Hope for the messy moments

I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”

I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!

So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?

***

The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.

Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.

I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.

I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I’d rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I’d prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.

As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers. 

I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: “Where did you go?” In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, “A bother,” “A drain,” “Alone.”

After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?” Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, “How might you want him to be with you in this?”

The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus’ body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.

This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.

And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl’s instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.

As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus’ arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I’d made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus’ arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus’ arms.

***

It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.

Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I’m being invited to speak Jesus’ words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.

As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:

“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)

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Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Comfort when life is messy

Welcome! Pull up a chair. If you’re reading this online rather than via email, you’ll notice that I’ve been working this week to transfer my blog to a new home to better welcome you, and the move is still in process. If you can’t see the search button or the list of topics, that’s because I haven’t unpacked them yet. The pictures aren’t hung and nothing is quite in its right place, but I’m so glad you’ve come anyway. The kettle’s on and we’ll pause in the midst of the mess to notice that God is here too.

The fact is, sometimes I hear God’s heartbeat most clearly when I haven’t managed to tidy everything up. Maybe it’s because then I most need to hear his heartbeat reminding me that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that the Holy Spirit delights to hover over formless chaos and from it shape ruby-throated hummingbirds and the milky ribbon of stars in a clear winter sky and the sun glinting on the tips of salty ocean waves.

Creation is like that. We see a newborn baby or the first green shoot of spring peeking up from the ground and it awakens within us hope, and tenderness, and a desire to protect the new little life. The mystery is great, and the awe, and the hope. But also the mess. Someone got dirt under their fingernails planting those bulbs. Someone made space within herself and carried that baby-in-formation through three-quarters of a year of nausea and back pain, heartburn and mood swings, weariness and the little guest tucking himself up under her ribs or kicking her bladder or doing aerobics when she was trying to sleep. Someone breathed through the pains, and soaked the carpet when the water broke, and wondered if she could do it, and gave all her strength to push this new bit of life out into the world, slippery with fluid and blood and caked with white vernix. The coming of new life is messy.

That’s one of the reasons that the Psalmist’s understanding of God as midwife so delights me. People who choose to make their life’s work caring for women and the life coming into being through them aren’t generally afraid of the mess. Nor of the unpredictability of the process. And so in the messiest and most dangerous moments in his life, the Psalmist cries out to the divine Midwife.

In Psalm 71:6, when the Psalmist’s life is threatened by enemies, he prays, “It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew text reads, “It was you who cut me from my mother’s womb,” picturing God as the midwife cutting the psalmist’s umbilical cord at his birth.

In another of the most painful times of his life, when his sense of being abandoned by God was accompanied by physical illness and exhaustion and desertion by friends, David finds hope in the reminder that the same God who was present at his physical birth, guarding his life, still tends him: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb. You kept me safe on my mother’s breast” (Ps 22:9) The Hebrew literally says, “Yet it was you who pulled me out of the womb. . . ,” picturing a midwife helping a baby be born.

It is quite possible that Jesus himself turned for comfort to the image of God as Midwife. From the cross, his raw back rubbing rough wood with each word, Jesus cries the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and the writer of Hebrews quotes Jesus as speaking v. 22 in the context of his suffering (Hebrews 2:12). As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have memorized large portions of Scripture, and in his agony, this entire psalm may well have become his prayer, its poetry wrapping up all the outer details and inner wrestlings of those hours leading to his death, holding open space for trust during his excruciating birthing of us, “a people yet unborn” (v. 31), into the inner life of the Trinity. Every part of him burned: his pierced hands and feet, his dislocated joints; Jesus, along with the psalmist, may have cried that his heart had melted within him (v. 14). He was being torn apart, as though by “roaring lions that tear their prey” (v. 13). If Jesus was indeed praying this whole psalm on the cross, then for help in the tearing, burning intensity of his labor, he turned to the divine Midwife: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (v. 9-10) “In you our ancestors trusted . . . and you delivered them,” he reminded himself (v. 4). Into the skilled and gentle hands that had delivered him and thousands before him he could commit his body and spirit.

I’m intrigued that David and likely Jesus as well (both men!) found comfort in the image of God as Midwife. In Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul addresses the recipients of his letter, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .” He paints a startling picture in which all Christian believers (women and men!) are pregnant and Christ is the baby growing inside of us.

It’s an incredible privilege to carry Jesus within us. But I also know from my experience as an obstetrician walking with women through their pregnancies that as much as they might love the child being formed within them, pregnancy can be frightening. Spiritual pregnancy—Christ being formed in me—can feel scary and out of my control too—particularly knowing that this One being formed in me isn’t afraid of calling me to come and die on my way into new life. When fear rises, or I’m aware of my messiness, there’s comfort in knowing I’m in good hands, being cared for by the same skilled Midwife who was there at my own birth, unseen but present and wise and tender. That midwife is still guarding my life and skillfully working to safely deliver the life that is coming into being in and through me.

How is it for you to consider that strong and gentle hands are holding you and all that concerns you, even in the times you might not feel those hands?

