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.

The too-good-to-miss news of where Jesus was born

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It was two nights before Christmas and I’d slipped into my common refrain of wishing I had a better self to offer Jesus—less fearful, less selfish, better able to trust. I didn’t sing that refrain long, though, because I let the thoughts become a conversation with Jesus, and he has a way of speaking into these conversations exactly what I need to hear.

So I told Jesus that I wished I had a better self to offer him, but I didn’t have a better self, and I couldn’t seem to make the self I do have better, so I was offering him again the only thing I have to offer (which just happens to be the thing he really wants)—my real self. I told him that even though I sometimes hold back in fear or selfishness or pride, the deeper part of me longs for him to be at home in me and to live his life out in and through me. Peace began to creep in, as though that deeper part of me sensed that Jesus had accepted my ongoing welcome and was loving me in it. And then the thought came, and with it, tears:

Jesus was born in a stable.

The warm, though prickly, straw of the manger welcomed him, the gentle lowing of cattle sung him to sleep, the breath and bodies of animals warmed the space in which he was born. And those same animals dropped pungent cow pies and sheep dung and wakened him with their noise just after his mama had finally rocked him to sleep.

Jesus’ newborn lungs first gasped air thick with the scent of dung.

He made his first home, as he’s made every earthly home since, where homely welcome and glimpses of earthy holiness sat side by side with all manner of things that irritate and smell and need to be disposed of.

Jesus is no stranger to mess. He is not afraid of my brokenness, not ashamed of my sin. He has breathed it in, carried it inside himself all the way to death, then come out the other side having left sin and its consequences gasping their final death-rattling breaths in the grave.

Jesus just asks for a stable. He can be born just as well in a stable as in a sterile delivery room—thankfully, since I for one do not have a sterile delivery room to offer him. He just asks for a welcoming stable, and his presence, as he grows there, slowly turns it into a clean and beautiful home.

A live coal in the sea

dscn6195editYou know how sometimes there’s a theme that comes at you in surround sound? A song in the grocery store, an ad on a bus shelter, the words of a friend—all seem to carry some thread of the same theme that is pressing for your attention. A few weeks ago, what was front and center for me was the difference between how I see sin and how God sees it.

I picked up one book and read Alan Jones’ startling statement:

“I have become even more convinced that the generosity of God—the fact that the Divine loves everyone without exception—is what bothers so many religious people. The moralists among us find such generosity intolerable.” (Exploring Spiritual Direction, ix)

I opened another and read Serena Woods’ story:

“I was the adulterous woman for whom Jesus was standing. He didn’t have to convince other people to forgive me. He had to convince me . . .

Every avenue I once used to get to God was no longer open to me. I was kicked out, dismissed and excommunicated. Every Christian song on the radio, book on the shelf and sermon I could remember never spoke to the sinner. It spoke to the victim. Marketed Christianity, I learned, was about saving Christians. But here was Jesus, standing with his feet next to mine. Immanuel was justifying me.” (Soul Bare, 34)

That Sunday my pastor spoke of the accusation against Christians that “You talk a lot about grace but dig down deep enough and what you’re really excited about is judgment.”

I smiled when he spoke of Jonah sulking about grace at the same time he was preaching it. Too many times my heart, too, has held a greater desire for judgment (“they shouldn’t just get away with that!”) than for forgiveness that names sin and removes it and forgets.

Jesus takes sin seriously. Enough to die for it. Enough to insist that people who come to him leave their life of sin. But he never lets sin get in the way of giving or receiving love.

He takes sin and makes it a place to give and receive love, not a barrier to it.

How did we, who often build walls and burn bridges, get this so wrong?

Jesus eats with sinners. He lets them wash his feet, unworried about the opinions of religious folk. He tells sinners he came for them, not for the ones who seem to have it all together.

Jesus lived in front of our eyes the truth that David saw a thousand years before:

“[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10,12)

I have appreciated forgiveness; now I am learning to love it. I am becoming freer to trust it, to delight in it, to savor the joy of it for myself and offer it more freely to others.

