Hope for the messy moments

I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”

I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!

So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?

***

The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.

Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.

I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.

I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I’d rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I’d prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.

As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers. 

I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: “Where did you go?” In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, “A bother,” “A drain,” “Alone.”

After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?” Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, “How might you want him to be with you in this?”

The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus’ body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.

This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.

And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl’s instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.

As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus’ arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I’d made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus’ arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus’ arms.

***

It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.

Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I’m being invited to speak Jesus’ words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.

As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:

“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)

________________________

Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

The gift of holy confidence

“You sound like an abused woman.” She was speaking to me.  I stopped mid-thought, trying to make sense of what she had said. I’m one of the far-too-small percentage of women who has never been sexually or physically abused. After a moment to catch my breath I asked, “Can you say more?”

“They find it so hard to leave because it’s what they know.” 

Her words came in the midst of a conversation with three friends who were helping me listen. I was telling them about a moment in which I’d been given a tiny glimpse of the pattern that God is weaving out of the broken bits of my life—a pattern that, in that moment, led me by its beauty into delight in what God is doing, and gratitude for the deep privilege of also having a small role in what he is doing in someone else’s life. I was worshipping. And then I wasn’t. All of a sudden my delight was replaced with fear. Was I slipping into pride? Was it okay to enjoy so much the work I was getting to do with God? I had slipped from worship to being anxious about not being anxious. 

As we talked, I said, “I’m used to doing this work with some anxiety running in the background. I know how to do it that way—how to be small and held and let my anxiety press me closer to God, keeping me dependent on him. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to feel confident without it feeling wrong or dangerous somehow, prideful maybe, even though I knowI can’t do this work without God, and I’m fairly sure this is a holy, trusting confidence into which God is inviting me.”

That’s when her words stopped me and helped me see. I knew how to live with anxiety, how to let it press me deeper into God’s love. But if I was invited to step into a holy confidence, could I let the anxiety go? Could I dare to step into an unfamiliar freedom? How would I stay in healthy dependence without anxiety to remind me of my unceasing need for God?

The questions kept coming:

  • What if God wants you to be big? 
  • What if you’re being invited to leave a comfortable space?
  • Might the uncomfortable place of confidence be the place of dependence?

It’s a fact: we are small and dependent and held(Isaiah 40:6-8; 41:10,13-14; 46:3-4). Without Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It was trying to escape their dependence on God that got Adam and Eve, as well as the folk at the tower of Babel, into trouble.

It’s also a fact: we are created in the image of God, given authority over creation, entrusted with talents to steward and people to serve and tasks to faithfully complete. We are created a little lower than God and intended to judge angels and rule nations as we share in the reigning over God’s kingdom (Ps 8; Dan 7:18,22,27; 1 Cor 6:3; Rev 2:26-27). Love has indeed stooped down to make us great (Ps. 18:35).

Precisely because we are and always will be small compared to God, we can grow into our truest, fullest self, unafraid that God will be threatened by us stretching to our full stature. Like a parent who delights in a child’s first steps and growing vocabulary, God wantsus to grow into our truest, fullest, most able self. He knows that that can only happen as we make our home in His love, and He does all he can to facilitate that process. 

Trust can look many different ways.

In moments of anxiety and feeling small and vulnerable, trust can look like running to the place I know myself safe and letting myself be held. There, I’m trusting that I’m known and loved and welcomed, that God is gentle and kind and will never let me go.

When God calls me to step out, trust can look like moving forward, relying on the God who promises to be with me even when I’m afraid. There, I’m trusting that God will give strength, and that He is enough for whatever may come.

And in those moments of grace when I’m called to step out and am given joy and confidence in doing it, trust can look like fearlessly savoring the gift and celebrating the One who gave it. There, I’m trusting that God is with me and for me, delighting to see me enjoying the work he equips me to do. Paul models for me this kind of healthy, holy confidence which is unafraid to acknowledge that we can’t do anything without God, and equally unafraid to trust that, in Christ, we are made competent for the work to which we are called.

