One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

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PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

How to find rest in whatever today holds (and a free email course for you)

I ride my bike a different route this morning. The sky is grey and the first large drops land on my face. It’s warm and I’ve opened my jacket and the wind whips the corners behind me like wings. I notice all these things. But what I notice the most—what I savor this morning—is the flowers along the route. Rhododendrons in red and violet and yellow, neatly trimmed in front of sedate brick homes. Delicate Queen Anne’s lace thick along the path, wild rose bushes scenting the air and thorny gorse waking me up with its brilliant yellow flowers.  Tall stalks of white and blue flowers that I recognize but can’t name.

But it’s the poppies that entice me to circle back and ride a particular strip again. I know poppies well, of course. They’re the flower that we pin to our coats in November, a reminder of Flander’s field and the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom and peace and rest. 

I’ve also lived beside fields of red opium poppies, passing them each morning on the way to the hospital in our little corner of Afghanistan. Those farmers were seeking rest too—rest from the anxiety of not knowing how they’d feed their family through the next winter. And the parents who gave their crying babies milk from the opium plant were also seeking rest, some moments of peace for their frayed nerves.

Poppies elicit in me a whole range of emotions. Sadness, mostly, for all of us who seek rest and find some temporary form of it, maybe, but at far greater cost than we could imagine.

The poppies today say something different, though. I’ve never seen so many colors of poppies all mingled together in just a few feet of ground. Deep velvety red and saucy orange red and bright Halloween orange ones. Coral poppies with double petals, baby pink ones and dainty white ones edged with a subtle pink rim. Bright pink ones the color of a girl’s running shoes. Some are wide open and some still curled.

These poppies, too, speak of rest, but it’s not the rest of struggle and sacrifice, worn-out grief and sedated pain, but the rest of freedom and life and joy, of being loved and being themselves and dancing in the breeze. They welcome me, draw me in, inviting me, too, to come as I am and open wide and sing with them of the delight of being loved and the lightness of letting go of burdens not meant for me. 

I’ve been soaking, lately, in Matthew 11:28-30, and these poppies feel to me like the visual version of that invitation. “Come to me,” Jesus calls through them, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says it a different way a few chapters earlier, “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Look at the flowers. They don’t fuss about dressing to impress, and have you ever seen anyone dressed as beautifully as they are? Don’t you remember, I’ve committed to care for you?” (Matthew 6:28-30 my paraphrase). 

I step into the invitation and on into my day, walking more lightly.

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If you’d like to soak a little more deeply in Jesus’ invitation to come to him and find rest, I’ve created a free five-day contemplative email course offering space to listen to Jesus’ invitation and step into it. Each day, we’ll ponder a phrase from Matthew 11:28-30 and explore a question or prayer practice to help us receive the rest that Jesus offers. You can sign up for the course here. (If you signed up last week, the first email should be in your inbox in the next half-hour.)

Related posts (because Jesus has spoken to me through poppies more than once!):

A prickly waking

What He whispers through the poppies

Why Jesus kept his scars

Scars speak.

We know this. We see a scar and want to know the story behind it.

The white scar on a friend’s palm tells where a sharp piece of ice punctured her skin when, as a child, she fell. The red scars on my left knee tell how, as a friend says, “the sidewalk came up and hit me” while I was running last fall.

A scar on a cheek may tell of combat faced and battle survived.

Sometimes people ask about the wide scar that peeks out at the neckline of my shirt. I can read the questions in their eyes. Was it heart surgery? An injury in Afghanistan? I tell them the much less dramatic story of teenage acne, a body that forms keloid scars and a dermatologist who biopsied that scar to make sure it wasn’t anything else. My over-keen body took his well-intended gesture and turned it into a bigger, bolder scar.

The scars Jesus still carries on his resurrected body speak too. 

To the first disciples, they said, “This is no hoax. It’s really me, Jesus!”

To me, they say, “You are loved this much!”

They say, “Don’t forget. Nothing can separate you from my love. Not even your sin—see the everlasting proof that it has been removed?”

Jesus’ scars speak hope.

They say, “There is life after death. Wholeness can rise out of brokenness. And wholeness doesn’t mean that all sign of the wounds disappear. It means they are no longer wounds, but scars, no longer the constant and limiting center of attention but a quiet reminder of courage and love and life that spring up in places of pain.

Jesus’ scars speak truth.

They question the world’s words that beauty must be unscathed and unscarred and young, reminding me instead of the lesson of the Velveteen Rabbit, that in order to become real you have to love and be loved and fall apart a bit. They whisper that all that is worth it to really live.

Jesus’ hands remind me that scars can be beautiful, marks of courage and love, of a life well-lived and a death well-died, of battles fought and won and challenges survived. Scars can be places of life, like a nurse log which, in its own death, offers life to others.

His scars tell me I don’t need to be ashamed of mine. Scars are marks of love—in some cases, maybe, my own small love and the love of Jesus in me that led me to stand up for something that mattered; but always, the love of Jesus for me as he carried me through that challenging time. 

They say, too, “No servant is greater than his master. I suffered and you’ll suffer too. But not alone—not if you let me come close in your suffering.” 

Jesus’ scars are a place of hospitality.

They offer paths along which to line up my life, a hiding place, a place of stability and security—a home. They remind me I’m welcome to come as I am, to make my home in his love, to settle down and cling tight and anchor my life to his, for here I am wanted and welcomed and safe.

They say to us all, “I get it. I know the pain of loneliness and rejection, of physical and emotional agony and feeling the heartache is bigger than you can bear. And I am with you. Press your wounds into my scars. Let my love touch your most painful places.” 

