Category Archives: Wrestling with God

Waiting With Haste

ohcomeletusadorehimbymatthaisstomer
Adoration of the Christ Child by Matthias Stomer circa 1630

As I sit on our South Asian rooftop listening to birdsong and soaking in four years worth of sunshine, nothing feels urgent. Of course the usual piles of laundry, children’s schoolbooks, and student’s assignments await my attention, but up here my mind goes into neutral, simply drinking in the slow beauty of the moment.

But if I peel back a layer deeper into my soul, I confront within myself a practiced apathy, one which has crept unnoticed into my spirit through prolonged waiting on God. It’s not that I haven’t been seeing His hand at work in amazing ways (this latest move topping the cake), but there are desires near and dear to my heart which I haven’t yet seen Him meet. And though I can explain away why the timing might not yet be right and how He is using this period of waiting to do a deep work in me, the fact is that my soul grows weary of wanting.

I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.
Psalm 69:2

In a self-protective measure, it slowly slips into not caring so much, both about the things God has withheld from me and the things with which He has already graciously filled my arms. Why can’t I engage life with the same level of anticipation and zeal that normally characterize me? Why do I find the immediate and the mundane so much more comfortable to focus on than the long term and the profound? If I’m honest, the answer lies somewhere between exhaustion and fear.

From this position, I feel a growing awe over the persevering faith that so many of the saints of old sustained through a lifetime of waiting. Didn’t Abraham get tired of moving around, waiting for the child and the land that God had promised him? Didn’t Moses ever feel like staying in his bedroll and watching the ancient near-eastern equivalent of Netflix instead of getting up each day only to discover that the cloud wasn’t drifting towards the promised land yet?

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Luke 2:36-37

But the hero of the faith whose story really resonates with me this morning is Anna. Unlike Simeon, it doesn’t seem that she had really been promised anything specific by God. She had no angelic revelation or Spirit-defined expectation that God had promised to fulfill for her, and yet clearly she was anticipating something. Why else would she live a life of such intense self-denial and focused preparation?

So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.
1 Timothy 4:14

It wasn’t exactly the social norm of her day for young, childless widows to renounce the comforts of home and the hope of a family in order to dedicate themselves to temple service. In fact Paul would later encourage women in her position to remarry and live the domestic dream. But something compelled Anna to passionately pursue a very different sort of vision, whether or not the means were socially acceptable or the goal guaranteed.

There was something that she wanted so much that she was willing to give up food, sleep, and her very self in order to pursue. And sixty years later, she was still at it night and day. Hadn’t anyone introduced this old woman to the idea of retirement, to a realistic resetting of her expectations, or even to the importance of diversified interests and hobbies? Didn’t she ever wonder why she worked so hard to keep herself continuously in the Lord’s presence when she had so little to show for it?

And yet this humble servant of the Lord simply refused to stop getting up each day and doing it all over again. I have to believe that, as a frail human, her flesh grew weak and her soul grew weary. But God’s presence was not only the goal towards which she strained, it was also the power that fueled her flame.

Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:38

Anna’s major contribution to redemptive history comes almost as an accidental side-product of her daily lifestyle. Walking through the temple courts in a state of constant communion with the Spirit, she “chanced” upon a young couple bringing their baby in for the standard procedures. What to a human eye would have looked like more of the same, the Spirit enabled her to see the eternal significance of. Had she not spent a lifetime practicing for and anticipating this moment, she might just have missed it.

Instead, this holy woman raised her voice to confirm the identity of Jesus and to preach about Him to all those who were gathered in the temple, eagerly anticipating the redemption for which they had been waiting for millenia. Anna’s refusal to give in to external pressures or to internal exhaustion landed her this special role in God’s Kingdom story.

And so as I falter in my faith, wanting to keep expecting great things from God but weary from waiting for them, I raise my eyes to this member of that great host of witnesses who have gone before me. I have no guarantee of what God will do through my persevering faith, but I trust that this spark of desire that His Spirit continues to fan within me will one day spring into flame. And in the meantime, I will get up each day to stoke my soul’s anticipation all over again.