“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. . .”  

(2 Cor 3:4-6)

As I pondered all this, I wondered, “We’re walking toward the cross with Jesus and have less than two weeks to go. How does all this fit?” It felt odd and uncomfortable to be considering confidence—or thinking about myself at all—when I’m walking with the One I love toward his death. 

But as soon as I asked the question, I sensed an answer. This is part of what the cross is about.Jesus went to the cross to restore right relationships—with God, first of all, and also with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. He died to rescue us from our fallen, crushed state, to place us back into our relationship with him and to enable us again for our intended roles as sub-rulers under God and even co-rulers with him (Dan 7: 18,22,27; Rev 2:26-27; Rom 8:17). We honor the cross and Jesus’ great sacrifice when we step as fully as we can into the new chapter his death has opened up—a chapter of hope and freedom, of love conquering fear, and of confidence that Jesus will complete in us the work he has begun.

Shepherded into Shalom

“He tends his flock like a shepherd;

he gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)

I’ve long loved Isaiah 40:11. And I’ve always felt a little left out of it. I’ve wondered if it really applied to me, or if I just wanted it to so badly that I was stretching it to make it fit. I am, after all, neither a baby, nor a mother carrying or nursing young.
But yesterday God used a little stuffed lamb to answer my questions.
(As an aside, I’m often surprised by how God speaks, but if he can speak through a donkey (Num. 22) and surprise Elijah by showing up not in wind or earthquake or fire but in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19), why should he not speak through a stuffed lamb?)

My sister gave me this little stuffed lamb some years ago. The lamb arrived with a tag saying her name was Shalom. It sounded to me like a perfect name. (Isn’t the wholeness and peace of shalom always a result of knowing we are, as Psalm 100 reminds us, sheep in the care of a shepherd who is faithful and good and whose love endures forever?)
Shalom stayed tucked in my cupboard for years, then somehow managed to creep out and sit on my bed during the day. She looked at me pleadingly every time I came near. Finally, the longing in her eyes won me over and, though I never would have let on to anyone, I let her creep into bed with me at night and snuggle up close. She loves that.
Recently I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful new book called Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller (a fellow Regent College grad). I already had suspicions, but as I’ve read the book I’ve become increasingly sure this little lamb represents some hidden, vulnerable part of me that is begging for care. I hear the question: Isn’t this all a bit too sentimental? But I’ve learned that I can only pass on the love that I let myself receive. And as Kim writes, “When lovingly held within healthy boundaries in our hearts, vulnerable parts of our souls can transform into beautiful aspects of our humanity —channels of empathy and grace.”  So I’ve been paying attention, trying to learn more about that vulnerable part of me and what it needs from me and from God.
Sometimes its needs and longings feel overwhelming to other parts of me that are listening. But yesterday something shifted as I picked up Shalom and Isaiah 40:11 immediately came to mind. I’d been thinking about submitting my manuscript to an agent and I recognized that some part of me was frightened that if I stepped back into a busier, more public life, the shy, vulnerable part of me would get lost and trampled again, its needs neglected. My own attempts to comfort that part of me and assure it that it was seen and would be cared for were not enough. It was still frightened that it wouldn’t matter.
And that’s when it felt like God himself was speaking deep into me in his gentle whisper, comforting me with the reminder that he tends his flock like a shepherd, and gathers the lambs—including the hidden, vulnerable parts, of each of us—in his arms and carries them close to his heart. And that he gently leads the stronger parts of us that are doing their best to get on with life, valiantly care for the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, and love others who also have (sometimes prickly) protective as well as vulnerable parts.
As God reassured me, I realized that even though most of me knows better, that hidden part of me had still felt I needed to protect myself not just from the busy world but from God and his demands. I’d needed his reassurance that each part of me matters to him and will be gently cared for. Faith, after all, is a life-long journey of intentionally opening ourselves to God and letting him teach every part of us what he is really like.
God tends his flock like a shepherd, a good shepherd who knows what each of his sheep needs and provides it. Sometimes we need to be carried, sometimes protected from a predator with a rod, or guided by a staff, or led to still waters, or accompanied through a dark valley. The promise is not that God will always care in the same way for every person or every part of us, but that he will always be attentive and loving, caring in the unique ways that each of us, and each part of us, needs in that moment.  

