When life takes a detour

As I was biking this morning—my own ongoing rehab exercise which I’ll need to do for the rest of my life—I was praying for someone else who has encountered a detour on his path. He followed God into a new job for which he seems so clearly gifted, and then encountered unexpected illness which, at the moment, is making that role impossible for him. I pray for him because I know how desperately difficult it was for me to go from being the carer to the cared for. I wonder if it’s hard for him too.

As I pray, I remember the pain of that process, but also the grace of a Sunday morning a few months after my return from Afghanistan. I was still too sick to go with my family to church, and lying there in my bed, wrestling with how thing seemed to be turning out, I sensed God say to me, “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”

I’d followed God, and when the route he took me looked different than I expected—passing through the wilderness of illness instead of travelling longer in the mountainous desert of Afghanistan—I needed to be reminded that the different route didn’t mean I wasn’t being led, or that I hadn’t heard right or followed well. It just meant Jesus knows the way and my job is not to map out the route but to trust his love and cling close to him wherever that takes me.

We’re each led into particular ministries and roles and opportunities, and some of them are difficult enough that we need to feel that specific call quite strongly to stick it out. Part of faithfulness is persevering in the task we’ve been given for as long as it’s entrusted to us. But this is important: Our ultimate calling is never to a role, but to a Person. The role may change; the Person, and the call to cling close to Him, will not. 

I’ve thought often of God’s invitation to me that Sunday morning. But until this morning I’ve mostly thought of it in relation to that big and obvious shift in my life. This morning I realized that it relates every bit as much to the blog post that I don’t have words for as to the lines of patients needing a doctor: “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.” 

How do I know when I’m clinging to the call rather than the One who calls? Most often it takes me a while to realize it. I find myself feeling anxious and unsettled, or tired and dry and pressured. I realize I’m trying to control an outcome. Saturday, for example, I felt this heaviness: “I still have no words and Monday is blog day and what am I going to write?” It’s a choice to plant my few mustard-seed grains of faith, to let go of expectations and receive the reminder that it would be fine to repost an older piece of writing this time. And as I pause and sit in stillness with Jesus, soaking in the goodness of being his and he mine, loved regardless of what I accomplish, I realize that the yoke has stopped chafing and the burden become lighter. Then and only then, I realize I’d yoked myself once again to the call rather than the One who calls, and that He has graciously helped me once again remove the heavy yoke of my self-imposed expectations that come with clinging to the call and take up, instead, the easy yoke of walking and working in step with the One who calls to me in love.

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P.S. In case you missed it last week, here’s a link to a free five-day contemplative course offering you space to reflect more deeply on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to come to him in our weariness and find rest, trading in the yoke that chafes us for his that fits perfectly.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

How to find rest in whatever today holds (and a free email course for you)

I ride my bike a different route this morning. The sky is grey and the first large drops land on my face. It’s warm and I’ve opened my jacket and the wind whips the corners behind me like wings. I notice all these things. But what I notice the most—what I savor this morning—is the flowers along the route. Rhododendrons in red and violet and yellow, neatly trimmed in front of sedate brick homes. Delicate Queen Anne’s lace thick along the path, wild rose bushes scenting the air and thorny gorse waking me up with its brilliant yellow flowers.  Tall stalks of white and blue flowers that I recognize but can’t name.

But it’s the poppies that entice me to circle back and ride a particular strip again. I know poppies well, of course. They’re the flower that we pin to our coats in November, a reminder of Flander’s field and the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom and peace and rest. 

I’ve also lived beside fields of red opium poppies, passing them each morning on the way to the hospital in our little corner of Afghanistan. Those farmers were seeking rest too—rest from the anxiety of not knowing how they’d feed their family through the next winter. And the parents who gave their crying babies milk from the opium plant were also seeking rest, some moments of peace for their frayed nerves.

Poppies elicit in me a whole range of emotions. Sadness, mostly, for all of us who seek rest and find some temporary form of it, maybe, but at far greater cost than we could imagine.

The poppies today say something different, though. I’ve never seen so many colors of poppies all mingled together in just a few feet of ground. Deep velvety red and saucy orange red and bright Halloween orange ones. Coral poppies with double petals, baby pink ones and dainty white ones edged with a subtle pink rim. Bright pink ones the color of a girl’s running shoes. Some are wide open and some still curled.

