Finding your true home

One morning as I biked last week, the word “home” was on my mind. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the fall leaves drew my eye to the homes peeking out behind them.

Perhaps because the heavy clouds above the fall leaves just allowed peeks of the mountains, and something stirred in me as though my heart was being drawn toward heaven.

Or perhaps because, as I rode, my mind drifted back to a letter written by a wise mentor to someone asking the question, “Why didn’t God take me to heaven the moment I trusted Jesus? Does he have a special work for me to accomplish for Him?” As I pondered what I could remember of his response, I recognized all over again that our true home is neither earth nor heaven but God.

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. . . . Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:4,9, The Message). 

Both our temporary home here on earth and our long-term home in the new heavens and the new earth point us to our true Home, helping us settle more deeply into God’s love.

There are, of course, many reasons God leaves us on earth. Here He gives us the privilege of participating with Him in his work in the world, even of sharing in His sufferings. But more deeply still, as Edward Miller says, God leaves us on earth to know Him.

There are ways we will only know God when we finally walk with him face to face. And there are other precious and beautiful characteristics of God that we can only experience here on earth.

“The benefits earth yields outstrip heaven in many ways. Take, for example, knowing God as our Sustainer through trouble. This is our privileged experience now rather than later, after all tears have been dried by His own hand. It’s here on earth that God unveils to us His priesthood and enters into our sufferings, rather than in Glory where no one suffers. Only on earth does God show Himself to us as our Fortress and Defender, for who opposes us in heaven? On earth He shows Himself as our Rock and the One who lifts up our heads.
            Here, when we faint, His everlasting arms catch and support us. Here He is our Saviour and Advocate and gentle Shepherd. Through the changing experiences of this life we are introduced to His hands, His feet, His wings, and His heart.” (Edward Miller, Letters to the Thirsty, p. 8-9).

I asked the question on Facebook, “What word(s) would you use to describe God’s love? Which of those characteristics means the most to you today?” The responses were beautiful and varied. And I’m guessing that most of them came from the hard times. My own favourite—gentle—has certainly been most deeply discovered in the times of challenge.

So, friends, join me in letting whatever challenges you face this week press you deeper into God’s love? There are many ways I do this, but lately God’s promise in Isaiah 66:13 has been calling me to come close with the same trust and vulnerability as a sick or sad or hurting child runs to her mother for comfort, unashamed of pain or tears, and confident in the safety of her mother’s arms.

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13, NIV).

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What would it look like for you to make your home in Jesus’ love today? How might it change your day?

PS. I’ve just created a new facebook page to accompany this blog. Thoughts and quotes that I’m loving and that don’t make it to the blog will end up there, and from now on I’ll ask questions like I asked about your favourite characteristic of God’s love on that new page instead of on my personal profile. If you’d like to be part of the conversation happening over there, please do pop over and like or follow the new page!

How to find meaning in any suffering

I bike the Greenway in the early morning light. I don’t even mind the spots of rain landing on my glasses; I’m so grateful that I’m able to bike my whole route again, and that it feels good again. 

The freedom feels like my first days home from the dust of Afghanistan, when every new morning I delighted in the emerald grass, the new flowers that had opened during the night, and the feel of the breeze in my (uncovered!) hair. Even still when I get into the shower, I often give thanks for hot, running water.

Sometimes one only recognizes the value of a gift when it’s taken away.

And sometimes one only realizes how much a certain freedom has been missed when it’s given back and the joy overflows into thanksgiving. 

And yet, while I give thanks for energy on the days I have more of it, I also give thanks for these past five difficult weeks, and continue to ponder the gifts in them. There are gifts we can only receive in the hard times, and when life spreads a rocky stretch of path before me, I want to bend and pick up every gem hiding among the rocks.

So, the gifts: I’ve already shared a prayer slipped through my mail slot and how, as I prayed it, God has been reorienting my love back towards him, loosening my grip on comfort and control and security. That alone was worth this challenging time. There’s something about suffering that drives our roots deeper into God, if we let it.

But there’s another gift that has been fluttering around the edges of my thoughts recently in the form of a question: What does it mean to share in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church? 

Paul’s words in Galatians and Colossians have long been familiar to me:

“. . .I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Who gets to live those verses? Every life has its suffering, but who can say that their suffering is part of Christ’s affliction, useful for the church? Until last week, I assumed that the cause of the suffering was key, that only those undergoing explicit persecution for Christ’s sake, people like Paul who are stoned and beaten and imprisoned because they speak of Christ, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Now I wonder if it’s not just the cause of the suffering, but their response that joins their suffering to Christ’s. And, as a result, whether suffering of any cause, or at least a much wider range of causes, can be part of sharing in Christ’s afflictions, depending on how we bear it.

