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)

Why you can dare to step out

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Immediately: I don’t always love the word. It can feel pressured and pushy and rushed, someone demanding something now. But in Matthew 14, it’s full of comfort, and turns the story on its head for me, helping me see what the story is really about.

Matthew 14 is the story of Peter walking on water, and I read it repeatedly last week, trying to understand. At first, I got stuck on Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I wanted to say, “That’s not fair, Jesus! Peter had huge faith! I don’t know anyone else who’s had enough faith to step out of a boat and walk on the surface of the water, especially in the middle of a storm, even for a few steps!”

But on about the fourth day, things started to come clearer. Dallas Willard helped me see that the Greek word Oligopistos, Littlefaith, is a sort of nickname that Jesus coined for his disciples,and I realized that it’s not a condemnation, just a statement of fact, and one with a promise attached, like those verses I love in Isaiah 41:13-14:

“’I am the LORD your God, who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel,

for I myself will help you,’ declares the LORD,

your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

Oligopistos, yup, that’s me. Littlefaith. That’s why I need Jesus with his ability to trust his Father perfectly on my behalf. Once I have accepted the truth about my smallness and, and along with it, the love of the One who delights to care for me in it, it’s no longer a threat, no longer something that upsets me or that I have to prove otherwise.

And then I started to notice the way the story unfolds.

It begins at the end of a long day, the end of a long stretch of ministry (Mark 6:30-45). Everyone is tired and needing a break. The previous miracle is over and the leftover loaves have been gathered and the disciples have seen that this God, their God enfleshed among them, somehow makes meals where even the leftovers far exceed the quantity of original ingredients. And immediately Jesus sends his disciples off while he dismisses the crowds. He cares deeply enough about their need for rest to do by himself what we used to call in medicine the “scut work”—all those important details that no one wants to do but that are essential for smooth running of the day.

Then, a few hours later, when the disciples are far out on the lake, paddling into a storm, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water and, not surprisingly, they are terrified. (How often have they seen that before? What would you think?) And immediately Jesus comforts them. “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” He sounds a lot like a parent comforting a child who’s afraid of the monster under the bed or the ghost in the cupboard: “It’s okay, Daddy’s here. Don’t be afraid.” And they are comforted.

Or at least Peter is. He trusts that voice enough to say, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus smiles at this eager student who wants to try what the teacher is doing and says, “Sure. Come.” And Peter comes. But in a moment Peter discovers that even though he’s no longer afraid of Jesus, he’s still afraid of his situation, and he cries out again in fear, but this time he cries to Jesus. And immediately and effectively, Jesus reaches for his hand and saves him. Always present, always attentive, perfectly able to deal with whatever arises.

I see the heading to the passage in my Bible, Jesus walks on water, and I see why it has taken me so long to understand the story: My focus has been on Peter walking on water.

But like all gospel stories, this story is not first about Peter’s faith, but about Jesus’ faithfulness.

It’s not about a growing ability to walk on water, but a growing relationship.

It’s not about the disciples’ failure but about Jesus’ attentiveness and care and how safe his followers are with this teacher—safe enough to risk stepping out and trying the tentative steps of trust. Each new attempt to trust and try something new, each failure of their faith, becomes a place to learn a little more of Jesus and then to trust him a little more as they discover how safe they are with him. And by the end of the story, they have a much better idea who he is—“Truly you are the Son of God!”—and they are brought to worship.

And as I write my prayer for the year—that Jesus would help me learn to trust—I hear the disciples’ similar prayer, “Increase our faith,” and Jesus’ surprising response. “You have enough faith. Just get out there and use it” (Luke 17:5-10 paraphrased). Jesus doesn’t condemn small faith. He knows we’re Oligopistos and he alone trusts his Father perfectly. And He knows what I’m learning: that the presence of this gracious, generous, creative, and very adventuresome God is a perfectly safe place to risk baby steps of faith, and that, like a muscle being strengthened, faith will grow as we step out, accompanied by Jesus, and discover his perfectly faithful care in every situation.

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1Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Franciso: HarperSanFranciso, 1998), 211.

When you struggle with surrender

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Surrender and receiving: The juxtaposition of the two words hit me so forcibly that I didn’t catch the rest of the sentence and, two sentences later, had to interrupt my conversation partner to admit that I’d missed everything she’d said since.

I usually think of surrender not as receiving but as giving. Giving up. Giving myself up.

Words can be dangerous, lugging baggage that colors our perception even when we’re not aware of it. In our world, surrender is often a word of defeat, carrying with it a sad, grey picture of soldiers who, knowing they are conquered, give up control of territory and their own freedom. What was once fear has become incontrovertible reality so they give in and stop fighting, hoping at least to preserve their lives.

But surrender as receiving? My wartime picture has no room for this. A suspicion creeps in: Might the fear I sometimes feel of surrendering to God and his will reflect this underlying picture that I didn’t even know was there until I was stopped and asked to think about it? Are there other pictures which might hold space for a truer understanding of what it means to surrender to God and his will? Slowly, they begin to appear:

A swimmer floats on her back, letting the water lift and hold her.

Be still and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)

A boat surrenders to the current and is carried much farther and faster than if its occupants had poured all their power into paddling.

The LORD will fight for you, you need only to be still. (Exodus 14:14)

A drowning man stops flailing and fighting his rescuer and lets himself be dragged ashore.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. . . . He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” (Ps. 18:16,19)

I walk in Van Deusen Gardens with a good friend. I have no sense of direction. She has a great one, and I am glad to put myself in her hands and let her choose our route.

“Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for GOD’S voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.” (Prov 3:5-6 MSG)

A screaming toddler, exhausted and not knowing what to do with herself, slowly surrenders to the strong and gentle arms that enfold her, letting her eyes close and her head rest on the shoulder of one who loves her, letting the weight of her body, her too-big emotions, her needs for security and comfort be held by someone bigger and more competent than her. She lets go of striving, grasping, trying to figure out things too hard for her and allows herself to settle into the love of the one who brought her into being.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.” (Ps 131)

As the pictures flow past, their common theme becomes clear: God is love, so surrendering to God is always surrendering to love.

Letting go is letting go of that which keeps me from enjoying that love.

Giving up is giving up whatever gets in the way of my living freely in that love.

Giving myself up is giving myself fully into the care of that love which loves me deeply enough to slowly, gently, set me free to become my true self in God, a self free enough to love in return.

When we surrender to Love, giving and receiving are two sides of the same act.