When you struggle to settle

It was an unusual experience. We were high up in the balcony of the theatre. The seats directly in front of us were empty except for a woman with exceptionally tall hair. In the next row up was a family with two children. The older, a young teen, leaned her head first onto the shoulder of her mother and then onto the shoulder of the woman sitting on her other side (an older sister home from college? a young aunt?). Eventually she curled up in her seat as best she could and appeared to sleep. The younger child, perhaps eight or ten, handed her program to her sister/aunt, took it back, handed it back again. She tapped her aunt’s elbow for attention and whispered something. Occasionally she looked at the performance taking place on the stage below her.

Two women to our left chattered in whispers. The whole audience seemed restless. I’ve never seen so many individuals leave during a performance. Some re-entered.

I was frustrated and puzzled, feeling in myself, too, the inability to settle that I could see all around me. Why? What was going on? I’d been looking forward to this performance of Handel’s Messiah. As I bussed to the theatre, I’d consciously released the events of my day to God, preparing to settle in, savor the music, and let it lead me into worship. But it wasn’t happening.

Gradually I began to understand.

In the moment the orchestra began the overture, I’d felt out of breath, trying to keep up, holding onto the arms of my chair as though to slow us down, to keep us together. To keep myself together, maybe. The music had slowed when the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” and I’d breathed deeply. The choir entered, perfectly together, singing beautifully. And then we’d sped up and again I’d felt like I needed to hold on, to slow us down with my hands as though seatbelting myself in, trying to defend against a crash. Once the conductor had stopped the orchestra a few bars in and started again. I suspect the changing tempo was meant to highlight the words, to provide helpful contrast. In effect what I experienced was auditory whiplash and an unsettled soul.

Still, there were glimpses of grace—grace that I might not have seen if I’d felt settled from the start:

A single note where the tenor hung alone, opening a moment of spaciousness whose holy grace remains with me, reminding me that beyond the hustle there is a still point. Behind the rush, the show, the frothy mix of motives and emotions, Reality waits. And He is gracious and spacious and good.

My always-favorite duet where the soprano and alto remind us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young,” and therefore we can “Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

And this: Three-quarters of the way through the concert, the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus sounded. Together, we stood. The people who had been restless stilled. The chatterers stopped. The teen in front of us slept on, but the two women lifted the younger child to her feet to stand with them. And as all the voices of the humans and instruments sang together, I understood all over again: Life may drag us along, stealing our breath with its speed, giving us whiplash with unexpected changes of direction or tempo. Our best attempts to make art or serve others may not turn out in the way we hoped. A performance or a project may disappoint. It is not the end of the world. Because on this truth we stand, and in this hope we once again find our center, our courage, and our voice to join with the multitude which sings around the throne:

“Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;

And he shall reign for ever and ever.

King of kings and Lord of lords.

Hallelujah.”

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.

How to tell true love

You’ve probably noticed by now that smallness is a common theme around here. You’ve probably guessed some of the reasons for that. One of the most obvious is that I’m regularly aware of my smallness.

But there’s also this: I’ve long suspected that one of the best marks of real, trustworthy love is the way it relates to smallness.

On the one hand, real love is gentle and protecting, patient and kind. Small people and small things are safe in the hands of Love. Safe, and cherished, and treasured.

“Love is patient, love is kind. . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:4,7)

On the other hand, real love has no need to sustain the power differential. It doesn’t need to be needed to satisfy some ego need in itself. It doesn’t need to keep smallness small. I’ll never forget Dr. J.I. Packer saying in a theology class that the best definition of love that he knew was “the resolve to make the loved party great.”

“Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. . . it is not self-seeking.” (1 Cor. 13:4-5)

To say it more simply, real love guards and protects us in our smallness. . .

