Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

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Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.

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On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.

During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.

This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.

It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.

And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)

Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.

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My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.

May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.

May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.

Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.

Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:

The real call in Ash Wednesday

Jesus’ 21st century hands

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I walk past the billboard declaring, “Mental health affects everyone. On January 31st, let’s talk about it.” When my brain finally makes the connection, I find it mildly ironic that January 31st is the day my lease ends, one factor in the saga of the past few months that has tipped me into a depression for which I’m having to take antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.

The timing has not been convenient. (Is a disruption like that ever convenient?) Almost everything about moving requires making a series of decisions: choosing where to move, what to pack and what to sell or give away, trying to sort out what I’ll need for the next three months and what can be tucked away in the boxes that aren’t to be opened until after I almost certainly need to move again in three months’ time. (To where? That will be another matter for discernment and decision.) All these decisions are a problem for someone in the midst of a depression where even the simplest daily decisions seem almost impossible.

I’ve needed my friends: one to look at possible apartments with me, another to help me see how to fit my few remaining pieces of furniture into my temporary new room to make a little corner that can feel like home, and to pack some things and suggest a few concrete next steps for me to take. One to bring a meal and pray and sit with me for a few hours when I could no longer bear to be alone with my thoughts. A friend from my spiritual director course will help move furniture and boxes on moving day, and another from Regent days will help clean. Most have done several of those things and I have been so touched by their sacrificial love. I want to love like that.

I still find it hard to need help.

I find it harder to need help for mental health limitations than for physical health ones. (Why is that, I wonder?)

I’ve thought my resistance to needing help is because I care about the needs of others and don’t want to bother them with mine. I suspect the deeper reason is pride, an extension of the lie in the garden that it’s possible to be like God, limitless and without needs.

Once again I’m learning what I’ve experienced so many times before: it’s only in the places of weakness and vulnerability and opening ourselves to receive that we learn how loved we are. Grace is not a concept; it’s a person and an action, embodied once in first century Palestine and continually enfleshed as His body lives on in 21st century Vancouver and around the world. I receive grace not just in letting Jesus lift my sins, not just in baptism and bread and wine, but in boxes packed and sinks scrubbed and hands laid on my shoulders to pray in moments when presence and touch matters more than words. As often as not, it’s through Jesus’ 21st century hands that I experience God’s unfailing kindness.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash
Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
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Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Two days before I was diagnosed and started on meds, a friend took me for the first time to a new soul care group. New groups are often a struggle for me, but this group of six people felt like a gift from the moment they opened the door and welcomed me into an evening of colour in a long stretch of darkness. We ate delicious tortilla soup and kale salad and walnut bread, and by the time we lingered together over prayer and communion, the couplet in the prayer we were praying had settled deep in me:

Let me not run from the love that you offer,

But hold me safe from the forces of evil.

Someone read it again, aloud, this time in plural: “Let us not run from the love that you offer, but hold us safe. . .”

Safely held. Those two words have lingered with me through the almost two weeks since that meeting, through the diagnosis and the new meds and the receiving of help and the still not knowing which address I’ll be travelling from when I meet with that group three or four months down the road. Part of our safely held is Jesus’ 21st century body, and being in this together. Safely held in the hands that hold the universe, yes, and, when I don’t run, in each set of hands through which our present and active God chooses to offer himself to me, packing, scrubbing, praying, hugging, and feeding me with his unfailing kindness as he also, in his kindness, continues to give me small ways to pass his love along to others.

Photo by a-shuhani on Unsplash

The One who leads us into the new year

As we climb into the car I’m awed by the delicate ferns hand-drawn on the windshield. New every morning. God strews new beauty across the world each night. Does he do it for the sheer joy of creating? Or for the joy of surprising his beloved with never-fading, never-stale love? Does he smile when I sit in awe, letting the marvel of his unfailing kindness sink deep?

We run at the park and as the sun finally peeps her face above the horizon I pause. I have to. The tiniest lights are sprinkled across the grassy field, strung up and down each blackberry vine, draped on each twig of each bush. Winter’s barrenness has been transformed into a delicate, magical fairyland, only better because it’s real. It’s as though God’s joy could no longer be contained and he poured it all out like a child with a bottle of silver sparkles, making everything shimmer with glory. It’s as though his love could no longer be contained and he sprinkled it all over everything, willing me to notice and enter into his delight.

Above photo by Dapo Oni on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Today a new year begins. At the start of a year I often sense myself drawn to a word to focus on during the year. Until now, that word has been some way I wanted to grow: courage, for example, or faithfulnessLast year, my word was trust. I’m not ready to leave that word behind. I need another year with it, or, more probably, the rest of my lifetime.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve sensed myself invited to carry a different sort of phrase with me into the new year. This phrase is not about who I am or what I need to do. It’s about who God is and what He does. Isn’t that how trust develops, after all, not by looking at myself, but by looking at God? Not by trying to create trust, but by letting it grow naturally as I keep paying attention to His actions and discover that He is trustworthy?

