Sunday, 6 February 2022

The Gift and the Giver


“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
It's easy to love this story because it shows how Jesus and his Father feel about human beings - all of them, including (especially?) the messed-up ones, the broken ones, the ones who deliberately turn their backs and walk away. We've all been those ones at one time or another. It's not hard to love Jesus for standing up to his own society, turning his back on popularity, and choosing to hang out with the outcasts. 
But there's another layer to this story, too.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

It's too easy for us to put ourselves in the place of God's "sons". He is great and we are not. He is omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal. We are created beings. 

That older brother was so proud of himself for not being a total brat - taking his father's stuff and then running away and wasting it. And aren't we sometimes proud of ourselves for the evil we might do and yet somehow manage not to do? Not messing up is a decent goal for a kid.

But I can't help feeling sorry for that Dad, waiting and longing day after day for his son to come home, with no one at his side. No one to share his yearning heart. No one to half that burden. And maybe worst of all, when his messed-up son finally makes his way back - no one to share his joy. The neighbors came to help him celebrate but his own son would not join in. 

I know how slighted that older brother felt, and how confused. You don't fatten calves for no reason. He had plans for that fatted calf, plans that got discarded without his being asked. I've been that older brother, trying to satisfy myself with the benefits of being a child of God, with the promise of inheritance. I, too, have thought that my Father might be satisfied with my not running off and wasting his gifts trying to buy myself cheap happinesses... all the while blind to the ways I'm wasting the greatest treasure of all - the chance to be not only a child but a friend to my Father - sharing his longing for a lost son and his joy at that son's return.  I've let rivalry and jealousy overcome me and keep me from fellowship with the aching God-heart. I've compared benefits and felt slighted, instead of joining the Giver on his great mission to love. I've felt like I was losing when someone else received a good that I desired.

There are a lot of us who feel jealous, even angry, when people who have seeming little connection with God look like they are getting treated better than we are. The prophet Jonah was angry at God for reaching out to the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. 

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

In the end, God explains his heart to Jonah. His compassion is crazy beautiful, especially when you consider that he's a Jewish God, speaking to a Jewish prophet about his love and concern for Assyrians: 

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)

The older brother, Jonah, and me - we've missed the best gift. We've wanted too little. We've looked for benefits and ignored the great joy we might have in being givers along with our Father. We've settled for being children and servants when we are offered the great honour of being friends with a heart of unimaginable wisdom and beauty. It's not just worship that we are afforded. We are invited to know and understand the great heart of God himself, to share his perspective and his loves. 

If God is greater than we have imagined; if he is not, after all, growing creatures, or even children; if his end goal is for us to move beyond being his kids and become what we know the best grown-up sons become - friends - then surely this is better than the happinesses we might receive as his dependents.

Father and Friend, give me a heart that looks past the gifts you give to see and desire the Giver. 
Let me grow up into a true daughter and companion of yours, with your compassionate eyes, willing to love those whom you love, willing to hurt in order to give good.
Make me strong enough and mature enough and enough like you inside to walk alongside you, open-hearted and able to sacrifice without growing resentful.
Make me your friend, and satisfy my hungry heart with your fellowship, so I won't resent the parties you throw for people who choose you.
I am willing to hurt in order to give. I am willing to lose while others gain, if I may share your loss and your love.
Let me not only have the pleasure of receiving from you, but also the grown-up joy of giving to you and for you and with you.
Let my heart wait with yours, and ache with yours, and rejoice with yours over the return of lost things. You are the gift, and your friendship the prize.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

On Praying With Power

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

 Not because God only listens to the "good" people. Not because he rewards the "good kids" with favours.

Because we were made powerful and given authority by a God who will not take it back just because we don't listen to him. 

Because we are the holders of the title deed to the Earth, and because what we choose matters. 

Because there is real, actual power involved in aligning ourselves with the Good.

We do not conjure power; we bow to it.

Lies I Have Believed #3

 Lie #3

I can't ask for help because I will scare people away. My needs are too big and too crazy. I can give help, but I can't ask for it. 

Nobody wants the weak me. I can't connect unless I am strong enough to be the giver.

I need to put everyone else's needs first and focus on meeting them, even if it means stepping on myself to do it. 

