Reason to celebrate

“Pause here. Listen. Look.”

Last week I wrote of the unexpected benches in our lives inviting us to pause and really look before hurrying on. This week transition has been one of those benches, and as I’ve accepted its invitation, the view has been well worth the look.

A few weeks ago, after a mere eight years, I finally finished a degree at Regent College. One might have thought I’d be dancing all the way across the stage at graduation. In truth, I didn’t feel much—maybe because I’ve graduated more than once before. Or because I’m more aware than ever that I’m not really a master of anything. Or because, increasingly, I find my comfort and joy in simply being loved in my smallness. Maybe the uncertainty that always comes with endings and beginnings was stealing my attention. But as I accepted the invitation of the bench this week, I realized that if I look more deeply than the signed and sealed paper in my hand, there are gifts from my time at Regent that awaken celebration in me. This reminder tops the list:

The journey may not look the way I expect, but I can trust God to get me where I need to go, and to fulfill my deepest longings in the process.

I came to Regent hoping to learn to read the Bible in the original languages. I took a year of Hebrew and a year of Greek. I loved both. But I discovered that I had to be writing, and studying Biblical languages turned out to be all-consuming. So I changed tracks. And as I sat on the bench and looked back, I realized: my hope to read the Bible fluently in the original languages wasn’t fulfilled, but my deeper longing, the one that was driving that desire, was met. I wanted to learn Biblical languages because I wanted to hear God’s heartbeat more clearly. Turned out God knew that, for me, a different path would bring me closer to that goal, and he led me by that route.

I came to Regent hoping to study under Darrell Johnson. Shortly before I arrived, I learned that he was leaving. Turned out he was leaving in order to pastor a church, so instead of taking a course or two from him, I was able to sit under his preaching most weeks for five years, the truth of Jesus slowly working on the stony places in my heart, deepening the path for His life to flow in me.

I came to Regent looking forward to enjoying the rich multi-ethnic community. I never had the energy to make it to a Regent Retreat or a Taste of the World. But God knew whose friendship would be a rich gift for me (and, I hope, mine for them) and seated one new friend next to me in Greek class, put another in my Vocation of the Artist seminar, and several more with me in a Tuesday noon community group where we connected over soup. Those friendships are now some of my closest, and a means through which God is continuing the deepening process.

Often we’re asked to live in the uncomfortable middle where we don’t yet see how the details of our stories reach resolution. As we live in that middle, the times we are given the grace to look back and see God’s faithfulness are gifts, fuel for further faith as we rise from the bench and continue our journey. Gifts, and invitations: Will I trust that even if the route God takes me on looks different than the one I might have planned or chosen, God is taking me by that route because He loves me and wants to meet the deepest desires of my heart with the best He has to offer—Himself?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8-9

God’s (perfectly serious) joke

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I almost laugh out loud as I watch God’s little joke unfold.

I’m reading in 2 Kings 6 of Elisha’s calmness when he rises in the morning and discovers the city where he is staying surrounded by enemy troops.

His servant panics. “Oh no, my lord! What are we going to do?”

Elisha responds, “Don’t worry. There are way more on our side than on theirs.” Then he prays, “Open his eyes, LORD, so he can see.”

And here I’m intrigued. The hills around the city are filled with horses and chariots of fire. They are present, sent, attentive and protective. And yet they just stand their ground, up in the surrounding hills, and the one to act, calmed and empowered by the knowledge of their presence, is Elisha. The fiery horses don’t decimate the enemy troops. They don’t show themselves and make the enemy die of fright or run for their lives. They quietly encourage faith in those who see.

It seems that God’s kingdom power, made visible in those fiery horses, so vastly outweighs the power of the human armies that God decides to play a little joke while he’s at it. Why not have a little gentle fun when the situation at hand is so easily managed? And Elisha, trusting God, gets to be part of the joke. Is it hard for Elisha to hold back a smile as he prays for the God who has opened the eyes of his servant to blind the eyes of his enemies? They don’t seem to notice their blindness, and Elisha, the man whom the troops are seeking to capture, calmly carries on with the joke. This small, vulnerable man—the intended captive—is graced to carry out God’s work while the armies of heaven stand by watching and witnessing (and marvelling at?) this grace.

“Oh, no, this isn’t the right road, and this isn’t the right city,” Elisha says to the troops. “Follow me and I will lead you to the man you’re looking for.” How absolutely true. It wasn’t the right road or the right city for what God was doing, and with every step Elisha was leading them to the man they were looking for, the man who was walking just a few steps ahead of them and whose identity would be revealed when they arrived.

They reach their destination and the would-be captors find themselves captives in the city of the king of Israel.

God’s magnificently gentle, perfectly serious joke continues.

“Oh no, don’t kill them,” Elisha instructs the king. “Feed them and send them back to their master.” And so the army which comes to take Elisha captive is taken captive by that same praying, trusting man, and is set free after being honored and cared for, nourished and tended.

