The hands that keep holding

There’s a huge, turreted home that I pass on my morning runs. It sits well back from the road, peeking out from behind giant rhododendrons heavy with mauve blossom and trees squat or tall, blue-green or russet, leafy or needled. A black, wrought-iron fence surrounds it all, a boundary preserving the peace.

It’s beautiful. But for a while, when I ran past it, I could only feel the lead ball of grief in my gut.

It is a children’s hospice, and one morning when I’d passed it, I’d seen a woman sitting in her SUV with the lights on. She was still there when I ran back past. I wondered if she knew that the lights were still on, or if she would be surprised when she tried to start the car and her battery was dead. I walked to her window to ask. She thanked me. But when I said goodbye, wishing her a good day, her “thank you” seemed to hold a sadness that couldn’t be hidden even by her calm graciousness.
For days, the car was there each time I ran past. And then it wasn’t. And I could no longer run past without picking up once again the grief that I’d sensed in that mother. I was willing to share it, glad to pray for her and for them and for all the families and staff in the hospice. But some days it seemed too heavy and I wondered whether I’d have to change my route. Until a friend challenged me to change my perspective.
She’d been inside, in where they have king-sized beds so the whole family can sleep together. In where there are always fresh-baked cookies and home-made meals, a room for art and another for music and a grand staircase welcoming families in. “It doesn’t feel sad inside,” she said. It’s a place where smiles are treasured, pain is soothed, and grief is shared. It seems, in many ways, more about life than death. About finding life and hope and even joy in the same place as the devastation of death.
Here, where life and death walk together, neither laughter nor tears have to be checked at the door. Whole families come and stay for breaks before the final days arrive, continuing with play and school, and when that final time comes, they return here to a place where they already know themselves loved and cared for. In between, they can call from home in the middle of the night and find a familiar voice ready to help. And after their child dies, families continue to receive care.


Now, when I run past, I give thanks. I see in my mind a pair of great Hands cupping the whole estate, and I feel welcomed in through the open gate, into that place of knowing myself held. I feel the tenderness in those hands, the strength, the love that is stronger than death. I relax and breathe more deeply, soaking in the peace that comes from knowing that these families are being cared for, that I am too, and my own family. That no matter what comes, we will be held. I can breathe in the world’s pain, and then let it go into the hands of the One who has already lifted it and let it crush him and has come out the other side, strong and vibrant and still perfectly loving, and always ready to care—often through human hands (whether they know it or not)—for all of us in all of our pain.

The surprising secret to learning endurance


How do I keep going? At some point, all of us will probably ask this question as we face one situation or another that seems to go on and on: the challenging marriage, the noisy neighbors, the work or the pain or the child or the pager that keeps us up all night.
How do we hang in through the challenges and let them do their work in us, not breaking us, not making us bitter, but pushing us closer to Jesus and deeper into God’s love?
There’s a place for discernment: Am I being asked to stay in this situation? Is there some change I’m being invited to make, some attitude or belonging or position I’m being invited to let go of at this time?
But often the challenges come in work to which we’ve been called, a relationship to which we’ve committed, or a situation that arises unbidden and must be lived: the illness, the eviction, the normal phases of personal and family life.
How, then, do I learn endurance?
I’m surprised by words in a passage I long ago memorized. How have I not noticed them before?

“[I]f we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (2 Cor 1:6, italics mine).

I’m learning what Paul knows: Determination might be able for a while to produce gritting-my-teeth endurance, but only the comfort of being loved and accompanied can produce patient endurance, that kind of love-based endurance that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).
The startling implication keeps rolling around in my head: We develop endurance not by trying harder but by learning to receive Love’s comfort.
I usually think of endurance as the opposite of comfort. I endure discomfort of one sort or another, and when comfort finally comes, I would no longer say I’m enduring; it feels more like relief or pleasure. But this is one more place where God’s thoughts are not mine, where he turns my perceptions and assumptions up-side-down. Or, rather, right-side-up. The world’s comfort is a comfort that cannot co-exist with suffering. It has to drown it, fix it, or remove it, and therefore it leaves me alone and helpless in the face of suffering, still fearing suffering and trying desperately to fix it. God’s comfort, on the other hand, comes from finding myself loved and accompanied in the suffering. The worst part of suffering is its loneliness, so the more deeply I know I am loved and accompanied, the more fear releases its hold on me.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23).

