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.

When “good girl” isn’t enough

dscn3302

I recently had to clear up a misunderstanding with someone, and it was hard. I discovered all over again that I have a very strong good-girl in me who has a big fear of even getting close to the edge of rules. That makes me a great law-abiding citizen, but it is a problem when many of my unspoken rules can be summed up by this one: Good girls don’t rock the boat. Which means they don’t get angry. They don’t bother anyone. They care only about others, so they don’t ask for what they need, and definitely not for anything extra. And if someone unknowingly hurts them, they certainly don’t let that person know.

This good girl broke all those rules in one conversation—and when she felt the fear, she realized why she doesn’t break those rules very often.

BUT, even if it was a bit messy, that conversation opened up the possibility for that relationship to continue and flourish, as sisters now, equal adults both free to love and grow.

AND, it opened up the possibility for me to know more of the true God rather than the god I’ve made in my own image—an insecure god who cares more about nit-picky rules than he does about love . . . or about me.

It’s intriguing how these outgrown (but not entirely gone) beliefs about God surface from time to time. Whenever they do, it’s a gift, because there’s new freedom just around the corner.

Seeing the false belief about God is a big step toward healing, but it isn’t an automatic cure, so I’ve been hanging around with the Real God, enfleshed in Jesus, watching as he interacts with a woman making the transition from “good girl” to “equal (and loved) adult.”

She has been sick for twelve years, and has done everything she could think to try to fix herself. She has spent all her money, been to all the doctors, followed all the rules. Nothing has worked.

Her bleeding—the very thing that makes her so desperate for Jesus’ help—is a barrier to receiving that help. As a bleeding woman, if she touches a man, she will, according to ritual laws, contaminate him.

But she’s desperate. And too ashamed to ask for what she needs. So she takes a deep breath and breaks the rules and touches the clothes of this rabbi.

And Jesus stops. Something about this is important enough to interrupt his life-and-death errand to heal a little girl who is dying.

He looks around and asks, “Who touched me?”

The woman’s heart is pounding and she wishes she could melt into the stony street.

Jesus is still waiting, looking for the perpetrator.

She falls at his feet and, in front of everyone, confesses her desperation and her rule-breaking and the knowledge that she has been healed.

And Jesus? He calls her “daughter.” It’s the only recorded time he does this, and he does it not in a moment when she keeps the rules perfectly, but in the moment she breaks the rules and reaches out to ask (through her actions, because she can’t find her voice) for what she needs.

He calls her daughter in the moment she throws aside the rules and all her own efforts to make herself acceptable and stakes everything on grace.

He names her as family, tying her to himself, in the moment when she risks it all and feels most vulnerable and afraid of rejection.

In her longing for healing, she breaks the rules, and, instead of condemning, Jesus commends her for her faith—because she has trusted him, trusted his character, enough to step through the rules that blocked her access to him.

The rules that were intended to keep God’s people close to him had become a means of keeping her away. And in helping her find her voice, in freeing her not only from her body’s bleeding but also from the bleeding of her heart, in declaring, through naming her daughter, that she is accepted and loved, that she matters and she belongs, Jesus puts rules in their proper place again: it’s the heart of God behind the rules that is central—the heart of love that always wants us close.

When healing doesn’t feel like healing

dscn4480

One day I discover that I am the blind man whom people have brought to Jesus. Jesus takes my hand. His is warm and gentle and strong, and I know I can trust this hand. I let myself be led out of the village, out to where I don’t know the streets anymore, where I can’t call for help. I can’t say why, but I trust him enough to go there with him. I spend the day feeling my hand in his, savoring the delight of being cared for, tended, led. Knowing myself safe.

