I wake, anxious, to a day filled with things that feel too big for me. I take some slow, deep breaths to calm my nervous system, stretch to release the tension that I’m carrying in my neck, feel the bed firm beneath me. I notice where my thoughts are racing ahead and making things seem bigger than they are.
All of this helps—a little.
But what I really need is to know myself held by someone wise and gentle and strong, someone who loves me and for whom this day is not too much.
I find myself praying the first lines of Ted Loder’s prayer in his beautiful book, Guerrillas of Grace:
I come to you now
as a child to my Mother,
out of the cold which numbs
into the warm who cares.
Listen to me inside,
under my words,
where the shivering is. . . (p. 22)
I linger, letting myself settle into the image of being held by the One who loves me and whispers to me, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.” After a while, we turn and look at the day together, and I sense the reassurance, “It’s okay, little one, we’ll do it together.” I’m a three-year old overwhelmed at the toys strewn across the floor, and what looked to my small eyes like an impossible task now becomes manageable as someone bigger, someone who loves me and has done this a million times before, begins to scoop toys from the floor and put them in their places, pointing out a puzzle and a book for me to put back on the shelf, a train for me to put in the basket. This day is no harder for God than it is for a mother to put together a twelve-piece puzzle and place it back on the shelf.
We long for love in its many forms, but there are times of particular vulnerability when only a mother’s love will do. Sometimes that tender wisdom and gentleness and care can be provided by another woman a little older than me, and sometimes I, a woman made in the image of our gentle God, can offer that care to another. But there are times God wants to meet our needs for nurture directly, and I’m so grateful that, though God refers to himself in Scripture as Father, he also gives us many mothering images, reminding us that God is neither male nor female, but the complete and perfect Parent who welcomes and cares for us with the best traits of both mother and father.
God is like an eagle stirring up her nest and hovering over her young as she teaches them to fly (Deut. 32:11), and a mother hen protectively snuggling her chicks under her wings (Ps. 91:4, Luke 13:34). God is a mother in the pains of childbirth (Deut. 32:18, Is. 42:14), unable to forget her newborn child (Is. 49:15). And when God proclaims to Moses who God is, the first word God uses to describe God’s self is “compassionate,” or, in Hebrew, rachum, sister to racham, or womb (Ex 34:6). At the heart of God’s character is a love so gentle, so patient and attentive, that God pictures it for us as womb-love, the love of a mother for her newborn child. It is a love that celebrates when we are glad, and aches with us when we hurt, holding out open arms and cuddling us close and wiping away our tears.
For this is what the LORD says:
“. . . As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)
As you notice the mothering aspects of God’s character, what stirs within you? Are there fears? Questions or confusions? Hopes or longings?
I woke on Saturday with a sense of dread hanging over me. I was tired, my website was still a mess, the deadline for a writing contest was two days away, and I didn’t yet have an idea for a blog post. The kitchen and bathroom floors have needed washing for weeks. The washing basket was full, and I’d had to eat crackers and peanut-butter for my pre-run snack because the bananas were too green and I hadn’t made it to the store to buy bread.
I didn’t list all those things as I woke. They were just there, a dark cloud of weariness and dread as I entered the day. It was early and I lay there for a bit, telling God how much I hated started a day dreading it. Beyond that I don’t remember how the gift came. It wasn’t something I figured out. It was just there, an understanding and an invitation and another piece of the puzzle being put into place so that the whole image was all of a sudden clearer.
The understanding: I have choice here. No one is dying.
The invitation: Live a healthy rhythm of labor.
I’ve seen women who were for the first time experiencing the burning pressure between their legs push not only with contractions but try to keep pushing in between. In only a few minutes they were exhausted. If, on the other hand, they pushed with contractions, when the uterus was doing a huge part of the work to push the baby down, and rested and breathed when the contraction waned, they could keep up the rhythm of push and rest for much longer, and made much quicker progress in delivering the baby than if they tried to push constantly. Rest and breathing was also important for both mom and baby to get the oxygen that they needed.
In the hard work of intense labor, the rests are as important as the pushing.
So on Saturday morning, I sensed the invitation to stop and breathe between contractions. More concretely for this introvert who’d been engaging with people all week, the invitation was to keep all social media turned off and not even do my usual quick email check while I ate my snack before I ran. For this self who comes alive with writing and slowly shrivels with trying to figure out too many new technological issues at once, the invitation was also not to look at the website. It was to set all that aside and just be my small self, alone with God, without any of the roles or trappings or obligations. There in his presence, I could finally see things more clearly: nothing on my do-list was truly urgent. It would all still be there in a few hours and no-one would have died for it not having been done sooner. The only thing that hurt a bit was my pride. Who wants the mess of their website or their floors visible to visitors? But God has been doing his slow, patient work in me, and, for that morning at least, the inner freedom to shut out the world and be quiet with God was worth far more than the sting of possibly being misperceived and judged (or correctly perceived in areas I’d rather keep hidden!).
