Vines and umbilical cords: on growing up while staying small

I’ve been feeling the tension lately between the invitations in Scripture to stay small and the ones to mature.

On the one hand, we’re told to become like children (Mat 19:14; 18:3). We hear God say, “Don’t be afraid, little Israel, for I myself will help you” (Isaiah 41:14), and we hear him promise, “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). We’re told to cling close because “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

On the other, we’re entrusted with huge gifts and called to invest them (Matt 25:14ff). We’re called to step out courageously (Joshua 1:9), to join in the work to be done (Matt 28:18-20), and to grow up (Eph 4:11-16; Col 1:28-9, 4:12).

I talk about it with the friend who helps me listen, and I leave our time together wondering whether it is significant that Jesus pictures our dependence on him as a vine rather than an umbilical cord. Vines and cords both represent essential life-sustaining connection, carrying nutrients and allowing growth. Both are fairly resilient and hard to cut.

But there is this: The cord, though essential to survival for a time, must ultimately be cut to allow the baby to grow into maturity and fruitfulness. A human baby must leave the womb.

But a branch? It must remain in the vine, the connection growing ever thicker and stronger as it moves from the fragile baby stage to bearing weighty clusters of fruit. For a vine, (and for a Christian), growth into maturity and fruitfulness requires a strengthening of the connection, not a severing of it.

There are, to be sure, parts of the Christian experience that serve as umbilical cords, sustaining life and nurturing growth for a time, but needing to be cut to allow further growth. For most of us, there comes a time when we’re asked to rely less on what we feel or sense, when we can’t find words to pray, when old images of God or ways of relating to him seem to dry out and shrivel up. We may cry like a babe pushed from its warm, comfortable home into the cold, bright world, and that’s okay. Birth hurts.

But as painful and scary and new as it may feel, the cutting of these cords does not equate to the severing of our true life-sustaining connection but invites us into the strengthening of it. At the heart of the Christian life is dependence on the only One who can do for and in us what we cannot do for ourselves, and growing up as a Christian is growing up into Christ (Eph 4:15). Growing up as a Christian means not less but more dependence. It means being okay with our smallness and living more freely and confidently within that dependence.

Here’s to staying small and growing up at the same time, living freely in the security and life-giving dependence of being tightly connected to the Vine.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches.

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.

Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Make of me something small enough to snuggle

I snuggle close, safely swaddled. It’s warm here, and safe. These arms are my whole world, and whatever might be going on outside them is, to me, a distant dream. The one who carries me will take care of all that. Lub-dub, lub-dub: the heartbeat against which I’m held soothes me with its steady lullaby, and I feel myself move as the chest to which I’m swaddled rises and falls, my secure world—my Rock—rocking me. I drift between waking and sleep, held.

Shout for joy, o heavens; rejoice, O earth;

Burst into song, O mountains!

For the LORD comforts his people

And will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,

The Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”—Isaiah 49:13-15

Ted Loder’s words once again become my prayer:

“. . . Come, find me, Lord.

Be with me exactly as I am.

Help me find me, Lord.

            Help me accept what I am,

                        so I can begin to be yours.

Make of me something small enough to snuggle,

            young enough to question

                        simple enough to giggle,

                                    old enough to forget,

                                                foolish enough to act for peace;

            skeptical enough to doubt

                        the sufficiency of anything but you,

            and attentive enough to listen

                        as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity

                                    into the chancy glory of my possibilities

                                                and the power of your presence.”

—Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, p. 32

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Title of this blog post borrowed from a line in Ted Loder’s prayer-poem, “It Would Be Easier to Pray if I Were Clear,” quoted in part above. I am loving his book, Guerrillas of Grace.

Loved in our frailty

I’ve just returned from ten days in the Rockies—ten days of feeling small. Majestic mountains towered over the towns where we stayed and lined both sides of the highway. A road was closed because of an avalanche.

I loved the mountains, loved running up the mountain trails in the early morning and discovering the vista at the top. But as much as I’ve thought and written about smallness, there were moments on this trip when the exterior landscape imaging my interior one left me unsettled by my smallness.

The trip took place just after graduation. I’ve been slowly working away at my Master’s for eight years—the last few of those spent writing a book. I’ve learned many things, chief among which is my smallness, and my lovedness in my smallness. And now? This is where that learning gets tested, here where I step out of studies and into the real world. Here is the place for trust, here where I face the world and feel my smallness and vulnerability. Sometimes, to be honest, it’s terrifying.

