Loved in our frailty

I’ve just returned from ten days in the Rockies—ten days of feeling small. Majestic mountains towered over the towns where we stayed and lined both sides of the highway. A road was closed because of an avalanche.

I loved the mountains, loved running up the mountain trails in the early morning and discovering the vista at the top. But as much as I’ve thought and written about smallness, there were moments on this trip when the exterior landscape imaging my interior one left me unsettled by my smallness.

The trip took place just after graduation. I’ve been slowly working away at my Master’s for eight years—the last few of those spent writing a book. I’ve learned many things, chief among which is my smallness, and my lovedness in my smallness. And now? This is where that learning gets tested, here where I step out of studies and into the real world. Here is the place for trust, here where I face the world and feel my smallness and vulnerability. Sometimes, to be honest, it’s terrifying.

But as I settled into my window seat yesterday on the flight home and let my heart and mind run back over the trip, I realized something important: my fear was not the result of facing my smallness, but of forgetting that I’m cherished and tended in my smallness. Fear accompanies not the mere awareness of smallness, but the attempt to carry responsibility meant for Someone bigger.

The plane rose through the clouds, the wind shaking our small plane and reinforcing my sense of smallness.

In this world that so often equates bigger with better, it’s not hard to equate smallness with insignificance. Small is frail, small is vulnerable, therefore small is insecure and out of control and scary and to be avoided or upgraded or supersized. But as I panned back over the trip, two moments stood out, inviting me into a truer view of my smallness.

The first came when we climbed the stairs at the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site. At each landing, we leaned over the railings and peered into the pools and streams, searching for the apple-seed sized Banff Springs Snails that now survive only in this one place in the world. Each time we were disappointed.

And then, at the final stop, we saw them clinging to dead leaves and bits of wood in a partly shaded pool. The joy I felt was more than the joy of finding something we’d been searching for. For a moment the curtain lifted and I sensed myself on holy ground, feeling for an instant the worth of these tiny creatures. Their smallness and vulnerability didn’t negate their significance; it made them candidates for special attention and care.

 

The second invitation into a truer view of smallness came through an encounter with an elk. Two consecutive days we saw her on our morning walk as she lingered in the same patch of woods, separate from the herd and moving slowly. She lifted her head to look at us but didn’t run away. Was she old? Sick? But she looked too plump to be ailing.

Then we learned that when the time of their delivery nears, mama elk leave the herd. The third day we did not see her. Was she in labor? Had her calf been born? We’d been running on that trail because the trail on the other side of town was closed while a grizzly feasted on the carcass of an elk. Would this mama and her calf survive this vulnerable time of their lives?

And then I remembered God questioning Job as Job wrestled with his own vulnerability:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?

Do you count the months till they bear?

Do you know the time they give birth?

They crouch down and bring forth their young;

Their labor pains are ended.

Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;

They leave and do not return.” (Job 39:1-4)

Comfort is found not in overcoming our smallness, but in knowing the One who sees and tends us in our smallness.

Tiny snails, big elk, and we humans in between—all as frail and vulnerable as wildflowers that bloom for a day or two and then wither (Isaiah 40:6-7).

And all of us loved and tended in our frailty (Psalm 104).

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Photos #1, 3, and 6 by Marny Watts.

On the other side of the cross: the grace that carries you forever

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has wound its way through Lent, summoning me to surrender to love in all sorts of ways. But it’s in one moment on Good Friday that I experience the magnitude of this grace most clearly.

For a moment on Friday morning as I read John 19 I am his mother, watching him hang on the cross, hearing him speak to me, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to his best friend standing beside me, “Here is your mother.”

I want to protest, “Forget about me! Look at you! You are scarcely able to breathe for the pain, the weight of your own body suffocating you!” I’m wringing my hands now. “Oh, how can I help?” It’s all so backwards, so upside-down. Surely this moment at least, this moment of his suffering and death, should be about him, about me caring for him.

But, no. Here on this day when the world is coming to an end, when my heart is hanging there with him on the cross, he tells me that my needs matter. Even here.

