What (many of us) grown-ups have forgotten

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I sit with the friend who most intentionally helps me listen for God’s voice in my life and confess that lately I’ve been coming up against the hard truth that every single thing I’d like to be able to think about myself is not true, not the way I’d like it to be. I’d like to think of myself as disciplined, but the chocolate in the kitchen drawer could tell another story. I’d like to describe myself as gentle, but then I hear the harsh voice in my head berating me again.

She listens and questions and shares how she’s been back in the story of the little boy’s lunch again and has been realizing, That little boy probably had no idea that what he was offering was utterly inadequate. He’d simply overheard the adults asking if anyone had any food. “Here, you can have mine,” he’d said.

I picture Jesus smiling at him as he accepts from the boy’s hands the five little rolls of bread, a bit crumbly and squished, and the two small fish that have been sitting all day in the hot sun. Jesus smiles at the boy and winks, the two of them sharing a secret. The little boy smiles and winks back. He doesn’t yet know the whole secret and he might not be able to put into words the part that he does know, but somewhere deep down his heart knows the truth that the worried grown-ups have forgotten: Placed in the hands of Jesus, what I have to offer is enough for whatever Jesus wants to do with it. 

Babies hold out soggy cheerios in their newly-mastered pincer grip and toddlers extend dandelion bouquets in chubby fists with full confidence that their offering will bring delight. Only grown-ups are ashamed of their gifts.

Little children seem to know something else we adults have forgotten: It’s not really about the gift at all. It’s about the relationship. The children are offering their love, their trust, themselves, to someone who loves them. What could be not to love about that?

Jesus isn’t critiquing our soggy cheerios; he’s savoring our love and our trust.

Here, you can have me, I say to Jesus, watching him smile and open his arms to receive the gift. I can’t keep myself from smiling back.

And so during August I’m setting aside (as best I can) the part of me that thinks I always have to do more to make my gift acceptable. I’m stepping back from blogging and other writing so I can be fully present to Jesus and family and friends, giving myself rather than what I produce and polish. And while some critical adult voice in my head says, “I can’t believe you’re going to write that,” the little girl part of me that is smiling at Jesus smiling at me shrugs and takes Jesus’ hand and skips off, borrowing my parting words from Lynn Ungar’s poem, “Camas Lilies”:

                                         “. . . Gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back

when I’m through with blooming.”  

Above all, trust . . .

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Twenty-three days ago, a friend who came for dinner brought three yellow roses. Two aged as expected, their heads drooping after seven or ten days, begging to be laid to rest. The third chose a route I’ve never seen before, its face straight up as though transfixed by the light, still standing tall and strong while age continues to creep in from the edges, crisping its petals from a silky baby yellow to a richly veined gold.

It makes me think, somehow, of my Grannie whom I watched deepen in grace through her eighties. Just a few days before she died, less than two months short of her ninetieth birthday, she wrote in her Bible next to Luke 2:25, “New Year’s resolution: everything for God.”

Rob Des Cotes often used to ask young people with whom he was walking what kind of old person they wanted to be. He encouraged them to start preparing now for the kind of person they want to be then because the journey to the character of a wise elder consists, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully described it, of “a long obedience in the same direction.”

I’m not so young anymore but I’m not old either and I’ve been considering Rob’s question this week as I’ve been drawn again and again to the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. I read them first punctuating a fellow pilgrim’s blog post. I posted them on facebook, wrote them in my journal, began to memorize them: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God . . .1

What kind of old person do I want to be? I want to be characterized by what Paul said is “the only thing that counts”—“faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6) I have a long way to go. But I have realized that each time I come face to face with my own inadequacy or fear or sin, I am given a chance to develop the character I want. I can focus on my failures (which leads me away from faith and love into self-condemnation and a drivenness born of a desperation to make myself lovable) or I can focus on the gentle, ongoing work of God. Actually trust it. Not just bemoan its slowness, post the poem on my bathroom mirror, or write it in my journal. Trust in the slow work of God. Lean my weight on it. Tie my hope to it. Look at Jesus again and again and see him loving me. Linger in one of the images of surrender I wrote about last week, knowing myself embraced, carried, cared for rather than conquered. Get up and go out in the sun to reach between the thorns and pick, one by one, the graces that hang ripe and juicy and sweet on the vines, begging to be brought home and savored and shared.

