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)

 

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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 gift of the in-between

 

The wheels of time turn and here we are once again in that week after the end and before the beginning.

Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church calendar year, the day we particularly remember that, all appearances to the contrary, Christ is King over the world. Next Sunday we begin a new year with Advent, that time of waiting for the Light to come, tiny at first but carrying the promise of burning away the fog and destroying the darkness.

I’m sensitized to the in-between this year as my time in my old home is coming to an end and I don’t yet have a new one. There’s a letting go without a new earthly place to rest, and I’m aware of the empty space at my feet.

I prefer planning to surprises, even pleasant ones. I like control, and predictability, and stability. In-betweens don’t offer much of that, so mostly I’m not a big fan of in-betweens.

But, between the long hours of feeling like I’m living a nightmare, I’m aware of something deeper going on. There are moments when I taste freedom, and the joy that comes with it.  And I’m glad God loves me enough to take me through these places, because things happen in these uncomfortable places that don’t happen when things are predictable and comparatively secure.

Here, for example, I see reality. I realize how much of my sense of security has been in things other than God, and I see that the ‘security’ offered by those things is no more substantial than empty space at my feet.  Here, too, God invites me to sit down and know that He remains rock-solid even when all I want to do is back away from the edge and the empty space. Here He invites me to trust. Presses me to put all my weight on him. And so sets my heart a little freer from its attachments to all those things that don’t really provide security so my heart can belong to Him alone.

I read yesterday of a significant in-between moment in the lives of the people of Israel. After God led his people out of the slavery of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and cared for them as they wandered for forty years in the desert, he had them pause just before he opened the Jordan for them to cross and led them into the promised land. The purpose of the pause? To set the people apart once again as wholly God’s, marking their bodies and souls as God’s through the act of circumcision. After the people were circumcised, God said, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” (Joshua 5:9) What was the reproach of Egypt? This, I think: that their bodies and souls belonged to someone other than God. In Egypt, they were not physically free to be God’s alone and get on with worshiping and living for him (Ex. 3:7; 5:1-4, etc.) And in the desert, their hearts were still tied to Egypt (Ex. 16:3). So before God took them into their new earthly home, he grounded them in their deeper, truer home. He called them back to choose Him—choose Life!—and marked them again as His chosen and precious people, people under his rock-solid care and guidance and love.

This, I think, (I hope!), is what is happening to me. Before leading me to my new home, God is “circumcising my heart,” cutting away attachments to what is not Him so I can be more freely and fully His. And this, I think, is one of the big gifts of these in-between times, these large or small time-outs when ordinary business is interrupted with illness or an unwanted email or anything else that upsets our plans and makes us uncomfortable. Here we are both invited and helped to see more truly and choose more freely and shift our trust to the only One who is worthy of it.

It is a mutual process. I choose to lean in and let God do the work of freeing me. I choose to be His. But only He can set my heart free. I love how this is reflected in Deuteronomy 30. In verse 2 and 10, we choose to love and obey the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul. And in verse 6, at the centerpoint of those two, is the most wonderful promise for the zillion times when my desire to be freely and fully God’s only underscores my own inability to make it happen:

“The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

Thank you, LORD. Your kingdom come, your will be done in me.

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Photo by Connor McSheffrey on Unsplash.

Home when you have none (OR The place you can rest)

When I was 18 months old, our little family of three flew back to Nigeria after a few weeks in England. Flights were overbooked, we were bumped and rerouted, and eventually we wound up, exhausted, at the Cozy Inn in Accra, Ghana. There were no curtains on the windows, and no cold water in the taps. The bed was made with a single sheet tucked tightly overtop the single blanket. But when my mother put me in the middle of the large bed, hopefully out of reach of the cockroaches, I closed my eyes and said with what might have been a sigh of relief or contentment, “ ’ome.” Home, for me, was the place I could rest.

Since then, I’ve called many places home, including a mud-brick house without electricity or running water in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, and, most recently, a high-end condo in Vancouver with swimming pool and fitness room and plentiful running water (both hot and cold) included in the rent. For a long time, I felt I didn’t belong here; my landlady needed a good tenant more than she needed the rent that it was worth. Lately, I’d started to believe that maybe, by some miracle of grace, I did belong here; I increasingly know and am known by name, and have been having meals and deep conversations with neighbors. My presence here seemed to matter. And then this week, I received The Email, “We have decided to move forward with selling the condo and will transfer ownership in February 2018. As such, I’m sorry to tell you we need to end your tenancy on Jan 31, 2018, as the new owner will be moving in shortly thereafter.”

I needed to reread the email several times over the next couple of days to be sure I hadn’t dreamt it. There’s something distinctly unsettling about being kicked out of the place you’ve learned, over almost six years, to call home.

There’s grief in leaving this place.

This oven, which has cooked Hawaiian pizzas and chicken and sweet potato fries to share with good friends.

This bedroom where I learned to dance my prayers because my body needed some way of praying my joy and grief and longing.