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his;

we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;

give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;

his faithfulness continues through all generations.

(Psalm 100)

_______________________________________________________________

The second photo is mine. The others, in order, are by Mónica Obando MolinaBiegun WschodniRod Long, Yoal Desurmont and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash.

 

The gift of the in-between

 
The wheels of time turn and here we are once again in that week after the end and before the beginning.
Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church calendar year, the day we particularly remember that, all appearances to the contrary, Christ is King over the world. Next Sunday we begin a new year with Advent, that time of waiting for the Light to come, tiny at first but carrying the promise of burning away the fog and destroying the darkness.
I’m sensitized to the in-between this year as my time in my old home is coming to an end and I don’t yet have a new one. There’s a letting go without a new earthly place to rest, and I’m aware of the empty space at my feet.
I prefer planning to surprises, even pleasant ones. I like control, and predictability, and stability. In-betweens don’t offer much of that, so mostly I’m not a big fan of in-betweens.
But, between the long hours of feeling like I’m living a nightmare, I’m aware of something deeper going on. There are moments when I taste freedom, and the joy that comes with it.  And I’m glad God loves me enough to take me through these places, because things happen in these uncomfortable places that don’t happen when things are predictable and comparatively secure.
Here, for example, I see reality. I realize how much of my sense of security has been in things other than God, and I see that the ‘security’ offered by those things is no more substantial than empty space at my feet.  Here, too, God invites me to sit down and know that He remains rock-solid even when all I want to do is back away from the edge and the empty space. Here He invites me to trust. Presses me to put all my weight on him. And so sets my heart a little freer from its attachments to all those things that don’t really provide security so my heart can belong to Him alone.
I read yesterday of a significant in-between moment in the lives of the people of Israel. After God led his people out of the slavery of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and cared for them as they wandered for forty years in the desert, he had them pause just before he opened the Jordan for them to cross and led them into the promised land. The purpose of the pause? To set the people apart once again as wholly God’s, marking their bodies and souls as God’s through the act of circumcision. After the people were circumcised, God said, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” (Joshua 5:9) What was the reproach of Egypt? This, I think: that their bodies and souls belonged to someone other than God. In Egypt, they were not physically free to be God’s alone and get on with worshiping and living for him (Ex. 3:7; 5:1-4, etc.) And in the desert, their hearts were still tied to Egypt (Ex. 16:3). So before God took them into their new earthly home, he grounded them in their deeper, truer home. He called them back to choose Him—choose Life!—and marked them again as His chosen and precious people, people under his rock-solid care and guidance and love.
This, I think, (I hope!), is what is happening to me. Before leading me to my new home, God is “circumcising my heart,” cutting away attachments to what is not Him so I can be more freely and fully His. And this, I think, is one of the big gifts of these in-between times, these large or small time-outs when ordinary business is interrupted with illness or an unwanted email or anything else that upsets our plans and makes us uncomfortable. Here we are both invited and helped to see more truly and choose more freely and shift our trust to the only One who is worthy of it.
It is a mutual process. I choose to lean in and let God do the work of freeing me. I choose to be His. But only He can set my heart free. I love how this is reflected in Deuteronomy 30. In verse 2 and 10, we choose to love and obey the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul. And in verse 6, at the centerpoint of those two, is the most wonderful promise for the zillion times when my desire to be freely and fully God’s only underscores my own inability to make it happen:

“The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

Thank you, LORD. Your kingdom come, your will be done in me.

________________________

Photo by Connor McSheffrey on Unsplash.

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.