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)

What your heart needs for the next steps

Photo by Chris Watts

Nine year old Lucia steps down into the baptismal tank and then up onto a stool placed there specially for her. I can’t keep tears from spilling as I listen to her soft, confident voice declaring that Jesus is her Lord and her Saviour and she will follow him all of her days.

It’s a season of new things. For us in the northern hemisphere, the beach is being left behind as children pack new notebooks into new bookbags and head off to a new grade. In the southern hemisphere, spring is in the air.

A baptism, a birth, a wedding: any season of new things is an invitation to celebrate newness in our own life (we are new creations!), to reaffirm commitments once made and to know the joy of being alive and loved all over again.

As I gear up to co-lead a community group and prepare to start the next level of training to accompany people in their lives of faith, I’m excited—and often very aware of my inadequacy. And so as I step into newness with its mix of delight and excitement and trepidation, I’m pausing to watch the smile on the face of my Creator as he formed me, pausing to listening to his affirmations spoken then and spoken again now.

He speaks as a parent to a beloved child, reminding me that I can’t flunk out of his love, that I am precious just because he brought me into being, not because of anything I do or don’t do. That he is with me.

The truths are simple, but I need to hear them again and again, in every season, as I prepare to step through fear into something new, or in the middle when the journey is long. Fear fades here as I listen to God whisper his love and sing his delight and tenderly shows his care.

“I’m glad you are you.” I look up into his smiling face. Hearing him speak this over me makes it much easier for me to affirm, “I’m glad I’m me too.”

“Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;

you formed me in my mother’s womb.

I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!

Body and soul, I am marvelously made!

I worship in adoration—what a creation!” (Ps 139:13-14, The Message)

“You belong here.” Here, first and always, in his love. But also here in this city, this church, this training program. Here writing this blog post, this book, walking alongside these particular people.

“Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;

all the stages of my life were spread out before you,

The days of my life all prepared

before I’d even lived one day. (Ps 139:16)

“I love you and I care for you willingly.”

“Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? . . . Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.” (Luke 12:27-28, 32)

As I watch Lucia and wipe tears from my eyes, I’m sitting in the pew in my dream dress, the long navy one with the flowers and the white beadwork that looks like it was made for me. The one God provided for $8 at Value Village a few weeks ago. I was going to save it to wear first at my graduation, but when I looked in the closet yesterday it called out to me to wear it, to share in God’s joy of loving me and providing for me. And so I wore it and savored all day the feeling that God was cherishing me, that he was celebrating all over again the memory of dreaming me and knitting me together, that he was delighting in newness, in love, in me! as we step together into this year.

Love that delights in each of his children like this—this is a love I can trust.

________________

Photo by Chris Watts. Affirmations in bold from Clarke and Dawson, Growing Up Again.