Finding our place in his story

When we entered the sanctuary yesterday, we saw them: hundreds of little paper crosses strung between the balcony and the large wooden cross raised at the front of our place of worship. Our lives, our worship, our suffering, all connected to each other’s and to His.

It reminds me of how  a magnet held under a sheet of paper covered with scatted iron filings shapes lines of intricate order out of the chaos. Here, joined to his cross, our stories settle into place and begin to make sense.

It seems so right as we begin this Holy Week to find once again our small place in his big story. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. It was also Annunciation Day, and in the juxtaposition of the two, Mary’s yes to God’s invitation merged with Jesus’ yes, the human story intertwined with God’s story at yet another node. To Mary the invitation to bear God’s Son into the world. To Jesus the invitation to bear fallen humanity back into into intimate friendship with God. Both said yes. Both knew the deep joy and the deep suffering of their calling.

And now we too are invited to take up our crosses and follow, to enter more deeply the privilege of sharing both in Christ’s resurrection and in his sufferings.

We’ve been coloring the crosses for weeks, each Sunday School class, connection group, seniors’ gathering setting aside time for each person to color a cross in a way that expressed their gratitude for grace or shared what they wanted to bring to the cross. Each cross was a little bit of someone’s love, their surrender, their yes. And now the crosses hang as we enter Holy Week, our lives all linked to his: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Our lives all linked to his, and to each other’s. I can’t find my own cross. It doesn’t matter. I know that it’s here somewhere, here in the stringing of connected lives, the singing of worship linked to the cross and, through the cross, to the multitudes around his throne who continue to sing to the One in whom all of history finds its proper place, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

The politically incorrect gospel

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

We’re well over half way through Lent, and this week I’ve been challenged again by this awareness: the gospel is not politically correct.

There’s a big part of me that prefers to stay silent when controversy arises. I prefer to offer gentle hospitality, to listen, to ask a few quiet questions, and to trust the Holy Spirit to be the one to bring to light what needs to come into the light as He guides people into all truth.

But then I look at Jesus.

In his parables, he “told all the truth but told it slant.” But there were times and settings when he spoke the truth straight out too, and lived it in ways that made the authorities furious.

Trust can mean letting God be the one to bring things into the light, or it can mean obediently offering the words God gives us to speak and trusting that God will accompany us through all that unfolds.

Jesus has never been politically correct. Even his existence was so politically incorrect that, soon after his birth, the king tried to kill him. And, at the other end of his earthly life, religious and political authorities—usually each other’s enemies—teamed up to bring a final end to the political incorrectness of Jesus’ life. But after he was no longer physically present on earth, the political incorrectness of his story continued: “When we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense” (1 Cor 1:23 NLT). There’s no way around it: the gospel, while incredibly good news, is also offensive for a world (and, sometimes, even a church?) that prefers to think of ourselves as essentially good, as enough on our own.

Over and over these days I come up against the idea that all human beings carry the presence of God at our core. The idea subtly pervades books being widely read by people in the church, and is taught by some people whom I love deeply and from whom I have learned much about grace and community and the beautiful, welcoming love of God. But on this point we differ. And because I love both Jesus and these friends so deeply, I have to speak. Because I know they love Jesus too, and yet it seems to me that when we believe that all human beings carry the presence of God within them, we cut the heart out of the gospel. Why do we need Christ if God’s presence lives in us without him?

The way I read the Bible, human beings are incredibly beautiful, complex beings, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. It’s not too big a stretch to say we’re “god-like.”

God created human beings;

he created them godlike,

reflecting God’s nature. (Genesis 1:27, The Message)

The Psalmist says we’re made “a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor,” two attributes that, as Old Testament scholar Iain Provan points out, are usually reserved only for God. All humans are created in God’s image and placed on this earth to be “like God” to the rest of creation, tending it with care.

The arrival of moral evil doesn’t change the fact that we are all made in the image of God and are to be treated accordingly.

“Whoever sheds human blood,

by humans shall their blood be shed;

for in the image of God

has God made mankind” (Gen 9:6).

But it is first in Jesus that a human made in the image of God now also carries the presence of God fully within him, humanity and God now joined in one person. Now when we, through our trust, allow Christ to live in us by his Spirit, we who have been made in the image of God are enabled to carry God’s presence within us, becoming who we’re made to be.

“For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. So you also are complete through your union with Christ. . .” (Col 2:9-10 NLT).

As we walk these final weeks toward the cross, I celebrate again the love that created me beautiful and remarkable—“like God.”

I celebrate the love that created me not God and regularly reminds me that I’m not God and invites me to rest in the freedom of being human and being still and knowing that God is God.

And I celebrate the incomprehensibly magnificent love that knows that I’m not enough on my own and gives His own life in order to fill me with God’s presence, joining me to Himself and thus allowing me to share in the life of God forever.

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.

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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

Stepping out of God’s Shoes

“Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The invitation comes again and again, each time welcoming me into yet another place to step out of God’s too-big-for-me shoes and back into my own, or, better yet, to go barefoot for a while. Feeling the sun-warmed grass, or the morning sand cool between my toes, I remember again that all the ground we walk on is holy ground.

“Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The invitation comes again as I sit asking God to help me understand why I’d felt so anxious in a particular encounter. Slowly I begin to see. When technology had let me down and I hadn’t been able to connect at the expected time in the expected way, I’d feared the person waiting for me would feel abandoned. When I’d lacked a ready answer or a ready question and I’d had to suggest we pause and listen for God’s guidance, I’d feared looking incompetent. Some hidden part of me had felt I needed to be always strong, clear, and sovereign at least over technology if not over the pace and flow of the conversation. I had stepped into God’s shoes.

