Category Archives: Suffering

When My Faith Hurts My Children

IMG_1608“But what about your children?”

The question came from a concerned friend in the congregation last year as we presented our past work and our upcoming move. His well-intended question jarred a deep insecurity in me, resurrecting an unresolved tension that I have lived with since the Lord first called us to this pilgrim life as a young couple.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

I remember wrestling with the Lord over this issue seventeen years ago as my husband and I first began the process of packing up and moving to the place God was leading us to serve. As I counted the cost involved, the Spirit moved me to joyously lay down my rights, my comforts, my proximity to family, and even my life. But as I looked down at the swelling bump growing within me, my heart froze with fear. What about this little one? What if something horrible happened to her because of my choice to serve God in what we already knew would be a difficult, possibly dangerous place?

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: 6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.

The Lord’s answer to me then was something I have had to keep returning to ever since. “They are not your children. They are Mine. If this is the life to which I am calling you, then it also the life I have planned out for them. Remember that I love them more than you ever will.”

I confess that my faith in this area has been severely tried. In those early years I watched my babies burn with dengue fever and lie listlessly overcome by typhoid, driving me to cry out helplessly on their behalf. I mourned their lack of clean air, open playgrounds, and nourishing community. And yet through those years I also watched the Lord preserve their lives and nurture their growth in beautiful ways, both despite and because of the circumstances in which they were growing up.

16Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; 17 for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.

Aware of the unique challenges our children faced because of our lifestyle, my husband and I devoted ourselves to compensating for their losses. We threw ourselves into lighthearted family rituals and rigorous home education, seeking to shelter our children from the intensity and pain that constantly weighed on our bodies and souls. Of course no amount of dancing around the kitchen or bedtime tickles could cover the terror of seeing their father repeatedly carry their unconscious mother out the door in a panicked rush for the emergency room. Nor could our attempts at levity and a positive spin on things protect them from the terror of seeing their mother violently attacked, from the trauma of yet another emergency evacuation, and from the loss of yet another home and community.

18 The blameless spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever. 19 In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.

In the years that followed I mourned my own inability to be the super-mother I had prided myself on being. Though the zeal and vitality with which I had formerly engaged my children was gone, I prayed that God would compensate for my brokenness by providing for my children what I could not. As my Good Shepherd led me through the valley of darkness and back out to the green pastures of healing, I saw Him mothering my children through the other nurturing adults He brought into their lives. Mentoring aunties and uncles, proactive music teachers and prayer partners, and doting grandparents (both natural and surrogate) stepped in to guide, teach, nurture, and provide for my children. Humbling as it was, God strengthened my faith through His faithfulness to my children.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go. So when one of those nurturing adults raised the question about our return to South Asia, of course my heart sank. Were we being reckless and irresponsible as parents to take our teenagers out of the relative security they had found and back into the place where life was so uncertain? Stories filtered through my memory of embittered young adults whose faith in God and relationship with their parents were shattered by similar experiences. Were we ruining any hope our children might have of becoming healthy, well-adjusted adults by heeding our Master’s call?

Despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of our children’s hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God.

With trembling hearts my husband and I put our future on the table for family discussion. Bitterness and pain, fear and faith all reared their heads as we talked about what we felt God leading us to do. Little incentive readily presented itself for why these teens should give up their lives to follow their parent’s calling, and yet that is what they chose to do.

23 The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; 24 though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.

In the year that has followed, we have had ample opportunity to hold our breath and cry out in despair, “Lord, where is your goodness for our children? How will you reward their faith?” We have walked with them through dark valleys no child should have to endure. One has faced the traumatic rupture of the buried fear and pain from her past, bravely fighting for life itself, while another has quietly born up under the culture shock symptoms of a perpetually upset gut and an isolated social life.

