Confident Vulnerability

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I heard a young woman say, “I guess if I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to have to develop a tougher skin.”

I used to think that way, chiding myself for being too sensitive, apologizing for getting my face in the way of someone’s hand. Then I stopped. Well, at least I decided it was time to change my mind on that subject.

“The world doesn’t need more tough-skinned people,” I told her. “Look around. There are plenty of tough-skinned writers here. You can tell by the number of people scurrying for cover when the tough ones start hammering on their keyboards.

The world needs more courageously tender people. The world needs more risk-taking, gentle, loving people whose fearlessness comes from a deep relationship with God. They know his love for them never fails. He is always for them. The result is betach – confident security. People who know they are loved unconditionally can afford to be vulnerable.”

Hmm. I think I need to put that on a sticky note above my desk.

Let Me Help You

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“Two-gun Pete with the stinky feet!” my husband crooned as he tickled his baby grandson’s toes.
“What? Where did you learn that?” I asked.

The baby laughed one of those contagious giggles that makes you repeat what ever action brought on the delightful response.

“Two-gun Pete with the stinky feet!” he chanted again, blurbling the soles of Baby’s chubby feet. “It’s something my Granny used to sing,” he added, smiling at our precious boy as if he were passing on a profound family secret.
“Is there more to this song?”
“That’s all I remember.”

The ‘baby’ is wearing size nine gym shoes now. If stinky is involved, it’s his problem.

You know, the oddest things fall off the shelves in my brain when I give my head a shake. The Pete’s Feet ditty started playing on my internal music machine while reading the story in the Bible about Peter refusing, at first, to let Jesus wash his feet. I wondered, if Peter possessed two guns that night if he would have used them instead of the sword he wielded to cut off someone’s ear when they came to arrest Jesus. He seemed the type.

The Passover meal they ate marked the last evening the whole gang spent together before the crucifixion. Jesus knew what was about to happen, so everything he did and said carried importance the way last conversations before partings do, even when nobody else recognizes its seriousness.

At one point, Jesus got up, grabbed a basin with water, tied a towel around his waist, and washed the other disciples’ feet. He came to Peter. Peter protested.

Peter looked at Jesus and said, “You’ll never wash my dirty feet—never!”
“But Peter, if you don’t allow me to wash your feet,” Jesus responded, “then you will not be able to share life with me.” (from John 13 in The Passion Translation)

When Peter refused, Jesus confronted him sternly. This was important. This was so important that Jesus said Peter could not be a part of him if he did not let Jesus wash his feet. That’s a harsh thing to say to someone who has given up everything to follow you. Why did Jesus insist?

I’ve always looked at this foot-washing act as a demonstration of the need to imitate Christ in his willingness to minister to others as a humble servant. That lesson is certainly there, but lately I’ve seen more in this story.

Pete probably had stinky feet, sanitation being what it was in the days of dusty roads and animals in the streets. Jesus was his Lord. One simply does not plop one’s unattractive stinky parts in the lap of someone one is trying to worship, and probably impress.

Peter saw himself as a servant, someone who was ready to honour and protect the man he recognized as the Son of God. He carried the sword they scrounged up at the last minute and he used it in defense of his Master.

He came from a culture with a pecking order where people knew their place. He was ready to play the part of looking after Jesus. He announced his intentions to do so. He followed the rules. But Jesus had different expectations. He was asking Peter to see things differently. Like me, Peter needed serious nudging to provoke change.

At the last supper Jesus told his disciples that he didn’t call them servants, like most would expect. He called them friends.

“You show that you are my intimate friends when you obey all that I command you. I have never called you ‘servants,’ because a master doesn’t confide in his servants, and servants don’t always understand what the master is doing. But I call you my most intimate friends, for I reveal to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.” (John 15:14, 15)

When we first came to faith in Christ many of us approached as orphans, grateful for shelter and nourishment. A lot of people remain content with that level of relationship. Others move on to become servants out of gratitude and respect and sincere desire to demonstrate love. Many of us secretly hope, through self-sacrificing servanthood, to secure a place in the Lord’s affections by becoming useful in the Kingdom.

Jesus wants something else. He wants us to participate in intimate friendship with him.

What did Jesus ask of his disciples?

“So this is my parting command: Love one another deeply!” (verse 17)

Loving one another deeply requires mutual submission. Submission is not a word I like. Surrender is even worse. Both bring back memories of ‘play’ fights with my brothers that didn’t end until someone said ‘uncle’ or someone was hurt or humiliated — often all three.

By washing their feet, Jesus demonstrated a serving attitude in leadership as opposed to the usual “lording over” attitude of religious and political hierarchies. By confronting Peter he also gave the clear message: Unless you are willing to accept help — my help — you can’t be a part of this.

More than the message, “Help others,” Jesus also preached, “Let others help you,” and specifically, “Let Me help you.”

I realized this is the aspect of submission that I missed for so many years. I didn’t understand what the word means. Submission doesn’t mean being a doormat to someone who would take advantage. Submission means saying, “How can I extend myself to help you to become all Christ means you to be?” Submission also means responding to Christ in others when he says through them, “Let me help you.”

Submission means becoming vulnerable, but becoming vulnerable to God’s goodness.

Can I admit one of the more horrifying aspects of my health adventures in the past two and a half years has been the humiliating need to sometimes present for examination embarrassing parts of my body I prefer to keep under wraps? There’s nothing like both major gynecological and bowel surgery in one year to put a large dent in one’s sense of decorum. When you live in a small city that can involve the participation of your friend’s husband guiding a camera on the end of a probe, or a former student wiping your butt with a damp wash cloth, or a visiting relative holding a basin.

I understand Peter. I don’t want people I hold in esteem to have to deal with my less-than-attractive parts. I feel entirely too vulnerable. I would much rather see myself as someone who helps than as someone who needs help.

Lately, I have needed help. I am learning to quit dropping subtle (and sometimes whiney) hints and admit when I can’t do something.

I have learned, in this process, that I am not the only one in the crowd with metaphorical stinky feet (and other inglorious bits.) The more we become family as we connect with the Holy Spirit in each other, the more people trust us by being honest about their own messy lives. When we can offer the same grace we have received, relationships develop and love grows.

Perhaps it is not until we have been in a position of needing help that we begin to understand how to offer help in a way that preserves the dignity of both the giver and the receiver.

I wonder if some people who find themselves in prolonged seasons of feeling inadequate for the task (as Peter did after he discovered his deeply disappointing weakness), are in training for positions greater influence. I wonder if the story of Jesus washing his friends’ feet was as much about learning to receive graciously as to give graciously.

At the very least, I hear Jesus’ gentle chiding, “I dearly want you to be able to share life with me. But first, let Me help you.”

When It Hurts

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Sharing the sufferings of Christ involves the experience of the deep emotions, agony, and passion he continues to experience for the least, the last, and the lost by his indwelling Spirit. All followers of Jesus were once least, last, and lost. When we forget that, we stop feeling.

– Dr. Mark Chironna

Snap

Written over three years ago, applicable this week.

Charis: Subject to Change

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I delete a lot of photos. Because the camera lies.

I have deleted photos of people with eyes half closed, limbs twisted in odd configurations and facial expressions from disgust to lust, none of which reflect the personality of the subject. They were snapshots of moments in time, captured moments on the way to more meaningful moments.

I kept this photo in my collection because I find it visually interesting. Some photos are like poems and condense an expression of an entire day into a moment. Some photos suggest cause for judgment where there is no actual cause. It is a snapshot. That is all.

Yesterday I realized how easy it is to make a snap judgment based on one moment. Social media can set these snap judgments in concrete. Mob justice is a terrifying thing. Mobs don’t have the time to make an effort to see the larger context. They grab…

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Wisdom Plays

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Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”  ~Heraclitus

I nestle into a warm form-fitting spot on a colourful beach towel and watch the children. This boy has a plan. He has a vision. He digs. He moves the earth, forming mounds and channels with shovels and pails and his own bare hands. Towers grow on foundations he creates. Monuments to industriousness spring up where only impressions of bare feet dented the wet sand before he arrived. He pats towers into temporary permanence.

