Where God just might come nearest

Is there a place you’ve experienced as a “thin place,” a place where heaven seems especially close to earth, and God, though everywhere present, somehow seems nearer? Most often I’ve heard the term used for bits of land where pilgrims have walked and worshipped and sought God for centuries. Iona, for instance. But the chair where I regularly curl up to spend time alone with God, a particular painting, a beach, a bench—I’ve known each of these as a thin place.

People can be thin places too. As Ann Voskamp observes, “Every child’s a thin place.”

I’ve been wondering: what if we experience children most easily as thin places simply because they haven’t yet learned to hide their hearts?

What if beneath all the masks every human being is a thin place, or contains thin places?

And what if . . . what if the wounds and cracks and places of brokenness in myself, those ones that I try so hard to fix, as well as the hopes and joys and longings that I sometimes feel I need to hide, are in fact thin places that I’m trying to thicken, some of God’s portals that I’m trying to block and barricade?

I sat in my counselor’s office, trying once again to conquer a particular memory from Afghanistan. I wanted to be able to sit with it without feeling paralyzed by panic or dread or helplessness. But once again I had to retreat into Jesus’ arms. Only there, with my focus on his arms around me, was I able to sit with the memory and be okay. At first I felt discouraged. Defeated. It felt like failure that I couldn’t stand up to it myself. Then I sensed Jesus ask, “Would it be okay if you never manage to conquer it by yourself, if instead it is something that keeps you always in my arms?”

Right away I was aware of the gift in the question. I want Jesus. More than I want healing. I want to be close to him and open to him. And I know that I need help staying in that place; in my stronger moments when I’m less aware of my need for him I get distracted and run off to other things. Anything—even something painful—that keeps me every moment in his arms is a gift, nudging me toward what I most deeply want.

And yet, if I’m honest, I hesitated. My deepest self wanted that closeness. The rest of me wasn’t entirely thrilled about the way of getting it. There was a sadness in seeing the brokenness in myself, and a longing for healing and wholeness.

In my experience there are thin times as well as thin places, and for me the early morning moments suspended between sleep and rising are a thin time when my heart often understands something that my mind hasn’t yet been able to grasp. The morning after that counseling experience held one of those thin moments when, at least for that moment, my whole self grasped something that until then I’d only half-known:

Jesus’ invitation to make my home in his arms was not second best, a consolation prize when he chose not to give healing. It was healing, and the invitation into true wholeness—the wholeness that knows myself as his, safe and loved no matter what.

It was an invitation into the wholeness that, rather than insistently trying to thicken the thin places, sees and accepts them because Jesus sees and accepts them as places that keep me close to him.

It was an invitation into the understanding that “perfect” as the voices in my head define it (flawless in my independent self) has much more to do with our culture’s obsession with independence and autonomy and appearance than with God. In God’s eyes, “perfect” is about wholeness and completion, love and union. And in the wildly creative economy of grace, not only our weak and wounded places but even our sinful tendencies, those very places where our union was broken, remain thin places through which his love can most easily flow, remaking our union, and more deeply than before: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God. Let Me be the One who makes you perfect, not by reshaping you into something whole, separate from myself, but by filling your cracks and empty places with my living, loving Self.”

I’ll still wrestle and forget and need lots of help living in this place where I can accept and maybe even occasionally, with Paul, delight in my weaknesses because Jesus meets me there.

In the meantime, maybe even my wrestling and forgetting can be a thin place where Jesus meets and fills me with his love again and again and again.

Hope when sin hurts

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“Jesus’ table is not a potluck.” Andrea’s words continue to echo in my head, settling me deeper into grace.

It has been a month of staring sin in the face and having it shake me to the core. I have learned in a new way that I cannot fix sin—my own or anyone else’s. I cannot negotiate with it or tame it or talk it into reasonableness or submission. Often I can’t even know for sure where my own sin ends and the sin of another begins, nor where the line is between sin and God-created human limitation, need and personality.

And so I came yesterday, the first day of the week, the first day of the month, to Jesus’ table. I came yesterday, Easter in the Orthodox church, carrying in my mind and soul and body the questions and the weight of sin’s effects that I was eager to lay down. I came with Esther Hizsa‘s ponderings ringing in my head, listening again to her wrestle with the questions of daily relationship in a fallen world:

“How could I live with myself when the victim of my wrongdoing has to deal with the mess I created, in whole or in part? Conversely, how could I live with what has been done to me?

