Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent


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




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.




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

What to do in the tough times

One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.

These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.

There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.

Child of My love, lean hard

And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;

I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;

Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion

In its weight to thine unaided strength;

For even as I laid it on, I said,

I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,

This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];

So shall I keep My child within the circling arms

Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear

To impose it on a shoulder which upholds

The government of worlds. Yet closer come;

Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care

So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.

Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;

But, loving Me, lean hard.

(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)



Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash

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
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
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 Master Jigsaw Puzzler

A month ago, I spent six days on an island with fifteen classmates and several facilitators who were helping us settle more deeply into God’s love ourselves and learn to accompany others on their unique journeys deeper into God’s love.

Near the end of the week, one of the exercises involved putting together a three-piece jigsaw puzzle. I couldn’t get mine to work. At other times that might have felt to me like failure. That day it made me smile, because though I hadn’t had a clue that a jigsaw puzzle exercise was coming, I’d already been living that day in the image of God as the Master Jigsaw Puzzler.

I’d brought a few key questions and struggles into the week, places I couldn’t figure out on my own and hoped God would help me understand more clearly or set me freer to trust. And, through the week, I’d watched God take the questions and desires I offered him and carefully and intentionally put in one piece after another until the answer came clear in a way that I could not only grasp it with my mind but receive it with my heart. A line in a song, a Scripture verse that came alive, a few words that someone else said, or that came out of my own mouth—God was working on all my questions simultaneously, as though taking pleasure in putting together a complex, multidimensional puzzle with masterly skill and ease, and in watching me delight in his creativity.

That’s one of the pictures I keep returning to during this in-between time of knowing I need to move but not yet having a new place to go. The same wise and creative God who showed himself perfectly capable of putting in one piece after another in just the right order and position is still doing the puzzle. Only this time it’s not only pieces inside me and around me he’s removing and replacing. This time he has picked me up and is moving me from one place to another. And this time it’s as though God is doing the puzzle in the dark, and I’m not allowed to see the pieces that he is moving, nor to feel his hand most of the time. All I can feel is the absence of solid ground beneath my feet, and the disorientation of not knowing where I belong. And in that disorientation I’m being asked to remember the picture and to trust that the same God who allowed me to see him doing the jigsaw puzzle a few weeks ago is still at work in my life, and that I don’t have to know where I belong, nor even to feel his hand, to be safe. Whether I feel him or not, whether I can see what he is doing or not, the Master Jigsaw Puzzler has me in his hand, and he knows where I belong and is getting me there.

As we begin the season of Advent, I’m noticing the hand of the Master Jigsaw Puzzler at work in the larger story too. Nothing was random. “But when the right time came, God sent his Son. . .” (Gal 4:4) Jesus came exactly as predicted, born in the right town, at the right time, through the right family line. All exactly right. And yet all totally surprising to those involved in the story. His mother was asked to trust. Her fiancé was asked to trust. And we who, like Mary, are asked to give our “yes” to his coming to live within us are also asked to trust that He is wise, and good, and infinitely, beautifully creative, and that we don’t need to understand when the promises will be fulfilled, or how they will look, for them to be true.

“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” (Phil 1:6, The Message)



Photo credits:

Jigsaw Puzzle photo by Hans-Peter GausterBlack wire art  photo by William Bout. Complex cubes photo by Sebastien Gabriel. Macro snowflake photo by Aaron Burden. All photos from Unsplash.com. Used with permission.

Settling into smallness

Photo by a-shuhani on Unsplash. Used with permission.

I stand awkwardly in the large open space shared by the physiotherapy reception and exercise areas. I’ve shed my sneakers and jeans in the examining room and now I stand with my black socks slouching around my ankles, the white shorts I brought with me riding a little higher up my thighs as I stand on one leg and lower myself into a one-legged squat, trying to keep my opposite hip from sagging toward the ground. I’m glad that my fingers are hooked over the edge of the sink. I need the help with balance.

The exercise I’m doing with my body feels like a fitting image for something happening more deeply within me.