Jesus took into his own body not only our sin, but also our sickness and suffering and pain (Isaiah 53:4). When we, now as part of Christ’s own body in the world, carry in our bodies sickness and grief and the other systemic effects of brokenness that entered the world with the first sin, and when we let Christ in whom we live turn those deaths into life for us and for others, are we not also sharing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church and the world? 

“Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)

Paul himself sometimes lumps his personal, likely physical, sufferings, in with insults and persecutions, seeing them all as places to experience God’s life-giving strength being made perfect in his weakness.

“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Everything we suffer was carried by Jesus on the cross, and since it is all part of his sufferings, we can share in his sufferings if we live our sufferings with him, letting them press us close to Christ and become part of the way he both transforms us (James 1:2-4) and uses us to encourage others as they see God’s sustaining presence and comfort in our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

As I bike the return route, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through the leaves that are at their most glorious in their dying, all shades of ripe tomato and sun-tinted goldenrod and the orange of a Thanksgiving pumpkin.

The roots that help us stand

Many summers, as I’ve walked with camera in hand, I’ve ended up with hundreds of sunrise and sunset photos. This summer, different things caught my attention: spiderwebs pearled with morning dew, bright red mushrooms and white bracket fungi, children learning to balance.

And roots, roots, and more roots.

I saw them knuckled and gnarled, poking up through the carpet of spruce needles. I watched them lifting slabs of concrete sidewalk into uneven planks. And I noticed them hanging free where waves had worn away the soil in which they’d first settled and grown.

Perhaps I noticed them more than usual because at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Tacklind’s book, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility. It had arrived in the mail a month or so before my August vacation, and after I’d read the first few pages, I set it aside to take with me. I could tell from those first few pages that it was a book I wanted to linger with, reading slowly and letting it question me as much as I questioned it. I was not disappointed.

Near the beginning of the book, Tacklind tells how he sensed God saying to him, “This is who you are.” 

“I looked up and in front of me was this thin, white tree, standing alone in the midst of the creek bed. A white alder. It caught me off guard.

This tree? This unimpressive, wan, frail-looking specimen?

My heart pushed back, resisting the image and the calling that came with it. It wasn’t just the tree itself that made me withdraw, but where it grew, this rocky middle place. . .” (p. 15)

It’s not easy living in the middle places of life. And yet it’s in the middle places, the uncomfortable, lonely places where we recognize our lack of control and our desperate need for God, that our faith deepens. 

“. . .[T]he white alder alone remains in this barren space. This is because of several unique strengths the tree possesses that allow it to endure where other trees are uprooted and perish. It is incredibly flexible. When the floods come, it concedes. It bends. . . 

But it is not simply the pliability of the alder wood that allows it to remain. Its root system also is distinct. It possesses what is called a taproot: essentially the trunk of the tree continues to grow down and down, digging deeper and deeper in its thirst for more of the water it needs to survive. Not only does the taproot allow the alder to endure the floods, it also allows the tree to survive when the creek’s water level is at its lowest. Oak and pine trees have breadth but not necessarily depth. Their shallower root systems cannot endure the barrenness of the middle place when the soil and nourishment they need have been leached away.” (p. 16)

Everyone I’ve met who is wise and grace-filled has suffered deeply. Those who shine with Christ’s beauty have allowed suffering to press them deep into Christ, pushing down to find the water that they need in that barren place. 

Wise men and women throughout the ages agree: suffering is a necessary part of becoming truly alive and holy and whole:

“Wisdom comes only through suffering.”—Aeschylus

“To be most fertile, the soil must first be torn up; and shall not thy soul accept suffering for the sake of better growth?” —Ivan Panin

“The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust – not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.” —Brennan Manning

It’s not suffering itself that brings about transformation. It’s grace. And it’s choice. Will I put my energy into fighting the suffering, or will I let it press me into Christ? Will my roots spread wide as I seek relief in things around me, or will they go deep as I turn again and again to God, pouring out the honest emotions and lingering in God’s presence long enough to let him meet me there as the One who is both the slain Lamb, suffering with and for me, and the Lion of Judah seated on the throne?

I’ve been pondering all this again in the midst of the worst flare of my chronic illness that I’ve had for years. For me, both the greatest pain and the greatest gift comes not in the physical limitations, but in what those limitations show me about the strength and location of my roots. Sure, it’s unpleasant feeling exhausted and light-headed and finding my eyes unable to focus. But it’s more painful to discover, as I need to back out of commitments and accept help with shopping and cleaning and cooking, how much I still care about what people think of me. (Will they think I’m lazy? Selfish? Irresponsible?)

