Six of us from my soulcare group were gathered with a table in our midst. The person leading the reflection that night had decided to do something different. She had spread on the table a selection of fifteen or so different photos from her recent pilgrimage—a slightly open door with a shaft of light entering, a path with a cross at the end, a stained glass window. She asked us each to select a photo that touched us emotionally, either attracting us or repelling us, and then led us through a series of questions, helping us pay attention to why the photo was touching us and how God might be wanting to speak to us through it.
I struggled to choose a photo. I wanted the blue and mauve and gold stained glass that showed God the Father upholding his Son on the cross. I tried to choose that one. But as my friend started to ask the questions, I realized I had to put that one back on the table and pick up instead the plain one with the long and winding path. The dusty, boring one with only a few greyed colors in the whole image.
It was the night before my first appointment in a new complex chronic diseases clinic, and the realities of my illness were more on my mind than I often allow them to be. I didn’t want them to be stealing my focus, but sometimes sadness is there and when it is, it’s best to be honest about it. Not that I find that easy. I’d found myself wanting to pull away that evening, to stay home and avoid the vulnerability of the group. It was only as we were sharing what was going on in us over a meal that I’d realized why it had been so hard for me to come: I was afraid that if I was honest about struggling with the same issues again, or didn’t have energy to keep up my part of the relationship equally, that even those close to me would get tired and leave.
My head knows better. One of the great gifts of this group is the space for us all to be honest about our struggles and walk with each other through them. My heart still sometimes fears. I don’t like that. I want to be able to fix my heart, to have perfect trust, and not ten years from now but today. Or, preferably, yesterday.
But though, by God’s grace, we do change, that work is slow. As my spiritual director often says, “Soul work is slow work.” And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need to be reminded again and again that the goal of our journey is far less about reaching perfection (particularly the way my frightened part defines it, as getting rid of my same old struggles, never messing up, and generally being able to be the strong one, the one helping others) and far more about increasingly opening to love and learning humility and both receiving and offering vulnerability and grace.
And if the goal isn’t so much about arriving as about learning to know the One with whom we walk, maybe that long and winding route is the shortest path. It’s there in the weary days that we discover God’s faithful gentleness in the journey.
I see this in Israel’s journey:
“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”
Sometimes we’re ambivalent about freedom. We need the longer winding path to experience God’s faithful presence and provision again and again before we can trust enough to step into the freedom God offers. As it was with Israel, the winding path may be part of God’s gentleness and commitment to working within our limitations and making it easy enough for us that we don’t turn back in terror.
And sometimes God is slow to heal struggles because if he removed them all at once, they’d be replaced by something worse. Paul’s thorn kept him from pride (2 Cor 12:7). The persistence of the other tribes in the promised land kept the land from being overrun by thistles and wild animals:
"I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hives, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you."
The longer route can allow us to grow in ways we need to grow in order to receive the gifts waiting for us.
That night of our soulcare group meeting, I needed to be honest with God, myself, and my friends about my sadness and fear. I needed to sit with the picture I didn’t want and be on the part of the path that felt the same as last month and the month before and that stretched into the distance with no change in sight. And there was grace in that—the healing grace of tears, and of recognizing again that more than I want a stained glass life I want to walk close with Jesus. There was the grace of being reminded that even if I can’t see the end, the path does lead somewhere beautiful and even if this particular snapshot shows only this winding path, it’s only one small snapshot amidst all the other bits and pieces that make up this life and the infinite life to come.
And there was the grace of being allowed to bring home the stained glass photo as well and sit with it and remember that more than anyone else ever could, Jesus understands. And that even when fear or loneliness or something else is snapping at our feet, and even when we can't see God, He is present, quietly upholding us in gentle and powerful love.
Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission.
Lately I’ve found myself returning again and again to the first few chapters of 2 Corinthians for the perspective and comfort offered here. In just a few pages, Paul offers insight into so many key questions:
- How does God feel toward us in our suffering? (1:1-11)
- How can we be confident without being proud? (3:1-6)
- And how do we proceed when a door is open for ministry but we don’t feel peace? Why? (2:12-14)
This week it’s that last question that has held a gift for me.
Here’s how Paul shares his own experience:
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.
(2 Corinthians 2:12-13)
It's quite striking to me that Paul can say "The Lord had opened a door for me" and "I left" and not offer more of an explanation. If I was the one writing, I would have felt obliged to clarify my intent. Was I offering the situation to my readers as an example to be followed—that if God opens a door and we don’t have peace, we should follow our emotions? Was I saying, “I didn’t do things the best way here but it’s okay because. . .”?
