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.

When you have nothing to give

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As I bring my gift, shame sometimes still creeps in, taunting me with its jabs, “It’s such a poor gift. Can’t you find anything better than this to offer a King?”

I ignore the voice and offer my gift anyway, the gift that in this moment is all I have to give: all of my longing, my emptiness, my helplessness.

The Gracious One reminds me of another woman who gave him all of her nothingness, her entire poverty. He received it as a gift of everything.

In this upside-down kingdom, it is not fullness, independence, sufficiency which the King seeks, but emptiness. Acceptance of our own inability.

“Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.” (Simone Weil)

It is grace itself which makes this void.

It is grace that lets us feel the truth of our smallness.

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

It is grace that fills our smallness with his greatness.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

And it is grace that reminds us again and again that our emptiness is not a shameful gift, not a last resort because we have nothing “better” to offer, but the very thing God most wants—because he who delights to bless in the most extravagant ways wants to fill us with himself.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit (or as I’ve often heard Darrell Johnson paraphrase, “Blessed are those who know they do not have what it takes”) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

 

An edited repost from the archives

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.