Jesus’ 21st century hands

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I walk past the billboard declaring, “Mental health affects everyone. On January 31st, let’s talk about it.” When my brain finally makes the connection, I find it mildly ironic that January 31st is the day my lease ends, one factor in the saga of the past few months that has tipped me into a depression for which I’m having to take antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.

The timing has not been convenient. (Is a disruption like that ever convenient?) Almost everything about moving requires making a series of decisions: choosing where to move, what to pack and what to sell or give away, trying to sort out what I’ll need for the next three months and what can be tucked away in the boxes that aren’t to be opened until after I almost certainly need to move again in three months’ time. (To where? That will be another matter for discernment and decision.) All these decisions are a problem for someone in the midst of a depression where even the simplest daily decisions seem almost impossible.

I’ve needed my friends: one to look at possible apartments with me, another to help me see how to fit my few remaining pieces of furniture into my temporary new room to make a little corner that can feel like home, and to pack some things and suggest a few concrete next steps for me to take. One to bring a meal and pray and sit with me for a few hours when I could no longer bear to be alone with my thoughts. A friend from my spiritual director course will help move furniture and boxes on moving day, and another from Regent days will help clean. Most have done several of those things and I have been so touched by their sacrificial love. I want to love like that.

I still find it hard to need help.

I find it harder to need help for mental health limitations than for physical health ones. (Why is that, I wonder?)

I’ve thought my resistance to needing help is because I care about the needs of others and don’t want to bother them with mine. I suspect the deeper reason is pride, an extension of the lie in the garden that it’s possible to be like God, limitless and without needs.

Once again I’m learning what I’ve experienced so many times before: it’s only in the places of weakness and vulnerability and opening ourselves to receive that we learn how loved we are. Grace is not a concept; it’s a person and an action, embodied once in first century Palestine and continually enfleshed as His body lives on in 21st century Vancouver and around the world. I receive grace not just in letting Jesus lift my sins, not just in baptism and bread and wine, but in boxes packed and sinks scrubbed and hands laid on my shoulders to pray in moments when presence and touch matters more than words. As often as not, it’s through Jesus’ 21st century hands that I experience God’s unfailing kindness.

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Two days before I was diagnosed and started on meds, a friend took me for the first time to a new soul care group. New groups are often a struggle for me, but this group of six people felt like a gift from the moment they opened the door and welcomed me into an evening of colour in a long stretch of darkness. We ate delicious tortilla soup and kale salad and walnut bread, and by the time we lingered together over prayer and communion, the couplet in the prayer we were praying had settled deep in me:

Let me not run from the love that you offer,

But hold me safe from the forces of evil.

Someone read it again, aloud, this time in plural: “Let us not run from the love that you offer, but hold us safe. . .”

Safely held. Those two words have lingered with me through the almost two weeks since that meeting, through the diagnosis and the new meds and the receiving of help and the still not knowing which address I’ll be travelling from when I meet with that group three or four months down the road. Part of our safely held is Jesus’ 21st century body, and being in this together. Safely held in the hands that hold the universe, yes, and, when I don’t run, in each set of hands through which our present and active God chooses to offer himself to me, packing, scrubbing, praying, hugging, and feeding me with his unfailing kindness as he also, in his kindness, continues to give me small ways to pass his love along to others.

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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

For the overwhelming moments

It’s a busy stretch right now as I prepare to present my final master’s project in ten days’ time. Room booked? Check. Posters printed? Check. Paper done? Script finished? Slides prepared? I want this first public sharing of the book I’ve been working on for several years to be a blessing to those who attend.

In the midst of the busyness (which sometimes degenerates into anxiety), I’m sensing myself reminded, through an image and a phrase, how to live this time.

The phrase? “It’s not mine, it’s ours.” The book, the accompanying papers, the presentation aren’t mine, they’re ours—a love-gift that God and I have been offering to each other for years and are now preparing—together—to share with others. The responsibility is not mine to carry alone.

And the image? I’m flailing around in the ocean, grasping wildly at a life-ring, trying to pull myself up out of the water and stand on it. It flips over, dumping me unceremoniously back into the water and leaving me coughing and spluttering as it bobs to the surface again a few feet away. Jesus, walking on the water, reaches out his hand to me, inviting me to stop trying to stand on (or even cling to) the life ring and let him help me back into the boat instead.

The life-ring, I’m discovering, can be just about anything. My own intuition. A structure or protocol or tradition. Detailed planning. Friends who are helping me out. Anything that is good and helpful and sometimes even life-saving, but that isn’t meant to be the foundation for my security. Anything, in other words, that is not Jesus.

What (many of us) grown-ups have forgotten

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I sit with the friend who most intentionally helps me listen for God’s voice in my life and confess that lately I’ve been coming up against the hard truth that every single thing I’d like to be able to think about myself is not true, not the way I’d like it to be. I’d like to think of myself as disciplined, but the chocolate in the kitchen drawer could tell another story. I’d like to describe myself as gentle, but then I hear the harsh voice in my head berating me again.

She listens and questions and shares how she’s been back in the story of the little boy’s lunch again and has been realizing, That little boy probably had no idea that what he was offering was utterly inadequate. He’d simply overheard the adults asking if anyone had any food. “Here, you can have mine,” he’d said.