As I saw the invitation to step back into a healthy rhythm of labor, I also saw once more where God was in it all: The Divine Midwife was midwifing me.God had just put a hand on me, helping me sense whether there was a contraction or not, whether his power was in that moment at work in me, encouraging me to add my effort to his, or whether this was a moment to rest and breathe and prepare to work together again shortly.
For me, facing the day with dread is often a sign that I’m trying to keep pushing, relying on my own effort, when I’m being invited first to rest and breathe.
The exact signs will be different for everyone, but each of us can, over time, learn to recognize when we’re pushing solely in our own effort, and when we’re adding our strength to cooperate with something that God is already doing in us.
I’ve mentioned the understanding and the invitation, but not yet the puzzle piece being put into place so that the whole image became clearer.
The puzzle piece: I’ve long wondered how all this fits into the time I lived in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, sometimes as the only doctor for 150,000 people. Was that an exception, an impossible situation that couldn’t have been lived in a healthy rhythm? What about my obstetrical training when I had to work 24, 28, and sometimes even 36 hour shifts? Does this invitation to live a healthy rhythm apply only to those who don’t have a busy job or small children or another circumstance that may keep them running for years?
Certainly there are stretches of our lives when we seem to have little control over our own time. But even then, as I look back once again at my own situation, I see places I could have chosen differently and didn’t, usually because I was afraid of disappointing someone. Yes, there were huge, real constraints on my time and energy. But at least as big a part in my failure to live a healthier rhythm of labor was my over-active sense of responsibility to please everyone.
It takes time to learn to recognize when we’re pushing in our own effort and when we’re cooperating with the Holy Spirit and, as Paul said, “struggling with all [God’s] energy which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29), but there are hints and promises to help us in the process. I can
Begin to notice signs that indicate I’m trying to push when I’m being invited to rest. What happens in my body, my thoughts and emotions, my relationship with God and others when I’m pushing in my own strength vs. when I’m cooperating with God and living a healthier rhythm of pushing along with Him and then resting and then pushing again?
Pay attention to the clues we’re given. I’ve found love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 a good starting list for noticing what’s going on in me and what it might mean. I can work hard but with a sense of joy and gentleness, or I can drive myself anxiously and aggressively. In the first case, I’m pushing along with something the Holy Spirit is already doing. In the second, I’m likely trying to bring something to birth in my own effort.
Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in noticing well, in following the nudges to rest, and in letting Jesus heal me in the places I need to be healed so I’m not being driven by fear of what others might think but am responding to God’s nudges.
The wonderfully encouraging news in this process?
The promise:We’re not on our own in this process of learning to listen and live a healthy rhythm of labor. We have an ever-present Midwife who knows us and is always with us and in us, midwifing the birth of our lives more deeply into God’s, and of God’s life in and through us into the world.
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s withinus. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Rom 8:22-28, The Message)
Welcome! Pull up a chair. If you’re reading this online rather than via email, you’ll notice that I’ve been working this week to transfer my blog to a new home to better welcome you, and the move is still in process. If you can’t see the search button or the list of topics, that’s because I haven’t unpacked them yet. The pictures aren’t hung and nothing is quite in its right place, but I’m so glad you’ve come anyway. The kettle’s on and we’ll pause in the midst of the mess to notice that God is here too.
The fact is, sometimes I hear God’s heartbeat most clearly when I haven’t managed to tidy everything up. Maybe it’s because then I most need to hear his heartbeat reminding me that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that the Holy Spirit delights to hover over formless chaos and from it shape ruby-throated hummingbirds and the milky ribbon of stars in a clear winter sky and the sun glinting on the tips of salty ocean waves.
Creation is like that. We see a newborn baby or the first green shoot of spring peeking up from the ground and it awakens within us hope, and tenderness, and a desire to protect the new little life. The mystery is great, and the awe, and the hope. But also the mess. Someone got dirt under their fingernails planting those bulbs. Someone made space within herself and carried that baby-in-formation through three-quarters of a year of nausea and back pain, heartburn and mood swings, weariness and the little guest tucking himself up under her ribs or kicking her bladder or doing aerobics when she was trying to sleep. Someone breathed through the pains, and soaked the carpet when the water broke, and wondered if she could do it, and gave all her strength to push this new bit of life out into the world, slippery with fluid and blood and caked with white vernix. The coming of new life is messy.
