Flying lessons: Why we can dare to live fully

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I receive an invitation to participate in the final week of a group that has been working through Rational Worship, the Bible study that I started writing almost ten years ago when I was back at my parents’ home, too sick to be out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day. I wrote it because I needed to be reminded why it made sense to give myself to God again when I’d already done that and everything—health, career, ministry, life as I knew it—seemed to have fallen apart.

I’m excited that the group is using it. I will delight to be present during their final session, to witness their engagement, their joys and struggles, discoveries and hopes. But on my way to the excitement, I encountered another, more timid part of me, first. The little voice that can be so loud in my head started telling me I’ll disappoint the group. That I should stay safely hidden on the other side of written words rather than step out into the open. That I’m really not good enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, prepared enough to engage.

That’s when I realized it was time for me to turn back to the truths in Rational Worship again myself, to be reminded once more that my offering myself to God only ever makes sense not because of who I am, but because of who God is.

I recalled the heron I watched as I prepared to share the Rational Worship study.

He sits long, watching amidst the grid of stone and steel.

He doesn’t dip for food and I wonder what he’s waiting for. Does he even know?

I wait with him, glad for the quiet moments.

In the stillness a longing rises in me. I have begun to take wings, to fly beyond the steel grid of fear that pins me to earth. But I long to fly higher still, farther and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love.

The bird has wings, made for the air. I have feet and a soul and I’m made to be filled with God Himself. My choice not to step into this is as irrational as a bird who refuses to fly.

This alone is true living, this alone is true worship, this offering of my body each moment to be filled with God.

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It has been five and a half years since I shared the study here, and that longing to fly higher and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love is with me still, though sometimes I need to dig through layers of fear to find it.

As I turned back to the beginning of the study, my soul began to breathe like I’d been swimming underwater and had finally surfaced to gasp in once more the same life-sustaining truth: I don’t have to be strong, or “enough” in any other way, to offer myself to God. He is enough, and when I offer myself to God, I gain Him and all of His enoughness. That’s why the invitation to offer myself as a living sacrifice to God is placed where it is—at the end of eleven chapters celebrating God’s wisdom and grace, sovereignty and love, and immediately following four verses of overflowing praise for God’s more-than-enoughness:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?

Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?

For from him and through him and to him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy,

to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –

this is your spiritual act of worship. . .” (Romans 11:33-12:1)

Therefore. Could there be a more comforting way to begin this verse than with the reminder that my ability to be an acceptable sacrifice is far less about my own ability than about God’s incomprehensible wisdom, his holy “otherness,” his lavish generosity, and his centrality in the universe, all of which, in his unfathomable mercy, he offers to us? His job is to be God in all his sufficiency. Mine is to show up, bringing myself as I am—fear and all—to this One who loves me, and who is and will always be enough. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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If you’re interested in revisiting with me the truth of God’s character, and why it makes sense to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God even when life seems to have fallen apart, click on the images below to download your free copy of the six week Bible study, “Rational Worship: Offering Ourselves to the God of Mercy” and the accompanying Leader’s Guide. (You may wish to right-click and choose “download linked file” to save the pdfs to your computer.) Or go here for more about what it offers and how it came to be written.

It might just be the perfect summer encouragement, a chance to soak again in the joy of who God is.

And if you’d like company on the journey, slip your email into the box in the right side-bar for weekly grace delivered straight to your inbox. I won’t be writing directly about the study in these coming posts, but I pray that all my posts offer encouragement and practical help as we keep learning to fly higher and deeper into the wide-open spaces of God’s love together. It’s a grace to journey with you!

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A season of transformation

Some years by now the trees here are already bursting with bloom, but Saturday morning I pulled on my hat and boots and headed out into the thick fresh snow that had descended overnight.

“Lent” comes from a word meaning “spring.” That morning, it didn’t look much like spring.

How do we live this Lent, this season of preparation, when winter seems clearer than spring? How do we live the times when we wonder if the spring will come, the moments when we cry with David, “How long, O Lord?”