I picture Jesus smiling at him as he accepts from the boy’s hands the five little rolls of bread, a bit crumbly and squished, and the two small fish that have been sitting all day in the hot sun. Jesus smiles at the boy and winks, the two of them sharing a secret. The little boy smiles and winks back. He doesn’t yet know the whole secret and he might not be able to put into words the part that he does know, but somewhere deep down his heart knows the truth that the worried grown-ups have forgotten: Placed in the hands of Jesus, what I have to offer is enough for whatever Jesus wants to do with it. 

Babies hold out soggy cheerios in their newly-mastered pincer grip and toddlers extend dandelion bouquets in chubby fists with full confidence that their offering will bring delight. Only grown-ups are ashamed of their gifts.

Little children seem to know something else we adults have forgotten: It’s not really about the gift at all. It’s about the relationship. The children are offering their love, their trust, themselves, to someone who loves them. What could be not to love about that?

Jesus isn’t critiquing our soggy cheerios; he’s savoring our love and our trust.

Here, you can have me, I say to Jesus, watching him smile and open his arms to receive the gift. I can’t keep myself from smiling back.

And so during August I’m setting aside (as best I can) the part of me that thinks I always have to do more to make my gift acceptable. I’m stepping back from blogging and other writing so I can be fully present to Jesus and family and friends, giving myself rather than what I produce and polish. And while some critical adult voice in my head says, “I can’t believe you’re going to write that,” the little girl part of me that is smiling at Jesus smiling at me shrugs and takes Jesus’ hand and skips off, borrowing my parting words from Lynn Ungar’s poem, “Camas Lilies”:

                                         “. . . Gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back

when I’m through with blooming.”  

Not because we must

IMG_1302It was just the two of us around the table the day I first heard the words that are shaping my life during these days of Lent. I was hungry for Jesus and had emailed ahead and asked my spiritual director if we could, please, share communion when we met. After we had listened to God’s heartbeat together, she pulled the plate bearing the bread close and, smiling, spoke the simple words that filled my eyes with tears, “We come not because we must but because we may.”

I’m pondering, these days, the various habits in my life that have arisen out of a must: the run each morning, the nap each afternoon, the need to stay home most evenings. Most of my quiet, listening life began from a must. But I’m realizing that though I still need them all, most of these habits have deepened from a must to a may: I do them now not just because I have to but because I want to, because God meets me and loves me there, because they have become treasured places where I can meet him and love him back. I do them now because, in the seven years of this slower pace, Jesus has been dismantling, brick by brick, my wall of misbeliefs about who He is and who I am. I’ve learned that God is not the one who drives me. That he wants the real me, not the me I think I should be. And I’m learning to see my limitations as training wheels, helping me find my balance, guiding me into a way of listening and loving that fits the personality, giftings, and body God has given me.

It’s easy, though, even when a must has morphed into a may, for me to keep hiding behind the must. It feels far safer to my people-pleasing self to turn down an invitation based on “I can’t. . .” or “I have to. . .” than a simple choice to be still. Stillness, in my mind, has appeared too close to laziness for comfort and even though I’ve known that God calls us to stillness (Ps 46:10) the part of me that’s afraid of what people will think whispers, “You’d better look busy, or at least look like you have a good reason for not being busy.”

But here’s the truth: while God calls us to good, hard work, he also calls us to stillness. And the work, if it’s love-work that lasts, can only flow out of the stillness that lets us know ourselves small and dependent and loved. That’s why Jesus so often left the crowds that followed him and headed off somewhere to be alone with his Father (Luke 5:16).

My soul and body confirm what God commanded and Jesus modelled: I’m not made for a hectic pace. It shuts me down. It cuts me off from God and others and myself. It keeps me from being able to love. So I’ve decided: The world can go on chattering all it wants about importance and busyness and making sure I matter. I’m choosing (yes, choosing, not because I must but because I may) to keep living a life that holds enough space for me to hear my Father whispering over me that I already matter.

The must of my limitations has been a gift from God to me, creating enough space for me to begin to hear his heart beat with love. The growing freedom that has allowed the shift from must to may has been his gift too. Now everything within me cries to love him back by choosing to stand rooted in the truth of who he is and who I am, listening and loving and giving myself to be ever more wholly his not because I must but because I may.

Lent is a lot about choosing. Choosing to repent, to turn back again from whatever distractions have been nipping at our heels and swirling in front of our eyes to see and follow Jesus. Choosing to follow. Choosing to love. Choosing, in my case this year, to keep listening, only with even more intentionality, owning this way of living now as a may rather than a must, an even more conscious choice to live in ways that help me listen to God’s heartbeat and be who He has called me to be for the sake of the world.

 

Jesus,

We walk these next steps of the journey with you

in the same way we come to your table—

not because we must

but because we may:

because you have drawn us close and made us long to be closer still,

because you have graced us with freedom to choose,

because you have loved us so gently we have found ourselves loving you.

And now, fuelled by that love and that longing, we do choose—

life in the freedom of may rather than a cowering behind must,

and a growing into full-bodied, whole-souled attentiveness

that opens us to love.

Grace us, we pray, with eyes clear to see you

hearts bold to follow

and an ever-deeper conviction of your love

that roots us firmly in the truth

of who you are and who we are in you.

In the name of the One who chose us

not because he had to

but because he could,

Amen.