25 I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26 They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.

As parents, we see our children bearing the brunt of our life calling, a cross we never intended them to have to carry. We want to step in and do whatever it takes to protect them from this pain. But despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of their hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God. The fact is that they, too, are participating in the sufferings of Christ. Whether they signed up for this or not, He has chosen them for the noblest of human callings: to know Christ both in the fellowship of His sufferings and in the power of His resurrection.

28 For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones… 34 Hope in the LORD and keep his way.

Psalm 37

While I have experienced the sweet fruit of living out this sort of radical faith and wouldn’t trade it for anything, I struggle to exercise it on behalf of my children. What if they don’t make it out the other side? What if God doesn’t come through for them as He has for me? In response to my wavering faith, the Lord once again speaks to my soul, “Be still. They are in my hands. Watch and see the good things I am doing for them. ”

And I can already testify that He is.

Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

God on the Rocks

IMG_8908Last week’s travels brought me up close and personal with some seriously spiritual rocks.

Stonehenge has long held a fascination for me and for my husband, especially in recent years as he has been researching the significance of cosmological alignment in the New Testament writings of Paul. We wondered if we would sense the spiritually charged atmosphere there that led people of ancient times to carefully erect these massive stones into their set pattern of alignment with the stars. Though this ancient site is internationally renowned as a sacred portal between heaven and earth, I found myself as spiritually impressed by the stones as were the flock of sheep that stood nearby grazing impassively.

IMG_8967In a similar but different vein, the island of Iona is a place we had long dreamed of visiting. Pilgrims still flock from around the world to visit this sacred site from which Columba introduced Christianity to Scotland, the Book of Kells was created, and generations of priests and kings were nurtured. I expected to be deeply moved by walking near stone high crosses that have been pointing pilgrim’s eyes heavenward for almost 1,000 years and by worshipping in the stone abbey where countless generations of saints have experienced close encounters with God. But as much as I enjoyed visiting these historic stones, they were just that for me: places of reminder, places of the past, but not places that aroused my soul or brought a closer connection between my spirit and God’s.

I have plenty of room in my theology for sacred places and sacred stones.

We meet God at the rocks because that’s where we cry out for help.

Abraham repeatedly set up altars at the sites where he experienced the presence of God’s Spirit in powerful ways. These stones marked the sacred spots where he and his descendants after him would be able to return and encounter God anew. Who could have foreseen that the most seemingly random of these wilderness sites, where he almost sacrificed his son Isaac, would end up becoming the temple mount of Jerusalem over 1,000 years later?

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.
Genesis 28:16-18

Jacob recognized the significance of the stone he had randomly selected as a travel pillow during his flight from his homicidal brother. One night’s sleep on it revealed to him a ladder-like portal between heaven and earth. Angels running up and downstairs to intervene in the world of desperate mortals? No wonder he named it Bethel and erected it as a standing monument to mark such a sacred space, one that he would be sure to return to for further help and direction.

He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him. …
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”
1 Samuel 7:9-12

And Samuel erected his Ebenezer stone as a standing reminder of God’s spiritual presence and tangible intervention at a particular point of need.

People have been meeting God at the rocks for as long as we have felt our need for help, for external intervention from a source that is greater than we are.

And the case is no less true for me.

“On the rocks” spirituality gets expressed in desperate invocations and terrified litanies.

Although the rocks I travelled miles to see did not do it for me, the rocks that I encountered later that night in Iona did. Taking advantage of the extended twilight of a summer’s evening in the far reaches of the North Atlantic, I grabbed my trainers and set out for an exploratory run around the island. Ethereal Celtic hymns floating through my earbuds matched the ancient beauty of the rocks, the sea, and the last traces of a spectacular sunset. Low tides and uninhabited tracts of stunningly rugged land allowed me to run along unhindered as I ambitiously attempted to circle the entire island.

I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock…

In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. …He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? …He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.

…you stoop down to make me great. You broaden the path beneath me, so that my ankles do not turn.