Advertisements

Caught Between Mercy and Need

photo-on-9-7-16-at-12-20-pm-3-1“I’ve already blown it with you, and yet I need your help. How can I ask for another favor?”

For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, one of the hardest situations to be put in is that of needing help that we don’t feel we have the right to ask for. In a human economy, we intuitively know that relationships work on a system of give and take. And most of us prefer to remain primarily on the giving side, maintaining a healthy balance in our relational bank account so that we don’t have to worry about someday running in the red.

Call it pride, call it pragmatism, but deep down we know that there is a limit to how many times we can come back with the same empty cup asking for more, especially if our track record has little to show for improvement.

And though we know that things are different with God, somehow it’s hard to escape the same nagging sense that we have used up all our wishes. If we’d just won some spiritual victory we might feel more confident to ask for His help, but what about those long dry seasons when all we can look back and see is one failure after another? On what basis can we approach His throne and boldly make another request?

Once again, the Psalms show us the way forward. Compiled in exile by a nation of people who had blown it more times than they could recount, they give us prayers to pray in our moments of triumph and our moments of despair, our moments of life “as it should be” and our moments of “oh my goodness how can I even pray to you?”

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them…
Psalm 106:2-5

Psalm 106 falls firmly in the last category. After its initial statements of thanks and praise, it jumps right into the dilemma the psalmist is facing. Who is worthy to pray before God, whether in accolades of thanks and praise or (more relevantly to the psalmist’s current exilic condition) in indebting petitions for help and deliverance?

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly….
Psalm 106:6

At least the Psalmist is honest enough to go back and tell the story as bad as it really was. Most of his prayer involves detailing just how horribly he and his people have responded to God’s repeated gracious interventions in past. Listing forgetfulness, ingratitude, uncontrolled urges, envy, arrogance, breach of contract, rebellion, and downright laziness on the application form hardly seems the way to win favor from a loan officer, but this is precisely the approach the psalmist takes with God. In fact, it seems to be his strategy in convincing himself that he can again ask for help and in encouraging God to give it.

Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy.
Psalm 106:43-46

After all, the record showed that no matter how many times (or how badly) they had blown it, God always listened to their cry for mercy. Though their performance was consistently lousy, His response was consistently gracious. That didn’t mean He hadn’t taken them through some pretty tough consequences, but it did mean that He had always relented and restored them in the end. Why would this time be any different?

Where human love runs dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever.

But in addition to bolstering the psalmist’s confidence in God’s track record, praying through the history of their relationship enabled the Psalmist to remind God of what it had always been based on: God’s unfailing love, not His people’s unfailing performance. This was the leg he could stand on when all others crumbled away. This was the firm foundation on which he could base his plea for yet another miraculous intervention.

Praise the LORD.Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 106:1

Where human love would have long before run dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever. If anything, the more we draw on it, the more it replenishes. I don’t know how long it will take for this simple reality to finally permeate the way I approach Him in prayer. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my fully believing it is my own pride, insisting that our relationship include my merit as at least part of its basis.

Save us, LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.
Psalm 106:47

But when merit fails and need overwhelms me, I am driven back to my knees as the Psalmist was. Going silent or going shallow in my prayers won’t cut it. Only a full-disclosure of my failings will clear the accounts, making space for God’s amazing grace to once again give me something to sing about.

And it never fails.

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.

Secondhand Sighs

http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
I’ve been doing a lot of heavy sighing lately. I don’t mean to. Pathetic sounds just sort of escape my lips before I realize it. But I think they are a sound indicator of the state of my heart: burdened.

For me, life is good right now. I have much to rejoice and give thanks over. But for several of the people I love, life is a waking nightmare. The bottom has dropped out of their world and their dreams are dying a slow, painful death. As I walk with them through their dark valleys and listen to their anguished cries, I can’t help but absorb their pain. The question is, what am I supposed to do with it?

Of course these burdens have driven me to perpetual prayer, crying out to God day and night to put right what has been made so wrong. My emotional involvement makes my prayers for others fervent and passionate. But it is also weighing me down to the point where I feel I have little left to offer, and that just doesn’t seem right.

How do I love wholeheartedly without being consumed? How do I immerse myself in other people’s pain without being submerged by it?

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. … Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…
Isaiah 53:3-4

As always, God reminds me that He has walked this path ahead of me, not just as the transcendent God who reigns from heaven, but also as the fleshy mortal who wept here on earth. He knows what it is like to carry other’s burdens and be weighed down by their sorrow. He didn’t dodge the pain or distance Himself from the suffering. And yet somehow He managed not to be completely overcome by it.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
John 11:3-5

When I read John’s account of how Jesus reacted to his friend Lazarus’ death, I am amazed that He got emotionally involved in it at all. Right from the point that He first heard that news of His friend’s illness, He told His disciples that it wouldn’t end in death. What’s more, He could already see the big picture of what was going on, that this was a cosmic play in which God was setting things up to put His glory on display. Jesus understood all this. He could explain all this. And yet when He came face to face with Mary’s grief over the loss of her brother, He burst into tears.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
John 11:33-35

Her pain was His pain, because He loved her. He didn’t stand at a slightly detached distance, maintaining professional control over His feelings and offering wise words of truth. Even though He already new the future outcome, He entered into her current reality. He allowed it to affect Him right down to the core of His Spirit, disturbing His serenity and breaking down His composure. He didn’t preach at her. He wept with her.

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John 11:40-42

But Jesus didn’t get stuck there. Nor did He try to go it alone. He entered fully into the seeming hopelessness of His friend’s immediate situation, but then He lifted it up into the context of God’s ongoing story. This was not the end. He believed it not only for his own sake, but He clung to it for her sake. He carried her burden to God in prayer, exerting His faith in God’s good purposes for her when her faith was too weak for the task.

And, as He does, God showed up to finish what He had started: in Lazarus, in Mary, and in Jesus. The Father comforted His Son. And in turn, Jesus comforted Mary and healed Lazarus.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5

This ripple effect of comfort flows down through history to me. Like Jesus, Paul, and the many others who have gone before, I get to stand in the crossroads between earth and heaven, stretched between the colossal chaos of what is happening in this realm and the cosmic order of what God is orchestrating in the heavenly one.

I am realizing that I cannot bear this burden in isolation, from God or from others. If I try to carry it alone it will crush me. But thanks be to God, He has built His Church out of a community of suffering comforters and of comforted sufferers. As we each go to the Father in desperate, dependent faith on behalf of the other, He will supply the comfort we need to sustain ourselves and support each other.

Second-hand sighs. Second-hand comfort.

These are what hold me together. These are what bind us together.

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.

When God Proves Himself Good

The news of the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls last May rocked my confidence in God’s goodness.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. … Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Matthew 10:28-30

If God really cared so much about their lives, why would He allow such a horrible thing to happen to these vulnerable, courageous young women? Why wouldn’t He show up and deliver them from such a tortuous fate? His inactivity seemed to reinforce the message of their terrorist captors: these girls were neither worth educating nor saving.

How can kidnapping and torture
turn out for anyone’s good?

One part of me clung to the belief that God did love them and would somehow work all this for their good, but another part of me cynically wondered how. Even if they were rescued or managed to escape, their lives would never be the same. What welcome would they receive back in their home communities? Who would be willing and able to walk with them through the fallout of their trauma? What future could there possibly be for girls who had been defiled by their captors and ruined for traditional married life at home in a village?

Little did I know that God would allow me to meet the answer to my skeptical prayers.

Today as I was wrapping up the third day of the Spiritual Formation course I am teaching in Nigeria this week, the most senior member of the class raised his hand to comment. This gentleman, a 71-year-old Muslim-background believer, has been displaced by Boko Haram from his homeland in the northeast. He has dedicated his retirement years to public service and to pursuing this master’s degree. I had already heard bits and pieces of his story, enough to know that he lost his two teenaged girls in a car accident. He had assured me, though, that he has been consoled by the many spiritual children God brings into his life.

What I didn’t know was that four of those children are girls who escaped from Boko Haram.

So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.
Matthew 10:31-32

Today he told me one their stories with all the pride of a true father. This girl had boldly professed her identity as Christ’s to her Boko Haram captors, refusing to renounce Him even as they threw her to the ground, pressing their feet on her neck and their guns to her head. When told they would shoot her if she didn’t change her answer, she responded, “Even if you kill me, so what. I am still Christian.”

Through God’s unexpected intervention, the terrorist standing nearby decided it would be better to let her go than to allow her to influence the other girls. So he told her to start running and not to stop, or he would shoot her. After a nightlong flight through the mountainous jungle, she collapsed unconscious. Fearing the worst, the villagers who discovered her the next day prodded her awake and eventually helped her get to safety.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law–a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 10:34-39

But God did not simply rescue her and then leave her to sort out the rest. He sent her and two other escapees into the care of a compassionate, fatherly man, wisened by his own experience of trauma and loss. Under the shelter of his wings, they received physical and emotional refuge. When their own families protested that they shouldn’t receive any special treatment, he advocated for them. When international workers pushed for them to be quickly extracted, he protected them from further trauma.

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. … And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Matthew 10:40-42

In the months that followed, he stuck with these terrorized girls like only a father could, stabilizing with them his unflinching love. And when they were finally ready, he accompanied them to the U.S., navigating the visa process, settling them into a safe place, and leaving them only when they felt secure enough to let go of him.

I judged God’s goodness by my standards.
He proved Himself good by to His own.

I put my hand over my mouth in humble amazement. All the complex problems that I had assumed God would not take care of, He has. I cannot speak for the rest of the girls, but I now see how He has come through for these four. He has not let these precious sparrows fall to the ground unnoticed. Nor has He allowed this godly man’s arms to remain empty.

I judged God’s goodness by my own set of expectations. Parents that get to keep their children. Children that get to stay with their parents.

God shows His goodness in the most unexpected ways. A Father who loses His child to save other children. Girls who lose their families to gain a new kind of father.

But in God’s mixed-up, unexpected-twists-in-the-plot story, He always comes out good in the end. Not a one of the details falls to the ground. Not a one of our tears goes unnoticed.

Be at rest once more, my soul. The Lord has been good to her.

Beheaded Children?–When the Imprecatory Psalms Are Suddenly Relevant

My children and I just looked at internet photographs of an Iraqi child’s beheaded body. Why would we expose ourselves to such horror? Because it is really happening. Because to carry on as if it were not happening would be to perpetuate the crime. Because even the ground cries out for us to acknowledge and respond to the shedding of innocent blood.

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

But having stared such atrocity in the face, what do we do with our newfound awareness? My son comes back into the kitchen teary–eyed, asking me what he can do about it. Send money to a charity? Write a letter to a politician? Our profound sense of horror is slowly replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. When faced with the reality of such unspeakable evil in our world, evil that at this moment is overpowering people no different than we, how do we even begin to pray?

“Lord, have mercy” runs through my mind again and again as I scroll through the footage of severed heads and gunned-down bodies. But what about the gunmen in the pictures, gloating over their fallen victims? My son asks the question that I am already thinking:

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

How can I think of mercy for those butchers while the aftermath of their carnage stares me in the face? They aren’t sorry. They plaster the evidence of their brutality all over the internet, boasting in their conquests, delighting in the devastation they have caused.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

All of a sudden the imprecatory psalms start making a lot more sense to me. No wonder they cry out for God to remember the atrocity these victims have endured. No wonder they recount to Him just how horrific it was. And no wonder they demand His judgment on the perpetrators.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Psalm 137:4-6

How can we sing happy praise songs while our brothers and sisters are being slaughtered or running for their lives to different lands? If we forget their anguish, we may as well forget our own souls. There is a rightness to remembering, to allowing unresolved atrocity to interrupt the peaceful humdrum of our otherwise undisturbed lives. It is an expression of our true humanity, a reflection of God’s image within us that says, “This is not O.K.”

