The Master Jigsaw Puzzler

A month ago, I spent six days on an island with fifteen classmates and several facilitators who were helping us settle more deeply into God’s love ourselves and learn to accompany others on their unique journeys deeper into God’s love.

Near the end of the week, one of the exercises involved putting together a three-piece jigsaw puzzle. I couldn’t get mine to work. At other times that might have felt to me like failure. That day it made me smile, because though I hadn’t had a clue that a jigsaw puzzle exercise was coming, I’d already been living that day in the image of God as the Master Jigsaw Puzzler.

I’d brought a few key questions and struggles into the week, places I couldn’t figure out on my own and hoped God would help me understand more clearly or set me freer to trust. And, through the week, I’d watched God take the questions and desires I offered him and carefully and intentionally put in one piece after another until the answer came clear in a way that I could not only grasp it with my mind but receive it with my heart. A line in a song, a Scripture verse that came alive, a few words that someone else said, or that came out of my own mouth—God was working on all my questions simultaneously, as though taking pleasure in putting together a complex, multidimensional puzzle with masterly skill and ease, and in watching me delight in his creativity.

That’s one of the pictures I keep returning to during this in-between time of knowing I need to move but not yet having a new place to go. The same wise and creative God who showed himself perfectly capable of putting in one piece after another in just the right order and position is still doing the puzzle. Only this time it’s not only pieces inside me and around me he’s removing and replacing. This time he has picked me up and is moving me from one place to another. And this time it’s as though God is doing the puzzle in the dark, and I’m not allowed to see the pieces that he is moving, nor to feel his hand most of the time. All I can feel is the absence of solid ground beneath my feet, and the disorientation of not knowing where I belong. And in that disorientation I’m being asked to remember the picture and to trust that the same God who allowed me to see him doing the jigsaw puzzle a few weeks ago is still at work in my life, and that I don’t have to know where I belong, nor even to feel his hand, to be safe. Whether I feel him or not, whether I can see what he is doing or not, the Master Jigsaw Puzzler has me in his hand, and he knows where I belong and is getting me there.

As we begin the season of Advent, I’m noticing the hand of the Master Jigsaw Puzzler at work in the larger story too. Nothing was random. “But when the right time came, God sent his Son. . .” (Gal 4:4) Jesus came exactly as predicted, born in the right town, at the right time, through the right family line. All exactly right. And yet all totally surprising to those involved in the story. His mother was asked to trust. Her fiancé was asked to trust. And we who, like Mary, are asked to give our “yes” to his coming to live within us are also asked to trust that He is wise, and good, and infinitely, beautifully creative, and that we don’t need to understand when the promises will be fulfilled, or how they will look, for them to be true.

“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” (Phil 1:6, The Message)

 

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Photo credits:

Jigsaw Puzzle photo by Hans-Peter GausterBlack wire art  photo by William Bout. Complex cubes photo by Sebastien Gabriel. Macro snowflake photo by Aaron Burden. All photos from Unsplash.com. Used with permission.

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).

The challenge and glory of change

We speak of four seasons but isn’t each day a shifting and merging and flowing like the colors in the rainbow blend into each other or a baby becomes a toddler becomes a teen with no clear break in between?

In my corner of the world the bushes have started to burn and the leaves to let go their firm hold on the trees while flowering hearts still bleed. Roses bud and bloom and fruit all on the same morning. Flurries are predicted for later this week. I suppose this is fall, but it carries the lingering notes of summer while it leans toward winter.Do we live any day without changing a little in one direction or another?

I run past the roof under construction and somehow it seems right that there are both trees blazing glory and containers collecting garbage out in front. And more than a single warning sign.

There’s a part of me that thinks the signs have it just about right. Change can be a lot about letting go and throwing out, recycling and relearning and the pain-filled messiness of becoming. Danger: construction zone. I wish I could have a redo of an hour last week, find some kinder way to offer thoughts so that both of our becomings might have been less painful.
I grieve the leaving of another beloved pastor.
I mourn another aspect of illness.

Even good change involves loss and to heal we need to feel and we need to grieve. But creation seems to remember what this human often seems to forget: Change is not only loss, and there can be brightest glory in the letting go.

I see another tree and on it the One who shone brightest in the dying.

Every death into Christ carries the promise of resurrection, every letting go an invitation to let go into God and find ourselves more deeply loved than we could have imagined.

Each truly beautiful person I’ve met has had their share of suffering. They’ve been rolled and polished like pebbles tumbled by the waves. They’ve let go of possessions, certainty, dreams. They’ve learned to live with hands held open, reaching for the hand of God rather than clenched around anything else. It’s a lifetime’s learning.

Change can be messy and grief-filled. But change can also be grace, opening us to God, re-tinting us so we blaze glory. Change can make us more human, more awake, more fully alive. It can show us who God is and who we are and keep us clinging close, our imaged glory flaming to life as we fill with light from the Source.Why do I fear the little daily dyings that life holds when the One in whom life holds together holds me?

The sun sets to rise again, and with its rising, always new mercies.
Leaves fall and new buds spring.
An infant leaves the comfort of the womb to begin a fuller, freer life outside.

What, today, am I being asked to let go of so something new, in its time, can spring?
Knowing myself rooted in the One who is Life, can I let go with hope, maybe even with celebration?

God’s Art

There’s a stretch of beach near me that I’ve only recently discovered. As sunlight slowly slips around the corner, herons watch, waiting for breakfast. Ducks paddle and preen. Leaves and rocks and bits of broken shell shine in the morning sun as though awakening to a kiss, awakening once more into the miracle of finding themselves loved just as they are.

I pause there to savour the beauty. But it’s when I round the next corner that I stop. The sun hasn’t yet reached this spot, but there’s a piece of God’s art lying large as though calling me to come and look, and to look until I see not only the art but the heart of its Maker. Lying on its side in the sand, its bulk stands taller than me. Judging by its girth, this tree-giant had for hundreds of years been a living thing. Judging by its multi-layered beauty, it had then been long tossed and tumbled, sharply carved and gently caressed, honed and hollowed and hallowed and polished by the hand of God wielding waves. One night, perhaps during a fierce storm, or one morning at high tide, this giant had finally come to rest. Now it lies in a living gallery, freely offering its beauty to all who care to pause and look. It comforts me, this reminder of the grand Artist who holds me, holds you, holds this whole world and all the forces of life and death within it, and can turn it all into art.

Driftwood

Struck down, it passes through the waters,

makes its bed in the depths.

Twisted,

tossed,

tangled

in the cords of its watery grave

it is hallowed

by the hovering Holy,

hollowed by the Hand

that holds

in the deep dark

summoning

from the struck-down-but-not-destroyed

a masterpiece.

 

Each wave winds

crevice curls

wind wrinkles into kairos

a beneath-the-surface

moment of creation,

of transformation,

of slowly-increasing glory.

For further reflection: Genesis 1:1-2; Isaiah 43:1-3; Psalm 18:4-6, 16-19; 139:7-8, 11-16; 2 Cor 3:17-18, 4:7-9; Eph 2:9-10

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)