(And for some reason, despite the extravagant hospitality, the enemy soldiers don’t seem tempted to come back for another meal. Problem—which in God’s eyes was never much of a problem—solved.)

 

Oh LORD, you change times and seasons,

You set up kings and depose them,

You free your people and feed your enemies

And You do it all with such creativity and freedom,

Such lovely humor and grace.

 

Open our eyes to see you at work in the world around us

and give us the faith to join in your perfectly serious joke.

 

LORD of the nations, we pray

make America great again—

great in faith and love and peace,

in joy and courage and generosity.

And let all whom you grace to stand and watch,

to walk and speak and lead hungry captives to the banquet

do so gently and humbly

delighting in your limitless love

and your vibrant joy

which erupts again and again in rich hospitality.

When healing doesn’t feel like healing

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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)

 

God’s powerful good

Photo by Loralee Newbury. Used with permission.

There’s one line that won’t let me go these days, one line written several years ago by a young woman with a young husband and baby. A young woman in whom the love and joy of Jesus shone more brightly perhaps than I’ve ever seen in another person. A young woman who had just entered palliative care with brain cancer when she wrote,

“He promises peace. Not without struggle, not without tears, or grieving, but a deep settled peace, CHOOSING to believe that God’s ‘good’ is much more powerful and complete than my own ‘good’. Even if my emotions have trouble catching up sometimes.” (Christina Ahmann Nevill)

CHOOSING to believe that God’s ‘good’ is much more powerful and complete than my own ‘good’”—it’s that line that won’t let me go. In the questions and challenges and disappointments of life, in the small hurdles and the big pains, we all have this same choice. Will I trust my own limited perspective, or will I trust God’s all-seeing one? Will I let the always-changing situation and my own fluctuating emotions decide what is best, or will I trust what has been witnessed to through Scripture and through the ages—that whether I understand his plans or not, God is always and only good?

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8: 28)

When you’d rather skip this stretch

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Photo by Karen Webber

“Go in the car—you’ll get there quicker!” The not-so-old woman with the slightly crazy grey hair shuffled along behind her walker, calling out to me her best wisdom as I ran past her this morning, breathing hard.

There are sunflowers on my table, their golden heads starting to droop. My friend brought them Friday, the day she came for lunch. The day I was longing to offer her gentle, grace-filled space. The day I ended up sick—again—and she helped serve, loaded the dishwasher, and chatted while I lay on the couch. There was grace in being loved like that. And sadness. I’d wanted so much for the day to be about her this time, not all about me. I’d wanted to love her by serving her.

We talked about her walk along the 800 km of the Camino trail last year. She was remembering the fields of sunflowers, the gift that recurred over several days, each appearance of the bright blooms bringing some new understanding or inviting her to pray in some new way. She noticed, looking back, that the gift of the sunflowers came on the meseta, the stretch of land in the middle of the Camino that many people bypass by taking a bus, thinking it’s a desert or a boring plain.

I sat alone with Jesus after my friend left. “Jesus, what are the sunflowers in this stretch? I don’t want to miss what you’re wanting to share with me.” Illness has often felt like gift, Jesus using it to rescue me from an impossible situation, using it to make space for me to become still enough to learn His love in a way I’d never have known it otherwise. But on Friday it just felt like disappointment and frustration. If there’d been a bus I would have jumped in and raced to the other side of this meseta where I could have served my friend the way I’d wanted.

“Go in the car—you’ll get there quicker!” The not-so-old woman’s words ring in my ears. But there isn’t a car and there isn’t a bus and five days before Friday I’d been at a prayer service asking for healing and how do I live in this space where I’ve asked for healing and things just seem worse?

The sunflowers on the table are starting to droop, their necks bent, their bright faces turned toward the ground. They look like they’ve forgotten their life in the field. When they were young and supple, looking up, up, all the time, their expectant faces made a daily pilgrimage, tracing the path of the sun across the sky. As they matured, they settled into facing east, turned resolutely toward the place they’d learned by long habit that the sun always rose to kiss their faces and awaken his glory in them.

I can ask for healing and then my call is to live with my face turned toward the sun, offering myself to God as I am now, not as I might hope someday to be. I sing along with Stuart Townend, “O my soul, arise and bless your Maker,” and as I turn my face again toward my Maker’s I sense Him smiling on me. We reach the last verse—“Then one day, I’ll see him as he sees me, face to face, the Lover and the loved”—and tears run down my face as I see another of the things I need to remember to live wellour days here are just the beginning.

There’s a whole forever coming when He’ll give me a strong body and I’ll be able to make meals for friends and walk mountain trails with them and stand and praise with the congregation for hours. But in the meantime, He loves me and I love Him and in these few days I have here I want Him to have the whole of me—whatever that looks like. If he wants to give healing, I’d love that, but if there are days or decades still ahead when He delights to receive my love and longing lying down, well, He has my soul, my body, my love. And I have Him. And that is enough.