The secret of doing the impossible

Sometimes I look at someone else and think, “They’re so strong (or gracious, or gifted, or smart). I could never do what they’re doing.”

I’ve heard it from others. “You’re so brave. I could never go to Afghanistan!”

The truth is, I didn’t feel brave at all. I was terrified. But I was called. And where we’re called and willing, and for as long as we’re called, there’s grace for that calling.

And then when God calls us out of a place (Afghanistan, say) and into another, different life situation, grace keeps pace. I couldn’t now return to Afghanistan without a fresh call. That grace is gone, replaced with the grace that I need for each moment in this day and this place.

When I put someone else on a pedestal (“They’re so brave. I could never do that.”) I miss the point of the conversation between Mary and the angel. She wasn’t asked to do the impossible. She was asked to let God do the impossible in and through her. (Luke 1:26-38)

That’s all we’re ever asked.

The Joseph of the coat of many colors knew this. His boss, the ruler of Egypt, said to him, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replied, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)

Daniel of the fiery furnace knew this. His boss, the ruler of Babylon and even more unreasonable than Joseph’s boss, also had a dream. He insisted that his advisors not only interpret the dream but first tell him what the dream was (otherwise how was he supposed to know if they were telling him the real meaning of the dream or making up an interpretation for the minor purpose of keeping their heads attached to their bodies?) Daniel said to him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Dan 2:27-28) And that God who reveals mysteries did the impossible through Daniel and told the king his dream and its meaning.

The Joseph who became Mary’s husband learned this. God had to give this righteous man faith to believe something that the rest of the world thought was ridiculous. (“Come on, man! Don’t tell me you actually believe your fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit!“) Or, perhaps God gave him the courage to act and take Mary as his wife even if he couldn’t make sense of the whole story. Either way, God did in Joseph the inner work needed to free him to step into his place in the Grand Story.

When the angel told Mary that God had chosen her to carry and birth His Son, Mary asked a very understandable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) I can finish Mary’s question a million different ways when God shows me the next bit I’m asked to play in the story He is writing. “How will this be, since . . . ?”

But no matter how the question ends, the answer is always the same: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).

Because here’s the thing: We are never called to do the impossible.

We are, however, daily, called to let God do the impossible in us.  And sometimes that “impossible” that God does in us overflows into Him doing the impossible through us in and for the world.

I’ll be taking these next couple of weeks to rest and celebrate and be available for what I sense God might be wanting to do in me in these days, so I’ll see you back here at the start of the new year. As we continue to prepare for the coming of God among us and in us in new ways, this is my prayer: May God continue to do both in us and through us what only God can do.

When God builds you a house

I had to smile when the Scripture was read last Sunday. Sometimes God isn’t subtle.

I’ve been confronting my limitations again lately—not just physical, but in every area of life. And I’ve sensed God inviting me to accept them. I’ve found myself asking the question, “Can I be okay with it if all I am ever able to do consistently is write a weekly blog post and listen with the few people who come to sit in the stillness with me and listen together for God’s voice in their lives?” I’m not saying that’s what will happen, only that I’m being invited to accept still more deeply this body, this personality, this small, good work entrusted to me as a gift from the One who created me and delights in me as I am. This time, I find myself able to  say, with freedom and joy (at least for this day!), “Yes. If that’s what you have for me, I can be fine with that.” Maybe I’m finally receiving more fully the rich gifts of being small—of being significant not because of what I do, but simply because God has created me and, because He treasures me, I matter.

Back to last Sunday. The reader ascended to the pulpit and began to read from 2 Samuel 7 the story of David asking to building a temple for God. Surely, David thought, after all God had done for him, it was time David gave something back. Surely it wasn’t right that David live in a palace of expensive cedar wood while the ark of God, the focal point of God’s presence, continued to live in a tent. At first the prophet Nathan, hearing David’s suggestion, agreed. “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”

But it was only a few hours before God spoke to Nathan correcting his assumption and telling Nathan to return to David with these words from God: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? . . .  The LORD himself will establish a house for you.” (v. 5, 11)

I’ll never be able to hear that passage again without my mind jumping back to a time in the tiny Afghan village I called home for four years. After my first year working as a doctor in the project, I was asked to take on the role of project leader. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that the weight of being project leader as well as doctor was too much for me. Three months into the project leader role, agonizing over the possibility of having to admit I couldn’t do it, I was journaling my prayer. Lunchtime came, and I left the prayer on pause, grabbing Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall to read while I ate. Peterson was speaking about David’s natural desire to build a temple for God who had done so much for him:

““[David] quite naturally wanted to do something for God, who had done so much for him. He decided to build God a sanctuary. . . . God had blessed him with a place of honor and repose; he would bless God with a place of honor and repose. . .