This love is too big. I can hardly breathe. I watch him rise again, pressing his feet against the stakes to gulp another lungful of air, and as I watch, I realize:

It’s not “even.” It’s “especially.” Especially here on the cross my needs matter.

That’s why he’s on the cross at all—because I matter to him. Because my needs matter to him more, even, than his own life.

This is the wild, crazy, ridiculously extravagant love that dies to meet my needs for healing, forgiveness, and a certain knowledge that I am forever loved. And this is the love that rises again, carrying me with him into the present, the future, always enfolded in this strong and gentle love that is enough for every need.

Someone sends me Flora Slosson Wuellner’s meditation and I find myself pausing over every line, noticing how the risen, living Christ is with me on the other side of the cross, still carefully tending every need within me and loving me into strength and wholeness.

“The risen, living Christ

calls me by my name;

comes to the loneliness within me;

heals that which is wounded in me;

comforts that which grieves in me;

seeks for that which is lost within me;

releases me from that which has dominion over me;

cleanses me of that which does not belong to me;

renews that which feels drained within me;

awakens that which is asleep in me;

names that which is formless within me;

empowers that which is newborn within me;

consecrates and guides that which is strong within me;

restores me to this world which needs me;

reaches out in endless love to others through me.”

~Flora Slosson Wuellner
, in Prayer, Fear, and Our Powers, Upper Room Books, 1989.

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I’ll be away from the blog for the next few weeks, first for the next intensive week of classes in my journey deeper into listening and helping others listen, and then for a couple of weeks of rest and celebration with family. As this new season of resurrection life begins, may you know Jesus loving you in each place of longing and need, and I look forward to listening with you again here soon!

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Paintings by Patricia Herrerra.

Why I mourn the cross this year—and why Jesus doesn’t

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Lent, and especially this week between Palm Sunday and the cross, sometimes feels to me unbearably heavy. The one I love is walking to the cross—because of my sin. How can I bear to watch? How can I bear not to? I want to be with him. It hurts to be. I feel so helpless. So guilty. So ashamed.

But when I look from the cross to the face of the one on it, I see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.

I look away, unable to bear the love that is breaking me open. I have to look back, to see if he is still looking at me. He is. Still looking, still loving me, his eyes teaching me what he wants my heart to know: I am worth it. 

The strong shadow of the cross stands behind what seem to me the most beautiful words in the Bible, calling me to speak them as my own: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) Jesus went to the cross as Saviour, as obedient Son of his Father. He also went as Lover. Groom. Soon-to-be husband.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:25-27)

In this week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind. The two parables He told about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding were both told in this week leading up to the cross. (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13)

Even the Sadducees frame their trick question concerning the resurrection in light of marriage. Jesus replies, “Don’t you get it, guys? After the resurrection, people don’t marry each other.” One wonders if he isn’t thinking, “. . . because you get to marry me,” when he follows their conversation with the declaration that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30)

I’ve not eaten a meal with friends knowing it was my last before leaving the world. But even final meals before moving across the world are, for me, difficult affairs. Full of aching and sadness. Certainly not something I “eagerly desire.” I think Jesus could only say “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” because He was looking past the cross to the consummation. “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:15-16)

The last conversation Jesus had with his friends was framed by His desire for union. It started with words straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony:

“. . . I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)

It finished with a prayed expression of this same deep longing,

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. . .” (John 17:24)

The cross is where Jesus proves his (un)dying love, His eternal commitment.

This is where he makes us His forever, strikes from our wedding vows “‘til death do us part.”

Here he removes our rags and clothes us in the fine white dress of his own making – of his own being – preparing us to be His bride.

We are so close, here, to his heart. So near to the wedding banquet and the intimacy that follows. Here at the cross, he does everything needed to make us his. Here he offers himself to us in that most vulnerable of conditions, utterly exposed, stripped not only of clothes but of all that we would consider beauty or basic human dignity. Stripped so that the naked glory of His blinding, sight-giving love could be visible. And he waits, the waiting itself the most vulnerable of postures. Waiting for us to look and, in the seeing, to learn to trust his love.