But Paul doesn’t say either of these explicitly. He just offers the facts as he sees them:
- God had opened a door for him to preach the gospel.
- He had no peace because he was worried about a missing co-worker.
- In the midst of this tension, he chose to leave and go looking for the co-worker rather than walking through the open door.
And Paul seems fine to leave it there, not needing to analyze or agonize or explain because he is confident that wherever he goes, God is with him and in him and flowing through him.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.
(2 Corinthians 2:14)
Yes, we prayerfully and carefully look at all the aspects of the situation. An open door is a precious opportunity not to be taken for granted. So is peace of mind. There are whole helpful books written about how to navigate this tension. (Hint: peace matters).
But this week the gift for me was this simple reminder: There is a spaciousness and freedom in this place where God's work and ours overlap. As we prayerfully listen and choose as best we can, we can rest in the truth that God's presence is limitless and his loving work in the world is vast. Wherever we end up, God is with us and in us, and can through us spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ.
Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word.
And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it.
Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.
The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection.
Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.
But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love.
Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.
But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.
This kind of "my burden is light" expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.”
I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I'm only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.
I'm not responsible for an outcome, another person's response. I'm just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.
“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.”
Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good.
Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God's love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.
A row of Canadian flags decked a portion of my bike route this morning, marking the route for a 5k Canada Day Fun Run. Since my years in Afghanistan, I can’t see a Canadian flag without feeling a tenderness and a deep gratitude—I get to live here! This is my home! How was I so blessed to be born in a country where, for the most part, we’re free and safe when so many millions haven’t been given that gift?
I hold my Canadian citizenship with deep gratitude. And yet, as I’ve been reading James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom, I’m reminded once again that my truer, deeper citizenship lies elsewhere. None of us are born into the kingdom of God, yet we are all invited to come home, to belong in that new country where we find true, unshakeable freedom, and love, hope and joy.
To be sure, there is a cost. Receiving the full benefits of life as a citizen of that country requires giving up our right to rule ourselves. And yet, as Smith writes, “The yes of surrender is greater than the no of self-denial. What is gained is far greater than what is lost” (p. 16). He quotes Dallas Willard,
“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10)."
I’ve been flipping back and forth through the book, looking at all the lines I’ve marked and starred, trying to choose which bits to share with you. Will I talk about what Smith says is “the essence of the magnificent journey of living as a Christ-follower: turn to Jesus and expect Jesus to act” (p. 26)? Or discuss what he means by “living from above,” or share his wisdom around listening to God? The chapters on relaxing into faith, embracing hope, and discovering a deeper joy have their own share of stars.
I’m delighted to find a chapter arguing that God’s love is not only agape, but includes and encompasses all of the forms of love—affectionate mother-child love, friend love, and romantic love—and this reminder is where I finally settle. God not only loves us in a selfless, providing sort of way. He likes us.
“What if God loved us not only with agape love but also with storge, phileo, and dare I say, eros? . . . Theologian Emily Brunner, whose work I greatly admire, disagrees with me. He wrote, ‘If he [God] loves, his love is not eros but agape. He loves because he wants to give not to get. . . . We, as sinners, are not lovable to him.’ I beg to differ. I realize this is challenging to the shaming story so many Christians believe, the one that hinges on our being rotten to the core and therefore, as Brunner believes, ‘not lovable’ to God.
I am not denying my sinfulness, my ugliness, or my selfishness (as established in the opening story). We are all in this condition. [And yet in John 15:15 Jesus calls us friends, and] friends are friends because they like each other. There is something they find lovely in their friend. I don’t think Jesus was being sarcastic, as if he were actually saying, ‘I know friendship is built on really liking someone and wanting to be with them because you enjoy them. But you guys are lousy and awful, and I don’t enjoy being with you. Still, let’s be friends!’”
We need more than provision, more than the kind of love defined by Dallas Willard, “To love is to will and to act for the good of another” (cited on p. 117). As Smith says, “I need agape love. I need to be cared for, provided for. But I also need others to say to me, ‘How good it is that you exist. And I need to feel the same way about myself” (p. 117-8).
Thankfully, there is a place where we're told precisely that, and we’re continually invited to journey deeper in, into this kingdom, this heart of God where we’re not only loved but delighted in.