A month or two back, Holley Gerth published a blog post sharing how, after a stretch in which God had led her into new freedom, she sensed him saying to her, “Settle.” In other words, “Live here. Let this be your home, your place to dwell and thrive.” I’ve been carrying that word “settle” around with me since then, sensing it was an invitation for me too, but waiting for that vague sense to crystallize into something specific enough to  curl my fingers around and step into.

Anyone who has been around here for long will recognize themes that keep resurfacing. One of those is smallness. I regularly return to God’s promise in Isaiah 46, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will carry you.” I find myself sitting on his knee, held by the hand, walking along on his feet like a child standing on the feet of her father and letting herself be carried along. I’ve found myself carried in the womb of God—“In him we live and move and have our being. . . we are his offspring”—and cupped in his hand. As I settle into smallness, I settle into rest, into being loved, into hope and joy and peace. I know this is who I am and where I belong. I know this is where fullness of life begins and where it grows—my small self carried in His all-sufficient one.

But despite all that Scripture and all that experience, somewhere, lingering, has been a nagging doubt. What if smallness is a season? What about the calls to “grow up into Christ,” the summons to adult maturity?  What if I’m meant to experience myself small and loved and then be able to grow through that to a new phase which is somehow bigger and broader and more “out there.”  The Terrifying Question has slithered around the edges: What if my focus on smallness is a way of hiding from the real responsibilities of the Christian life?

A couple of months ago, I wrote Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small as part of my process of working this through. I saw again that, as a branch in the Vine, I can only reach maturity and fruitfulness through staying small and dependent. In the Christian life, we don’t outgrow smallness as we mature; rather, we settle more deeply into the reality of our smallness as we mature in trust of the One who holds us in his strong and gentle hands.

Paul confronts the Galatians in their temptation to believe the slippery thinking that  grace isn’t enough, they have to take charge and start doing things themselves: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (3:3) In other words, “Don’t you remember? This whole life must be lived the way it began—in the smallness of complete dependence on the only One who is able to grow His life in you.” As I read his words, I see The Terrifying Question for what it is: another version of the age-old apple-shaped lie that growing up means stepping from smallness into the independence of being like God.

Again He whispers, “Settle,” and now I can hear the rest of the invitation: Settle into living your smallness not as a season of life, but as a way of life. Savor the freedom. Celebrate the gift. Settle here, making your home in my love that delights in you as you are: small.

Photo by Lara Crespo on Unsplash. Used with permission.

After reading last week’s post, a friend reflected, “This catches my attention: it is in leaning into your smallness that you are free to live into your full stature.” She’s right. I am most free to listen, to trust, to love, and to step out in service when I know myself small and securely held, a tiny but treasured part of God’s life and work in the world. Only in embracing my smallness can I step fully into the joys and responsibilities of the Christian life. 

In this upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the way up is down, is it surprising that growing up means getting smaller and maturity equals humble dependence?

I hold onto the sink and lower myself again into a one-legged squat, noticing the way the two sides of the pelvis are connected. Is stability always about the way two things are connected?

When I lose sight of my smallness, I lose stability, as surely as I do when my eyes slip from the greatness of God. (. . . perhaps because trying to live bigger than my true size is a sure sign that my eyes have slipped from the true size of our great God?)

I am only free to rejoice in my smallness when I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on the true God who loves me in my smallness and has promised to carry me forever. With this God, it is safe to be small.

And I’m only truly free to rejoice in God’s greatness when I’ve stopped fighting my own smallness.

Here, then, is my stability—not in my own strength or greatness, but in the unfailing strength of the One who holds and loves me in my smallness.

Photo by Mathias Reed on Unsplash. Used with permission.


Want more? Here are links to a few other Scriptures and posts to help you settle more deeply into your smallness, as well as a link to the book that, more than any other (except the Bible, of course), has helped on my journey toward celebrating my smallness:

Isaiah 40-41, 46:3-4; Psalm 103; Mark 10:13-16

Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small

Making Peace with Smallness

Eight Reasons it’s Okay to Stay Small (and how you are made great)

Dust You Are: Growing Small

Emily P. Freeman, Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World