But there are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are. . . a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. . .

God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: ‘You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. . . .

‘Then King David went in and sat before the LORD . . .’ (2 Sam 7:18) David sat. This may be the single most critical act that David ever did, the action that put him out of action . . .

What we don’t do for God is often far more critical than what we in fact do. God is the beginning, center, and end of the world’s life—of existence itself. But we’re often unaware of God’s action except dimly and peripherally. Especially when we’re in full possession of our power—our education complete, our careers in full swing, people admiring us and prodding us onward . . . At these moments, we need prophetic interference. We need Nathan. We need to quit whatever we’re doing and sit down . . .” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 157-164, bold mine.)

My body was my prophetic interference. Like Nathan it was confronting me. Like Balaam’s donkey, it was lying down in the road and refusing to go on, seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the path where I was trying to drive myself onward, too blind or too stubborn or proud to see him.

“When David sat down before God, it was the farthest thing from passivity or resignation; it was prayer. It was entering into the presence of God, becoming aware of God’s word, trading in his plans for God’s plans, letting his enthusiasm for being a king with the authority and strength to do something for God be replaced with the willingness to become a king who would represent truly the sovereignty of God the high King.” (164)

And then, a page later, Peterson writes these words about David’s response to God. I’ve underlined them in my journal.

“And courage it does take, immense courage, to relinquish control, to resign our so recently acquired prestigious positions, to ‘quit our jobs’ and simply to sit at Jesus’ feet.” (165)

God was guiding me as I’d asked, and affirming me at the same time, assuring me that once again he was calling, and that the willingness to let the role go was not failure but courage and obedience. He was turning things right-side-up again, reminding me, as he would remind me many more times, that he was God and I was not—and that he loved me.

“David sat down;” Peterson writes, and “the real action started: not David making God a house but God making David a house.” (165)

We are given small parts to play. We get to hammer in a few nails, a four-year-old working alongside his father. Peter takes the metaphor in a different direction, going so far as to say that we get to be part of the house—and the stones that make up the walls are clearly not able or responsible to put themselves in their right places to make a sound and solid house (1 Peter 2:4-10).

God is the one who builds us a home. It was God who created the world and placed us in it, our home for time, and it is Jesus who is preparing a place for us, our home for eternity (John 14:1-3). We can’t build God’s kingdom; that’s why we pray for Him to do it (Matt 6:9-10). And He is building it, and welcoming us into it—and will even someday hand it over to us, a rich gift of a safe and beautiful home forever and ever (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27; Luke 12:32).

But the news is better still. Since before God brought us into being, He has been making a home for us not just out there somewhere, in earth or in heaven, but in Himself, in that truest and safest of places, that loving heart at the centre of reality for which we were made and where we will always belong. Here our small, loved selves can rest.

“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)

One way to stand firm

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m trying to remember a verse and there’s a word that I can’t remember or that I misremember, that is quite possibly the word that, when I look up the verse, will hold the greatest gift for me. It has almost come to seem like one of God’s ways of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Pay attention here.”

It happened yesterday with a couple of verses from the story of God’s delivery of Israel through the Red Sea. As the people stand at the water’s edge with the Egyptian army coming after them, Moses says to them:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Ex 14:13-14)

As I was pondering these verses that had been in the morning’s Scripture reading from the pulpit, the phrase “stand still” came to mind. But when I looked up the verses again, “stand still” was not there. Rather, the two commands are to “stand firm” and to “be still,” or, more accurately according to the Hebrew, “be silent.” For me the two commands to “stand firm” and “be silent” carry quite a different, and richer, layer of meaning than simply “standing still.” And, funnily enough, they speak directly into a struggle of the past couple of weeks. (Thanks, God.)

I’ve noticed these weeks, as I’ve been trying to get back into the fall rhythm after weeks away with people, how unsettled I am. It has taken me time to understand what was going on, and it has likely been a combination of things—simple transition and jet lag, a busier than usual schedule, and a medication dose that was too high. But it was when I sat to be still and silent before God, putting down my pen and my journal and closing my mouth, that I finally began to feel more settled.