I see how my roots spread wide, seeking affirmation from those around me. The seeing is painful, and yet it’s a gift. Seeing makes sense of the struggle within me. It calls me to keep opening this part of myself to God’s healing love, to choose again and again to follow him and not let my fears of what others might think guide my decisions. In other words, it invites me to pray and act in ways that let my taproot grow deeper and deeper into the spring of Life rather than relying on my superficial root systems for runoff.

The process isn’t comfortable, but I’m grateful for the dryness of this place that is pushing me to dig deep for water. And in the moments I don’t know how to proceed, how to let my struggles press me into God? Here I’m encouraged by the promises that accompany the challenge:

“Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing.  If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.”

—James 1:2-5, The Voice (bold mine)

God writes a better story

I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It’s so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control. 

“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.

Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.

As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me. 

Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits. 

What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?

A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That’s not just a different story, it’s a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.

Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I’d love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it’s the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

How the long road can be grace

Six of us from my soulcare group were gathered with a table in our midst. The person leading the reflection that night had decided to do something different. She had spread on the table a selection of fifteen or so different photos from her recent pilgrimage—a slightly open door with a shaft of light entering, a path with a cross at the end, a stained glass window. She asked us each to select a photo that touched us emotionally, either attracting us or repelling us, and then led us through a series of questions, helping us pay attention to why the photo was touching us and how God might be wanting to speak to us through it.

I struggled to choose a photo. I wanted the blue and mauve and gold stained glass that showed God the Father upholding his Son on the cross. I tried to choose that one. But as my friend started to ask the questions, I realized I had to put that one back on the table and pick up instead the plain one with the long and winding path. The dusty, boring one with only a few greyed colors in the whole image.

It was the night before my first appointment in a new complex chronic diseases clinic, and the realities of my illness were more on my mind than I often allow them to be. I didn’t want them to be stealing my focus, but sometimes sadness is there and when it is, it’s best to be honest about it. Not that I find that easy. I’d found myself wanting to pull away that evening, to stay home and avoid the vulnerability of the group. It was only as we were sharing what was going on in us over a meal that I’d realized why it had been so hard for me to come: I was afraid that if I was honest about struggling with the same issues again, or didn’t have energy to keep up my part of the relationship equally, that even those close to me would get tired and leave.

My head knows better. One of the great gifts of this group is the space for us all to be honest about our struggles and walk with each other through them. My heart still sometimes fears. I don’t like that. I want to be able to fix my heart, to have perfect trust, and not ten years from now but today. Or, preferably, yesterday.

But though, by God’s grace, we do change, that work is slow. As my spiritual director often says, “Soul work is slow work.” And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need to be reminded again and again that the goal of our journey is far less about reaching perfection (particularly the way my frightened part defines it, as getting rid of my same old struggles, never messing up, and generally being able to be the strong one, the one helping others) and far more about increasingly opening to love and learning humility and both receiving and offering vulnerability and grace.

And if the goal isn’t so much about arriving as about learning to know the One with whom we walk, maybe that long and winding route is the shortest path. It’s there in the weary days that we discover God’s faithful gentleness in the journey.

I see this in Israel’s journey:

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Exodus 13:17-18

Sometimes we’re ambivalent about freedom. We need the longer winding path to experience God’s faithful presence and provision again and again before we can trust enough to step into the freedom God offers. As it was with Israel, the winding path may be part of God’s gentleness and commitment to working within our limitations and making it easy enough for us that we don’t turn back in terror.

And sometimes God is slow to heal struggles because if he removed them all at once, they’d be replaced by something worse. Paul’s thorn kept him from pride (2 Cor 12:7). The persistence of the other tribes in the promised land kept the land from being overrun by thistles and wild animals:

“I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hives, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.” 

Exodus 23:29

The longer route can allow us to grow in ways we need to grow in order to receive the gifts waiting for us.

That night of our soulcare group meeting, I needed to be honest with God, myself, and my friends about my sadness and fear. I needed to sit with the picture I didn’t want and be on the part of the path that felt the same as last month and the month before and that stretched into the distance with no change in sight. And there was grace in that—the healing grace of tears, and of recognizing again that more than I want a stained glass life I want to walk close with Jesus. There was the grace of being reminded that even if I can’t see the end, the path does lead somewhere beautiful and even if this particular snapshot shows only this winding path, it’s only one small snapshot amidst all the other bits and pieces that make up this life and the infinite life to come.

And there was the grace of being allowed to bring home the stained glass photo as well and sit with it and remember that more than anyone else ever could, Jesus understands. And that even when fear or loneliness or something else is snapping at our feet, and even when we can’t see God, He is present, quietly upholding us in gentle and powerful love.

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Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission.