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).

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.

When you’re craving rest: gifts at summer’s start

I walked over the bridge toward church yesterday with hundreds of half-marathon runners on my right. It was 9:30 a.m. and already hot. As usual with this sort of thing, there were a few observers gathered on the sidelines clapping and cheering and calling out encouragement. But there was one supporter who stood out. As the runners ran past him, uphill, many of them used a little extra breath to call out their thanks and blessing to him. Why? He knew that on a hot day as the runners neared the 19k mark, the best way he could offer support was not with words alone but with a spray bottle full of cool water, spritzed in the face of any runner who nodded their desire.

As I watched, the grace in the picture brought tears to my eyes. Around this time of year I often find myself weary. I’m there again. The year was busy, crescendoing to a climax in late spring, and I’m grateful for a bit of in-between time, a pause before new deadlines settle in. One evening last week I sat journaling my prayer for this summer, knowing that I need deep rest but not feeling entirely sure what the specifics might look like. What rests me deeply? I know the core of the answer: the kind of deep rest I crave can only be found in the arms of the One who calls all who are weary to come, promising “and I will rest you.”1 But I don’t always know the details of how he’ll rest me.

And then as I sat, bringing my weary self to Jesus to be rested, I realized he was (yet again) ahead of me. Even before I had fully recognized my fatigue and had come asking him to rest me, he had noticed my weariness and was gently guiding me toward simple understandings and practices that open me to him in my weariness and help me—body, soul, and spirit—to rest. Before I reached the 19k mark, he was already there, ready and waiting to offer the refreshment he knew I’d need.

He’s nudged me toward the habit of taking my lunch outside to eat, pausing to feel the sun and the breeze and breathe deeply of the goodness of my Creator.

He’s kept summoning me back to remember many times a day, “This moment is a gift from the One who loves you.” That one reminder alone, as it draws me from my preoccupation with the past or the future and settles me into the present and into his love goes far, far, in refreshing me.

He’s brought alongside a couple of companions who, through their written words, are helping me settle into rest: Ted Loder’s Guerrilla’s of Grace, and Emily P. Freeman’s Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. Just a page or two or three of either of these books feels like cool water spritzed gently on my tired, overheated self. I read and I feel myself breathe a little more deeply. My shoulders relax. Sometimes there are tears of relief and rest.

And then within two weeks two people said more or less the same thing to me in two different contexts and about two different issues: “Seems like your own David and Goliath story. Time to take off the armor and pick up the stones.” I hadn’t thought about the David and Goliath story in a long time. And if I had, I think I’d have written the headline for the story as “Small guy beats big guy through God’s strength,” or, to paraphrase Jesus’ promise to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The bit that God seems to be wanting me to notice now is the way that happens. Middle-sized guy (the king, the supposed expert in fighting such battles) tries to get small guy to wear his armor to fight the big guy. Small guy tries it on and says, “I can’t fight the big guy in this. I can barely move” and takes it off and picks up his slingshot and goes into battle as himself—his small self whose whole trust is in his big God, not in someone else’s armor.

If I’m honest, that part makes me uncomfortable. Some part of me wants to wear someone else’s armor, to hide behind what looks safer, what has been tried, what everyone is doing. (“But all the blogging experts say I should do it this way.”)

But there’s another part of me that’s tired of trying to walk around in armor that is too heavy for me. That part finds hope in this bit of the story. Enough hope to take a good look at what actually works for me, at who I am and who God is and what he might have suited me for, and to begin stripping off the armor and laying aside plans and protocols and expectations that might fit someone else perfectly but that leave me unable to walk. Stripping off those expectations, that part of me realizes I can breathe again, and wants to sing and dance and shout for joy as I realize all over again, and more deeply, that God actually likes the way he’s made me, that he actually wants me to be me and not someone else, that he really means it when he says, “If you’re tired of carrying burdens that are too heavy, come to me and learn from me and take up the yoke that I’ve made for us to carry together. The only burden I will put on you is one made to fit you, one designed for us to carry together, not one that was made for someone else and will chafe your shoulders and rub you raw” (Matt 11:28-30 paraphrase).

 

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1As I’ve often heard Darrell Johnson say, and have written here before, the English translation of Matthew 11:28, “and I will give you rest,” is the best our language can do to translate what the original Greek actually says, “and I will rest you.” Rest is something Jesus does for us and to us as we live in him, not a “thing” he gives us to take away and do ourselves.