The Truth:

Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you... And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.” (1 Samuel 20:4, 17)

When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor. David said, “Mephibosheth!” “At your service,” he replied. “Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.” Mephibosheth bowed down and said, “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?” Then the king summoned Ziba, Saul’s steward, and said to him, “I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. You and your sons and your servants are to farm the land for him and bring in the crops, so that your master’s grandson may be provided for. And Mephibosheth, grandson of your master, will always eat at my table.” (Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.) Then Ziba said to the king, “Your servant will do whatever my lord the king commands his servant to do.” So Mephibosheth ate at David’s a table like one of the king’s sons. (2 Samuel 9:6-11)

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech... (Genesis 20:17)

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:16) 

Healthy relationships involve trust, mutual reliance, asking and receiving, and everyone is weak sometimes. Life has a way of turning around so that one who asks and receives gets to give as well. Both are necessary for a good friendship, and also for lots of other relationships. 

I don't really even understand what my needs are. They seem big and crazy because they are feelings, not ideas. Feelings are human, and even though they can be difficult, they draw people together. 

It takes time and experience and wisdom - and healing - to figure out how to show up for the people we love. People might be put off by my needs, but they might be scared because they are trying to manage their own big, crazy needs. These things go deep and they are HARD. Seeing my own weakness can give me compassion for someone who struggles to give what I want from them. In any case, I can ask for help without being ashamed. 

...there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)

Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. (Psalm 27:10)

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. (Psalm 13:5)

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deuteronomy 33:27)

 For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. (Psalm 84:11)

If people fail me, I have the nearest of Friends waiting to care for me. He will not fail.

Sometimes a struggling person is like a drowning person, and it takes a really strong swimmer to reach out to help without getting pulled in themselves. Sometimes the wise thing for any of us to do is to wait until the struggle has gone and a friend in need is too tired to fight. We can rely on each other for support, but Jesus must be our rescuer. He is the one who has overcome what overcomes us.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting for God, for whom and through whom all things exist, to make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10)

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You.… (Psalm 51:12, 13) 

I like to be a giver, and when I have the strength and emotional stability to reach out, it is a beautiful thing. But doing damage to myself in order to maintain my role as the giver is not healthy or good. I can only give what God gives me. 

It is okay for me to be weak.

My weakness, surrendered to God, can be a gift to other weak people. When I have revealed my wounds, others may be made bold to reveal theirs. Hurt can foster compassion.

Even Jesus was imperfect - incomplete - without suffering. God gives us this to complete us, just as he accepted it himself. This is how we become God-like: by learning the truth of what is and letting it scar us. 

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 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 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

This is not the end. If I am weak, I can learn and grow and become. I am not trapped here forever. Even what damages me is growing something beautiful. I do not need to despair, but fix my eyes on the unseen. God is able to turn my destruction into glory. The Redeemer of all things is near, and he will go this hard way with me. 

I am not trash, but a seed whose death leads to life. But a seed cannot water itself, or reach for sunlight. Its growth comes from outside. I am not responsible to grow myself. God is faithful, and he will rescue.

Lies I Have Believed #2

Wounds open us up. They expose us to infection and death, or they open up a way to let infection out, do undo deep damage and heal hidden hurts. Wounding never feels good, but we should never forget that this world of ours is prefaced on tragedy and predicated on loss. The most innocent of us, our first parents, were cruelly tricked into selling their innocence and authority for an empty promise. What bitterness is set free to infect and do detriment to our humanity. We pass our own pain and harm from mother to child, generation after generation. We'd love to hold it in and protect the ones we love, but we can't help passing on what diseases destroy us.

I have found a deep wound in myself, one caused by lies whispered into my soul by the enemy of Love. I believed those lies innocently, tricked just as Eve was. What knowledge did I have to combat them? What strength did I have to resist? Even now, with 46 years' experience, I hardly know how to deal with my own delusions. But the Man of Sorrows calls me, holding out wounded palms. Though his commitment to Good is sometimes terrifying, I know that he has sweat and bled and wept, and I would go to him even with my shame and hurt.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend... (Proverbs 27:6)

Here I lay my tattered heart before him, and let him unwind the long, dark lies that have so weakened it. Here I will let him tell me truth to fight the lies and heal my hurt heart.

Lie #2

I will be abandoned. 

I will be discarded and left, because I am too much and not enough. No one has the strength or the will to deal with my mess. I am alone, and I will always be alone, and I should not depend on anyone. My constant swinging between longing for belonging and then for freedom reveals my weakness and my defectiveness. I am a mess and a horror of a person, and I am too much to handle. 

If I were lovable, people would care about me, but they can only pretend.

