why Jesus doesn’t

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Lent, and especially this week between Palm Sunday and the cross, sometimes feels to me unbearably heavy. The one I love is walking to the cross—because of my sin. How can I bear to watch? How can I bear not to? I want to be with him. It hurts to be. I feel so helpless. So guilty. So ashamed.

But when I look from the cross to the face of the one on it, I see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.

I look away, unable to bear the love that is breaking me open. I have to look back, to see if he is still looking at me. He is. Still looking, still loving me, his eyes teaching me what he wants my heart to know: I am worth it. 

The strong shadow of the cross stands behind what seem to me the most beautiful words in the Bible, calling me to speak them as my own: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) Jesus went to the cross as Saviour, as obedient Son of his Father. He also went as Lover. Groom. Soon-to-be husband.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:25-27)

In this week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind. The two parables He told about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding were both told in this week leading up to the cross. (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13)

Even the Sadducees frame their trick question concerning the resurrection in light of marriage. Jesus replies, “Don’t you get it, guys? After the resurrection, people don’t marry each other.” One wonders if he isn’t thinking, “. . . because you get to marry me,” when he follows their conversation with the declaration that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30)

I’ve not eaten a meal with friends knowing it was my last before leaving the world. But even final meals before moving across the world are, for me, difficult affairs. Full of aching and sadness. Certainly not something I “eagerly desire.” I think Jesus could only say “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” because He was looking past the cross to the consummation. “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:15-16)

The last conversation Jesus had with his friends was framed by His desire for union. It started with words straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony:

“. . . I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)

It finished with a prayed expression of this same deep longing,

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. . .” (John 17:24)

The cross is where Jesus proves his (un)dying love, His eternal commitment.

This is where he makes us His forever, strikes from our wedding vows “‘til death do us part.”

Here he removes our rags and clothes us in the fine white dress of his own making – of his own being – preparing us to be His bride.

We are so close, here, to his heart. So near to the wedding banquet and the intimacy that follows. Here at the cross, he does everything needed to make us his. Here he offers himself to us in that most vulnerable of conditions, utterly exposed, stripped not only of clothes but of all that we would consider beauty or basic human dignity. Stripped so that the naked glory of His blinding, sight-giving love could be visible. And he waits, the waiting itself the most vulnerable of postures. Waiting for us to look and, in the seeing, to learn to trust his love.

It is four years since I first saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross. That year, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? But this year? This year I hurt because I love him and I don’t want him to hurt. I don’t want to be the one to make him hurt. I mourn his pain. I mourn my sin that caused that pain. I grieve that I can’t help him in his pain—the pain he is suffering for love of me.

I look, and even as I hurt, I love him for every word, every action, every minute of his surrender to suffering that speaks such love. I love every detail about him that declares it done, me made perfect, made his. His eyes reach to me, telling me that he has never questioned whether all the pain was worth it. It was.

The long-spoken words echo through his silent surrender to the flogging: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” Beneath his cry, “It is finished,” I hear his now true declaration, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” With the tearing of the curtain, the final destruction of all that divides, He cries for my response, “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my flawless one. . . Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (Song of Songs 4:9, 7; 5:2; 2:10)