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.

Of stuffed sheep and sacred space and knowing that you matter

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I was going to write today’s post about the lines I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s liturgy of the ordinary (and yes, the first letters in the title of her book are all small letters, and the cover features the makings of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because the point of her book—which I’m loving—is to help us embrace the sacred in the ordinary.)

I was going to write about her words,

“In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us. They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves.” (p. 17)

Isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas—that God came among us, gracing us with his own presence, with Himself, not because we had done anything to earn it but precisely because we couldn’t and because he loved us and wanted us to know it?

Or I was going to share the way she talks about the body as “the most sacred object on earth.” (That thought won’t let me go.)

“Sexual sin is a scandal in the Scriptures not because the apostles were blushing prigs—they were, in reality, a rather salty bunch—or because the body is dirty or evil, but because our skin and muscles and feet and hands are more sacred than any communion chalice or baptismal font. Ignoring Scripture’s teaching about the proper use of the body and using our bodies for our own false worship is a misuse of the sacred akin to using consecrated bread and wine in a Wiccan goddess ceremony.

Similarly, when we denigrate our bodies—whether through neglect or staring at our faces and counting up our flaws—we are belittling a sacred site, a worship space more wondrous than the most glorious, ancient cathedral. We are standing before the Grand Canyon or the Sistine Chapel and rolling our eyes.” (p. 45)

Isn’t this, too, what we celebrate at Christmas—that God further sanctified what he had already made in his image, breathed his own life into, and declared “very good” at creation, now taking flesh himself, joining himself to us in our flesh forever, making our human bodies not just the outer court of the temple but the holy of holies where God dwells?

But I’ve decided to share one moment where all this came together for me—the sacred in the ordinary, God’s holy presence in my own embodied longing.

I did something the other day that I’ve never done before and may never do again. There has been a stuffed lamb sitting in my cupboard for years. Its name is Shalom (Shalom Sheep if you want the full name) and my sister gave it to me soon after I moved out here, far away from family, “in case you get lonely.”

Some time recently Shalom migrated from the cupboard to sit on my bed. And on Friday morning when I made my bed, she was looking at me with such sad and lonely eyes that I couldn’t bear to leave her there. I felt like my heart was going to break if I turned away. So I picked her up and zipped her inside my hoodie, carrying her on my chest like a mom carries a baby in a snugglie. (I confess to feeling a little crazy as I did it—she’s a stuffed animal, for Pete’s sake!) But I sensed there was an invitation there for me, and the only way to hear the invitation was to step into it. So I zipped the little lonely lamb against my chest and carried her there most of the day, letting myself feel the tenderness that arose toward her. The tenderness itself was a gift that somehow overflowed into an ability to be more gentle with myself and others. But it was only that evening, hours after I’d removed the little lamb from my hoodie and tucked her under a blanket to wait while I went out in the slushy snow to listen to Handel’s Messiah that I began to see the deeper layer of gift.

I was sitting with a friend in the Orpheum theatre. The tenor had already sung, “Comfort ye, my people,” and the alto had reminded us that the child coming among us was called Emmanuel, “God with us.” The choir had sung that the child is born and the son given, and the soprano had called us to rejoice because our king comes.

And then the alto began to sing the reassurance from Isaiah 40, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom . . .” And I remembered: God carries lonely little lambs next to his heart too! God had been inviting me to understand these words from the inside, to feel something of his own tenderness toward me. He aches when he sees me ache, and he doesn’t turn away. He picks me up (if I’ll let him) and tucks me safe in that swaddling space where I can hear his heartbeat and feel his warmth, hear his quiet whispers and feel his hand move to touch my back and know that I’m not alone. And this tender care isn’t just for extreme circumstances or moments of tragedy. It’s all part of the (extra)ordinary everyday love of the shepherd, part of being his, loved and known and cared for in the rise and fall of everyday life.

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.

The truth about learning to fly

dsc_0990I’m out running at dawn on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day. The gulls are wailing like the end of the world is near.

Words from yesterday return to mind, other birds touching our human story:

“In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste.

He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye,

like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young,

that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.

The LORD alone led him; no foreign god was with him.” (Deut 32:10-12)

I’ve always pictured “stirring up its nest” as pushing the eaglet out, albeit while hovering ready to scoop underneath and catch it and lift it again if it becomes clear the eaglet hasn’t yet gotten the knack of flying. But as I read about eagles, it seems like preparation for the first flight is a more gentle, though still firm, process, with mom hovering over the nest to show what wings are for, and baby practicing leaps and jumps to gradually strengthen its wings; with, some sources say, mom gradually bringing less food so the baby’s desire grows and weight drops, letting it be more easily lifted by the wind. It’s less a pushing than a coaxing, and babies may leave the nest several days or more apart, as each is ready. Sometimes eaglets fall to the ground, and parents feed them there, or lure them back to the nest.

