The tulip’s reminders (OR When you feel ashamed)

I’ve shifted one of the sprouting tulip bulbs from the windowsill to the desk where I’m writing. I need the reminder that God’s life-giving work in us is a process. God doesn’t expect me to bloom before my roots have gone deep and my shoots stretched up green, slowly unfurling toward His light.

I need this reminder over and over, especially when I find myself wrestling once more with old patterns, or wondering again about old beliefs.

At our church, the sermons these months have been from Mark, repeating again and again Jesus’ call to servanthood and sacrifice. And honestly? I’m finding that hard. I know it’s true, and I want to keep being called deeper into faithful living. But another part of me—the part that is tired—wants to curl up and cry. That part easily slips into the shame that comes with feeling I should do more, be more, be better. And then it feels guilty about feeling ashamed.

It’s that part that needs the tulip’s many reminders: first, that life and its growth is a process; second, that the outward work must always rise from what is unseen. Blooms don’t come without roots; servanthood, to be both true and sustainable, must always arise from making my home in Christ’s love.

That part needs this reminder too: discipleship is not one-size-fits-all, but uniquely tailored to our own particular life stories, personalities, weaknesses, and strengths. We’re all called to make our home in God’s love, and to live out that love in service to others. But the details of the call vary from person to person and from one life stage to another. 

God has spent over a decade calling me, through my limitations and Scripture and prayer as well as guidance from trusted fellow pilgrims, to rest in his love. He has showed me again and again that as I do that I’m enabled to love and serve others in ways I couldn’t otherwise do.

My pastor’s vocation, at least right now, seems to involve summoning us back to an awareness that discipleship involves sacrifice, and a willingness to pick up our cross and follow. 

Both of these messages—resting, and stepping out; making my home in Christ’s love, and living that love out to others—are true, and both are important parts of discipleship. But this is what my heart needs to hear today: Just because someone else is receiving and proclaiming a complementary aspect of the truth doesn’t mean that what I’m hearing from God is wrong. It might simply mean that I’m focussing on the roots while someone else is showing the curled crimson edges of the fully open bloom.

The question to guide my life is how God is showing himself to me today. What is he calling me to, on this day, in this stage of my life?

As I listen and follow one step at a time, my eyes on Christ’s face and my home more and more in God’s love, I can be sure that the flower and fruit will come:

“And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” (2 Cor 3:18,The Message, c.f. John 15:4-5)

A love note just for you

They’re written all over the world, slipped into a bird song or the pink clouds of evening or the arms of a friend—love notes from God tucked into our days to remind us He sees and knows and cares.

Sometimes I find them in a familiar passage of Scripture or in one I haven’t read for a long time, a few words that feel like Someone slipped them into a most unlikely spot with a smile on His face, dreaming of me discovering them on an otherwise ordinary day.

That happened this week as I was reading through 1 Peter. The first part of chapter 3 is addressed to wives and husbands—not all that relevant to me as a single woman, one might expect. But there in the middle were two glimpses of who God is and what God loves that had me kneeling in awe and gratitude.

The first was the reminder in v.4 that “a gentle and quiet spirit . . . is of great worth in God’s sight.” For those of us who ache to step out of the world’s drive to do more and own more and accomplish more and instead live a listening life, walking (not racing) with Jesus, this is such good news. That gentle, quiet spirit that you want to cultivate? The one that the world devalues and dismisses? It is of great worth in God’s sight. Why? Well, for starters, it’s like the spirit of his Son who is also gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29; 21:5). And second, a gentle and quiet spirit is rooted in trust, humility, and making our home in Jesus’s love—which is precisely where God calls us to live, in this only place we can thrive (John 15:9).

A few verses on, Peter addresses husbands—even less relevant to me, one might think. But there in v.17 I glimpse all over again the magnificent mystery of Christ’s tender, respectful love for us. Marriage is, after all, meant to be a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church, and Jesus sets the standard for that relationship.

“Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her. . .” (Eph. 5:25-27 The Message)

I’ve soaked in Eph 5:22-33, memorizing the wonder of it. And on that background, Peter’s words to husbands make me kneel in awe:

“. . . treat [your wives] with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Pet 3:7).