It is four years since I first saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross. That year, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? But this year? This year I hurt because I love him and I don’t want him to hurt. I don’t want to be the one to make him hurt. I mourn his pain. I mourn my sin that caused that pain. I grieve that I can’t help him in his pain—the pain he is suffering for love of me.

I look, and even as I hurt, I love him for every word, every action, every minute of his surrender to suffering that speaks such love. I love every detail about him that declares it done, me made perfect, made his. His eyes reach to me, telling me that he has never questioned whether all the pain was worth it. It was.

The long-spoken words echo through his silent surrender to the flogging: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” Beneath his cry, “It is finished,” I hear his now true declaration, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” With the tearing of the curtain, the final destruction of all that divides, He cries for my response, “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my flawless one. . . Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (Song of Songs 4:9, 7; 5:2; 2:10)

For the overwhelming moments

It’s a busy stretch right now as I prepare to present my final master’s project in ten days’ time. Room booked? Check. Posters printed? Check. Paper done? Script finished? Slides prepared? I want this first public sharing of the book I’ve been working on for several years to be a blessing to those who attend.

In the midst of the busyness (which sometimes degenerates into anxiety), I’m sensing myself reminded, through an image and a phrase, how to live this time.

The phrase? “It’s not mine, it’s ours.” The book, the accompanying papers, the presentation aren’t mine, they’re ours—a love-gift that God and I have been offering to each other for years and are now preparing—together—to share with others. The responsibility is not mine to carry alone.

And the image? I’m flailing around in the ocean, grasping wildly at a life-ring, trying to pull myself up out of the water and stand on it. It flips over, dumping me unceremoniously back into the water and leaving me coughing and spluttering as it bobs to the surface again a few feet away. Jesus, walking on the water, reaches out his hand to me, inviting me to stop trying to stand on (or even cling to) the life ring and let him help me back into the boat instead.

The life-ring, I’m discovering, can be just about anything. My own intuition. A structure or protocol or tradition. Detailed planning. Friends who are helping me out. Anything that is good and helpful and sometimes even life-saving, but that isn’t meant to be the foundation for my security. Anything, in other words, that is not Jesus.

The kind of love that holds you

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference to a day or a relationship, that break the camel’s back or make you certain you are known and loved.

Last week it was a hazelnut—a missing hazelnut, to be precise, and then a found one—that taught my heart what it needed to know.

I’d been carrying it around in the left pocket of my coat for five or six years since I first read Julian of Norwich’s beautiful image of God holding in the palm of his hand, like a tiny hazelnut, all that is made. I love to slip my hand in my pocket as I walk and be reminded that I am part of God’s creation—always held, sustained in being because God made me and loves me and keeps me.

But one day last week when I slipped my hand in my pocket, my hazelnut wasn’t there. It was such a small thing but, like a missing tooth, I kept exploring the gap, feeling the emptiness.

At first I tried to brush away the sadness and assure myself it didn’t matter; it was such a small loss and God still holds me whether or not I have a hazelnut in my pocket to remind me. Then I tried to problem-solve; where might I have lost it? How could I replace it? (Where do you even buy nuts in their shells at this time of year?)

And then I felt a nudge: “Ask Me.”

“Oh. Right. Thank you. But really? I feel like a two-year old with a missing blanket. You really want me to ask you about that?”

“I love you, child.”

So I told him my sadness, and thanked him for being with me in it. I told him I knew it was a tiny thing, but I really liked that hazelnut, and I asked if he’d help me find or replace it.

Soon after, I sensed a nudge and went to look in the drawer of my bedside table (feeling, I must admit, a little like I was looking in the oven for my toothbrush!) But there, nestled among the pill bottles and blood pressure cuff, bookmarks and pens, as though waiting to be found, was a single hazelnut.

It wasn’t the hazelnut that brought tears to my eyes; it was the love of the God who holds it always in the palm of his hand. The grand love that made all that exists and sustains it in being is not a generic love but a very particular, tender love—the love of a parent who will search through the whole house at bedtime to find the missing blanket for the toddler because her small needs and loves and desires matter.

I’m glad I lost my hazelnut. My heart knows, now, so much more about the hand that holds me!