I wake, anxious, to a day filled with things that feel too big for me. I take some slow, deep breaths to calm my nervous system, stretch to release the tension that I’m carrying in my neck, feel the bed firm beneath me. I notice where my thoughts are racing ahead and making things seem bigger than they are.
All of this helps—a little.
But what I really need is to know myself held by someone wise and gentle and strong, someone who loves me and for whom this day is not too much.
I find myself praying the first lines of Ted Loder’s prayer in his beautiful book, Guerrillas of Grace:
I come to you now
as a child to my Mother,
out of the cold which numbs
into the warm who cares.
Listen to me inside,
under my words,
where the shivering is. . . (p. 22)
I linger, letting myself settle into the image of being held by the One who loves me and whispers to me, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.” After a while, we turn and look at the day together, and I sense the reassurance, “It’s okay, little one, we’ll do it together.” I’m a three-year old overwhelmed at the toys strewn across the floor, and what looked to my small eyes like an impossible task now becomes manageable as someone bigger, someone who loves me and has done this a million times before, begins to scoop toys from the floor and put them in their places, pointing out a puzzle and a book for me to put back on the shelf, a train for me to put in the basket. This day is no harder for God than it is for a mother to put together a twelve-piece puzzle and place it back on the shelf.
We long for love in its many forms, but there are times of particular vulnerability when only a mother’s love will do. Sometimes that tender wisdom and gentleness and care can be provided by another woman a little older than me, and sometimes I, a woman made in the image of our gentle God, can offer that care to another. But there are times God wants to meet our needs for nurture directly, and I’m so grateful that, though God refers to himself in Scripture as Father, he also gives us many mothering images, reminding us that God is neither male nor female, but the complete and perfect Parent who welcomes and cares for us with the best traits of both mother and father.
God is like an eagle stirring up her nest and hovering over her young as she teaches them to fly (Deut. 32:11), and a mother hen protectively snuggling her chicks under her wings (Ps. 91:4, Luke 13:34). God is a mother in the pains of childbirth (Deut. 32:18, Is. 42:14), unable to forget her newborn child (Is. 49:15). And when God proclaims to Moses who God is, the first word God uses to describe God’s self is “compassionate,” or, in Hebrew, rachum, sister to racham, or womb (Ex 34:6). At the heart of God’s character is a love so gentle, so patient and attentive, that God pictures it for us as womb-love, the love of a mother for her newborn child. It is a love that celebrates when we are glad, and aches with us when we hurt, holding out open arms and cuddling us close and wiping away our tears.
For this is what the LORD says:
“. . . As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)
As you notice the mothering aspects of God’s character, what stirs within you? Are there fears? Questions or confusions? Hopes or longings?
You’ve probably noticed by now that smallness is a common theme around here. You’ve probably guessed some of the reasons for that. One of the most obvious is that I’m regularly aware of my smallness.
But there’s also this: I’ve long suspected that one of the best marks of real, trustworthy love is the way it relates to smallness.
On the one hand, real love is gentle and protecting, patient and kind. Small people and small things are safe in the hands of Love. Safe, and cherished, and treasured.
“Love is patient, love is kind. . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:4,7)
On the other hand, real love has no need to sustain the power differential. It doesn’t need to be needed to satisfy some ego need in itself. It doesn’t need to keep smallness small. I’ll never forget Dr. J.I. Packer saying in a theology class that the best definition of love that he knew was “the resolve to make the loved party great.”
“Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. . . it is not self-seeking.” (1 Cor. 13:4-5)
To say it more simply, real love guards and protects us in our smallness. . .
“You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; . . .“
. . . and takes us beyond our smallness too:
“. . .you stoop down to make me great.” (Ps 18:35)
In less than a week, Advent will begin, and we’ll be given four weeks to pay special attention to how unafraid God is of our smallness. Unafraid, and unashamed to share in it. God chose for Jesus’ birthplace not a palace but a stable. For his mother, a young, vulnerable woman, not married, not rich, not highly educated. Jesus set aside his strength and invulnerability and entered our weakness, showing us that we don’t need to fear smallness. And he continues to live his life in small, weak people. People whom he makes great by joining himself to us in our smallness and lifting us up with him to share in the life and love of the Trinity, and the mission of God in the world.