No one tells him what to do. When he finished throwing stones into the water, a ritual  all boys must follow, he picked up his tools and got to work, as oblivious to the calls of his siblings as he is to the seagulls.

They both steal his potato chips. It doesn’t matter. He is creating. He creates because he was made to create. It’s who he is. He builds because he must build. It’s who he is becoming.

The Creator made him in His image. He carries the Creator’s purpose somewhere deep inside. He is a child of God and must be about his Father’s business. His play is his work.

I watch and remember the Spirit of Wisdom saying:

I was there, close to the Creator’s side as his master artist.
Daily he was filled with delight in me
as I playfully rejoiced before him.

I laughed and played,
so happy with what he had made,
while finding my delight in the children of men.

(Proverbs 8:30,31 TPT)

It is the nature of the Godhead to laugh, to play, to find delight in each other, to find delight in their creation.

I can see the source of their joy in this boy, on this beach, on this day.

I watch the children play on the beach under the warm summer sun. Cool water laps against the division of water and land. The afternoon breeze skims over the lake and rises to play with trembling aspen leaves and sing through fir tree branches. Ospreys soar in a blue sky too full of light to see with unshaded eyes.

The boy straightens up and stands like Colossus with sand-covered legs astride the harbour. His hands, like mighty David’s hands, still hold pail and shovel, his weapons of praise at rest.

“Look what I made!”

He smiles. He is proud. He knows.

I feel God’s pleasure.

Joy.

 

Putting God to a Test

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We adults pulled our chairs into a circle in the back yard near the barbecue. The kids talked loudly and simultaneously at a table nearby. We decided the cousins needed the flat surface more than the adults -preferably some distance away. I watched our tribe balance coleslaw and hamburgers on paper plates that tilted at precarious angles on bare knees.

This clan of brothers, sisters, parents, and in-laws soon engaged each other in an enthusiastic exchange of ideas. Shop talk. Honestly, I would choose them as friends even if we weren’t related. I’m very fond of them.

Our family events are never quiet. If you hesitate to jump in when someone takes a breath there may not be another chance for several minutes. It’s like a double Dutch skip rope conversation with unwritten, but understood rules of rhythmical verbal exchange for entering and exiting a discussion. No one is shy. All of them are accustomed to speaking in public. They do it for a living.

Looking around, I realized we have a lot of teachers in our extended family. Some of our kin studied medicine or the arts, but most found their place in education in one form or another.

I admire all of them, whether they’ve guided at-risk children in preschool, juggled the needs of gifted and learning-challenged kids in the same elementary school classroom, instructed their own kids around the dining table, taught adults in a university lecture hall, tutored overseas pupils online, demonstrated songs to adolescent musicians in the studio, or communicated important concepts from a pulpit. We share a common drive to impart knowledge — and maybe just a bit of common need to be the expert.

The conversation this time centered on performance evaluations for both teachers and students. The bane of all classroom and online teachers – marking assignments and tests– arose as more than theory. Two of the on-line summer school teachers needed to leave the party to grade tests. A physics teacher offered to help the math teacher work his way down the pile sitting in his computer inbox. The volunteer asked if there was a marking key. There was.

My divergent mind started to wander off in another direction.

A marking key has all the answers. Both teachers put on their reading glasses, opened their laptops and got down to the business of comparing the students’ answers to the key. No arguments. Correct. Incorrect. Total grade. Pass. Fail. Next.

The art teacher didn’t have as simple a task. Each submission required consideration of abstract symbolic statements and knowledge of the student’s personality and skill level. Her job was to evaluate how they expressed a concept, but not to tell them what to say. She tried to stay unbiased but still gave a grade based on predetermined criteria she herself established for this assignment.

This is where my rabbit trail veered sharply toward the woods. I remember someone preaching about the dangers of using a marking key with God when we put him to a test. God invites us to try him to see whether or not His promises are true. Some translations of the Bible use the expression “test Me.” This kind of test Me is different from putting God to a test. Putting God to a test is like comparing his responses to a marking key which we have made up ourselves. We decide what the correct response should be before he answers.