“You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; . . .“

. . . and takes us beyond our smallness too:

“. . .you stoop down to make me great.” (Ps 18:35)

In less than a week, Advent will begin, and we’ll be given four weeks to pay special attention to how unafraid God is of our smallness. Unafraid, and unashamed to share in it. God chose for Jesus’ birthplace not a palace but a stable. For his mother, a young, vulnerable woman, not married, not rich, not highly educated. Jesus set aside his strength and invulnerability and entered our weakness, showing us that we don’t need to fear smallness. And he continues to live his life in small, weak people. People whom he makes great by joining himself to us in our smallness and lifting us up with him to share in the life and love of the Trinity, and the mission of God in the world.

A friend comes for supper and shares pictures of her trip to Israel. I’m most struck by pictures of the Bell Caves. In one picture, the 96 year old man who co-led the tour rests in a wheelchair, hands folded. In another (professionally taken, so I can’t post it) he stands, straight yet tiny in the vastness of the cave, as a beam of light descends through the bell’s apex, blessing him, crowning him.

It images for me what happened in another small town in Israel some 2000 years ago. The light of God’s face which had been shining on us for millennia (Num 6:23-27) descended to live among us where we could see God’s face turned toward us, his smile now visible to our human eyes. And, in that smile, those eyes—God’s love now lived in human flesh—we could know that God joins us in our weakness so he can lift us to our full stature, beyond our full stature, making us co-heirs, crowned with God’s glory and grace.

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Photo by Julie Hindmarsh. Used with permission.

 

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.”

_____________

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

Living Your Right Size

Much of this last decade has been, for me, about learning to live my smallness—learning to be a child, finding myself safe and held, discovering that limitations can lead me to where I can find and feel the truth that I am loved just as I am. I don’t have to be in control to be safe. I don’t have to earn love or prove my worth or try to make myself bigger than I am.

There is a goodness to knowing ourselves small. In one very real sense, the life of faith is a life of smallness: of humility, of Jesus increasing and us decreasing, of recognizing that without Jesus we can do nothing. God is Creator and we are his beloved creation and he will continue to carry us right through our old age and grey hairs and on into eternity.

But there is also a smallness that is not faith but timidity, not humility but hiding.

Children grow. And are meant to. (Eph 4:15, 1 Peter 2:2)

The truth is that sometimes it’s not faith that keeps me small. It’s fear. Fear of stepping out. Of failure. Of what others will think. Of what God might think.

But here’s the thing: Precisely because I am and will always be small compared to God, I can be my strongest, truest, self, unafraid that God will be threatened by me growing to my full stature. He wants me to grow into my fullest, freest self, and He does all he can to facilitate that process.

I turn again to the page that stuck with me from a book I once read:

         ‘They who wait for the Lord. . . shall mount up with wings like eagles,’ our pastor read from Isaiah 40:31 one autumn Sunday morning. As a small, bored child fidgeting in the pew, those words caught my surprised attention. Just the day before, my parents had called me outdoors to watch the wild geese, soaring in V-formation, flying south. They filled the air with the sound of beating wings and exultant cries. Every fall and spring it was a shared family thrill to watch the wild, free, yet disciplined power of these geese flying over Michigan.

Now, as our pastor read about God calling forth our strength like that of soaring eagles, I remember the exultation of the flying geese.

So, God likes that kind of thing, I mused. How had I got it into my head that God preferred things to be very quiet, subdued, and resigned?

Then something even more surprising rose within me. The Bible is saying that God wants me to be like that! I thought this over. I felt excited. I also felt a little afraid.

Twenty years later, a young mother, I stood at the door of my baby daughter’s room. She was sitting up for the very first time, holding the crib bars with one hand. Her back was toward the door, so I could not see her face, but I could see her delight in her new empowerment in every muscle of that little back.

This was another vivid, symbolic moment for me. As I felt that wave of joyful pride at sharing in her joy in her new power, I remembered again the awed delight I felt as I watched the wild geese in their released power. Does God feel this way? I wondered. Does God feel this way, only immeasurably more so, when sharing our births, our rebirths, our awakenings, our risings up, our responses, our giftedness, our growing empowerment? (Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer, Fear, and our Powers, p. 11-12)

 Smallness is not the goal. Love is. Receiving it, and giving it.