The Truth:

...for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:14)

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands... (Isaiah 49:15)

Everyone is full of their own pain, just like me, and there are a lot of loving people who are, like me, unaware of the hurts they bump up against in others. Some people have pain that they survived by denying emotion and shutting down connections. Their inability to connect with me is not because I am hideous but because they are wounded themselves. Responding to me would require them to deal with horrors within themselves that they don't have the ability to face.

Everyone gets left with unmet needs sometimes. Even where there is real, intentional, sincere love, people have so much to manage and we are shot through with failure. Loving well is an art and a discipline. It is HARD. Most of us have had some vital piece of ourselves damaged and we struggle to give and receive.

It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man… (Psalm 118:8)

Even my close friend whom I trusted, the one who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:9)

I developed a defense for an unfair situation. But I need to learn how to override it without discounting it. I need to learn how to depend on people in ways that are fair to me and to them. We are all inherently un-dependable, because we have so many holes. But I can depend in pieces, for certain things. And there is One on whom I may fully rest the whole of my weary, bruised heart. Only the Man of Sorrows is worthy to bear that weight in its entirety. He knows what it is like to be betrayed and left alone in grief. He knows the pain of separation, of being let down and of letting others down. If he wounds, his wounds are faithful, and the wounds he gives bring about healing, not harm.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Lies I Have Believed

And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend,
Sought once again the shore, and found a shell,
And thought, I will my heavy story tell
Till my own words, re-echoing, shall send
Their sadness through a hollow, pearly heart;
And my own tale again for me shall sing,
And my own whispering words be comforting,
And lo! my ancient burden may depart.
Then he sang softly nigh the pearly rim;
But the sad dweller by the sea-ways lone
Changed all he sang to inarticulate moan
Among her wildering whirls, forgetting him.

-from "The Sad Shepherd”, W.B. Yeats

My first best friend was my mother. She used to read me stories while I played. She stopped cooking and cleaning and diaper changing and phone calling, and sat in a chair in the kitchen, pausing to chat with me about characters and the choices they made and what it all meant. Most of my “play” involved the absorbing work of cutting pieces of paper and sticking them together again with scotch tape. But all the while I imagined and planned my paper projects, the stories went on around me, and my mother and I were bound together by our shared participation in them. The places we went and the people we met in books changed, but our friendship was a constant. It was exciting and safe all at the same time, and I felt that I could go anywhere and do anything and still belong wherever my mother was. She was tall and beautiful and had cool, smooth skin and sure hands, and I believed that she knew everything worth knowing – where to pick wild blueberries, and how to do somersaults, what my father’s favorite foods were, how to open the shells of chestnuts, and how to hold a kitten so it wouldn’t cry. When I wanted to build a doll house, she found me cardboard boxes. When I decided to play “hobo”, she packed me a picnic lunch and wrapped it in a handkerchief that I could tie onto a stick like the pictures in books. She was the one who taught me where to look for pussywillows in the spring and how to suck the honey from purple clover, which ferns were the ones we could eat and how to climb back down a tree. I felt brave and powerful with her love wrapped about me. I could wander through woods and fields and always she was there to come home to, ready to hear my stories and help me plan my next foray.

I have shards of memories that mark the bewildering loss of that friendship we shared. Waking early in the morning as my father left for work and crawling into her bed, a palpable sorrow hung about her like a blanket. I wanted to snuggle, but settled for the satisfaction of giving her the only comfort my small self could offer – warmth at her back. Asking for scotch tape and her promising to buy it, then forgetting; my disappointed whine, and her sharp, annoyed reply that she would not promise me things anymore. I had no way of knowing that my father had been involved in a terrible accident at work, that a man had died in his arms, and that both of my parents were battling childhood terrors and destructive memories, and struggling with all that it means to feel powerless and alone as an adult. Tossed on the dark seas of chaotic emotions and fears, they looked for ways to do what had to be done – work, care for three young children, and engage appropriately in social life. My father bottled his emotions up tight so they burst out in awe-inducing rage at odd times. He was sometimes full of jokes and too-loud laughter, and sometimes suddenly angry over juice-spills or poorly-phrased comments. My mother simply withdrew. She was there, calm and helpful and always trying to pick up all the pieces of everyone, but she was not present. Her self had retreated too far inside to be touched or known. Her hands still brushed my hair and poured milk on my cereal but she was suddenly unknowable and untouchable.