The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior!
Psalm 18:1-2, 6, 16-19, 31-33, 35-36, 46

But what a precautionary glance at a map would have shown me was the precipitous rock mass that I would encounter three quarters of the way around the island. At first I took it as one more delightful obstacle to clamber over, but as the summit of each ridge only provided a view of another steeper, rockier one, my heart began to sink. Darkness was setting in fast and I was alone on what now felt to be dangerous, unfamiliar terrain. I kept pressing on, hoping that the next rise would reveal the familiar grassy slope where my family were snuggled up inside the warmth of our white-washed B&B, oblivious to my predicament. But the reality finally dawned that I was stuck: too dark and steep to go forward, too late to make it back the way I had come. Panic stricken, I cried aloud to God to help me as I turned back, scrambling over sharp rocks and running recklessly through peaty bogs. The floating, peaceful lyrics no longer fit the moment: my spirituality was one of desperate invocations and terrified litanies.

In God’s kindness, He brought me back to flat land before dark, to the cottage before I could no longer see my way. But that night the rocks of Iona, the ones on the other end of the isle from the high crosses and sacred abbey, became for me sacred rocks, because there I encountered God.

Whether in the rocks of history or on the rocks of life, God is most present when we are most needy.

Meet Him at the rocks.

Yours truly.

attachmentWho am I to God?

The question lurked beneath the surface of our long-distance phone conversation. I looked out at the breakers pounding the shore, eroding age-old stone into flimsy particles of sand. That same question again, the one that rarely gets spoken, yet the one that lies just beneath the consciousness of those who are being slammed by wave after wave of suffering.

Am I the apple of His eye or am I simply collateral damage?

Am I the apple of His eye,
or am I simply collateral damage?

I listened to my friend on the other end of the line, trying to make sense of God’s seeming inactivity in the face of his devastating losses. Sure, he had pounded on heaven’s doors begging God to intervene and the worst had still happened. But that didn’t mean that God didn’t care about him. Or did it?

Actually, he was trying to avoid the question, not wanting to run the risk of putting God on the spot. Instead he attempted to appease himself with reminders of the many other godly people who have suffered over the ages: hundreds of parents whose babies were massacred under Pharaoh and Herod, thousands of faithful Israelites who were tortured and killed by wicked kings, and countless other believers who have suffered the loss of homes, children, dignity, and safety throughout the vast story of humanity. God did not rescue them from their suffering. He let it happen as a part of His bigger plan of redemption for the world.

What makes me any more special than the rest of them?

I listened to my friend trying to let God off the hook. It is one thing to talk about His individualized care for each sparrow while perched comfortably within the safe shelter of a family nest. It is another to grapple with His goodness while lying broken-winged and abandoned on the ground.

Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question.
It confirms it.

But as he tried to chalk his sufferings up to being the necessary by-products of a messed-up world which God is still in the process of putting right, my heart broke. Seeing it that way would relegate him to the utterly insignificant category of collateral damage, deemed not important enough to warrant God’s altering “the plan” in order to save.

Who am I to expect any better than this?

O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”
Psalm 3:1-2

Who indeed? Is this all that we are to God? That is certainly the message that the enemy has whispered in my ear, a thousand times over. “You aren’t important enough. He won’t bother.” It slips in nicely alongside the truth that the world does not revolve around me. But before we lower our expectations and slink away from God’s front door, it may be helpful to first ask His opinion.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers… what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 8:3-5

Who am I to You? Why would You care about me? You are so big and important—why would You notice my suffering and bother Yourself with my mess?

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? …Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD will hear when I call to him.
But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad… Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Psalm 4:2-3; 3:3; 5:11

God’s reply?

A cross-shaped hug.

Adoption papers.

And a personal comforter, the Spirit who wraps Himself around us the way Boaz covered Ruth.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Romans 8:16-17

This is the Spirit who prays for us when we don’t have the words. He reassures us that we really are God’s children, as cherished by Him as His only begotten Son. And He reminds us that the Father is treating us no differently than He did our older Brother. Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question. It confirms it.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8:31-32, 35-37

Like those merciless waves, trouble and hardship and insecurity and loss pound the self-confidence right out of us. But they also open opportunities for God to prove just how much we mean to Him. Our older Brother’s suffering is the crucible in which the Father proved His love for us. And our suffering is the means through which He persistently prepares us to share in the family heritage.

