When you can’t see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.

But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.

That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.

It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.

Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Vines and umbilical cords: on growing up while staying small

I’ve been feeling the tension lately between the invitations in Scripture to stay small and the ones to mature.

On the one hand, we’re told to become like children (Mat 19:14; 18:3). We hear God say, “Don’t be afraid, little Israel, for I myself will help you” (Isaiah 41:14), and we hear him promise, “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). We’re told to cling close because “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

On the other, we’re entrusted with huge gifts and called to invest them (Matt 25:14ff). We’re called to step out courageously (Joshua 1:9), to join in the work to be done (Matt 28:18-20), and to grow up (Eph 4:11-16; Col 1:28-9, 4:12).

I talk about it with the friend who helps me listen, and I leave our time together wondering whether it is significant that Jesus pictures our dependence on him as a vine rather than an umbilical cord. Vines and cords both represent essential life-sustaining connection, carrying nutrients and allowing growth. Both are fairly resilient and hard to cut.

But there is this: The cord, though essential to survival for a time, must ultimately be cut to allow the baby to grow into maturity and fruitfulness. A human baby must leave the womb.

But a branch? It must remain in the vine, the connection growing ever thicker and stronger as it moves from the fragile baby stage to bearing weighty clusters of fruit. For a vine, (and for a Christian), growth into maturity and fruitfulness requires a strengthening of the connection, not a severing of it.

There are, to be sure, parts of the Christian experience that serve as umbilical cords, sustaining life and nurturing growth for a time, but needing to be cut to allow further growth. For most of us, there comes a time when we’re asked to rely less on what we feel or sense, when we can’t find words to pray, when old images of God or ways of relating to him seem to dry out and shrivel up. We may cry like a babe pushed from its warm, comfortable home into the cold, bright world, and that’s okay. Birth hurts.

But as painful and scary and new as it may feel, the cutting of these cords does not equate to the severing of our true life-sustaining connection but invites us into the strengthening of it. At the heart of the Christian life is dependence on the only One who can do for and in us what we cannot do for ourselves, and growing up as a Christian is growing up into Christ (Eph 4:15). Growing up as a Christian means not less but more dependence. It means being okay with our smallness and living more freely and confidently within that dependence.

Here’s to staying small and growing up at the same time, living freely in the security and life-giving dependence of being tightly connected to the Vine.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches.

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.

Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

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.

 

Of stuffed sheep and sacred space and knowing that you matter

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I was going to write today’s post about the lines I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s liturgy of the ordinary (and yes, the first letters in the title of her book are all small letters, and the cover features the makings of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because the point of her book—which I’m loving—is to help us embrace the sacred in the ordinary.)

I was going to write about her words,

“In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us. They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves.” (p. 17)

Isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas—that God came among us, gracing us with his own presence, with Himself, not because we had done anything to earn it but precisely because we couldn’t and because he loved us and wanted us to know it?

Or I was going to share the way she talks about the body as “the most sacred object on earth.” (That thought won’t let me go.)

“Sexual sin is a scandal in the Scriptures not because the apostles were blushing prigs—they were, in reality, a rather salty bunch—or because the body is dirty or evil, but because our skin and muscles and feet and hands are more sacred than any communion chalice or baptismal font. Ignoring Scripture’s teaching about the proper use of the body and using our bodies for our own false worship is a misuse of the sacred akin to using consecrated bread and wine in a Wiccan goddess ceremony.

Similarly, when we denigrate our bodies—whether through neglect or staring at our faces and counting up our flaws—we are belittling a sacred site, a worship space more wondrous than the most glorious, ancient cathedral. We are standing before the Grand Canyon or the Sistine Chapel and rolling our eyes.” (p. 45)

Isn’t this, too, what we celebrate at Christmas—that God further sanctified what he had already made in his image, breathed his own life into, and declared “very good” at creation, now taking flesh himself, joining himself to us in our flesh forever, making our human bodies not just the outer court of the temple but the holy of holies where God dwells?

But I’ve decided to share one moment where all this came together for me—the sacred in the ordinary, God’s holy presence in my own embodied longing.

I did something the other day that I’ve never done before and may never do again. There has been a stuffed lamb sitting in my cupboard for years. Its name is Shalom (Shalom Sheep if you want the full name) and my sister gave it to me soon after I moved out here, far away from family, “in case you get lonely.”

Some time recently Shalom migrated from the cupboard to sit on my bed. And on Friday morning when I made my bed, she was looking at me with such sad and lonely eyes that I couldn’t bear to leave her there. I felt like my heart was going to break if I turned away. So I picked her up and zipped her inside my hoodie, carrying her on my chest like a mom carries a baby in a snugglie. (I confess to feeling a little crazy as I did it—she’s a stuffed animal, for Pete’s sake!) But I sensed there was an invitation there for me, and the only way to hear the invitation was to step into it. So I zipped the little lonely lamb against my chest and carried her there most of the day, letting myself feel the tenderness that arose toward her. The tenderness itself was a gift that somehow overflowed into an ability to be more gentle with myself and others. But it was only that evening, hours after I’d removed the little lamb from my hoodie and tucked her under a blanket to wait while I went out in the slushy snow to listen to Handel’s Messiah that I began to see the deeper layer of gift.

I was sitting with a friend in the Orpheum theatre. The tenor had already sung, “Comfort ye, my people,” and the alto had reminded us that the child coming among us was called Emmanuel, “God with us.” The choir had sung that the child is born and the son given, and the soprano had called us to rejoice because our king comes.

And then the alto began to sing the reassurance from Isaiah 40, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom . . .” And I remembered: God carries lonely little lambs next to his heart too! God had been inviting me to understand these words from the inside, to feel something of his own tenderness toward me. He aches when he sees me ache, and he doesn’t turn away. He picks me up (if I’ll let him) and tucks me safe in that swaddling space where I can hear his heartbeat and feel his warmth, hear his quiet whispers and feel his hand move to touch my back and know that I’m not alone. And this tender care isn’t just for extreme circumstances or moments of tragedy. It’s all part of the (extra)ordinary everyday love of the shepherd, part of being his, loved and known and cared for in the rise and fall of everyday life.