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)

Of prickly porcupines and learning to trust

photo by Patrick Gijsbers, creative commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mexican-hairy-porcupine-1.jpg

I’ve pondered for days: what do I share on this Monday in between Canada’s 150th birthday and the birthday of our neighbor to the south? How do I honor these significant celebrations and yet write something that might also matter to my readers in other parts of the globe?

In the end I’m going to simply share a few moments in one of my days last week because really? There are landscapes and leaders, constitutions and anthems, and all of that matters a lot, but in the end every nation is made up of people with our own particular beauties and challenges, and when we find ourselves loved in those places that we most desperately need it, a lot of the things that are great about our countries shine even more brightly, and a lot of the problems begin to find their healing here.

The day I speak of was Thursday. I woke feeling not at all open to loving the world, or even to receiving love. Since I didn’t seem able to make any headway on opening myself up emotionally or spiritually, I started by doing what I could physically. My body was as stiff and tight as my soul, so I headed to the gym, equipped with my IPOD and Scripture Lullabies on repeat (“Hidden In My Heart” Volume 2 has remained top of my list of favorite CDs for the past year). It was a good place to start.

When I returned, my soul still feeling prickly and shut down, I sensed Jesus asking, “Will you let me hold you in your prickliness?” I saw a picture of a porcupine curled into a frightened little ball of spiky quills. (It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, that the One who spoke most often in pictures and parables still so often speaks in this way.) Jesus stooped and gently picked up the little porcupine and held it at eye level, standing perfectly still with it on his outstretched hand. He looked at it kindly and it looked back for a long time, slowly learning that it is safe to trust. And then, as the porcupine began to relax and breathe again, Jesus began stroking the quills with one gentle finger, slowly and carefully smoothing them back into place.

As I watched, I sensed the first two layers of gift in the picture: Jesus isn’t put off by my prickles, nor does he blame me for them. He knows that a frightened little porcupine reflexively curls into a spiky ball, and he just wants to love me in that place.

As Emily Freeman, speaking of 1 Corinthians 13, points out, “This entire chapter about love only provides two words for what love is—patient and kind. Everything else in those verses is about what love isn’t, what love doesn’t do, or what love does.” (Simply Tuesday, p. 215) Patient and kind—yes. More and more my heart knows that this describes the One who is love. He’s willing to sit with me as long as it takes for me to learn to trust, wanting to hold me even when I’m prickly and slowly soften me into surrender to his love.

An unlikely invitation

At first when we came upon the rough boards nailed between scraggly pines off to the side of the mountain trail, we wondered why they were there. Had someone tacked them up to frame a lean-to? “Nice place to sleep,” I mused, “up away from the town in the quiet, though a little too close to the edge for my comfort.”

We walked past the mystery boards and came around to the other side. A third board had been placed horizontally beneath the other two. A bench! A gift from someone who had gone before, inviting, “Pause here. Turn and look from this angle. Don’t miss the beauty in this place.”

We sat.

We savored.

Ever since I’ve been wondering: how often do I fail to recognize the rough-hewn benches in life as invitations to pause and savor beauty and truth? How often am I so consumed with critiquing the bench that I fail to turn and look at the beauty beyond?

Sometimes the benches show up in my life disguised as illness, a traffic jam, a long line at the checkout. “Pause here. Listen. Look.”

Lately I’ve been reminded that even fear might be one of these unlikely, well-camouflaged benches.

My instinct is to see fear as something to be quickly fixed: nails pulled, unsightly boards carted away. I can become so preoccupied with dismantling the bench that I miss its invitation.

But if each time I feel niggling anxious fear I receive it as an invitation to slow and turn and look, I can see beauty in many directions:

I can look back and count the ways Jesus has been faithful.

I can look around and remember that this moment is a gift from the One who loves me, and savor it.

I can look outward and consider that the world I can’t see with my eyes is alive and active and at work in the world that I can see.

And I can look inward and remember that the One who created the universe lives in me and promises never to leave.

It’s a tall bench—a bit hard to climb up on, but once its invitation to sit and rest and savor is accepted, I soon find myself swinging my legs like the beloved child that I am.

When you wonder if you can do it

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In those moments when you think you’re almost done and then you have to rewrite whole chapters and time is running out and you wonder if you really can do this after all

(Or the lines of patients seem never ending,

Or the kids are sick again,

Or back pain lays you low):

1. Take a deep breath. Remember that every breath is a love-gift, a reminder that you are held in existence by the One who delights in you. And He will not let go.

2. Lay out all your fears before Jesus. Name them. Then, with all those fears on the table, ask Jesus how he wants to be with you in them. (I saw him gently pick up each fear, one at a time, as though it was precious, and hold it in his two hands, look lovingly at me and ask, “Will you trust me with this?”)

3. Just fill the jars. It’s his job to make wine from the water you bring.

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.