I have spent so much of my emotional life half-conscious of a great bleeding wound in me. I had neither facts nor understanding nor model with which to sort through the complicated feelings that replaced my security. There was loneliness and a sense of being rejected, but even stronger was the overwhelming pity I felt for my mother’s hurt, which I could sense but not understand. Alongside the fear, the shame, the confusion, and the grief was a strange consolation I found in finding ways that I, a child, could comfort a mother whose care for me became a thing to emulate rather than just receive. Then there was confusion – the fog that spread over everything when I tried to decipher my own feelings. My self-centered child-mind was convinced that something awful and defective in me was responsible for the baffling loss I felt and my inability to process it. I told myself a story - that hurt and helpless frustration were part of the difficulties of growing up and I was over-emotional. (How I have tried to be less emotional!) And then, running underneath everything was a desperate longing to restore that precious friendship. It had made me brave and at peace, and I was dying to be those things again. I pursued it in attention-seeking, in neediness and pre-occupation with emotional connection, in emotionally manipulative behaviours. When that failed, I resented my mother and fought her and dismissed her. All the time, I ached for her.

I didn’t know what had happened to my father and my family until I was a teenager. Those weren’t the kinds of stories people tell children or think they need to know. My parents wore themselves to their frayed edges trying to protect us from what had torn them apart. Even when I knew, I couldn’t make the connection with my own hurts, which were wrapped up in other stories about me and my emotions and a defectiveness that I was anxious to forget or at least hide. I have loathed the weakness I felt the truth revealed in me. I have been ashamed of the emotions that limit my ability to give generously and set healthy boundaries and maintain my sense of self. I have pushed myself down and stepped on the tenderest parts of me as a way of dulling the roar of fear, magnified by a little of the truth.

Decades later I realized that my mother’s sudden withdrawal from me and from all of us was a trauma response, something that had kept her sane and able to go on living with her own fears and childhood wounds. Disappointment in myself and a growing sense of my own weakness drove me to seek understanding for her, and as I began to see her as someone terrorized by the same things that terrorize me, I could begin to realize just what had happened to both of us. As mercy for my mother grew in me, I gained the ability to give the same mercy to myself, and that was what gave me the strength to face the dark in me.

Mercy. It’s not just softness; it’s clarity. It adds context to truth. It gives us eyes that can look into the harsh light of reality without being burned. Oh, this is why we need Jesus. The great and gracious, high and holy Creator-Father-God is not enough. Jesus is not only God-become-human; he is the One in whom “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). He is the lens through which we can begin to look at the whole truth.

Half-truths are easy to co-opt. Detached from the story of the Truth, they lend their authority to lies and become bastions for fear and shame. There is nothing like a lie attached to a bit of truth for destructive power. Lies twist and warp and retell the stories that define us. The whole universe hangs on a story. What we are and who we are and what it means to be, is strung on plotlines. The stories I told myself about what happened, and who I was, were full of insidious lies both big and small. I hadn’t seen them before. Yet even when I knew about them, I didn’t know what to do with them. You can’t just un-believe the stories you have been telling yourself for forty years.

But I have learned a few truths in forty years, too. I know a little about where to take dark things. Jesus, Faithful and True, can root out heart hurts, and he knows how to handle even the ugliest of truths. I cried to him, and he answered me.

“Pull out all the lies and all the fears,” he said. “Unwind them, unlace them, and lay them all out here in the light, before me. For every single one, I will tell you the truth. When you hear their flapping and their hoarse whispers in the dark, fight them with the truth. You have not chosen darkness, but light. I will defend you, even in your own heart.”

And so this is where I find myself: drawing long, tangled lies out of my heart. This is the story of my dealing with darkness in myself, the lies I have believed, and the truth I have received from the Man of Sorrows.

I will tell the truth of all the ways that darkness has defeated me, so that I may have the honour of telling how Jesus is overcoming it.

Lie #1

My inability to regulate my emotions and my comfort-seeking is a mark of weakness and a flaw in my character. The way that I continually swing back and forth between needing belonging and needing freedom is unreasonable and shameful. This incongruency in me reveals me as defective, immature, and ridiculous.

The Truth

I developed a defensive mode for a situation in which I was emotionally unsafe. That defense was the healthiest option available to me at the time. As a child, I lacked the brain development and the information to understand and deal with a painful loss, and I stored it whole, as an open wound. When it gets touched, the pain is still there, whole and ungrieved. Big, childish, unprocessed emotions are the natural consequence of a situation that is baffling and unfair, and while they are difficult and messy, a healthy, adult response to them is not shame but compassion. My inability to self-regulate is not my fault and even though it’s not good, it’s not a failure. It was an appropriate response for the context. Their spillover into the rest of my life might look similar to lack of self-control, but it’s not the same thing, and I don’t need to hate myself or blame myself for it. God can heal even this wound, and he can give me strength where I had only weakness. I don’t need to hide myself; there is refuge in Jesus and he bids me ask without shame.