Set aside for a second whatever might rise in you about women being called “the weaker partner” and hear what Peter is saying here. The emphasis is not on who is “the weaker partner” (an automatic assumption in the world of Peter’s time) but on treating her with respect rather than looking down on her. She is not a second-class citizen. She is a fellow heir. And Jesus treats us all, men and women, who are inarguably the weaker partners in our marriage with Him, not with impatience or disdain or even pity but with respect and special care, as fellow heirs with Him (Rom 8:17). As Walter Brueggemann says, commenting on Psalm 103:13-14, “the reality of our ‘dust’ does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.”

This, it seems to me, is foundational in allowing us to develop a gentle and quiet spirit. We can only begin to release our anxieties and our need to defend or prove ourselves when we know ourselves welcomed and cherished and even respected right in the middle of our weakness.

What’s it like for you to consider that Jesus doesn’t look down on you in your weakness but respects you and cherishes you in it?

As you think back over the past 24 hours, can you spot any words or encounters that might have been a love note left just for you?

________________________

Photos (in order) by  Jamez PicardLea Khreiss, and Tyler Nix on Unsplash.

The secret to being content

Photo by Hannah Domsic on Unsplash

As I lean forward over the handlebars of my bike, tiny arrows of rain slant under my glasses and sting my lower eyelids, my upper cheeks. A laugh escapes as I savor the joy of this morning’s adventure, feeling a cool rivulet creep down the front of my jacket, and the puddles that have formed in the toes of my shoes sneak a little further back with each press of the pedal. I’m alive! For this half hour, I’m out in this beautiful world. And, most wonderful of all, Jesus and I are on this adventure together.

I can’t see the detail of the leaves beside the path today, but I know what I’d see if my vision wasn’t obscured by dozens of convex droplets, each their own little lens, changing the shape of the lenses I need to correct my vision. I’ve been watching the leaves on the thorny thimbleberry vines that creep along beside the path and climb into mounds of tangled vines. The berries are long gone, and since the cold snap a couple of weeks ago, the leaves have begun to change. But each leaf is dying differently. One still clings to its summer green except where tiny paths of gold creep along the veins and a rim of red tints the pinked edges.

Another is almost completely crimson, with hints of peach tracking each vein.

Another is turning from the tip, red creeping down into the center of the dark green leaf like a fire intent on consuming the whole.

Is it always in the dying, in the ceasing to cling to our lives, that we become most beautiful, most freely and fully ourselves?

This week I’ve been pondering Paul’s statement:

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:12).

What was this secret that he knew? And why didn’t he share it with us? 

Or did he? 

I trace my way back through the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi and find that right at the heart of the letter Paul lays out the secret, and only at the end of the letter does he tell his readers that he has given them this treasure. 

Right there in the middle of the letter is this:

“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and may be found in him. . .” (Phil 3:8) 

The secret to being content no matter what life throws at you? Want Christ. 

Get to know Christ deeply enough that you learn to want, more than anything else, the one thing that matters more than anything else in the world, and that no one and nothing can take away from you.

We can’t make ourselves want something or someone by willpower. We can only get to know someone and let that Someone teach our hearts to love. It’s like a marriage, or the decision to have children, or to write a book or grow a business or pursue a vocation: you give up your independence in order to commit to something or someone. And, in the best cases, you do it not because you have to but because something is burning in you and you’ve discovered that you can’t live without that person, or you don’t want to, or that book just has to come out. In every choice, there is cost. But still we choose because we believe the gain is greater.

So get to know Christ, Paul says. Choose Him, and you’ll find that what used to feel like losses don’t bother you as much anymore because you’re in this together, you and the One in whose love you have made your home. 

But Paul offers his readers more than simply telling us the secret of contentment. He offers us behind-the-scenes steps to help us get to know Christ in that Christ-matters-to-me-more-than-anything-else kind of way.

