When a door is open

Lately I’ve found myself returning again and again to the first few chapters of 2 Corinthians for the perspective and comfort offered here. In just a few pages, Paul offers insight into so many key questions:

  • How does God feel toward us in our suffering? (1:1-11)
  • How can we be confident without being proud? (3:1-6)
  • And how do we proceed when a door is open for ministry but we don’t feel peace? Why? (2:12-14)

This week it’s that last question that has held a gift for me.

Here’s how Paul shares his own experience:

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

(2 Corinthians 2:12-13)

It’s quite striking to me that Paul can say “The Lord had opened a door for me” and “I left” and not offer more of an explanation. If I was the one writing, I would have felt obliged to clarify my intent. Was I offering the situation to my readers as an example to be followed—that if God opens a door and we don’t have peace, we should follow our emotions? Was I saying, “I didn’t do things the best way here but it’s okay because. . .”?

But Paul doesn’t say either of these explicitly. He just offers the facts as he sees them:

  1. God had opened a door for him to preach the gospel.
  2. He had no peace because he was worried about a missing co-worker.
  3. In the midst of this tension, he chose to leave and go looking for the co-worker rather than walking through the open door. 

And Paul seems fine to leave it there, not needing to analyze or agonize or explain because he is confident that wherever he goes, God is with him and in him and flowing through him.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

Yes, we prayerfully and carefully look at all the aspects of the situation. An open door is a precious opportunity not to be taken for granted. So is peace of mind. There are whole helpful books written about how to navigate this tension. (Hint: peace matters).

But this week the gift for me was this simple reminder: There is a spaciousness and freedom in this place where God’s work and ours overlap. As we prayerfully listen and choose as best we can, we can rest in the truth that God’s presence is limitless and his loving work in the world is vast. Wherever we end up, God is with us and in us, and can through us spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. 

How to find rest in whatever today holds (and a free email course for you)

I ride my bike a different route this morning. The sky is grey and the first large drops land on my face. It’s warm and I’ve opened my jacket and the wind whips the corners behind me like wings. I notice all these things. But what I notice the most—what I savor this morning—is the flowers along the route. Rhododendrons in red and violet and yellow, neatly trimmed in front of sedate brick homes. Delicate Queen Anne’s lace thick along the path, wild rose bushes scenting the air and thorny gorse waking me up with its brilliant yellow flowers.  Tall stalks of white and blue flowers that I recognize but can’t name.

But it’s the poppies that entice me to circle back and ride a particular strip again. I know poppies well, of course. They’re the flower that we pin to our coats in November, a reminder of Flander’s field and the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom and peace and rest. 

I’ve also lived beside fields of red opium poppies, passing them each morning on the way to the hospital in our little corner of Afghanistan. Those farmers were seeking rest too—rest from the anxiety of not knowing how they’d feed their family through the next winter. And the parents who gave their crying babies milk from the opium plant were also seeking rest, some moments of peace for their frayed nerves.

Poppies elicit in me a whole range of emotions. Sadness, mostly, for all of us who seek rest and find some temporary form of it, maybe, but at far greater cost than we could imagine.

The poppies today say something different, though. I’ve never seen so many colors of poppies all mingled together in just a few feet of ground. Deep velvety red and saucy orange red and bright Halloween orange ones. Coral poppies with double petals, baby pink ones and dainty white ones edged with a subtle pink rim. Bright pink ones the color of a girl’s running shoes. Some are wide open and some still curled.

These poppies, too, speak of rest, but it’s not the rest of struggle and sacrifice, worn-out grief and sedated pain, but the rest of freedom and life and joy, of being loved and being themselves and dancing in the breeze. They welcome me, draw me in, inviting me, too, to come as I am and open wide and sing with them of the delight of being loved and the lightness of letting go of burdens not meant for me. 

I’ve been soaking, lately, in Matthew 11:28-30, and these poppies feel to me like the visual version of that invitation. “Come to me,” Jesus calls through them, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says it a different way a few chapters earlier, “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Look at the flowers. They don’t fuss about dressing to impress, and have you ever seen anyone dressed as beautifully as they are? Don’t you remember, I’ve committed to care for you?” (Matthew 6:28-30 my paraphrase). 