“You know how I am scorned, disgraced, and shamed;
All my enemies are before you.
Scorn has broken my heart
And has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
For comforters, but found none.
They put gall in my food
And gave me vinegar for my thirst.”
(Psalm 69:19-21)

“But now, this is what the Lord says-
He who created you, Jacob,
He who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’”
(Isaiah 43:1)

“Forget the former things;
Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
And streams in the wasteland.”
(Isaiah 43:18-19)

Friday, 30 July 2021

Facing Darkness


Every year since 2013, I have asked God at the beginning of the year for a word to guide my year and I spend a few weeks listening for the word. Resolutions, and the inevitable failure that dogs them, weigh me down instead of drawing me forward. But a word to focus my thoughts and my choices carries with it no judgment, no shame. I recognize the word as my God-given one when it resonates with something I’ve been feeling a need for or an interest in, and also rolling it around in my mind gives me a sense of resolve, of readiness. Some of my words for the year have been courage, pilgrimage, truth, and thankfulness. At the end of 2020, my mother was diagnosed with a high grade bladder cancer. Thankfully, it was caught at an early stage. I was very ready for a word that would give me strength to hope and also give me a focus that would help me support her through the surgery she was booked for and whatever else came. It was slower than usual in coming. New Year came and went and still no word. I went to God, asking. His reply was so quiet I could hardly hear it.

“Darkness”, he said.

“Wait, what? Darkness? That’s my word?” It didn’t fit the pattern – a long string of hopeful, sometimes hard but beautiful words that drew my eyes up and forward. Could God give me a negative word? Could I handle thinking about darkness for a year? Why would the Father of Lights, in whom is no darkness at all, direct my mind to darkness? Maybe he had meant to give me “light” and I had twisted it?

“Um. God. How about the word ‘light’? It seems so much more like you. Wouldn’t that be a better focus for me? More positive?”

“Learn how to face the dark, Jen.” I could feel the gentleness in him, but there was no backing down.

So I began this year thinking about darkness. There was a lot of darkness to face. My mother’s massive surgery (a radical cystectomy) left her with a dangerous intestinal blockage that brought us back to the hospital and drew her to the very brink of death. She is was in intense pain for weeks. She couldn’t eat. She drifted in and out of consciousness. Even when awake, she was often confused or delirious. A multitude of tubes ran in and out of her body. Eight monitors were stacked one on another on poles next to her bed, their bluish glow fighting back more than one kind of dark. My father came to stay with her during the day. He was fighting his own dark, swinging alone between fear and denial. Terror was never far from either of us. I could hardly bear to be alone in my parents’ house, where I went for naps. The pipes sometimes clanked. Beams creaked. I imagined shadows everywhere. I felt like a child again, afraid of the dark. Through it all, the word I had been given reminded me that the darkness I was facing was not random. It did not impose itself on me. It had been chosen, allowed, measured, prepared. And I was being prepared too.

Again and again, I went back to God, laying out my fears and asking him to fight for me. How could I fight darkness? He needed to do it. He did fight, and he taught me how to fight too. It wasn’t anything I had imagined – me as Sir Gawain, raising my prayer sword. I realized that God was not asking me to stand up. He was asking me to bow. I would go into the dark, but I wasn’t the warrior. I would carry him in and give him back the right he had given me – to choose for myself. He would conquer the darkness, not me. It wasn’t easy. If I give God the right to choose for me, I have to do that knowing that he will choose Good. Good is not ice cream and sunshine and kittens. Good is a truck that will roll relentlessly across you if you happen to be in the way. Good is a cross. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, “We are not so much doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

I had to decide if I was more afraid of darkness or of a great Good that could not budge an inch from its own goals or prioritize my concerns over its own mandate in any way. Then I remembered that God is not a cold, impersonal Good. He is personal, touched by humanity. Most importantly, he as kind as he is good. His goodness may be relentless, but he never gives unnecessary pain. He never makes mistakes in measuring the value of the good he gives. He is not only the omnipotent, omniscient Creator; he is a grieving Father and an obedient Son – the Man of Sorrows, touched by pain and dread. The Jesus of Gethsemane, dreading his future and longing for friendship, he is one who can be trusted with all of my longings and my deep dread.