I step out of the foot-printed path into the deeper snow to make way for a woman brave enough to run in sneakers, a rim of bare leg showing above her ankle socks.

I slow and pause and enjoy the unique beauty of winter. Even when the benches are covered with snow, we’re invited to linger, to notice how God’s mercy is new on this morning.

Spring is not an isolated season but a moment-by-moment transition from winter to summer, a slow work of transformation when some days winter seems to have the upper hand and other days the fresh scent of irrepressible newness fills the air. Spiky witch hazel blooms poke through caps of snow, sun warms my shoulders when I turn my back to the wind, and snow melts into heavy, crystal drops that fall from burdened pine needles, pitting the bank beneath.

Along the road to spring’s resurrection is the death and dormancy of winter. Winter has its own important work to do in us. Here as nowhere else we learn the lessons of perseverance and patience and grace. We only really know how deeply loved we are when we come face to face with our own helplessness and find ourselves loved even in that place.

Here too we learn about ourselves. What am I clinging to? Where do I find my security? I’ll not quickly forget the words of one of my teachers, “When we’re in the midst of suffering, there is an invitation to let something go.”  What is God inviting me to hold more loosely so my hands are free to hold more tightly to his?

And here we find that the all powerful God who could put an instant end to winter instead enters it, meeting us in it (though it may take a long time for us to recognize the signs of his coming in the cold and dark of winter). As that same teacher said, encapsulating for me one of the key invitations of Lent and of the whole life of discipleship, “Suffering reduces me to the truth that I can’t do this. Oh, right! I have a Savior who was unfairly tortured, crucified, and rose again. Maybe I can talk to him and live this with him.”

We live the cycle of the seasons in many different ways during our lives. Each year, maybe, we live the rhythms of nature, allowing the cold and dark of winter to settle us into a different sort of rhythm than when the summer sun tugs us outdoors to play in its warmth. We live a longer cycle, too, from the newness of infancy through the seasons of planting and harvest of our adult years. But maybe in another way, this whole life on earth is a sort of springtime, a transitional season in which we live in that tension of the soul’s winter which is slowly giving way to Life’s light brightening within us.

The sun was warm that morning that I ran, and by the time I returned home, soft clumps of snow were starting to fall from the branches, denting the drifts below with a soft thud.

The path or the goal?

Sometimes the challenge is in hearing the heartbeat of God.

Maybe just as often the challenge is in letting my heartbeat line up with God’s. I don’t want to let go of my comfort, my security, or my control; my favorite couch, the freedom to plan my days without worrying about someone else’s schedule, the quiet space I’ve come to love.

Yesterday, words that helped me face the truth came through someone who is not one of my usual spiritual directors:

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in William Bridges, Managing Transitions, p. 77)

When God has closed all the doors to moving to an unfurnished apartment with my own belongings and living on my own, and is graciously opening the door to sharing a friend’s furnished apartment, at least for a few months, might God be showing me a place I’ve confused the path with the goal and am in danger of clinging to the path I’ve chosen instead of letting him lead me to the goal by the route he knows is best?

The goal is not silence or solitude or order. Those are paths, and, for me, exceptionally helpful ones, to make space to listen to God’s heartbeat. The goal is union with God such that his love fills me. The goal is receiving God’s love, loving him back, and letting his love flow through me to my neighbour.

And, right now, opening my arms to God’s embrace and my hands to his gifts means letting go of my paths and plans, my couch and tables, and letting God teach me once again how to live and love and listen in community, and how to find in that new setting whatever stillness he knows I need to hear him.

There’s freedom here. And often joy. But there have been moments and days in the letting go when I’ve felt confused. Sad. Angry. Fearful. I can slip into the temptation to feel like what I want doesn’t matter and God doesn’t really care about me. That’s when I need to go back and remember that God is the God of unfailing kindness, and look for the little and big ways I’ve seen his kindness in the past and I see it in the present. Getting to stay in the same building. First month’s rent almost free. The memory of meeting my new housemate a year or two ago and thinking I’d almost prefer sharing a place with her to living on my own. I find myself excited, if a little nervous, to see how God will meet us as we walk this new path together over the next few months. Even when the path looks different than the one I’d chosen, this I know—that God is for me. He is giving me his best—Himself—and in the process, everything else besides.

