Walking on water, or swinging along a high bar?

Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them?

The question wrote itself in my mind as yesterday’s preacher spoke from Acts 2, focussing on the little phrase, “. . . as the Spirit enabled them” (v.4). The Spirit’s enabling is the secret to how we can live a life that matters because, as Jesus reminded us, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5).  The Spirit empowered the gathered disciples to speak coherently in languages they’d never learned, overcoming their natural human limitations.

But just fifteen minutes before the service began, I’d been talking about learning to respect my limitations. Sometimes I still find my limitations frustrating. Often I see them as gifts. (And it’s quite possible for them to be both at the same time!) They have made space for me to know that God loves and wants me, not just my work. They help guide me into the work God has for me to do, and to say no to what is not mine to do. And, often, my limitations are what God uses to help me understand and love someone else well in the midst of their own limitations.

So which is it? Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them, giving us grace to live well within them?

As I ponder and pray, I’m realizing three things:

  1. God’s ways are higher than mine, and just because I can’t tidily explain how two things fit together doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. Take free will and predestination, or Jesus’ complete humanity and divinity. Our minds struggle to hold them together, yet if one is separated from the other, we slip into a belief that is so one-sided it is no longer true. 
  2. When heaven invades earth, it doesn’t obliterate it. Jesus’ divinity didn’t override his humanity. He remained fully human and limited, needing to eat and sleep, becoming weary, and remaining susceptible to the ultimate limitation: death. He wasn’t superhuman so much as the perfect human.
  3. God doesn’t promise to empower me for everything I want to do, or even everything I think I should be able to do. He will, however, enable me for the work He has prepared for me to do.

For some years I did work I should not have been able to do with my medical condition. Was I walking on water by the Spirit’s enabling, or was I keeping myself from sinking by desperately pulling myself along, hand-over-hand along a high bar, wondering when my arms would give way and I would drop into the water waiting below?

Perhaps some of both.

Definitely a lot of the second. 

Limits are a good and important part of our humanity, reminding us of the profound grace that we are not God, and keeping us close to the One who loves us and is able to do what we can’t. 

Sometimes God empowers us to do what would otherwise be humanly impossible: speak in languages we haven’t learned, love people we can’t otherwise love, and thrive in situations that seem impossible. Sometimes we’re given the ability, for a moment, to walk on water.

Many other times, God works through our limitations, rather than taking them away. He says to us what he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Slowly I’m learning to recognize when I’m walking on water, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and when I’m pulling myself along above the water in my own strength. One of the markers, I think, is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:28-30 that his yoke is easy and his burden light. If I feel like I’m pulling myself hand-over-hand through my exhaustion, there’s a good chance I am.

There’s hard work which results in weariness but is also marked by peace and joy and hope—signs of the Spirit at work (Gal 5:22-23)—and there’s hard work that just drains away more and more life. Can we allow ourselves, in that place, to let go into Jesus’ strong arms, trusting that his strength will catch and hold and help us in my weakness? 


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The gift of holy confidence

“You sound like an abused woman.” She was speaking to me.  I stopped mid-thought, trying to make sense of what she had said. I’m one of the far-too-small percentage of women who has never been sexually or physically abused. After a moment to catch my breath I asked, “Can you say more?”

“They find it so hard to leave because it’s what they know.” 

Her words came in the midst of a conversation with three friends who were helping me listen. I was telling them about a moment in which I’d been given a tiny glimpse of the pattern that God is weaving out of the broken bits of my life—a pattern that, in that moment, led me by its beauty into delight in what God is doing, and gratitude for the deep privilege of also having a small role in what he is doing in someone else’s life. I was worshipping. And then I wasn’t. All of a sudden my delight was replaced with fear. Was I slipping into pride? Was it okay to enjoy so much the work I was getting to do with God? I had slipped from worship to being anxious about not being anxious. 

As we talked, I said, “I’m used to doing this work with some anxiety running in the background. I know how to do it that way—how to be small and held and let my anxiety press me closer to God, keeping me dependent on him. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to feel confident without it feeling wrong or dangerous somehow, prideful maybe, even though I knowI can’t do this work without God, and I’m fairly sure this is a holy, trusting confidence into which God is inviting me.”

That’s when her words stopped me and helped me see. I knew how to live with anxiety, how to let it press me deeper into God’s love. But if I was invited to step into a holy confidence, could I let the anxiety go? Could I dare to step into an unfamiliar freedom? How would I stay in healthy dependence without anxiety to remind me of my unceasing need for God?

The questions kept coming:

  • What if God wants you to be big? 
  • What if you’re being invited to leave a comfortable space?
  • Might the uncomfortable place of confidence be the place of dependence?

