Settling into smallness

Photo by a-shuhani on Unsplash. Used with permission.

I stand awkwardly in the large open space shared by the physiotherapy reception and exercise areas. I’ve shed my sneakers and jeans in the examining room and now I stand with my black socks slouching around my ankles, the white shorts I brought with me riding a little higher up my thighs as I stand on one leg and lower myself into a one-legged squat, trying to keep my opposite hip from sagging toward the ground. I’m glad that my fingers are hooked over the edge of the sink. I need the help with balance.

The exercise I’m doing with my body feels like a fitting image for something happening more deeply within me.

A month or two back, Holley Gerth published a blog post sharing how, after a stretch in which God had led her into new freedom, she sensed him saying to her, “Settle.” In other words, “Live here. Let this be your home, your place to dwell and thrive.” I’ve been carrying that word “settle” around with me since then, sensing it was an invitation for me too, but waiting for that vague sense to crystallize into something specific enough to  curl my fingers around and step into.

Anyone who has been around here for long will recognize themes that keep resurfacing. One of those is smallness. I regularly return to God’s promise in Isaiah 46, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will carry you.” I find myself sitting on his knee, held by the hand, walking along on his feet like a child standing on the feet of her father and letting herself be carried along. I’ve found myself carried in the womb of God—“In him we live and move and have our being. . . we are his offspring”—and cupped in his hand. As I settle into smallness, I settle into rest, into being loved, into hope and joy and peace. I know this is who I am and where I belong. I know this is where fullness of life begins and where it grows—my small self carried in His all-sufficient one.

But despite all that Scripture and all that experience, somewhere, lingering, has been a nagging doubt. What if smallness is a season? What about the calls to “grow up into Christ,” the summons to adult maturity?  What if I’m meant to experience myself small and loved and then be able to grow through that to a new phase which is somehow bigger and broader and more “out there.”  The Terrifying Question has slithered around the edges: What if my focus on smallness is a way of hiding from the real responsibilities of the Christian life?

A couple of months ago, I wrote Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small as part of my process of working this through. I saw again that, as a branch in the Vine, I can only reach maturity and fruitfulness through staying small and dependent. In the Christian life, we don’t outgrow smallness as we mature; rather, we settle more deeply into the reality of our smallness as we mature in trust of the One who holds us in his strong and gentle hands.

Paul confronts the Galatians in their temptation to believe the slippery thinking that  grace isn’t enough, they have to take charge and start doing things themselves: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (3:3) In other words, “Don’t you remember? This whole life must be lived the way it began—in the smallness of complete dependence on the only One who is able to grow His life in you.” As I read his words, I see The Terrifying Question for what it is: another version of the age-old apple-shaped lie that growing up means stepping from smallness into the independence of being like God.

Again He whispers, “Settle,” and now I can hear the rest of the invitation: Settle into living your smallness not as a season of life, but as a way of life. Savor the freedom. Celebrate the gift. Settle here, making your home in my love that delights in you as you are: small.

Photo by Lara Crespo on Unsplash. Used with permission.

After reading last week’s post, a friend reflected, “This catches my attention: it is in leaning into your smallness that you are free to live into your full stature.” She’s right. I am most free to listen, to trust, to love, and to step out in service when I know myself small and securely held, a tiny but treasured part of God’s life and work in the world. Only in embracing my smallness can I step fully into the joys and responsibilities of the Christian life. 

In this upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the way up is down, is it surprising that growing up means getting smaller and maturity equals humble dependence?

I hold onto the sink and lower myself again into a one-legged squat, noticing the way the two sides of the pelvis are connected. Is stability always about the way two things are connected?

When I lose sight of my smallness, I lose stability, as surely as I do when my eyes slip from the greatness of God. (. . . perhaps because trying to live bigger than my true size is a sure sign that my eyes have slipped from the true size of our great God?)

I am only free to rejoice in my smallness when I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on the true God who loves me in my smallness and has promised to carry me forever. With this God, it is safe to be small.

And I’m only truly free to rejoice in God’s greatness when I’ve stopped fighting my own smallness.

Here, then, is my stability—not in my own strength or greatness, but in the unfailing strength of the One who holds and loves me in my smallness.

Photo by Mathias Reed on Unsplash. Used with permission.

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Want more? Here are links to a few other Scriptures and posts to help you settle more deeply into your smallness, as well as a link to the book that, more than any other (except the Bible, of course), has helped on my journey toward celebrating my smallness:

Isaiah 40-41, 46:3-4; Psalm 103; Mark 10:13-16

Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small

Making Peace with Smallness

Eight Reasons it’s Okay to Stay Small (and how you are made great)

Dust You Are: Growing Small

Emily P. Freeman, Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World

Beneath busy: one way to slow down when the world is spinning

Busyness: it might be the single biggest threat to my vocation to listen to God’s heartbeat and help others listen. Busyness, or, rather, hurry—the soul counterpart that too often accompanies the body’s busyness. My body operates under restrictions, and so, compared to most other people’s schedules, mine will never be truly “busy.” I don’t have the externally imposed busyness of young children pulling at me, the 9 to 5 requirements of an office job, nor, as I once did, the 80+ hour a week demands of a medical career. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t stop the soul-virus of hurry from attacking my system. Maybe I’m even more aware of its insidious attack because my schedule is necessarily limited, so I’m forced to admit that the problem lies inside me.

