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

When “good girl” isn’t enough

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I recently had to clear up a misunderstanding with someone, and it was hard. I discovered all over again that I have a very strong good-girl in me who has a big fear of even getting close to the edge of rules. That makes me a great law-abiding citizen, but it is a problem when many of my unspoken rules can be summed up by this one: Good girls don’t rock the boat. Which means they don’t get angry. They don’t bother anyone. They care only about others, so they don’t ask for what they need, and definitely not for anything extra. And if someone unknowingly hurts them, they certainly don’t let that person know.

This good girl broke all those rules in one conversation—and when she felt the fear, she realized why she doesn’t break those rules very often.

BUT, even if it was a bit messy, that conversation opened up the possibility for that relationship to continue and flourish, as sisters now, equal adults both free to love and grow.

AND, it opened up the possibility for me to know more of the true God rather than the god I’ve made in my own image—an insecure god who cares more about nit-picky rules than he does about love . . . or about me.

It’s intriguing how these outgrown (but not entirely gone) beliefs about God surface from time to time. Whenever they do, it’s a gift, because there’s new freedom just around the corner.

Seeing the false belief about God is a big step toward healing, but it isn’t an automatic cure, so I’ve been hanging around with the Real God, enfleshed in Jesus, watching as he interacts with a woman making the transition from “good girl” to “equal (and loved) adult.”

She has been sick for twelve years, and has done everything she could think to try to fix herself. She has spent all her money, been to all the doctors, followed all the rules. Nothing has worked.

Her bleeding—the very thing that makes her so desperate for Jesus’ help—is a barrier to receiving that help. As a bleeding woman, if she touches a man, she will, according to ritual laws, contaminate him.

But she’s desperate. And too ashamed to ask for what she needs. So she takes a deep breath and breaks the rules and touches the clothes of this rabbi.

And Jesus stops. Something about this is important enough to interrupt his life-and-death errand to heal a little girl who is dying.

He looks around and asks, “Who touched me?”

The woman’s heart is pounding and she wishes she could melt into the stony street.

Jesus is still waiting, looking for the perpetrator.

She falls at his feet and, in front of everyone, confesses her desperation and her rule-breaking and the knowledge that she has been healed.

And Jesus? He calls her “daughter.” It’s the only recorded time he does this, and he does it not in a moment when she keeps the rules perfectly, but in the moment she breaks the rules and reaches out to ask (through her actions, because she can’t find her voice) for what she needs.

He calls her daughter in the moment she throws aside the rules and all her own efforts to make herself acceptable and stakes everything on grace.

He names her as family, tying her to himself, in the moment when she risks it all and feels most vulnerable and afraid of rejection.

In her longing for healing, she breaks the rules, and, instead of condemning, Jesus commends her for her faith—because she has trusted him, trusted his character, enough to step through the rules that blocked her access to him.

The rules that were intended to keep God’s people close to him had become a means of keeping her away. And in helping her find her voice, in freeing her not only from her body’s bleeding but also from the bleeding of her heart, in declaring, through naming her daughter, that she is accepted and loved, that she matters and she belongs, Jesus puts rules in their proper place again: it’s the heart of God behind the rules that is central—the heart of love that always wants us close.

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.

___________

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

God’s (perfectly serious) joke

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I almost laugh out loud as I watch God’s little joke unfold.

I’m reading in 2 Kings 6 of Elisha’s calmness when he rises in the morning and discovers the city where he is staying surrounded by enemy troops.

His servant panics. “Oh no, my lord! What are we going to do?”

Elisha responds, “Don’t worry. There are way more on our side than on theirs.” Then he prays, “Open his eyes, LORD, so he can see.”

And here I’m intrigued. The hills around the city are filled with horses and chariots of fire. They are present, sent, attentive and protective. And yet they just stand their ground, up in the surrounding hills, and the one to act, calmed and empowered by the knowledge of their presence, is Elisha. The fiery horses don’t decimate the enemy troops. They don’t show themselves and make the enemy die of fright or run for their lives. They quietly encourage faith in those who see.