Is there anything you’d like to say to your divine Midwife right now?

________________

Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

When you struggle to settle


It was an unusual experience. We were high up in the balcony of the theatre. The seats directly in front of us were empty except for a woman with exceptionally tall hair. In the next row up was a family with two children. The older, a young teen, leaned her head first onto the shoulder of her mother and then onto the shoulder of the woman sitting on her other side (an older sister home from college? a young aunt?). Eventually she curled up in her seat as best she could and appeared to sleep. The younger child, perhaps eight or ten, handed her program to her sister/aunt, took it back, handed it back again. She tapped her aunt’s elbow for attention and whispered something. Occasionally she looked at the performance taking place on the stage below her.
Two women to our left chattered in whispers. The whole audience seemed restless. I’ve never seen so many individuals leave during a performance. Some re-entered.
I was frustrated and puzzled, feeling in myself, too, the inability to settle that I could see all around me. Why? What was going on? I’d been looking forward to this performance of Handel’s Messiah. As I bussed to the theatre, I’d consciously released the events of my day to God, preparing to settle in, savor the music, and let it lead me into worship. But it wasn’t happening.
Gradually I began to understand.
In the moment the orchestra began the overture, I’d felt out of breath, trying to keep up, holding onto the arms of my chair as though to slow us down, to keep us together. To keep myself together, maybe. The music had slowed when the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” and I’d breathed deeply. The choir entered, perfectly together, singing beautifully. And then we’d sped up and again I’d felt like I needed to hold on, to slow us down with my hands as though seatbelting myself in, trying to defend against a crash. Once the conductor had stopped the orchestra a few bars in and started again. I suspect the changing tempo was meant to highlight the words, to provide helpful contrast. In effect what I experienced was auditory whiplash and an unsettled soul.
Still, there were glimpses of grace—grace that I might not have seen if I’d felt settled from the start:
A single note where the tenor hung alone, opening a moment of spaciousness whose holy grace remains with me, reminding me that beyond the hustle there is a still point. Behind the rush, the show, the frothy mix of motives and emotions, Reality waits. And He is gracious and spacious and good.
My always-favorite duet where the soprano and alto remind us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young,” and therefore we can “Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
And this: Three-quarters of the way through the concert, the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus sounded. Together, we stood. The people who had been restless stilled. The chatterers stopped. The teen in front of us slept on, but the two women lifted the younger child to her feet to stand with them. And as all the voices of the humans and instruments sang together, I understood all over again: Life may drag us along, stealing our breath with its speed, giving us whiplash with unexpected changes of direction or tempo. Our best attempts to make art or serve others may not turn out in the way we hoped. A performance or a project may disappoint. It is not the end of the world. Because on this truth we stand, and in this hope we once again find our center, our courage, and our voice to join with the multitude which sings around the throne:

“Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
And he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of lords.
Hallelujah.”

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.

When Jesus shows up in the kitchen

A few weeks ago I was, with help, finally finding a couch and hanging my paintings, making this new apartment feel like a home. We found the only places the paintings would work. My friend Linda’s lovely painting of the woods got a home on the wall around the corner from the patio door where it looks like a third window looking out into the woods. I’ve always loved the woods, and to have a “window” which lets me see into the woods instead of the kitchen of the home a few feet away is a gift.
The other, Patricia Jagt’s painting of a sunset that had been particularly significant for me, only worked on the wall over the look-through into the kitchen. I wrestled with that. Tricia painted it for the place of honor over the fireplace in the home we shared for a while, and though we only tried the fireplace once and the place smelled like smoke for a week, still the fireplace made a perfect base for the painting to rest above, constantly calling me back to the words Tricia wrote on the back, articulating the promise the painting seemed to hold: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Now that painting hangs over the look-through into the kitchen. When I sit on my couch I see not just the painting but, below it, the lived-in clutter of dishes drying in the rack, family photos on the fridge, the top of the toaster and kettle and microwave.  I can no longer see the painting without seeing the everyday details of my life.
At first that drove me crazy. Crazy enough that I tried to switch the paintings around and find another home for this one. But I couldn’t. And so instead I followed the wise advice in Sharon Garlough Brown’s Sensible Shoes series, “Linger with what provokes you.”
And as I did, the painting took on another layer of promise: my life doesn’t have to be like that picture-perfect wall over the fireplace—all whiteness and beauty and space—for Christ’s glory to be revealed in me. Now every time I sit on my couch, I’m reminded of the truth that when Christ is in us, he goes with us into the everyday places, the places that may sometimes feel a bit cramped and dark, the kitchens that, no matter how much I tidy, will still look lived in because they are. And here he lets his glory shine, a foretaste of the fuller glory that we’ll enter with him someday.
Now I love it that this painting wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Sure, part of me would still rather have it on a pristine wall above a fireplace—part of me would like my heart to be that pristine wall—but its new home is the place I need to see it day after day. I love it that Jesus knows that and wants to give me the gift of this reminder every day: we are the home Jesus has chosen for himselfNot just the spotless walls over the fireplace, but also, and maybe especially, the bits of our hearts that are lived-in and messy, where we do the everyday work of feeding ourselves and others and washing the dirty dishes.
Jesus does, after all, seem to have a particular fondness for revealing his glory—his grace and his love—amidst the shame of wine shortages and dirty feet and betrayals that show up around a meal.

