When you can’t see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.

But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.

That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.

It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.

Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.

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)

African monkey traps and our giving God

By Shawn Allen (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In my spiritual director training, one of the facilitators shared a question that she often asks herself when she finds herself reacting to a situation, “In the midst of that situation, what must I have been assuming God is like?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself too, since it helps me get below what I think I believe about God to see what beliefs really shape the way I live.

I found myself asking that question this week when I felt afraid of stepping into something new. “Why the fear? What must I be assuming God is like?” And I discovered that though my head knows that God is the ultimate Generous Giver, some part of my heart deep down believes that God is not a Giver at all but a Taker, demanding constant hard work, perfection, service even if it kills me—demanding my whole life.

It was an uncomfortable surprise. Thinking about it now, though, it’s not all that surprising. Isn’t this just another form of the lie that has been woven into our DNA since the garden, that God is not good and can’t be trusted, that he is holding back from us the best? Isn’t this still the core of the daily struggle to trust, even for those of us who are His, who have tasted and seen again and again that the Lord is good?

This lie woven into our DNA is why we’re told over and over to remember that God is good, and given reminders to help us do so.

It’s why I need to intentionally savor each moment as a gift from the One who loves me, and look back at the end of each day asking God to help me notice where he was in the day.

And it’s why I need to remember the larger story and stay consciously aware that the lie of the serpent that sings quietly in the background is precisely that: a lie.

Often an image helps my heart see truth, and the picture of the African monkey trap helps me understand how my heart can so easily mistake such a generous Giver for a Taker.

The African monkey trap was “a large gourd with holes carved out on the sides just large enough for an orange or a monkey’s hand to pass through. No elaborate system of nets and concealed pits was needed, because once a monkey put its hand into the gourd and grasped the orange, it could not remove its hand without releasing the orange. Based on a ‘monkey mind’ mentality, which always deemed it necessary to hold on tenaciously to the orange, the trap never failed. Even when the hunter, club in hand, stood threateningly near, the monkey would think that it was stuck, never realizing that all it had to do to escape was drop the orange and run away.” (Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au, The Discerning Heart, p.136)

God does ask me to let go of everything. But he does it not, in the end, to take from me, but to give to me. He asks me to let go of a single orange in order to free me into a forever life filled not just with trees hanging with oranges but with the One who creates it all. His taking is always in the service of his giving. It’s my monkey mind which keeps me focused on the orange I’m being asked to drop and prevents me from seeing the full life God is wanting to release me into.

And in the moment I understand that I’ve been seeing God as a Taker, my eyes fill with tears because I also see this: He knew what my heart has believed about him, and he hasn’t criticized or condemned but just kept gently loving, teaching my heart to trust. It’s one more bit of proof for this slow-to-learn heart of mine, that God is a generous, gentle, gracious God, a God who can be trusted to love this heart of mine, in all its doubts and fears and longings and loves, and to love it well.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:24-5)

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Of prickly porcupines and learning to trust

photo by Patrick Gijsbers, creative commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mexican-hairy-porcupine-1.jpg

I’ve pondered for days: what do I share on this Monday in between Canada’s 150th birthday and the birthday of our neighbor to the south? How do I honor these significant celebrations and yet write something that might also matter to my readers in other parts of the globe?

In the end I’m going to simply share a few moments in one of my days last week because really? There are landscapes and leaders, constitutions and anthems, and all of that matters a lot, but in the end every nation is made up of people with our own particular beauties and challenges, and when we find ourselves loved in those places that we most desperately need it, a lot of the things that are great about our countries shine even more brightly, and a lot of the problems begin to find their healing here.

The day I speak of was Thursday. I woke feeling not at all open to loving the world, or even to receiving love. Since I didn’t seem able to make any headway on opening myself up emotionally or spiritually, I started by doing what I could physically. My body was as stiff and tight as my soul, so I headed to the gym, equipped with my IPOD and Scripture Lullabies on repeat (“Hidden In My Heart” Volume 2 has remained top of my list of favorite CDs for the past year). It was a good place to start.

When I returned, my soul still feeling prickly and shut down, I sensed Jesus asking, “Will you let me hold you in your prickliness?” I saw a picture of a porcupine curled into a frightened little ball of spiky quills. (It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, that the One who spoke most often in pictures and parables still so often speaks in this way.) Jesus stooped and gently picked up the little porcupine and held it at eye level, standing perfectly still with it on his outstretched hand. He looked at it kindly and it looked back for a long time, slowly learning that it is safe to trust. And then, as the porcupine began to relax and breathe again, Jesus began stroking the quills with one gentle finger, slowly and carefully smoothing them back into place.

As I watched, I sensed the first two layers of gift in the picture: Jesus isn’t put off by my prickles, nor does he blame me for them. He knows that a frightened little porcupine reflexively curls into a spiky ball, and he just wants to love me in that place.

As Emily Freeman, speaking of 1 Corinthians 13, points out, “This entire chapter about love only provides two words for what love is—patient and kind. Everything else in those verses is about what love isn’t, what love doesn’t do, or what love does.” (Simply Tuesday, p. 215) Patient and kind—yes. More and more my heart knows that this describes the One who is love. He’s willing to sit with me as long as it takes for me to learn to trust, wanting to hold me even when I’m prickly and slowly soften me into surrender to his love.

Make of me something small enough to snuggle

I snuggle close, safely swaddled. It’s warm here, and safe. These arms are my whole world, and whatever might be going on outside them is, to me, a distant dream. The one who carries me will take care of all that. Lub-dub, lub-dub: the heartbeat against which I’m held soothes me with its steady lullaby, and I feel myself move as the chest to which I’m swaddled rises and falls, my secure world—my Rock—rocking me. I drift between waking and sleep, held.

Shout for joy, o heavens; rejoice, O earth;

Burst into song, O mountains!

For the LORD comforts his people

And will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,

The Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”—Isaiah 49:13-15

Ted Loder’s words once again become my prayer:

“. . . Come, find me, Lord.

Be with me exactly as I am.

Help me find me, Lord.

            Help me accept what I am,

                        so I can begin to be yours.

Make of me something small enough to snuggle,

            young enough to question

                        simple enough to giggle,

                                    old enough to forget,

                                                foolish enough to act for peace;

            skeptical enough to doubt

                        the sufficiency of anything but you,

            and attentive enough to listen

                        as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity

                                    into the chancy glory of my possibilities

                                                and the power of your presence.”

—Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, p. 32

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Title of this blog post borrowed from a line in Ted Loder’s prayer-poem, “It Would Be Easier to Pray if I Were Clear,” quoted in part above. I am loving his book, Guerrillas of Grace.