When you want to make a difference in the world

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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

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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.

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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)

The truth about learning to fly

dsc_0990I’m out running at dawn on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day. The gulls are wailing like the end of the world is near.

Words from yesterday return to mind, other birds touching our human story:

“In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste.

He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye,

like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young,

that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.

The LORD alone led him; no foreign god was with him.” (Deut 32:10-12)

I’ve always pictured “stirring up its nest” as pushing the eaglet out, albeit while hovering ready to scoop underneath and catch it and lift it again if it becomes clear the eaglet hasn’t yet gotten the knack of flying. But as I read about eagles, it seems like preparation for the first flight is a more gentle, though still firm, process, with mom hovering over the nest to show what wings are for, and baby practicing leaps and jumps to gradually strengthen its wings; with, some sources say, mom gradually bringing less food so the baby’s desire grows and weight drops, letting it be more easily lifted by the wind. It’s less a pushing than a coaxing, and babies may leave the nest several days or more apart, as each is ready. Sometimes eaglets fall to the ground, and parents feed them there, or lure them back to the nest.

Even with this gentler process I wonder whether eaglets ever feel like their world is ending as they’re coaxed out of their comfortable home? Do they sense the excitement of growth, or do they just feel the pangs of hunger and desire as the parent flies past with prey but doesn’t drop it in the nest, the confusion of apparent rejection by the one who had always fed them before? Do they feel the terror of falling as they leave the nest or are they so lured by desire that fear is left behind?

This might be the thing I’m most grateful for on this particular Thanksgiving Day: that, whether we feel it or not, the same Parent who coaxes us out of our comfortable nest is also hovering over us as the Spirit hovered over the waters, continuing the creation of our fullest, free-est selves. And all the discomfort of the process is part of the bigger truth of being shielded and cared for and guarded, and helped to grow into the selves we were meant to be.

The sky is lightening and the gulls are still crying but I see them wheel and turn toward the light.

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Beach grace: the summer truth that could change my fall

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Sunlight dances on wind-ripples, frosting the edge of each wave.

The tide is going out and little rivers trickle and rush their way between sandbars, braiding the surface of each waterway into a slightly different pattern.

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Between the larger sandbars pools have gathered, hosting hermit crabs and tiny shrimp that tickle my invading ankles and toes.

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At the other end of the beach, incoming waves meet outgoing ripples in a tic-tac-toe grid, each ripple passing through the perpendicular ones without cancelling it.

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I run back along the shore, delighting in the feel of the sandy ridges that massage the soles of my feet.

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A week into our two-week beach holiday I realize: every one of the treasures I am most deeply enjoying at the beach this year is a product of the interplay of the resistance of the beach and the ever-active, ever-pursuing touch of the water. Ridges, rivers, ripples, braided patterns on the water’s surface, sparkles frosting glittering wave-edges, tide pools hosting tiny lives—none of these would exist without the interplay of resistance and grace.

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There is so much hope here for me!

I dislike resistance. I desire to live with my heart open to God, and I grieve the ways I resist his love with my own fear and pride and desire for control. Yet though I grieve, I seem to have about as much ability to change my own heart as the sand does to remove its own bumps and ridges.

But as I watch the water, I begin to see. My resistance, and my inability to fix it, doesn’t shock God, frighten him, or perturb him. He knows that in the physical world of which he has made me a part, resistance to movement and change is a universal part of being. (That’s one of the few things I remember from Physics 101.) Resistance to change is a psychological reality too, and since something in me knows that opening to love will change me, I resist. And God has compassion on me and is patient and gentle, forgiving, healing, crowning. Remembering that I am dust (Ps 103).

He knows too that resistance can be an important part of becoming. The repeated “no”s of the “terrific twos” are an essential part of the child growing from an extension of her parents into her own God-created self. As God keeps loving me through my childlike “no”s, they often become grace-places in which I experience most deeply that I am loved, as myself, not just as part of Christ’s body. I am loved even when I am insisting on my separateness. And my knowing of myself as a separate person, and the other’s acceptance of me as a separate person, turns out to be a prerequisite for the development of intimacy. There must be separateness for there to be union.

The tide turns. At first nothing seems to happen. The ridges lie exposed, the beach bare. The waves continue their patient lapping. Then, slowly, gently, the water begins to inch back up the beach, following, like a well-mannered gentleman, the channels between the sand ridges, flowing left, then right, a pilgrim passing through a maze.

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Then, as the water continues to rise, the truth becomes clear: the bumps and ridges are no barrier to the water at all. Laughing with the holy delight of limitless love, another wave forms and breaks, and another, the lover pursing the willing beloved. The walls of the maze give way and the water rushes through its newly formed channels then floods over the tops of the ridges.

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I turn to look at another stretch of sand and when I turn back a moment later the sand has disappeared, enveloped, embraced.

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Above all, trust in the slow work of God,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ’s words ring once more in my ears. I’m sure I’ll forget and fear again, but standing here on the beach watching the water rise I realize: at least in this moment of seeing, I’m not afraid of resistance. Here I see that—incredibly!—what seem to me like barriers often turn out to be landmarks on the way into union, the very places I experience myself most deeply loved. Glory glimmers at the interface of resistance and grace.

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The bumps of my resistance which seem so obvious when I walk over them barefoot or see them lying naked on the shore, seem almost irrelevant as I watch the water rising over them, no match for God’s ever-flowing love.

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I wander back down the beach and smile at the gulls perched on the last remaining island of sand. They remind me of myself, huddled on a bit of resistance while love is lapping the edges away. I wonder how small the island will have to shrink before they surrender and float or fly. Before I surrender and float or fly.

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High tide nears, and I stand in the edge of the sea as wave after wave washes over my feet, adorns me with an anklet of sea grass, then tugs a layer of sand from beneath my feet on its return to the sea.

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As each wave rolls over then under my feet, resistance is worn a little thinner, settling me a little more deeply into the love that surrounds and welcomes me.

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“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 Thy glorious rest above.”

(Samuel Trevor Francis)

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The first and the last two photos are courtesy of Marny Watts. (Thanks, Mom!)