They remind me that, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The deepest pain can become the place of greatest intimacy as we press our wounds into Christ’s and let him turn our wounds into scars. And our scars in turn become places where we can accompany others most deeply and compassionately.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

(2 Cor 1:3-4)

Each scar carries a memory and tells a story.

The weather-worn scars of the huge trunk on the beach whisper of years of being tossed and beaten, cracks formed and crevices shaped and smoothed by sand and waves and time.

Paul’s scars offered irrefutable proof that he was a committed servant of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:17).

Jesus’ scars tell me his story, and where I fit in it. My own scars—in my case the unseen ones more than ones on elbows and knees—fit together with his to tell the other half of our story of life together.

Jesus’ scars also question me, asking about my own.

Are they still gaping wounds, or have they healed into scars? How do I think about them, feel about them? Am I ashamed, trying to fill or fix or cover them, or am I opening them to Jesus, letting his love enter and fill and flow through them like water through the scar in a mountainside, turning a wound into a waterfall of grace?

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(PS. The free five-day email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, suggests some ways we can open our wounds to Jesus’ free-flowing love and grace. Check it out and sign up here.)

When you need a reminder that you’re loved

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Six years ago, I glimpsed something in the gospels that, ever since, has shaped the way I enter Lent, and particularly this Holy Week we are now walking, the week between Palm Sunday and the cross. Simply put, it is this: In Holy Week, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind.

Now, in the moments when guilt tugs on my heart or shame weighs me down, when I hurt because the One is love is walking to the cross for my sin and I feel helpless and ashamed and sad, I can lift my eyes from the cross to the face of the one on it and see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.

Sometimes, at first, 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)

The two parables Jesus 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 have been, 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 starts with words taken straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony, words that a Jewish man would speak to his fiancé before leaving her for a while to go and build a room onto his father’s house where he could bring her as a new bride and make their home together:

“. . . 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)

Jesus’ last conversation 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.

The first year I saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? Some other years I’ve 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.

In those times, 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.

This year, joy is pushing its way to the top again, past shame and mourning and guilt, because I am known, and in that place of being fully known, every bit of my sin and shame felt and taken and finished, I am wanted and chosen and loved, and nothing—nothing in me or around me—now can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There’s nothing left to hide or rationalize or pay for, nothing to judge myself for because it has already been judged, and then taken and paid for and forgotten (Ps 103:12; Jer 31:34). In all of that seeing and knowing and taking, God’s love for me has not been the least bit diminished. Here at the cross, my fears of “If they knew what I’m really like” are put to rest. God does know. And He doesn’t reject me. He brings me closer and makes me his own.

The long-spoken words echo through Jesus’ 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).

One way to walk more freely

Some weeks ago, I wrote these words:

“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.” 

The Biblical drama is rich and multilayered. We are, first of all, the baby, created by love, and tended compassionately by the One who, like a mother, cannot forget the child she has borne, and like a father, protects and provides for his children. We are small and dependent and tended and safe. 

But we also—incredibly—find ourselves in quite a different place in the birth drama, not infants now, but wooed and pursued, wedded and loved, and carrying within us the life of Jesus. We are the bride of Christ, sought, chosen, loved with an almost embarrassing passion, and sharing the life of Christ.

How is it that we miss the passion in the story when we even call the sufferings and death of Jesus “the Passion”?

This, for me, is the heart of Lent. As I watch Jesus walk toward the cross, I hear his invitation to walk with him, not as a distant observer, but as one whom he loves more than anything in the world. One for whom he is giving everything. 

Lent is a time to look again at our relationship, to talk about what is getting in the way of closeness, to take down the walls that have grown up between us. It’s a time to regain my first love.

Lent is walking with the one I most love towards his death, listening for his last words, every word extra precious. It’s dying a little myself along the way.

Lent is a time of humility and vulnerability, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a deepening love and closeness in this relationship at the center of my life.

As I write, a small wooden cross sits on the desk beside me, a heart made of olive wood beside it. I move them back and forth from desk to dinner table to the little table by the chair where I journal and read. Why? The heart reminds me that I am loved. And the cross reminds me how much I am loved and where I am loved—right in the worst of my brokenness and rebellion and sin.

That dual reminder of my sin and God’s love is, for me, a gift, because this relationship with Jesus is like any other: as long as I keep up my guard, only sharing the tidy places, there will always be that lurking fear, “If he knew what I’m really like. . .”

Here’s the truth, the wonderful, freeing truth: Jesus does know exactly what I’m like, all the good, all the bad, all the brokenness. And he signed up to love me anyway, chose to make me his own, even though gaining me cost him his life. 

It’s only when the worst of me is seen and I find myself accepted right in that place that I know I am truly and securely loved and can relax and stop fearing what might happen if I slip up and let my real self show.

Alcoholics know this: the path to freedom begins with owning the truth, “I am an alcoholic.” It’s the same for me. The path to freedom always begins with the acceptance of truth: I am a sinner. And, right here in the middle of my inability to fix or free myself, I am loved and valued and wanted enough to die for.

It’s that combination that sets me free—honesty, and being loved.

Truth, and grace.

It’s that pair that allows me to enter Lent in a healthy, healing way, not as a time to beat myself up, but also not as a time to keep hiding from my sins. Instead, it’s a time to look my sins, as well as my limitations (which are not sins) in the face, acknowledge them openly, bring them to Jesus, and be set free to walk a little more closely with the One whom I love, and who loves me.

What goes on in you when you consider these weeks of Lent as a walk with the One who loves you with all his heart and life?