Reason to celebrate

“Pause here. Listen. Look.”

Last week I wrote of the unexpected benches in our lives inviting us to pause and really look before hurrying on. This week transition has been one of those benches, and as I’ve accepted its invitation, the view has been well worth the look.

A few weeks ago, after a mere eight years, I finally finished a degree at Regent College. One might have thought I’d be dancing all the way across the stage at graduation. In truth, I didn’t feel much—maybe because I’ve graduated more than once before. Or because I’m more aware than ever that I’m not really a master of anything. Or because, increasingly, I find my comfort and joy in simply being loved in my smallness. Maybe the uncertainty that always comes with endings and beginnings was stealing my attention. But as I accepted the invitation of the bench this week, I realized that if I look more deeply than the signed and sealed paper in my hand, there are gifts from my time at Regent that awaken celebration in me. This reminder tops the list:

The journey may not look the way I expect, but I can trust God to get me where I need to go, and to fulfill my deepest longings in the process.

I came to Regent hoping to learn to read the Bible in the original languages. I took a year of Hebrew and a year of Greek. I loved both. But I discovered that I had to be writing, and studying Biblical languages turned out to be all-consuming. So I changed tracks. And as I sat on the bench and looked back, I realized: my hope to read the Bible fluently in the original languages wasn’t fulfilled, but my deeper longing, the one that was driving that desire, was met. I wanted to learn Biblical languages because I wanted to hear God’s heartbeat more clearly. Turned out God knew that, for me, a different path would bring me closer to that goal, and he led me by that route.

I came to Regent hoping to study under Darrell Johnson. Shortly before I arrived, I learned that he was leaving. Turned out he was leaving in order to pastor a church, so instead of taking a course or two from him, I was able to sit under his preaching most weeks for five years, the truth of Jesus slowly working on the stony places in my heart, deepening the path for His life to flow in me.

I came to Regent looking forward to enjoying the rich multi-ethnic community. I never had the energy to make it to a Regent Retreat or a Taste of the World. But God knew whose friendship would be a rich gift for me (and, I hope, mine for them) and seated one new friend next to me in Greek class, put another in my Vocation of the Artist seminar, and several more with me in a Tuesday noon community group where we connected over soup. Those friendships are now some of my closest, and a means through which God is continuing the deepening process.

Often we’re asked to live in the uncomfortable middle where we don’t yet see how the details of our stories reach resolution. As we live in that middle, the times we are given the grace to look back and see God’s faithfulness are gifts, fuel for further faith as we rise from the bench and continue our journey. Gifts, and invitations: Will I trust that even if the route God takes me on looks different than the one I might have planned or chosen, God is taking me by that route because He loves me and wants to meet the deepest desires of my heart with the best He has to offer—Himself?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8-9

How to learn to trust (OR Good news about the God leading us into this year)

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Several weeks ago, I heard someone use four words to describe God. They’re not a complete description, of course—all the words in the world couldn’t accomplish that—but they’re true and beautiful and I’m heading into the New Year wanting this view of the Master to shape my year.

I heard the words in a sermon by Darrell Johnson. He was speaking about three servants to whom the Master had entrusted a significant treasure. (Did you know that a talent was worth twenty years of a day laborer’s wages, something over half a million dollars today?)

You know the story. The servant entrusted with two and a half million dollars invests it and doubles that amount. The servant handed a million dollars ends with two million. But the servant who receives a half-million dollars buries it and, when the master returns, digs it up and returns to him the exact same amount, excusing himself by saying that he knew the master was a hard man and he was afraid.

There’s a lot more in the sermon, but it’s this line about the two faithful servants and their view of the Master that I keep hearing: “They risk, they invest, because they know the Master is gracious and generous and creative and very adventuresome.” Gracious. Generous. Creative. And very adventuresome. That is the truth about the Master that I want to shape my year.

If I’m honest, looking ahead at a new year can raise all sorts of emotions. The excitement of newness. Anxiety about the unknown. The weight of expectations.

What does my mix of emotions about the new year tell me about how, deep in the place I live from, I really see the Master?

I may think I believe something about God, but how I feel and act shows what I really, deep down, believe.