I am to stand firm in what I know to be the truth of God’s character and my calling—not just what I’m to do, but more importantly who I’m to be and how I’m to live out that calling in a posture of listening and utter dependence on God. But I’ve been learning all over again these weeks that I can only stand firm when I make time to be still, to let not only my hands and my mouth but my thoughts (as much as possible) be silent for a stretch of time each day.

Ruth Haley Barton shares how a wise spiritual director once said to her, “Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.” (Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 29)

Her words ring true as I settle into silence with God, put down my pen, open my hands and say, “Here I am.” Sometimes all that I’ve noticed in those times is the racing of my thoughts. This time I could feel myself able to breathe again, and could sense the loosening of my anxieties.

“In solitude God begins to free us from our bondage to human expectations, for there we experience God as our ultimate reality—the One in whom we live and move and have our being. . . In silence we not only withdraw from the demands of life in the company of others but also allow the noise of our own thoughts, strivings and compulsions to settle down so we can hear a truer and more reliable Voice.” (Invitation. . ., p. 34-35)

Solitude an silence, even for twenty minutes a day, allows the stirred-up sediment in my soul to begin to settle.

Solitude and silence help me cease striving as they turn me from looking at the army of thoughts and needs and fears that pursue me to look instead at the God who is always working to set his people free.

They help me accept God’s own invitation, spoken through the Psalmist,

“Be still [“cease striving”] and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 

When you long for stillness

There’s something about being out of the city that gives me life.

Maybe it’s the silence, or at least the exchange of engines roaring on the streets outside my window and heavy feet on the floor above my head for the gentler sounds of birdsong and wind in the leaves.

Maybe it’s that, immersed in the expansiveness of creation, I slow enough to remember myself small again, in a good way, and hand over the burdens meant for God’s shoulders.  There in that smallness I find myself part of this world which goes on minute by minute being created and sustained in love.

Maybe it’s the rich beauty that summons and soothes and draws me toward the One who is Beauty itself.

Whatever the mix of reasons, some nameable, some not, I come a little more alive when I can run in the woods or walk on the beach or drive along roads framed with white trunks and hay bales and the sun playing on water.

On the early morning ride back to the airport, the sun played tag with the fine morning mist, darting, disappearing, leaving a trail of gentle brightness behind her.

What could have felt like a long drive filled with sadness to be leaving was instead a joyful play of light and shadow, a final life-filled gift from the One who knows me well as I headed back into the city and into a busier stretch.

I know you. I love you. I am going with you and I will give you rest.

The day after I arrived home, not feeling quite ready to plunge into the fall busyness, the mailman knocked on my door and handed me a gift that was as unexpected and as grace-filled as the early morning hint of a rainbow and the empty seats beside me on both of my flights home.

I know what you need and I delight to give it to you.

The gift the mailman handed me was Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat

I love pretty much anything Ruth Haley Barton writes, and her newest book is no exception. It’s warm and welcoming and freeing, offering, as all her books do, not only life-giving encouragement and gentle challenge, but wise steps and insightful questions to help me move forward. She begins by lifting the burden of retreat being yet another heavy ‘should’. It is, rather, an invitation, with the implications of freedom to say yes or no, and the affirmation that I am wanted.

“. . .[W]e know instinctively that to be invited means we are wanted, and, in the very best scenario, wanted by someone we find interesting, intriguing, or just plain cool.

And that is exactly what makes the invitation to retreat so compelling. It is a winsome call from this intriguing person we call God—the One who loves us, the One who is inexplicably drawn to us, the One who knows so intimately what we need in order to be well.” (p. 3)

I long for quiet time alone with God in much the same way I look forward to the times I can escape the bustle of the city. I know I need still time to keep hearing God’s voice and to keep from wearing out, and I do my best to prioritize it. But, even knowing that as deeply as I do, sometimes a persistent little voice still tries to convince me that retreating is selfish or lazy or just plain impractical.

What that little voice fails to remember is that retreat is not my idea. It is Jesus’ idea.

