I ride my bike a different route this morning. The sky is grey and the first large drops land on my face. It’s warm and I’ve opened my jacket and the wind whips the corners behind me like wings. I notice all these things. But what I notice the most—what I savor this morning—is the flowers along the route. Rhododendrons in red and violet and yellow, neatly trimmed in front of sedate brick homes. Delicate Queen Anne’s lace thick along the path, wild rose bushes scenting the air and thorny gorse waking me up with its brilliant yellow flowers. Tall stalks of white and blue flowers that I recognize but can’t name.
But it’s the poppies that entice me to circle back and ride a particular strip again. I know poppies well, of course. They’re the flower that we pin to our coats in November, a reminder of Flander’s field and the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom and peace and rest.
I've also lived beside fields of red opium poppies, passing them each morning on the way to the hospital in our little corner of Afghanistan. Those farmers were seeking rest too—rest from the anxiety of not knowing how they’d feed their family through the next winter. And the parents who gave their crying babies milk from the opium plant were also seeking rest, some moments of peace for their frayed nerves.
Poppies elicit in me a whole range of emotions. Sadness, mostly, for all of us who seek rest and find some temporary form of it, maybe, but at far greater cost than we could imagine.
The poppies today say something different, though. I’ve never seen so many colors of poppies all mingled together in just a few feet of ground. Deep velvety red and saucy orange red and bright Halloween orange ones. Coral poppies with double petals, baby pink ones and dainty white ones edged with a subtle pink rim. Bright pink ones the color of a girl’s running shoes. Some are wide open and some still curled.
These poppies, too, speak of rest, but it’s not the rest of struggle and sacrifice, worn-out grief and sedated pain, but the rest of freedom and life and joy, of being loved and being themselves and dancing in the breeze. They welcome me, draw me in, inviting me, too, to come as I am and open wide and sing with them of the delight of being loved and the lightness of letting go of burdens not meant for me.
I’ve been soaking, lately, in Matthew 11:28-30, and these poppies feel to me like the visual version of that invitation. “Come to me,” Jesus calls through them, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says it a different way a few chapters earlier, “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Look at the flowers. They don’t fuss about dressing to impress, and have you ever seen anyone dressed as beautifully as they are? Don’t you remember, I’ve committed to care for you?” (Matthew 6:28-30 my paraphrase).
I step into the invitation and on into my day, walking more lightly.
If you'd like to soak a little more deeply in Jesus' invitation to come to him and find rest, I've created a free five-day contemplative email course offering space to listen to Jesus' invitation and step into it. Each day, we'll ponder a phrase from Matthew 11:28-30 and explore a question or prayer practice to help us receive the rest that Jesus offers. You can sign up for the course here. (If you signed up last week, the first email should be in your inbox in the next half-hour.)
Related posts (because Jesus has spoken to me through poppies more than once!):
Last year, for the first time, I had a little balcony. I tucked four small Impatiens plants into each long planter and watched as they quickly spread and poured over the edges, framing my space with a cascade of color. I didn't know where their name came from, but watching them grow, it seemed to fit. They seemed hungry for life, for growth, eager to escape the bounds of the container in which they were planted and fill the space with beauty.
I've since learned that the Impatiens walleriana in my little garden share a genus with touch-me-nots and take their name from the seed capsules which burst vigorously, spewing seeds up to several meters.
This year, for the first time, I'm growing my own Impatiens from seed, and as I watch them slowly unfurl into new life, I'm being given a broader perspective.
Even in ideal and identical situations, we all unfurl at different rates.
Six of the thirty-six seeds I planted were the first to sprout, a tiny shoot, then two green leaves.
For days, maybe a week or more, I saw only those six. I’d almost given up on the others. If I’d had more seeds, I might have replanted.
Now fourteen more shoots have pierced the earth, a few at a time, and I’ve regained hope for the sixteen seeds that haven’t yet come to life.
They’re all in the same soil, receiving the same sun, same temperature, same water. I don’t understand. A friend tells me it’s always like this—that they always appear in batches. She’s never managed to trace them through to their bloom, because by the time of bloom they’ve all caught up, but still she wonders. All her tulips of the same color bloom at the same time. Might the six Impatiens that first woke to the light turn out to be sisters, bearing the same color bloom?
I take a photo of my tiny plants all lined up in their rows to test her theory.
But in the midst of trying to uncurl the mystery and unfurl the science, I pause to listen to the deeper layers:
- the good and healthy urge within me to live fully, to let life flow through me, filling the space around me with beauty.
- the healthy desire to understand, a desire that can be twisted into a compulsive need to predict and control.
- the marvellous grace that reminds me that, in ministry and in my own spiritual life as in gardening, some steps I can understand and predict and even, to some extent, control. Others are known and accomplished by God alone. I plant and water. God makes seeds grow, in His own time.
As this 50-day season of Easter continues, I'm reminded that what seems lifeless may not always be—it just might not yet be time for its unfurling into new life. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, some of my Impatiens seeds a week in the soil, and others two or more weeks before new life appeared, and it has been eleven years since I last assisted a mother to bring new life into the world. This weekend I finally stepped back into a group of doctors, now with not only my long-past medical training, but also my experience of life as a patient, and my training in theology and spiritual direction. Past training that had been long planted in darkness reappeared in a new form, sending up green shoots to offer my fellow doctors.
Soul work is slow work, my spiritual director has reminded me many times. Yes. And within myself as within my garden, some work is mine to do, and some only God can do. He doesn’t always do it according to my schedule (thank God!), but he is at work in each of us who are opening to Him, patiently and persistently bringing to completion his beautiful work in us.
There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
(Philippians 1:6, The Message)
PS. Our church has developed a lovely practice of taking turns sharing a glimpse of God at work in our lives. Yesterday it was my turn, and I shared one of the places I've seen God at work, bringing new life—a different kind of life—out of something that at first didn't seem very hopeful. Curious? Watch below, then scroll down for news about a gift I'm creating for you.
I've been thinking again lately about Jesus' invitation to come and find rest, to learn from him and keep in step with him, and his corresponding promise that as we do so, we'll find his yoke easy and his burden light. I'm turning those ponderings into another free email course for you. (I needed a single word for that sentence so I settled on "course." By "course" I'm referring to a contemplative mini-devotional series that I pray will offer encouragement, help, and peaceful space for those of us seeking to settle a little more deeply into the rest that Jesus offers in the middle of whatever life holds. Phew. See why I needed a single word?) More details to come, but if you're already aching for rest, click here and enter your email address to receive the course as soon as it is released.
Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them?
The question wrote itself in my mind as yesterday's preacher spoke from Acts 2, focussing on the little phrase, ". . . as the Spirit enabled them” (v.4). The Spirit's enabling is the secret to how we can live a life that matters because, as Jesus reminded us, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). The Spirit empowered the gathered disciples to speak coherently in languages they’d never learned, overcoming their natural human limitations.
But just fifteen minutes before the service began, I’d been talking about learning to respect my limitations. Sometimes I still find my limitations frustrating. Often I see them as gifts. (And it's quite possible for them to be both at the same time!) They have made space for me to know that God loves and wants me, not just my work. They help guide me into the work God has for me to do, and to say no to what is not mine to do. And, often, my limitations are what God uses to help me understand and love someone else well in the midst of their own limitations.
So which is it? Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them, giving us grace to live well within them?
As I ponder and pray, I’m realizing three things:
- God’s ways are higher than mine, and just because I can’t tidily explain how two things fit together doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. Take free will and predestination, or Jesus’ complete humanity and divinity. Our minds struggle to hold them together, yet if one is separated from the other, we slip into a belief that is so one-sided it is no longer true.
- When heaven invades earth, it doesn’t obliterate it. Jesus’ divinity didn’t override his humanity. He remained fully human and limited, needing to eat and sleep, becoming weary, and remaining susceptible to the ultimate limitation: death. He wasn’t superhuman so much as the perfect human.
- God doesn’t promise to empower me for everything I want to do, or even everything I think I should be able to do. He will, however, enable me for the work He has prepared for me to do.
For some years I did work I should not have been able to do with my medical condition. Was I walking on water by the Spirit’s enabling, or was I keeping myself from sinking by desperately pulling myself along, hand-over-hand along a high bar, wondering when my arms would give way and I would drop into the water waiting below?
Perhaps some of both.
Definitely a lot of the second.
Limits are a good and important part of our humanity, reminding us of the profound grace that we are not God, and keeping us close to the One who loves us and is able to do what we can’t.
Sometimes God empowers us to do what would otherwise be humanly impossible: speak in languages we haven’t learned, love people we can’t otherwise love, and thrive in situations that seem impossible. Sometimes we’re given the ability, for a moment, to walk on water.
Many other times, God works through our limitations, rather than taking them away. He says to us what he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Slowly I’m learning to recognize when I’m walking on water, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and when I’m pulling myself along above the water in my own strength. One of the markers, I think, is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:28-30 that his yoke is easy and his burden light. If I feel like I’m pulling myself hand-over-hand through my exhaustion, there’s a good chance I am.
