How the long road can be grace

Six of us from my soulcare group were gathered with a table in our midst. The person leading the reflection that night had decided to do something different. She had spread on the table a selection of fifteen or so different photos from her recent pilgrimage—a slightly open door with a shaft of light entering, a path with a cross at the end, a stained glass window. She asked us each to select a photo that touched us emotionally, either attracting us or repelling us, and then led us through a series of questions, helping us pay attention to why the photo was touching us and how God might be wanting to speak to us through it.

I struggled to choose a photo. I wanted the blue and mauve and gold stained glass that showed God the Father upholding his Son on the cross. I tried to choose that one. But as my friend started to ask the questions, I realized I had to put that one back on the table and pick up instead the plain one with the long and winding path. The dusty, boring one with only a few greyed colors in the whole image.

It was the night before my first appointment in a new complex chronic diseases clinic, and the realities of my illness were more on my mind than I often allow them to be. I didn’t want them to be stealing my focus, but sometimes sadness is there and when it is, it’s best to be honest about it. Not that I find that easy. I’d found myself wanting to pull away that evening, to stay home and avoid the vulnerability of the group. It was only as we were sharing what was going on in us over a meal that I’d realized why it had been so hard for me to come: I was afraid that if I was honest about struggling with the same issues again, or didn’t have energy to keep up my part of the relationship equally, that even those close to me would get tired and leave.

My head knows better. One of the great gifts of this group is the space for us all to be honest about our struggles and walk with each other through them. My heart still sometimes fears. I don’t like that. I want to be able to fix my heart, to have perfect trust, and not ten years from now but today. Or, preferably, yesterday.

But though, by God’s grace, we do change, that work is slow. As my spiritual director often says, “Soul work is slow work.” And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need to be reminded again and again that the goal of our journey is far less about reaching perfection (particularly the way my frightened part defines it, as getting rid of my same old struggles, never messing up, and generally being able to be the strong one, the one helping others) and far more about increasingly opening to love and learning humility and both receiving and offering vulnerability and grace.

And if the goal isn’t so much about arriving as about learning to know the One with whom we walk, maybe that long and winding route is the shortest path. It’s there in the weary days that we discover God’s faithful gentleness in the journey.

I see this in Israel’s journey:

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Exodus 13:17-18

Sometimes we’re ambivalent about freedom. We need the longer winding path to experience God’s faithful presence and provision again and again before we can trust enough to step into the freedom God offers. As it was with Israel, the winding path may be part of God’s gentleness and commitment to working within our limitations and making it easy enough for us that we don’t turn back in terror.

And sometimes God is slow to heal struggles because if he removed them all at once, they’d be replaced by something worse. Paul’s thorn kept him from pride (2 Cor 12:7). The persistence of the other tribes in the promised land kept the land from being overrun by thistles and wild animals:

“I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hives, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.” 

Exodus 23:29

The longer route can allow us to grow in ways we need to grow in order to receive the gifts waiting for us.

That night of our soulcare group meeting, I needed to be honest with God, myself, and my friends about my sadness and fear. I needed to sit with the picture I didn’t want and be on the part of the path that felt the same as last month and the month before and that stretched into the distance with no change in sight. And there was grace in that—the healing grace of tears, and of recognizing again that more than I want a stained glass life I want to walk close with Jesus. There was the grace of being reminded that even if I can’t see the end, the path does lead somewhere beautiful and even if this particular snapshot shows only this winding path, it’s only one small snapshot amidst all the other bits and pieces that make up this life and the infinite life to come.

And there was the grace of being allowed to bring home the stained glass photo as well and sit with it and remember that more than anyone else ever could, Jesus understands. And that even when fear or loneliness or something else is snapping at our feet, and even when we can’t see God, He is present, quietly upholding us in gentle and powerful love.

____________________________

Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission.

Finding grace in a fearful word

Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word. 

And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it. 

Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.

The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection. 

Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.

But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love. 

Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.