Living aware of my true smallness often helps me receive God’s love, and opens me for that love to flow through me to others. But keeping myself smaller than I need to be shuts me down from receiving and giving that love.

The questions I asked some time back come to mind again, returning me to Paul’s reminder in Galatians 5:6, “. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” These questions, and the emotions that arise along with them, help me notice whether I’m living in the smallness of faith, a beloved child knowing herself held, and free to love God, others, and herself with the overflow of that love, or the smallness of fear, timidly holding back. These questions help me live my right size.

Does my choice flow out of faith in Jesus? Does it help me trust him more?

And does it express that faith through love—for God, for others, and for myself in a healthy, respectful, stepping-into-God’s-love-for-me way?

Then it is a good choice.

 

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Photos (in order) by Photo by Echo Grid,  Kevin GentAbigail Keenan Anna Samoylova, and MD Duran on Unsplash.

What to do with your wounds

It was a gorgeous Saturday morning, a few weeks back, and I was on my usual morning run. I was breathing deeply the crisp air and looking up at the brilliant red trees and missed seeing the uneven pavement stone. In less than a second, blood was dripping from both palms, my face hurt where my glasses had twisted against it, and, though I couldn’t see my knee beneath my leggings, I could tell it had felt the blow as well.

We all have wounds. It’s part of living in this creation with uneven pavement stones and dogs that bite and parents and teachers and friends who, like us, have their own wounds.

We can’t escape the wounds. But we can learn how to tend them so that even the most painful of wounds, while not chosen, can be stepping stones leading us into gift.

So how? How do we tend them so they’ll heal rather than fester? How do we care for them so a small problem doesn’t turn into a bigger one?

One thing I know: it doesn’t help to keep picking at them. And it doesn’t help to beat myself up about having them. There’s already enough of me hurting without adding more bruises.

So when the same old wound catches me off-guard and I find myself feeling like a failure, this is the question that helps me most: “I wonder how Jesus sees my wounds?” I may see them as failure, but he doesn’t. He sees them as wounds—something that I didn’t choose (though I can choose now what to do with them)—and something that I can no more heal than I could heal the weeping wounds on my hands after I fell. I can tend them—protect them, keep them clean as best I can—but I can’t make them heal. Only God can do that.

But there’s more. Not only does Jesus see my persistent triggers not as failure but as wounds, he also sees them as a place of connection.

During a recent series of challenging conversations, over and over I sensed the invitation, “Press your wounds into Mine.” The still-tender parts of my palms were a daily reminder of the invitation, and I pictured myself again and again with my palms pressed against Jesus’ palms, my eyes looking into his, into that place where I always find myself seen and known and loved. And somehow, there, the pain decreased. It turns out a lot of the pain of wounds is the loneliness beneath—the fear of failure and the rejection we’re sure will accompany it.

It’s a very intimate act, this pressing of wounds together, this mingling of blood—a bit like young girls who prick their fingers and let their blood mix in an act of declaration that they are now “blood sisters,” something deeper than friends, connected and committed forever. But Jesus is more than a playground friend. This is God who takes on flesh so he can share my blood. This is God who goes much farther than pricking his fingers to let his new-made blood mingle with mine in a symbolic act of security and belonging. No needles here, but nails piercing his wrists, a sword his side. No symbolic act but a real sealing of my security with his life.

His hands still carry the scars, an eternal invitation to press my wounds into his and there remember that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. For, mystery of mysteries, His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.

 

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“His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.” For further meditation on this thought, see 2 Cor 5:21, Is 53:5, 1 Cor 10:16 and 12:27, Col 1:18-20 and 2:9-13. What feelings surface as you read that statement? What might it mean for you to know this is true?

Photos (in order) by me, Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash, and Milada Vigerova on Unsplash.