It’s a fact: we are small and dependent and held(Isaiah 40:6-8; 41:10,13-14; 46:3-4). Without Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It was trying to escape their dependence on God that got Adam and Eve, as well as the folk at the tower of Babel, into trouble.

It’s also a fact: we are created in the image of God, given authority over creation, entrusted with talents to steward and people to serve and tasks to faithfully complete. We are created a little lower than God and intended to judge angels and rule nations as we share in the reigning over God’s kingdom (Ps 8; Dan 7:18,22,27; 1 Cor 6:3; Rev 2:26-27). Love has indeed stooped down to make us great (Ps. 18:35).

Precisely because we are and always will be small compared to God, we can grow into our truest, fullest self, unafraid that God will be threatened by us stretching to our full stature. Like a parent who delights in a child’s first steps and growing vocabulary, God wantsus to grow into our truest, fullest, most able self. He knows that that can only happen as we make our home in His love, and He does all he can to facilitate that process. 

Trust can look many different ways.

In moments of anxiety and feeling small and vulnerable, trust can look like running to the place I know myself safe and letting myself be held. There, I’m trusting that I’m known and loved and welcomed, that God is gentle and kind and will never let me go.

When God calls me to step out, trust can look like moving forward, relying on the God who promises to be with me even when I’m afraid. There, I’m trusting that God will give strength, and that He is enough for whatever may come.

And in those moments of grace when I’m called to step out and am given joy and confidence in doing it, trust can look like fearlessly savoring the gift and celebrating the One who gave it. There, I’m trusting that God is with me and for me, delighting to see me enjoying the work he equips me to do. Paul models for me this kind of healthy, holy confidence which is unafraid to acknowledge that we can’t do anything without God, and equally unafraid to trust that, in Christ, we are made competent for the work to which we are called.

“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. . .”  

(2 Cor 3:4-6)

As I pondered all this, I wondered, “We’re walking toward the cross with Jesus and have less than two weeks to go. How does all this fit?” It felt odd and uncomfortable to be considering confidence—or thinking about myself at all—when I’m walking with the One I love toward his death. 

But as soon as I asked the question, I sensed an answer. This is part of what the cross is about.Jesus went to the cross to restore right relationships—with God, first of all, and also with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. He died to rescue us from our fallen, crushed state, to place us back into our relationship with him and to enable us again for our intended roles as sub-rulers under God and even co-rulers with him (Dan 7: 18,22,27; Rev 2:26-27; Rom 8:17). We honor the cross and Jesus’ great sacrifice when we step as fully as we can into the new chapter his death has opened up—a chapter of hope and freedom, of love conquering fear, and of confidence that Jesus will complete in us the work he has begun.

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)

Walking shoeless (OR When you feel unfinished)


Sometimes a particular dream catches my attention, as though it is wiser than I am and wants to tell me something if only I’ll pay attention. When I pause to ponder and pray about it, I often notice things that seem obvious once I see them, but I was too blind, or my mind too busy, to see them in my waking life.
One of those dreams came last week. In it I was feeling inadequate next to a friend whom I love and respect, and afraid that she’d tire of our friendship. We were at a course together, and as she came by my room to pick me up on our way to the next session a few steps across a small, dry courtyard, I observed aloud that we were both in sock feet. She looked at her feet, seeming mildly surprised, then smiled and shrugged as though she was used to discovering that she wasn’t quite put together. I, meanwhile, stopped to try to find my shoes. I couldn’t find them, but I wouldn’t stop looking—under the bed, in the closet, again and again searching places I’d already looked. The next class was beginning. Eventually, my friend went on ahead.
As I lingered with the image of being shoeless, I noticed that we were both in sock feet. None of us in this life has it all together, no matter how it may seem when I make the mistake of comparing my inside to someone else’s outside. The difference between my dream friend and myself was not that she had it all together, but that she had learned not to let her lack of togetherness derail her from her calling.
I remembered, too, God’s command to Moses: “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Standing there together, both of us shoeless, my friend and I were on holy ground. Maybe we’d find that we always are, if we paused to pay attention, for where can we flee from God’s presence? My incompleteness, our incompleteness, is never the end of the story because God is alive and active and at work in both of us, as well as between us and through us. God is as eager to show us more of who He is as He was to show Moses more of Himself when He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. And He’s still perfectly able, through that knowing of Him, to complete us with Himself—whether that means offering faith in the face of fear or, as it did with Moses,  transformation from being someone with such severe anger issues that he murdered a fellow human, into being one of history’s greatest leaders. That completion comes in the following, though, in the leaning in and clinging close and paying attention not to my inadequacy but to God’s sufficiency. The question is: Will I follow, shoeless, my attention on the wonder of the bushes burning around me, or will I stop and refuse to move until I find my shoes?
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Photo by Marjorie Bertrand on Unsplash

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.
I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.
So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.
I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.
I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.
 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash