The gift of the in-between

 

The wheels of time turn and here we are once again in that week after the end and before the beginning.

Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church calendar year, the day we particularly remember that, all appearances to the contrary, Christ is King over the world. Next Sunday we begin a new year with Advent, that time of waiting for the Light to come, tiny at first but carrying the promise of burning away the fog and destroying the darkness.

I’m sensitized to the in-between this year as my time in my old home is coming to an end and I don’t yet have a new one. There’s a letting go without a new earthly place to rest, and I’m aware of the empty space at my feet.

I prefer planning to surprises, even pleasant ones. I like control, and predictability, and stability. In-betweens don’t offer much of that, so mostly I’m not a big fan of in-betweens.

But, between the long hours of feeling like I’m living a nightmare, I’m aware of something deeper going on. There are moments when I taste freedom, and the joy that comes with it.  And I’m glad God loves me enough to take me through these places, because things happen in these uncomfortable places that don’t happen when things are predictable and comparatively secure.

Here, for example, I see reality. I realize how much of my sense of security has been in things other than God, and I see that the ‘security’ offered by those things is no more substantial than empty space at my feet.  Here, too, God invites me to sit down and know that He remains rock-solid even when all I want to do is back away from the edge and the empty space. Here He invites me to trust. Presses me to put all my weight on him. And so sets my heart a little freer from its attachments to all those things that don’t really provide security so my heart can belong to Him alone.

I read yesterday of a significant in-between moment in the lives of the people of Israel. After God led his people out of the slavery of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and cared for them as they wandered for forty years in the desert, he had them pause just before he opened the Jordan for them to cross and led them into the promised land. The purpose of the pause? To set the people apart once again as wholly God’s, marking their bodies and souls as God’s through the act of circumcision. After the people were circumcised, God said, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” (Joshua 5:9) What was the reproach of Egypt? This, I think: that their bodies and souls belonged to someone other than God. In Egypt, they were not physically free to be God’s alone and get on with worshiping and living for him (Ex. 3:7; 5:1-4, etc.) And in the desert, their hearts were still tied to Egypt (Ex. 16:3). So before God took them into their new earthly home, he grounded them in their deeper, truer home. He called them back to choose Him—choose Life!—and marked them again as His chosen and precious people, people under his rock-solid care and guidance and love.

This, I think, (I hope!), is what is happening to me. Before leading me to my new home, God is “circumcising my heart,” cutting away attachments to what is not Him so I can be more freely and fully His. And this, I think, is one of the big gifts of these in-between times, these large or small time-outs when ordinary business is interrupted with illness or an unwanted email or anything else that upsets our plans and makes us uncomfortable. Here we are both invited and helped to see more truly and choose more freely and shift our trust to the only One who is worthy of it.

It is a mutual process. I choose to lean in and let God do the work of freeing me. I choose to be His. But only He can set my heart free. I love how this is reflected in Deuteronomy 30. In verse 2 and 10, we choose to love and obey the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul. And in verse 6, at the centerpoint of those two, is the most wonderful promise for the zillion times when my desire to be freely and fully God’s only underscores my own inability to make it happen:

“The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

Thank you, LORD. Your kingdom come, your will be done in me.

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Photo by Connor McSheffrey on Unsplash.

When you can’t see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.

But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.

That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.

It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.

Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Stepping out of God’s Shoes

“Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The invitation comes again and again, each time welcoming me into yet another place to step out of God’s too-big-for-me shoes and back into my own, or, better yet, to go barefoot for a while. Feeling the sun-warmed grass, or the morning sand cool between my toes, I remember again that all the ground we walk on is holy ground.

“Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The invitation comes again as I sit asking God to help me understand why I’d felt so anxious in a particular encounter. Slowly I begin to see. When technology had let me down and I hadn’t been able to connect at the expected time in the expected way, I’d feared the person waiting for me would feel abandoned. When I’d lacked a ready answer or a ready question and I’d had to suggest we pause and listen for God’s guidance, I’d feared looking incompetent. Some hidden part of me had felt I needed to be always strong, clear, and sovereign at least over technology if not over the pace and flow of the conversation. I had stepped into God’s shoes.

As soon as I recognize what is going on and step back out of God’s shoes, I can breathe. I can also see: No person needs me to be God. (Thank God!) My place is to walk alongside (barefoot, knowing myself on holy ground) as we walk together toward the real God, or to offer space to sit and listen and look for signs of the real God who is always coming to us.

As usual at this time of year, I’m stepping away from the blog for a month. I so easily slip into trying to wear God’s shoes that I need this practice (along with other daily and weekly ones) to savor again the gift of smallness and let God reset my soul in its correct relation to Him, myself, and other people.

“Instead of a fearful place I have to either defend or run from, small can become my new home. Small can become hilariously delightful, fun, and free. I can come with little things to offer, with no agenda, with the day as it is and not as I wish it were instead. I’m small, and this is as it should be.” (Emily P. Freeman, Simply Tuesday, p. 94)

Whatever August holds for each of us, may God grace us with the inner freedom to step out of His shoes and walk barefoot for a while. I look forward to seeing you back here as the calendar turns to September!