Far from being the unfortunate side-effect of a barely-controlled cosmic rescue mission, my friend’s trial is the carefully wielded sculpting tool of a master Craftsman. God is wearing down everything that stands in the way of His life-giving love. Of course the process is devastating. Of course it causes him to question who he is to God.

But God’s resounding answer comes back, roaring over the power of the waves:

You are Mine.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12504286
But now, this is what the LORD says–
he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Isaiah 43:1–5

Deserted or Delivered?

IMG_8608The space between the grief of Good Friday and celebration of Resurrection Sunday is always such an awkward time for me. I have cried myself dry meditating on the incredible suffering that Jesus endured through the course of His endless trials, beatings, and hours on the cross. His pain is finally over, but the time for celebrating His triumph has not yet come. In the between space, I am stuck with the classic mourner’s question of how to make sense of the events that led to this loss.

Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Psalm 22:16-20

In the lead-up to Jesus’ death, there seems to be this mounting anticipation that God would show up and deliver Him. Isn’t that what Jesus was begging Him for during those agonized midnight prayers in the garden? Isn’t that what He consoled His disciples with when they wanted to fight in His defense? God could show up any time with His armies of angels to deliver His Son. But He didn’t.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Psalm 22:6-8

Through the insane marathon of accusations and trials, Jesus remained eerily silent. Why? He had no need to defend Himself and set the record straight. He trusted God to do that. But God’s silence was even more deafening than Jesus’. As question after mocking question chipped away at His identity, He stood and later hung with His eyes on heaven. Surely God would answer. Even one of those thundering voices and descending doves would do. Surely the Father would speak up for His Son. But He didn’t.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:14-15

As the telltale signs of death slowly stole over Jesus’ body, His confidence began to waver. Where were those signs of God’s goodness, those affirmations that He would indeed honor and deliver His beloved Son? Jesus’ throttled body bore evidence against the glorious promise that God would send His angels to protect the one He loved. The crushing weight in His chest made a mockery of the biblical assurances that God would deliver His soul from death. The worst had come, and God hadn’t intervened.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Was this really how things would end?

Jesus cried out what His mind knew wasn’t true but His heart couldn’t help but feel: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me!?!”

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
Psalm 22:11-13

He knew how the story would end. He had rehearsed it with His disciples a million times. He would die but He would rise again. This wasn’t the end, but it sure felt like it. In the moment, all Hell was breaking loose. His disciples had scattered. The demonic hordes had gathered, hovering in the air all around Him and enjoying every moment of His distress. But through the roar of their taunting voices, Jesus tuned His interpretation of reality into the still whisper of the Spirit within.

For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

Even as the dark shadows of death stole over His vision, Jesus clung to the sweet comfort of God with Him. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore. The worst had already happened. The storm still howled all around, but God was within. He had never left. And even now His Spirit was bearing testimony to Jesus’ Spirit that this was not how it would end.

The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him– may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.
Psalm 22:26-28

God would deliver Jesus from the grave. He would raise Him up to a position of glory and honor greater than He had lost in the first place. He would cause the knees that had marched against Him to bow in worship before Him. He would cause the tongues that had mocked Him to testify that He is Lord. And because of God’s faithfulness to deliver Jesus, He would prove Himself faithful to deliver all others who put their hope in Him.

What feels like yesterday’s desertion
will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance.

This is the outcome that I cling to in the in-between spaces of my own life. When God seems to have turned His back on me, when He has already allowed the worst to happen, this is the version of reality that I turn to. What feels like yesterday’s desertion will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance. What others may have intended for my harm will turn out for my good.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn– for he has done it.
Psalm 22:30-31

Why? Because that is the way God works. He sets up the greatest crises to put on display His greater deliverance. He is the God who delights in unexpected twists and surprise endings. He is writing my story along the same plot lines as He did Christ’s. Of course it will turn out good. He is the One doing it.

A Friend to God

http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
Lent again.

My tummy grumbles and my spirit joins in. I don’t really feel like forty days of self-imposed discomfort.

What’s the point? Life is tough enough as it is. Why add to the misery?

But then I think of someone I love. He has gone through incredibly tough stuff, grief beyond my ability to comprehend. I want to be able to relate to Him, to understand what makes Him tick. But how can I if I don’t share His experiences?

Abraham got a chance to do just that. He got to know what it would feel like to lose his only child. He experienced the heart-rending agony of a father watching his son silently plead for mercy as he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? … And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
James 2:21-23

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Abraham was getting a backstage pass into God’s cosmic play. He was getting the chance to enact God’s future story, to experience the same grief and elation that God the Father would feel over the death and resurrection of His only Son.

Moses, too, got the inside scoop on God. He got to bear the brunt of an ungrateful crowd griping about how he was handling things, angry about their health and safety conditions and ready to get rid of him as soon as he had outlived his usefulness to them. He also got to feel the agonized betrayal of a people head-spinningly quick to forget all he had done for them when their convenience or comfort was at stake.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” …As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. …The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
Exodus 33:7-11

But along with the pain, Moses got the privilege of being God’s friend. He got to feel what God feels and know what God thinks. Incredibly, he even got to chat with God face to face, swapping stories about the “kids” and deciding how they would handle them. Sometimes they argued, often they disagreed, but their relationship was characterized by mutual commitment and love. At the end of the day, God was still God and Moses still a mortal. But they were friends.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:13-15

It’s easy to think of holy men long ago who walked with God that way. But when I stop to think about what God says He wants from us, I am dumbfounded. His greatest “command” is to love Him with all that I am. He doesn’t want a polite, contractual relationship in which I do my bit and He does His. He wants me to engage Him with all my heart, soul, body, and mind. He wants me to speak my mind and to listen to His. At the end of the day I am still the child and He the Father; I am the servant and He the Master. But we are friends.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26:38
Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15:6

And our friendship will express itself in my getting involved in His life story just as He is involved in mine. If I am His friend, I will love the things that He loves and do the things that He wants doing. But on a deeper level, if I am His friend I will groan when He groans and laugh when He laughs. I will stay awake with Him in the garden, watching and praying as He faces the darkest night of His soul. And I will party with Him in the kingdom, celebrating each stray sheep that is found and each lost son that comes home.

Rather than being what I most avoid,
hardship is a gateway to what I most desire.

Just as sharing similar experiences ushered Abraham and Moses into closer friendship with God, so walking a mile in God’s shoes enables me to relate with Him in greater solidarity. As I learn to see myself and the world around me through this lens, I come to value suffering in a new way. The trials that I experience (whether voluntary or not) are opening my mind and shaping my heart to be able to commune with God in ways I couldn’t before. Rather than being what I most avoid, they are a gateway to what I most desire.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:10-11

So I dive into the disciplines of Lent full on—not because the Bible commands it or because I enjoy self-imposed misery, but because I really want to know Christ. I want to be His friend in joy and in sorrow, in struggle and in triumph, in the middle of His story and at the end. I want to walk these forty days of trial with Him so that I can also celebrate their victorious completion with Him. This is my opportunity to invest in our relationship.

For better or for worse, I get to be God’s friend. Now that’s a privilege worth suffering for.

The Road from Broken

attachment“He didn’t show up.”

I listened to the hum of my friend’s tires through the crackle of our phone connection, speechless in response to his overwhelming grief. The crack in his voice tore at my heart.

“My back was to the wall. I kept crying out for God to rescue me. I kept waiting to see what He would do, trusting that He would intervene.

“But He didn’t.”