There’s hard work which results in weariness but is also marked by peace and joy and hope—signs of the Spirit at work (Gal 5:22-23)—and there’s hard work that just drains away more and more life. Can we allow ourselves, in that place, to let go into Jesus' strong arms, trusting that his strength will catch and hold and help us in my weakness?
Confession time: A few days ago when I began rereading the Gospel of Matthew, I was sorely tempted to skip the opening genealogy. I was hungry for more than a dry list of ancient names and the stories that cling to them. I wanted to hurry on to be with Jesus, to see him touching lepers and welcoming children, to hear him speaking words that press their devastating and healing life into the deepest parts of me. I wanted to get to the exciting part.
But as I began to read the list of old names, I was reminded: We don’t find Jesus by skipping the stories of our ordinary lives, but by going deeper into them. In the miracle of grace, Jesus's story is rooted in ours, and ours in his.
Three days after I began to read Matthew, I’ve only made it through the first six verses. Not because the names are putting me to sleep, but because there’s so much grace packed into that list of names.
Take, for example, verse 5.
Salmon the father of Boaz,
Whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed,
Whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
And Jesse the father of King David.
I find myself in the story with little Boaz, hearing stories of spies and a pile of flax on the roof and a red cord dangling out the window which guaranteed the safety of his mother and her parents and siblings. He would have been told that when two Israelite spies were checking out the best way to conquer his mother's city, she hid them from the king of Jericho who wanted them dead, and in her choice to show them kindness, her own life was spared. Would he have been told the full story of grace—that his mother, back then, was a non-Israelite, and a prostitute?
I've known the drama of the basic story in Joshua 2-6, but I hadn’t thought much beyond the sparing of Rahab's life.
Not only was her life spared, but she was allowed to make her home among the Israelites.
Not only was she allowed to live among the Israelites, but one of them married her. Did Salmon just think her beautiful, or did he recognize the treasure of her courage and conviction that had spared the lives of the spies who were about to destroy her city? Was Salmon himself one of those two spies whose lived she had saved, or had he just heard the stories?
There was a lot Rahab didn’t have to offer. By Israelite standards, she didn’t have the right ethnicity, the right religion, or even the right moral character. And what she didn't have, as well as what she did have, put her in precisely the right position to be able to offer what was needed.
Even her occupation meant that her house was a public place, a tavern or hostel of sorts, where travellers could spend the night, and so the spies found their way to her house.
As she faithfully offered what she had—her courage, convictions, a roof and some flax—the spies’ lives were saved, and then hers, and then ours as she bore the man who would become the great grandfather of King David and continue the line leading to Jesus.
And what she offered was also exactly what was needed to shape the character and imagination of her son, who, with his own mixed ethnicity family history and the valuing of courage and loyalty and life, did exactly what was needed to welcome the courageous, loyal, non-Israelite widow Ruth into the family and together to bear the baby who would grow up to be the grandfather of king David.
I’m preparing to lead two workshops at a Christian doctors’ conference in ten days time. In my better moments I’m hopeful and excited about it. In other moments, insecurities and fears surface. I haven’t practiced medicine for eleven years. Will I still fit in a group of other doctors? Will I be able to connect in ways that allow God’s love and encouragement to flow through me? At its heart is the question that all our hearts ask in one way or another: Am I okay?
But here I find grace: I may not have up to date knowledge of obstetrical guidelines, or experience in the current Canadian political context as it impacts the practice of medicine. I do have a self and a story uniquely crafted by the creative God who just asks me to offer what I have.
So do you.
What I don't have (a current medical practice) has created space for what I do have (among other things, a certainty that God can be trusted in the hard bits of our lives).
What we don't have and who we aren't is part of who we are and how we're perfectly placed to offer our gifts for the specific needs that are ours to meet.
Here’s to letting go of our fears of who we aren’t and what we don’t have, and offering ourselves and our stories to the God who writes a more intriguing and grace-filled plot than we could ever dream.
We know this. We see a scar and want to know the story behind it.
The white scar on a friend’s palm tells where a sharp piece of ice punctured her skin when, as a child, she fell. The red scars on my left knee tell how, as a friend says, “the sidewalk came up and hit me” while I was running last fall.
A scar on a cheek may tell of combat faced and battle survived.
Sometimes people ask about the wide scar that peeks out at the neckline of my shirt. I can read the questions in their eyes. Was it heart surgery? An injury in Afghanistan? I tell them the much less dramatic story of teenage acne, a body that forms keloid scars and a dermatologist who biopsied that scar to make sure it wasn’t anything else. My over-keen body took his well-intended gesture and turned it into a bigger, bolder scar.