How, then, in my real daily life, do I learn to receive God’s comfort?
Often it’s a matter of just showing up. When I make the space to come, I find Jesus waiting to comfort me through a few words of Scripture, a lightening of the burden as I hold it out to him, or a simple sense of his presence.
But sometimes there are other barriers: my own fear or anger or sense of failure, or a sense of God’s absence without me knowing why.  What then helps me receive God’s comfort?

  • Reminding my heart that God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). I’m not bothering him, not being wimpy or a failure when I come again for comfort. He wants me in his arms.
  • Being honest with myself and God about my emotions. I can’t receive comfort if I’m trying to hide. (And when it feels too hard to be honest, I can at least be honest about that and receive Jesus” gentle love in that place.)
  • Paying attention to the small things. God is creative and often sends comfort in the hug of a friend, the words of a song, or a few quiet moments with a mug of lemon-ginger tea. As I notice and savor these small gifts, writing them down and turning them over in my memory, I settle a little more deeply into trusting His love that is new every morning.
  • Asking God how he wants to meet me in this place. Sometimes the answer comes through the memory of Jesus’ own suffering and the reminder that someone who understands is walking with me. Sometimes it comes through a few words of Scripture that stand out, or a picture that shapes itself as I prayerfully ponder whether there’s a picture that portrays how I’m feeling.

Over these months as I’ve been waiting to find my new home, I’ve felt like the ground beneath my feet has been removed. (Apparently at least some of where I was finding my security wasn’t so solid!) A picture came of myself suspended in midair, with nothing beneath my feet, my arms clinging to God because he was all I had to cling to. But as I sat recently with the friend who helps me listen, she wondered aloud whether there might be further gift for me in that picture. We sat in silence together, asking Jesus if there was a gift he wanted to give, and my attention was drawn to new parts of the picture. Before, I’d noticed only my arms clinging to Him; now I could now see His strong arms around me. I’d been so focused on the empty space beneath my feet that I hadn’t noticed that I was held, nor realized that I am much safer where I am than standing alone on my own small feet. As the search for housing continues and I seek to learn patient endurance in this place, I’m returning often to this picture, listening again and again to God’s comfort, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.”

 
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Photos (in order) by Emma Simpson and Echo Grid on Unsplash.

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.
I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.
So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.
I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.
I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.
 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

A season of transformation


Some years by now the trees here are already bursting with bloom, but Saturday morning I pulled on my hat and boots and headed out into the thick fresh snow that had descended overnight.
“Lent” comes from a word meaning “spring.” That morning, it didn’t look much like spring.
How do we live this Lent, this season of preparation, when winter seems clearer than spring? How do we live the times when we wonder if the spring will come, the moments when we cry with David, “How long, O Lord?”
I step out of the foot-printed path into the deeper snow to make way for a woman brave enough to run in sneakers, a rim of bare leg showing above her ankle socks.
I slow and pause and enjoy the unique beauty of winter. Even when the benches are covered with snow, we’re invited to linger, to notice how God’s mercy is new on this morning.



Spring is not an isolated season but a moment-by-moment transition from winter to summer, a slow work of transformation when some days winter seems to have the upper hand and other days the fresh scent of irrepressible newness fills the air. Spiky witch hazel blooms poke through caps of snow, sun warms my shoulders when I turn my back to the wind, and snow melts into heavy, crystal drops that fall from burdened pine needles, pitting the bank beneath.



