The green meadow of God’s heart

The sun is warm and the slight breeze cool on my bare arms as I run along the treed streets a few blocks from my new neighborhood. I’m slowly starting to learn my way along the curved streets, but even this morning I found myself back at a corner I didn’t expect. Still, the trees were lovely and the scent of some flower that I couldn’t see hung in the air and I savored the gifts in the midst of my mild confusion. I didn’t know how I’d reached this corner again, but I did at least know where to turn to get home.

A similar thing happened in my soulcare group last week. Someone had asked the question at the table, “Where have you heard God’s still, small voice this week?” And as I pondered, I was surprised to find that I’d heard it most clearly in the midst of my anger. At him. He didn’t turn away. Didn’t shout back. Just quietly waited until I’d said what I needed to say—even helped me discover what I was angry about through a dream. Then slowly and gently began to lead me into a deeper trust of his love.

As we moved from our shared meal and the table question to the living room and our prayer reflection—this time Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ meditation on Psalm 23—God’s still, small voice followed me. The friend leading the reflection read the meditation through once, twice, as we noticed what drew our attention. My attention was caught by the plea, “Lead me to the green meadow of your heart.” I could feel my heart burning with the longing to come closer, to be drawn in, to rest there forever in that beauty.

But I also noticed myself pulling away as she read the lines,

“Lead me in your way,

not mine,

even through darkest canyons

shadowed by death,

for your presence is my safety,

your will my comfort.”

Your will my comfort? Even when it leads through death? Even when it means letting go of my own will and trusting Jesus to lead me through places I don’t want to go? I felt fear and anger rising in me again, and the desire to pull away and protect myself. I couldn’t change my desire to pull away. But I could notice it and bring it—bring myself—to Jesus.

Our friend read the reflection again, asking us this time to notice feelings or body sensations, images or memories evoked by the lines that drew us. And as I began to think in pictures, it seemed the whole prayer was turned upside down. For a few moments, the green meadow I’d been drawn to felt too wide open, and I felt lonely and frightened. And the lines that had frightened me on our first reading now invited as I found in them the picture of being safely accompanied and held. Then, as I settled into that safety, I was drawn back to the first line again, and its final words came to life, tying firmly together the spaciousness and rest I long for with the security of God’s presence. “Lead me to the green meadow of your heart.

I’ve long loved David’s words from Psalm 18, “He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.” They echoed once more in my head as all of a sudden I realized, God doesn’t just want to bring me out into a spacious place, He wants to be for me that spacious place. His heart, a place safe enough and spacious enough to welcome and hold all of me, my joy and my anger, memories and hopes, stillness and activity. Yes, lead me to the green meadow of Your heart, Lord, the only place I can be refreshed and nourished and set free to love and to enjoy You and others and myself and life and all of Your good gifts.

 

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Photo by Tanguy Sauvin on Unsplash

For the moments you feel disconnected from God

Moving week do-list:

  • arrange for hydro
  • finish packing
  • clean bathroom, windows, fridge
  • pick up key
  • buy microwave

The list continues. Most of it can’t be put off. Time and energy run short, and though I try to pray, in the busyness I feel disconnected from God and from what’s going on in my own heart.

I don’t like it. It feels like I’m missing the richest part of life. I don’t want to live this way for long.

Friends help move, unpack, clean. I receive God’s care through them.

And in the midst of it all, there is gift in this reminder, and in the invitation to rest here: My security does not depend on my holding onto God, but on His holding onto me.

 

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Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

His love endures forever

The refrain echoes through Psalm 136: His love endures forever. As I read the Psalm on Friday morning, several hours before I signed a lease, I realized something. In the past, when I’ve read this Psalm, I’ve read the refrain the first few times it appears, and then become lulled into impatient laziness by the repetition and unthinkingly begun to tune the refrain out and focus on the unfolding of the story in the lines in between.

As a writer, I should know the danger of doing that. If an author (at least one who has taken the time to carefully edit) chooses to repeat something, it’s meant to highlight something important. I should have been paying extra attention to that line, hearing that line as the center, and all the other lines as illustration of this key truth experienced in the painfully difficult and wonderfully miraculous bits of the Israelites’ story: God’s love endures forever, always holding his people, providing, protecting, and sustaining them. (As an aside, isn’t it interesting that it’s usually through the most difficult times of life that we also learn most deeply that God’s love endures forever?)

I dare to think there’s an invitation implied, a summons to pay attention to our own lives and continue the song with our own verses as we let this refrain become the grounding certainty of our lives: His love endures forever.

One species of cherry tree behind my old place has just finished blooming, and the other is starting to burst. It feels so kind that God would give me one more spring with this dozen trees that feel like friends before moving me to a new neighbourhood and introducing me to new beauty there.

As I prepare to move into the new home God has provided for me, I look back over these past difficult five months and add a few new verses of my own to the Psalm, giving thanks as I see ways God’s love has held me through this time and is going before me into this new place.

And this time I’m lingering over the refrain.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.

            His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods.

            His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords:

            His love endures forever. . .