I remember again the advice Dallas Willard gave to John Ortberg when Ortberg, a busy pastor with a young family, called Willard long distance to ask what he needed to do to be spiritually healthy. There was a long pause, and then the answer came, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

“Ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” The words stick with me because I need them so badly.

The words of another wise pastor challenge me even more deeply. He’s speaking as a pastor to other pastors, but I’m certain these words apply to me too, and perhaps in some way to all of us who are set apart to be Christ’s bride. How can we who are his hear his voice if our souls are always running off in one direction or another? How can we follow the great commands to love God and love others if our souls are racing too fast to pause and listen and love?

“The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my waste-basket is the letter addressed to the ‘busy pastor.’ Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

‘The poor man,’ we say. ‘He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.’ But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 17, bold mine)

Over the page, he challenges me further.

“Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reason; both are ignoble.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? . . .

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. . . .” (Ibid, p. 18)

For me there’s a third reason, perhaps tied up in the vanity he mentions, or hidden beneath it. That reason is fear. I fear rejection so I say yes to avoid disapproval. I fear I’m not enough so I try to prove myself by what I do. I fear missing out so, instead of trusting that what I have is enough, I hold out hands to take everything offered, even when it’s too much. Sometimes I don’t know exactly why I’m tempted to say yes when I probably should say no. But here I find a lovely gift, because no matter what the root issue is, I’m finding one simple practice that helps me more than any other to settle and rest: a return to the truth of my smallness. A return to the joy of my smallness, and the freedom of it.

I picture myself sitting on Jesus’ knee, or held gently in his hands, treasured. Or, as I prepare to sit and listen with another, I picture myself as a little girl holding the hand of my Father who is taking me to work with him. This is his work. For this hour, he’s giving me a front-row seat and a little part to play, but the work is his and the weight of the responsibility remains with him. As I smile up at him, my smile mirrors his own.

Here in this place of smallness, I know myself treasured, so there’s no need to race around trying to earn love.

Here in this place of smallness, I remember that someone else is in charge, that it’s not my job to meet all the needs in the world, only to take the hand of the One who orchestrates it all and show up with him at the places he invites me to join him.

And only here in this place of knowing myself small and loved do I begin, slowly, to find myself free enough to say the yeses and no’s that let me live fully without succumbing to the soul-numbing race of hurry.

I don’t have all the answers for how to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” I don’t always faithfully live the answers that I do have. Drivenness runs deep within me, and the call to ruthlessly eliminate hurry will be for me a daily process of listening and choosing for the rest of my life. I do know that here, small and held, is the only place I can hear clearly enough to sense the moment-by-moment invitations, and know myself safe enough in God’s love to dare to follow.

When you can’t see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.

But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.

That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.

It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.

Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Vines and umbilical cords: on growing up while staying small

I’ve been feeling the tension lately between the invitations in Scripture to stay small and the ones to mature.

On the one hand, we’re told to become like children (Mat 19:14; 18:3). We hear God say, “Don’t be afraid, little Israel, for I myself will help you” (Isaiah 41:14), and we hear him promise, “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). We’re told to cling close because “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

On the other, we’re entrusted with huge gifts and called to invest them (Matt 25:14ff). We’re called to step out courageously (Joshua 1:9), to join in the work to be done (Matt 28:18-20), and to grow up (Eph 4:11-16; Col 1:28-9, 4:12).

I talk about it with the friend who helps me listen, and I leave our time together wondering whether it is significant that Jesus pictures our dependence on him as a vine rather than an umbilical cord. Vines and cords both represent essential life-sustaining connection, carrying nutrients and allowing growth. Both are fairly resilient and hard to cut.

But there is this: The cord, though essential to survival for a time, must ultimately be cut to allow the baby to grow into maturity and fruitfulness. A human baby must leave the womb.

But a branch? It must remain in the vine, the connection growing ever thicker and stronger as it moves from the fragile baby stage to bearing weighty clusters of fruit. For a vine, (and for a Christian), growth into maturity and fruitfulness requires a strengthening of the connection, not a severing of it.

There are, to be sure, parts of the Christian experience that serve as umbilical cords, sustaining life and nurturing growth for a time, but needing to be cut to allow further growth. For most of us, there comes a time when we’re asked to rely less on what we feel or sense, when we can’t find words to pray, when old images of God or ways of relating to him seem to dry out and shrivel up. We may cry like a babe pushed from its warm, comfortable home into the cold, bright world, and that’s okay. Birth hurts.

