The tulip’s reminders (OR When you feel ashamed)

I’ve shifted one of the sprouting tulip bulbs from the windowsill to the desk where I’m writing. I need the reminder that God’s life-giving work in us is a process. God doesn’t expect me to bloom before my roots have gone deep and my shoots stretched up green, slowly unfurling toward His light.

I need this reminder over and over, especially when I find myself wrestling once more with old patterns, or wondering again about old beliefs.

At our church, the sermons these months have been from Mark, repeating again and again Jesus’ call to servanthood and sacrifice. And honestly? I’m finding that hard. I know it’s true, and I want to keep being called deeper into faithful living. But another part of me—the part that is tired—wants to curl up and cry. That part easily slips into the shame that comes with feeling I should do more, be more, be better. And then it feels guilty about feeling ashamed.

It’s that part that needs the tulip’s many reminders: first, that life and its growth is a process; second, that the outward work must always rise from what is unseen. Blooms don’t come without roots; servanthood, to be both true and sustainable, must always arise from making my home in Christ’s love.

That part needs this reminder too: discipleship is not one-size-fits-all, but uniquely tailored to our own particular life stories, personalities, weaknesses, and strengths. We’re all called to make our home in God’s love, and to live out that love in service to others. But the details of the call vary from person to person and from one life stage to another. 

God has spent over a decade calling me, through my limitations and Scripture and prayer as well as guidance from trusted fellow pilgrims, to rest in his love. He has showed me again and again that as I do that I’m enabled to love and serve others in ways I couldn’t otherwise do.

My pastor’s vocation, at least right now, seems to involve summoning us back to an awareness that discipleship involves sacrifice, and a willingness to pick up our cross and follow. 

Both of these messages—resting, and stepping out; making my home in Christ’s love, and living that love out to others—are true, and both are important parts of discipleship. But this is what my heart needs to hear today: Just because someone else is receiving and proclaiming a complementary aspect of the truth doesn’t mean that what I’m hearing from God is wrong. It might simply mean that I’m focussing on the roots while someone else is showing the curled crimson edges of the fully open bloom.

The question to guide my life is how God is showing himself to me today. What is he calling me to, on this day, in this stage of my life?

As I listen and follow one step at a time, my eyes on Christ’s face and my home more and more in God’s love, I can be sure that the flower and fruit will come:

“And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” (2 Cor 3:18,The Message, c.f. John 15:4-5)

When you don’t see God’s answers

I sit commiserating with a friend over lunch. She’s been sick too, and I tell her about the day last week when I woke feeling pretty well, but after my morning bike ride and an hour of computer work, my brain was too tired to keep working. I switched to a physical task and spent 25 minutes sweeping the apartment. I should have stopped sooner, because by 25 minutes I was lightheaded. It was only 10:45 a.m. The day stretched long ahead of me—lots to do, but no physical or mental energy to do it. What does one do with a day of empty hours when the mind can’t process any more information, and the body can’t tackle the tasks on the do-list? In my younger years, I didn’t understand boredom. There was always something more to read, to learn, to do. But on days when I’m thinking through mud, it’s different. 

Later on that day of frustration and helplessness, I remembered the song that has kept me company over the past decade, sometimes singing itself in my head unbidden, other times chosen. Sometimes a surprise gift in a church service or prayer retreat. Always carrying for me a reminder that God is good, that whatever this day may hold, and however little I may understand what is going on or the purpose behind it, God is for me, leading me into life.

“Bless the LORD, my soul,

And bless God’s holy name,

Bless the LORD, my soul,

Who leads me into life.”

I sang the words over and over while I made supper and washed the dishes, my helplessly spinning thoughts slowing, my frustration shifting to peace as the words and the breathing and the rhythm of the song helped my soul settle into trust and rest.

“At least there was relief in the singing,” I told my friend, “though I still found it frustrating not to be able to write or clean or even read. The hours were still long, and the do-list was calling.”

The answer came back, “You’re the only person I’ve ever heard feel guilty about praying too much.”

