Sunday, June 13, 2021
Saturday, December 26, 2020
This Christmas was different for everyone in the world, and our family was not excluded from that circumstance. In the weeks before Christmas Day, I heard the people I love voice their awareness of the coming differences with anxiety and nervousness about parting from the expected familiar - my son, my brother, my mother, my daughter, my niece, my friend - and even the voice of my own inner self, echoing around in my head. Each of us struggled with concern for different reasons, but our struggle was universal in that we all had suffered painful life changes that set us on new paths over the course of the year since last Christmas.
Rev. David Crosby wrote, “You do not get to choose the events that come your way nor the sorrows that interrupt your life. They will likely be a surprise to you, catching you off quard and unprepared. You may hold your head in your hands and lament your weak condition and wonder what you ought to do. To suffer, that is common to all...Pain will change you more profoundly than success or good fortune. Suffering shapes your perception of life, your values and priorities, and your goals and dreams. Your pain is changing you.”
The change that sorrow and suffering brings is painful. It breaks off pieces of ourselves that were attached to things we thought we needed, things we thought we depended on, things that we thought defined us... until life happened and forced us to see that the parts that have broken away are not meant to be with us on the road ahead. We feel raw and wounded in those broken places, sometimes in an almost unbearable sense. But time moves us forward down our new path, and we realize that our journey continues despite our pain, and despite our inclination to stay in the place where life was interrupted, hoping that somehow that moment will rewind itself and disappear.
Some of the most hopeful verses in the Bible, to me, come in the middle of a book of laments. A lament is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” Yet, in the middle of this book of laments, this hope appears:
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” Lamentations 3:21-24 NIV
Throughout my life, whenever I have been faced with a situation which has caused me great grief and sorrow, these verses have reminded me that the middle of my circumstances is not where life ends. The middle of my pain is not where joy ends. The middle of my struggle is not where hope ends. Even when a job is lost, an ability is lost, a relationship is lost, or a life is lost... there is more to the story than the sorrowful middle. That doesn’t mean that I should not express my grief, that I cannot lament over what has changed by my loss - but what it does mean is that I can hold on to the promise that this middle of sorrow is not a bitter end.
In the church I’ve been attending this year, each week the pastor heralds the congregation with a blessing before we leave the shelter of the church and return to the lives we live outside the walls of that building. The blessing comes from Numbers 6:24-26 in the Bible:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
I am deeply comforted each week as I listen to the words of this blessing spoken over me. I know that the original blessing was spoken by the priests over the Israelites when they were in the middle of a journey through the wilderness. These people were living a life of change and hardship that often brought about grief and sorrow and uncertainty. But in the middle of that wilderness, there was hope. In the middle of that wilderness was the promise that these difficult circumstances were only the middle of the journey, and that a wondrous destination still lay ahead. In the middle of that wilderness, the words of this blessing were spoken over them to remind them that God was with them always.
When the very first Christmas was coming, Joseph was uncertain and anxious. He was nervous because the life he had planned had been interrupted and he did not know what to expect on the new path his life journey suddenly had taken. The book of Matthew records that an angel came to him in a dream in the middle of the time he was lamenting his unanticipated circumstances, and the angel said:
"’Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, God with us.'" -Matthew 1:22-23, NIV
Immanuel, the name of Jesus, literally means “God with us”. As we celebrate Christmas differently this year, how thrilling and how comforting it is to know that in the middle of my lamenting, in the middle of my struggle, in the middle of my unexpected journey - Jesus is here with me, and He promises not to leave me hopeless, but to faithfully bring me through to the completion where love wins out and mourning ends.
“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished...” -Philippians 1:6
Sunday, January 5, 2020
Last year was filled with uneasiness for me... a sense that the world was always tilting, and no matter how I attempted to adjust my stance, I never could find a balanced position that allowed me to relax. When the life you are living is filled with uncertainty and hyper-vigilance, you become tired... I became tired - chronically, heavily, depressingly tired. I’d look around and feel overwhelmed by the veil that lay over my world. I’d look within and feel defeated by the circumstances that had been heaped there without my permission. I’d look up to God and feel like he was pre-occupied with whatever was happening just over my shoulder. And maybe he was... maybe God knew that I sensed what was behind me around the curve of the road, just out of sight, but close enough for me to feel the chill of its shadow reaching out ever longer and leaving me uneasy with the darkness it cast around itself.
In last few days of 2019, I finally ran out of road. As I turned and looked back at where I had been walking, I saw the shape of the shadow that had been behind me become sharpened in the light of the glaring truth. Finally, I saw clearly what I had been sensing all along. It was a shifting figure painted with someone else’s shame and deceit. It was hard to look at... even harder as I began to comprehend exactly what it was - unfortunately familiar, something which could never be unseen.
Everybody in this world experiences undeserved pain. It rips at your heart, pounds on your head, leaves your soul shaken. In a detached yet spiritual moment, the horror reminded me that Jesus had died from such an undeserved experience. And not surprisingly, the thought was not comforting. It was more of a disruptive awareness - like a train clattering down the tracks through the night with its horn blaring, and its dirty graffiti covered cars hanging onto each other by a mere coupling.
I know other people - friends, family - who have experienced deep pain this last year, too. A husband who shockingly died in a matter of unexpected moments at work. A violent seizure disrupting a peaceful night and announcing the previously unknown presence of a brain tumor. An estranged child becoming more deeply lost to her loving mother by her own hard-hearted intention. Such pain feels like a betrayal. It is trauma at its worst, wreaking havoc with our faith and with our families. Sometimes, all we can do in those moments where life betrays us is to suffer, exposed. We want to run away from the pain, yet somehow hold on to the precious thing shrouded inside of it that’s being ripped away. Our minds are at war with our hearts. Our faith is at war with our fear.
I could probably write in a bunch of right responses here - to pain, to fear, to traumatic upheavals. But sometimes, the right response is not the one that you would think. Sometimes, you have to be wild and scream and cry and pound your fists. Sometimes, you feel so fragile, that you need to lock yourself in a room for awhile and leave everyone else outside. Sometimes, you are so confused that next right thing to do waivers and swerves like a car out of control from one side of the road to the other. Sometimes, you feel like time is standing still, but then you realize that it’s actually you who is standing still. When you look around you’re shocked to realize all around that life goes on regardless, and the reality is, you’re forced to a point to go along with it.
I think that our inability to stop time from moving is the way that healing begins. It is a both a maddening and miraculous awareness. Before the horror and pain have even ended their barrage of mayhem in your life, the details of recovery are roused and engaged. The relationships in your circle begin to shift, and those with deepest significance, with the most soulful connections, begin to rise to the surface of your life, like cream in a jar of ice cold milk that has been left undisturbed overnight in the farmer’s kitchen. Suddenly, you realize that what you viewed as God’s pre-occupation while circumstances lined up to destroy your life, was not an abandonment at all. It was a patient waiting, a carefully orchestrated plan to ensure that what was meant to harm you, would in the end be used to help you. As your messed up life became separated into the before and after of the moment you became painfully aware of the circumstances that would change things forever, God had never taken his eyes off of you. Instead, he had allowed the cream to gather and rise, and even as you staggered under the suddenly too heavy weight of your crisis, he began to redistribute the burden of it. He ladled the cream from the top of the milk and began the process of turning it into beautiful new details whose possibilities had always existed in his plan, but could only arise through the process of separation.
As God has already begun to spread out the burden of my pain onto family and friends, I have felt a shift. While the ache is still there, so there is also a relief. I think that this past year of carrying this burden alone has both strengthened and weakened me. But I think there was purpose in the waiting. As the cream gathers to the top, so God had begun to gather my relationships and my life circumstances to a place where they would be ready for this time. As I became more and more weary of my burden, I became more and more ready to share it - not an easy task for an introverted independent woman like myself. And even as I am horrified and aching from pain, I am encouraged. Because when cream is whipped and shaken and blended with other good ingredients, it becomes part of a number of delightful new creations - new and good gifts. Creations that are served to satisfy all on their own, as well as creations that enhance the flavor of other good gifts.
So, as I contemplate the pain that has risen in me, I also am shedding the veil that had covered my world. The future is becoming a bit brighter, although my vision of it is still cloudy. I’m okay with the uncertainty of it, however. Just before the moment of horror I have recently experienced, God caught my attention with this quote... “Honor the waiting. It teaches you the beauty and ache of hope in equal measure.” The beauty and the ache are both necessary in order to experience the miracle of hope. God has shown us that truth over and over from the beginning of time. Who am I to not be willing to sit down and rest with him after the grueling process, and enjoy the sweetness that comes in a dish of ice cream? There is nothing that can take away the precious hope that remains in me because of my strong faith in the good, good love of my Father God.
“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”
Isaiah 40:31 NLT
“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”
1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT
“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”
Galatians 6:2 NLT
“They brought sleeping mats, cooking pots, serving bowls, wheat and barley, flour and roasted grain, beans, lentils, honey, butter, sheep, goats, and cheese for David and those who were with him. For they said, ‘You must all be very hungry and tired and thirsty after your long march through the wilderness.’”
2 Samuel 17:28-29 NLT
“Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.”
Psalms 27:14 NLT
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”
Romans 8:28 NLT
“For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.”
Psalms 100:5 NLT
“We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”
1 John 4:16 NLT