Images flashed through my mind, memories of the times my spirit has broken under the crushing blow of God’s unresponsiveness. The unborn children that I had pled with Him to save. The violent attacks that I had begged Him to rescue me from. And more recently, the tiny niece whom I had persistently called on Him to heal.

But He didn’t.

When God lets our worst nightmare come true, how can we ever rest in His arms again?

When God allows our worst nightmare to unfold in front of our eyes, what can we say? What comfort is possible after He brings the darkest night of our soul? The sun may still rise, new mornings may come, but how can we raise our eyes to their hope-filled rays without remembering the dashed expectations of this night?

As I prayed through Psalm 89 this morning, God once again walked me through the arduous path from the valley of the shadow back into the land of the living. Ethan’s psalm is one of those conversations which suddenly takes an unexpected left turn, the sort of song that begins with pitch-perfect worship and ends with dissonant lament. But reading the beginning in light of the end shows me the way forward through the valley of despair.

I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
Psalm 89:1-2

At the moments when I have felt most let down by God, the hardest thing to do is to look Him in the eye. In an effort to preserve my sanity and my faith, I am tempted to look away, to settle for “Well, He is God and I am not. Who am I to expect any better than this?” But on the other side of disappointment, the psalmist undertakes the daring venture of repeating what he had based his world on before it fell apart. God’s unfailing love. His firm faithfulness.

…You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it. …Your arm is endued with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.
Psalm 89:8-13

And having driven his stake firmly back into that rock, the psalmist faces head on the one excuse that might explain away a loving God who lets nightmares come true. Could it be that God just wasn’t big enough to handle this situation? Was His arm bound or this situation somehow beyond His reach? That would be convenient to believe. It would certainly let God off the hook. But the psalmist refuses to settle for a smaller deity, an emasculated, toned-down version of God. Instead he boldly reiterates God’s history of overcoming much greater forces than the one He just seemingly gave in to.

So God is loving and God is strong. Then why did He stand back and let this happen? How can I reconcile what I have heard Him say about Himself with what I have just seen with my eyes? The evidence seems to mount against Him.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant,’I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’
“No enemy will subject him to tribute; no wicked man will oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted.

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice. You have turned back the edge of his sword and have not supported him in battle. You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:3, 22-24 38-39, 42-45

At this point my courage falters. I am tempted to escape the conflict by switching into dissociative worship, gazing on God’s heavenly goodness while blocking out my earthly pain. But the psalmist takes the risky step of bringing the two together in the same room, laying side by side the specific promises God has made and the contradicting realities he has experienced. He refuses to deny, downplay, or excuse either of them until they have somehow been reconciled.

The tension builds until it is almost unbearable. The unspoken question hangs in the air: “Why have you let me down?” But the psalmist won’t say it. He doesn’t want to pass judgment on God prematurely.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life…
Psalm 89:46-47

And that’s when the element of time finally enters the room, allowing us all space to breathe again. The story isn’t over. The worst may have already happened, but God isn’t finished.

The worst may have already happened,
but the story isn’t over.

The babies may have died. The brutal act may have been completed. The contract may have been terminated. The relationship may be over. But that isn’t the end.

In God’s story, death ends in resurrection. Sorrow ends in comfort. Shame ends in glory. Brokenness ends in renewal. And suffering ends in redemption.

And so as I stand in the midst of the valley with my friend, my backward-looking questions of “why” give way to forward-reaching cries of “how long?” Like the “Are we there yet?” conversations that inevitably occur in the backseat of a seemingly eternal road trip, I switch from disappointment to anticipation. God’s “No” compels me to cry out in faith: “Then how much longer?”

He didn’t show up. But He will.

It is only a matter of time.