Even with this gentler process I wonder whether eaglets ever feel like their world is ending as they’re coaxed out of their comfortable home? Do they sense the excitement of growth, or do they just feel the pangs of hunger and desire as the parent flies past with prey but doesn’t drop it in the nest, the confusion of apparent rejection by the one who had always fed them before? Do they feel the terror of falling as they leave the nest or are they so lured by desire that fear is left behind?

This might be the thing I’m most grateful for on this particular Thanksgiving Day: that, whether we feel it or not, the same Parent who coaxes us out of our comfortable nest is also hovering over us as the Spirit hovered over the waters, continuing the creation of our fullest, free-est selves. And all the discomfort of the process is part of the bigger truth of being shielded and cared for and guarded, and helped to grow into the selves we were meant to be.

The sky is lightening and the gulls are still crying but I see them wheel and turn toward the light.

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What you were made for

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I’ve been soaking again lately in John Wesley’s covenant prayer which begins, “I am no longer my own but yours” and I just have to say this, folks: I love not being my own.

More on that in a minute.

“Have you seen a fish swimming?” Sally Lloyd-Jones asks in her wonderful devotional book for kids (and big kids like me). “It dives, darts, glides, turns, flashes through the water. A fish was made for water. That’s its natural habitat—the place where it belongs.

And the Bible says we were made for God—to be loved by him and to love him. That’s where we belong.” (“Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing,” p. 62)

It seems to me the greatest tragedy of the fall that we now fear the One in whom alone we are free. We’ve forgotten who we are and where we belong, forgotten that we were made by God’s love, for this love, and, whether we’re aware of it or not, that we live surrounded by this love.

When I encountered Wesley’s prayer four years ago my own praying of it was mostly an asking to be made able to pray it. This time around, though some lines are still harder to pray than others, the prayer tastes of freedom and joy, like a gentle hand picking me from the riverbank where I’ve been flopping and gasping, and setting me back in the river where I find myself free to swim and work and play with a remarkable joy and energy—because I’m not trying to flop and wiggle my way to the top of the riverbank. What has changed? Maybe just this: God and I have been through the cycle enough times—me falling apart, him bringing me close and gently loving me back together again—that my heart is finally starting to believe that He really loves me. That I can trust Him.

“I am no longer my own but yours.”

It’s the simple gospel truth for all of us who belong to Jesus, and it’s such good news! I don’t have to carry the burden of providing for myself, figuring out my minute-by-minute schedule, or trying to manage my future (Matt 6:25-34). Someone who dearly loves me is always looking out for me. As the hymn writer said, “The protection of his child and treasure is a charge that on himself he laid.” On himself. Not on me.

“Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.”

I was never meant to be the one to determine my status, my significance, or my daily occupation.

“Put me to doing, put me to suffering,

Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

Exalted for you or brought low for you.”

I keep thinking about the viola dream and how I’m made to be played, not to play myself. Sometimes there’s energy and my strings resonate to His touch, and then the energy’s gone and it feels like God has gently laid me back in the case to rest a while. And both—the good, hard work, and the gentle rest—can be equally lovely when I don’t fight them. . . when I don’t presume I’m failing and God is disappointed with me. “Put me to what you will. . . . Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you.” When I’ve prayed these words at the start of the day and God chooses to place me back in the case and invite me to rest, there’s peace there, and joy. And when he gives me work different than I’d planned, that’s okay too. He’s the musician and when I remember that I’m just the instrument it can even be fun when He plays a tune other than the one I was expecting.

“Let me be full, let be empty.”

When I’m full I can celebrate—He is filling me with Himself!—and pour that fullness out in love. And when I’m empty at the end of a day of writing, or when I wake empty and unable to write, that isn’t something I need to fight or fix either, just delight in His welcome to come close and enjoy resting in His love.

“Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”

This is one of those lines I still find it hard to pray. I don’t want all things—that seems too great a burden. I don’t want to have nothing either. But I’m pretty sure that there’s a freedom in this line as great as in all the others so I’m asking God to set me free to honestly pray it.

“I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, blessed and glorious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

You are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And may the covenant now made on earth be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

This fish wants to dart and dance and shout “yes, yes!” and “thank you!” in fish-language, and get on with the joy of being a fish in water.