My prayer for this year is that God will teach me to trust. It seems that God, knowing this is a big prayer and I’m a bit of a slow learner, has given me a head start in bringing these four adjectives across my path a few weeks before the new year begins. Because, you see, the first step (or, some say, the only step) in trusting God is knowing him truly:

“To know God is to trust God.  It’s as simple as that.  And the opposite is just as true.  To not trust God is an indicator that we do not really know God.  In other words, the “god” we do not trust is not really God, but rather a false imagining of our own making.” Rob Des Cotes

“Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.” Psalm 9:10

Oh, God, let me know you, and so free me to trust you!

Fifty days of surprise: an invitation to see

There is a tree out the back of my place, a gnarled, moss-covered tree, looking, when I first saw it, half-dead. It had its own beauty, I suppose, but I didn’t pay it much attention except to wonder, once, what kind of tree it was.

Then one morning I walked out the back, and overwhelming, full-to-bursting, can’t-be-contained bright white life had pushed its way out through those seeming-dead twigs, right out through the trunk itself, and there’s no wondering now what kind of tree this is.

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It’s not for nothing that He’s called a shoot from the stump of Jesse, this One who had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him but startled even His closest friends when He burst forth with surprisingly uncontainable life.

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 * * * * *

It’s several years now since I first heard that in the church calendar Easter’s not just a day, but fifty days; not a single Sunday of joy, but a whole seven weeks of wonder, of watching, of learning to live.

I’d missed them, somehow, those words that span the time from the first few days of new life to the moment that Jesus ascended to heaven:

“He appeared to them over a period of forty days. . .” (Acts 1:3)

The words whisper three things:

1) The power and the promise of the resurrection is for now, not merely for the future hope that we will be raised.

2) The full-of-life Jesus wants to be known by His followers in His life-flowing-over state. (Of course! He’s still the same God who has wanted to be known since before time’s beginning. . .)

3) And Jesus knows that the transformation of His followers isn’t automatic. Jesus was alive and Mary was still weeping sad tears, the disciples had locked themselves out of public sight because of fear, Thomas was in a prison of hopeless doubt, and the travelers were putting their heads together trying to figure out where it had all gone so badly wrong.

Jesus knows better than we: It is not the fact of the resurrection that changes us; it is encounter with the living Jesus. And so He invites us to stick around, day after day, week after week.

Only encounter, repeated and real, can overcome our inability to recognize Him. And this, for most of us, is the real struggle:

 “She did not realize that it was Jesus” (Jn 20:14).

“They were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).

“They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost” (Luke 24:37).

It’s almost always why I fear: I fail to see that in every new situation stands Jesus offering Himself to me in a new form.

“[After He appeared to Mary who thought He was the gardener], Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking. . .” (Mark 16:12)

In a different form.

I wonder about this.

Maybe the life in Him is so vibrant, uncontainable, alive, that a single form can’t contain it all. Perhaps, then, He shows Himself to us in different forms to let us glimpse a little more of the fullness of who He is.

Maybe, sometimes, He conceals himself for a time so He can heal us in ways otherwise impossible.

Other times He comes in the way He knows we will most easily be able to receive Him.

It was so for me a few days after the tree had burst into bloom. I sat aching for Him as I had ached all week, sad that even this day of rest was now over and I still hadn’t soaked long in the Presence I longed for. I wondered how it’s possible to ache so for Him and still run from Him. But as I sat, He quieted me with the whisper that I hadn’t run. He had been with me all day, giving Himself to me in the scent of the Balm of Gilead trees, in the soft breath of the baby asleep in my arms, in the giving and receiving in loving conversation with others. He had offered Himself to me in the tangible, edible bread and wine, offered Himself freely, His fullness into my emptiness. And as I had savored and rocked, eaten and listened, I had welcomed Him in the ways He chose to offer Himself to me in that day. And I received Him again as I welcomed His gracious Presence in the quietness of the evening.

His Life is so large, so vibrant, so surprisingly tender that it encompasses all that we, in our limitedness, think opposites, meeting us in fear and faith, thirst and fullness, guiding sorrow toward fullest joy. Everywhere, in everything, He offers Himself to us.

This, I think, is the invitation of these fifty days of Easter: to see and welcome the full-of-life Jesus in whatever form He chooses to come to us. We’re two weeks in. Keep watching with me, will you?

Jesus, we can’t see you unless you open our eyes. Please do it.  Show us in what form, today, You are offering Yourself to us, and free us to receive You without hesitation or fear.

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An edited repost from the archives. Revisiting this as I long to keep learning to see Jesus in every moment. 