Along the road to spring’s resurrection is the death and dormancy of winter. Winter has its own important work to do in us. Here as nowhere else we learn the lessons of perseverance and patience and grace. We only really know how deeply loved we are when we come face to face with our own helplessness and find ourselves loved even in that place.
Here too we learn about ourselves. What am I clinging to? Where do I find my security? I’ll not quickly forget the words of one of my teachers, “When we’re in the midst of suffering, there is an invitation to let something go.”  What is God inviting me to hold more loosely so my hands are free to hold more tightly to his?
And here we find that the all powerful God who could put an instant end to winter instead enters it, meeting us in it (though it may take a long time for us to recognize the signs of his coming in the cold and dark of winter). As that same teacher said, encapsulating for me one of the key invitations of Lent and of the whole life of discipleship, “Suffering reduces me to the truth that I can’t do this. Oh, right! I have a Savior who was unfairly tortured, crucified, and rose again. Maybe I can talk to him and live this with him.”
We live the cycle of the seasons in many different ways during our lives. Each year, maybe, we live the rhythms of nature, allowing the cold and dark of winter to settle us into a different sort of rhythm than when the summer sun tugs us outdoors to play in its warmth. We live a longer cycle, too, from the newness of infancy through the seasons of planting and harvest of our adult years. But maybe in another way, this whole life on earth is a sort of springtime, a transitional season in which we live in that tension of the soul’s winter which is slowly giving way to Life’s light brightening within us.
The sun was warm that morning that I ran, and by the time I returned home, soft clumps of snow were starting to fall from the branches, denting the drifts below with a soft thud.

Why God calls us to take up our cross

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

As I sat back down in the pew last Wednesday, my forehead marked with a cross of ash, I noticed the little girl, two or three years old, in the front pew, her forehead beneath her fine blond hair also marked with the sign of the cross. Her mother, too, many months pregnant, bore the sign of the cross. In the pew in front of me sat an older man, and a woman in her late nineties, also marked. We are all together here, all level—men and women, infants and elderly, all dust, and all loved.
This year was the first time I remember someone commenting not only on the ash with which we are marked, but on the oil in which the ash is mixed. We are not only dust, but honored and anointed, dust shaped in the image of God and crowned with the honor of living that glorious image in the world.
A few days later, I sit again, this time with my legs stretched out on a couch in the basement office of the home where I’ve been a guest these past few days. The gas fireplace is warm behind me. I look out on a maple tree with every branch and twig weighted with snow. It’s the end of my three day retreat. It has been just what I needed, but not what I planned.
I haven’t been able to control the retreat at all. I couldn’t spend as many hours alone with God as I usually do when I come here. I haven’t spent as many hours soaking in Scripture as I had planned. I haven’t lingered over the reading from my soulcare group meeting, nor discerned God’s specific invitation for me during this Lenten period. But I have come to God as I was and I have been welcomed and rested in the ways that I needed. There has been much needed sleep, and walks in fresh snow, and the restful beauty of trees and water and mountains. There was even the gift of a power outage which encouraged an extra hour or two in bed since it was too cold and dark to get up at my usual hour. There was a roast beef dinner, and fresh scones, and hot soup, and fruit salad with papaya, and a perfect balance of time alone with God and time with people who know how to create safe and restful space. I have received and savored the many gifts God gave and the ways he wanted to meet me this time, and have had the lovely experience of being reminded yet again that my plans are often not best, and of surrendering to God’s gentle love which remembers that I am dust and cares for me physically as well as spiritually. I am leaving here feeling loved and much more rested than when I came.
Maybe, after all, God has led me into his Lenten invitation. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it at first because I was looking for a specific discipline and he was inviting me into something bigger and broader and, for me this year at least, more full of love and life.
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or taking on extra reading if it helps open me to God. Concrete disciplines can be helpful in training my body and soul to follow. But they can also become a way of avoiding surrender and asserting my own control. And in the end, isn’t the purpose of Lent a growing attentiveness to God and surrender to His way of doing things rather than an insistence on my own? Isn’t it about releasing my own plans and attempts to control life and opening a little further to God and his love?
There are always surprises along the way, and the surprise for me this time (though I’ve experienced it so many times before) is that God is immeasurably more kind and gentle with me than I am with myself, and he knows much better than I what I need, and delights to give it. He’s much more interested in love than in sacrifice, and he knows I can only love Him and others  as I settle deeply into his tender love for me. He calls me to take up my cross, to let my own self-determination die, not because he wants me to suffer (though for us self-centered people suffering seems an inevitable part of letting go) but because he wants me to live free in his love and in the abundant life that he offers, and he knows that no matter how hard I try, I can’t make that happen through my own disciplined attempts to control life.

“I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.
I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.”
(Hosea 6:6, The Message)