Hearing her perspective, I paused. Huh. . . Is that what that song was—prayer? Of course! And was I feeling guilty about it? I hadn’t realized it at the time—I’d have named it frustration more than guilt—but yes, beneath the frustration was that old sense of needing to be doing something. Either way, the point is the same. I’ve asked God to help me be a woman of prayer. I want to hear His heartbeat, want mine to beat in time with His. And until my friend’s comment, I had missed seeing the way God was meeting me in my limits, using them, once again, to draw me deeper into His heart and give me exactly what I most deeply want. I’d missed seeing it because my eyes were on the do-list rather than on the presence of the One who loves me. My limits weren’t keeping me from what’s most important. They were opening space for it. For Him.

I’ve been singing the song again since then, over and over, on days when I have more energy as well as days when I have less, the song now a more conscious gift of thanks and worship to this One who loves and wants me, not just what I can do for Him.

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Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

When you struggle to trust

There are those days when the weight of the world presses in. Fires are burning and viruses are spreading and the whole world seems lit up with orange caution signs.

Your family doctor up and leaves without anyone to replace her and you wonder who will write your prescriptions and complete your disability forms.

Someone you love loses a baby. 

You walk home from church because the bus is taking too long to come and, besides, the sun is finally shining and you want to feel it on your face.

You linger and look, pausing to pay attention to the sun and the clouds and the frothy wake leaving streamers behind the boats. You take time to notice, to let the light into your soul and the beauty into your heart. To remember that God is good.

You see the mountains peeking out beneath the clouds—still there, still strong and beautiful in their majesty—and you remember that even if the mountains quake and fall into the sea, God will remain (Ps 46). That He is where our help comes from (Ps. 121).

All around are reminders that even our most expensive possessions, our most clung to earthly securities, are as frail and vulnerable as dollar store toys.

And it’s okay. Nothing and no one on this earth was ever meant to provide the security we crave.

The light’s red, but the birds don’t seem to notice. For them, flying above it, red or green is all the same, a kindly arm stretched out, a place to rest and watch and then, when they’re ready, to launch again.

And slowly you realize that “yield” now feels like an invitation to rest, to let greater shoulders carry the world.

A love note just for you

They’re written all over the world, slipped into a bird song or the pink clouds of evening or the arms of a friend—love notes from God tucked into our days to remind us He sees and knows and cares.

Sometimes I find them in a familiar passage of Scripture or in one I haven’t read for a long time, a few words that feel like Someone slipped them into a most unlikely spot with a smile on His face, dreaming of me discovering them on an otherwise ordinary day.

That happened this week as I was reading through 1 Peter. The first part of chapter 3 is addressed to wives and husbands—not all that relevant to me as a single woman, one might expect. But there in the middle were two glimpses of who God is and what God loves that had me kneeling in awe and gratitude.

The first was the reminder in v.4 that “a gentle and quiet spirit . . . is of great worth in God’s sight.” For those of us who ache to step out of the world’s drive to do more and own more and accomplish more and instead live a listening life, walking (not racing) with Jesus, this is such good news. That gentle, quiet spirit that you want to cultivate? The one that the world devalues and dismisses? It is of great worth in God’s sight. Why? Well, for starters, it’s like the spirit of his Son who is also gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29; 21:5). And second, a gentle and quiet spirit is rooted in trust, humility, and making our home in Jesus’s love—which is precisely where God calls us to live, in this only place we can thrive (John 15:9).

A few verses on, Peter addresses husbands—even less relevant to me, one might think. But there in v.17 I glimpse all over again the magnificent mystery of Christ’s tender, respectful love for us. Marriage is, after all, meant to be a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church, and Jesus sets the standard for that relationship.

“Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her. . .” (Eph. 5:25-27 The Message)

I’ve soaked in Eph 5:22-33, memorizing the wonder of it. And on that background, Peter’s words to husbands make me kneel in awe:

“. . . treat [your wives] with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Pet 3:7).

Set aside for a second whatever might rise in you about women being called “the weaker partner” and hear what Peter is saying here. The emphasis is not on who is “the weaker partner” (an automatic assumption in the world of Peter’s time) but on treating her with respect rather than looking down on her. She is not a second-class citizen. She is a fellow heir. And Jesus treats us all, men and women, who are inarguably the weaker partners in our marriage with Him, not with impatience or disdain or even pity but with respect and special care, as fellow heirs with Him (Rom 8:17). As Walter Brueggemann says, commenting on Psalm 103:13-14, “the reality of our ‘dust’ does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.”

