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.

The One who leads us into the new year

As we climb into the car I’m awed by the delicate ferns hand-drawn on the windshield. New every morning. God strews new beauty across the world each night. Does he do it for the sheer joy of creating? Or for the joy of surprising his beloved with never-fading, never-stale love? Does he smile when I sit in awe, letting the marvel of his unfailing kindness sink deep?

We run at the park and as the sun finally peeps her face above the horizon I pause. I have to. The tiniest lights are sprinkled across the grassy field, strung up and down each blackberry vine, draped on each twig of each bush. Winter’s barrenness has been transformed into a delicate, magical fairyland, only better because it’s real. It’s as though God’s joy could no longer be contained and he poured it all out like a child with a bottle of silver sparkles, making everything shimmer with glory. It’s as though his love could no longer be contained and he sprinkled it all over everything, willing me to notice and enter into his delight.

Above photo by Dapo Oni on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Today a new year begins. At the start of a year I often sense myself drawn to a word to focus on during the year. Until now, that word has been some way I wanted to grow: courage, for example, or faithfulnessLast year, my word was trust. I’m not ready to leave that word behind. I need another year with it, or, more probably, the rest of my lifetime.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve sensed myself invited to carry a different sort of phrase with me into the new year. This phrase is not about who I am or what I need to do. It’s about who God is and what He does. Isn’t that how trust develops, after all, not by looking at myself, but by looking at God? Not by trying to create trust, but by letting it grow naturally as I keep paying attention to His actions and discover that He is trustworthy?

The phrase comes in a psalm I’ve lived in and mostly memorized, but somehow these couple of words have never caught my attention before like they have now. They come in the last verse, a sort of summary of God’s character that has been lived and noticed throughout the psalm.

“He shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” (Psalm 18: 50 NIV 1989)

This unfailing kindness is not just for David, nor even just for David’s biological descendants. We who are in Christ are all now David’s descendants, grafted into David’s line as we’re grafted into Christ. And the unfailing love is not a matter of who we are anyway, but of who God is. At the heart of God’s character is hesed, that wonderful Hebrew word that is sometimes translated love, and sometimes lovingkindness, and here in Psalm 18 is translated with that phrase that has caught my attention: unfailing kindness.

Kindness: God’s love is a practical love, at work on my behalf in ways that extend beyond the essentials, overflowing into extras that will make my moments a little more special.

Unfailing kindness: I don’t need to fear that this is a honeymoon, that God’s kindness will disappear once he has me hooked. His kindness will not fail. It’s a kindness that paints even ordinary moments (if there are such things) with extraordinary glimpses of beauty, wakening me to newly painted ferns frosted on the windows and sparkles strewn across the grass. It’s mercy new every morning, touching even the coldest and most barren of places with the tender truth of his love.

It’s a kindness that arranged (even in this busy travel season with mostly full flights) for two empty seats beside mine on the five-hour Toronto-Vancouver segment of my return flight, offering space for me to stretch out and nap between a lovely but busy time with family and a return to house-hunting and packing. It’s a kindness that is going before me into the future, an unfailing kindness that I can trust even when I don’t yet see exactly how that unfailing kindness is shaping the future.

The certainty of that unfailing kindness  is freeing me to enter this new year with deep joy, trusting the truth of the words written on the front of the journal my sister gave me for Christmas, words that showed up again in a hand-written card from a friend: The best is yet to come. That statement doesn’t imply the absence of challenge or suffering. It does declare that no matter what this year holds, there is someone stronger entering it with me, inviting me deeper into his heart that beats with unfailing kindness, bringing beauty wherever he goes.

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)



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?