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Psalm 137:7

But we can’t just leave it at that. Awareness without action makes our souls sick. So we take our angst to the street, pounding on God’s door until He does something about it. “Remember what they did! Look at how bad it was! Take action, O God. You are the Judge of the world. Come down and make this right.”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

But what exactly do we want Him to do? Decapitate their children, too? Repay them blow-for-blow for all the crimes they have committed? That doesn’t seem very Christian of us. Nor does shrugging off genocide as if it isn’t really a big deal. There must be some way to turn the other cheek while holding on to justice.

God will intervene in a way that compromises neither His justice nor His mercy.

The solution to that is beyond me. Thankfully, it is not up to me to arbitrate divine action. This is one of those moments when I am relieved not to be God, because I can’t be impartial. I can vent my unreserved outrage and my vindictive anger to Him, trusting His ability to act as both righteous Judge and merciful Savior. He can find a way to extend mercy while upholding justice. I think of the way He dealt with Saul, one of the original Christian killers.

So I repeat my prayer, “Lord, have mercy. Bring them down to their knees in repentance.”

But lurking underneath that hopeful request is the dark reminder that not all sinners repent. We cheer when the penitent Peters get re-instated, but we also breathe a deep sigh of relief when the hard-hearted Judases finally get what they deserve.

“One way or another, Lord, bring them down.”

My youngest daughter breaks into my reverie with a solution that resonates with my heart, if not my head.

“What if all the Christians in the world just made their own army and marched into Iraq to beat off those bad guys?”

I chuckle, wishing the world were that simple.

But has God not intervened in similar ways in the past? It may be that He will use our political lobbying and social awareness raising to change the outcome of this crisis. It may be that He will bring deliverance to His people through international military action, as He did in response to the Holocaust.

And though I don’t know what the Judge will do, I know what we can do. We can join in the lament for our Iraqi kin. We can beg Him to change the hearts of their oppressors. And we can swamp Him with petitions through fasting and prayer, asking Him to send in an army to protect His people.

Who knows? It could be the kind that comes marching through the treetops.

When God Doesn’t Show Up on Time

If you are the defender of the oppressed, then where are you now?

“Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.
Psalm 12:5-6

I love that you are a God who cares about each of your creatures, who takes special notice of the ones whom others belittle and degrade. I love how you commit yourself to the abused, to listen to them and stick close by their side. I believe your promises to protect the vulnerable and rescue the victim. So what are you going to do about these 200 abducted girls in Nigeria?

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. …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

Why do you hang back and not take action? Why do you allow evil men to use their power to terrorize, brutalize, and take advantage of women and children? Because of your inactivity, they think that they can get away with this. Because of your silence, they act like you don’t notice their ruthless methods or care about their devastated victims.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:21-22

Like the sisters at Lazarus’ graveside and the disciples in the storm-tossed boat, we cry out the question that burns on all our hearts: Lord, where were you? If you would have been here, this wouldn’t have happened! If you would have shown up sooner, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Don’t you care that these girl’s lives are being destroyed?

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Mark 4:38-40

And as you did in reply to them, you gently call us to a greater level of faith. You bring us face-to-face with the impossibility of our circumstances: the overpowering force of renegade seas, the irreversible damage of death, the life-altering trauma of kidnapping, captivity, and violent, sexual assault. As we stare into the hopelessness, you call us to hope. As we weather our worst storms, you ask us if we trust you.

Your intervention is not a matter of if, but when.

I am tempted to withhold my trust until you prove yourself faithful, to doubt you until you come through for these girls. But you don’t afford me that luxury. You won’t let me off the hook of true faith. You leave me no choice but to either walk away from you in disbelief, or to turn towards you in desperate expectation.

I believe. Help my unbelief.

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”? But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits (herself) to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.
Psalm 10:12-15

I’m asking you to intervene on their behalf, because I believe you are who you say you are. You are the God who sees what is happening to them, who feels what is being done to their bodies, who weeps over what is being done to their souls. You are the God who calls evil men to account, who snatches their victims out of their hands and breaks their regime of terror.

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

So come on! Do your God-thing! Tame the sea. Raise the dead. Rescue these girls! Send in your ambassadors to fight for them. Go yourself and protect them. Hold them close under the shadow of your wings, that they may experience your peace in the midst of trauma, your safety in the midst of danger, your love in the midst of abuse. Show their captors what you do when people think they can treat your cherished image-bearers however they like. Show all the others like them that you don’t tolerate terror and abuse.

You might not handle things according to our expectations or show up according to our timetable, but you will act. We believe that you are strong enough and that you care enough. We believe that you can turn this hell into a haven, this crisis into a miracle. We watch to see what you will do for these girls, trusting that your intervention is not a matter of if, but when.

We take you at your word. Prove us right.

Give Us a Break!

My sister-in law found out last week that the baby girl she is carrying has a significant heart problem. For the next several months, she will constantly face the excruciating question: will the life that she is nourishing within flourish and grow or will it wither and die?

My friend just lost her baby. This isn’t the first time she has gone through this, but it will be the last. Along with her baby, she just lost her uterus, too.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Psalm 90:1-2

How do I pray about all this? My heart is crushed with grief for these precious women. They have endured so much loss, so much disappointment, and now my friend’s hopes of bearing a child are dashed forever. How can I call her to hope in God when I myself feel that He has been too severe with her? And yet where else can I turn but to the One who gave birth to the world and everything in it, who holds her children, her body, and her future in His hands?

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning– though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Psalm 90:3-6

At times like this He seems so harsh, so distant and uncaring. We feel like helpless peons, tossed about in a cruel world where blossoming infants are suddenly blighted and our ability to bear fruit is abruptly cut off. Did He not call us to be fruitful and multiply? Does He not raise our expectations with talk about blessing His people with children: making them fruitful vines, filling the barren woman’s arms, and all that? And yet another infant has perished under His watchful gaze; another godly woman lies bereft of her fruit-bearing capacity.

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. … their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. …
Psalm 90:7-11

Is God angry with us? Is this suffering simply the product of a sinful, cursed world in which life is cut short and the days we do have are filled with sorrow and hardship? If that is all we have to look forward to, then our lives are reduced to a desperate act of survival. If God truly is that aloof and indifferent, then we have no hope at all.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

But life can’t really be that bleak. God can’t really be that unloving. There has to be more to the story than I can see at this moment. So, as Moses did before me, I turn to God and ask Him to show me the big picture. What are our lives really about? What cause do we have to keep hoping, to keep persevering through the pain and pressing on towards the future?

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
Psalm 90:13-16

Give us a break, Lord! We can’t go on like this much longer. Show us some mercy. Apart from you, we will wither and die. We can’t bear another day imprisoned under these steel skies. Break through the dark clouds that swirl around us and let us see your beauty, your goodness, your love. We are your weak, grieving people. Come and comfort us. Reassure us with your smile. Touch us with your tender hand. Give us a reason to be happy again. Show us those wonderful ways that you intervene on behalf of your servants. Give us a sign of your goodness. We want to believe, help us in our unbelief.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days… my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
Isaiah 65:17, 19-20, 22-23

Once again, my soul settles on the reality which Moses died believing but never seeing. Two thousand years later, a baby survived some rough birthing circumstances only to later have the breath of life crushed from His lungs. His resurrection is God’s response to the prayers of anguished sufferers past and present. It broke the curse under which we writhe. It relocates our hope to the new creation, where the curse will be finally and fully undone. Our fruitfulness will be restored. Our babies will live. Our God will be with us. Our joy will be full.