And in the moments I struggle to trust, I’m awed at the grace that meets me there too. I encountered it again in Exodus 6 one morning last week. The Israelites are still in Egypt. God has just given them his very clear promise that he will deliver them and be their God and they his people, and that he will bring them to the land he promised their ancestors. God knows the path to the goal. “But they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (v. 9). And instead of getting angry at their lack of trust and giving up on them or retracting his promise, our Father who is gentle and compassionate, remembering that we are dust, responds to their disbelief with a command to Moses, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country” (v. 10-11). God’s faithfulness does not depend on my faith. God responds to their struggle to trust with a settled determination to keep his promises and thus slowly, gently teach his people whose trust has been broken by discouragement and cruel bondage that it’s safe to trust again. That he is not like the taskmasters under which they currently serve. That he is for them. And always trustworthy.

“If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)

 

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Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash.

The surprising question for a deepening spiritual life

I’m flipping through a book I was sent, and I’m only a few pages in when Phileena Heurertz’s words stop me:

“According to Father Thomas Keating—a Cistercian monk—at the time of conversion we orient our lives by the question, ‘What can I do for God?’ Seems appropriate, right? But when we begin the spiritual journey our life is dramatically altered toward the question, ‘What can God do for me?’”

My guard is up already. A journey built around the question, “What can God do for me?” It feels self-centred. But she continues:

“This isn’t a narcissistic, exploitative question toward a disempowered God. It’s the exact opposite. This is the central question of a humble person who has awakened to their true self and to the awe-inspiring adoration of an extraordinary God.” (Pilgrimage of a Soul, p. 15-16)

For days I turn her words over in my mind. Could she be right? Is the direction of a deepening spiritual life a move from ‘What can I do for God?’ toward ‘What can God do for me?’ rather than the other way around?

As I ponder, I realize my journey has already been taking me in that direction. I’m discovering more and more deeply all the time how, in myself, I have nothing to offer. At first that felt shameful. Now it feels freeing. Jesus knows this truth, and wants me to know it too: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants to set me free from trying to be God so I can enjoy being my own small self and letting God be his all-sufficient self in me. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with my smallness, and with that settling into smallness has come a deepening trust and peace. But still. I wouldn’t have been daring enough to put it in those words. A shift from “What can I do for God?” to “What can God do for me?” the mark of a deepening faith? Really?

It seems God wants me to hear this, because he starts to speak in surround-sound. First I notice the Lord’s prayer.

“Our Father in heaven,

Reveal who you are.

Set the world right;

Do what’s best—as above, so below.

Keep us alive with three square meals.

Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

You’re in charge!

You can do anything you want!

You’re ablaze in beauty!

Yes. Yes. Yes.” (Matthew 6:9-13, The Message)

The starting line for this prayer is that I can do none of this on my own. No matter how much I might want to do something for God, the truth is that there’s nothing I can do. I’m completely dependent on God—for food, forgiveness, setting the world right, and protection (even—or especially—from myself). All I can do is ask God to do in me and in the world, for me and for the world, what only He can do.

I’m starting to catch on. The question that startled me and started all this wondering is the heart of the gospel, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I need to hear it again. It’s like Jesus walked up beside me and I didn’t recognize him. But then I realize that this itself, this learning to recognize the gospel where it shows up and live it in all my daily moments, is one more place to practice the humbling truth that I can’t do even this work in me—I can only open myself to God to keep doing in me what only He can do. And even this opening, while a choice, is summoned and enabled by grace.

I pick up Emily P. Freeman’s Grace for the Good Girl to read the next few pages, and within two pages of where I pick up, she speaks of Mary’s choice to trust when the angel came to tell her she would conceive a child. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38 NIV). Emily writes,

“I love that Mary uses the word servant here, because it communicates that service is an act of faith. It isn’t me doing work for God, but it is me trusting God to do the work in me.” (p. 63)

Over the page, speaking now about Martha when Jesus comes to dinner, she writes,

Martha’s desire to please clouded her willingness to trust. I understand this mistake of Martha’s perhaps more than any other. Given the choice to please God or to trust God, good girls become conflicted. We know we’re supposed to trust God, but trust is so intangible. It almost seems passive in the face of all there is to do. . . .

