How to reach your destination

It’s dark. They’re far out on the lake, far from the lights of any town. The sun has set and the last of the dusk has deepened into night. The moon they’d hoped for is hidden behind the clouds that have risen. They’d hoped to make quicker progress, but the wind has picked up and is pushing them back, fighting against them.

These fishermen know their boat well. They know the lake. They’re no stranger to storms. But tonight their nerves are frayed and tempers not far behind. The day has been long and they’d started it already tired. It was meant to be a quiet retreat day, away in the mountains with Jesus, a day to rest and regroup and talk about their ministry experiences, but a crowd had followed them and, rather than turning them away, Jesus had spent the day talking with them. And then told the disciples to feed all 5000+ of them. When they couldn’t, he did it himself. Out of one little boy’s lunch.

The crowds, the press, the demands, the worries of how they would feed all these people—all of these had weighed on the disciples. And then when Jesus told them to have the people sit down and broke the bread and fish and had the disciples distribute it to the people, there was the physical work of it all, the bending down, the carrying. And the confusion and disorientation. What they thought they knew for sure—that one little loaf feeds just one person—had been shattered. Could they trust their own eyes? Their certain knowledge of the way the world worked?

With just enough food for a single child, a hungry crowd had been calmed, and twelve baskets of leftovers picked up. What were they to make of this?

After that confusing day, Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead while he finished dealing with the crowd. The disciples had hoped to make good time and reach the other side before dark fell in earnest. But the wind was in their faces and the waves crashing over the bow. They licked the spray from their lips, fresh water, but slightly salty now with their own sweat. Their wet clothes clung cold around their trunk, their legs. With every flash of lightening, the disciples could see each other’s strained faces.

And then, with one particularly bright flash, they all screamed. Not for fear of the lightening, but for the ghostly figure they saw walking towards them. Had they died after all? Had the frayed rope of their nerves snapped as they lost their final grip on reality? Could there be anything more terrifying than not knowing if you can trust your own perception of reality?

The figure speaks: “It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  

They know that voice—well enough to trust even if they don’t understand.

“Then they were willing to take him into the boat,” John says, “and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” (John 6:21)

I don’t remember reading those words before. Maybe I’d skimmed over them because I didn’t understand. How can a boat that has been tossed around by waves for hours way out in the middle of the lake “immediately” reach the shore when someone steps into it? I guess when the someone is the same one who fed 5000+ with a child’s lunch and then walked calmly on the pitching, rolling waves to reach the boat, nothing that happens next could be terribly surprising.

But there’s something else here too, I think. In the midst of wind, darkness, and the terror of wondering whether we can trust what we know of the way the world works, or even our own senses, if we trust Jesus just enough to let him climb into the boat with us, immediately we reach our destination—because our true goal is not those good but small new year’s resolutions, not that project finished or discipline learned or income earned, as fine as those might be. Our true, eternity-long, goal is knowing Jesus his Father.

“Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:5)

And that can happen—in fact, often happens best—when it’s dark and the sea is rough and we’re not sure we’ll make it to our self-determined destination and all the things we thought we knew for sure (that you can’t feed a crowd from a child’s lunchbox, and that people sink when they step onto water) are shaken.

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Photos (in order) by Anandu Vinod,  Brandon Morgan, and Jakob Owens on Unsplash.

The secret of doing the impossible

Sometimes I look at someone else and think, “They’re so strong (or gracious, or gifted, or smart). I could never do what they’re doing.”

I’ve heard it from others. “You’re so brave. I could never go to Afghanistan!”

The truth is, I didn’t feel brave at all. I was terrified. But I was called. And where we’re called and willing, and for as long as we’re called, there’s grace for that calling.

And then when God calls us out of a place (Afghanistan, say) and into another, different life situation, grace keeps pace. I couldn’t now return to Afghanistan without a fresh call. That grace is gone, replaced with the grace that I need for each moment in this day and this place.

When I put someone else on a pedestal (“They’re so brave. I could never do that.”) I miss the point of the conversation between Mary and the angel. She wasn’t asked to do the impossible. She was asked to let God do the impossible in and through her. (Luke 1:26-38)

That’s all we’re ever asked.

The Joseph of the coat of many colors knew this. His boss, the ruler of Egypt, said to him, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replied, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)

Daniel of the fiery furnace knew this. His boss, the ruler of Babylon and even more unreasonable than Joseph’s boss, also had a dream. He insisted that his advisors not only interpret the dream but first tell him what the dream was (otherwise how was he supposed to know if they were telling him the real meaning of the dream or making up an interpretation for the minor purpose of keeping their heads attached to their bodies?) Daniel said to him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Dan 2:27-28) And that God who reveals mysteries did the impossible through Daniel and told the king his dream and its meaning.

The Joseph who became Mary’s husband learned this. God had to give this righteous man faith to believe something that the rest of the world thought was ridiculous. (“Come on, man! Don’t tell me you actually believe your fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit!“) Or, perhaps God gave him the courage to act and take Mary as his wife even if he couldn’t make sense of the whole story. Either way, God did in Joseph the inner work needed to free him to step into his place in the Grand Story.

When the angel told Mary that God had chosen her to carry and birth His Son, Mary asked a very understandable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) I can finish Mary’s question a million different ways when God shows me the next bit I’m asked to play in the story He is writing. “How will this be, since . . . ?”

But no matter how the question ends, the answer is always the same: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).

Because here’s the thing: We are never called to do the impossible.

We are, however, daily, called to let God do the impossible in us.  And sometimes that “impossible” that God does in us overflows into Him doing the impossible through us in and for the world.

I’ll be taking these next couple of weeks to rest and celebrate and be available for what I sense God might be wanting to do in me in these days, so I’ll see you back here at the start of the new year. As we continue to prepare for the coming of God among us and in us in new ways, this is my prayer: May God continue to do both in us and through us what only God can do.

When you wonder if you have enough faith

I’m rereading the intertwined stories of the sick girl and the bleeding woman in Luke 8—a duo of stories that I love—and I discover yet another layer of grace.

Jairus, a dad who has come desperately pleading for Jesus’ help, has just received the news he has been desperately trying to prevent: his beloved daughter is dead.

Jesus says to him, “Don’t be afraid, just believe, and she will be healed.” (v. 50)

If I’m honest, I struggle with that. Jesus hasn’t yet been raised from the dead. Lazarus hasn’t been raised. How is Jairus supposed to believe? This dad has his feet on the ground. He’s well-educated, a ruler of the synagogue. He’s seen death before. He knows that when it’s over, it’s over. Sure, there have been one or two stories of people being raised in the distant past, but those are far removed from his life or experience. And sure, someday people will be raised, but can he at all  conceive the possibility that what Jesus is promising might actually come true now, in his lifetime, not in the world to come? (c.f. John 11:23-24)

When what Jesus promises does happen and their daughter is raised, Jairus and his wife are “astonished” (v. 56). In other words, for all that Jairus might have wanted to believe Jesus’ words, he didn’t, seemingly couldn’t, believe deeply enough not to be surprised when his daughter is raised.

Here is incredible grace, and comfort for the many times I find myself unable to picture the fulfillment of what Jesus promises, or rustle up faith big enough to melt my fears and let me feel like I am really trusting. Jairus’ faith apparently was enough, for his daughter was healed. What, then, was Jairus’ faith, if it wasn’t the ability to imagine the promised outcome being given? Just this: he let Jesus in.  He didn’t give up in despair and send Jesus away. He kept walking with himHe took him home, let him into his house, and brought him to his dead daughter. Jairus didn’t have to get rid of his sadness, didn’t have to visualize his daughter on her wedding day or bearing his first grandchild. All he had to do was let Jesus come close enough to put his hands on the situation that seemed hopeless. That was trust. And that was enough.

It reminds me of another time Jesus was talking to his disciples who were puzzled by their inability to cast out a demon and were questioning Jesus about it.

