Rose M. Jackson © 1994
This is a very old message, first given 24 years ago, to the women of Community Church of Joy. I had no idea how prophetic this would be for my own journey into a “dis-comfort zone” that has stretched my understanding and trust in the incredible love and hidden purposes of God Almighty. I never imagined in 1994 that I would be in this place in my life, and it still feels like the “wrong fit” for someone who often feels more like a canary than an eagle on many days, but God has proved to me he is with me every step of the way. My next post will be another early thought, but today I need to remind myself, and very likely someone else out there, that God is the wind beneath the wings he gave you and wants you to try as he lifts you up to the purpose He created you for.
I heard a bird chirping as I cruised through the mall early one morning on my two-mile walking circuit. It startled me, for though this mall – like most – is landscaped with Ficus and Pothos and other requisite ornamental plants to give the place a quasi-rainforest feel (minus real rainforest bugs, of course) it’s hardly the place you expect to find living creatures. Looking up, I spied a sparrow perched on a mauve concrete ledge just below the skylights illuminating the courtyard in front of a big department store. I speculated that the bird, like me, found its way in, on an early morning. The plant man or the cleaning staff or some delivery person probably had left the doors wide open and empty long enough for the sparrow, fooled by the adjacent windows’ reflections of the world outside, to sail unsuspectingly inside.
Well, I asked myself, was that such a tragedy? Wasn’t it in fact serendipity for the bird? I did a quick mental tally of what the mall provided:
1) It’s climate-controlled. That is, after all, one of the main reasons I walk there. The temperature is always a comfortable 75 in summer, 80 in winter. There’s no pelting rain or, here in the desert, dry, parching wind to deal with. It’s always in the comfort zone in the mall.
2) There aren’t any predators – another reason I myself walk there. There are no obvious threats. Sparrows don’t need to worry about the occasional purse snatcher anyway, and I’ve never noticed anyone even paying any attention to the birds, much less trying to harm them.
3) There are trees to nest in. They may not grow very large, and there may not be many to choose from, but they’re there, limbs artfully pruned to be up out of reach, carefully tended to stay green and healthy.
4) There is a reliable water and food supply. Gardeners are there every day to water the plants. Small children, in particular, are certain to trail cookie crumbs, popcorn kernels, bits of French fry, and the occasional entire slice of pizza. The enticement to eat is designed into every mall (don’t I well know, and why is it that I always park so that I have to exit past the cinnamon roll stand as I end my walks?). A food supply – even if not real nourishment – is guaranteed.
5) There is the ever-present elevator music to provide a pleasant ambience and set up a mind-numbing alpha-wave state in the brain. I don’t know if that matters to birds, but it does to mall designers; I suspect it puts customers in a pleasantly detached mental state conducive to spending money without realizing you’re doing it. I use it as “white noise” to help me focus and filter out distractions on my walks, because I use my walking time to do my intercessory praying.
6) There are lots of skylights, double-paned and insulated, to let the sunshine in, so people and birds have a view of the clouds and sun (but not the stars because the lights are never all turned off in the mall). You can see the sky without the bother of direct sun to fade your feathers.
All in all, I reflected, the mall could be a pretty good place for a vegetarian bird. All the basics seemed to be there, with no worrisome predators. To be objective, though, on my second lap I asked myself what wasn’t in the mall. On deeper inspection, I found lacking:
1) The natural cycle of the seasons. Even in a place with moderate winters, like here in Arizona, a bird needs to know when to do what. Certain bird behaviors, notably nesting, are triggered by the change in seasons. Does it leave a bird with a false sense of eternal spring, and upset biorhythms, to live in the mall?
2) The meaningful company of other birds. There are just not that many birds in the mall. I’ve never seen a group of birds perched on a pediment. I’ve never seen a nest tucked into any of the “o’s” or “e’s” of store signs, the way you always see them outside of grocery stores. Meaningful companionship seems hard to come by in a mall. Which leads me to:
3) Limited options. In mates, in only the ubiquitous Ficus Mallius to call home, in room to fly, in diet, all options in the mall are sorely limited. What you see is all you get. If you develop a craving for a nice earthworm in the middle of the night, forget it. Organic food is out of the question. There may be two health food stores in the mall, but, for a bird, healthy food is hard to come by. Nourishment, emotional and physical, is sorely lacking for a bird in the mall.