But as I settled into my window seat yesterday on the flight home and let my heart and mind run back over the trip, I realized something important: my fear was not the result of facing my smallness, but of forgetting that I’m cherished and tended in my smallness. Fear accompanies not the mere awareness of smallness, but the attempt to carry responsibility meant for Someone bigger.

The plane rose through the clouds, the wind shaking our small plane and reinforcing my sense of smallness.

In this world that so often equates bigger with better, it’s not hard to equate smallness with insignificance. Small is frail, small is vulnerable, therefore small is insecure and out of control and scary and to be avoided or upgraded or supersized. But as I panned back over the trip, two moments stood out, inviting me into a truer view of my smallness.

The first came when we climbed the stairs at the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site. At each landing, we leaned over the railings and peered into the pools and streams, searching for the apple-seed sized Banff Springs Snails that now survive only in this one place in the world. Each time we were disappointed.

And then, at the final stop, we saw them clinging to dead leaves and bits of wood in a partly shaded pool. The joy I felt was more than the joy of finding something we’d been searching for. For a moment the curtain lifted and I sensed myself on holy ground, feeling for an instant the worth of these tiny creatures. Their smallness and vulnerability didn’t negate their significance; it made them candidates for special attention and care.

 

The second invitation into a truer view of smallness came through an encounter with an elk. Two consecutive days we saw her on our morning walk as she lingered in the same patch of woods, separate from the herd and moving slowly. She lifted her head to look at us but didn’t run away. Was she old? Sick? But she looked too plump to be ailing.

Then we learned that when the time of their delivery nears, mama elk leave the herd. The third day we did not see her. Was she in labor? Had her calf been born? We’d been running on that trail because the trail on the other side of town was closed while a grizzly feasted on the carcass of an elk. Would this mama and her calf survive this vulnerable time of their lives?

And then I remembered God questioning Job as Job wrestled with his own vulnerability:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?

Do you count the months till they bear?

Do you know the time they give birth?

They crouch down and bring forth their young;

Their labor pains are ended.

Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;

They leave and do not return.” (Job 39:1-4)

Comfort is found not in overcoming our smallness, but in knowing the One who sees and tends us in our smallness.

Tiny snails, big elk, and we humans in between—all as frail and vulnerable as wildflowers that bloom for a day or two and then wither (Isaiah 40:6-7).

And all of us loved and tended in our frailty (Psalm 104).

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Photos #1, 3, and 6 by Marny Watts.

The kind of love that holds you

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference to a day or a relationship, that break the camel’s back or make you certain you are known and loved.

Last week it was a hazelnut—a missing hazelnut, to be precise, and then a found one—that taught my heart what it needed to know.

I’d been carrying it around in the left pocket of my coat for five or six years since I first read Julian of Norwich’s beautiful image of God holding in the palm of his hand, like a tiny hazelnut, all that is made. I love to slip my hand in my pocket as I walk and be reminded that I am part of God’s creation—always held, sustained in being because God made me and loves me and keeps me.

But one day last week when I slipped my hand in my pocket, my hazelnut wasn’t there. It was such a small thing but, like a missing tooth, I kept exploring the gap, feeling the emptiness.

At first I tried to brush away the sadness and assure myself it didn’t matter; it was such a small loss and God still holds me whether or not I have a hazelnut in my pocket to remind me. Then I tried to problem-solve; where might I have lost it? How could I replace it? (Where do you even buy nuts in their shells at this time of year?)

And then I felt a nudge: “Ask Me.”

“Oh. Right. Thank you. But really? I feel like a two-year old with a missing blanket. You really want me to ask you about that?”

“I love you, child.”

So I told him my sadness, and thanked him for being with me in it. I told him I knew it was a tiny thing, but I really liked that hazelnut, and I asked if he’d help me find or replace it.

Soon after, I sensed a nudge and went to look in the drawer of my bedside table (feeling, I must admit, a little like I was looking in the oven for my toothbrush!) But there, nestled among the pill bottles and blood pressure cuff, bookmarks and pens, as though waiting to be found, was a single hazelnut.

It wasn’t the hazelnut that brought tears to my eyes; it was the love of the God who holds it always in the palm of his hand. The grand love that made all that exists and sustains it in being is not a generic love but a very particular, tender love—the love of a parent who will search through the whole house at bedtime to find the missing blanket for the toddler because her small needs and loves and desires matter.

I’m glad I lost my hazelnut. My heart knows, now, so much more about the hand that holds me!

Let grace be grace: Learning to see

I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?

Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)

But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”

And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.

Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.

Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.

I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”

Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.

“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”

Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.