This is what it means to pray: to pull out our fears and our desires and all the contradictory, winding wants out of our hearts and lay them out before God, and to give him the title deeds to all of them - the right to speak for us and move for us and work for us. All of the rights to sovereignty of will and self-direction that God gave us at creation are given back to him when we pray, not because we give up, not because we are weak, not because it was not good for us to have these rights, but because at our most powerful, we choose love and truth and good – and this is God.

So I learned that facing darkness well means naming what I am afraid of, admitting it’s too big for me, giving God my right to myself, and allowing him to figure out how much of love and truth and good I can handle when these hard things are wrapped in his great kindness. My choice was put to a terrible test the day that my mother was sent for emergency surgery. After two weeks in the hospital, the doctor had to admit that he didn’t know what was happening and ordered a last-minute weekend surgery. Physically and mentally exhausted, I was terrified of getting sick and being barred from the hospital, so my sister stayed overnight with my mother and got the news. It filled me with a great dread. My deepest fear was right there in front of me, rising up. I slept fitfully, swinging back and forth between begging God and fighting him, even in my dreams. In the morning, I grasped the corners of my will and drew them together. I would give God the choice. I had to go in to the hospital to say goodbye, and I asked God for the words.

“Go with Jesus.”

I rolled the words over and around in my mind. They were full of bitterness but also sweet. I couldn’t bear to hope, but I clung to the kindness of God. Hadn’t he brought me home from Korea to Nova Scotia, in the middle of a pandemic, before any of us had any inkling that cancer had invaded my mother’s body? Hadn’t he prepared my life situation, given me enough time and money to stay with my parents through the whole ordeal? Hadn’t he given me long quiet days with my mother all winter? I couldn’t hope in the future, but I could thank God for what was done. He was, without a doubt, kind.

“Go with Jesus,” I told Mom, and both of our eyes were bright with tears. She was calm and sure. We held hands and thanked God.

I went home with Dad to wait. My body felt like lead. My mind was a whirling storm. The minutes went by with clunks and thuds. I couldn’t think about the future. I held tight to the kindness of God. I thanked him for the gifts safely in my hands – the love between my mother and I, the Jesus we both knew, the great mercy of getting to be there instead of the other side of the world while she dealt with what cancer meant for her and all of us.

Then came the call. I could hardly believe it – she was alive. They had found the problem and were hopeful that it had been corrected. I bowed deeply in my mind before the God who had been with me in the long dark. He was still there. I knew this was no reward, no favour. I had given him the right to act as himself in my life. He had chosen Good, and he was kind.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Thy Victory Singing

I used to pray that God would protect me, and by that I meant protect me from hurt and harm. He didn't, and I felt betrayed by that. I didn't know how to interpret his seeming refusal to help me. It seemed to me that God wanted me to be high and holy, untouched by petty things like emotions...yet I couldn't seem to get there.

It's easy to think that God doesn't really know much about hurt. Of course, he suffered on the cross, which was pretty painful, but after all, he is all-powerful and all-good. He can choose the hard good because he wants it. Nothing is imposed on him, and his good desires make him free from the struggle we so often have between what we know is good and what we want. It seems that the things that hurt us don't really have power over him.

But we don't have the smallest inkling of how it hurts to love. To love deeply and well, to give and not expect in return, to accept the deliberate hurt along with the thoughtless slight, to accept not being known and loved back - and keep on loving - stretches the fabric of omnipotence, and omniscience, and Goodness. It stretches all that God is right out to the breaking point...and still he does not break. He does not release himself from the hurt. He bears the tension of it, and his beauty and His glory are revealed in his continuing to love those who defy him, or worse, the indifferent.

God hurts as we cannot imagine hurting. His pain is not less because he does not run from it; it is deeper and more awful than we would ever agree to.

We who would know God must learn something of his hurting heart. We cannot understand his wisdom or his strength or his great, warm heart without being torn apart by the things that made him the Man of Sorrows.

O break my heart; break it victorious God,
That life’s eternal well may flash abroad;
O let it break as when the captive trees,
Breaking cold bonds, regain their liberties;
And as thought’s sacred grove to life is springing,
Be joys, like birds, their hope, Thy victory singing. —Thomas Toke Bunch

Our hurt, and our willingness to hurt, are precious to God. He wants our emotions and our weakness and our deep shame; he wants our brokenness; he wants us to have them, and to be willing to be torn by them, and to lay them down before him. There are ways to escape hurt, ways to cover weakness - but in our hurt we learn God's broken-open heart...that heart that knelt in Gethsemane and wept and begged and yet bowed all of its questions and fears and laid them at the feet of him who is called Love. We learn the cost of all he gives, and all he lets us give. It wasn't being able to run away that gave Jesus victory; it was the will to bow. This is our victory too.