4) Purpose. In the natural world, birds serve a purpose, whether it is controlling insects, spreading seeds, or, even in death, feeding other animals. Without natural food to search for, predators to evade, and changing seasons to guide it, how could a baby sparrow ever learn to be the bird it is supposed to be? What purpose do birds serve in the mall, other than to arouse the curiosity of people like me? They certainly aren’t filling their God-given niche, or serving their God-given purpose in life. But – here’s the real sadness – do they even know they aren’t truly in the world?
5) Sensitivity. That anesthetized state of “pleasant” induced by elevator music does have its dangers. I discovered this first-hand one morning when, immersed in my own praying, I clipped a corner on a jewelry store too close and gashed my hand, not even realizing I was bleeding until half a lap later. What it does to birds, I don’t know, but persistent “pleasant” de-sensitizes us to danger and pain.
6) An easy way out. Though a wide-open door is a fairly easy way into the mall, there is no easy way back out. A bird has to wait for, and, more importantly, recognize, another open door in order to find its way out of the mall. Someone has to leave the door wide open. Then a bird has to risk closeness to people, the very people who frighten it, to take advantage of an open door out.
7) Sky. In the mall there are none of the risks of the sky, but there is also none of the freedom of the sky, none of the possibilities that exist only within that risky freedom. Outside, the winds may buffet it, the rain may soak its feathers, it will have to spend its days searching for food and water, and someone may even eat it. But outside, a bird will have the winds to soar on, trees and eaves and letters on store signs to shelter in, and a host of its own kind to find companionship with. A skylight is a poor substitute for the real sky.
What in the world does a bird in the mall have to do with you and me? Well, as if you hadn’t noticed, the world is trying to sell us on life in “the mall,” and we are only too willing to buy into that philosophy. I don’t mean the literal mall – though more and more of us seem to spend more and more of our time there – but the attitude that life in the comfort “happy” zone should be our highest goal. This is the state of mind that equates stuff with security. Peace means nothing beyond achieving a mental state of perpetual “pleasant,” undisturbed by pain or anxiety (our own or anyone else’s). That’s even the first definition of “comfort” in the dictionary: “A state of mental or physical ease, especially one free from pain, want, or other afflictions.”Adversity is to be avoided at all costs. “Sounds good to me,” we reflect, and ask where we go to sign up.
We long for a life with no threats, no changes unless they’re positive, no risks, no unmet needs or desires, and no surprises – unless they’re to our benefit. We want nothing to jar us from our externally and circumstantially induced reverie. But, as wistfully as I yearn for it, is such a “controlled climate” existence the same thing as a life of peace, happiness, contentment, security, and purpose? With a “climate controlled” mind-set, how do I respond when the mall door opens, something threatening or unsettling rolls in, and I realize “pleasant ambience” won’t take care of it? Do I ever consider what will happen to my “peace” when there’s a power failure in “the mall”?
Birds get into the mall by accident, but people long for and actively look for a way into the perpetual comfort zone that I’ll refer to as “the mall.” We long to wake up in an ever balmy, no-sweat life, where the only one who notices changes is the maintenance person (God’s new job description) who makes the seasonal thermostat adjustments needed to keep us in our comfort zone. As for “seasons” in our lives, we’ll stick to the changing window displays that give us fair warning of Christmas four months in advance. We’d prefer a superficial seasonal change something like changing window displays – new furniture, the latest development in plastic surgery, or a new place to vacation – to those nasty seasons of failure and frustration, thank you, and don’t even mention the wrinkles on my face or silver “snow” in my hair unless I have some guarantee that the winter of my life will be as blissful as a Bing Crosby musical!
How hard we work to maintain some sort of permanent “white noise” to help us screen out the rest of the world and focus on ourselves! In the world of “the mall,” we covet the meaningful company of others only if they’re as carefree as we are, with their messier or more demanding needs already met. I admit, though not to my credit, that I draw back before pursuing relationships that may demand too much of my time or energy. Sometimes it is honestly because I recognize my time and resources are limited, and I want to live up to the commitments I do make, but my reasons aren’t always so honorable. Sometimes I simply don’t want to be bothered. Sometimes I’m just afraid that my own deficiencies will be revealed. I pull back from people who have significantly less money and education than I do – good grief, I even pull back from relationships with people who have significantly more!
