Learning to Rest: Part 2

On Christmas morning, Kirk gave me a small, two-sided card on which he’d written several questions. These questions were to be held in prayer by both of us for the duration of the week in preparation for the upcoming year. The idea was to pray separately over these questions for a week and then, when we went to dinner on New Year’s Eve, to break the silence of prayer and share what we discerned God was speaking.

The first question on the card asked of God, "What are you trying to free me from?" It didn't take long for me to sit with this question and discover its conclusion. Given the events of late, it seemed quite clear that God was wanting to free me from the iron grip with which I held the final remnants of my heart. This is the part of my heart that had been pushing itself along as though God did not exist. It was the vigilant sentry, a merciless machine, an isolated, sad, and lonely island.

And yet I'd seen Jesus inviting me closer. He had held out his hand toward my self-sufficiency, as though he wanted me to give it over to him. He seemed to want me to trust that this interior, desolate machine that is my greatest and last attempt at my own salvation could be entrusted entirely into his hands.

But could it be? This part of me didn't know the first thing about trusting anything or anyone other than the efforts of its own highly capable self. It was, quite honestly, a functional atheist.

I turned to the second question on the card: "How do you want me to live?"

At this point I began to see that it was perhaps providential that I'd just spent the past eight weeks learning about the spiritual disciplines for a class at Spring Arbor. In that class, I had learned firsthand about the principle of indirection. This principle states that we cannot, in our own power, make ourselves into the kind of people God wants us to be. In the face of that truth, we commit to little practices that are within our capacity so that God, along the way, can cultivate in us the character and fruits we cannot produce ourselves. We commit to what we can do so that God can grow in us what we cannot do. We do it together: his part, and our part.

I began to wonder how the principle of indirection could apply to this situation. If God wants to grow my trust in him in this deepest of interior places, how could I participate in its coming about? What kind of practices could make room for that trust to grow?

I looked out over the coming year of 2009 and, even in that moment, felt how immediately this part of my heart springs into action upon considering it. It channels all sorts of energy and worry toward answering the question of provision. It conjures up ideas for how that provision could happen. It wonders how people answering a vocational call to ministry go about finding jobs. It considers building a new resume. It speeds along channels concerned with connections, contacts, and networks. And it gets exhausted very quickly, even though it helplessly believes this is the only way it can survive.

But maybe there was another way. Just maybe.

That week I had been reading and re-reading the section in Matthew 6 that talks about worry. During one of those readings, I noticed a little sentence embedded in Jesus's sermon that I'd never paid much attention to before:

"Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . . Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:25-33)

All throughout Matthew 6, Jesus keeps emphasizing our relationship with our heavenly Father. He talks about "your Father in heaven who sees you" (vv. 4, 6, 18) and says that "your Father knows the things you have need of" (vv. 8). He talks about how our Father in heaven feeds the birds of the air who don't put an ounce of energy into planting and harvesting the food they eat, and how God clothes the lilies of the field in majestic splendor, even though they are but mere flowers. And here, in the section of Matthew 6 that so carefully speaks to the very same worries of provision for physical needs that are the voice of my own heart in apprehending the future, Jesus says that my heavenly Father knows that I have need of all these things.

What does it mean for me to believe I have a heavenly Father who sees me, knows my needs, and will provide for them? What does it mean for me to allow him to be a heavenly Father who actually provides for those needs, in the same way he provides for the sparrows and the lilies without their lifting a toiling finger or worrying one single day? What does it look like for me to be a child, carefree about how the needs are met but content to simply receive with delight the gifts provided each day, trusting each day that those gifts and provisions will be there? What does it mean not to worry?

In considering the question "How do you want me to live?" and the principle of indirection, I began to ask God if 2009 is meant to be a year of practicing active rest, a year of willfully choosing not to spend time or energy figuring out the possibilities and details of my future life, spending that time and energy instead on attending to Jesus and loving others. I wondered if this is perhaps a year of attending to God's activity in my life, watching and waiting for him to bring his good gifts to me and learning to receive and respond to them when they come. Perhaps by actively watching for what God brings each day, my trust in the reality of him as my heavenly Father will grow.

This seemed like a big step to take: turning aside from a way of existing that was like second nature to me in order to trust an invisible God to provide for an invisible future. Was I crazy? I asked God for his Holy Spirit to confirm this path of active rest.

That's when all sorts of crazy things happened within one 24-hour period.

Later that same day, someone shared with me an image they had of me sitting in a meadow surrounded by butterflies. When I asked what those butterflies were doing, she related the idea of a butterfly coming to rest on somebody's shoulder. The person was sitting in stillness, and the butterfly came to them. Interesting.

Then my self-sufficient boy cat who is never interested in cuddling or receiving my affection took an unusual interest. He sat and stared as I worked on my computer and then jumped into my lap and wouldn't budge. He nestled his head into my arm and fell asleep. For seemingly no reason at all, this masculine cat that never cuddles decided to rest, unbidden, on my lap. Weird.

I happened that same night on a poem about butterflies. It spoke of butterflies eluding us when pursued but coming to alight quietly on our shoulders once we are still. Curiouser and curiouser.

And then, as a final bang, I had a dream that an invitation for guest-blogging showed up, completely out of the blue, in my e-mail inbox. I woke up and knew that all these things were God's ways of speaking to me. He was asking me to sit still, to choose not to make my own life happen this year, and to see what shows up, completely apart from my own making, as gifts he brings to me. He wants me to rest in such a way that allows him to demonstrate the faithfulness of his fathering of me.

I felt scared to make this commitment. The part of me that depends entirely on its own ability was completely and totally freaked out by it. But that is because it has known no other way. And this is where another passage I had been reading that week became incredibly comforting and incredibly instructive:

"I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them." (Isaiah 42:16)

The first few times I read this passage, I connected so much with the parts that spoke of blindness, of darkness, of a path unknown and places that are rough. The part of my heart to which this year is dedicated needs to unlearn self-sufficiency and, at the prospect of such unlearning, feels all these things acutely: blind, in the dark, on a road it does not know, and completely rough and unformed.

And yet as I continued to meditate on the passage through the week, I began to notice something else that completely blew my mind. I began to notice how many times God asserts himself as the agent of this journey along the new road, through the darkness into light, from rough ground into smoother levels. Over and over again, he says in this passage, "I will . . . I will . . . I will."

I could not avoid the truth that God would be the one leading me where I needed to go and bringing me out of the darkness I'd always known. It was just this kind of trust that I needed to cling to and learn to believe in, right that very moment.