Sing to God a brand-new song,
praise him in the company of all who love him. . .
And why? Because God delights in his people. . .
(Ps 149:1,4 The Message)
The Saint John's Wort is blooming again, a feast for bees and for the eyes of passersby. In living its ordinary life, faithfully being itself, it becomes a gift to many.
We need each other. Often enough, the way someone else says or writes something awakens me to a new understanding of something going on in me that I wasn’t aware of or couldn’t articulate until they said it. This week was someone's simple statement of a misbelief in their earlier life—“Ordinary: BAD!”
I get it. Maybe that’s part of why I became a doctor and worked in Afghanistan until I couldn’t anymore. I thought I had to be extraordinary to be acceptable.
Ordinary can feel to me like failure.
Let me pause here to say this: For the most part, I like doing things well. I want to be the best me I can be, empowered by Christ, for him and for others. I want to follow the command in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. . .” I think that's healthy.
In my better moments, I also recognize that trying to be extraordinary can actually keep me from working “with all my heart, as working for the Lord”—because I’m pretty sure that “with all my heart” means fully present, engaged, loving, which I’m not when I’m striving to be extraordinary. (In the original Greek, the phrase translated “with all your heart” is “from the soul.”)
“Ordinary: BAD!” As I read that simple misbelief that has been unknowingly twined through my understanding of life and work and also faith, I see a baby in a manger.
Could God have chosen a more ordinary way to come among us, stepping right into our ordinary flesh, our ordinary time, our ordinary cycles of reproduction and growth, limits and dependency and relationships?
In doing so, did he not make the ordinary holy, declaring it a place where God shows up?
“Ordinary: GOOD!” Very good, even.
Since God entered the ordinary, is anything ordinary anymore?
I need this reminder.
I need it in the moments when I’m cleaning the bathroom and buying groceries.
And in the moments I’m sad or lonely or disappointed, or slowing to savour the taste of an orange.
I need it when I'm editing a paragraph and I need it as we begin summer and I want to sit outside and relax with a novel.
God is with us—in us!—right in the middle of the not-so-ordinary ordinary.
"It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us."
(2 Cor 4:6-7 The Message)
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”
(Rom 12:1 The Message)
A couple of my friends are walking the Camino de Santiago, setting aside these weeks to step away from life’s noise and busyness and seek God in a more intentional way.
Though I can’t walk with them, in a small way I’m making my own pilgrimage as I follow in photos.
There are days of rain and days when the sky is still. . .
days when the invitation is to keep putting one foot in front of the other . . .
and moments of surprise when the light shimmers through stained glass in the tiniest of churches.
There are castles and huts and chapels perched in the most unlikely places.
And even, sometimes, an invitation to take off your shoes and rest.
At the moment, my pilgrimage is simpler, more familiar. I walk the same routes again and again, lay my head in the same bed each night. But still there are moments of encounter.
The poppies that have been bringing joy along my bike route for weeks have been joined by a mist of tiny yellow and white blossoms that makes my heart ache with the beauty.
A fellow traveller carrying his bed in bags asks if I know an appropriate place he can pee and I see again that we're all human, all equal, all fearfully and wonderfully made with the same basic needs and desires and beauty.
Instead of stained glass, the light shines, multicolored, through a glimpse of grace in the life of one with whom I sit and listen.
And as I make my own pilgrimage, seeing my own moments here in parallel with her photos, I notice this:
A pilgrimage is less about where we walk than Who we walk with and what we pay attention to.
And this: It all belongs. The rain keeps the grass green. The days of faithfully putting one foot in front of the other lead to the moments of stained-glass splendor, which shine more brightly for having walked the plainer section.
And it is beautiful.
Because no matter where we are, no matter what our path is like, we do not walk it alone.
As we make a pilgrimage of this life, seeking God in our days, we soon discover that God is right there beside us, walking with us through the rainy stretches and the calm and sunny ones—and that our lives have become roads He travels.
"And how blessed all those in whom you [,God,] live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion!"
(Psalm 84:5-7 The Message)
"I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going."
(Psalm 139:5 The Message)
"Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God."
(1 Peter 1:17b The Message)
Want more? Here's a free course with practices to help anxiety shift from a barrier to one of the paths on which God walks into our lives. And here's one offering space to help you settle a little more deeply into God's gracious invitation to rest.
Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission. (Thanks, Karen!)