The phrase comes in a psalm I’ve lived in and mostly memorized, but somehow these couple of words have never caught my attention before like they have now. They come in the last verse, a sort of summary of God’s character that has been lived and noticed throughout the psalm.

“He shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” (Psalm 18: 50 NIV 1989)

This unfailing kindness is not just for David, nor even just for David’s biological descendants. We who are in Christ are all now David’s descendants, grafted into David’s line as we’re grafted into Christ. And the unfailing love is not a matter of who we are anyway, but of who God is. At the heart of God’s character is hesed, that wonderful Hebrew word that is sometimes translated love, and sometimes lovingkindness, and here in Psalm 18 is translated with that phrase that has caught my attention: unfailing kindness.

Kindness: God’s love is a practical love, at work on my behalf in ways that extend beyond the essentials, overflowing into extras that will make my moments a little more special.

Unfailing kindness: I don’t need to fear that this is a honeymoon, that God’s kindness will disappear once he has me hooked. His kindness will not fail. It’s a kindness that paints even ordinary moments (if there are such things) with extraordinary glimpses of beauty, wakening me to newly painted ferns frosted on the windows and sparkles strewn across the grass. It’s mercy new every morning, touching even the coldest and most barren of places with the tender truth of his love.

It’s a kindness that arranged (even in this busy travel season with mostly full flights) for two empty seats beside mine on the five-hour Toronto-Vancouver segment of my return flight, offering space for me to stretch out and nap between a lovely but busy time with family and a return to house-hunting and packing. It’s a kindness that is going before me into the future, an unfailing kindness that I can trust even when I don’t yet see exactly how that unfailing kindness is shaping the future.

The certainty of that unfailing kindness  is freeing me to enter this new year with deep joy, trusting the truth of the words written on the front of the journal my sister gave me for Christmas, words that showed up again in a hand-written card from a friend: The best is yet to come. That statement doesn’t imply the absence of challenge or suffering. It does declare that no matter what this year holds, there is someone stronger entering it with me, inviting me deeper into his heart that beats with unfailing kindness, bringing beauty wherever he goes.

Where heaven enters your story

When I think of John the Baptist, I tend to think of the tough, slightly intimidating prophet clothed in rough hair and eating insects for supper with a side of wild honey which he has harvested with his own hands. He’s brave and a little scary, his skin as tough as his words. It’s hard for me to relate.

But this week, with the help of a painting, John’s story is touching me in a different way, and making me kneel in worship at another aspect of the Christmas story. In Bette Lynn Dickinson’s beautiful painting (above), Zechariah and Elizabeth stand close together, marveling at the gift they have been given, this miracle baby born in their old age. The train of baby John’s swaddling clothes flows away into the distance, paving the path Joseph and Mary and the donkey walk, making smooth the way for the Lord. Our Lord, still hidden in Mary’s womb, rides a donkey into Bethlehem as he will later ride into Jerusalem, his way made smooth with coats thrown onto the road before him.

As I look at Bette’s painting, I am struck by the smallness of John, his fragility, his humanness. It’s this little baby held in Elizabeth and Zachariah’s arms, this fragile gift who can do nothing for himself, who will grow to smooth the rough places, preparing the way for the Lord. But it’s not just a task for when he’s strong and grown. At the most fragile time in his life, when he still needed the safe, cushioned warmth of the womb to survive, this baby was already preparing the way for the Lord, leaping inside his mother at the approach of his unborn cousin, Jesus. How amazing that we in our human frailty, as well as our moments of strength, can go before the One who goes before us—the One who invites, summons, and does for us everything we cannot do for ourselves—to prepare his way!

I love the way Bette’s Advent paintings all show our story interwoven with His story. The infant Jesus doesn’t just descend from heaven, invading earth to save it as one unconnected to it. He grows as a shoot from the apparently hopeless, severed stump of Jesse, the slowly unfurling fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and Isaac and David. To be sure, Jesus is fully God—Emmanuel, God with us. But he is also fully human, with (very!) human ancestors; he is Mary’s biological son, David’s great, great grandson. Heaven doesn’t just touch earth, visit it, or invade it. Heaven enters it in the fullest way possible, God weaving God’s self into every cell of a human being, and thus into the personal histories of us all, for we are all, through Adam, connected to Jesus’ story and he to ours.

Baby John, tiny and helpless, miracle and sheer gift (as every human is!), this vulnerable little package of flesh and spirit, is filled with Spirit and given the honor of going before the Lord, smoothing his way. John’s story is interwoven with Jesus’ story, John himself filled with Jesus’ Spirit to enable this interweaving. Our stories are all interwoven with Jesus’ story, each of us graced with a unique way to pave his path or bear him into the world, a way that flows as much from our own personal set of frailties as our strengths. Yes, John was specially chosen and  called. But so are you. And so am I.

 

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Painting by Bette Lynn Dickinson. Used with permission.

Advent may be almost over, but it’s not too late to let Bette’s beautiful Advent paintings and accompanying devotional help you soak in the wonder of the Christmas story. Explore Bette’s work here, savor her Advent devotional, “A Pregnant Pause” here, or sign up here if you’d like the devotional deposited directly into your inbox.

The surprising question for a deepening spiritual life

I’m flipping through a book I was sent, and I’m only a few pages in when Phileena Heurertz’s words stop me:

“According to Father Thomas Keating—a Cistercian monk—at the time of conversion we orient our lives by the question, ‘What can I do for God?’ Seems appropriate, right? But when we begin the spiritual journey our life is dramatically altered toward the question, ‘What can God do for me?’”

My guard is up already. A journey built around the question, “What can God do for me?” It feels self-centred. But she continues:

“This isn’t a narcissistic, exploitative question toward a disempowered God. It’s the exact opposite. This is the central question of a humble person who has awakened to their true self and to the awe-inspiring adoration of an extraordinary God.” (Pilgrimage of a Soul, p. 15-16)

For days I turn her words over in my mind. Could she be right? Is the direction of a deepening spiritual life a move from ‘What can I do for God?’ toward ‘What can God do for me?’ rather than the other way around?

As I ponder, I realize my journey has already been taking me in that direction. I’m discovering more and more deeply all the time how, in myself, I have nothing to offer. At first that felt shameful. Now it feels freeing. Jesus knows this truth, and wants me to know it too: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants to set me free from trying to be God so I can enjoy being my own small self and letting God be his all-sufficient self in me. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with my smallness, and with that settling into smallness has come a deepening trust and peace. But still. I wouldn’t have been daring enough to put it in those words. A shift from “What can I do for God?” to “What can God do for me?” the mark of a deepening faith? Really?

It seems God wants me to hear this, because he starts to speak in surround-sound. First I notice the Lord’s prayer.

“Our Father in heaven,

Reveal who you are.

Set the world right;

Do what’s best—as above, so below.

Keep us alive with three square meals.

Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

You’re in charge!

You can do anything you want!

You’re ablaze in beauty!

Yes. Yes. Yes.” (Matthew 6:9-13, The Message)

The starting line for this prayer is that I can do none of this on my own. No matter how much I might want to do something for God, the truth is that there’s nothing I can do. I’m completely dependent on God—for food, forgiveness, setting the world right, and protection (even—or especially—from myself). All I can do is ask God to do in me and in the world, for me and for the world, what only He can do.

I’m starting to catch on. The question that startled me and started all this wondering is the heart of the gospel, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I need to hear it again. It’s like Jesus walked up beside me and I didn’t recognize him. But then I realize that this itself, this learning to recognize the gospel where it shows up and live it in all my daily moments, is one more place to practice the humbling truth that I can’t do even this work in me—I can only open myself to God to keep doing in me what only He can do. And even this opening, while a choice, is summoned and enabled by grace.

I pick up Emily P. Freeman’s Grace for the Good Girl to read the next few pages, and within two pages of where I pick up, she speaks of Mary’s choice to trust when the angel came to tell her she would conceive a child. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38 NIV). Emily writes,

“I love that Mary uses the word servant here, because it communicates that service is an act of faith. It isn’t me doing work for God, but it is me trusting God to do the work in me.” (p. 63)

Over the page, speaking now about Martha when Jesus comes to dinner, she writes,

Martha’s desire to please clouded her willingness to trust. I understand this mistake of Martha’s perhaps more than any other. Given the choice to please God or to trust God, good girls become conflicted. We know we’re supposed to trust God, but trust is so intangible. It almost seems passive in the face of all there is to do. . . .

Choosing to please God sounds right at first, but it so often leads to a performing life, a girl trying to become good, a lean-on-myself theology. If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. But when I trust God, pleasing him is automatic” (64-5).

If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. This is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please God—except when it keeps me from trusting Him. And it does that often enough that trying to please God might, for some of us, sometimes, actually be the opposite of trusting him. A fixation with pleasing God all too often pulls my focus away from Him and puts it on myself. I hear again the words that God has been speaking to me daily for at least a couple of years: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

Emily’s words ring in my head, “Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ. He doesn’t want my service. He wants me. And from that life-giving relationship, ‘streams of living water will flow from within’ (John 7:38 NIV).” (p.65)

The surround-sound conversation seems to be fading (until the next time Jesus sneaks up on me unawares), and God leaves me with words spoken through the apostle Paul to ponder:

“The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you” (Galatians 3:11 The Message).