Here's the thing: we only know what God is giving us, and its value, when we experience the cost of giving it. The maturity that grows out of wrenching hurt is what lets us receive things of value, and know what they are, and understand what it has cost God to give them. Love is willingness to hurt. Hurt lets us know what love is. The great, deep hurt of loving is ultimately what allows us to receive the thing that will heal us. What a paradox.

Yes, God's holiness and his goodness and his relentless love will stomp all over us, and we will bleed. But, oh - we shall know God. And will he not heal us? Let us go to him, afraid by times, and crying by times. Let us go to him. Let us share the deep, hurt heart of the One who Loves.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Hurt and Hope in the Upside-Down Kingdom of Jesus Christ

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 3:45)
I guess the truth is that I'm afraid. Afraid that God won't be all that he claims he is. Afraid that the unimaginable good he gives will turn out to be disappointing - something less satisfying than the good I can imagine. (I forget that all the good I can imagine has come to me from God's own hand. I forget that, having given his only Son, there is no good that God can withhold from me.)

When life starts to hurt, I start to think, "What am I doing wrong?" Job's friends came to him with the same question. The reasoning is powerful: since God doesn't punish unjustly, if it hurts, you must be doing something to deserve it. Only hurt isn't always punishment.

There are lots of things that hurt when you are doing them right.

Like forgiveness, for example. I don't know where I got the idea that forgiveness is supposed to feel soft and smooth, warm and wafting, effortless - a wave of peace and love that washes over the heart, healing wounds. No, forgiveness is the disinfectant spray your Mom used to put on an already-painful cut. Forgiveness is having someone punch you and not punching back. And not asking someone else to punch back. It hurts. All you can think about is how much it hurts, and even that is not the end - the lies come thick and clamourous, sharp with the mocking accusation that you are the weak one, the fool. Oh, forgiveness hurts the most when you are doing it right.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:10)
I will bow myself. I will accept hurt, and fear, and seeming failure. Jesus is here, and he leads the way.  I am all raging and trembling inside, and a new fear arises - that I will stumble and fall here, and then have nothing. I hold to God and beg him to hold on to me.

The answer is, of course, that he is holding on to me. The fact that I long for him is the result of his drawing.

I am not the first to fear this way. Joseph, stuck in prison, waited for the vindication God had promised him, but he lost heart and begged his fellow-prisoner for help. John the Baptist sent Jesus a question from his own prison cell, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" I am not the first to fear. I am not the first to wonder if I have come the wrong way, after all.

Why am I afraid? I thought that peace would come with placing myself in God's hand, in choosing forgiveness instead of bitterness, in letting go of my way, in choosing love over pride and grace over vengeance. But sin and self in me have risen up and they wage war against my will. Jesus will overcome, but just now, I am at war.

The way of Jesus is backward and upside-down. It runs counter to my self-preserving instinct and my culture and my comfort-loving heart.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
I don't know when God's work with me will start to make sense, but I hold onto him...and that means he is holding onto me.
 “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” ― C.S. Lewis
Surely Jesus who died will make things right.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Tedious Grief

The nation of the awful stars,
The wandering star whose blaze is brief,
These make me beat against the bars
Of my grief;
My tedious grief, twin to the life it mars.

O fretted heart tossed to and fro,
So fain to flee, so fain to rest!
All glories that are high or low,
East or west,
Grow dim to thee who art so fain to go. (from Fluttered Wings, C. Rossetti)
I am always watching,
always on the lookout for some new way of thinking;
some different way of seeing
that will make sense of this strange grief I feel.
Why strange, when it has been so long?
By now, how is it that this is not yet familiar?
Why grief, when I have lived with less and yet been satisfied?

Why still this sudden emptiness,
this sense of loss?
What have I lost?

Everywhere there is preaching, advice
(I can't complain - I seek it out)
There are answers, smooth and pat and trite
Neat boxes of experience, tied up with bows
People eager to explain what they had not known
People full of contrition now
(I see them in my mind, all wisely nodding)
They had not understood;
had sought the things that pleased themselves -
our Father rescued them.
The hurt is over now, because they see aright

Why can't I see? What is waiting to happen before my healing comes?