Later I find myself back in the story. The same hand that led me out to the place of my healing is preparing to touch my eyes. I’ve been waiting for this moment, eager for those kind hands to touch me again. I’ve been aching for this healing, trying to push down hope but hoping anyway that the impossible might become possible. What I get is the shock of spit, slimy against my eyelids, wet under his fingers. I want to push his hands away, to wipe his saliva off my face, to throw up in disgust. Who does he think he is? What gives him the right to spit in my face? I want to run. I can’t. He has led me outside the village and I’m blind and helpless and trapped. I thought I could trust this man and he’s rubbing my face in my own helplessness, rubbing my face in his spit. Against my will, tears form in my useless eyes. This doesn’t feel like the healing I was expecting. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, JESUS?!

“Do you see anything?” The mouth that spit in my face speaks gently. I am so confused. I feel his care. Dare I trust? My face is still wet with his spit. How can I trust this man? He has taken his hands from my eyes. I pause, afraid to open my eyes, afraid of what I won’t see, afraid of the end of hope. But there was kindness in his voice when he spoke, and there is kindness in the stillness that waits.

My heart opens a crack and my eyes do too. There is light and color and movement. “I see a little. There are people, I think, but they look like moving trees.” My hope has stirred and begun moving too, and my trust, and I’m glad I didn’t run from him when I wanted to. Glad I couldn’t run.

I can’t help but flinch a little as I see the shadow of his hands approach my eyes again (I see his hands approach!) but this time there’s no spit, and healing feels like healing. And this time I open my eyes more quickly and my heart wider and both my eyes and my heart see clearly what I couldn’t see before: I may be hemmed in by distance or disability, a held hand or spit-covered fingers, but the hand laid upon me is always a hand of blessing, a hand that longs and works for my deepest healing.

“You hem me in behind and before. You have laid your hand upon me.” (Psalm 139:5)

 

When God teaches you to fight

Twenty years earlier, the young man had run away from his brother who was threatening to kill him. He’d spent those twenty years breaking his back for his father-in-law who seemed to take perverse pleasure in finding new ways to rip him off.

He’d worked seven years to be allowed to marry the woman he loved, only to discover on the morning after his wedding night that the wrong woman was with him in bed. “It’s not our custom to marry off the younger before the elder,” his father-in-law had shrugged. So the young man had worked another seven years in exchange for the woman he really loved.

And then for another six years, he had continued to tend the flocks of his father-in-law, his father-in-law changing his wages every time he could conceive a new way that he might possibly be able to pay him a little less. Finally, with the situation continuing to worsen, God said, “Enough. I’ve seen what your father-in-law has been doing to you. It’s time for you to go home.”

The not-so-young-anymore man set out amidst another layer of drama (packing up his household and running away, one of his wives stealing her father’s household gods, and a week-long cross-country chase by his irate father-in-law culminating in a nasty confrontation).

A little further along, the man hears that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. His breath shortens and his mouth dries. What am I doing going home? The last time I saw my brother, he wanted to kill me! His throat tightens and his heart pounds, and he cries out to God for protection. And that’s where the already action-packed story gets even more intriguing.

God doesn’t come with comforting words or a reassuring guarantee of protection. He pulls him into a night-long wrestling match.

Why, after years of traumatic experiences, when someone cries for help, would God come to him in the form of a human assailant?

All encounters with God are mysterious and multilayered and I expect there are many layers of healing taking place. Perhaps God is confronting the sin that caused the young man to have to run in the first place since, in asking his name, God elicits a confession: “My name is Jacob—deceiver.” Perhaps he is removing the disgrace of that identity and giving him a fresh start, rooted in this encounter with God, by renaming him and then blessing him. And perhaps, face to face, hand to hand, God is teaching Jacob the deceiver what it feels like to confront head-on instead of to manipulate and sneak and hide. Perhaps for Jacob, learning to fight fair is part of his discipleship.

Perhaps, for many of us, learning to stand up and fight—at all, or in a new way—is part of our discipleship.

David cried out for God to rescue him. God did—and then trained David’s own hands for battle, arming him with strength to be able to defeat the enemies that had previously rendered him terrified and helpless (Psalm 18).