Seven years ago today, I watched as a team of blood-spattered doctors raced the clock to rescue the tiny infant from my own failing body. Hours later, I awoke from the anesthesia, wondering if she had joined the four others who had gone before her. My womb was gone, and with it my fruitfulness as a woman. But in God’s incredible kindness, He spared me my Anastasia, my little “resurrection.” Today, I hold her sturdy, growing body and bury my face in her soft, warm skin. She is my living, breathing reminder of the power of His resurrection, a tangible sign of His goodness in the here and now.

Lord, fill the empty arms of those who mourn. Create anew the bodies of those who are at-risk. Restore the fruitfulness of our bodies, our work, our lives.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands.
Psalm 90:17

No Holds Barred

“How dare you take your children to live in such a dangerous place! What about your calling to be a good father to them? How could you live with yourself if they died because of your decision to follow God?” The questions my brother was facing were identical to the ones I had asked myself years earlier as my husband and I prepared to move overseas. None of us had any doubt that God had called us to go and serve Him in these very challenging fields, but we all struggled to reconcile that calling with our other calling to nurture and protect our children. Which came first?

“Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
…it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.
Genesis 18:18-19; 21:12

Abraham had gone before us in facing this dilemma, and his response became the basis for our own. Everything that he had been promised, everything that he had staked his life on, hinged on the life of his only son. This was his miracle baby, the one they almost didn’t have. This was his last chance, the only child left after he had lost the other one. This was his Isaac, his long-awaited gift from God. Surely God wouldn’t demand him back.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Genesis 22:1-2

But the call was clear. God had told him to sacrifice Isaac. No one else had heard it, but he had. There was no denying what God had asked him to do, but it just didn’t make sense. The mental image of his beloved son, the promised child of the covenant, brutally slaughtered and engulfed in fire was too much to bear. Why would God raise his hopes for the future only to dash them? Why would He give this precious child only to take him away?

Ultimately, the decision was Abraham’s. God had not struck Isaac dead. He had asked Abraham to do it. He had to make a choice, to take a course of action one way or the other. Doing what God had asked of him would be a violation of his calling to fatherhood, through which he had been promised that he would become a great nation. But not doing it would be a violation of his relationship with God. God had asked him for a specific sacrifice, the one thing that he treasured more than anything else in this world. To protect Isaac would be to deny God.

The cost of what we are willing to offer reflects the value we assign to God.

Interestingly, Abraham did not wrestle with God over this one. He had not hesitated to boldly and persistently argue his case with God when it had been a matter of justice and mercy. But this was different. It was a matter of sacrifice, an act of worship. To try to bargain down the price this time would mean devaluing God. Abraham knew that his response to God’s request had to be all or nothing. No in-between compromise would suffice.

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. … When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Genesis 22:3-5

And so without a word of protest he took Isaac along to the distant place that God led him to. He would offer this precious gift back to God. Whether God would take Isaac or would give him back, Abraham did not know. But he did know that God had always come through for him in the past. He would be faithful in this, too.

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
Genesis 22:6-8

Abraham laid the sacrificial wood on his only beloved son’s back and together they ascended the mountain that would one day be known as Zion. Each step of the way he wondered how it would all work out, if he would make the return journey with or without a son. But his dread of what might happen did not stop his obedience to what God had said should happen.

I listened to my brother recounting the story of Abraham as the answer to his questions about obeying his own dangerous call. I knew from personal experience that we could not claim that God would spare the lives of our children, that He would protect them from harm as He had Isaac. But Abraham’s sacrificial act of willingly laying his son on the altar of worship resonated deeply with my own growing love for God. It gave significance to the risks we had taken and the losses we had endured because of our obedience to God’s call. These were opportunities to show how much He was worth to us, to offer up our love to Him. And so with tears of sorrow and of joy, I offered Him the unborn child I had just lost to dengue fever. She became my Thysia—my priceless offering.