Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent


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.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:

The real call in Ash Wednesday

What to do in the tough times

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)



Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash

Home when you have none (OR The place you can rest)

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)


The surprising question for a deepening spiritual life

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).

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.


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