But as painful and scary and new as it may feel, the cutting of these cords does not equate to the severing of our true life-sustaining connection but invites us into the strengthening of it. At the heart of the Christian life is dependence on the only One who can do for and in us what we cannot do for ourselves, and growing up as a Christian is growing up into Christ (Eph 4:15). Growing up as a Christian means not less but more dependence. It means being okay with our smallness and living more freely and confidently within that dependence.

Here’s to staying small and growing up at the same time, living freely in the security and life-giving dependence of being tightly connected to the Vine.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches.

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.

Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

When you’re craving rest: gifts at summer’s start

I walked over the bridge toward church yesterday with hundreds of half-marathon runners on my right. It was 9:30 a.m. and already hot. As usual with this sort of thing, there were a few observers gathered on the sidelines clapping and cheering and calling out encouragement. But there was one supporter who stood out. As the runners ran past him, uphill, many of them used a little extra breath to call out their thanks and blessing to him. Why? He knew that on a hot day as the runners neared the 19k mark, the best way he could offer support was not with words alone but with a spray bottle full of cool water, spritzed in the face of any runner who nodded their desire.

As I watched, the grace in the picture brought tears to my eyes. Around this time of year I often find myself weary. I’m there again. The year was busy, crescendoing to a climax in late spring, and I’m grateful for a bit of in-between time, a pause before new deadlines settle in. One evening last week I sat journaling my prayer for this summer, knowing that I need deep rest but not feeling entirely sure what the specifics might look like. What rests me deeply? I know the core of the answer: the kind of deep rest I crave can only be found in the arms of the One who calls all who are weary to come, promising “and I will rest you.”1 But I don’t always know the details of how he’ll rest me.

And then as I sat, bringing my weary self to Jesus to be rested, I realized he was (yet again) ahead of me. Even before I had fully recognized my fatigue and had come asking him to rest me, he had noticed my weariness and was gently guiding me toward simple understandings and practices that open me to him in my weariness and help me—body, soul, and spirit—to rest. Before I reached the 19k mark, he was already there, ready and waiting to offer the refreshment he knew I’d need.

He’s nudged me toward the habit of taking my lunch outside to eat, pausing to feel the sun and the breeze and breathe deeply of the goodness of my Creator.

He’s kept summoning me back to remember many times a day, “This moment is a gift from the One who loves you.” That one reminder alone, as it draws me from my preoccupation with the past or the future and settles me into the present and into his love goes far, far, in refreshing me.

He’s brought alongside a couple of companions who, through their written words, are helping me settle into rest: Ted Loder’s Guerrilla’s of Grace, and Emily P. Freeman’s Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. Just a page or two or three of either of these books feels like cool water spritzed gently on my tired, overheated self. I read and I feel myself breathe a little more deeply. My shoulders relax. Sometimes there are tears of relief and rest.

And then within two weeks two people said more or less the same thing to me in two different contexts and about two different issues: “Seems like your own David and Goliath story. Time to take off the armor and pick up the stones.” I hadn’t thought about the David and Goliath story in a long time. And if I had, I think I’d have written the headline for the story as “Small guy beats big guy through God’s strength,” or, to paraphrase Jesus’ promise to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The bit that God seems to be wanting me to notice now is the way that happens. Middle-sized guy (the king, the supposed expert in fighting such battles) tries to get small guy to wear his armor to fight the big guy. Small guy tries it on and says, “I can’t fight the big guy in this. I can barely move” and takes it off and picks up his slingshot and goes into battle as himself—his small self whose whole trust is in his big God, not in someone else’s armor.

If I’m honest, that part makes me uncomfortable. Some part of me wants to wear someone else’s armor, to hide behind what looks safer, what has been tried, what everyone is doing. (“But all the blogging experts say I should do it this way.”)

But there’s another part of me that’s tired of trying to walk around in armor that is too heavy for me. That part finds hope in this bit of the story. Enough hope to take a good look at what actually works for me, at who I am and who God is and what he might have suited me for, and to begin stripping off the armor and laying aside plans and protocols and expectations that might fit someone else perfectly but that leave me unable to walk. Stripping off those expectations, that part of me realizes I can breathe again, and wants to sing and dance and shout for joy as I realize all over again, and more deeply, that God actually likes the way he’s made me, that he actually wants me to be me and not someone else, that he really means it when he says, “If you’re tired of carrying burdens that are too heavy, come to me and learn from me and take up the yoke that I’ve made for us to carry together. The only burden I will put on you is one made to fit you, one designed for us to carry together, not one that was made for someone else and will chafe your shoulders and rub you raw” (Matt 11:28-30 paraphrase).

 

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1As I’ve often heard Darrell Johnson say, and have written here before, the English translation of Matthew 11:28, “and I will give you rest,” is the best our language can do to translate what the original Greek actually says, “and I will rest you.” Rest is something Jesus does for us and to us as we live in him, not a “thing” he gives us to take away and do ourselves.