From Where God Sits…

Dadaan refugee camp, Kenya Benjamin Grant/Digital Globe/Caters News Agency http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/feb/03/the-daily-planet-satellite-images-from-google-earth-in-pictures
Dadaan refugee camp, Kenya
Benjamin Grant/Digital Globe/Caters News Agency
http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/feb/03/the-daily-planet-satellite-images-from-google-earth-in-pictures
I have been home from Nigeria for almost a week now. I have managed to wash the dust out of my hair and the smoky smell out of my clothes, but a spirit of unrest still lingers in my soul. All is not well with my world, because people I love are still in danger. Terrorists continue to detonate bombs in busy markets, schools and churches; Boko Haram continues to massacre whole villages of people and take over increasing amounts of territory. And recent history tells us to expect a massive outpouring of violence against Christians just after the elections that the nation is preparing for as I write.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims. He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”
Psalm 10:1-2; 8-11

When I stack all those odds against a government crippled by corruption and internal political jockeying, my heart fails within me. What hope is there for Nigerian Christians living in Muslim extremist dominated regions of the country? The realist in me knows better than to expect anything other than more of the same: unchecked violence, terrorism, and persecution, culminating in either annihilation or mass migration.

Given the news coming from around the world, the bad guys seem to always get away with their terrorist tactics while the good guys inevitably get the short end of the stick. What has remaining true to Christ accomplished for those tiny, minority communities in Iraq? What has turning the other cheek accomplished for the church in Nigeria?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

Fear begins to creep over my spirit where hope used to dwell. Fatalism crowds out faith, telling me to quit looking through rose colored glasses and simply accept the inevitable. Righteous people suffer. Wicked people prosper. And in a dog-eat-dog world like that, why shouldn’t we do whatever it takes to defend our rights and lessen our suffering? After all, if we don’t fight to protect ourselves, who will?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

But as I follow that logical train of thought, I realize that somewhere along the way I have gotten off track from the way God tells the story. I have failed to account for the fact that He still reigns, not merely over those few human souls that are being extracted from a world that is otherwise going to hell, but over all of creation.

Knowing the end of the story completely changes the way I interpret the middle.

If the Scripture in the Halleluiah Chorus is really true, if the kingdoms of this world are now becoming the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, then that is a total game-changer. If Jesus is actively reigning over Nigeria and the Middle East, if Isis and Boko Haram are simply pawns in His hands, then that changes my perspective on everything. Sure, it leaves me with a lot of question as to why He allows them to do what they do, but it removes my need to take matters into my own hands.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.
Psalm 37:10-13

Knowing that God reigns over these bullies enables me to laugh in the face of their threats, not because the danger they pose is any less real, but because I can foresee the looks on their faces when they turn around and see Who is standing behind them. I don’t know when that will be or how much more of their terrorizing we will have to endure before then, but the end of the story is already written.

Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
Psalm 37:1-2

And knowing the end of the story completely changes the way I approach the middle.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.
Psalm 10:14

I don’t have to surrender to fatalism, because a personal God is actively reigning over the situation. He is keeping track of each terrorized child. He has taken note of each turned cheek, exposed as an act of faith that He will intervene on behalf of those who trustingly lay their right for vengeance in His hands.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.
Psalm 37:7-9, 16-17

Nor do I have to give in to fear. It is not solely up to us to take down these powers and protect the vulnerable. They have not managed to de-throne God. And though they may act like no one will ever be able to hold them accountable, I refuse to believe their charade. Either running in terror or picking up guns in panic would be a capitulation to their version of the story.

The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
Psalm 10:16-18

Instead I am prostrating myself before the Governor of nations, the King of heaven and earth. He is still in charge, and He is not the least bit threatened. I don’t know what means He will use to take down His enemies. It may even be that He mobilizes His people to take up arms in defense of the oppressed. But whether He leads us to take action or to turn the other cheek, He is the source of our confidence. One way or another, He will win His war on terror.

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD.
Psalm 27:13-14 (NASB)

Walking a Mile in God’s Shoes

Jeremiah_14Last spring I spent four days in agony. My food suddenly seemed dry and tasteless. My knees trembled with weakness. And my heart felt like lead in my chest. Day and night, waking or sleeping, all I could think about was what 200 girls in Nigeria were currently experiencing. I could feel their terror as brutal men surrounded them. I could feel their pleas for help, their forced captivity, their dominated bodies, their broken spirits, and their forever altered reality.