But I wonder, when forgiveness (for us and for others) is such good news, why does it often take so long before it feels like good news?

Is it pride? Do I want to separate myself from others, to prop up the illusion that I am better—at least able to pay for my own sin if not actually prevent it?

Does fear lie beneath the pride, fear that love is scarce and there isn’t enough to go around? Do I still think I have to earn love and acceptance with my goodness?

I turn back to Psalm 103 and read the verse tucked between the two about forgiveness:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:11)

This is when forgiveness becomes good news, when my heart finally believes that forgiveness flows from God’s free and limitless love.

As William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, wrote in the fourteenth century, “All the wickedness in the world that man might work or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped into the sea.”

Societally sanctioned sins. Sins that put people in jail. My own grasping for control. Each way someone else has hurt me. All are bits of that same burning coal begging to be dropped into the limitless ocean, swallowed up, extinguished, forgotten.

It’s true, friends, and pleading to be savored. Time to dump the judgment and come home free.

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I’ll be taking a course next week, savoring this limitless love and learning how better to accompany others on the journey to trust it. See you back here in two weeks!

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.

When you need a little comfort

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Shots fill the air and a bomb shatters. Death stalks and life has been changed forever. And we grieve. Or we stand feeling helpless. Or we turn away from the pain, back to our small lives that might feel a little more numb and grey, or a little more like a treasured gift, or a little more ringed and laced with fears and questions and uncertainty.

Sometimes a whole city is shaken, or a whole nation, or the whole world as we watch bombs and shots and hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring like rivers from country upon country. Sometimes all it takes to unsettle us is one patch of black ice or one diagnosis. Shock shakes our self-confident independence. Trauma brings out the child in us, awakens us to our vulnerability and makes us want to run into safe arms. Sometimes it takes even less than a diagnosis—just a few words I wish I could take back and all of a sudden I need to hear again that sin (my own and that of others), and death (of hundreds or of my own overblown ego), neither had the first word nor will have the last.

Before sin, love blessed us; after sin, love remains. The love that spoke this world into being and, from dust, shaped living, breathing children to be like Him, will never let go. We are His, and no matter how dark the darkness, it cannot overcome the light of that love.

“God our Father has a mother’s heart toward us,” Pastor Tim Kuepfer reminded us yesterday. “He not only births us (John 3:5-8; Acts 17:28; 1 Peter 1:3), he nurses us.”

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3)

I can’t get away from the picture of God nursing us, from the picture of us as newborn babies “craving, demanding, gulping the pure milk of God’s love”; our pastor’s words offer me space to press in close to Jesus again and again, hungry for his touch, his gentle eyes, finding him always ready to feed me with his fullness.

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

I love the image. Then I begin to wonder about the clause, “so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Shouldn’t I have grown by now beyond needing to gulp God’s love? Does growing up in our salvation mean being weaned from this craving for God’s love, from being allowed to come close and drink as often as I need?

But I think of Brother Lawrence whose growth into maturity was a growth into awareness of God’s presence every moment. I remember Jesus’ own invitation, “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:9 The Message). Jesus paired the invitation with a declaration of the way things are: “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . .” (John 15:5,9 The Message).

Once more I see that this world has everything backwards. In Real Life, the only kind of life that works, maturity is never about growing independence, but about deepening dependence. Maturing from milk to meat doesn’t mean moving on from needing God’s tender love, but settling more deeply into it. It means having learned and lived the details of sin and faith and baptism long enough that we can chew and savor the many-layered love-gift of righteousness, that right relationship that God gives us with Himself and, through him, with creation and others and ourselves (Hebrews 4:14-6:2).

No, we’re not meant to grow out of needing the tender mother-love or the protective father-love of God. So enjoy, friends. Settle in and make your home in the arms where it’s safe to be small and hungry and needing comfort, where you will always, always be welcomed and loved.

“Listen to me. . . you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:3-4)