These poppies, too, speak of rest, but it’s not the rest of struggle and sacrifice, worn-out grief and sedated pain, but the rest of freedom and life and joy, of being loved and being themselves and dancing in the breeze. They welcome me, draw me in, inviting me, too, to come as I am and open wide and sing with them of the delight of being loved and the lightness of letting go of burdens not meant for me. 

I’ve been soaking, lately, in Matthew 11:28-30, and these poppies feel to me like the visual version of that invitation. “Come to me,” Jesus calls through them, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says it a different way a few chapters earlier, “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Look at the flowers. They don’t fuss about dressing to impress, and have you ever seen anyone dressed as beautifully as they are? Don’t you remember, I’ve committed to care for you?” (Matthew 6:28-30 my paraphrase). 

I step into the invitation and on into my day, walking more lightly.

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If you’d like to soak a little more deeply in Jesus’ invitation to come to him and find rest, I’ve created a free five-day contemplative email course offering space to listen to Jesus’ invitation and step into it. Each day, we’ll ponder a phrase from Matthew 11:28-30 and explore a question or prayer practice to help us receive the rest that Jesus offers. You can sign up for the course here. (If you signed up last week, the first email should be in your inbox in the next half-hour.)

Related posts (because Jesus has spoken to me through poppies more than once!):

A prickly waking

What He whispers through the poppies

For the moments you’re weary

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens.”
The invitation has never been rescinded.

My POTS (chronic illness) has been worse these past couple of months than it has been for years—maybe because, despite much help from friends and movers, I pushed past my limits in moving homes a couple of months ago.  It’s hard to be back here. It’s frustrating and discouraging and unpleasant to be lightheaded more of the time.
I find myself chafing at accomplishing so little, and realize that my sense of worth is still far too tied up with what I can do.  And in that place I hear once more Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” and I realize that my burden is far more about my expectations of myself than God’s expectations of me. John Milton’s beautiful poem comes to mind once more, and with it the realization that it’s my heart’s posture of willingness toward God, not my ability to do what others can, that can make me a faithful servant.

On His Blindness (John Milton)
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly* ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.” (italics mine)
(*fondly = foolishly)


God meets me in the story of another man, too, a mighty prophet who, just after the mightiest demonstration of God’s power in his life, found himself so weary and weak that he was unable to go on and took himself off to the desert to lie down under a tree and pray for death (1 Kings 19). I’ve noticed before God’s tenderness in caring for him. God didn’t forget that Elijah was dust. He let him sleep, then woke him to the scent of fresh-baked bread. After he ate, he let him sleep again, then woke him in time for the next meal.
But this time it’s what comes next that grabs my attention. Elijah has now been strengthened enough by the care for his body that he has been able to travel to “the mountain of God.” There, he goes into a cave for the night. And God meets him in the cave. He asks Elijah to tell Him what’s going on for him. (Is this always the first part of healing—accepting God’s invitation to tell Him our fears and frustrations?) And then—I love this—God tells Elijah to go out on the mountain where God is about to pass by.
But it’s not the God Elijah was expecting.
Backing up for a moment, it’s clear that Elijah knows about God’s power. It’s not long since he single-handedly faced off against 450 prophets of the idol Baal and saw God send fire to consume a giant offering, thoroughly drenched with water to make the task as difficult as possible. The fire swallowed not only the bull and the wood, but the stones and the soil, too, and lapped up the water in the surrounding trench. Then, Elijah found himself empowered to outrun Ahab’s chariot all the way to Jezreel. Elijah knows about God’s power, knows how to call upon it and trust it and feel it in himself. But might it be harder for him to relate to the gentle, mothering side of God, the God who wakes him from a nap with the scent of fresh-baked bread and whispers words of comfort? Can he let himself be vulnerable enough to trust this God in his weakness and weariness and despair?
In the days between the show-down with the prophets of Baal and his arrival at the mountain of God, he had no other choice. Wearied beyond his ability to drag himself out of his fatigue, he accepted the rest and the food. But now that he has become a bit stronger and has been able to walk from his hiding place in the desert to the mountain of God, will Elijah go back to experiencing God primarily as the God of power? And will God go back to revealing himself in that way, as the one who not only sends down fire, showing Himself powerful, but also empowers His servants to outrun chariots?
At God’s invitation, Elijah goes out on the mountain. There is a great and powerful wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. God is not there either. Then fire. Surely here! Elijah knows God’s power descends in fire! But no. It’s almost as though God is parading these sights and sounds of power before Elijah to bring to his attention the way he usually, maybe subconsciously, thinks of God. And then Elijah hears a gentle whisper. And here, finally, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Here in the place Elijah least expected him, God comes, correcting Elijah’s lop-sided view with a truer, or at least more complete, view of who God is and what God is like. Tender as well as strong. A mother as well as a mighty warrior (cf. Is 42:13-16, Is. 49:15, 25-26).
This God who sympathizes with our weaknesses doesn’t give Elijah another assignment in which he is one man standing against several hundred, nor does God strengthen him again to outrun the king’s chariot. He assigns him now to anoint others to front-line leadership. A king over Aram, a king over Israel, and Elisha, a prophet to come alongside Elijah and succeed him.
Once upon a time, God empowered him in his weakness, giving him supernatural strength to carry on. Now he asks him to live more strictly within his human limits and learn another side of God, the God who is tender as well as strong, who respects his human limitations and loves him in them and gives him work that he can do, work that is less flashy but is still important work, God’s work. Sometimes God assigns us to outrun chariots, sometimes to stand (or sit, or lie) and wait in readiness. And sometimes he invites us to sleep and eat.
Might weakness be the only place we learn the tenderness of God? And might it be the place we discover our incorrect, or at best, lop-sided, views of what God is like, and the place where God corrects those views?