Trust in the slow work of God: It seems a slightly altered echo of the words I’ve been hearing for weeks, “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

God’s work is slow. I wonder how many of the graces that I saw grow in my Grannie in her eighties she had asked for in her forties, or in her teens? And God’s slow work is beautiful. I see Grannie again, sometime in her last few years, setting aside her proper British upbringing with a chuckle and a glint in her eye to lick her dessert plate in response to a dare. I want to be that kind of young old person—the kind with soft baby yellow peeking out between deeply-veined gold, the kind with increasing freedom and playfulness born of opening to love and choosing again and again to trust God’s slow work.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. I can because, as the apostle Paul assures, “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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1Here, for the curious among you, is the rest of the poem I’ve been savoring:

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.


We are quite naturally impatient in everything


to reach the end without delay.


We should like to skip the intermediate stages.


We are impatient of being on the way to something


unknown, something new.


And yet 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.

 

And so I think it is with you;


your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,


let them shape themselves, without undue haste.


Don’t try to force them on,


as though you could be today what time


(that is to say, grace and circumstances


acting on your own good will)


will make of you tomorrow.

 

Only God could say what this new spirit


gradually forming within you will be.


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, SJ

excerpted from Hearts on Fire

When you struggle with surrender

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Surrender and receiving: The juxtaposition of the two words hit me so forcibly that I didn’t catch the rest of the sentence and, two sentences later, had to interrupt my conversation partner to admit that I’d missed everything she’d said since.

I usually think of surrender not as receiving but as giving. Giving up. Giving myself up.

Words can be dangerous, lugging baggage that colors our perception even when we’re not aware of it. In our world, surrender is often a word of defeat, carrying with it a sad, grey picture of soldiers who, knowing they are conquered, give up control of territory and their own freedom. What was once fear has become incontrovertible reality so they give in and stop fighting, hoping at least to preserve their lives.

But surrender as receiving? My wartime picture has no room for this. A suspicion creeps in: Might the fear I sometimes feel of surrendering to God and his will reflect this underlying picture that I didn’t even know was there until I was stopped and asked to think about it? Are there other pictures which might hold space for a truer understanding of what it means to surrender to God and his will? Slowly, they begin to appear:

A swimmer floats on her back, letting the water lift and hold her.

Be still and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)

A boat surrenders to the current and is carried much farther and faster than if its occupants had poured all their power into paddling.

The LORD will fight for you, you need only to be still. (Exodus 14:14)

A drowning man stops flailing and fighting his rescuer and lets himself be dragged ashore.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. . . . He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” (Ps. 18:16,19)

I walk in Van Deusen Gardens with a good friend. I have no sense of direction. She has a great one, and I am glad to put myself in her hands and let her choose our route.

“Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for GOD’S voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.” (Prov 3:5-6 MSG)

A screaming toddler, exhausted and not knowing what to do with herself, slowly surrenders to the strong and gentle arms that enfold her, letting her eyes close and her head rest on the shoulder of one who loves her, letting the weight of her body, her too-big emotions, her needs for security and comfort be held by someone bigger and more competent than her. She lets go of striving, grasping, trying to figure out things too hard for her and allows herself to settle into the love of the one who brought her into being.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.” (Ps 131)

As the pictures flow past, their common theme becomes clear: God is love, so surrendering to God is always surrendering to love.

Letting go is letting go of that which keeps me from enjoying that love.

Giving up is giving up whatever gets in the way of my living freely in that love.

Giving myself up is giving myself fully into the care of that love which loves me deeply enough to slowly, gently, set me free to become my true self in God, a self free enough to love in return.

When we surrender to Love, giving and receiving are two sides of the same act.

Why you can dare to enjoy the process

Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera

Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera

Its colors grace my living room now, a tangible reminder of the resurrection hope who lives in me even when I can’t feel him. Today, as I remember the painting’s beginnings, it offers another hopeful reminder: the Artist who is shaping me into my true self is skilled enough to welcome me freely and fearlessly into the creative process.

The painting began one day about four years ago. I was to be the first to put paint on the fresh canvas.

I could hardly wait. That in itself was a small miracle.

The teacher in my mandatory high school art class once told me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.” If I hadn’t been afraid to pick up a paintbrush before that, I certainly had been since. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what people would think.

So why my excitement? What had changed?

I was sharing a home with an artist. This was her idea. She had done it before with people who, in their words, ‘can’t paint.’ She told me I couldn’t ruin the picture.

Sometimes, for people afraid to begin, she would take a brush and scribble across the canvas to emphasize: they could not spoil the painting.

She went before, showing me how to hold the brush and where to start and how to mix the paint. She came behind, and however my brush stroked the canvas, the brush of the master artist incorporated and surrounded, and the first strokes of a not-so-timid-anymore but still-mostly-untrained artist became a seamless part of the beauty.