Freely God’s

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Am I giving myself to others for the sake of God, or am I giving myself to God for the sake of others? I’m only just recognizing the difference in those terms, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

I didn’t go home for Christmas this year. Every time I considered it, it felt too tight and pressured, and after a busy term I was so hungry for time alone with God. God gave many special gifts, including a few times with other people, loving and being loved in practical ways, but perhaps the biggest gift came when I realized that for the first time in three months, I felt like myself, and then, a few days later, realized that I could have equally well described what I meant by “I felt like myself” in a different way: “I felt freely God’s.” That is exactly where I want to live all the time—as God’s, fully and freely—and I was getting to taste what it felt like! And in that moment when “being myself” equated to “being freely His,” the question (which has been a huge struggle for me all my life) of whether it is selfish to make the choices that let me be me disappeared. What is less selfish than doing what enables me to be freely God’s?

It was soon after that that I began, slowly, to see the difference between giving myself to others for the sake of God and giving myself to God for the sake of others.

When I give myself to others first, even if I think I’m doing so for God’s sake, I put others on the throne. I surrender my God-given stewardship over my own life to the wishes of others. Or I put myself on the throne. I decide who to give to, and when and how. When I give myself first to others, I’m either clinging to control, or I’m inappropriately surrendering control to others, or both.

But when I give myself to God for the sake of others, the One who knows and loves me best (and knows and loves others best) gets to guide. He who is gracious and generous and infinitely creative in his solutions may ask me to help meet the need of one person while asking me to trust his goodness enough not to have to be the one to help with something else. When I give myself first to God, I’m surrendering to the only One who can rightly handle that control. I’m surrendering to love. This is the way of trust. And of freedom and peace and the burden that is light.

Jesus lived this second way, giving himself to his Father for our sake: “I’m consecrating myself”—setting myself apart for God—”for their sakes . . .” (John 17:19) His eyes were always on his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19; 8:28), his will neither his own, nor surrendered to us, but surrendered to his Father (Luke 22:42, John 5:30; 6:38).

I’ve tried to live the first because I thought it was the way of love, the way to please God. It turned out that I can’t love that way. I too quickly slip into fatigue, and from there into resentment and crankiness.

I’m just starting to learn how to live the second. It’s a daily challenge, and a bit messy. (One poor person got three emails from me as I was trying to get the courage to step out of a commitment: 1) I need to leave. 2) No, wait, am I hearing right? Maybe I should keep praying about it. 3) Umm. . . yes, God has added several more layers of confirmation to the already high pile. I really do need to leave.) It makes me wonder: Was I really living the first way only because I thought it was the way of love? Or was I living it because I felt insecure without the affirmation of others?

It’s a challenge to switch my gaze from the faces of others to the face of Jesus, but it’s also freedom and joy and true, unshakeable security. However hard the switch may be, and however long it takes, I know I don’t want to go back.

Making peace with smallness

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“Who dares despise the day of small things?” God asks the prophet Zechariah (Zech 4:10).

“Ummm . . . I guess I still do. Sometimes.” I whisper, not really wanting to be heard.

The days of writing—or deleting—a single paragraph. The days of small choices made a million times to turn my thoughts back to gratitude, to God, to how he wants to meet me in the present. The days of asking forgiveness when I haven’t turned my thoughts to him and receiving the grace to begin again. Again.

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Being okay with smallness: this seems to be a theme God is wanting me to hear again these days.

In last week’s sermon, the challenge rang through the little prophet Haggai:

“Who of you is left who saw this temple in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:3-5)

In yesterday’s sermon, it was Zechariah who reminded me:

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ declares the Lord Almighty . . . . ‘Who dares despise the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Photos courtesy of Brian Whitacre
Photo courtesy of Brian Whitacre

The pastor (who had, he confessed, felt very small while preparing this sermon), reminded us that God accomplishes world-transforming things, but always through the small:

  • Israel, the fewest of all peoples, chosen to be God’s special nation.
  • Gideon, the least man from the least clan from the least tribe of Israel, (the one whom God called while he was cowering in a winepress), called to defeat the Midianites—but only once God had reduced his army from thirty-two thousand to a mere three hundred, armed only with trumpets and torches inside clay jars.
  • The young boy David with his slingshot chosen over trained, experienced warriors to defeat the biggest, meanest giant.
  • And of course the little boy’s lunch which fed five thousand, and the tiny embryo in Mary’s womb, the lonely figure hanging on the cross, and the small group of followers who became three thousand in a day when the Spirit of God fell on them.

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I continue the list:

  • A caterpillar forming a cocoon.
  • Character forged by years of moment-by-moment decisions to stay true in the small things when no one is looking.
  • A forty-year-strong marriage made of little, daily choices to love the other.
  • A scientist working in a top-notch research lab on projects my brain can’t begin to comprehend who has learned to persist through a whole list of ideas not working to find one that does. And who started out once upon a time with someone else not despising the days of dirty diapers and 2 a.m. feedings, toilet training and sounding out letters.

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A lot of things start flashy and fade, but doesn’t everything that turns out to be anything start small and grow through thousands of baby steps?

Perhaps it has to be this way, for everything that lasts is rooted in God, who gives himself to us in each small moment. This small moment—the only place we can meet God and be joined to him, filled by him.

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“Spiritual formation,” says Mulholland, “is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things.” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 33)

Perhaps making peace with smallness is one of the greatest challenges—and greatest steps—in our discipleship. Maybe, in our culture obsessed with bigger, better, faster, discipleship is a lot about becoming smaller, learning to release our attempts to prove our significance and cling to our control, and rest instead in the love of our strong God who delights in working with smallness.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)

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“Be still and know that I am God”: One of the practices that is most helping me make peace with smallness is to simply sit in silence before God. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The words call me to stillness. When I realize that my mind has wandered off (again) to try to solve another problem, I let the thoughts go and return (again) to the words that keep calling me to prayer. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”