This, it seems to me, is foundational in allowing us to develop a gentle and quiet spirit. We can only begin to release our anxieties and our need to defend or prove ourselves when we know ourselves welcomed and cherished and even respected right in the middle of our weakness.

What’s it like for you to consider that Jesus doesn’t look down on you in your weakness but respects you and cherishes you in it?

As you think back over the past 24 hours, can you spot any words or encounters that might have been a love note left just for you?

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Photos (in order) by  Jamez PicardLea Khreiss, and Tyler Nix on Unsplash.

When you need help

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

What do you do in those moments when you’re afraid you’ve got it all wrong—that something you said or did was off the mark?

I had to wrestle through that question after I wrote last week’s post about Michael Card’s words:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

In spite of all the verses I shared about Jesus laying down his life for us in the past, continuing to wash our feet as he prays for and sustains us in the present, and waiting on us at the coming banquet table—all of which I knew were true—I sweated and squirmed. Was the slant correct? Had I adequately balanced the need to receive Jesus’ serving of us with the need to worship Him as Lord? I’ve grown up singing a song about Jesus as our Servant King, but to think of Him not just as a servant but as my servant, well, that feels like a different thing.

Verses from Isaiah came to mind and as I searched I discovered that in the Old Testament, Jesus is only ever referred to as the servant of God (Is 42:1; 49:5-6; 52:13; 53:11). How did this fit with what I’d written? Is there a difference between Jesus serving me and being my servant?

It helped to see that in all of those passages, Jesus’ work is on our behalf. He is God’s servant, though He serves us.

I kept digging, turning this time to the New Testament. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced picture with its range of Greek words for servant, some used for Jesus’ relationship to His Father, and some for his relationship to us. (Stay with me here—there’s good news to be had!)

Pais (child, slave)

When the writers of the New Testament speak of Jesus as the servant of God (Acts 3:13,26; 4:30), the Greek word they use for servant is pais (or paida as it’s conjugated in these verses), which can simply mean a child (think “pediatric”) or it can mean “one who is committed in total obedience to another; slave, servant” (BDAG). Jesus, the Son, is committed in total obedience to His Father. That is great news. (Aren’t you glad the One guiding Jesus’ work in the world is not you or me or any other frail and biased person but the Creator who made and sustains the universe in love?)

Diakonos (servant, minister); diakoneo (to serve)

When Jesus is referred to as a servant of the Jews (Rom 15:8), or when Jesus says of himself that he “did not come to be served, but to serve [us!],” (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45), the word “serve” is diakoneo (think “deacon”), which means “to render service in a variety of ways either at someone’s behest or voluntarily” (BDAG). 

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “As distinct from all these [other] terms [for service], diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. . . . In diakoneo there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.” In other words, while Jesus is committed in total obedience to His Father, He serves us voluntarily, lovingly, in a whole range of ways. We receive the gift of being served in all the ways God knows we most need, but we are never Jesus’ master. 

Much of the time, I’m not even sure what to ask for, so it’s a relief to be reminded that I’m served by One who loves me and knows far better than I do what I need. 

This is news that lightens our burdens in another way as well. We are also called to serve this way —giving ourselves first and wholly to God for the sake of others. We aren’t asked to serve many masters. We aren’t asked to keep everyone happy. We’re asked to serve and obey only God, the One who loves us perfectly and doesn’t forget that we’re dust and delights to give us His best, and as part of our loving of God, to love and serve others, but not to let them decide the shape of our lives.

Doulos (slave); douleuo (to serve as a slave)

A third Greek word for “servant” might help us here. (Still with me? This is the last one.) Douleuo (think doula) means “to be owned by another; to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey (BDAG). We are to live in total service to God—because we can’t give this kind of total service and obedience both to God and something (or someone) else:

“No one can serve (douleuo) two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24 ).  

This word, douleuo, also shows up in the verse that pictures Jesus still serving us when he returns:

“It will be good for those servants (douloi – ones solely committed to another) whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on (diakoneo – voluntarily serve) them” (Luke 12:37).

So then: Is Jesus our servant? Yes. He is our diakonos – one who voluntarily serves us in love. And I don’t know about you, but I sure need to receive his gracious serving in order to have the courage and strength to, with Him, serve the only One who can rightly direct my life.

And all my wrestling and questioning? Turns out there was Someone serving me, helping me in it, leading me deeper into truth (John 16:13).