It seems that God’s kingdom power, made visible in those fiery horses, so vastly outweighs the power of the human armies that God decides to play a little joke while he’s at it. Why not have a little gentle fun when the situation at hand is so easily managed? And Elisha, trusting God, gets to be part of the joke. Is it hard for Elisha to hold back a smile as he prays for the God who has opened the eyes of his servant to blind the eyes of his enemies? They don’t seem to notice their blindness, and Elisha, the man whom the troops are seeking to capture, calmly carries on with the joke. This small, vulnerable man—the intended captive—is graced to carry out God’s work while the armies of heaven stand by watching and witnessing (and marvelling at?) this grace.

“Oh, no, this isn’t the right road, and this isn’t the right city,” Elisha says to the troops. “Follow me and I will lead you to the man you’re looking for.” How absolutely true. It wasn’t the right road or the right city for what God was doing, and with every step Elisha was leading them to the man they were looking for, the man who was walking just a few steps ahead of them and whose identity would be revealed when they arrived.

They reach their destination and the would-be captors find themselves captives in the city of the king of Israel.

God’s magnificently gentle, perfectly serious joke continues.

“Oh no, don’t kill them,” Elisha instructs the king. “Feed them and send them back to their master.” And so the army which comes to take Elisha captive is taken captive by that same praying, trusting man, and is set free after being honored and cared for, nourished and tended.

(And for some reason, despite the extravagant hospitality, the enemy soldiers don’t seem tempted to come back for another meal. Problem—which in God’s eyes was never much of a problem—solved.)

 

Oh LORD, you change times and seasons,

You set up kings and depose them,

You free your people and feed your enemies

And You do it all with such creativity and freedom,

Such lovely humor and grace.

 

Open our eyes to see you at work in the world around us

and give us the faith to join in your perfectly serious joke.

 

LORD of the nations, we pray

make America great again—

great in faith and love and peace,

in joy and courage and generosity.

And let all whom you grace to stand and watch,

to walk and speak and lead hungry captives to the banquet

do so gently and humbly

delighting in your limitless love

and your vibrant joy

which erupts again and again in rich hospitality.

Learning (again) to walk

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I watch people walking across the bridge outside my window, confidently, even mindlessly, placing one foot in front of another. But it’s the memory of a child taking her tentative first steps that helps me understand God’s commands: “Walk by the Spirit.” “Walk in love.” “Walk as children of light.”

Walking is something learned, something risked, and, as Wangerin points out in his description of living by faith, or “faithing,” a continuous loss of stability:

“Faithing is the constant losing of one’s balance, the constant falling forward (which is the risk required even for so common a locomotion as walking). It is the constant loss of stability, the denying one’s self and dying into God. . .” (Wangerin, The Orphean Passages, p.10)

I’ve been living this loss of balance lately. I returned a few weeks ago from a week of classes in which we were learning to listen more deeply to God’s voice as he speaks through and between all the other voices that are active in our minds and bodies and emotions. I returned home to an inbox full of emails that I’d ignored through the week, a deep longing to open further to God, and a busy stretch on my calendar. My mind was full and busily trying to bring order to it all, resisting my attempts to be still and rest in God. My carefully honed schedule was unsettled as I made space for new assignments and appointments and wonderings.

The loss of stability has been uncomfortable. But comfort (finally) came as I remembered that losing one’s balance is a normal and necessary part of walking.

I cheer Wangerin for telling the truth, resisting the appealing temptation to portray “faith” as a noun. As much as I might like faith to be something settled and predictable and safe, something I can cling to, it isn’t. Faith is a verb, an activity, a continual choice to trust as we grow and change and therefore as relationships, including our relationship with God, grow and change.

I see again the baby learning to walk, her little hand held in her dad’s large one, and lines of the poem that has wound itself through these past few months return to mind:

“. . . It is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time . . .

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)