As I wrestled with this, I came across Hebrews 9:28 which reminded me that Christ is the only one able to bear sin. We are sinners, but Christ alone is the sin-bearer. For the first time, I understood that we were never created to bear sin—even our own. When we discover we have sinned, we are meant to give that sin, and its consequences, over to God.” (Stories of an Everyday Pilgrim, p. 150)

Jesus is the sin-bearer. When sin seems blatantly obvious to me and I need grace to forgive (myself or others), and when things are less clear, I find help here: Jesus knows it all and bears it all. With Paul, I can choose to trust the Judge who is both Truth and Love to weigh it all and bear it all—and end up able to praise us:

“I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Cor 4:3-5)

“Jesus’ table is not a potluck.” I don’t get to bring perfectly seasoned egg sandwiches or a fluted bowl of raspberry trifle, gentleness or wisdom—or even an ability to sort out exactly what is sin, or whose it is—to His table. I can come only with my nothingness and need, my empty hands open to receive startling grace.

As Andrea and Tim and Ellie stood there at Jesus’ table, did they feel what we could see? Spring sunshine flooded through the windows, illuminating every hair on their head, the grace and hope of Jesus’ resurrection painting them glorious.

The truth that lets us trust—and be trusted

DSC_0026“This may be a little out of the box, so trust our brother.” Our pastor spoke the words as the Cree chief with the strong and gentle face ascended to the pulpit to give the benediction.

Trust our brother. . . Trust. . . Trust. The word has been echoing through my hours. So simple. Yet trusting and receiving trust might be the hardest things we’ll ever do.

I stood at the door ten days ago and spoke words to a friend that showed how little I still really trust her. My words surprised me, hurt me. Her too, I think. I trust her more than I trust most other people. But somehow, somewhy, I still didn’t trust her love enough to let her wash my dishes, nor enough to relax into her trust of me. I don’t understand my struggle. But I am very sad, and very sorry.

This I do know: my challenge on the human plane mirrors my challenge with God. (I suspect this is always the case.) I think I trust Him, and then fear floods in and I see all over again how little I really do. I struggle even more to receive His trust of me.

He trusts me. He. Trusts. Me. He trusts me? It’s something I’ve been wrestling with for years. I’ve wondered whether it’s even true: the Bible repeats again and again that we’re to trust God, but where does it say that He trusts me? But when I asked, I saw the little word, the repeated refrain: entrusted, entrusted, entrusted1. Over and over, God entrusts Himself, His heart, His most precious truths to His people. Entrusted, entrusted. . . The list of verses ends with this: “. . . the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3) All who are His. Once for all. Trusted to be entrusted with God’s most precious gifts. There’s no doubt: God trusts His people.

But why? Why would God trust us? There aren’t many moments when it’s obvious why He would trust me. But I’ve asked Him to explain, and this is what I hear: Like God’s love and His mercy, His trust is rooted in His character and ability, not in mine. Our Creator is creative enough and strong enough and wise enough that He can take my five crumbly loaves and feed thousands, incorporate my scratches on the page into His grand story, and weave my mistakes and even my sin into a design more glorious than it would have been without my failure. As a friend reminded me last week, “For every plan A that fails, God has a plan A+ that is far better. God does not do plan B.” (Christophe Ulysse)

God’s trust is rooted in His ability, not a mistaken assumption about mine, so I can receive God’s trust as the gift that it is rather than as a burden, an expectation or an obligation that leaves me fearing I’ve failed before I’ve even begun. His trust isn’t an expectation that I get it all right, but a celebration of His love and a declaration of His desire to have me as a genuine co-creator with Him, a fellow worker, other, weak—and wanted. There’s freedom here, to explore and to create, to try and to fail and to get up and try again. And to love Him who so loves us.

“Trust our brother.” Christ’s fellow-worker, and ours, to whom, along with us, the faith has been entrusted, prays over us a benediction, first in his native Cree and then in English. When our failure and sin is too great to be forgotten, God’s ability is the only possibility for trust between people. A God gentle enough to teach us that repentance means more than regret. A God loving enough to burn away our fear of difference.

Another brother circles the sanctuary, wafting over us the smoke of sweetgrass in purification and blessing, his prayers and ours rising with the rising smoke to our one Creator who risks trusting us, and teaches us to trust each other.