A friend comes for supper and shares pictures of her trip to Israel. I’m most struck by pictures of the Bell Caves. In one picture, the 96 year old man who co-led the tour rests in a wheelchair, hands folded. In another (professionally taken, so I can’t post it) he stands, straight yet tiny in the vastness of the cave, as a beam of light descends through the bell’s apex, blessing him, crowning him.
It images for me what happened in another small town in Israel some 2000 years ago. The light of God’s face which had been shining on us for millennia (Num 6:23-27) descended to live among us where we could see God’s face turned toward us, his smile now visible to our human eyes. And, in that smile, those eyes—God’s love now lived in human flesh—we could know that God joins us in our weakness so he can lift us to our full stature, beyond our full stature, making us co-heirs, crowned with God’s glory and grace.
Photo by Julie Hindmarsh. Used with permission.
Much of this last decade has been, for me, about learning to live my smallness—learning to be a child, finding myself safe and held, discovering that limitations can lead me to where I can find and feel the truth that I am loved just as I am. I don’t have to be in control to be safe. I don’t have to earn love or prove my worth or try to make myself bigger than I am.
There is a goodness to knowing ourselves small. In one very real sense, the life of faith is a life of smallness: of humility, of Jesus increasing and us decreasing, of recognizing that without Jesus we can do nothing. God is Creator and we are his beloved creation and he will continue to carry us right through our old age and grey hairs and on into eternity.
But there is also a smallness that is not faith but timidity, not humility but hiding.
Children grow. And are meant to. (Eph 4:15, 1 Peter 2:2) The truth is that sometimes it’s not faith that keeps me small. It’s fear. Fear of stepping out. Of failure. Of what others will think. Of what God might think.
But here’s the thing: Precisely because I am and will always be small compared to God, I can be my strongest, truest, self, unafraid that God will be threatened by me growing to my full stature. He wants me to grow into my fullest, freest self, and He does all he can to facilitate that process.
I turn again to the page that stuck with me from a book I once read:
‘They who wait for the Lord. . . shall mount up with wings like eagles,’ our pastor read from Isaiah 40:31 one autumn Sunday morning. As a small, bored child fidgeting in the pew, those words caught my surprised attention. Just the day before, my parents had called me outdoors to watch the wild geese, soaring in V-formation, flying south. They filled the air with the sound of beating wings and exultant cries. Every fall and spring it was a shared family thrill to watch the wild, free, yet disciplined power of these geese flying over Michigan.
Now, as our pastor read about God calling forth our strength like that of soaring eagles, I remember the exultation of the flying geese. So, God likes that kind of thing, I mused. How had I got it into my head that God preferred things to be very quiet, subdued, and resigned?
Then something even more surprising rose within me. The Bible is saying that God wants me to be like that! I thought this over. I felt excited. I also felt a little afraid.
Twenty years later, a young mother, I stood at the door of my baby daughter’s room. She was sitting up for the very first time, holding the crib bars with one hand. Her back was toward the door, so I could not see her face, but I could see her delight in her new empowerment in every muscle of that little back.
This was another vivid, symbolic moment for me. As I felt that wave of joyful pride at sharing in her joy in her new power, I remembered again the awed delight I felt as I watched the wild geese in their released power. Does God feel this way? I wondered. Does God feel this way, only immeasurably more so, when sharing our births, our rebirths, our awakenings, our risings up, our responses, our giftedness, our growing empowerment? (Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer, Fear, and our Powers, p. 11-12)
Smallness is not the goal. Love is. Receiving it, and giving it.
Living aware of my true smallness often helps me receive God’s love, and opens me for that love to flow through me to others. But keeping myself smaller than I need to be shuts me down from receiving and giving that love. The questions I asked some time back come to mind again, returning me to Paul’s reminder in Galatians 5:6, “. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” These questions, and the emotions that arise along with them, help me notice whether I’m living in the smallness of faith, a beloved child knowing herself held, and free to love God, others, and herself with the overflow of that love, or the smallness of fear, timidly holding back. These questions help me live my right size. Does my choice flow out of faith in Jesus? Does it help me trust him more? And does it express that faith through love—for God, for others, and for myself in a healthy, respectful, stepping-into-God’s-love-for-me way? Then it is a good choice.