This living room where I’ve found myself again and again on holy ground as I listen with people to their stories and together we notice where God is in them.

This window through which I’ve watched fireworks enough times that I no longer startle (at least not as badly) when they sound like incoming rockets.

Here, through beautiful times and some excruciatingly painful ones, I have learned a little more deeply that God is good, and I can trust him. That doesn’t mean I always do trust. In the days after receiving The Email, I was short of breath with anxiety. But I threw myself on God anyway, knowing that He welcomes me as I am and doesn’t ask that I fix myself before running to His arms. That’s something else I’ve learned here: there’s one kind of trust in a child who isn’t afraid to play with a puppy. There’s another kind in a child who, fearing the puppy, runs to the safe arms of her daddy. Sometimes I’m that first little girl. More often, I’m the second.

There’s grief in having to leave, but I know there’s gift too. Most of the gift will probably take time for me to recognize as gift, but this piece I can already see: here in this place where my home is being pulled out from under me, I am learning all over again, and more deeply, that God is my true home. That might sound like a stale Sunday School answer. And if it weren’t that I have no idea where I’ll be living in two and a half months’ time, it might feel like one. But home for me is still the place I can rest, and in the moments when the uncertainty of not knowing where I’ll sleep raises panic in me and I run crying into the arms of my Abba, I discover that once again I can be that trusting toddler snuggling in and whispering, “ ‘ome.”

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.” (John 15:9 The Message)

 

Balancing needs: the freeing truth

How do I balance my own needs with the needs of others? It’s one of the places that has caused the most tension in my life, and it showed up again in a dream last week.

In the dream, I was walking back toward my apartment (calmly, I thought) when a friendly-looking policeman asked me if anything was wrong. I was surprised he asked, but I answered that I was heading back to my place because I had heard that there was a fire, or a burglar, and I was going to check it out.

“Why don’t you let me do that for you?” he offered.

I unlocked the back door and let him into the stairwell, following behind him. As we began to ascend, I almost ran into a man squatting against the wall of the stairwell as though trying to avoid attention. His unshaven face matched the scruffiness of his clothes. But it was the sneer on his face that bothered me. What was he doing camping out in the stairwell of our secure building? I asked him to leave, and he began to shout unprintable words at me, making sure I knew what a horrible, selfish person I was. Despite the risk to my home, I had felt very little emotion until this point in the dream. But here guilt surfaced, and shame, in tension with the persistent sense (now confirmed by the profanities being hurled at me) that this person was trouble and I was right to ask him to leave. But this homeless man had needs too—big ones. What right did I have to put my own first? The tension paralyzed me.

Returning again to the dream in my awake state, my paralysis eventually gave way to a reminder that a First Responder was with me. And that he had offered to help. And that the stairwell wasn’t a great home for this man. And that probably the First Responder had resources to offer this man that I didn’t. Even realizing all that, and even in my awake and supposedly rational state, I struggled to trust the policeman’s word that he would take care of the man and find him a better place to live. “Will you really?” I asked. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Carolyn Joy,” I sensed God say to me later, “’Let Me be God’ means that you are not solely responsible to meet the needs of everyone around you. You can do what I ask you to and leave the rest with me, knowing that I will do my job well.”

Slowly I began to see: The question is not whose needs matter most (which is what I seem to think when I feel guilty and selfish about saying no); it’s whether I’m the right person to meet this particular need at this particular time. Am I able? Willing? Called?

Take up your cross and follow Me. Not take up the cross of everyone within your reach. Take up the one I give you to carry. And follow Me, not your own overblown sense of responsibility.

I watch Jesus heal a lot of people—and leave others unhealed as he goes off to be alone with his Father.

I see him feed crowds—and sit on a well, resting, while his disciples go in search of lunch for them all.

I see him walk on water and calm storms—and sleep in the back of a boat while his disciples  fight their way through the worst storm of their lives feeling like Jesus doesn’t care.

Even Jesus was called to meet some needs and not others. Even he learned to trust his Father with the rest.

Sometimes balancing needs means getting off the teeter-totter and kneeling down.

I’d taken the dream to my counsellor, and as I walked home in the crisp fall air I heard a friendly voice, “Hey, it’s Carolyn!” I turned and saw two men with bulging bags of recycling slung over their shoulders. Their faces boasted several days’ growth, but they looked well and happy. The one who had called out saw me trying to place him and smiled, “Under the bridge. They’ve found us a place inside now.” I hadn’t dreamed he would remember my name. Sure, I’d stopped to chat when they lived under the bridge, and I’d taken them home-cooked meals a few times. And once I’d asked if I could bring enough for myself too and sit and eat with them. It hadn’t seemed like much. I hadn’t offered a bed, hadn’t found them a home. But it had been enough. The One who had promised I could do my bit and trust him with the rest had kept his promise, and had stepped out of my dream into my waking life to tell me so.

 “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 

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).