When you can’t see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.

But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.

That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.

It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.

Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.

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)

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.