I had to smile when the Scripture was read last Sunday. Sometimes God isn’t subtle.
I’ve been confronting my limitations again lately—not just physical, but in every area of life. And I’ve sensed God inviting me to accept them. I’ve found myself asking the question, “Can I be okay with it if all I am ever able to do consistently is write a weekly blog post and listen with the few people who come to sit in the stillness with me and listen together for God’s voice in their lives?” I’m not saying that’s what will happen, only that I’m being invited to accept still more deeply this body, this personality, this small, good work entrusted to me as a gift from the One who created me and delights in me as I am. This time, I find myself able to say, with freedom and joy (at least for this day!), “Yes. If that’s what you have for me, I can be fine with that.” Maybe I’m finally receiving more fully the rich gifts of being small—of being significant not because of what I do, but simply because God has created me and, because He treasures me, I matter.
Back to last Sunday. The reader ascended to the pulpit and began to read from 2 Samuel 7 the story of David asking to building a temple for God. Surely, David thought, after all God had done for him, it was time David gave something back. Surely it wasn’t right that David live in a palace of expensive cedar wood while the ark of God, the focal point of God’s presence, continued to live in a tent. At first the prophet Nathan, hearing David’s suggestion, agreed. “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”
But it was only a few hours before God spoke to Nathan correcting his assumption and telling Nathan to return to David with these words from God: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? . . . The LORD himself will establish a house for you.” (v. 5, 11)
I’ll never be able to hear that passage again without my mind jumping back to a time in the tiny Afghan village I called home for four years. After my first year working as a doctor in the project, I was asked to take on the role of project leader. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that the weight of being project leader as well as doctor was too much for me. Three months into the project leader role, agonizing over the possibility of having to admit I couldn’t do it, I was journaling my prayer. Lunchtime came, and I left the prayer on pause, grabbing Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall to read while I ate. Peterson was speaking about David’s natural desire to build a temple for God who had done so much for him:
““[David] quite naturally wanted to do something for God, who had done so much for him. He decided to build God a sanctuary. . . . God had blessed him with a place of honor and repose; he would bless God with a place of honor and repose. . . But there are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are. . . a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. . .
God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: ‘You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. . . .
‘Then King David went in and sat before the LORD . . .’ (2 Sam 7:18) David sat. This may be the single most critical act that David ever did, the action that put him out of action . . . What we don’t do for God is often far more critical than what we in fact do. God is the beginning, center, and end of the world’s life—of existence itself. But we’re often unaware of God’s action except dimly and peripherally. Especially when we’re in full possession of our power—our education complete, our careers in full swing, people admiring us and prodding us onward . . . At these moments, we need prophetic interference. We need Nathan. We need to quit whatever we’re doing and sit down . . .” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 157-164, bold mine.)
My body was my prophetic interference. Like Nathan it was confronting me. Like Balaam’s donkey, it was lying down in the road and refusing to go on, seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the path where I was trying to drive myself onward, too blind or too stubborn or proud to see him.
“When David sat down before God, it was the farthest thing from passivity or resignation; it was prayer. It was entering into the presence of God, becoming aware of God’s word, trading in his plans for God’s plans, letting his enthusiasm for being a king with the authority and strength to do something for God be replaced with the willingness to become a king who would represent truly the sovereignty of God the high King.” (164)
And then, a page later, Peterson writes these words about David’s response to God. I’ve underlined them in my journal.
“And courage it does take, immense courage, to relinquish control, to resign our so recently acquired prestigious positions, to ‘quit our jobs’ and simply to sit at Jesus’ feet.” (165)
God was guiding me as I’d asked, and affirming me at the same time, assuring me that once again he was calling, and that the willingness to let the role go was not failure but courage and obedience. He was turning things right-side-up again, reminding me, as he would remind me many more times, that he was God and I was not—and that he loved me.