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The invitation has never been rescinded, only echoed through poems and prophets and our own lived experience of hearing God’s gentle whisper and finding him feeding us with the bread of his own body, then giving us work to do that fits.
“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you”—many things, I think, but certainly who He is and what He is like and how we can live well in weakness as well as in strength—”because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 NLT)

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Photos (in order) by Hernan SanchezKinga CichewiczRob ByeLily Banse, and Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

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.

Willing or willful?

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“I’m willing,” I say to God. “I’m willing to write it. But I don’t have words.” I sit with my laptop waiting for the words to come.
A question comes instead. “Are you willing not to write it?”
Huh.
Am I?
The faces of the people I don’t want to disappoint crowd into my mind. The sense of responsibility pulls tighter, tighter, threatening to strangle if I dare try to walk away. I sit with it and ask God about it.
There’s a lot to be said for hard work, perseverance, dependability.
It also has a dark side. “Discipline, spiritual or otherwise,” notes David Benner, “is a good servant but a bad master. It is not the summum bonum—the supreme good. When it is valued in and of itself, the disciplined life easily leads to rigidity and pride.” (Desiring God’s Will, p. 25)
Unless I’m willing to listen to God and either do something or not do it, my actions are willful rather than willing.
David Benner pictures the difference:

“Looked at carefully, willfulness is more against something than for something. My willful self refuses to quit as I seek to push through my writing block or finish lecture preparation even when my spirit is dry and my body is telling me to take a break. A spirit of willingness invites me to pause and turn to God, simply opening to God for a moment, letting God bring perspective and clarity about my need to stop writing for the night or throw out what I’ve started and wait for the gift of a fresh idea. Willfulness, in either circumstance, is my fight against quitting, against attending to my body, against attending to God’s Spirit. The act of willing surrender is a choice of openness, a choice of abandonment of self-determination, a choice of cooperation with God.” (Ibid, p. 23-24)

The summum bonum is God. God’s glory. God’s will—which, as He says over and over through His word, is a lot about bringing us close to live deep in His love.
Willingness calls me to trust that God’s way works—that if I pay attention to the nudges of His Spirit and learn to live in His love, I will bear much fruit (John 15:5). The nature of the fruit and the timing of harvest will be different than my driven attempts to force productivity, but the harvest will come. And it will be good.
And willingness calls me to trust that God loves His people and cares about our well-being. It calls me to trust that, scandalous as it may seem, Jesus really means it when He calls us to come and learn to live gently.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)