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.

___________

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.

When winds pick up

As I walked home one night from a soaking prayer evening, the world around looked like it had been soaking in God’s love too. All was still, a perfect reflection, tinted golden.

The scene that met me the next morning was completely different.

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Winds whipped dark water into jagged whitecaps. Even when I managed to peek between strands of hair that whipped across my face, blinding me, I couldn’t see a single reflection. Not even a broken one. Only rough turmoil.

I ran anyway, leaning hard into the wind that resisted every stride.

Rounding the corner, I saw numerous small boats anchored out in the deep water, well away from the shore. I watched one boat as wave after wave threatened to roll over it, then tilted the bow up and rolled underneath, threatening to dunk the stern. The little boat stayed afloat.

At first I felt sorry for whoever might have been on those boats. All that rolling. I began to feel seasick just watching.

But I rounded another corner and changed my mind. What’s a little seasickness once you see a boat that sits tilted, fixed and unmoving, gripped by the rock on which it has run aground? One wave after another hit hard, sending spray over the boat that shuddered and groaned but could not roll, could not rise and fall with each wave. Each wave pounded and tore and fractured the boat a little more as it sat, fixed and helpless, in the shallows.

When winds rise, I often forget that deep water is safer. I fear the waves, the rolling seasickness of change. It’s not hard to imagine myself spread eagle, clinging with all my might to a slippery black rock, trying to keep myself safe while the waves pound me to pieces.

But slowly I’m learning that the real danger isn’t the waves at all, but my clinging to control, to supposed security, when winds rise.

Slowly I’m learning to hear in the voice of the wind the summons to move out of the shallows, out of the clinging to the familiar, the apparently secure, out into the deep, deep love of Jesus where alone we are safe.

“Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean

In its fullness over me

Underneath me, all around me

Is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward

To your glorious rest above.” (Samuel Francis)