“David sat down;” Peterson writes, and “the real action started: not David making God a house but God making David a house.” (165)
We are given small parts to play. We get to hammer in a few nails, a four-year-old working alongside his father. Peter takes the metaphor in a different direction, going so far as to say that we get to be part of the house—and the stones that make up the walls are clearly not able or responsible to put themselves in their right places to make a sound and solid house (1 Peter 2:4-10). God is the one who builds us a home. It was God who created the world and placed us in it, our home for time, and it is Jesus who is preparing a place for us, our home for eternity (John 14:1-3). We can’t build God’s kingdom; that’s why we pray for Him to do it (Matt 6:9-10). And He is building it, and welcoming us into it—and will even someday hand it over to us, a rich gift of a safe and beautiful home forever and ever (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27; Luke 12:32).
But the news is better still. Since before God brought us into being, He has been making a home for us not just out there somewhere, in earth or in heaven, but in Himself, in that truest and safest of places, that loving heart at the centre of reality for which we were made and where we will always belong. Here our small, loved selves can rest.
“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)
I walked into the room and sat down in a comfy chair across from my spiritual director. The table next to us held a glass of fall flowers, the small cross that I love to hold, and, behind the candle, a small, colorful painting.
I almost always love the way my spiritual director arranges the physical space for our times of listening together. The colours, the ways the various items offer reminders of life while holding space for needed lament, and the reminder of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all—together they offer a hospitality that helps settle me and open me up to God. But (confession time) I used to groan inside every time my spiritual director chose to use this particular painting as part of the arrangement. I couldn’t look at it without recoiling from it. I didn’t want to look at it long enough to try to understand it. I didn’t say anything. I just looked elsewhere to avoid what looked to me like a red misshapen face or a miscarried fetus, a small green face layered with distorted orange-red like a frightening Halloween mask. I quietly wondered what beauty my gentle spiritual director could possibly see in such a fearful image.
But this time, instead of turning away, I found myself turning toward it. I’d begun to notice the change in me the last time she displayed the picture. That time, instead of focussing on the fearful red, I’d seen, instead, the white face, quietly attentive to the small one. I hadn’t spent long with the image that time, but this time those beginnings of different seeing drew me in so I could hardly take my eyes from the picture. This time, as I struggled to find words to tell my spiritual director about an experience in which I’d found space to be myself and had felt loved, I ended up motioning toward the image and saying, “It was like that. Safe.” Now the image showed me the most tender scene I could imagine—the larger person with the white face holding the small one, offering a calm, steady gaze in which the child could begin to learn that she existed and mattered, and was seen and loved and safe. This time, instead of turning from the image, I turned again and again toward it, hungry for the gentleness it portrayed, and aching to feel once more the hand cupping my head and see the face that never leaves or looks away but keeps steadily loving, quietly holding me in being and making me who I am.
At first, I was so absorbed by the beauty of the interaction that I didn’t look at anything other than the faces. I kept turning to see that white face tenderly looking at me, the hand cupping my head. But later, as I looked again at the painting, another surprise was waiting. The red that I’d first interpreted as death and distortion was, in fact, a heart—the life-giving love that filled the relationship. It wasn’t the love that was distorted. It was my seeing. And once my eyes were taught to see, I didn’t want to stop looking.
I could also now see, and delight in, the mystery in the painting—the flowing, fiery colors shaping themselves into the heart that frames and sustains the interaction. This is not a love that I can create or control, or even fully understand—and that is part of its beauty. It’s vast and wild and tender and freely pouring itself out to me, and never going away.
I wish I could find the words to do justice to a book I read this summer that offered me a fresh glimpse of this tender, fiery, mysterious love that takes my breath away with its magnificence. The book is called Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, and in it Gregory A. Boyd reminded me of something I already knew: Jesus is the perfect revelation of God—a God who loves so deeply, and is so committed to our freedom and flourishing, that he stoops low to be in relationship. That relationship includes meeting us where we are and willingly bearing our sin as he not only acts toward us but lets us act on him. But God’s willingness to stoop and let people act on him did not begin with Jesus. All through the preceding history, God stayed in relationship with his people, continuing to love even when they saw him through dim eyes and could only understand his character in light of their culture around them. Like a parent with a tiny child, God let himself be understood in the only ways the child could understand him at that stage, and slowly, as the child grew, continued to reveal more and more of himself. There is no other way for a child to learn, nor, for that matter, for anyone to learn the heart of another. We have to start from what we know, and slowly, with experience, grow deeper into the truth.
