I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”
I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!
So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?
The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.
Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.
I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.
I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I'd rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I'd prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.
As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers.
I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: "Where did you go?" In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, "A bother," "A drain," "Alone."
After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?" Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, "How might you want him to be with you in this?”
The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus' body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.
This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.
And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl's instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.
As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus' arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I'd made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus' arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus' arms.
It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.
Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I'm being invited to speak Jesus' words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.
As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:
“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."
Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)
I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It's so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control.
“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.
Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.
As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me.
Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits.
What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?
A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That's not just a different story, it's a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.
Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I'd love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it's the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.
In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year when coloured pencils and binders are on sale, the nights are starting to cool, and the picnic basket has been traded in for school bags or briefcases. There's excitement in the air—the goodness of beginning fresh—and sometimes also a bit of heaviness as we leave summer behind and enter the season ahead.
When change is in the air, I need to pause and look back before moving forward. What do I want to take with me? What will I choose to leave behind?
As we begin this season, I’m holding close the memory of a day last week, turning it over and exploring what it tells me about the God who is going before me and with me into the fall.
I was staying with friends for a few days. I’ve never considered myself a visual artist (particularly since the teacher in our mandatory grade ten art class informed me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.”) But I’m drawn to beauty and color, and my friend, Linda, a watercolor artist, was helping me learn to play with paint. Together we gathered leaves and ferns and grasses and arranged them in wet paint, allowing the beauty of their forms to pattern the page and delighting in the surprise of how the colors merged and mingled.
One afternoon, we set aside the paint and went to walk a nearby trail.
Dragonflies hummed by, and I tried repeatedly to catch their image with my camera, eventually whispering the longing in my heart, “Oh, God, even from a distance they’re so beautiful. Could you bring one close enough that I can really look at it?”
But they were too quick and eventually I had to stop trying to grasp a gift that wasn’t being given and get on with receiving the gifts that were being given that day.
The following morning, Linda went out to get the mail. There, by her feet, was a perfectly formed dragonfly. His brief lifespan had ended, and the God who knows each sparrow that falls evidently keeps track of dragonflies too, letting this one bring Him glory even in his death.
As I sat and looked and worshiped the Creator, turning his tiny creature around and around in the light of the new day, I pictured God smiling as he’d received my prayer the previous day and planned the surprise for the following day, whispering, “That gift is for tomorrow.”
I can be tempted to feel like the gifts of vacation are for a few days or weeks only, and to feel sad or heavy as I leave vacation behind. It is true, particular gifts are for particular days. But the heart from which they come does not change, and each day holds new gifts.
"The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning."
Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT
We move into this new season preceded and accompanied by the God who has created us and the world around us—the dragonfly’s compound eyes, the fine hairs on its back, the lace of its wings—and who delights to show us his love in the details of our daily lives.
May we be given eyes wide to see God's goodness, and hearts open to delight in Him as we begin this new season with Him.
A week or so ago, I received an invitation to speak. The topic I was given was “God’s heartbeat.” My first breathless thought was, “What a huge topic! How could I dare to address that?”
Then I remembered I write a blog called Hearing The Heartbeat.
Somehow it feels different. The blog is part of my attempt to pay attention, a weekly glimpse into some tiny corner of the way Mystery and Grace and Love intersect with my small life. It’s an aid to listening, not a presumption that I am an expert on the beat of God’s heart. And it's an offering to you in the prayerful hope that it will also help you glimpse places God's heartbeat echoes through your own life.
But as I sit with the topic I was given and my awe around it, I am brought face to face once again with the incredible truth: The God who created neutrons and black holes, bacteria and butterflies and elephants, the gentle curve of our ears and the intricate electrical system that keeps our own hearts beating wants us to hear His heartbeat!
He has designed each of our senses not only to help us know and communicate with each other, but to know and communicate with Him.
Without the eye's rods and cones, the optic nerve and the visual cortex of the brain, we wouldn’t be able to see the way God’s love overflows far beyond necessary sustenance into the extravagance of turquoise water and cotton-ball clouds and variegated impatiens.
Without the cochlea and the hammer and anvil of the ear, we wouldn’t hear God’s limitless creativity and kindness in birdsong or a Mozart concerto or a baby’s belly laugh.
We receive and share something of God’s protective, compassionate love through the sensors in our skin as a newborn curls her tiny fingers around our larger ones.
All of that is built right into us, our whole selves woven together that we might hear God’s heartbeat.
You’d think blue layered mountains and the wings of a hummingbird would send a pretty clear message of power and creativity and of love—He placed us here to live!—but even eyes that score 20/20 can be sightless when it comes to Love. And so God sent prophets to speak and poets to sing and finally came himself in human form, placing Himself still more directly within the reach of all of our senses (1 John 1:1).
He met his disciples not only through their eyes and ears but also, as he baked bread for them over hot coals, drew on that sense that has the strongest link to emotion and memory—smell. And he met the leper with the sense that best says, “You are accepted”—touch.
He wants us to know His heartbeat!
And He promises we will.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.”
John 10:27, NIV
"No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him—
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit."
1 Corinthians 2:9-10
The promise that we'll hear God's voice and his heartbeat is not a promise for an exclusive few, but for all who are His (1 John 2:20-21, 27).
As we look and listen and touch and sniff the beauty around us through which God speaks, as we read the stories of Jesus and listen to His whispers within us, what do we discover? What is God’s heartbeat that he is so eager for us to hear? Well, of course, it’s as rich and full of harmonies and harmonics as one might expect of a God like this, but if one had to describe its core in a single word, what might that word be? Here's a hint, or three:
"God told them, 'I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!'"
Jer 31:3 The Message
"I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us."
Romans 8:39-39 The Message
"And I ask [God] that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God."
Ephesians 3:17-19 The Message
I'm off to enjoy some time resting and celebrating and soaking with my family in God's love over these next few weeks. (Talking about love, we'll be celebrating my parents' 50th wedding anniversary!)
I'll see you back here in September. Until then, may we all be given eyes and ears and hearts open to God's love, and may God help us to settle a little deeper into his love.
“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love."
John 15:9, The Message
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.