As soon as I recognize what is going on and step back out of God’s shoes, I can breathe. I can also see: No person needs me to be God. (Thank God!) My place is to walk alongside (barefoot, knowing myself on holy ground) as we walk together toward the real God, or to offer space to sit and listen and look for signs of the real God who is always coming to us.

As usual at this time of year, I’m stepping away from the blog for a month. I so easily slip into trying to wear God’s shoes that I need this practice (along with other daily and weekly ones) to savor again the gift of smallness and let God reset my soul in its correct relation to Him, myself, and other people.

“Instead of a fearful place I have to either defend or run from, small can become my new home. Small can become hilariously delightful, fun, and free. I can come with little things to offer, with no agenda, with the day as it is and not as I wish it were instead. I’m small, and this is as it should be.” (Emily P. Freeman, Simply Tuesday, p. 94)

Whatever August holds for each of us, may God grace us with the inner freedom to step out of His shoes and walk barefoot for a while. I look forward to seeing you back here as the calendar turns to September!

When you’re craving rest: gifts at summer’s start

I walked over the bridge toward church yesterday with hundreds of half-marathon runners on my right. It was 9:30 a.m. and already hot. As usual with this sort of thing, there were a few observers gathered on the sidelines clapping and cheering and calling out encouragement. But there was one supporter who stood out. As the runners ran past him, uphill, many of them used a little extra breath to call out their thanks and blessing to him. Why? He knew that on a hot day as the runners neared the 19k mark, the best way he could offer support was not with words alone but with a spray bottle full of cool water, spritzed in the face of any runner who nodded their desire.

As I watched, the grace in the picture brought tears to my eyes. Around this time of year I often find myself weary. I’m there again. The year was busy, crescendoing to a climax in late spring, and I’m grateful for a bit of in-between time, a pause before new deadlines settle in. One evening last week I sat journaling my prayer for this summer, knowing that I need deep rest but not feeling entirely sure what the specifics might look like. What rests me deeply? I know the core of the answer: the kind of deep rest I crave can only be found in the arms of the One who calls all who are weary to come, promising “and I will rest you.”1 But I don’t always know the details of how he’ll rest me.

And then as I sat, bringing my weary self to Jesus to be rested, I realized he was (yet again) ahead of me. Even before I had fully recognized my fatigue and had come asking him to rest me, he had noticed my weariness and was gently guiding me toward simple understandings and practices that open me to him in my weariness and help me—body, soul, and spirit—to rest. Before I reached the 19k mark, he was already there, ready and waiting to offer the refreshment he knew I’d need.

He’s nudged me toward the habit of taking my lunch outside to eat, pausing to feel the sun and the breeze and breathe deeply of the goodness of my Creator.

He’s kept summoning me back to remember many times a day, “This moment is a gift from the One who loves you.” That one reminder alone, as it draws me from my preoccupation with the past or the future and settles me into the present and into his love goes far, far, in refreshing me.

He’s brought alongside a couple of companions who, through their written words, are helping me settle into rest: Ted Loder’s Guerrilla’s of Grace, and Emily P. Freeman’s Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. Just a page or two or three of either of these books feels like cool water spritzed gently on my tired, overheated self. I read and I feel myself breathe a little more deeply. My shoulders relax. Sometimes there are tears of relief and rest.

And then within two weeks two people said more or less the same thing to me in two different contexts and about two different issues: “Seems like your own David and Goliath story. Time to take off the armor and pick up the stones.” I hadn’t thought about the David and Goliath story in a long time. And if I had, I think I’d have written the headline for the story as “Small guy beats big guy through God’s strength,” or, to paraphrase Jesus’ promise to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The bit that God seems to be wanting me to notice now is the way that happens. Middle-sized guy (the king, the supposed expert in fighting such battles) tries to get small guy to wear his armor to fight the big guy. Small guy tries it on and says, “I can’t fight the big guy in this. I can barely move” and takes it off and picks up his slingshot and goes into battle as himself—his small self whose whole trust is in his big God, not in someone else’s armor.

If I’m honest, that part makes me uncomfortable. Some part of me wants to wear someone else’s armor, to hide behind what looks safer, what has been tried, what everyone is doing. (“But all the blogging experts say I should do it this way.”)

But there’s another part of me that’s tired of trying to walk around in armor that is too heavy for me. That part finds hope in this bit of the story. Enough hope to take a good look at what actually works for me, at who I am and who God is and what he might have suited me for, and to begin stripping off the armor and laying aside plans and protocols and expectations that might fit someone else perfectly but that leave me unable to walk. Stripping off those expectations, that part of me realizes I can breathe again, and wants to sing and dance and shout for joy as I realize all over again, and more deeply, that God actually likes the way he’s made me, that he actually wants me to be me and not someone else, that he really means it when he says, “If you’re tired of carrying burdens that are too heavy, come to me and learn from me and take up the yoke that I’ve made for us to carry together. The only burden I will put on you is one made to fit you, one designed for us to carry together, not one that was made for someone else and will chafe your shoulders and rub you raw” (Matt 11:28-30 paraphrase).

 

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1As I’ve often heard Darrell Johnson say, and have written here before, the English translation of Matthew 11:28, “and I will give you rest,” is the best our language can do to translate what the original Greek actually says, “and I will rest you.” Rest is something Jesus does for us and to us as we live in him, not a “thing” he gives us to take away and do ourselves.