As the weekend progressed, I became more and more trapped in their experience, unable to shake myself free from the overwhelming pain of what they were going through. I couldn’t explain why it was so personal for me. I didn’t know any of those girls, nor had Nigeria been on my radar before that. But of all the news events and world crises that daily flit across my computer screen, this was one with which I was involuntarily but inextricably bound.

I wept on their behalf. I pleaded with God as though what was happening to their bodies was being done to mine. I read the Scriptures searching for answers to their dilemma. I sat in church feeling torn between two worlds, my body in a peaceful sanctuary while my soul was tossed about in the backwoods of Nigeria, denied access to the altar of God and forced into subservience to a cruel tyrant.

Why was I feeling this way? As I tried to make sense of it with my husband, it became increasingly clear to both of us that, for whatever reason, this was a prophetic burden God was giving me to carry.

God’s children stand in the gap between
human experience and divine perspective.

When I look back on God’s people through the ages, I see that I am not alone in this odd experience. Earthy farmers and holy priests, young boys and elderly widows, seasoned apostles and inexperienced girls have walked this path ahead of me, bearing the yoke of standing in the gap between human experience and divine perspective.

“Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief.
Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel. They are thrown to the sword along with my people. Therefore beat your breast.
Ezekiel 21:6, 12

But what I still struggle to understand is the prophetic role of feelings, whether privately endured or publicly enacted. Why did Ezekiel have to experience the discomfort and defilement of lying on his side for days on end, eating bread baked over poop? Worse yet, why did he have to go through the agony of losing his wife without even being allowed to mourn her death? This wasn’t a little demonstration that would be over in a day or two. It was real and permanently life altering. So was Hosea’s assignment to marry and raise kids with a woman who would repeatedly cheat on him.

But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive.
Jeremiah 13:17

What is accomplished by simply feeling prophetic pain? I see the point in Ezekiel’s experiences portraying messages for others to receive or in Jeremiah’s tears moving him to intercede on behalf of other people. But how do I explain the times when God overwhelms a prophet with feelings that have no apparent product?

God gives us the chance to
walk a mile in His shoes.

I am beginning to suspect that God wants company. He wants some of His people to get Him, to understand how He feels about the events He constantly witnesses on earth. Even the relatively few crises that flit across my computer screen overwhelm me, and yet I can switch them off and go process my feelings with a friend. With whom does the Triune God who unceasingly watches over the earth share His heart?

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” … I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
Psalm 22:7-17

He invites us to share bits of it with Him. He grants us the privilege of getting to peek through His eyes, to walk a mile in His shoes, to share in His story. This is what I think was happening with David when he wrote the prophetic psalms depicting what Jesus would later experience on the cross. And yet David wrote them in the first person. Somehow he himself was sampling the bitter agony of the cup that Jesus would come and drink down to its dregs.

Somehow I think this is the privileged yoke that God has been giving me to bear on behalf of His persecuted people in Nigeria. For a short period of time last spring I got to feel His grief over them from afar. And now, for reasons beyond my current understanding, the Lord has opened the door for me to go and be His mouthpiece in their midst. Next week I will be in Abuja teaching Spiritual Formation to a class of mature Christian leaders from all over Nigeria. And the following week I have been asked by the Bishop of Kontagora (for whom I once had the privilege of opening a different sort of door) to travel through his diocese encouraging the Christians there, particularly those displaced by Boko Haram’s violent regime.

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. … “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:11-16

I have no certainty in what will be accomplished through my presence in Nigeria and no confidence in my ability to make God’s plans succeed. But I do see God’s hand at work. And so in the heritage of God’s servants past and present, I offer myself to Him, body, heart, and mind, to use as He pleases.

Only time will reveal what God has in mind.