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.

 

Freely God’s

dsc_0007_2

Am I giving myself to others for the sake of God, or am I giving myself to God for the sake of others? I’m only just recognizing the difference in those terms, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

I didn’t go home for Christmas this year. Every time I considered it, it felt too tight and pressured, and after a busy term I was so hungry for time alone with God. God gave many special gifts, including a few times with other people, loving and being loved in practical ways, but perhaps the biggest gift came when I realized that for the first time in three months, I felt like myself, and then, a few days later, realized that I could have equally well described what I meant by “I felt like myself” in a different way: “I felt freely God’s.” That is exactly where I want to live all the time—as God’s, fully and freely—and I was getting to taste what it felt like! And in that moment when “being myself” equated to “being freely His,” the question (which has been a huge struggle for me all my life) of whether it is selfish to make the choices that let me be me disappeared. What is less selfish than doing what enables me to be freely God’s?

It was soon after that that I began, slowly, to see the difference between giving myself to others for the sake of God and giving myself to God for the sake of others.

When I give myself to others first, even if I think I’m doing so for God’s sake, I put others on the throne. I surrender my God-given stewardship over my own life to the wishes of others. Or I put myself on the throne. I decide who to give to, and when and how. When I give myself first to others, I’m either clinging to control, or I’m inappropriately surrendering control to others, or both.

But when I give myself to God for the sake of others, the One who knows and loves me best (and knows and loves others best) gets to guide. He who is gracious and generous and infinitely creative in his solutions may ask me to help meet the need of one person while asking me to trust his goodness enough not to have to be the one to help with something else. When I give myself first to God, I’m surrendering to the only One who can rightly handle that control. I’m surrendering to love. This is the way of trust. And of freedom and peace and the burden that is light.

Jesus lived this second way, giving himself to his Father for our sake: “I’m consecrating myself”—setting myself apart for God—”for their sakes . . .” (John 17:19) His eyes were always on his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19; 8:28), his will neither his own, nor surrendered to us, but surrendered to his Father (Luke 22:42, John 5:30; 6:38).

I’ve tried to live the first because I thought it was the way of love, the way to please God. It turned out that I can’t love that way. I too quickly slip into fatigue, and from there into resentment and crankiness.

I’m just starting to learn how to live the second. It’s a daily challenge, and a bit messy. (One poor person got three emails from me as I was trying to get the courage to step out of a commitment: 1) I need to leave. 2) No, wait, am I hearing right? Maybe I should keep praying about it. 3) Umm. . . yes, God has added several more layers of confirmation to the already high pile. I really do need to leave.) It makes me wonder: Was I really living the first way only because I thought it was the way of love? Or was I living it because I felt insecure without the affirmation of others?

It’s a challenge to switch my gaze from the faces of others to the face of Jesus, but it’s also freedom and joy and true, unshakeable security. However hard the switch may be, and however long it takes, I know I don’t want to go back.

When you want to make a difference in the world

dscn5223

There are those moments in life where you are given the gift of seeing Jesus do in your own life what he promises to do in everyone who believes in him. All of a sudden you know by heart what you had known by word. You know by experience what you had known by faith.

One of those moments happened for me recently. In the middle of a conversation, I found myself a bit short of breath. I was surprised, since I didn’t otherwise feel anxious. As I explored the experience later, it turned out to be a huge gift that opened up for me greater understanding—experienced understanding—of Jesus’ words:

“‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39)

During our conversation, I had felt a bigger-than-me compassion for the person across from me. As I prayed about the experience later, I discovered that there was some anxiety underneath—was I listening well? asking good questions? being helpful?—but it had been swallowed up by the love flooding through me. Only the tip of the anxiety, masked as shortness of breath, poked through like the tip of a rock in a rushing river, a gift left to remind me that the love flooding through me hadn’t come because I had managed to pluck out all the rocks and make the river bed smooth. The love was sheer gift, not my own, and not dependent on anything I had done except to believe (and even the ability to do that was a gift).

And I saw all over again:

My job is never to be the river, just the banks between which the river flows.

The freedoms are many:

I don’t have to be afraid of myself, not even my rocky places. God is eager to pour himself into and through me, rushing over and around the rocks, covering and caressing and smoothing them into submission. God’s love pouring through me wears the channel deeper and shapes the banks according to the pattern of the water’s flow, doing in me what I can never do no matter how hard I try to shape myself into Christ’s image.

And so my calling is not to walk bent over, scouring the riverbed for rocks. Persistent worry about flaws, limitations, and even sins makes as much sense as my scouring the rocky bed of a river trying to pick out every little stone so the water can come. The water floods in as a gift to all those who drink deep of Jesus, not as a reward for those who have managed to make the riverbed perfectly smooth. (Thank God!)

My calling is to lift up my head and drink deep of Jesus’ love and then get on with loving others with the love he pours into me. 