I could let go and enter the process with joy, knowing that my strokes were small and few in the bigger picture, trusting the promise and the promiser: As I worked together with the master artist, I could not ruin the picture.

There are days I need that reminder again. Most days, if I’m honest. Every day, actually. I need the Master Artist to whisper again and again in my ear, “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” I need him to remind me once again that I can relax and enjoy the process because I’m not the sole creator of my life. The Master Artist, brush in hand, is not only coaching but coming behind, filling and surrounding and incorporating dark and light into unbelievable beauty. He promises that, as we work together, every stroke I make on my canvas, the careful ones, the let-go-and-have-fun ones, the ones where I really mess up badly, as well as every loving touch or careless scribble or angry slash that someone else makes across my canvas, will be used in the shaping of the final glorious image—Christ in me.

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son. . .  (Romans 8:28-29 NLT)

When God teaches you to fight

Twenty years earlier, the young man had run away from his brother who was threatening to kill him. He’d spent those twenty years breaking his back for his father-in-law who seemed to take perverse pleasure in finding new ways to rip him off.

He’d worked seven years to be allowed to marry the woman he loved, only to discover on the morning after his wedding night that the wrong woman was with him in bed. “It’s not our custom to marry off the younger before the elder,” his father-in-law had shrugged. So the young man had worked another seven years in exchange for the woman he really loved.

And then for another six years, he had continued to tend the flocks of his father-in-law, his father-in-law changing his wages every time he could conceive a new way that he might possibly be able to pay him a little less. Finally, with the situation continuing to worsen, God said, “Enough. I’ve seen what your father-in-law has been doing to you. It’s time for you to go home.”

The not-so-young-anymore man set out amidst another layer of drama (packing up his household and running away, one of his wives stealing her father’s household gods, and a week-long cross-country chase by his irate father-in-law culminating in a nasty confrontation).

A little further along, the man hears that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. His breath shortens and his mouth dries. What am I doing going home? The last time I saw my brother, he wanted to kill me! His throat tightens and his heart pounds, and he cries out to God for protection. And that’s where the already action-packed story gets even more intriguing.

God doesn’t come with comforting words or a reassuring guarantee of protection. He pulls him into a night-long wrestling match.

Why, after years of traumatic experiences, when someone cries for help, would God come to him in the form of a human assailant?

All encounters with God are mysterious and multilayered and I expect there are many layers of healing taking place. Perhaps God is confronting the sin that caused the young man to have to run in the first place since, in asking his name, God elicits a confession: “My name is Jacob—deceiver.” Perhaps he is removing the disgrace of that identity and giving him a fresh start, rooted in this encounter with God, by renaming him and then blessing him. And perhaps, face to face, hand to hand, God is teaching Jacob the deceiver what it feels like to confront head-on instead of to manipulate and sneak and hide. Perhaps for Jacob, learning to fight fair is part of his discipleship.

Perhaps, for many of us, learning to stand up and fight—at all, or in a new way—is part of our discipleship.

David cried out for God to rescue him. God did—and then trained David’s own hands for battle, arming him with strength to be able to defeat the enemies that had previously rendered him terrified and helpless (Psalm 18).

Ezekiel’s formation as a prophet involved God pulling him, quite literally, to his feet and making him strong and stubborn enough to do the job God was calling him to do (Ezekiel 2:1-2, 3:7-9).

I see God wrestling with Jacob and I find myself face to face again with a trauma counselor who once had me stand and push as hard as I could against her hands. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight or you will lie down and cry.

 

Part of me wishes it wasn’t this way. That part of me would rather discipleship were all about growing in gentleness, in quiet contemplation, surrender, trust. But Mulholland challenges me:

“We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way?” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 45)

And—surrender? trust? I write those words and feel myself cornered by a stronger Love who whispers that his embrace isn’t always what I’d expect. That genuine surrender means being open to him in whatever way he comes. That growing in trust might look right now like raising my arms and stepping into the wrestling ring with the divine assailant who stands before me, hands raised, calling me into the freedom of wholeness which involves body as well as soul, confrontation as well as gentleness.

“O God of wholeness, when I consider the lack of balance and wholeness in my life, the one-sided spiritualities with which I attempt to appease you, to appear good in the eyes of others and to please myself, I come face to face with my need for a holistic spiritual life. Help me, I pray to hunger and thirst for the wholeness you have for me in Christ. Help me to be willing to surrender to you whatever stands in the way of such wholeness.” (Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, p. 76)