What to do with mixed motives

dsc_0061I can’t help but wonder: Why, after Peter had gotten over the shock of seeing Jesus walking towards them on the water, did he ask to join him in that adventure?

What was behind Peter’s request, impetuous Peter who later cut off the ear of the soldier in the garden, who resisted Jesus washing his feet and then wanted his whole self washed, who, the first time he saw Jesus after he had denied that he knew him, when he happened to be in a boat and saw Jesus on the shore, put his heavier clothes back on and jumped into the water, running to Jesus.

What motivated his request in the middle of this dark, stormy night, to come to Jesus on the water? Could he just not wait the few more seconds to be close to Jesus? Or was it bravado? A need to feel significant or prove himself special or worthy of love and respect? A sense of adventure? A desire to be with Jesus and do as he did? Or some mix of all of these in various unidentified proportions?

The wondering came as I was puzzling over something in my own story. How do I hold together the sense that God called me to Afghanistan and that I went out of love for him with the awareness (that I didn’t see at the time) that I was probably also trying to prove myself loveable or worthy or special or important or somehow find my place in the world?

It seems like such grace and generosity from our creative and very adventuresome Master that Jesus didn’t try to sort through all the layers of motivation, of brokenness mixed with love and desire. It was enough that somewhere in the mix was Peter’s desire to be with Jesus, and Jesus responded to that. Peter asked Jesus to call him to come, and Jesus said, “Of course. Come. Always.”

It feels like an invitation to me too, not to bother trying to dissect all the layers of my motivation, just to ask Jesus for what I want—him to call me close—and trust him to see and honor the truest level of my desire.

Jesus knows that being close to him is exactly what is needed to take care of those other bits in the mix.

Accepted!

dscn6980

“God came as a baby!” I overhear one mom saying to a new mom looking a little worn out with the care of her totally helpless newborn who needs to be changed and fed and cuddled night and day. A friend writes it in a newsletter, “He came not as a triumphant King, but a tiny, vulnerable baby, so that we would see He knows our weakness and our struggles.” Another friend explores the wonder of it on her blog: God needy?!

I’m hearing the familiar truth this year against the backdrop of a question I recently read, a question God seems to be asking me, “I can accept you as you are—but can you?”

I hear it in a multitude of versions:

I can accept you as you are—with your tendency to withdraw when you feel like you’re failing—but can you?

I can accept you as you are—with your fear and your questions—but can you?

I can accept you as you are—even with your struggle to accept your own limited, sinful self and rest in My love. Can you?

At first a little voice in my head asks if it’s really God I’m hearing. It sounds like the gentle, welcoming voice of the God I’ve come to love, but what about those verses about being perfect? Does God really accept me as I am, or does he want to change me? Slowly I’m realizing that acceptance and change are not only not mutually exclusive but necessarily intertwined. It is only in finding myself accepted as I am that I can change in ways that are deeper than the masks I wear. When I accept that I’m accepted, I begin to relax. My defenses come down and I open to love, and that love reshapes me from the inside so that I become loving too.

Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as he is, inviting himself over for the meal which makes public Jesus’ acceptance of him, and that love turns Zacchaeus’ grabbing, hoarding nature into one which gives and loves and makes right.

Jesus accepts Peter as he is, a tempestuous follower who in one instant is brazenly slicing off an attacker’s ear to defend his Lord and in the next denying he ever knew him. And through Jesus’ acceptance as he looks at Peter rather than looking away after Peter speaks those words of denial, through Jesus’ acceptance as he gives Peter a three-fold chance to reaffirm his love coupled with Jesus’ own threefold affirmation of acceptance, Peter is transformed into a rock who will not again deny his Lord even when it costs him his life.

“I can accept you as you are”—isn’t that the point of Peter’s vision of the unclean animals . . . and of the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles . . . and of the whole book of Galatians—that we don’t have to follow the law or cut off parts of ourselves or otherwise make ourselves “perfect” in order to be accepted? That, in fact, we are missing the whole point of the gospel if we insist on trying to make this sort of perfection a prerequisite for acceptance? Only in Galatians is the severest possible curse—“let them be eternally condemned”—leveled, (twice!), and it is against those who preach that we can’t trust this love, that we are not accepted unless we first shape up.

I look back again to the baby—God accepting us so fully as to become one of us, taking on our flesh with its limitations and eccentricities, and continuing to wear it—complete with scars—into eternity.

This is the point of the cross, too—not judgment (we would then be on that cross), but an acceptance deep enough that Jesus hangs there in our place, arms open in embrace.

The God who became needy, accepting us in our neediness, became sin, accepting us in the worst of our offenses.

The table-top tree stands in the corner, dressed with tiny red and gold crosses, reminding me that the incarnation which we celebrate speaks the deepest of acceptance. The manger scene sits underneath, and a dove with the word “Peace” perches near the tree’s top, inviting me to respond, to surrender to the peace that comes with knowing myself accepted as I am.

When you want to make a difference in the world

dscn5223

There are those moments in life where you are given the gift of seeing Jesus do in your own life what he promises to do in everyone who believes in him. All of a sudden you know by heart what you had known by word. You know by experience what you had known by faith.