. . . God has always revealed his true character and will as much as possible while stooping to accommodate the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people as much as necessary. In his love, God was willing to allow his people to think of him along the lines of an ANE [Ancient Near East] warrior deity, to the degree this was necessary, in order to progressively influence them to the point where they eventually would be capable of receiving the truth that he is actually radically unlike these violent ANE deities.
. . . [B]y making gradual changes, God beguiled his people into the gospel, wherein it was revealed that God would rather be killed by enemies than kill them.” (Cross Vision, 73-74)
And so we are invited to look and keep looking into the face of love which is gazing on us, and to slowly learn to see there both who God is and who we are.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
And now, may we each live in the blaze of this blessing which God himself commanded his priests to pronounce so that his people would always know that the face that looks upon us is one of blessing and grace and generous peace.
There’s something about being out of the city that gives me life.
Maybe it’s the silence, or at least the exchange of engines roaring on the streets outside my window and heavy feet on the floor above my head for the gentler sounds of birdsong and wind in the leaves.
Maybe it’s that, immersed in the expansiveness of creation, I slow enough to remember myself small again, in a good way, and hand over the burdens meant for God’s shoulders. There in that smallness I find myself part of this world which goes on minute by minute being created and sustained in love.
Maybe it’s the rich beauty that summons and soothes and draws me toward the One who is Beauty itself.
Whatever the mix of reasons, some nameable, some not, I come a little more alive when I can run in the woods or walk on the beach or drive along roads framed with white trunks and hay bales and the sun playing on water. On the early morning ride back to the airport, the sun played tag with the fine morning mist, darting, disappearing, leaving a trail of gentle brightness behind her.
What could have felt like a long drive filled with sadness to be leaving was instead a joyful play of light and shadow, a final life-filled gift from the One who knows me well as I headed back into the city and into a busier stretch. I know you. I love you. I am going with you and I will give you rest.
The day after I arrived home, not feeling quite ready to plunge into the fall busyness, the mailman knocked on my door and handed me a gift that was as unexpected and as grace-filled as the early morning hint of a rainbow and the empty seats beside me on both of my flights home. I know what you need and I delight to give it to you.
The gift the mailman handed me was Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat.
I love pretty much anything Ruth Haley Barton writes, and her newest book is no exception. It’s warm and welcoming and freeing, offering, as all her books do, not only life-giving encouragement and gentle challenge, but wise steps and insightful questions to help me move forward. She begins by lifting the burden of retreat being yet another heavy ‘should’. It is, rather, an invitation, with the implications of freedom to say yes or no, and the affirmation that I am wanted.
“. . .[W]e know instinctively that to be invited means we are wanted, and, in the very best scenario, wanted by someone we find interesting, intriguing, or just plain cool.
And that is exactly what makes the invitation to retreat so compelling. It is a winsome call from this intriguing person we call God—the One who loves us, the One who is inexplicably drawn to us, the One who knows so intimately what we need in order to be well.” (p. 3)
I long for quiet time alone with God in much the same way I look forward to the times I can escape the bustle of the city. I know I need still time to keep hearing God’s voice and to keep from wearing out, and I do my best to prioritize it. But, even knowing that as deeply as I do, sometimes a persistent little voice still tries to convince me that retreating is selfish or lazy or just plain impractical. What that little voice fails to remember is that retreat is not my idea. It is Jesus’ idea. Right smack in the middle of the disciples’ first ministry report (Mark 6:30-31), when the disciples were all excited about what they had been able to do and eager to get on with it,
“Jesus invites them to retreat. Literally! His words, ‘Come away to a deserted place. . . and rest a while,’ shut down the conversation they wanted to have and redirected it to the conversation Jesus wanted to have—about retreat! I can see them ceasing their breathless chatter, cocking their heads a bit in disbelief and thinking, Well, that’s different! What a wonder it is, as Jesus’ disciples, to be invited by him to conversation and communion, self-care and replenishment.” (p. 3)
The One who knows me better than I know myself, knows my tendency to lose my way and think too much depends on me, gently interrupts my chatter about the article I’m writing and the workshops I’m preparing. He sees my mix of excitement and weariness and my need and longing to step back and be re-centered in who He is before moving any further into the busyness of the fall, and He graciously calls me to close the door and turn off the phone and the laptop and let Him settle and recenter me in His love. He reminds me once more that this is not a luxury, but a necessity, a part of being human. And that He has led the way.