When the disciples had Jesus off to themselves, they asked, “Why couldn’t we throw [the demon] out?”

Because you’re not yet taking God seriously,” said Jesus. “The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn’t be able to tackle.” (Matthew 17:19-20 The Message)

“Just believe,” Jesus said to Jairus and he says now to us. Believe what? Not the strength of my own faith, but the power and love of God who knows my humanness and sees my need and delights to meet me in it with gifts greater than I will ever be able to imagine.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. (Ephesians 3:20, The Message)

I’ll leave you with that for the next few weeks. I’m taking a little break to spend some time with family and friends before the fall begins. I’ll see you back here in mid-September. In the meantime, may we each have the courage—the faith—to let Jesus come close enough to put his hands on the parts of our lives that need healing. And may we have the grace to rest in the certainty that the outcome does not depend on the strength of our faith, but on the goodness of the One who loves us and simply asks us to take him home with us.

Flying lessons: Why we can dare to live fully

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I receive an invitation to participate in the final week of a group that has been working through Rational Worship, the Bible study that I started writing almost ten years ago when I was back at my parents’ home, too sick to be out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day. I wrote it because I needed to be reminded why it made sense to give myself to God again when I’d already done that and everything—health, career, ministry, life as I knew it—seemed to have fallen apart.

I’m excited that the group is using it. I will delight to be present during their final session, to witness their engagement, their joys and struggles, discoveries and hopes. But on my way to the excitement, I encountered another, more timid part of me, first. The little voice that can be so loud in my head started telling me I’ll disappoint the group. That I should stay safely hidden on the other side of written words rather than step out into the open. That I’m really not good enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, prepared enough to engage.

That’s when I realized it was time for me to turn back to the truths in Rational Worship again myself, to be reminded once more that my offering myself to God only ever makes sense not because of who I am, but because of who God is.

I recalled the heron I watched as I prepared to share the Rational Worship study.

He sits long, watching amidst the grid of stone and steel.

He doesn’t dip for food and I wonder what he’s waiting for. Does he even know?

I wait with him, glad for the quiet moments.

In the stillness a longing rises in me. I have begun to take wings, to fly beyond the steel grid of fear that pins me to earth. But I long to fly higher still, farther and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love.

The bird has wings, made for the air. I have feet and a soul and I’m made to be filled with God Himself. My choice not to step into this is as irrational as a bird who refuses to fly.

This alone is true living, this alone is true worship, this offering of my body each moment to be filled with God.

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It has been five and a half years since I shared the study here, and that longing to fly higher and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love is with me still, though sometimes I need to dig through layers of fear to find it.

As I turned back to the beginning of the study, my soul began to breathe like I’d been swimming underwater and had finally surfaced to gasp in once more the same life-sustaining truth: I don’t have to be strong, or “enough” in any other way, to offer myself to God. He is enough, and when I offer myself to God, I gain Him and all of His enoughness. That’s why the invitation to offer myself as a living sacrifice to God is placed where it is—at the end of eleven chapters celebrating God’s wisdom and grace, sovereignty and love, and immediately following four verses of overflowing praise for God’s more-than-enoughness:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?

Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?

For from him and through him and to him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy,

to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –

this is your spiritual act of worship. . .” (Romans 11:33-12:1)

Therefore. Could there be a more comforting way to begin this verse than with the reminder that my ability to be an acceptable sacrifice is far less about my own ability than about God’s incomprehensible wisdom, his holy “otherness,” his lavish generosity, and his centrality in the universe, all of which, in his unfathomable mercy, he offers to us? His job is to be God in all his sufficiency. Mine is to show up, bringing myself as I am—fear and all—to this One who loves me, and who is and will always be enough. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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If you’re interested in revisiting with me the truth of God’s character, and why it makes sense to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God even when life seems to have fallen apart, click on the images below to download your free copy of the six week Bible study, “Rational Worship: Offering Ourselves to the God of Mercy” and the accompanying Leader’s Guide. (You may wish to right-click and choose “download linked file” to save the pdfs to your computer.) Or go here for more about what it offers and how it came to be written.