But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.

This kind of “my burden is light” expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I’m only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.

I’m not responsible for an outcome, another person’s response. I’m just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.

“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good. 

_________________________________

Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.

Photo by Chris Mai on Unsplash

One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

____________________

PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

When change feels slow

Last year, for the first time, I had a little balcony. I tucked four small Impatiens plants into each long planter and watched as they quickly spread and poured over the edges, framing my space with a cascade of color. I didn’t know where their name came from, but watching them grow, it seemed to fit. They seemed hungry for life, for growth, eager to escape the bounds of the container in which they were planted and fill the space with beauty.

I’ve since learned that the Impatiens walleriana in my little garden share a genus with touch-me-nots and take their name from the seed capsules which burst vigorously, spewing seeds up to several meters.

This year, for the first time, I’m growing my own Impatiens from seed, and as I watch them slowly unfurl into new life, I’m being given a broader perspective.

Even in ideal and identical situations, we all unfurl at different rates.

Six of the thirty-six seeds I planted were the first to sprout, a tiny shoot, then two green leaves.

For days, maybe a week or more, I saw only those six. I’d almost given up on the others. If I’d had more seeds, I might have replanted.

Now fourteen more shoots have pierced the earth, a few at a time, and I’ve regained hope for the sixteen seeds that haven’t yet come to life.

They’re all in the same soil, receiving the same sun, same temperature, same water. I don’t understand. A friend tells me it’s always like this—that they always appear in batches. She’s never managed to trace them through to their bloom, because by the time of bloom they’ve all caught up, but still she wonders. All her tulips of the same color bloom at the same time. Might the six Impatiens that first woke to the light turn out to be sisters, bearing the same color bloom?

I take a photo of my tiny plants all lined up in their rows to test her theory.

But in the midst of trying to uncurl the mystery and unfurl the science, I pause to listen to the deeper layers:

  • the good and healthy urge within me to live fully, to let life flow through me, filling the space around me with beauty.
  • the healthy desire to understand, a desire that can be twisted into a compulsive need to predict and control.
  • the marvellous grace that reminds me that, in ministry and in my own spiritual life as in gardening, some steps I can understand and predict and even, to some extent, control. Others are known and accomplished by God alone. I plant and water. God makes seeds grow, in His own time. 

As this 50-day season of Easter continues, I’m reminded that what seems lifeless may not always be—it just might not yet be time for its unfurling into new life. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, some of my Impatiens seeds a week in the soil, and others two or more weeks before new life appeared, and it has been eleven years since I last assisted a mother to bring new life into the world. This weekend I finally stepped back into a group of doctors, now with not only my long-past medical training, but also my experience of life as a patient, and my training in theology and spiritual direction. Past training that had been long planted in darkness reappeared in a new form, sending up green shoots to offer my fellow doctors.

Soul work is slow work, my spiritual director has reminded me many times. Yes. And within myself as within my garden, some work is mine to do, and some only God can do. He doesn’t always do it according to my schedule (thank God!), but he is at work in each of us who are opening to Him, patiently and persistently bringing to completion his beautiful work in us.

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.

(Philippians 1:6, The Message)

______________________

PS. Our church has developed a lovely practice of taking turns sharing a glimpse of God at work in our lives. Yesterday it was my turn, and I shared one of the places I’ve seen God at work, bringing new life—a different kind of life—out of something that at first didn’t seem very hopeful. Curious? Watch below, then scroll down for news about a gift I’m creating for you.

I’ve been thinking again lately about Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, to learn from him and keep in step with him, and his corresponding promise that as we do so, we’ll find his yoke easy and his burden light. I’m turning those ponderings into another free email course for you. (I needed a single word for that sentence so I settled on “course.” By “course” I’m referring to a contemplative mini-devotional series that I pray will offer encouragement, help, and peaceful space for those of us seeking to settle a little more deeply into the rest that Jesus offers in the middle of whatever life holds. Phew. See why I needed a single word?) More details to come, but if you’re already aching for rest, click here and enter your email address to receive the course as soon as it is released.