“Of all people who might have been able to convince themselves they did not need to retreat in order to hear God, Jesus would have fit the bill. But instead we see him regularly retreating to the mountain, into the wilderness, across the lake, and into the garden in order to stay in tune with God’s heart and plan for him.” (p. 90)
Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.
On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”
I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.
During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.
This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.
It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.
And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)
Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:
We forever belong (“You are mine.” v. 1)
We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
We are protected by His presence (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them. v.2)
We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .” v.4)
We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)
It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands. My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness. May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand. May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You. Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me. Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.
One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.
These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.
There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.
Child of My love, lean hard
And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;
I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;
Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion
In its weight to thine unaided strength;
For even as I laid it on, I said,
I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,
This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];
So shall I keep My child within the circling arms
Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear
To impose it on a shoulder which upholds
The government of worlds. Yet closer come;
Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care
So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.
Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;
But, loving Me, lean hard.
(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)
When I was 18 months old, our little family of three flew back to Nigeria after a few weeks in England. Flights were overbooked, we were bumped and rerouted, and eventually we wound up, exhausted, at the Cozy Inn in Accra, Ghana. There were no curtains on the windows, and no cold water in the taps. The bed was made with a single sheet tucked tightly overtop the single blanket. But when my mother put me in the middle of the large bed, hopefully out of reach of the cockroaches, I closed my eyes and said with what might have been a sigh of relief or contentment, “ ’ome.” Home, for me, was the place I could rest.
Since then, I’ve called many places home, including a mud-brick house without electricity or running water in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, and, most recently, a high-end condo in Vancouver with swimming pool and fitness room and plentiful running water (both hot and cold) included in the rent. For a long time, I felt I didn’t belong here; my landlady needed a good tenant more than she needed the rent that it was worth. Lately, I’d started to believe that maybe, by some miracle of grace, I did belong here; I increasingly know and am known by name, and have been having meals and deep conversations with neighbors. My presence here seemed to matter. And then this week, I received The Email, “We have decided to move forward with selling the condo and will transfer ownership in February 2018. As such, I’m sorry to tell you we need to end your tenancy on Jan 31, 2018, as the new owner will be moving in shortly thereafter.”
I needed to reread the email several times over the next couple of days to be sure I hadn’t dreamt it. There’s something distinctly unsettling about being kicked out of the place you’ve learned, over almost six years, to call home.
There’s grief in leaving this place. This oven, which has cooked Hawaiian pizzas and chicken and sweet potato fries to share with good friends. This bedroom where I learned to dance my prayers because my body needed some way of praying my joy and grief and longing. This living room where I’ve found myself again and again on holy ground as I listen with people to their stories and together we notice where God is in them. This window through which I’ve watched fireworks enough times that I no longer startle (at least not as badly) when they sound like incoming rockets.
Here, through beautiful times and some excruciatingly painful ones, I have learned a little more deeply that God is good, and I can trust him. That doesn’t mean I always do trust. In the days after receiving The Email, I was short of breath with anxiety. But I threw myself on God anyway, knowing that He welcomes me as I am and doesn’t ask that I fix myself before running to His arms. That’s something else I’ve learned here: there’s one kind of trust in a child who isn’t afraid to play with a puppy. There’s another kind in a child who, fearing the puppy, runs to the safe arms of her daddy. Sometimes I’m that first little girl. More often, I’m the second.
There’s grief in having to leave, but I know there’s gift too. Most of the gift will probably take time for me to recognize as gift, but this piece I can already see: here in this place where my home is being pulled out from under me, I am learning all over again, and more deeply, that God is my true home. That might sound like a stale Sunday School answer. And if it weren’t that I have no idea where I’ll be living in two and a half months’ time, it might feel like one. But home for me is still the place I can rest, and in the moments when the uncertainty of not knowing where I’ll sleep raises panic in me and I run crying into the arms of my Abba, I discover that once again I can be that trusting toddler snuggling in and whispering, “ ‘ome.”