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tasting Bitterness

The only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-up... But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
To young eyes, the glory of adulthood lies in freedom. I remember my longing, as a child, to grow up and be free to do as I pleased. Now that I am indisputably a grown-up, I do take satisfaction in my freedom, and I would resent its loss - but freedom is not all. There are deeper glories than children know. The taste for sweet comes naturally even to babies and taste for bitter things is rarely developed in children, but I have come to find that the bitter can, after all, be a better kind of satisfying than the sweet.

All the things my father told me again and again when it seemed I wasn't listening, I hear them in my head. His and my mother's are the voices that converse in my mind, where I am ever a teenager, caught between a comfortable past to which I cannot return and the beckoning promise of freedom in adulthood, always just out of reach. "With freedom comes responsibility," my parents said, and so say their echoing voices, over and over again. It is more than a maxim: there is Truth inside.
I thought of it then as costs and benefits: freedom the benefit, to be gotten for as low a price as possible. I didn't know that responsibility itself could be something savoured.

I recently read Matthew Aughtry's discussion of this paradox in his analysis of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia:
"She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can." (C. S. Lewis, Narnia)
Lewis’ indictment of Susan feels apt for our own culture, which seems to idolize the idea of being young and independent forever without the responsibility that comes with independence or the sense of wonder that comes with being young...
Susan is not the only one of the Pevensies to make this critical error; Edmund also put more stock in being grown-up than in acting like an adult... Edmund betrays his family to the White Witch because he is enticed by her offer of rooms full of endless Turkish Delight... The Witch says that he can be the King when she dies and until then he will be a prince who “would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long.” Since the White Witch is immortal (or at least lives much longer than human beings), one can deduce that Edmund would actually be a perpetual prince, stuffing his face with dessert and never donning the true crown. Edmund’s temptation and Susan’s failure are similar: to be considered adults without accepting responsibility and to reign forever as a prince or princess without ever feeling the crown’s weight.

Glory is something that has weight. It is not flung about the shoulders as the superhero capes children imagine themselves wearing. We need muscle and sinew and deep moral strength to bear real glory, and those mean pain and patience and going forward when we'd rather not. We, like Edmund, are always tempted to sell ourselves out for candies. Eagerly we (I!) would trade in bitterness for sweet - not knowing that the price we pay for things is, oddly, its own reward; that the joy of adulthood lies not just in the freedom that beckons us as children, but also in bearing the weight of responsibility, in sacrifice, in the hurt that tears us apart and yet builds in us something of a value we can't yet know.

The biblical Joseph dreamed of reigning over his older brothers, who hated and ignored him. To his childish mind, the sweetness of the dream lay in his vindication before those who failed to value him. When he became king as an adult, the pleasure of being vindicated paled beside the satisfaction he took in the work, the weight of responsibility, and the opportunity to give good even to those who had hurt him. Joseph learned as a slave and a prisoner what he never could have learned as a prince: how to love past hurt, how to look past the present, how in suffering it is possible to see the face of God.

We all know, somehow, that we were made to be kings, but we grasp so little of what that means that we go willingly when drawn by the whispered lie that our destiny lies behind the protection of castle walls, that our satisfaction lies in desserts and playthings, and so we hide from danger and dirt and hard decisions and use our adult freedom to indulge childish longings for sweets. We become "perpetual princes", never the wise, battle-strong kings we were meant to be. Like Esau, we sell our birthrights and rage over the loss of muttered blessings.

I am not so grown up that I understand it all, nor are my tastes so refined that I am able to know and relish real Good. But I have come to taste that there is more, and to know that bitterness has its own flavour and its own joy. Even knowing this, I still don't want pain. I am easily tired in my heart, and I am strangely more quick to run from hurt than ever before. But I see in truth what I could only philosophize before: that all breaking is not empty; sometimes it's a shell that cracks, and there is a nut inside. I have yet to find the purpose in my own breaking. I am all cracks and wincing and tearing apart. But I am less a child now, and I have hope that there is a goodness in this bitterness that has come to me that is somehow more than the sweetness I desire.

Someday I will see Jesus, and I will know him by his scars. He is no far-off God, benevolently dropping down blessings in response to pious prayers. He knows my hurt as no god ever has ever claimed to know it. But we are bound together not only by his suffering. So I know his heart, too, loving past the hurt. Each of us, in our own wounding, knows the other. I will go to that One who sacrificed for me, but I will not go only as a child wondering at his gift to me. No, I will also go in the glory of adulthood, weak though I am, bearing my own sacrifice, and there will be no need to explain its paucity or inadequacy. He knows the cost of these things.
...that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death... (Philippians 3:10)

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:3)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:43-45)