Right smack in the middle of the disciples’ first ministry report (Mark 6:30-31), when the disciples were all excited about what they had been able to do and eager to get on with it,

“Jesus invites them to retreat. Literally! His words, ‘Come away to a deserted place. . . and rest a while,’ shut down the conversation they wanted to have and redirected it to the conversation Jesus wanted to have—about retreat! I can see them ceasing their breathless chatter, cocking their heads a bit in disbelief and thinking, Well, that’s different! What a wonder it is, as Jesus’ disciples, to be invited by him to conversation and communion, self-care and replenishment.” (p. 3)

The One who knows me better than I know myself, knows my tendency to lose my way and think too much depends on me, gently interrupts my chatter about the article I’m writing and the workshops I’m preparing. He sees my mix of excitement and weariness and my need and longing to step back and be re-centered in who He is before moving any further into the busyness of the fall, and He graciously calls me to close the door and turn off the phone and the laptop and let Him settle and recenter me in His love. He reminds me once more that this is not a luxury, but a necessity, a part of being human. And that He has led the way.

“Of all people who might have been able to convince themselves they did not need to retreat in order to hear God, Jesus would have fit the bill. But instead we see him regularly retreating to the mountain, into the wilderness, across the lake, and into the garden in order to stay in tune with God’s heart and plan for him.” (p. 90)

Flying lessons: Why we can dare to live fully

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I receive an invitation to participate in the final week of a group that has been working through Rational Worship, the Bible study that I started writing almost ten years ago when I was back at my parents’ home, too sick to be out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day. I wrote it because I needed to be reminded why it made sense to give myself to God again when I’d already done that and everything—health, career, ministry, life as I knew it—seemed to have fallen apart.

I’m excited that the group is using it. I will delight to be present during their final session, to witness their engagement, their joys and struggles, discoveries and hopes. But on my way to the excitement, I encountered another, more timid part of me, first. The little voice that can be so loud in my head started telling me I’ll disappoint the group. That I should stay safely hidden on the other side of written words rather than step out into the open. That I’m really not good enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, prepared enough to engage.

That’s when I realized it was time for me to turn back to the truths in Rational Worship again myself, to be reminded once more that my offering myself to God only ever makes sense not because of who I am, but because of who God is.

I recalled the heron I watched as I prepared to share the Rational Worship study.

He sits long, watching amidst the grid of stone and steel.

He doesn’t dip for food and I wonder what he’s waiting for. Does he even know?

I wait with him, glad for the quiet moments.

In the stillness a longing rises in me. I have begun to take wings, to fly beyond the steel grid of fear that pins me to earth. But I long to fly higher still, farther and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love.

The bird has wings, made for the air. I have feet and a soul and I’m made to be filled with God Himself. My choice not to step into this is as irrational as a bird who refuses to fly.

This alone is true living, this alone is true worship, this offering of my body each moment to be filled with God.

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It has been five and a half years since I shared the study here, and that longing to fly higher and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love is with me still, though sometimes I need to dig through layers of fear to find it.

As I turned back to the beginning of the study, my soul began to breathe like I’d been swimming underwater and had finally surfaced to gasp in once more the same life-sustaining truth: I don’t have to be strong, or “enough” in any other way, to offer myself to God. He is enough, and when I offer myself to God, I gain Him and all of His enoughness. That’s why the invitation to offer myself as a living sacrifice to God is placed where it is—at the end of eleven chapters celebrating God’s wisdom and grace, sovereignty and love, and immediately following four verses of overflowing praise for God’s more-than-enoughness:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?

Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?

For from him and through him and to him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy,

to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –

this is your spiritual act of worship. . .” (Romans 11:33-12:1)

Therefore. Could there be a more comforting way to begin this verse than with the reminder that my ability to be an acceptable sacrifice is far less about my own ability than about God’s incomprehensible wisdom, his holy “otherness,” his lavish generosity, and his centrality in the universe, all of which, in his unfathomable mercy, he offers to us? His job is to be God in all his sufficiency. Mine is to show up, bringing myself as I am—fear and all—to this One who loves me, and who is and will always be enough. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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If you’re interested in revisiting with me the truth of God’s character, and why it makes sense to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God even when life seems to have fallen apart, click on the images below to download your free copy of the six week Bible study, “Rational Worship: Offering Ourselves to the God of Mercy” and the accompanying Leader’s Guide. (You may wish to right-click and choose “download linked file” to save the pdfs to your computer.) Or go here for more about what it offers and how it came to be written.

It might just be the perfect summer encouragement, a chance to soak again in the joy of who God is.

And if you’d like company on the journey, slip your email into the box in the right side-bar for weekly grace delivered straight to your inbox. I won’t be writing directly about the study in these coming posts, but I pray that all my posts offer encouragement and practical help as we keep learning to fly higher and deeper into the wide-open spaces of God’s love together. It’s a grace to journey with you!

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