That’s one of the reasons that the Psalmist’s understanding of God as midwife so delights me. People who choose to make their life’s work caring for women and the life coming into being through them aren’t generally afraid of the mess. Nor of the unpredictability of the process. And so in the messiest and most dangerous moments in his life, the Psalmist cries out to the divine Midwife.
In Psalm 71:6, when the Psalmist’s life is threatened by enemies, he prays, “It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew text reads, “It was you who cut me from my mother’s womb,” picturing God as the midwife cutting the psalmist’s umbilical cord at his birth.
In another of the most painful times of his life, when his sense of being abandoned by God was accompanied by physical illness and exhaustion and desertion by friends, David finds hope in the reminder that the same God who was present at his physical birth, guarding his life, still tends him: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb. You kept me safe on my mother’s breast” (Ps 22:9) The Hebrew literally says, “Yet it was you who pulled me out of the womb. . . ,” picturing a midwife helping a baby be born.
It is quite possible that Jesus himself turned for comfort to the image of God as Midwife. From the cross, his raw back rubbing rough wood with each word, Jesus cries the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and the writer of Hebrews quotes Jesus as speaking v. 22 in the context of his suffering (Hebrews 2:12). As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have memorized large portions of Scripture, and in his agony, this entire psalm may well have become his prayer, its poetry wrapping up all the outer details and inner wrestlings of those hours leading to his death, holding open space for trust during his excruciating birthing of us, “a people yet unborn” (v. 31), into the inner life of the Trinity. Every part of him burned: his pierced hands and feet, his dislocated joints; Jesus, along with the psalmist, may have cried that his heart had melted within him (v. 14). He was being torn apart, as though by “roaring lions that tear their prey” (v. 13). If Jesus was indeed praying this whole psalm on the cross, then for help in the tearing, burning intensity of his labor, he turned to the divine Midwife: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (v. 9-10) “In you our ancestors trusted . . . and you delivered them,” he reminded himself (v. 4). Into the skilled and gentle hands that had delivered him and thousands before him he could commit his body and spirit.
I’m intrigued that David and likely Jesus as well (both men!) found comfort in the image of God as Midwife. In Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul addresses the recipients of his letter, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .” He paints a startling picture in which all Christian believers (women and men!) are pregnant and Christ is the baby growing inside of us.
It’s an incredible privilege to carry Jesus within us. But I also know from my experience as an obstetrician walking with women through their pregnancies that as much as they might love the child being formed within them, pregnancy can be frightening. Spiritual pregnancy—Christ being formed in me—can feel scary and out of my control too—particularly knowing that this One being formed in me isn’t afraid of calling me to come and die on my way into new life. When fear rises, or I’m aware of my messiness, there’s comfort in knowing I’m in good hands, being cared for by the same skilled Midwife who was there at my own birth, unseen but present and wise and tender. That midwife is still guarding my life and skillfully working to safely deliver the life that is coming into being in and through me.
How is it for you to consider that strong and gentle hands are holding you and all that concerns you, even in the times you might not feel those hands?
Is there anything you’d like to say to your divine Midwife right now?
As I was pondering and praying about this blog post last evening, I felt like I was standing on the end of a high diving board—as though I’ve been climbing a very tall ladder for a very long time and once I take this next step, there’s no turning back. As I pictured myself standing there, toes curled over the edge of the board, a song from twenty years ago that I still have on my exercise playlist came to mind: The long awaited rains Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground And carved their way to where The wild and rushing river can be found And like the rains I have been carried to where the river flows, yeah My heart is racing, and my feet are weak As I walk to the edge I know there is no turing back Once my feet have left the ledge And in the rush I hear a voice That’s telling me to take a leap of faith So here I go I’m diving in, I’m going deep, in over my head I want to be Caught in the rush, lost in the flow, in over my head I want to go The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive So sink or swim, I’m diving in. . .(Steven Curtis Chapman, “Dive”)
It’s strange to think that when that song was released in 1999, I was partway through my first year of obstetrics specialty training. Five years of that residency training, four and a half years in Afghanistan, and ten years recovering and discovering God’s love from a whole different vantage point—I’ve done a lot of diving into new situations in those years. (And yes, sometimes finding myself in over my head!)