One of those moments happened for me recently. In the middle of a conversation, I found myself a bit short of breath. I was surprised, since I didn’t otherwise feel anxious. As I explored the experience later, it turned out to be a huge gift that opened up for me greater understanding—experienced understanding—of Jesus’ words:

“‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39)

During our conversation, I had felt a bigger-than-me compassion for the person across from me. As I prayed about the experience later, I discovered that there was some anxiety underneath—was I listening well? asking good questions? being helpful?—but it had been swallowed up by the love flooding through me. Only the tip of the anxiety, masked as shortness of breath, poked through like the tip of a rock in a rushing river, a gift left to remind me that the love flooding through me hadn’t come because I had managed to pluck out all the rocks and make the river bed smooth. The love was sheer gift, not my own, and not dependent on anything I had done except to believe (and even the ability to do that was a gift).

And I saw all over again:

My job is never to be the river, just the banks between which the river flows.

The freedoms are many:

I don’t have to be afraid of myself, not even my rocky places. God is eager to pour himself into and through me, rushing over and around the rocks, covering and caressing and smoothing them into submission. God’s love pouring through me wears the channel deeper and shapes the banks according to the pattern of the water’s flow, doing in me what I can never do no matter how hard I try to shape myself into Christ’s image.

And so my calling is not to walk bent over, scouring the riverbed for rocks. Persistent worry about flaws, limitations, and even sins makes as much sense as my scouring the rocky bed of a river trying to pick out every little stone so the water can come. The water floods in as a gift to all those who drink deep of Jesus, not as a reward for those who have managed to make the riverbed perfectly smooth. (Thank God!)

My calling is to lift up my head and drink deep of Jesus’ love and then get on with loving others with the love he pours into me. 

Learning (again) to walk

img_0751

I watch people walking across the bridge outside my window, confidently, even mindlessly, placing one foot in front of another. But it’s the memory of a child taking her tentative first steps that helps me understand God’s commands: “Walk by the Spirit.” “Walk in love.” “Walk as children of light.”

Walking is something learned, something risked, and, as Wangerin points out in his description of living by faith, or “faithing,” a continuous loss of stability:

“Faithing is the constant losing of one’s balance, the constant falling forward (which is the risk required even for so common a locomotion as walking). It is the constant loss of stability, the denying one’s self and dying into God. . .” (Wangerin, The Orphean Passages, p.10)

I’ve been living this loss of balance lately. I returned a few weeks ago from a week of classes in which we were learning to listen more deeply to God’s voice as he speaks through and between all the other voices that are active in our minds and bodies and emotions. I returned home to an inbox full of emails that I’d ignored through the week, a deep longing to open further to God, and a busy stretch on my calendar. My mind was full and busily trying to bring order to it all, resisting my attempts to be still and rest in God. My carefully honed schedule was unsettled as I made space for new assignments and appointments and wonderings.

The loss of stability has been uncomfortable. But comfort (finally) came as I remembered that losing one’s balance is a normal and necessary part of walking.

I cheer Wangerin for telling the truth, resisting the appealing temptation to portray “faith” as a noun. As much as I might like faith to be something settled and predictable and safe, something I can cling to, it isn’t. Faith is a verb, an activity, a continual choice to trust as we grow and change and therefore as relationships, including our relationship with God, grow and change.

I see again the baby learning to walk, her little hand held in her dad’s large one, and lines of the poem that has wound itself through these past few months return to mind:

“. . . It is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time . . .

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

When winds pick up

As I walked home one night from a soaking prayer evening, the world around looked like it had been soaking in God’s love too. All was still, a perfect reflection, tinted golden.

The scene that met me the next morning was completely different.

img_1265

Winds whipped dark water into jagged whitecaps. Even when I managed to peek between strands of hair that whipped across my face, blinding me, I couldn’t see a single reflection. Not even a broken one. Only rough turmoil.

I ran anyway, leaning hard into the wind that resisted every stride.

Rounding the corner, I saw numerous small boats anchored out in the deep water, well away from the shore. I watched one boat as wave after wave threatened to roll over it, then tilted the bow up and rolled underneath, threatening to dunk the stern. The little boat stayed afloat.

At first I felt sorry for whoever might have been on those boats. All that rolling. I began to feel seasick just watching.

But I rounded another corner and changed my mind. What’s a little seasickness once you see a boat that sits tilted, fixed and unmoving, gripped by the rock on which it has run aground? One wave after another hit hard, sending spray over the boat that shuddered and groaned but could not roll, could not rise and fall with each wave. Each wave pounded and tore and fractured the boat a little more as it sat, fixed and helpless, in the shallows.

When winds rise, I often forget that deep water is safer. I fear the waves, the rolling seasickness of change. It’s not hard to imagine myself spread eagle, clinging with all my might to a slippery black rock, trying to keep myself safe while the waves pound me to pieces.

But slowly I’m learning that the real danger isn’t the waves at all, but my clinging to control, to supposed security, when winds rise.

Slowly I’m learning to hear in the voice of the wind the summons to move out of the shallows, out of the clinging to the familiar, the apparently secure, out into the deep, deep love of Jesus where alone we are safe.

“Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean

In its fullness over me

Underneath me, all around me

Is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward

To your glorious rest above.” (Samuel Francis)