Choosing to please God sounds right at first, but it so often leads to a performing life, a girl trying to become good, a lean-on-myself theology. If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. But when I trust God, pleasing him is automatic” (64-5).

If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. This is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please God—except when it keeps me from trusting Him. And it does that often enough that trying to please God might, for some of us, sometimes, actually be the opposite of trusting him. A fixation with pleasing God all too often pulls my focus away from Him and puts it on myself. I hear again the words that God has been speaking to me daily for at least a couple of years: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

Emily’s words ring in my head, “Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ. He doesn’t want my service. He wants me. And from that life-giving relationship, ‘streams of living water will flow from within’ (John 7:38 NIV).” (p.65)

The surround-sound conversation seems to be fading (until the next time Jesus sneaks up on me unawares), and God leaves me with words spoken through the apostle Paul to ponder:

“The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you” (Galatians 3:11 The Message).

African monkey traps and our giving God

By Shawn Allen (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In my spiritual director training, one of the facilitators shared a question that she often asks herself when she finds herself reacting to a situation, “In the midst of that situation, what must I have been assuming God is like?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself too, since it helps me get below what I think I believe about God to see what beliefs really shape the way I live.

I found myself asking that question this week when I felt afraid of stepping into something new. “Why the fear? What must I be assuming God is like?” And I discovered that though my head knows that God is the ultimate Generous Giver, some part of my heart deep down believes that God is not a Giver at all but a Taker, demanding constant hard work, perfection, service even if it kills me—demanding my whole life.

It was an uncomfortable surprise. Thinking about it now, though, it’s not all that surprising. Isn’t this just another form of the lie that has been woven into our DNA since the garden, that God is not good and can’t be trusted, that he is holding back from us the best? Isn’t this still the core of the daily struggle to trust, even for those of us who are His, who have tasted and seen again and again that the Lord is good?

This lie woven into our DNA is why we’re told over and over to remember that God is good, and given reminders to help us do so.

It’s why I need to intentionally savor each moment as a gift from the One who loves me, and look back at the end of each day asking God to help me notice where he was in the day.

And it’s why I need to remember the larger story and stay consciously aware that the lie of the serpent that sings quietly in the background is precisely that: a lie.

Often an image helps my heart see truth, and the picture of the African monkey trap helps me understand how my heart can so easily mistake such a generous Giver for a Taker.

The African monkey trap was “a large gourd with holes carved out on the sides just large enough for an orange or a monkey’s hand to pass through. No elaborate system of nets and concealed pits was needed, because once a monkey put its hand into the gourd and grasped the orange, it could not remove its hand without releasing the orange. Based on a ‘monkey mind’ mentality, which always deemed it necessary to hold on tenaciously to the orange, the trap never failed. Even when the hunter, club in hand, stood threateningly near, the monkey would think that it was stuck, never realizing that all it had to do to escape was drop the orange and run away.” (Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au, The Discerning Heart, p.136)

God does ask me to let go of everything. But he does it not, in the end, to take from me, but to give to me. He asks me to let go of a single orange in order to free me into a forever life filled not just with trees hanging with oranges but with the One who creates it all. His taking is always in the service of his giving. It’s my monkey mind which keeps me focused on the orange I’m being asked to drop and prevents me from seeing the full life God is wanting to release me into.

And in the moment I understand that I’ve been seeing God as a Taker, my eyes fill with tears because I also see this: He knew what my heart has believed about him, and he hasn’t criticized or condemned but just kept gently loving, teaching my heart to trust. It’s one more bit of proof for this slow-to-learn heart of mine, that God is a generous, gentle, gracious God, a God who can be trusted to love this heart of mine, in all its doubts and fears and longings and loves, and to love it well.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:24-5)

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)