Vines and umbilical cords: on growing up while staying small

I’ve been feeling the tension lately between the invitations in Scripture to stay small and the ones to mature.

On the one hand, we’re told to become like children (Mat 19:14; 18:3). We hear God say, “Don’t be afraid, little Israel, for I myself will help you” (Isaiah 41:14), and we hear him promise, “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). We’re told to cling close because “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

On the other, we’re entrusted with huge gifts and called to invest them (Matt 25:14ff). We’re called to step out courageously (Joshua 1:9), to join in the work to be done (Matt 28:18-20), and to grow up (Eph 4:11-16; Col 1:28-9, 4:12).

I talk about it with the friend who helps me listen, and I leave our time together wondering whether it is significant that Jesus pictures our dependence on him as a vine rather than an umbilical cord. Vines and cords both represent essential life-sustaining connection, carrying nutrients and allowing growth. Both are fairly resilient and hard to cut.

But there is this: The cord, though essential to survival for a time, must ultimately be cut to allow the baby to grow into maturity and fruitfulness. A human baby must leave the womb.

But a branch? It must remain in the vine, the connection growing ever thicker and stronger as it moves from the fragile baby stage to bearing weighty clusters of fruit. For a vine, (and for a Christian), growth into maturity and fruitfulness requires a strengthening of the connection, not a severing of it.

There are, to be sure, parts of the Christian experience that serve as umbilical cords, sustaining life and nurturing growth for a time, but needing to be cut to allow further growth. For most of us, there comes a time when we’re asked to rely less on what we feel or sense, when we can’t find words to pray, when old images of God or ways of relating to him seem to dry out and shrivel up. We may cry like a babe pushed from its warm, comfortable home into the cold, bright world, and that’s okay. Birth hurts.

But as painful and scary and new as it may feel, the cutting of these cords does not equate to the severing of our true life-sustaining connection but invites us into the strengthening of it. At the heart of the Christian life is dependence on the only One who can do for and in us what we cannot do for ourselves, and growing up as a Christian is growing up into Christ (Eph 4:15). Growing up as a Christian means not less but more dependence. It means being okay with our smallness and living more freely and confidently within that dependence.

Here’s to staying small and growing up at the same time, living freely in the security and life-giving dependence of being tightly connected to the Vine.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches.

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.

Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Reason to celebrate

“Pause here. Listen. Look.”

Last week I wrote of the unexpected benches in our lives inviting us to pause and really look before hurrying on. This week transition has been one of those benches, and as I’ve accepted its invitation, the view has been well worth the look.

A few weeks ago, after a mere eight years, I finally finished a degree at Regent College. One might have thought I’d be dancing all the way across the stage at graduation. In truth, I didn’t feel much—maybe because I’ve graduated more than once before. Or because I’m more aware than ever that I’m not really a master of anything. Or because, increasingly, I find my comfort and joy in simply being loved in my smallness. Maybe the uncertainty that always comes with endings and beginnings was stealing my attention. But as I accepted the invitation of the bench this week, I realized that if I look more deeply than the signed and sealed paper in my hand, there are gifts from my time at Regent that awaken celebration in me. This reminder tops the list:

The journey may not look the way I expect, but I can trust God to get me where I need to go, and to fulfill my deepest longings in the process.

I came to Regent hoping to learn to read the Bible in the original languages. I took a year of Hebrew and a year of Greek. I loved both. But I discovered that I had to be writing, and studying Biblical languages turned out to be all-consuming. So I changed tracks. And as I sat on the bench and looked back, I realized: my hope to read the Bible fluently in the original languages wasn’t fulfilled, but my deeper longing, the one that was driving that desire, was met. I wanted to learn Biblical languages because I wanted to hear God’s heartbeat more clearly. Turned out God knew that, for me, a different path would bring me closer to that goal, and he led me by that route.

I came to Regent hoping to study under Darrell Johnson. Shortly before I arrived, I learned that he was leaving. Turned out he was leaving in order to pastor a church, so instead of taking a course or two from him, I was able to sit under his preaching most weeks for five years, the truth of Jesus slowly working on the stony places in my heart, deepening the path for His life to flow in me.

I came to Regent looking forward to enjoying the rich multi-ethnic community. I never had the energy to make it to a Regent Retreat or a Taste of the World. But God knew whose friendship would be a rich gift for me (and, I hope, mine for them) and seated one new friend next to me in Greek class, put another in my Vocation of the Artist seminar, and several more with me in a Tuesday noon community group where we connected over soup. Those friendships are now some of my closest, and a means through which God is continuing the deepening process.

Often we’re asked to live in the uncomfortable middle where we don’t yet see how the details of our stories reach resolution. As we live in that middle, the times we are given the grace to look back and see God’s faithfulness are gifts, fuel for further faith as we rise from the bench and continue our journey. Gifts, and invitations: Will I trust that even if the route God takes me on looks different than the one I might have planned or chosen, God is taking me by that route because He loves me and wants to meet the deepest desires of my heart with the best He has to offer—Himself?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8-9

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)

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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When everything feels transient and uncertain

DSC_0574The branches behind my home are alive with blossom. I walk down another street that bore blossom-full branches last week; now they are empty.

A friend’s home-that-felt-like-home-to-me has been sold.

Disagreement rises and a friendship shakes and quivers. I see new depths of selfishness in myself.

Who of us knows the depths of our own hearts, or what another person’s response to our next word will be, or where we’ll be a year from now, as individuals and as nations?

Sometimes this world feels so fragile, transient, tentative.

This week in the moment-by-moment uncertainties of life and friendship and faith, Thomas Merton’s prayer has been ringing in my head:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But, I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

“Therefore I will trust you. . .” Here is the hidden gift: Uncertainty makes space for trust. Transience opens opportunity for fresh grace.

Letting go is not only letting go of but letting go for, an opening of hands that I didn’t know were clinging, a being-set-free to receive the new life our lavish Lover is already pouring out.

He walks toward the cross and I walk with him, seeing all over again: It is his own life he is daily pouring out, his own life that transience is making space for me to receive.

Branches burst with extravagance and petals float onto my shoulders as chickadees flit from branch to branch, every-morning-new grace falling all around me.

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“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

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They are new every morning; 

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great is your faithfulness.

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I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'”

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Lamentations 3:22-24