“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.” (John 15:9 The Message)
I’m flipping through a book I was sent, and I’m only a few pages in when Phileena Heurertz’s words stop me:
“According to Father Thomas Keating—a Cistercian monk—at the time of conversion we orient our lives by the question, ‘What can I do for God?’ Seems appropriate, right? But when we begin the spiritual journey our life is dramatically altered toward the question, ‘What can God do for me?’”
My guard is up already. A journey built around the question, “What can God do for me?” It feels self-centred. But she continues:
“This isn’t a narcissistic, exploitative question toward a disempowered God. It’s the exact opposite. This is the central question of a humble person who has awakened to their true self and to the awe-inspiring adoration of an extraordinary God.” (Pilgrimage of a Soul, p. 15-16)
For days I turn her words over in my mind. Could she be right? Is the direction of a deepening spiritual life a move from ‘What can I do for God?’ toward ‘What can God do for me?’ rather than the other way around?
As I ponder, I realize my journey has already been taking me in that direction. I’m discovering more and more deeply all the time how, in myself, I have nothing to offer. At first that felt shameful. Now it feels freeing. Jesus knows this truth, and wants me to know it too: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants to set me free from trying to be God so I can enjoy being my own small self and letting God be his all-sufficient self in me. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with my smallness, and with that settling into smallness has come a deepening trust and peace. But still. I wouldn’t have been daring enough to put it in those words. A shift from “What can I do for God?” to “What can God do for me?” the mark of a deepening faith? Really?
It seems God wants me to hear this, because he starts to speak in surround-sound. First I notice the Lord’s prayer.
“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.” (Matthew 6:9-13, The Message)
The starting line for this prayer is that I can do none of this on my own. No matter how much I might want to do something for God, the truth is that there’s nothing I can do. I’m completely dependent on God—for food, forgiveness, setting the world right, and protection (even—or especially—from myself). All I can do is ask God to do in me and in the world, for me and for the world, what only He can do.
I’m starting to catch on. The question that startled me and started all this wondering is the heart of the gospel, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I need to hear it again. It’s like Jesus walked up beside me and I didn’t recognize him. But then I realize that this itself, this learning to recognize the gospel where it shows up and live it in all my daily moments, is one more place to practice the humbling truth that I can’t do even this work in me—I can only open myself to God to keep doing in me what only He can do. And even this opening, while a choice, is summoned and enabled by grace.
I pick up Emily P. Freeman’s Grace for the Good Girl to read the next few pages, and within two pages of where I pick up, she speaks of Mary’s choice to trust when the angel came to tell her she would conceive a child. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38 NIV). Emily writes,
“I love that Mary uses the word servant here, because it communicates that service is an act of faith. It isn’t me doing work for God, but it is me trusting God to do the work in me.” (p. 63)
Over the page, speaking now about Martha when Jesus comes to dinner, she writes,
“Martha’s desire to please clouded her willingness to trust. I understand this mistake of Martha’s perhaps more than any other. Given the choice to please God or to trust God, good girls become conflicted. We know we’re supposed to trust God, but trust is so intangible. It almost seems passive in the face of all there is to do. . . .
Choosing to please God sounds right at first, but it so often leads to a performing life, a girl trying to become good, a lean-on-myself theology. If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. But when I trust God, pleasing him is automatic” (64-5).
If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. This is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please God—except when it keeps me from trusting Him. And it does that often enough that trying to please God might, for some of us, sometimes, actually be the opposite of trusting him. A fixation with pleasing God all too often pulls my focus away from Him and puts it on myself. I hear again the words that God has been speaking to me daily for at least a couple of years: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”
Emily’s words ring in my head, “Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ. He doesn’t want my service. He wants me. And from that life-giving relationship, ‘streams of living water will flow from within’ (John 7:38 NIV).” (p.65)
The surround-sound conversation seems to be fading (until the next time Jesus sneaks up on me unawares), and God leaves me with words spoken through the apostle Paul to ponder:
“The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you” (Galatians 3:11 The Message).