It might just be the perfect summer encouragement, a chance to soak again in the joy of who God is.

And if you’d like company on the journey, slip your email into the box in the right side-bar for weekly grace delivered straight to your inbox. I won’t be writing directly about the study in these coming posts, but I pray that all my posts offer encouragement and practical help as we keep learning to fly higher and deeper into the wide-open spaces of God’s love together. It’s a grace to journey with you!

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“You’ve got a problem, God.”

“You’ve got a problem, God. What are you going to do about it? I’m available to help if you want my help.” Several years ago, a friend told me of hearing the leader of a large and flourishing ministry in India say that when a problem arose, this was how he responded. I haven’t forgotten it. In a way that I’ve seldom seen, he modeled boundaries even in his relationship with God. He didn’t forget that the ministry was God’s work, not his. He was available to do whatever part God gave him to do, and he worked hard and with great love, but he refused to carry weight that was not his to carry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of fearless directness with God as I’ve been reading Ruth Haley Barton’s wonderful book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. In it, she weaves profound insights from the life of Moses with modern day stories and prayer practices, helping us learn to live the truth that genuine Christian leadership can only be sustained by a life deeply rooted in God.

As I’ve read her book, I’ve been struck by the many remarkably honest conversations between Moses and God. One of those conversations was in Numbers 11 when the people of Israel whom Moses had been leading for so long were yet again complaining.

“The burden of leadership had become too much, and Moses did what he always did: he went marching into God’s presence to tell him that he just could not go on this way.

At first he blustered, accusing God of giving him more than he could bear. He even resorted to throwing out cynical rhetorical questions. ‘Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child?’” (v. 12). But cynicism and anger were just a cover for the more tender emotions of sadness, despair and loneliness. Eventually Moses got to the heart of his frustration and despair and said, I give up. ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once’ (vv. 14-15).

This was an extreme statement, to be sure, but it brims with such unedited honesty and truth that one has to at least admire Moses for saying it. And it definitely took the conversation where it needed to go. Moses’ ability to be honest about his desolation brought him to the end of his self-reliance, which in turn opened up space for God to be at work.” (Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening. . ., 169-170)

At first this kind of “talking back” to God, in addition to feeling somehow freeing, felt jarring, almost rude. (Okay, more than almost.) How, I wondered, does arguing with God fit with abiding in the vine, or with submission and obedience and taking up your cross? How do we live the truth of our oneness with God through Jesus while wrestling openly with God?

Well, there’s this:

Deepening intimacy invites deepening honesty, and the deepest of honesty doesn’t stop to ponder how to word things politely. It trusts enough to pour out the pain.

And maybe the truth of our oneness with him is part of what holds open space for this kind of honesty. If we already know we are safely and eternally welcomed and held, maybe we can stop fearing the aloneness that for many of us is a reason we avoid conflict, and dare to be honest with God. (Or, to say it another way, surrendering to God is first of all about surrendering to love, stepping deeper and deeper into relationship and the honesty that entails, and accepting a call to a particular task flows out of that.)

And maybe, in Jacob and Job, the Psalmists and Jesus, we’ve been given plenty of examples of wrestling with God because God knew it would be hard for some of us to go there, and wanted us to know it is not only safe, but a (perhaps essential?) part of the journey into deeper trust and the freedom to get on with living our calling at each stage of life.

“Jesus himself used his solitude in the Garden of Gethsemane to wrestle with God about whether there was another way for him to fulfill his calling than the hard road of the cross. All of his life he had known what he was on earth to do, but when it was time to walk all the way into it, he had a few things he needed to say to God about it. He stayed in that garden until he knew for sure that this was God’s way for him—until he had really come to terms with it—and then he emerged to walk the path that was laid out for him. Perhaps this kind of passage is characteristic of all true calls. There is a difference between knowing your path and walking your path.” (Ibid, 82)

 

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Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash