I passed by this honeysuckle bush growing over the limits a dilapidated unpainted fence tried to set around a sad-looking house. I snapped a photo with my phone and thought about the contrast.
Sometimes the flowers that bloom in overgrown, untended yards surrounded by broken fences and derelict vehicles are all the more beautiful for their powers of endurance.
It amazes me that some of the sweetest, most beautiful, most caring people I know have grown up in foul, ugly, uncaring environments.
The grace they exude defies all predictions of perpetual victimhood. Like the garden flowers in the back alley, they are givers because they know how to receive from God when others have let them down.
“What has happened to create this doubt is that a problem (such as a deep conflict or a bad experience) has been allowed to usurp God’s place and become the controlling principle of life. Instead of viewing the problem from the vantage point of faith, the doubter views faith from the vantage point of the problem. Instead of faith sizing up the problem, the situation ends with the problem scaling down faith. The world of faith is upside down, and in the topsy-turvy reality of doubt, a problem has become god and God has become a problem.“
“I hear it all day, Grandma,” my grandson said with the same tone of exasperation I’ve heard in my own voice. “Tommy*, don’t run. Don’t run. Don’t run!” He rolled his eyes. “I hear it at school. I hear it at daycare. I hear it at the pool. I hear it at the mall. I hear it everywhere. Tommy, don’t run!” He put his hand on my arm and looked deeply into my eyes. “It haunts my dreams, Grandma.”
He was so cute, I wanted to smile, but I chose instead to treat him with the same respect all people deserve and listen.
Oh, honey, I hear you. I know God created you to be a runner. You just have to move. It’s hard for you, I know.
I’m on the other end of the age scale, but my dreams are haunted by admonishment and reminders of restrictions other people want to put on me too. Don’t sing. Don’t dance. Don’t laugh loudly.Don’t think for yourself. Do as you’re told. Don’t associate with the wrong people. Be aware of every possible thing that could offend or disturb anyone, anywhere and don’t offend them. Oh, and remember that those who have no problem giving offense are often the most easily offended. Keep your opinions –and especially your odd sense of humour– to yourself. Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!
I hear you, my boy, because there is never an end to people who want to place restrictions on your desire to run, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to talk and to just be free. But here’s the thing: Their rules and regulations and protocols have holes. Big holes. They can’t keep out the light. They are defenseless against goodness and peace. Kindness leaks across property lines. Gentleness dismantles barbed wire. Joy makes them jealous. Peace irritates them no end, and love, well love elevates restrictions to a higher court where the judge is the one who made you. All of this equipment is available to you if you follow Jesus. He’s gone ahead of you and will show you where he stashed them, if you ask.
So you shine, boy. Run the race that is set before you and eventually the critics and accusers will either have to join you or be left behind.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22, 23 NIV)
When I was a child I wondered who good Mrs. Murphy was. My teacher was named Mrs. Murphy and she was good, at least she was good to the kids who knew the right answers to her questions. She was not as kind to the naughty boys at the back of the classroom, but she didn’t follow them around, as far as I knew. Still we sang in Sunday School, “Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life,” so there had to be a good Mrs. Murphy somewhere.
It wasn’t until I read the words in the Bible for myself that I realized I had misheard. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” I still didn’t understand what it meant, but it let Mrs. Murphy off the hook.
I misheard a lot of things about God when I was young. Sometimes I heard clearly but the speaker “misspoke.” I also skipped over a lot of things I heard and read, but since I had little experience, they remained in a file of “nice sayings” stored on a dusty shelf in the recesses of my brain. Later, when life tests showed up, I needed to dive into that file and learn what they were truly about.
Today I was reminded of my frustration two years ago. I have trouble walking very far, but I have improved a lot. Two years ago, I could hardly walk around my own house. I have always loved walking in the woods and often rambled in the countryside and through the streets of our town looking for beautiful things to photograph. Photography has been a way of intentionally looking for beauty in a world where we are confronted with so many demonstrations of the lack of goodness and mercy between people.
We live in a different city now. Spring arrived about a month sooner than I have been accustomed to. I can’t walk as far as I want to yet, but I can walk. For that I am very thankful. This week, I visited a local garden originally planted by a woman from Scotland over a hundred years ago.
As I stopped to appreciate every sign of colour and new life, I felt peace. I felt my spirit rest in the goodness of the Creator of beauty and the love of beauty he placed in the heart of a young woman far from everything that was familiar to her.
A song is playing in my head today:
I love You, Lord Oh Your mercy never fails me All my days, I’ve been held in Your hands From the moment that I wake up Until I lay my head Oh, I will sing of the goodness of God.
I have looked back over the years of my life and seen “Good Mrs. Murphy” guarding my steps. It turns out Mrs. Murphy is actually my Father, my Friend, and my God.
If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.
-Therese of Lisieux
Humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us. No more. No less.
I’m a stomper. When my anger is triggered by injustice toward myself —or especially toward vulnerable children— I go outside for a stomp. I go out whether it’s raining, or snowing, or if I’m in pain and limping heavily as I shove my walker through four inches of gravel. (Really! Who advertises handicap accessible trails then covers them with thousands of little wheel grabbing rocks?)
I don’t take my camera with me on these jaunts because I am busy composing defensive responses to obtuse accusers (absent from my side but repeating insults in my head) or writing imaginary posts to corrupt authorities (who will probably remain totally unaware of my important opinion) I’m too busy to notice anything photo-worthy. I’m snapping, but not in a sensitive creative way. Sometimes I walk away from a tense situation to avoid saying something to someone I will later regret.
I didn’t realize until these past few days of rumination following an excellent seminar on healing traumatized churches led by Ron Wean of Florida, that my habit of stomping out my rage is a way of getting out of the fight mode of the infamous flight/fight/freeze trilogy of survival responses to trauma (or the triggers of unprocessed memories of trauma stored in the body). Movement renews connection with the body and the logical/creative brain God gave us. I know I’m back when I can feel more than my own emotional pain and can see more than dark ugliness. The expression, “blind rage” was probably created by someone who was familiar with it.
I’m not anti-emotion. Not at all! Anger can be a useful emotion. It lets us know that all is not well like the check engine light on the car dashboard. The discomfort of angry feelings can let us know that something is not right in ourselves. It can motivate self-examination and change. Anger modified by self-control has been behind many reforms from freedom from slavery to the end of entrenched genocide. We are told: “In your anger, do not sin,” (Ephesians 4:26) and “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Romans 12:9) I’m not talking about becoming an emotionless doormat. I’m talking about choosing to not return evil for evil (with compounded interest) or seek revenge.
This morning I read this scripture passage in 1 Peter about finding beauty. I had never noticed before that speaking hurtful words in retaliation and neglecting to pursue peace can keep us locked in a world without beauty. Beauty remains hidden in the places where ugliness and darkness demand all the attention.
I thought that an intentional search for beauty would bring peace, but what if it is the other way around? What if a lack of peace hinders our ability to see beauty? What if peace improves our vision?
What if the pursuit of peace means letting go of wrathful words and unconscious tit-for-tat exaggerations and lopsided partial truths formed whilst in survival mode? What if the pursuit of peace means leaving our own devices and turning to the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, who entered our trauma out of love and compassion to bring us his peace, the peace that passes understanding?
Lord, remind us to turn from what is wrong and cultivate what is good. Open our eyes to see beauty again as we pursue peace in every relationship. Heal our hearts and renew a right spirit within us.
Plenteous grace with Thee is found, Grace to cover all my sin; Let the healing streams abound; Make and keep me pure within. Thou of life the fountain art, Freely let me take of Thee; Spring Thou up within my heart, Rise to all eternity.
-From “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” by Charles Wesley
One of the most painful moments in my life was when a person I admired announced they had no more grace for me. An annoying trait, that no doubt needed correction, inspired them to dump a load of dis-grace on me instead. I was devastated.
Trauma has roots like weeds that crop up in a garden bed far from the original invasive plant. I felt shame and ran when the flight option in the flight/fight/freeze trio of survival actions seemed most attractive. It took a while to realize that the original painful weed of rejection had spread to this corner of my life, its subconscious presence undetected for many years. I heard it sing a minor key lament from long ago, “Jesus is disappointed with you.”
Growing up in a competitive world where only the best smiled for the camera while the rest slunk out the door for the eliminated, harsh words felt like familiar shameful judgments of disgrace. I wept bitterly. The “NOT GOOD ENOUGH” stamp of disapproval showed up again on the bottom of my application for acceptance.
It was a horrible time and a good time. God can use anything and this time he used a person who also struggled with shame to point out that I was knocking on the wrong door. You can’t give what you have not received or received only in measured installments. I wanted another struggling sojourner to give me what only God could supply. That wasn’t going to work. I needed to find the source.
“Ask me,” he said.
“Ask you for what?” I mumbled, head hanging low.
“Ask me about my grace.”
“I don’t deserve your grace.”
“True. No one does. That’s the beauty. You can’t earn it. Failures only need apply.”
I did ask, and since then I’ve learned that my response to God’s empowering grace can be greater than a grudging, “Thanks for not hitting me when I deserved a good smiting.” It’s now “Thanks for showing me the way you see me and giving me the resources to become that person.”
Thank you, Lord, for grace that is plenteous and greater than barely sufficient grace, or scratch and dent grace for the less deserving, or grace that offers anonymity as a cover for permanent stains on the soul. Thanks for accepting me just as I am. Thanks for grace that heals and purifies and rises up to all eternity.
Get up, my dear friend, fair and beautiful lover—come to me! Look around you: Winter is over; the winter rains are over, gone! Spring flowers are in blossom all over. The whole world’s a choir—and singing!
(Song of Solomon 2:11,12 MSG)
Sometimes, when shrill voices tell us to look at what’s happening there, and there, or over there, we overlook the still, quiet voice of the Lover of our souls inviting us to look here. I was looking for photo-worthy balsam root blossoms that thrive in the Okanagan. I wanted to photograph a patch, but they all seemed to grow in places where I couldn’t stop the car, or places too hard for me to walk to.
When I told my daughter my frustration she said, “Oh, we have some here in the forest beside our house where the children play.”
I found them! What a wonderful place to be a child! I’m so happy for them!
When I was a young child, our little house was in a eastside neighbourhood squeezed between a meat packing plant, an oil refinery, and a railway yard. No matter which way the wind blew it never smelled like a forest of flowers and evergreen trees.
When I was a child, I carried worries that were too heavy for a little kid. I thought God was mad at me all the time like everyone else seemed to be. I didn’t know that he actually liked me and wanted to be with me. It was many years before I could hear him calling me to come away with him, not to do a job for him, but because he loved me and wanted to be with me.
It’s so easy to say, “I’ll be happy when this is over, or when this is done.” We can have joy now, in this moment. I hear the loving invitation of my Lord inviting me to leave stress and worry behind, to come away with him, and appreciate the song that beauty sings here in the secret place he created for the two of us, here where he made it accessible. Here –in my heart.