When I completed medical school and began obstetrical specialty training, I had no idea that I’d only get to witness and assist the birthing of new physical life for ten years—five years of training, and five of practice as an obstetrician. Nor did I know either the pain or the (even bigger) gift that would follow.
While I was working as an obstetrician, though I did glimpse the holiness of the process, my focus was on managing the situation, keeping mom and baby safe, and trying to stay more or less (preferably more) in control of an often uncontrollable process.
Then when my body could no longer handle the stress of being, for a time, the only doctor for 150,000 people in a little mountain village in central Afghanistan, I was forced to face head-on the reality that I am not in control. I couldn’t even manage my own body, let alone anyone else’s. I could barely sit up for a meal, and one long night it took two tries to drag myself, crawling on hands and knees, to the outhouse to empty the little bucket for which I had become increasingly grateful. It has been a long journey back to some semblance of health—much longer than the week it took me to get home, stopping en route to rest for a while and then be flown business class the rest of the way because I was too sick to sit up.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because one of the loveliest gifts of these past ten years has been the surprise that just as I stepped out of practicing obstetrics, I unknowingly stepped into experiencing obstetrics in a whole different way, from a variety of different angles.
I’ve discovered that I’m the baby, carried safely in the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I’ve lived and pondered the privilege that we have of carrying Jesus within us and bearing his life into the world. I’ve experienced God midwifing me wisely and gently through the whole process.
As I’ve pondered these roles, it has been impossible for me to avoid the sense that 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. Each of these roles has offered me comfort and encouragement and help in understanding many aspects of our relationship to God as we live this holy, mysterious, and sometimes painful life with him.
I’ve shared a few bits of this here over the years, but mostly I’ve written about other things on this blog while I’ve been completing a theology degree and spiritual director training and writing a book about learning to trust God’s love as illustrated by the story I’ve just told you in brief above. The book hasn’t yet been published, but in the meantime I’m bursting to share some of what the professor who supervised my book-writing termed “obstetrical theology,” and it seems now is the right time to share it. In case the mention of theology frightens you, don’t worry. There’s nothing abstract or dry about the way God has revealed himself in the birth drama. We’re all carried and born, after all, and in revealing himself in these roles that we can all in some way relate to, God offers us the kind of practical, tangible comfort I suspect we all need when life feels a bit out of control. So will you join me over the coming weeks as we dive a little deeper into the love of God as he has revealed it to us through all the different roles in the birth drama? I’m excited to share this with you!
FOR REFLECTION: When you relate to God, do you relate to him more often as your father, your mother, your husband, your baby, or your midwife? Do any of the roles seem strange or uncomfortable to you? Do you have any sense why that might be? Is there anything you’d like to say to God about all this as we dive in?
If you’re excited about this series and haven’t yet subscribed to receive my weekly blog posts by email, would you consider doing so? That helps me serve you in multiple ways: you won’t miss any of these posts, you’ll have access to the extra little surprises I’m preparing for those on my email list, and you’ll help me get the book I’ve written for you published. (Not surprisingly, potential publishers want to know people are interested in reading an author’s words!)
My sincere thanks to so many of you who share the posts you find helpful with others who might be interested. I can write these words, but only you can get them to that friend of yours who might be helped by them today.
It’s dark. They’re far out on the lake, far from the lights of any town. The sun has set and the last of the dusk has deepened into night. The moon they’d hoped for is hidden behind the clouds that have risen. They’d hoped to make quicker progress, but the wind has picked up and is pushing them back, fighting against them.
These fishermen know their boat well. They know the lake. They’re no stranger to storms. But tonight their nerves are frayed and tempers not far behind. The day has been long and they’d started it already tired. It was meant to be a quiet retreat day, away in the mountains with Jesus, a day to rest and regroup and talk about their ministry experiences, but a crowd had followed them and, rather than turning them away, Jesus had spent the day talking with them. And then told the disciples to feed all 5000+ of them. When they couldn’t, he did it himself. Out of one little boy’s lunch.
The crowds, the press, the demands, the worries of how they would feed all these people—all of these had weighed on the disciples. And then when Jesus told them to have the people sit down and broke the bread and fish and had the disciples distribute it to the people, there was the physical work of it all, the bending down, the carrying. And the confusion and disorientation. What they thought they knew for sure—that one little loaf feeds just one person—had been shattered. Could they trust their own eyes? Their certain knowledge of the way the world worked?
With just enough food for a single child, a hungry crowd had been calmed, and twelve baskets of leftovers picked up. What were they to make of this?