Our part comes down to two simple steps: Focus, and enjoy. Keep looking for the fingerprints God leaves on our lives, and celebrate those signs of His love. Or, in Paul’s words, “Set your minds,” and “rejoice in the Lord.”

Focus:

 “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1).

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8).

And enjoy:

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).

For me, “focus” starts with a few sentences in a journal each evening. What am I most thankful for today? Where did I notice God’s presence and God’s good gifts, in my day? No matter what the day has held, there are always places I can rejoice in God’s goodness to me and his presence with me. And then I pause to enjoy resting quietly with God in that place of loving and being loved. And over time, the focusing creeps off my journal pages into my day and the enjoying follows even into rainy Sunday mornings.

And the moments and days I find it hard to keep my mind focussed on Jesus? There’s good news here too. First, from a neurological point of view, what creates new pathways in our brain is not the perfect maintenance of focus, but the turning again and again back to focus on God (Blanton, Contemplation and Counselling, p. 11). Refocussing helps retrain my mind to move naturally in that new direction.

Second, it’s not all up to me—thank God! As I keep choosing to turn my mind back to God, bringing my requests and my thanks to God, He’s right there protecting and helping me, surrounding me with his peace (Phil 4:6-7). As much as I want to keep growing in knowing Christ (a sure sign that God has already been deeply at work in me), He wants it more, and is right alongside, eager to help me notice His kindness and settle a little more deeply into His love.

The roots that help us stand

Many summers, as I’ve walked with camera in hand, I’ve ended up with hundreds of sunrise and sunset photos. This summer, different things caught my attention: spiderwebs pearled with morning dew, bright red mushrooms and white bracket fungi, children learning to balance.

And roots, roots, and more roots.

I saw them knuckled and gnarled, poking up through the carpet of spruce needles. I watched them lifting slabs of concrete sidewalk into uneven planks. And I noticed them hanging free where waves had worn away the soil in which they’d first settled and grown.

Perhaps I noticed them more than usual because at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Tacklind’s book, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility. It had arrived in the mail a month or so before my August vacation, and after I’d read the first few pages, I set it aside to take with me. I could tell from those first few pages that it was a book I wanted to linger with, reading slowly and letting it question me as much as I questioned it. I was not disappointed.

Near the beginning of the book, Tacklind tells how he sensed God saying to him, “This is who you are.” 

“I looked up and in front of me was this thin, white tree, standing alone in the midst of the creek bed. A white alder. It caught me off guard.

This tree? This unimpressive, wan, frail-looking specimen?

My heart pushed back, resisting the image and the calling that came with it. It wasn’t just the tree itself that made me withdraw, but where it grew, this rocky middle place. . .” (p. 15)

It’s not easy living in the middle places of life. And yet it’s in the middle places, the uncomfortable, lonely places where we recognize our lack of control and our desperate need for God, that our faith deepens. 

“. . .[T]he white alder alone remains in this barren space. This is because of several unique strengths the tree possesses that allow it to endure where other trees are uprooted and perish. It is incredibly flexible. When the floods come, it concedes. It bends. . . 

But it is not simply the pliability of the alder wood that allows it to remain. Its root system also is distinct. It possesses what is called a taproot: essentially the trunk of the tree continues to grow down and down, digging deeper and deeper in its thirst for more of the water it needs to survive. Not only does the taproot allow the alder to endure the floods, it also allows the tree to survive when the creek’s water level is at its lowest. Oak and pine trees have breadth but not necessarily depth. Their shallower root systems cannot endure the barrenness of the middle place when the soil and nourishment they need have been leached away.” (p. 16)

Everyone I’ve met who is wise and grace-filled has suffered deeply. Those who shine with Christ’s beauty have allowed suffering to press them deep into Christ, pushing down to find the water that they need in that barren place. 