When you’d rather skip this stretch

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Photo by Karen Webber

“Go in the car—you’ll get there quicker!” The not-so-old woman with the slightly crazy grey hair shuffled along behind her walker, calling out to me her best wisdom as I ran past her this morning, breathing hard.

There are sunflowers on my table, their golden heads starting to droop. My friend brought them Friday, the day she came for lunch. The day I was longing to offer her gentle, grace-filled space. The day I ended up sick—again—and she helped serve, loaded the dishwasher, and chatted while I lay on the couch. There was grace in being loved like that. And sadness. I’d wanted so much for the day to be about her this time, not all about me. I’d wanted to love her by serving her.

We talked about her walk along the 800 km of the Camino trail last year. She was remembering the fields of sunflowers, the gift that recurred over several days, each appearance of the bright blooms bringing some new understanding or inviting her to pray in some new way. She noticed, looking back, that the gift of the sunflowers came on the meseta, the stretch of land in the middle of the Camino that many people bypass by taking a bus, thinking it’s a desert or a boring plain.

I sat alone with Jesus after my friend left. “Jesus, what are the sunflowers in this stretch? I don’t want to miss what you’re wanting to share with me.” Illness has often felt like gift, Jesus using it to rescue me from an impossible situation, using it to make space for me to become still enough to learn His love in a way I’d never have known it otherwise. But on Friday it just felt like disappointment and frustration. If there’d been a bus I would have jumped in and raced to the other side of this meseta where I could have served my friend the way I’d wanted.

“Go in the car—you’ll get there quicker!” The not-so-old woman’s words ring in my ears. But there isn’t a car and there isn’t a bus and five days before Friday I’d been at a prayer service asking for healing and how do I live in this space where I’ve asked for healing and things just seem worse?

The sunflowers on the table are starting to droop, their necks bent, their bright faces turned toward the ground. They look like they’ve forgotten their life in the field. When they were young and supple, looking up, up, all the time, their expectant faces made a daily pilgrimage, tracing the path of the sun across the sky. As they matured, they settled into facing east, turned resolutely toward the place they’d learned by long habit that the sun always rose to kiss their faces and awaken his glory in them.

I can ask for healing and then my call is to live with my face turned toward the sun, offering myself to God as I am now, not as I might hope someday to be. I sing along with Stuart Townend, “O my soul, arise and bless your Maker,” and as I turn my face again toward my Maker’s I sense Him smiling on me. We reach the last verse—“Then one day, I’ll see him as he sees me, face to face, the Lover and the loved”—and tears run down my face as I see another of the things I need to remember to live wellour days here are just the beginning.

There’s a whole forever coming when He’ll give me a strong body and I’ll be able to make meals for friends and walk mountain trails with them and stand and praise with the congregation for hours. But in the meantime, He loves me and I love Him and in these few days I have here I want Him to have the whole of me—whatever that looks like. If he wants to give healing, I’d love that, but if there are days or decades still ahead when He delights to receive my love and longing lying down, well, He has my soul, my body, my love. And I have Him. And that is enough.

When you’re facing a too-busy week

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I never thought it could happen.

I looked last night at my calendar for the week. I’d felt each item was right when I took it on, and there was nothing I felt I was being asked to let go. But it all added up to a week busy enough that I usually would have looked at it and swallowed hard. The strange thing was that last night I looked at the calendar and I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t overwhelmed. I was excited.

It took me a while to figure out what had made the difference. Why could I look at the week and instead of panicking, look forward to seeing how God would work?

Then I realized. I’d spent the week remembering:

It was April 2004. I’d just lived my first two days in Kabul. I was supposed to be flying in to see for the first time the little village where I was going to work. But it had been raining, and when someone drove a truck onto the runway it sank ten centimeters into the mud; the flight was postponed. So I waited. And when the call came the next night that I should be at the airport at 5am, a kaleidoscope of butterflies took flight in my stomach. Would we make it this time? What would I find? Could I cope in this place to which I was going?  I wasn’t sure I’d sleep at all, but I went to bed anyway, and picked up my copy of Daily Light before turning out the light. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (SS 2:10)

I went to sleep with the words in my head. They called to me when my alarm clock rang at 03:45. I heard them again as I shivered at the airport, watching the sun turn the fresh snow on the mountains pink as the pilot made the final adjustments to the four-seater plane.

“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” Love is calling me to come with Him into this week too.