Tag Archives: refuge

Dead before God

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein,
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Dear Weary Warrior,

I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. You have braved so many battles, stood strong through storms that would have sunk a lesser man.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psalm 88:15-17

Anyone looking at all you have been through might be tempted to wonder why God has been so hard on you. After all, aren’t you His son? And yet He has allowed blow after blow to knock the wind out of you. The painful events that He has ordained for your life are so huge that your sufferings have come to define you.

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psalm 88:3-5

No wonder you are a dead man, drained of life and numb before God. No wonder all you can do is lie there like a corpse, unable to work, unable to fight, unable to feel anything other than exhaustion beyond your years. You have born enough trouble and grief to count for many lifetimes. In fact, you have shouldered the weight of the world, and that cross has crushed you.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
Psalm 88:6-9

Does the darkness of the grave disturb you? Do you feel like you should be able to resist this, too, to somehow throw off the grave clothes and dig your way out from underneath that massive stone? And yet you simply can’t. The life has been pummeled out of you until all that is left is an empty shell. As much as you would like to escape this current state, there is nothing you can do but lie there in the grave: helpless, still, undone.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psalm 88:10-12

Are you wondering about God’s purposes for your life? Statements about your glorious future probably feel like a mockery right now. The only thing you can see in front of you is the ugly black wall that traps you in. How in the world can your current condition bring glory to the God you have served? It seems to testify against His faithfulness and love, not to them. Wouldn’t a dramatic deliverance serve His purposes better than debilitating oblivion?

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. …even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you…
Psalm 139:7-12

But that isn’t what He has chosen for you right now. Resurrection might come in the morning, but for now He has provided night. This grave is your shelter from the storms that await you outside. It blocks the blinding light and muffles the sharp sounds that threaten to overwhelm you. Snuggle into its swaddling clothes and let the darkness hold you tight. You are here with God.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139:13-15

He has been with you from before the time you had consciousness, before the time you were aware of your identity or your commission. He created you with the physical and emotional limitations that now hold you down. His perfect design of your body included the inability to pass through every storm unscathed, to resist succumbing to the death that now defines you.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Psalm 139:16-18

In fact, this day is among those that He wrote for you in His book. For today your assignment is not to save the world, to preach the kingdom, to heal the masses. Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God. Tomorrow will eventually come, when hope dawns and the “new you” emerges. But God is not in a rush to get you there. He created this gap between death and resurrection for a reason.

Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God.

This is your space to simply be with Him, the Sabbath for your soul. Sleep in His presence. Lie numbly and do nothing in His presence. Cry if you want to, or let Him do it for you if your tears won’t come. You don’t have to answer the questions of the cosmos or figure out how this is working together for your good. You have committed your spirit into His hands. Now simply let Him hold you.

Today, darkness is your friend.

Advertisements

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

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.

Running with Angels

Anyone who spends much time with me will quickly figure out that running is close to an addiction for me. A day without a cross-country run simply feels incomplete. That is my space to pray, to process, and to savor the sweetness of God’s presence. So when I began planning a trip to go teach in Nigeria, of course the first thing I worried about was whether I would be able to run there. Never mind about Boko Haram or Ebola. Would there be a culturally appropriate, safe space for me to get my daily fix?

I packed my most modest running clothes and my trainers, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to go two weeks with inactive limbs and a restless spirit. In between armed police checkpoints and makeshift military bunkers along the road from the airport, I managed to ask my Nigerian host if and where I could run during my stay. He agreed that it should be all right, provided I stayed within the walls of the heavily guarded compound in which our classes would be held.

This was an awkward situation at best, an international incident-in-the-making at worst.

I waited for the next evening, when the sun was low and the day’s work done. I was desperate to process the intensity of the day in the Lord’s presence. With much trepidation I set out, circling the inside of the compound walls and hoping that no one would notice me. But a white woman in Africa does have a way of standing out, especially when she is crunching gravel in fast-forward. The first evening I only encountered the armed guards and a few residents along my path. They seemed sympathetic enough to my cause. But the second evening was a different story entirely.

Hordes of people showed up for a conference in the compound, streaming through the gates and gathering in large knots right in the middle of my running path. Among them were many Muslims, the very sort of people that I had been afraid to run in front of. What would they think of a western woman behaving so brazenly? Given Boko Haram’s sentiments about women, education, and the West, would my actions incite anger or violence? I avoided eye contact as I worked my way around the crowds, doing my best to be invisible but failing miserably. This was an awkward situation at best, an international incident-in-the-making at worst.

And then a little whoop went up from a member of the crowd. A tiny girl was playing among the legs of all the sedate adults, swooping in and out of their dignified robes as they stood around in their pre-conference conversations. She eagerly ran to join me, delighted to find a playmate who would “run races” with her. She chattered excitedly with me as together we circled the compound, avoiding the most congested spots. Lap after lap, she stuck by my side. And as we passed through the crowds, scowls turned to smiles, disapproving glances turned to encouraging cheers.