Christ in you: when life gets messy

DSCN1766

It was time for my requisite nap and I was lying down asking Jesus, “How do you see last night?”

I’d led a soulcare group. We’d listened to what Jesus was saying to each of us through the story of the angel’s surprise announcement to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God into the world. We’d talked about bits of our stories. And throughout, a critical voice had kept interrupting my soul’s stillness with doubts and accusations. Were we connecting? Was I moving too slowly? Too quickly? Did anyone even understand what I was trying to express when it was my turn to share my experience?

I had brought with me a prayer, a few verses of Scripture, and some lines I’d previously written, thinking they tied together Mary’s experience with our experience of carrying Christ within us and bearing Him into the world. I’d planned to offer them as a gift to my group, but, unsure whether they’d connect with where the group was at, I’d ditched them all. Was I listening well to God and to the group, I wondered, or was fear getting the upper hand? I left feeling I’d failed.

“Jesus, how did you see last night?” I questioned. “How did you see me in it?”

Rest, favored one,” I sensed him respond, using the word the angel used of Mary and Paul uses of us1. “You gave me your yes, and that’s all I ask.”

How easily I forget that it’s my job to give my yes and God’s to make life flourish.

And how quickly I forget that Mary’s yes didn’t exclude her from morning sickness and mood swings and postpartum bleeding; her yes brought her into the painful, messy, miracle of carrying God’s life in her and birthing Jesus into the world.

Through vicious village gossip and the gnawing pain of pelvic bone separation, through teary conversations as she and Joseph let go of the dream that their first child would be the child of their shared love, through questions and fears and hours of inadequacy—“how on earth can I raise the son of God?!”—what is remembered is Mary’s yes and what God did with it.

 

___________

1.In the original Greek of the New Testament, the verb charitoo, “to cause to be the recipient of a benefit, favor highly, bless,” is used just twice, once of Mary in Luke 1:28 (where it is a participle and is translated “highly favored”) and once of us in Eph 1:6 (where it is an active verb and is translated “freely bestowed” or “freely given”).

“You in me and I in you”: learning to live the mystery

DSC_0366The first day of the course was hard. I had only slept a couple of hours the night before. Even at the best of times, my brain processes things slowly, though richly and deeply, and with fatigue and nervousness added to the mix, I found myself unable to complete any of the exercises in the time given. “Please slow down!” I wanted to cry to the facilitators. “I can do this, really I can! I just need a little more time.”

“You’re failing!” a voice in my head prodded anxiously. “Pull it together! Hurry up! Just try a little harder!”

Another voice mocked, “You might as well stop trying. It’s obvious you’re not cut out for this. You’re already failing.”

But finally that afternoon, when I could sit alone with Jesus for long enough to let the other voices still, He reminded me of truth: I am His and He is mine. He delights in me and desires me and it doesn’t matter one iota to Him that I couldn’t complete the exercises in the minutes allotted. It doesn’t make me one tiny bit less in His eyes. It doesn’t even make me less close to Him. Instead, it drives me closer and makes me love Him more, as I’m reminded again that I can do nothing on my own—can’t come close to Him, can’t settle myself in His presence, can’t hear His voice—and He draws me, settles me, helps me hear, just because He delights in me and wants me close.

The next morning we listened to the story of blind Bartimaeus. We were instructed to put ourselves into the story, to imagine ourselves on the road, in the middle of the crowd. “What is the road like?” Instantly I was back in Afghanistan, my black shoes greyed by the clouds of powdery dust that rose with each step. It was hot and I was sweating and I could feel the press and shove of bodies around me. A woman hidden beneath a dusty burqua tugged on my sleeve, clinging, slowing me with her pleading.

“Imagine you are Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. What do you hear, what do you feel as Jesus approaches?” I didn’t even get to how Bartimaeus’ might be feeling. As soon as I found my place as the beggar, sitting at the side of the road, I was surprised by a lightness within me. Tears filled my eyes as I realized what had happened: I’d dropped the weight of having to be Jesus. I only realized when I took my place at Jesus’ feet that I’d experienced the scene first as though I was Jesus, crowds pulling at my clothes, begging for healing, I feeling the weight as though their needs were mine to bear.

There’s a tree behind the home where we met. Its bottom has been hollowed by death but its top is wildly, vibrantly alive. I can’t explain it; I only know that the rent ascends and descends from perfect love, and opens wide enough for me to step inside and stand wondering at the mystery which opens upward, too high for me to see the top. I want to stay there, to live in the love that opens wide for me and welcomes me in. I am there, held and surrounded and forever belonging.

The mystery is too big for me. We, together, are Christ’s body, Jesus living in us and through us. He looks out of our eyes at crowds and loves beggars. Sometimes we are the way He bears burdens and touches blind eyes with healing. But He is in us only because we are in Him, held and loved, ourselves beggars being healed into disciples. We rest, forever safe in the embrace that carries the weight and keeps loving us in the reality of what is in any given moment.