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I’m still marvelling over the grace our aboriginal brothers and sisters have extended to us. Read this post and marvel again with me? Between Truth and Reconciliation

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1Matt 25:14; Luke 12:48; 16:11; Rom 3:2; 6:17; 1 Cor 9:17; 2 Cor 5:19; Gal 2:7; 1 Thes 2:4; 1 Tim 1:11; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14; Tit 1:3; Jude 3

When God calls you beautiful

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Her answer surprises me. She doesn’t stay silent. She doesn’t think about all the flaws she sees in herself. She seems, in that moment, not even to notice them. The beloved in the Song of Solomon, hearing her lover’s voice, not only listens but echoes her beloved’s declarations of her beauty.

He likens her to a garden filled with beauty and fragrance and pleasure (4:12-15). She receives the image and uses it to pray, “Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread abroad. Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.” (4:16)

He tells her her mouth is like the best wine (7:9). She doesn’t draw back with an embarrassed, “Oh, darling!” She doesn’t assume he can’t really mean what he says, all the while thinking of her less-than-sweet-smelling morning breath. She receives it – and speaks it back to him – asking that he enjoy her in whom he delights. “May the wine go straight to my lover.”

When I draw back from God’s expression of pleasure in me, I push away His arms. I  welcome His ready love, let myself become all His, by accepting His naming of me: Holy. Beautiful. Desired.

Letting God tell me who I am is part of offering my body to Him. I am His, and He has made me alive with His life, holy with His holiness, and pleasing to Him. And He gets to tell me who I am because He has re-deemed me.

“To deem is to have an opinion about something and, particularly, to render a judgment about it. I might, for example, deem a cause worthy of my support. To redeem, then, can be understood as rendering a new judgment about something that has previously been judged. To rename, to redefine, to assign a new value or identity.” (Greg Paul, Close Enough to Hear God Breathe, p. 104)

How would it be, the next time God whispers that you’re beautiful, instead of turning away in embarrassment or shame, wondering who he might be talking to because it couldn’t possibly be you, to look back into His tender eyes and whisper, however shyly, “Will you come and enjoy the beauty you’ve planted in me? And will you spread it wide for others to enjoy too?”

Holy Spirit wind, come blow on my garden

That its fragrance may spread abroad.

May my lover come into His garden

And taste its choice fruits.

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Want to hear God whisper what He thinks of you? Try soaking in these snippets of His love letter. How might you pray them back to Him? Song of Solomon 2:10-13; Ephesians 1:4; 5:27

Why you can stop fearing failure

I can hardly wait!

That in itself is a small miracle.

The teacher in my mandatory high school art class once told me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.”

If I wasn’t afraid to pick up a paintbrush before that, I certainly have been since. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what people will think.

So what has changed?

I am sharing a home with someone who is an artist. This is her idea. And she has done it before with people who, in their words, ‘can’t paint.’

She tells me I can’t ruin the picture.

Sometimes, for people afraid to begin, she’ll take a brush and scribble across the canvas to emphasize: they cannot spoil the painting. She will go before, showing me how to hold the brush and where to start and how to mix the paint. She will come behind, and however my brush strokes the canvas, the brush of the master artist will incorporate and cover and surround, and the first strokes of a not-so-timid-anymore but still-mostly-untrained artist will become a seamless part of the beauty.

I can let go and enter the process with joy, knowing that my strokes are few in the bigger picture. Trusting the promise and the promiser:  I cannot ruin the picture.

My favorite part of all this? I don’t have the last word in life either. The Master Artist, brush in hand, not only coaches but comes behind, filling and surrounding and incorporating dark and light into unbelievable beauty. And He promises that every stroke I make on my canvas, the careful ones, the let-go-and-have-fun ones, the ones where I really mess up badly – as well as every loving touch or careless scribble or angry slash that someone else makes across my canvas, will all be used in the shaping of the final image – Christ in me.

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son. . .  (Romans 8:28-29 NLT)

Oh, and my other favorite part? I get to be a real-life artist! So do you! We’re made in the image of the Creator, created to create alongside Him, to dream with Him, to learn from Him that there are no ordinary scenes or relationships when they’re touched with His light – and ours (John 8:12; Matt 5:14). So enjoy painting your own God-inspired beauty into your day, my fellow artists!