Then the accuser transported Jesus to the holy city of Jerusalem and perched him at the highest point of the temple and said to him, “If you’re really God’s Son, jump, and the angels will catch you. For it is written in the Scriptures:
He will command his angels to protect you and they will lift you up so that you won’t even bruise your foot on a rock.”

Once again Jesus said to him, “The Scriptures say: You must never put the Lord your God to a test.”
(Matthew 4: 5-7 TPT)

The accuser determined the acceptable answer which would decide whether Jesus passed the test for proving he was God’s son. Angels caught him, he passed. Angels didn’t catch him, he failed.

Could angels have caught him? Of course, but when the accuser made himself the judge of what God’s behaviour should look like he put himself in the position to judge of the King of the universe with an authority he definitely did not have.

We often hear people say, “If you really love me you will _________.” Children and narcissists love this game.

If you really love me you’ll buy me a pony.

If you really love me you’ll let me go to the party.

If you really love me you’ll let me spend our savings on a boat or a vacation — or anything else I want.

If you really love me you will never challenge me or cause me to feel stressed.

Way back in the years of my youth, Janis Joplin performed a satirical song (at least I hope it was satirical) about what she expected God to do to prove himself.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.
I’m counting on you, Lord. Please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.

If you recall, she also expected a Mercedes Benz and a colour TV.

We laugh, but the truth is we sometimes set up a key for marking assignments we give God. Instead of praying in alignment with his purposes we sometimes hand him a list of requirements that look like the instructions an entitled rock star’s agent might submit to a concert manager. Bottled water from Fiji and a dish of red M & M’s only or he walks. We want personal peace, a perfect partner, and a palace on Paradise Boulevard.

Sometimes He answers with the stuff we want because he’s a good Dad and enjoys giving good gifts to his kids. Sometimes he answers with a character-building test of his own – an inescapable obligation, an impossible co-worker, an incomplete map.

We pray, “If you are really a good God prove it by buying the next round.” And he does – in the form of a flood, or a forest fire, or a false accusation, or a failed career, and includes a free blank sheet of foolscap and a pencil.

We compare his response with our marking key. None of these circumstances qualify as correct answers. In fact, they don’t even make the A, B, or D multiple choice list of close but wrong options.

We are confused. We cry, “God would not do that, therefore he is not God.” We walk away because God failed the test. We continue to consider ourselves the ultimate authority who prepares the correct answer on our own marking key.

Sometimes we project that grading ideal onto someone or something else – scientists, philosophers, politicians, self-help authors, organic foods, husbands, meditation -– anything really. When  answers fail to match our marking key, we move to the next thing until our bitter options dwindle down to A) absence B) anger C) apathy D) all of the above.

God is a good father and cares more about our character than our comfort. He could easily make things easy, but he doesn’t always. He loves us too much.

I’ve lived long enough to be disappointed with God many times. There were years when I only spoke to him in times of desperation because, well, the other options were worse. He loved me anyway. He is devoted to my eternal well-being. One day he invited me to take a chance on him. I did. He showed me aspects of himself I could not have seen if he had responded the way I wanted and expected him to.

Here’s the thing: God is God and I am not. He is smarter and wiser and more compassionate than I am. His perspective is from a place beyond eternity. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts and his ways greater than my ways. He wants relationship, which means he wants to connect and be understood. Tests are about learning what we have learned and what we have yet to learn. We need them. God doesn’t.

“How can these trying circumstances help me understand you, Lord?” I ask.

“Sit down. Pick up that pencil and the sheet of foolscap. Take notes,” he says. “I’ll show you.”

There is more.

Wide-eyed

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When I painted this portrait of our son at about seven years old I never imagined sitting with him beside a pool watching his own son who is now about the same age. Children are wonderful gifts and grandchildren doubly so. They teach us so much about the eagerness to learn and discover.

Jesus called a little one to his side and said to them, “Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in.”

(Matthew 18:2,3 TPT)

May we never lose our wonder.