Wise men and women throughout the ages agree: suffering is a necessary part of becoming truly alive and holy and whole:

“Wisdom comes only through suffering.”—Aeschylus

“To be most fertile, the soil must first be torn up; and shall not thy soul accept suffering for the sake of better growth?” —Ivan Panin

“The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust – not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.” —Brennan Manning

It’s not suffering itself that brings about transformation. It’s grace. And it’s choice. Will I put my energy into fighting the suffering, or will I let it press me into Christ? Will my roots spread wide as I seek relief in things around me, or will they go deep as I turn again and again to God, pouring out the honest emotions and lingering in God’s presence long enough to let him meet me there as the One who is both the slain Lamb, suffering with and for me, and the Lion of Judah seated on the throne?

I’ve been pondering all this again in the midst of the worst flare of my chronic illness that I’ve had for years. For me, both the greatest pain and the greatest gift comes not in the physical limitations, but in what those limitations show me about the strength and location of my roots. Sure, it’s unpleasant feeling exhausted and light-headed and finding my eyes unable to focus. But it’s more painful to discover, as I need to back out of commitments and accept help with shopping and cleaning and cooking, how much I still care about what people think of me. (Will they think I’m lazy? Selfish? Irresponsible?)

I see how my roots spread wide, seeking affirmation from those around me. The seeing is painful, and yet it’s a gift. Seeing makes sense of the struggle within me. It calls me to keep opening this part of myself to God’s healing love, to choose again and again to follow him and not let my fears of what others might think guide my decisions. In other words, it invites me to pray and act in ways that let my taproot grow deeper and deeper into the spring of Life rather than relying on my superficial root systems for runoff.

The process isn’t comfortable, but I’m grateful for the dryness of this place that is pushing me to dig deep for water. And in the moments I don’t know how to proceed, how to let my struggles press me into God? Here I’m encouraged by the promises that accompany the challenge:

“Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing.  If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.”

—James 1:2-5, The Voice (bold mine)

God of the details

In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year when coloured pencils and binders are on sale, the nights are starting to cool, and the picnic basket has been traded in for school bags or briefcases. There’s excitement in the air—the goodness of beginning fresh—and sometimes also a bit of heaviness as we leave summer behind and enter the season ahead.

When change is in the air, I need to pause and look back before moving forward. What do I want to take with me? What will I choose to leave behind?

As we begin this season, I’m holding close the memory of a day last week, turning it over and exploring what it tells me about the God who is going before me and with me into the fall.

I was staying with friends for a few days. I’ve never considered myself a visual artist (particularly since the teacher in our mandatory grade ten art class informed me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.”) But I’m drawn to beauty and color, and my friend, Linda, a watercolor artist, was helping me learn to play with paint. Together we gathered leaves and ferns and grasses and arranged them in wet paint, allowing the beauty of their forms to pattern the page and delighting in the surprise of how the colors merged and mingled. 

One afternoon, we set aside the paint and went to walk a nearby trail.

Dragonflies hummed by, and I tried repeatedly to catch their image with my camera, eventually whispering the longing in my heart, “Oh, God, even from a distance they’re so beautiful. Could you bring one close enough that I can really look at it?” 

But they were too quick and eventually I had to stop trying to grasp a gift that wasn’t being given and get on with receiving the gifts that were being given that day.

The following morning, Linda went out to get the mail. There, by her feet, was a perfectly formed dragonfly. His brief lifespan had ended, and the God who knows each sparrow that falls evidently keeps track of dragonflies too, letting this one bring Him glory even in his death.

As I sat and looked and worshiped the Creator, turning his tiny creature around and around in the light of the new day, I pictured God smiling as he’d received my prayer the previous day and planned the surprise for the following day, whispering, “That gift is for tomorrow.” 

I can be tempted to feel like the gifts of vacation are for a few days or weeks only, and to feel sad or heavy as I leave vacation behind. It is true, particular gifts are for particular days. But the heart from which they come does not change, and each day holds new gifts.

“The faithful love of the Lord never ends!

His mercies never cease.

Great is his faithfulness;

his mercies begin afresh each morning.”

Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT

We move into this new season preceded and accompanied by the God who has created us and the world around us—the dragonfly’s compound eyes, the fine hairs on its back, the lace of its wings—and who delights to show us his love in the details of our daily lives.

May we be given eyes wide to see God’s goodness, and hearts open to delight in Him as we begin this new season with Him.