The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.

I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.

So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.

I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.

I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.

 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

When you wonder if you can do it

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In those moments when you think you’re almost done and then you have to rewrite whole chapters and time is running out and you wonder if you really can do this after all

(Or the lines of patients seem never ending,

Or the kids are sick again,

Or back pain lays you low):

1. Take a deep breath. Remember that every breath is a love-gift, a reminder that you are held in existence by the One who delights in you. And He will not let go.

2. Lay out all your fears before Jesus. Name them. Then, with all those fears on the table, ask Jesus how he wants to be with you in them. (I saw him gently pick up each fear, one at a time, as though it was precious, and hold it in his two hands, look lovingly at me and ask, “Will you trust me with this?”)

3. Just fill the jars. It’s his job to make wine from the water you bring.

For all of you stepping out into newness

Ever faced a step out of your comfort zone? One of those moments (or months) when your stomach is in knots and your mind is racing and you can’t sleep because you’re thinking about what lies ahead?

It might be a major life event: a new baby, a new job, a new country. Or it might be stepping out your front door to meet the new neighbor. Picking up the phone to call that person you’d rather not love.  Signing up for the course.

Perhaps you dreamed of this, planned for it. Or perhaps it arrived unannounced and unwanted.

Either way, it’s challenging.

And confusing.

You dreamed of the clouds and find yourself in the red hot pressures of the real life situation.

You do trust God. You’ve seen him at work. You know he can raise the dead. So why is it so hard to trust as you step into the new situation?

I saw it this week, the crazy upside-down lie I’ve not known I’ve believed though it has shaped my thoughts and my actions. I have believed that my weakness is stronger than God’s strength.

Isn’t that really what I’m saying when I admire someone else’s courage and think “but I could never do that?” When I let the dreams peek through just for a moment but then write them off as impractical, forgetting that the God who is able to do the impossible just might be planting those dreams in me?

The words stop me in my tracks, the lie flipped right-side-up, framing beautiful truth: “. . . God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25) My weakness can’t be stronger than God’s strength because even God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25). God at his weakest, the God-man suspended on a rough stake, bloodied and breathing his last, succeeded where all our efforts failed. And this God-man whose death gave us life now lives his life in us who are his. The cross was just the beginning.

So take courage, you who have died with Christ, and step out in his strength. In this life on the other side of the cross,  weakness is not a barrier but a wide open welcome into a greater strength.

Painting by Patricia Jagt

“My grace is enough; it’s all you need.

My strength comes into its own in your weakness.”

(2 Corinthians 12:9 The Message)

(Need a little help remembering that? Click here to download the following reminder that you can print or set as your screensaver.)

Passion painting by Patricia Jagt

Why even men are virgin daughters

 

Being a single (blonde!) woman in Afghanistan had its challenges. One man trailed  me several hours into the neighboring country wanting me to be his wife. Another determined he would die if I did not marry him. During a month of being pursued, I tried to handle the situation myself. My firm and repeated “go away” did not stop his suicidal emails.

 

In the outcome of my story, I learned to understand Judah’s story in Isaiah 36 and 37.

 

The people of Judah are being threatened by the Assyrians.  “Wake up! Look what we’ve done to the rest of the world. You’re next. Just turn yourselves in now and we’ll make sure you have a good life after we conquer you.”

 

They’re bullies. But they’re not bluffing. They’re strong.

 

They’re strong. King Hezekiah has heard the reports. He knows he hasn’t a hope apart from God.

 

They’re strong. King Hezekiah has heard the reports. But he has a hope. He has heard other reports too. Ones about God. He has lived the truth of those reports. And that’s where he chooses to focus. Not on the strength of the enemy, but on the greater strength of his God.

 

He avoids the two pitfalls. He doesn’t give in to fear. Nor does he create a battle plan himself. He spreads out the letter before God. “God, look. They’re strong. But you’re stronger. Save us!”

 

The king prays, and God answers through the prophet:

 

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says. . .  against [the king of Assyria]

‘The virgin daughter of Zion

despises you and laughs at you.

The daughter of Jerusalem

shakes her head in derision as you flee.

“Whom have you been defying and ridiculing?

Against whom did you raise your voice?

At whom did you look with such haughty eyes?

It was the Holy One of Israel!

By your messengers you have defied the Lord. (Isaiah 37:21-24 NLT)

 

The virgin daughter can laugh because, when they think they’re threatening her, really they’re taking on her Father. And though she’s weak, her Father is strong. Her word doesn’t hold much weight, but her Father’s does. He will defend her, both because He loves her, and because it’s His responsibility to protect her. When his daughter is threatened, His honor is at stake as much as hers.

 

One kind, firm email from my brother finally stopped the pursuit, “You are not treating my sister honorably. Leave her alone.” (Thanks, Jon!)

 

It was so easy when I finally learned to play by the real rules: I don’t have to do it alone. I’m not even supposed to be able to. We have a Father and a Brother who are delighted to act on our behalf. We just have to step back from our Western do-it-yourself mentality long enough to remember that God does not expect us to be God. Just to be his virgin daughters.

When the do-list is long


“Above all else. . . ” The phrase rings through my consciousness.

The list of things to be done today is impossibly long, the energy small. How can I do it all? What must come first?

“Above all else. . .” If something must go, it cannot not be this, for this is my very life, the one thing that makes all else possible. It too is life for those among whom I live. Without this, all efforts fall dead, useless.

What is it, this which must remain first?

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

(Proverbs 4:23 New International Version)

In different lives and at different stages, it looks different. Yesterday, guarding my heart meant putting my do-list away and spending Sunday afternoon enjoying God. Today, it means facing the list with Jesus. Sometimes it may mean letting go of activity to rest, other times stepping out in obedience, choosing to live on the edge of the impossible where we find God sufficient. Often it means opening my heart to another. Always, it means seeking to live with heart wide open to God. Always, asking the One who made my heart, who loves it, to help me open that tender place a little more fully to His love today.

Jesus says it this way:

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, New Living Translation)

Do I really believe this, that I cannot clean the bathroom or buy groceries without Jesus?

On the days I lack the strength to do these things I remember. Yes, strength is a gift. Without the life and breath He gives, without His holy empowering, I really can do nothing.

On the days I feel stronger, it’s harder to remember. But a long view helps me understand. What I race through on my own may be done today, ticked off my do-list, but it will be gone tomorrow. Only what I do today in the love and life of God will last. Even a toilet cleaned, a phone answered, a tear offered in love to God is graciously received by Him as a gift, a gift which He blesses and multiplies.

And here too is grace. This command to “guard your hearts” is not one more thing to add to the do-list, one more thing over which to feel guilty if left undone. It is permission to take a deep breath and enjoy the arms of love no matter how many things demand attention.

And I remember: I am called first of all not to write, nor to study, nor even to serve others. I am called first and foremost to live with my heart wide open to God. To listen to His heartbeat. To love Him and receive His love for me. All else flows out of this.