____________________

For further reflection:
Here are a few of the stories that involve Jesus and a meal:
The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11); the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17); the woman at the well (John 4:1-42); Jesus anointed (Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-11); the last supper and washing of the disciples’ feet (Luke 22:7-38; John 13); the miraculous catch of fish and Peter’s reinstatement (John 21); the road to Emmaeus (Luke 24:13-35); the appearance to the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36-49);  the promise that Jesus will continue to eat with us if we invite him in (Rev 3:20; John 14:23); the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9; Luke 14:15-24; Luke 12:37) and, of course, Jesus as the good shepherd who feeds his flock (John 10:9 and Psalm 23).
Which other stories would you add to this list? What touches you most deeply about Jesus in these stories? I’d love to hear!

When you feel unworthy

Most moments in life are much more multi-layered than they appear. They are filled with echoes and harmonics, with chords and counterpoint and grace notes pointing beneath the surface to what lies deeper.
Sometimes the first notes seem playful and welcoming, inviting me into rest or fun, sometimes rich and harmonious, inviting me to linger and listen more deeply. And sometimes there are sequences that, when I first hear them, hurt my head. Their dissonance unsettles me.
Last week began with a sequence, lovely in itself, that quickly turned dissonant. A friend invited me out to dinner the following week at a fancy restaurant with her and another friend. I paused (Am I being invited as a guest, or to share the cost?) then accepted (I’d like to spend time with her and meet her friend. And when she has invited me there before, it has been as a guest. Surely she knows me well enough to know that a place like that is beyond my means.) It felt too awkward to ask directly.
But that night the niggling voice woke me at 4 am. (You know you really can’t afford that. And if you don’t find out her expectations now, you’ll be worrying about them until the meal. You won’t be free to enjoy the gift, if it is a gift.) But how do you ask something like that? All the best options I could think of still felt like they would come out sounding way too close to “I really want to spend time with you, but only if it costs me nothing,” which, translated, seemed to imply, “I like you. Sort of. But not that much.” Which was exactly what I didn’t want to communicate.
I decided there was nothing for it but to back out as gracefully as I could. When she responded, “Bistro 101 is my treat. So if it is just cost causing the retraction, you can silence the voice,” I should have left it there and gratefully accepted the gift that I wanted to receive. But the beat of insecurity was pounding hard within me that day, so I pressed on, notes of anxiety and fear of rejection clashing with enjoyment of the friendship and desire to honour her, the dissonance growing. “You’ve treated me so much lately. Wouldn’t you rather invite someone who can share the cost?”
“Not really,” her answer came back. “This friend has been a missionary in Russia for 20 years and you would understand her joys and challenges better than most. We would love to have you, and I invited you as my guest.”
Most often it’s the dissonant chords, the uncomfortable ones that hurt my head, that bring to my awareness the deeper dissonances that lurk within me, just beneath the level of awareness. What are the beliefs—about the world, God, myself, and others—out of which I actually live? What fears and insecurities are keeping me from freely enjoying this gift?
Over the next couple of days I sat with my discomfort and with the fear that in my bumbling efforts to ask the question I’d needed to ask I had done precisely what I was hoping to avoid: raised doubts about my enjoyment of her and my commitment to the friendship. But into the discomfort came hope, a bright little note pointing the way first to a mistaken belief, then on to a truer understanding. “Grace,” it sang. “Grace is what makes relationship possible.”
Grace is what makes space for two people of different means, different personalities, different priorities and lifestyles, to be friends.
Grace is what brings to light the false belief out of which I still too often live—that I have to be perfect (i.e. have no insecurities or eccentricities, ask no uncomfortable questions, make no mistakes, and have unlimited resources, or at least enough always to pay my own way) to be appreciated and enjoyed.
And grace is what unlinks the impossible standard of “perfect” from the possible status of “loved,” freeing me to love and receive love, to forgive and receive forgiveness, and to know that sometimes asking the difficult questions and confessing the messy insecurities can be the door not to the  breaking of a friendship, but to the deepening of it.

Grace reminds me that God has given us different things to share, and my job is not to question that but to freely give the things I can and freely receive the many lovely gifts that come through others.
And grace takes all this a step deeper still, drawing me into eternal echoes as Jesus whispers, “Are you so surprised that a friend would enjoy you enough to gladly pay your bill so you can share a feast?”

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
  Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
  From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
  If I lacked anything.
 
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
  Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
  I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
  Who made the eyes but I?
 
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
  Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
  My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
  So I did sit and eat.
   —George Herbert

 

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I’ll be in another intensive week of classes next week, so won’t be posting here. See you in two weeks!
Photos (in order of appearance) by Valentino Funghi, Andre Benz, Cristian Newman, Ryan Holloway, and Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash. Used with permission