After that confusing day, Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead while he finished dealing with the crowd. The disciples had hoped to make good time and reach the other side before dark fell in earnest. But the wind was in their faces and the waves crashing over the bow. They licked the spray from their lips, fresh water, but slightly salty now with their own sweat. Their wet clothes clung cold around their trunk, their legs. With every flash of lightening, the disciples could see each other’s strained faces. And then, with one particularly bright flash, they all screamed. Not for fear of the lightening, but for the ghostly figure they saw walking towards them. Had they died after all? Had the frayed rope of their nerves snapped as they lost their final grip on reality? Could there be anything more terrifying than not knowing if you can trust your own perception of reality?
The figure speaks: “It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
They know that voice—well enough to trust even if they don’t understand.
“Then they were willing to take him into the boat,” John says, “and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” (John 6:21)
I don’t remember reading those words before. Maybe I’d skimmed over them because I didn’t understand. How can a boat that has been tossed around by waves for hours way out in the middle of the lake “immediately” reach the shore when someone steps into it? I guess when the someone is the same one who fed 5000+ with a child’s lunch and then walked calmly on the pitching, rolling waves to reach the boat, nothing that happens next could be terribly surprising. But there’s something else here too, I think. In the midst of wind, darkness, and the terror of wondering whether we can trust what we know of the way the world works, or even our own senses, if we trust Jesus just enough to let him climb into the boat with us, immediately we reach our destination—because our true goal is not those good but small new year’s resolutions, not that project finished or discipline learned or income earned, as fine as those might be. Our true, eternity-long, goal is knowing Jesus his Father.
“Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:5)
And that can happen—in fact, often happens best—when it’s dark and the sea is rough and we’re not sure we’ll make it to our self-determined destination and all the things we thought we knew for sure (that you can’t feed a crowd from a child’s lunchbox, and that people sink when they step onto water) are shaken.
Photos (in order) by Anandu Vinod, Brandon Morgan, and Jakob Owens on Unsplash.
Sometimes I look at someone else and think, “They’re so strong (or gracious, or gifted, or smart). I could never do what they’re doing.”
I’ve heard it from others. “You’re so brave. I could never go to Afghanistan!”
The truth is, I didn’t feel brave at all. I was terrified. But I was called. And where we’re called and willing, and for as long as we’re called, there’s grace for that calling.
And then when God calls us out of a place (Afghanistan, say) and into another, different life situation, grace keeps pace. I couldn’t now return to Afghanistan without a fresh call. That grace is gone, replaced with the grace that I need for each moment in this day and this place.
When I put someone else on a pedestal (“They’re so brave. I could never do that.”) I miss the point of the conversation between Mary and the angel. She wasn’t asked to do the impossible. She was asked to let God do the impossible in and through her. (Luke 1:26-38)
That’s all we’re ever asked.
The Joseph of the coat of many colors knew this. His boss, the ruler of Egypt, said to him, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replied, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)
Daniel of the fiery furnace knew this. His boss, the ruler of Babylon and even more unreasonable than Joseph’s boss, also had a dream. He insisted that his advisors not only interpret the dream but first tell him what the dream was (otherwise how was he supposed to know if they were telling him the real meaning of the dream or making up an interpretation for the minor purpose of keeping their heads attached to their bodies?) Daniel said to him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Dan 2:27-28) And that God who reveals mysteries did the impossible through Daniel and told the king his dream and its meaning.
The Joseph who became Mary’s husband learned this. God had to give this righteous man faith to believe something that the rest of the world thought was ridiculous. (“Come on, man! Don’t tell me you actually believe your fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit!“) Or, perhaps God gave him the courage to act and take Mary as his wife even if he couldn’t make sense of the whole story. Either way, God did in Joseph the inner work needed to free him to step into his place in the Grand Story.
When the angel told Mary that God had chosen her to carry and birth His Son, Mary asked a very understandable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) I can finish Mary’s question a million different ways when God shows me the next bit I’m asked to play in the story He is writing. “How will this be, since . . . ?”
But no matter how the question ends, the answer is always the same: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Because here’s the thing: We are never called to do the impossible. We are, however, daily, called to let God do the impossible in us. And sometimes that “impossible” that God does in us overflows into Him doing the impossible through us in and for the world.
I’ll be taking these next couple of weeks to rest and celebrate and be available for what I sense God might be wanting to do in me in these days, so I’ll see you back here at the start of the new year. As we continue to prepare for the coming of God among us and in us in new ways, this is my prayer: May God continue to do both in us and through us what only God can do.
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.
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.
Photo by Julie Hindmarsh. Used with permission.
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
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
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.