Ezekiel’s formation as a prophet involved God pulling him, quite literally, to his feet and making him strong and stubborn enough to do the job God was calling him to do (Ezekiel 2:1-2, 3:7-9).

I see God wrestling with Jacob and I find myself face to face again with a trauma counselor who once had me stand and push as hard as I could against her hands. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight or you will lie down and cry.

 

Part of me wishes it wasn’t this way. That part of me would rather discipleship were all about growing in gentleness, in quiet contemplation, surrender, trust. But Mulholland challenges me:

“We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way?” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 45)

And—surrender? trust? I write those words and feel myself cornered by a stronger Love who whispers that his embrace isn’t always what I’d expect. That genuine surrender means being open to him in whatever way he comes. That growing in trust might look right now like raising my arms and stepping into the wrestling ring with the divine assailant who stands before me, hands raised, calling me into the freedom of wholeness which involves body as well as soul, confrontation as well as gentleness.

“O God of wholeness, when I consider the lack of balance and wholeness in my life, the one-sided spiritualities with which I attempt to appease you, to appear good in the eyes of others and to please myself, I come face to face with my need for a holistic spiritual life. Help me, I pray to hunger and thirst for the wholeness you have for me in Christ. Help me to be willing to surrender to you whatever stands in the way of such wholeness.” (Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, p. 76)

What I love most about Jesus

IMG_3072We all have those moments when we’re aware of our fragility. They might come as we look ahead to the fall schedule—full of good things, but still full. Or as we realize that we’ve fallen into the same trap again, succumbed to the same old lie. Or at the end of a long day or the beginning of a new venture or in the slow and steady middle when we’ve forgotten the excitement of beginning and can’t yet see the joy of the goal.

Too often I still try to fix that fragility. Or hide it. Or cut it off. I think I need to be strong to make it through. Sometimes we sing that conviction, asking God to overcome our weakness that we can shine out Your light.”

But what if His plan is not to overcome our weakness but to shine through it? What if He wants to show the world love more than He wants to show it power? Or what if the power He wants to show the world is the limitless power of perfect love, a strength strong enough to hold and love all the broken pieces of us as well as the healthy ones? What if all my attempts to be strong are nothing more than a failure to surrender to the Love so strong that it doesn’t fear brokenness?

The flower hangs half-broken, its lovely head down, swinging limply from the crease where its stem’s fibers glisten damp and dark and stringy. I’m sure it is going to die anyway, that flower already mostly broken, so I finish the break, pinching it off to place in a vase for a day or three as it continues its slow death.

Jesus never does that. His love never gives up. He straightens the stem, splints it, and gives it time to heal.

A bruised reed he will not break.

The wick smoulders dim red, trying vainly to burst into flame but filling the air instead with a spiral of dark, smelly smoke. I lick my fingers and reach over to pinch it dead without a thought, except maybe a thought about the unpleasantness of the smoke.

Then I watch Jesus respond to the same weak wick. He bends down, stooping until the wick is level with his kind eyes, really seeing it, and blows ever so gently, not extinguishing but feeding it with life-giving Spirit-breath. The wick rests, receives, and bursts into flame.

A smouldering wick He will not snuff out.

What I love most about Jesus—today, at least, and most days—is His gentleness. Linger here with me, will you, and find yourself safe and loved and tended as we prepare to step into fall?

Jesus, as the calendar turns to the next month and summons us into a new term, a new season, a new year, keep this ever before us: You do not change. You who have led us gently through the summer invite us to follow you gently into the fall. To let ourselves be held. To stop trying to make ourselves strong enough to face it all, smart enough to figure it all out, or efficient enough to get it all done in a hurry. You never tire of inviting us to come and rest and let ourselves be loved and touched and mended, to stop fretting about the smoke and let ourselves feel Your gentle Spirit-breath until we burst into bright flame.