I step into the invitation and on into my day, walking more lightly.

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If you’d like to soak a little more deeply in Jesus’ invitation to come to him and find rest, I’ve created a free five-day contemplative email course offering space to listen to Jesus’ invitation and step into it. Each day, we’ll ponder a phrase from Matthew 11:28-30 and explore a question or prayer practice to help us receive the rest that Jesus offers. You can sign up for the course here. (If you signed up last week, the first email should be in your inbox in the next half-hour.)

Related posts (because Jesus has spoken to me through poppies more than once!):

A prickly waking

What He whispers through the poppies

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.

One way to walk more freely

Some weeks ago, I wrote these words:

“God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry.” 

The Biblical drama is rich and multilayered. We are, first of all, the baby, created by love, and tended compassionately by the One who, like a mother, cannot forget the child she has borne, and like a father, protects and provides for his children. We are small and dependent and tended and safe. 

But we also—incredibly—find ourselves in quite a different place in the birth drama, not infants now, but wooed and pursued, wedded and loved, and carrying within us the life of Jesus. We are the bride of Christ, sought, chosen, loved with an almost embarrassing passion, and sharing the life of Christ.

How is it that we miss the passion in the story when we even call the sufferings and death of Jesus “the Passion”?

This, for me, is the heart of Lent. As I watch Jesus walk toward the cross, I hear his invitation to walk with him, not as a distant observer, but as one whom he loves more than anything in the world. One for whom he is giving everything. 

Lent is a time to look again at our relationship, to talk about what is getting in the way of closeness, to take down the walls that have grown up between us. It’s a time to regain my first love.

Lent is walking with the one I most love towards his death, listening for his last words, every word extra precious. It’s dying a little myself along the way.

Lent is a time of humility and vulnerability, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a deepening love and closeness in this relationship at the center of my life.

As I write, a small wooden cross sits on the desk beside me, a heart made of olive wood beside it. I move them back and forth from desk to dinner table to the little table by the chair where I journal and read. Why? The heart reminds me that I am loved. And the cross reminds me how much I am loved and where I am loved—right in the worst of my brokenness and rebellion and sin.

That dual reminder of my sin and God’s love is, for me, a gift, because this relationship with Jesus is like any other: as long as I keep up my guard, only sharing the tidy places, there will always be that lurking fear, “If he knew what I’m really like. . .”

Here’s the truth, the wonderful, freeing truth: Jesus does know exactly what I’m like, all the good, all the bad, all the brokenness. And he signed up to love me anyway, chose to make me his own, even though gaining me cost him his life. 

It’s only when the worst of me is seen and I find myself accepted right in that place that I know I am truly and securely loved and can relax and stop fearing what might happen if I slip up and let my real self show.

Alcoholics know this: the path to freedom begins with owning the truth, “I am an alcoholic.” It’s the same for me. The path to freedom always begins with the acceptance of truth: I am a sinner. And, right here in the middle of my inability to fix or free myself, I am loved and valued and wanted enough to die for.

It’s that combination that sets me free—honesty, and being loved.

Truth, and grace.

It’s that pair that allows me to enter Lent in a healthy, healing way, not as a time to beat myself up, but also not as a time to keep hiding from my sins. Instead, it’s a time to look my sins, as well as my limitations (which are not sins) in the face, acknowledge them openly, bring them to Jesus, and be set free to walk a little more closely with the One whom I love, and who loves me.

What goes on in you when you consider these weeks of Lent as a walk with the One who loves you with all his heart and life?

But have you said this to yourself . . .?


Today, just this one brief question that I’ve been pondering all week since Emily Freeman shared it her Saturday morning email after she had been thinking about it all the previous week:

But have you
said this to yourself?
“I forgive you
for everything.”
Rhiannon Johanna

If I have, then apparently that critical voice that sometimes shows up in my head didn’t get the memo (though it is losing its bite.)
If I haven’t, why not, when the Triune God has said those same words to me, written in blood and sealed with the coming of the Holy Spirit to live in me? “I forgive you for everything.”
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Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash