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 Emile 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!)
How do we live the routines and rhythms of our lives as though each moment is tinged with glory? How do we see through the unwanted surprises to the reality that sustains us through them?
Often, for me, needed reminders come through the liturgical calendar as I see all over again how Jesus' story and mine are woven together. Take, for example, the day one year ago, as we stood at the turn (as we do again today) from Pentecost Sunday into the long season of Ordinary Time that stretches all the way until the start of Advent.
As I enter the sanctuary, it looks like it is dressed for a party. Red, apricot, and gold streamers twist their way from the wooden cross standing tall on the stage to the edges of the balcony where we bow in prayer and stand to sing praises.
Streamers of crosses have laced the sanctuary during the Lent and Easter seasons.
They have now been gathered and draped over the large wooden cross still standing on the platform, our lives that have been being woven into the life of God as Jesus walked this earth no longer strung out across the sanctuary, connected to his cross but still at a distance. Our little crosses, our little selves, are now pulled close, cascading from his cross like a bride’s long veil or the pouring out of a waterfall, pooling in a basket at the foot of the cross, the overflow of his life now pouring through us, springs of living water to quench a parched people.
It's as though the streamers are summoning us into the party already going on in heaven, drawing us in toward the cross, toward the dove, toward recognizing the magnificent mystery that is taking place. The cause of this glorious, holy celebration? The marking of that moment when Jesus’ life became ours.
We’ve been living the milestones along the way for months. Waiting through Advent to see the mystery of God, God!, in human flesh. Walking with Jesus, watching as He lived God’s life among us and lived our life in God’s moment-by-moment presence, showing us the union that we were made to live.
A dove tops the cross, the sign of God’s pleasure in his Son, descending at his baptism, now also falling onto us, into us, at Pentecost, proclaiming that we also, in Christ, are now bearers of God’s full acceptance and delight.
The streamers are shimmering in the light.
It’s the perfect day for a party, this day of Pentecost when all that Jesus has done for us through Advent and Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, come together, and we receive the pouring out of all that God is coming not just to us in flesh (that in itself was astounding), but into us, God’s Spirit filling and animating our flesh. We no longer simply witness God’s life lived among us, we can welcome God’s life lived in us. We are now Christians—not simply observers of Christ at a distance, but united with him, and through him, with God. In us God continues the wonder witnessed first and perfectly in Jesus: God's Spirit and human flesh come together once again in a human body, Creator and creature united. Should we not celebrate?
How is it that the church calendar calls these next six months “ordinary time”? Could an event such as Pentecost be the door into anything ordinary? Can time ever again be ordinary when we walk through each day with God himself walking it not just beside us but within us?
As we enter these months of (not-so-)ordinary time, let us walk in the awareness that God himself now lives each moment within us. And let us celebrate.
“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.
As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.
I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don't really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.
It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.
It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story.
It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”
I’m invited to remember what I know:
- God never wastes suffering.
- In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
- And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.
I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there.
It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it's not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It's not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it's not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. "Consider it a sheer gift, friends," James says, "when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way." (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.
The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus' Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22)
We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don't face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we're facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).
PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen's sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card's book, A Sacred Sorrow.