 

to him who provided an interim home during the months I had none of my own,

            His love endures forever.

who gave two months of free rent in the midst of moving expenses,

            His love endures forever.

who brought friends to help pack and clean and move,

            His love endures forever.

who guided me to a good home, closing dozens of doors along the way,

            His love endures forever.

and taught me that I couldn’t assume I’d be accepted elsewhere so I’d step through the door he finally opened,

            His love endures forever.

who helped me learn what matters to me,

            His love endures forever.

and provided a home that fits who I am,

            His love endures forever.

whispering that my needs and desires are important to him,

            His love endures forever.

 

to the One who remembered me in my low estate,

            His love endures forever.

and has been freeing me from clinging to security that is not in him,

            His love endures forever.

who gives food and shelter to every creature,

            His love endures forever.

teaching me that it’s safe to trust,

            His love endures forever.

 

Give thanks to the God of heaven.

            His love endures forever.

 

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I won’t be writing next Monday as I’ll be finishing up a course and preparing to move. See you back here in two weeks!

The surprising secret to learning endurance

How do I keep going? At some point, all of us will probably ask this question as we face one situation or another that seems to go on and on: the challenging marriage, the noisy neighbors, the work or the pain or the child or the pager that keeps us up all night.

How do we hang in through the challenges and let them do their work in us, not breaking us, not making us bitter, but pushing us closer to Jesus and deeper into God’s love?

There’s a place for discernment: Am I being asked to stay in this situation? Is there some change I’m being invited to make, some attitude or belonging or position I’m being invited to let go of at this time?

But often the challenges come in work to which we’ve been called, a relationship to which we’ve committed, or a situation that arises unbidden and must be lived: the illness, the eviction, the normal phases of personal and family life.

How, then, do I learn endurance?

I’m surprised by words in a passage I long ago memorized. How have I not noticed them before?

“[I]f we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (2 Cor 1:6, italics mine).

I’m learning what Paul knows: Determination might be able for a while to produce gritting-my-teeth endurance, but only the comfort of being loved and accompanied can produce patient endurance, that kind of love-based endurance that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).

The startling implication keeps rolling around in my head: We develop endurance not by trying harder but by learning to receive Love’s comfort.

I usually think of endurance as the opposite of comfort. I endure discomfort of one sort or another, and when comfort finally comes, I would no longer say I’m enduring; it feels more like relief or pleasure. But this is one more place where God’s thoughts are not mine, where he turns my perceptions and assumptions up-side-down. Or, rather, right-side-up. The world’s comfort is a comfort that cannot co-exist with suffering. It has to drown it, fix it, or remove it, and therefore it leaves me alone and helpless in the face of suffering, still fearing suffering and trying desperately to fix it. God’s comfort, on the other hand, comes from finding myself loved and accompanied in the suffering. The worst part of suffering is its loneliness, so the more deeply I know I am loved and accompanied, the more fear releases its hold on me.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23).

How, then, in my real daily life, do I learn to receive God’s comfort?

Often it’s a matter of just showing up. When I make the space to come, I find Jesus waiting to comfort me through a few words of Scripture, a lightening of the burden as I hold it out to him, or a simple sense of his presence.

But sometimes there are other barriers: my own fear or anger or sense of failure, or a sense of God’s absence without me knowing why.  What then helps me receive God’s comfort?

  • Reminding my heart that God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). I’m not bothering him, not being wimpy or a failure when I come again for comfort. He wants me in his arms.
  • Being honest with myself and God about my emotions. I can’t receive comfort if I’m trying to hide. (And when it feels too hard to be honest, I can at least be honest about that and receive Jesus” gentle love in that place.)
  • Paying attention to the small things. God is creative and often sends comfort in the hug of a friend, the words of a song, or a few quiet moments with a mug of lemon-ginger tea. As I notice and savor these small gifts, writing them down and turning them over in my memory, I settle a little more deeply into trusting His love that is new every morning.
  • Asking God how he wants to meet me in this place. Sometimes the answer comes through the memory of Jesus’ own suffering and the reminder that someone who understands is walking with me. Sometimes it comes through a few words of Scripture that stand out, or a picture that shapes itself as I prayerfully ponder whether there’s a picture that portrays how I’m feeling.

Over these months as I’ve been waiting to find my new home, I’ve felt like the ground beneath my feet has been removed. (Apparently at least some of where I was finding my security wasn’t so solid!) A picture came of myself suspended in midair, with nothing beneath my feet, my arms clinging to God because he was all I had to cling to. But as I sat recently with the friend who helps me listen, she wondered aloud whether there might be further gift for me in that picture. We sat in silence together, asking Jesus if there was a gift he wanted to give, and my attention was drawn to new parts of the picture. Before, I’d noticed only my arms clinging to Him; now I could now see His strong arms around me. I’d been so focused on the empty space beneath my feet that I hadn’t noticed that I was held, nor realized that I am much safer where I am than standing alone on my own small feet. As the search for housing continues and I seek to learn patient endurance in this place, I’m returning often to this picture, listening again and again to God’s comfort, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.”

 

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Photos (in order) by Emma Simpson and Echo Grid on Unsplash.

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.

I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.

So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.

I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.

I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.

 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash