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.

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.

Good news: God will not use you

dscn4552In a recent conversation with a friend who helps me listen, I commented that one of the gifts of weakness is that it makes more space for God to use me; when I feel strong I tend to do things on my own rather than relying on him. Though I didn’t stop at the time, I noticed that the idea of “God using me” grated on me. Following Sharon Garlough Brown’s advice to “linger with what provokes you,” I returned later to ponder the reason and discovered a lovely gift beneath the provocation:

God is not there for our use. But no more are we here for his use, and to believe we are is to reduce him to the level of the pagan gods who need to be carried and fed and served (Ps 50:9-15, Isaiah 46:1-4, etc.). God made us not for his use but as an overflow of his love. 

As part of that love which creates us and highly elevates us, God grants us the privilege of working alongside him. He works in us and through us, but he does not use us. He loves us, and loves others through us, and receives our love as we offer ourselves to him, welcoming us into the joy of a life much bigger than our small selves.

Yesterday I sat in the pew behind a grandfather holding his youngest granddaughter, about age two. The service had not yet started and as I smiled at her large dark eyes quietly taking everything in, and at the palpable tenderness with which her grandfather held her, he told me that she had not been sleeping. He had sat with her at five o’clock that morning in the chair where he sits each morning in stillness before God and had prayed for her as she fell back to sleep in his arms. It was such a privilege, he said, to pray for her and to notice the ways she uniquely relates to the world and to wonder (not merely in the sense of questioning, I could see, but with a sense of awe at this priceless treasure in his arms) how this small person will be flourishing when she is eighteen or twenty-five.

I found myself on holy ground there in the presence of that grandfather. Here was a love free enough to truly love, not needing to fulfil his own dreams through his granddaughter but longing to help her discover who she is and become as fully as possible her true self in Christ.

As the service started and we sang, the tiny girl laid her head on her grandfather’s shoulder and drifted again to sleep, and the tenderness on her grandfather’s face deepened still further at this sign of trust.

The picture stayed with me when I left the building after the service, I now small and held in the tenderness of my Father’s love where the possibility of him using me is unthinkable. He longs instead to help me discover and become, fully and freely, in his love, the person I truly am—and, in so doing, He shows me the person He truly is.

 

Christmas’ surprising announcement

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The cheerful postman wearing a Santa hat delivered Mom’s package, and as I opened it and hung the ornaments she had sent, I found myself both grateful for her care and sad about not being with my family this year (though I know it’s right, and I’ll enjoy being adopted for the day into a friend’s extended family here.)

I let myself feel the sadness and gave thanks for the gift of family that I want to be with, then lit the Advent candles and put on Handel’s Messiah. I suppose I was looking for Someone to be with me in my loneliness. Someone who had experienced loneliness himself.

I was surprised how quickly peace began to settle in. Perhaps it was simply that Someone was with me and in feeling his presence I didn’t feel alone anymore. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed.

At first I thought that peace had come as I’d heard the choir sing and had been reminded that the story is not about me, lifting me out of my too-small focus.

And then I realized that was exactly backwards: the story is, incredibly, about me, and it was that reminder of immense, tender love that comes looking for me that was settling me into peace.

This is the good news of Christmas—we matter this much.

To us a child has been born and a Son given. To us angels sing good news and God announces the arrival of comfort and presence and peace. To us God comes and makes his home not merely among us but in us.

I reread Mary’s familiar song and for the first time I notice how unashamed she is to celebrate what God has done for her.

He hasn’t forgotten me! she sings. “He took notice of his lowly servant girl.” (Luke 1:48 MSG)

I matter! she sings. “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (v. 48-9 NIV)

And so do you and you and you! she cries to all generations. “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” (v. 50 MSG)

As crazy as it seems considering our earthy beginnings, the One who has always been at the center brings us right in to stand with him at the center of this story. Christmas happened because of you and God’s love for you, because of me and his love for me. The omnipotent God left his home to come among us, weak and needy, to die and rise to make us his forever. What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?

Christmas is about me and my mattering. But not just about me, but about a love so big, a story so beautiful, a God so worthy of praise that I can take my small but significant place beside Mary and the angels and sing Hallelujah! to the One who loves (loves me!) like this.

 

Taking it deeper:

What arises within you as you read the question, “What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?”

What, if anything, is keeping you from stepping confidently into sharing God’s conviction that you matter?

When you feel hemmed in

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“Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: ‘Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them . . . but when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.” (Eze 3:24-27)

Sometime in our lives, we all find ourselves hemmed in. Week after week a writer is wordless, or just as a book is almost finished the possibility of publishing is threatened. One who defines himself by his service tangles with a band saw and winds up casted from fingertips to shoulder. Kids cling. A hospital bed beckons. Laundry hampers or do-lists or inboxes fill faster than they can be emptied.

There are times a whole nation can feel hemmed in. A shooting, a quake, an impending election.

But there is this: a baby is squeezed through an impossibly tight space, hemmed in for an eternity of minutes on its way to meeting the one who has loved and carried and labored to bear it into the world.

Can I trust that the tightest of hemmings is a path into freedom, an invitation into a new way of knowing the one who knows and loves me first?

Might I only learn who God is and who I am by passing through these hemmed-in places?

Maybe it’s when I can’t serve that my heart learns I’m precious apart from my serving.

Maybe it’s when I have to keep loving that my heart learns his grace is sufficient.

Maybe it’s when I realize I can’t control the future that my heart learns to trust the one who keeps holding and loving no matter what comes.

I’ve been soaking for a month in the picture from Psalm 139, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” I’ve found myself cupped and treasured, God’s hand beneath, his other hand above, hemming me in behind and before, laying his hand upon me in blessing and protection. I’ve loved that place of finding myself treasured and protected and held.

But when the hemming feels harsher and less comforting, can I remember that beneath the surface situation, the same strong and gentle hands still holds me?

Freedom comes only in learning to trust, and for most of us there is no such learning apart from being hemmed in and herded out of our cozy spaces.

Like a camera lens, my mind zooms out from what I see around me to the One who sustains it all, this whole universe held like a hazelnut in his hand, then zooms in again until I see myself held. Cupped there in his great hands, I reach up to stroke the fingers that form the roof above me, loving him as an infant who gently touches her mothers face. I turn over and curl up, settling into rest, placing my small hand on his great one, an offer of my small love, my choosing to trust this hand that holds me.

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The winds are blowing and the branches almost bare, but a few leaves still cling, reminders of the love that falls and folds, curls and cups, encircling us everywhere.

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