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

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.