Why Jesus kept his scars

Scars speak.

We know this. We see a scar and want to know the story behind it.

The white scar on a friend’s palm tells where a sharp piece of ice punctured her skin when, as a child, she fell. The red scars on my left knee tell how, as a friend says, “the sidewalk came up and hit me” while I was running last fall.

A scar on a cheek may tell of combat faced and battle survived.

Sometimes people ask about the wide scar that peeks out at the neckline of my shirt. I can read the questions in their eyes. Was it heart surgery? An injury in Afghanistan? I tell them the much less dramatic story of teenage acne, a body that forms keloid scars and a dermatologist who biopsied that scar to make sure it wasn’t anything else. My over-keen body took his well-intended gesture and turned it into a bigger, bolder scar.

The scars Jesus still carries on his resurrected body speak too. 

To the first disciples, they said, “This is no hoax. It’s really me, Jesus!”

To me, they say, “You are loved this much!”

They say, “Don’t forget. Nothing can separate you from my love. Not even your sin—see the everlasting proof that it has been removed?”

Jesus’ scars speak hope.

They say, “There is life after death. Wholeness can rise out of brokenness. And wholeness doesn’t mean that all sign of the wounds disappear. It means they are no longer wounds, but scars, no longer the constant and limiting center of attention but a quiet reminder of courage and love and life that spring up in places of pain.

Jesus’ scars speak truth.

They question the world’s words that beauty must be unscathed and unscarred and young, reminding me instead of the lesson of the Velveteen Rabbit, that in order to become real you have to love and be loved and fall apart a bit. They whisper that all that is worth it to really live.

Jesus’ hands remind me that scars can be beautiful, marks of courage and love, of a life well-lived and a death well-died, of battles fought and won and challenges survived. Scars can be places of life, like a nurse log which, in its own death, offers life to others.

His scars tell me I don’t need to be ashamed of mine. Scars are marks of love—in some cases, maybe, my own small love and the love of Jesus in me that led me to stand up for something that mattered; but always, the love of Jesus for me as he carried me through that challenging time. 

They say, too, “No servant is greater than his master. I suffered and you’ll suffer too. But not alone—not if you let me come close in your suffering.” 

Jesus’ scars are a place of hospitality.

They offer paths along which to line up my life, a hiding place, a place of stability and security—a home. They remind me I’m welcome to come as I am, to make my home in his love, to settle down and cling tight and anchor my life to his, for here I am wanted and welcomed and safe.

They say to us all, “I get it. I know the pain of loneliness and rejection, of physical and emotional agony and feeling the heartache is bigger than you can bear. And I am with you. Press your wounds into my scars. Let my love touch your most painful places.” 

They remind me that, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The deepest pain can become the place of greatest intimacy as we press our wounds into Christ’s and let him turn our wounds into scars. And our scars in turn become places where we can accompany others most deeply and compassionately.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

(2 Cor 1:3-4)

Each scar carries a memory and tells a story.

The weather-worn scars of the huge trunk on the beach whisper of years of being tossed and beaten, cracks formed and crevices shaped and smoothed by sand and waves and time.

Paul’s scars offered irrefutable proof that he was a committed servant of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:17).

Jesus’ scars tell me his story, and where I fit in it. My own scars—in my case the unseen ones more than ones on elbows and knees—fit together with his to tell the other half of our story of life together.

Jesus’ scars also question me, asking about my own.

Are they still gaping wounds, or have they healed into scars? How do I think about them, feel about them? Am I ashamed, trying to fill or fix or cover them, or am I opening them to Jesus, letting his love enter and fill and flow through them like water through the scar in a mountainside, turning a wound into a waterfall of grace?

_____________________________________

(PS. The free five-day email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, suggests some ways we can open our wounds to Jesus’ free-flowing love and grace. Check it out and sign up here.)