I was shocked to discover how severely my comfort zones can limit my blessings shortly after we moved to a new town. The first people we met at church were a friendly couple, Jack and Kathleen, newcomers themselves, who were starting a small group in their home. Our son had a chorus concert on the evening of the group’s first meeting, so I went to the concert while my husband represented us at the small group. When we both got home that evening, my husband said he’d had a good time. He told me nothing about Jack and Kathleen’s house, except to note that they didn’t have a swimming pool. We did have a pool, and since Jack and Kathleen had two children, my husband thought it would be nice if we’d invite them over for a cookout and a swim.
“Sure, that would be great,” I replied, excited to have new friends to share with, so Jack and Kathleen and their two children came over for hamburgers and a swim. I gave them the tour of our house and told them to make themselves at home. We really enjoyed getting to know them better, and I could tell Kathleen and I could be good friends.
A week later we went to the second small group meeting at their house – and I was horrified. You could put our house on the first floor of their house and still have room leftover! I felt so embarrassed, thinking of how I’d given them “the tour” of our modest house when theirs was palatial by comparison. Why hadn’t my husband told me before we invited them over? Why had he let me “make a fool of myself”? Then I realized – even more horrified by my shallowness – that if he had told me they had a lot more money than we did, I never would have felt comfortable opening our home to them. The difference in our income levels and my desire not to look “poor” by comparison would have kept me from experiencing the depth of friendship we soon came to share with them as we honestly opened our lives to each other. Staying in my “comfort zone” would have walled me off from so much goodness! I have to wonder how many significant friendships I miss in every direction when I’m uncomfortable with economic and ethnic differences.
How much we miss out on when we restrict our life to “the mall”! Does such a place really exist, and what would I lose from spending my time there? Would it be a healthy place for me to live and grow?
I’d find no meaningful interaction and relationships with others – in short, no real love. No changes in my life would mean no growth. Now before you tell me I’m sounding like your mother and “growth” is just a euphemism for “unpleasant and painful”, consider this honestly:
No growth means I’d never develop discernment, wisdom, good judgment, or faith, or compassion for others that comes when my life doesn’t go the way I want it to.
I’d find no true peace, for genuine peace doesn’t come from the absence of conflict or fear.
I’d never learn endurance, and I’d never exult in victory, for victory implies a contest and the possibility of defeat. I’d never fulfill my purpose, with all the unlimited-in-God possibilities my life could hold.
We can learn that from the life of Jesus. Knowing the cruel ordeal he was about to face, Jesus nevertheless assured his disciples during their last meal together:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27
With the dread and anguish of heart and mind that must have warred within him, recognizing what must come, how could Christ possibly have peace for himself, much less peace enough to give away? Yet he did. It came from something other than his circumstances. It came from the presence of God in him in his circumstances.
The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace. Psalm 29:11
“You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.” Isaiah 26:3
The peace and confidence Jesus had and gives to us doesn’t depend on living within some white-noised, “there is no pain in this world” problem-free zone where we always look like we have life together. Peace and security don’t come from our circumstances. The peace of Christ that “passes all understanding,” understands and trusts in the faithfulness, goodness, mercy and power of God to give peace within our circumstances.
True security doesn’t come from how much stuff I can amass as a shield about me, or from sailing through life with no troubles, or from surrounding myself with “happiness” and only people who “make me happy”, or from projecting the image that I have my life together. Stuff can disappear overnight, as Jesus pointed out to the crowd listening to him on a mountaintop, and problems are part of the reality of life. If our security is in our portfolio, then we have no security.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust to not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Matthew 6:19-21
Besides moths, rust, and thieves, today Jesus could add to the list downsizing, layoffs, identity theft, and plunges in the stock market. But if stuff isn’t security, then what is? What, or who, won’t leave us?
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16: 33
Real security is anchored in the promise that Jesus is bigger than our problems, that it’s who we are in him that matters, and that he will never leave us.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’” Psalm 91:1-2
What better security can we have than knowing that God is always present with us, the victor for us?
What else would I miss in a climate-controlled life? I’ve noticed that malls offer plenty of stores to choose from, but they tend to offer just numerous variations on the same theme, whether shoes, jewelry, books, clothing, or fast food. Despite a veritable glut of stuff, often I’m unable to find what I really want in the mall, and I have to settle instead for something that only partially satisfies my need or is approximately what I want to find. The same is true of life in our comfort zones: it’s an approximation of joy and freedom, superficially close to the real thing, but not at all what we really need. Jesus, on the other hand, offers us what we truly need and want to long for, if we trust him enough to fly out of “the mall”:
“I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance – to the full, till it overflows. ” John 10:10 (Amplified Bible)
Abundance, breadth, broadness, completeness, entirety, profusion, totality, vastness, and wholeness: these are a few synonyms for fullness. That hardly sounds like the narrow “everything going my way” constraint I mistakenly think I’d like to impose on my life. Have you ever muttered, “Lord, I didn’t ask for this,” only to recognize that you have, in fact, asked God for strength, compassion, purpose, and victory? The very word “victory” implies overcoming an obstacle, threat, or challenge. My problem is that I want victory without the battle, meaning without the challenge! But Paul’s’ words remind me that God desires more than pseudo-abundance for me:
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Ephesians 4:1
What is the life “worthy of the calling you have received”? It is:
“. . . that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” Colossians 1:10-12
This is what a life worthy of the calling of Christ looks like. How does that stress-free, planter-boxed happy artificial scenery compare? As a friend of mine bluntly phrased it, God is more interested in our character than in our comfort. After I wince, I examine that truth and realize it is a loving truth, because the character of Christ is what I really need to fill the landscape of my life with exciting, meaningful, overflowing abundance.
I do want more from life than my own ease and pleasure – or at least part of me does. Another part of me gets very nervous when I feel the draft from the door God’s just opened. Let me clarify that I’m not talking about God calling me to dig wells in Africa. No, I hide in comfort zones much closer to home. I am appalled, in fact, to recognize how narrow my comfort zone truly is and how slight a shift it takes to make me anxious. The two “malls” that most often entrap me are “What will people think of me?” and “I don’t want any interruptions in today’s schedule.” Do you regularly visit to either of these?
Not long ago God challenged me to pray for people on the spot, as soon as I learn they have a need, even if it is in public. My first thought was, “But God, what will people think of me? They’ll think I’m a nut or some kind of religious fanatic.” The breeze was unmistakably blowing, though, so I mentally committed to pray out loud, in public, the very next time someone told me they had a need.
It happened the next week in the check-out line at Wal-Mat, and you can’t get much more public than that. When I politely asked, “How are you?” the clerk told me her husband was in a nursing home, recovering from serious surgery. She deeply longed to bring him home for Christmas but was afraid she wouldn’t be able to take care of him, even for a few days. My usual response would have been, “I’ll pray for you,” but I sensed it would be a shallow blessing if that was all I offered. Instead, I nervously asked, “Would you like me to pray for you right now?” My stomach knotted when she sighed, “Oh, yes.” “Oh, no!” was my instant gut response, but I took a deep breath, willed myself to ignore the line of shoppers behind me, and prayed out loud for the clerk and her husband right there.
The look of peace that spread across her face told me Jesus was there for her with strength and peace in that very moment – and to see that, I didn’t care what the people behind me thought. She was encouraged, and I was free and flying!
Similar things happen consistently when I “fly with” interruptions in my days. In my normal “mall” state of mind, interruptions destroy my peace along with my schedule. Recently I had my busy day neatly arranged when the phone rang. “Oh, no,” I thought – my internal red flag that my comfort zone is about to be breached. I considered just letting the phone ring, but picked it up anyway. On the line was a friend from church who had moved out-of-town, just calling to say hello. At least that’s what we both initially thought the call was about. I still don’t know how the conversation shifted, but she was struggling with a painful issue that she had no idea I had also experienced in my life. The Holy Spirit suddenly powerfully filled my living room – at least that’s how it felt as we talked and prayed together. I was stunned once again with the realization that God moves across miles and through minutes to bring healing and hope, and if I cooperate instead of nesting stubbornly in “the mall” of my own agenda, I get to be part of his powerful purposes. I confess that I still cringe initially when the phone rings or a neighbor knocks on my door, but feeling God’s hand in mine as I take part in his purpose in each encounter refreshes and renews me.
I do (I think…) want to try my “wings” to find my purpose and fulfill it fruitfully, to grow in my knowledge of God, to be strong and persevering through all the seasons and circumstances of my life, to be a thankful, joyful, patient overcomer, no matter what comes my way. That means moving outside of the skylight world to a place where challenges will come. When I face that open door out of the mall and begin to see God’s world outside my own contentment, convenience, competence and complacency, sometimes I get nervous. No, let me be honest: I get scared, because it’s not a “safe” place out there. People who reject or abuse my efforts to love them can hurt me. I can attempt an avenue of ministry or a challenge I’ve never tried before and fail. I may stand up for Christ and be cut down by people who scorn Christianity. It may cost me. The truth is, I usually feel more like a sparrow than an eagle. But like a bird in the mall, I won’t find the room to become more than I am now, or the place that’s truly my home if I never leave my comfort zones. I won’t learn what God is capable of if I never dare beyond what I know I can achieve myself.
But does that mean I must live without comfort? Not at all, and this is where the other definitions of comfort apply: “Relief from sorrow, distress, etc.; solace, consolation. One who brings ease or consolation. Help or support;” The Counselor whom Jesus said God would send, the Holy Spirit, is our Parakletos, which is Greek for intercessor, consoler, advocate, and comforter.
So how do I break free from that skylight-deluded mindset? A bird in the mall may have to wait a long time before it recognizes an open door. My problem isn’t the open door; I usually don’t have to wait long to feel the whoosh of God opening an opportunity to move me out of my comfort zones. “Donate cans of food for the food bank? Sure! But help serve a meal in a dining room for the homeless? Now wait a minute, God! It didn’t feel as weird as I expected the day the homeless lady hugged me outside the grocery store after I bought her some food, but do you actually want me to get to know one of these people?” No, my problem isn’t in finding an opened door; my problem lies in recognizing the emptiness of a climate-controlled life, the fullness and purpose of living in God’s daily call on my life, and God’s faithfulness to me when I do “fly out the door”.
You can not only trust Jesus to hold that mall door open for you – you can trust him to be the door for you, offering you the freedom to trust in him and “fly.” He wants us living freely and fully the broad, vast, whole life he promised – not captive to the counterfeit of the mall and the skylight. Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is what God surely desires for us all:
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. . . .” Ephesians 1:18-19
The “skylight life” is a poor imitation; genuine life is in God’s abundant, risky, exhilarating, liberating adventure for us when we’re willing to fly out into the open skies. Will you take a deep breath, look afresh through the eyes of your heart, and trust God to be faithful in the adventure to which he’s calling you? Don’t settle for the skylight when YOU are destined for the sky!
Questions for you to ponder with the Holy Spirit:
1) What defines your “comfort zones”? What stresses, misconceptions, or deceptions tempt you to wish for or actually head for the “climate controlled” life?
2) From time to time we all do need a place of rest, but is the absence of stress the same as the presence of peace and rest?
3) God asked Moses to move WAY beyond his comfort zone. Read Exodus 33:12-17. Where can you find real peace and rest? ( also see Matthew 11:28-30 and Psalm 116:5-7)
4) Why does God call us out of our comfort zones?
Philippians 1: 3-6
Ephesians 2:8-10 3:16-19
5) Do you need to be afraid of what’s outside “the mall” of what the world calls safety, peace and meaning?
Jeremiah 29: 11
Romans 8:28, 38-39
Now the big question:
6) In what area do you hear God calling you to “fly out” of your comfort zone this day, this week, this month and fly free in his calling?
A “…BUT…” to pray today:
Litany of Wings
Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
For my soul takes refuge in you;
And in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, Psalm 57:1
For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. Psalm 63:7
For it is you who deliver me from the snare of the trapper,
and from the deadly pestilence.
You will cover me with your feathers,
and under your wings I may seek refuge. Psalm 91:3-4
You make the clouds your chariot and ride upon the wings of the wind;
you make winds your messengers Psalm 104:3b
Those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength;
I will mount up with wings like an eagle,
I will run and not get tired,
I will walk and not become weary. Isaiah 40:31
Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you Psalm 116: 7
Be at peace as you fly free in his calling
Funk & Wagnalls+ Standard College Dictionary, Funk & Wagnalls, a Division of Reader’s Digest Books, New York: 1966, 270.