The scars Jesus still carries on his resurrected body speak too.
To the first disciples, they said, “This is no hoax. It’s really me, Jesus!”
To me, they say, “You are loved this much!”
They say, “Don’t forget. Nothing can separate you from my love. Not even your sin—see the everlasting proof that it has been removed?"
Jesus' scars speak hope.
They say, “There is life after death. Wholeness can rise out of brokenness. And wholeness doesn’t mean that all sign of the wounds disappear. It means they are no longer wounds, but scars, no longer the constant and limiting center of attention but a quiet reminder of courage and love and life that spring up in places of pain.
Jesus' scars speak truth.
They question the world’s words that beauty must be unscathed and unscarred and young, reminding me instead of the lesson of the Velveteen Rabbit, that in order to become real you have to love and be loved and fall apart a bit. They whisper that all that is worth it to really live.
Jesus’ hands remind me that scars can be beautiful, marks of courage and love, of a life well-lived and a death well-died, of battles fought and won and challenges survived. Scars can be places of life, like a nurse log which, in its own death, offers life to others.
His scars tell me I don’t need to be ashamed of mine. Scars are marks of love—in some cases, maybe, my own small love and the love of Jesus in me that led me to stand up for something that mattered; but always, the love of Jesus for me as he carried me through that challenging time.
They say, too, “No servant is greater than his master. I suffered and you’ll suffer too. But not alone—not if you let me come close in your suffering."
Jesus' scars are a place of hospitality.
They offer paths along which to line up my life, a hiding place, a place of stability and security—a home. They remind me I'm welcome to come as I am, to make my home in his love, to settle down and cling tight and anchor my life to his, for here I am wanted and welcomed and safe.
They say to us all, “I get it. I know the pain of loneliness and rejection, of physical and emotional agony and feeling the heartache is bigger than you can bear. And I am with you. Press your wounds into my scars. Let my love touch your most painful places."
They remind me that, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The deepest pain can become the place of greatest intimacy as we press our wounds into Christ’s and let him turn our wounds into scars. And our scars in turn become places where we can accompany others most deeply and compassionately.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
(2 Cor 1:3-4)
Each scar carries a memory and tells a story.
The weather-worn scars of the huge trunk on the beach whisper of years of being tossed and beaten, cracks formed and crevices shaped and smoothed by sand and waves and time.
Paul’s scars offered irrefutable proof that he was a committed servant of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:17).
Jesus’ scars tell me his story, and where I fit in it. My own scars—in my case the unseen ones more than ones on elbows and knees—fit together with his to tell the other half of our story of life together.
Jesus' scars also question me, asking about my own.
Are they still gaping wounds, or have they healed into scars? How do I think about them, feel about them? Am I ashamed, trying to fill or fix or cover them, or am I opening them to Jesus, letting his love enter and fill and flow through them like water through the scar in a mountainside, turning a wound into a waterfall of grace?
Six years ago, I glimpsed something in the gospels that, ever since, has shaped the way I enter Lent, and particularly this Holy Week we are now walking, the week between Palm Sunday and the cross. Simply put, it is this: In Holy Week, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind.
Now, in the moments when guilt tugs on my heart or shame weighs me down, when I hurt because the One is love is walking to the cross for my sin and I feel helpless and ashamed and sad, I can lift my eyes from the cross to the face of the one on it and see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.
Sometimes, at first, 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.”
The two parables Jesus 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 have been, 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 starts with words taken straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony, words that a Jewish man would speak to his fiancé before leaving her for a while to go and build a room onto his father's house where he could bring her as a new bride and make their home together:
“. . . 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.”
Jesus' last conversation 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. . .”
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.
The first year I saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross, I couldn't mourn, because Jesus wasn't mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? Some other years I've 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.
In those times, 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.
This year, joy is pushing its way to the top again, past shame and mourning and guilt, because I am known, and in that place of being fully known, every bit of my sin and shame felt and taken and finished, I am wanted and chosen and loved, and nothing—nothing in me or around me—now can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There's nothing left to hide or rationalize or pay for, nothing to judge myself for because it has already been judged, and then taken and paid for and forgotten (Ps 103:12; Jer 31:34). In all of that seeing and knowing and taking, God's love for me has not been the least bit diminished. Here at the cross, my fears of "If they knew what I'm really like" are put to rest. God does know. And He doesn't reject me. He brings me closer and makes me his own.
The long-spoken words echo through Jesus' 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).