Where God just might come nearest

Is there a place you’ve experienced as a “thin place,” a place where heaven seems especially close to earth, and God, though everywhere present, somehow seems nearer? Most often I’ve heard the term used for bits of land where pilgrims have walked and worshipped and sought God for centuries. Iona, for instance. But the chair where I regularly curl up to spend time alone with God, a particular painting, a beach, a bench—I’ve known each of these as a thin place.

People can be thin places too. As Ann Voskamp observes, “Every child’s a thin place.”

I’ve been wondering: what if we experience children most easily as thin places simply because they haven’t yet learned to hide their hearts?

What if beneath all the masks every human being is a thin place, or contains thin places?

And what if . . . what if the wounds and cracks and places of brokenness in myself, those ones that I try so hard to fix, as well as the hopes and joys and longings that I sometimes feel I need to hide, are in fact thin places that I’m trying to thicken, some of God’s portals that I’m trying to block and barricade?

I sat in my counselor’s office, trying once again to conquer a particular memory from Afghanistan. I wanted to be able to sit with it without feeling paralyzed by panic or dread or helplessness. But once again I had to retreat into Jesus’ arms. Only there, with my focus on his arms around me, was I able to sit with the memory and be okay. At first I felt discouraged. Defeated. It felt like failure that I couldn’t stand up to it myself. Then I sensed Jesus ask, “Would it be okay if you never manage to conquer it by yourself, if instead it is something that keeps you always in my arms?”

Right away I was aware of the gift in the question. I want Jesus. More than I want healing. I want to be close to him and open to him. And I know that I need help staying in that place; in my stronger moments when I’m less aware of my need for him I get distracted and run off to other things. Anything—even something painful—that keeps me every moment in his arms is a gift, nudging me toward what I most deeply want.

And yet, if I’m honest, I hesitated. My deepest self wanted that closeness. The rest of me wasn’t entirely thrilled about the way of getting it. There was a sadness in seeing the brokenness in myself, and a longing for healing and wholeness.

In my experience there are thin times as well as thin places, and for me the early morning moments suspended between sleep and rising are a thin time when my heart often understands something that my mind hasn’t yet been able to grasp. The morning after that counseling experience held one of those thin moments when, at least for that moment, my whole self grasped something that until then I’d only half-known:

Jesus’ invitation to make my home in his arms was not second best, a consolation prize when he chose not to give healing. It was healing, and the invitation into true wholeness—the wholeness that knows myself as his, safe and loved no matter what.

It was an invitation into the wholeness that, rather than insistently trying to thicken the thin places, sees and accepts them because Jesus sees and accepts them as places that keep me close to him.

It was an invitation into the understanding that “perfect” as the voices in my head define it (flawless in my independent self) has much more to do with our culture’s obsession with independence and autonomy and appearance than with God. In God’s eyes, “perfect” is about wholeness and completion, love and union. And in the wildly creative economy of grace, not only our weak and wounded places but even our sinful tendencies, those very places where our union was broken, remain thin places through which his love can most easily flow, remaking our union, and more deeply than before: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God. Let Me be the One who makes you perfect, not by reshaping you into something whole, separate from myself, but by filling your cracks and empty places with my living, loving Self.”

I’ll still wrestle and forget and need lots of help living in this place where I can accept and maybe even occasionally, with Paul, delight in my weaknesses because Jesus meets me there.

In the meantime, maybe even my wrestling and forgetting can be a thin place where Jesus meets and fills me with his love again and again and again.

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)

How to let grace be grace

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has been ringing in my ears throughout Lent. Sometimes as I’ve heard it, I’ve been able to lean in and let go and receive grace, other times not. As I spoke with the friend who helps me listen I had to confess that I felt like I still didn’t really have a clue how to let grace be grace.

She said this: “Maybe it’s just about where you look.

Yes. That’s it. Will I focus on my failures (real or feared), or will I focus on Jesus?

Why do I forget this?

The dying Israelites had to look at the snake on the pole to live (Num 21:8-9).

Peter had to look at Jesus to keep from sinking (Matt 14:28-31).

And my Grandpa told me when he was teaching me to drive, “Look where you want to go.” Look at the Way, not at the ditches. We have to look around enough to know where the ditches are, but then, to get where we want to go, we have to return our gaze to the road we’re wanting to travel.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses—[all of whom looked more at God and his promises than at their sins or their circumstances]—let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Let grace be grace: Learning to see

I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?

Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)

But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”

And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.

Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.

Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.

I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”

Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.

“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”

Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.