If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge– then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. Psalm 91:9-12

I never would have imagined a solution as sweet as this. On my own, I had felt insecure; but with this little girl by my side, the whole story was reinterpreted. Sure, her short strides slowed me down and her playful chatter broke my focus. But because she was with me, I could run through what had formerly seemed like hostile crowds with confidence. Their response to her contagious smile allowed me to respond with one of my own.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
Psalm 91:5-7

In a strange way, I feel like so much of life works in a similar way. The world is full of scary situations and overwhelming forces: terrorists and evil demons, unemployment and poverty, broken families and corrupt governments, disease and even death. But rather than remove the danger, God has also built into the system good, nurturing forces to carry us through suffering and protect us through peril. Sometimes they are seen, taking the form of friends and family; sometimes they are unseen, guiding our steps and preventing our harm as we trundle on unaware.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:1-4

And yet we have no cause for fear. It’s not that the threats aren’t real, but rather that our Helper is more so. The dangers all around make us all the more glad to stick by His side. Sure, His pace is not always our own, His voice often redirects our thoughts, and His plans rarely match up with ours; but in light of the imminent danger all around, there is no place I would rather be than by His side.

photo 3So each evening I looked out for my little companion, hoping that she would show up for my run. I saw her as a messenger from God, a physical reminder of His Spirit watching over me and providing for me even in my silly running obsession.

I rested under His wings as I ran by her side.

Oh, and her name was Angel.

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)

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.

Dissociative Praise

“Focus on a point in the distance. Escape your body. Leave behind the pain.”

Praise became my mantra,
worship my coping mechanism.

I had read about the benefits of dissociation in a book on natural childbirth, not realizing at the time that this was also a common, involuntary response to overwhelming trauma. The way the book described it, disassociation was a natural, healthy way to cope with intense pain. Separating my mind from my body was fine and good for something as short-lived as childbirth, but in the aftermath of severe, complex trauma, the real challenge came in trying to reintegrate. What the books never explained was where to go when I left my body, or how to find my way back once it was over.

See how they lie in wait for me! Fierce men conspire against me for no offense or sin of mine, O LORD.
How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down– this leaning wall, this tottering fence? They fully intend to topple him from his lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
Psalm 59:3, 62:3-4

When trauma struck David, he didn’t need a book to tell his soul what to do. In the face of terrifying physical danger and overwhelming emotional pain, his soul evacuated. It could no longer face the constant terror of enemies lurking around every corner, relentlessly pursuing him until they had successfully crushed him to pieces. It could no longer handle the exhausting awareness that no matter where he went people would betray him, that one by one each person he trusted was more likely to turn out as his enemy rather than his friend.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest– I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

His soul went looking for another place to stay, somewhere where he could escape from his current physical circumstance. Being fully present in his body hurt too much. It might be trapped in the horrors of the moment, but his soul was free to spread its wings and fly away.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.
Psalm 61:2, 57:1

And so his soul soared to the one place it knew it was safe. It flew to take refuge near God. Here his Companion was trustworthy and his surroundings were secure. Here he could leave behind the chaotic, uncontrollable mess of earth and enter into the beautiful, soothing peace of heaven.

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:2-5

But the center of this dissociative state was not nothingness. It was God. God was what made this place so delightful. He was the light that captivated David’s attention with its indescribable beauty. He was the delicacy that satisfied David’s lips more than the richest of foods. David fell head over heels in love with God, and he never wanted to go back.

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Psalm 63:6-8

Savoring God’s beauty. Reveling in His love. In light of the horrors that lurked below, David’s prayers overflowed with the most unexpected themes. He lost himself in worship. He escaped into the delights of praise. God became his most tangible circumstance. He didn’t really want to face any other.

For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
Psalm 61:3-4

This is where he wanted to stay forever, or at least until the disaster below had passed. But physical realities pulled at his soul, reminding him that it was not yet fully released from its bodily dwelling. He had to respond to his body’s urgent needs. He had to function within its immediate surroundings.

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.
Psalm 57:7-9

So David took the praise party of his dreams back into the waking nightmare of his world. He worshipped God’s transcendent power and beauty while experiencing his own immanent helplessness and mess. The threats were still as real as ever, the betrayal as relentless. But with God as the center of his focus, he could rise above the storm while walking through it. With God as his sure foundation, He could remain steadfast even while being overwhelmed.

When my soul was overwhelmed by trauma too intense for it to bear, it, too, took wings and flew into the arms of God. During those nightmarish days and weeks on earth, I experienced a sweetness in His presence that I had never known before. God in all His glorious attributes came alive for me, no longer a distant abstraction but now a very real presence. Having tasted and seen His heavenly delights, my life on earth held little appeal for me.

God took my soul by the hand and led me back into my body.

But like it or not, I knew I eventually had to go back, to reintegrate into the life that my body was still living. God took my soul by the hand and led me back into my body. He slowly taught me that it was safe to live there, because His Spirit was living there, too. Praise became my mantra, worship my coping mechanism. As long as I could feel Him with me, as long as I knew He was still on the throne of the universe, I was reassured that I could go on living.

Away from the body. At home with the Lord.
Back home in the body. Never away from the Lord.

Trauma from the Inside Out

Aftershocks. The first few times they came, they shook me to the core. Was it happening again? My mind knew it was over, that I was safe, but something else inside me was screaming otherwise.

Safety no longer meant the absence of danger;
it meant the presence of God.

I lived in a state of perpetual high-alert, anticipating the next round of terror at any moment. The attacks had caught me off guard the first time around, helplessly overwhelmed. Never again would I be caught like a sitting duck, oblivious to the danger all around. At the slightest touch of my T-shirt to my neck, I would be bolt upright in bed, ready to fight off the hands trying to strangle me. At a sudden brake in the car, my adrenaline would startle into high gear, ready in an instant for fight-or-flight. And a chill… well that was the worst. It signaled to my body that the threat had already succeeded in bypassing my defenses, that all I could do was crumple and moan and beg for mercy.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger.
Psalm 55:2-3

Words escaped me. I couldn’t describe what I was experiencing. The attacks raged on inside me, even in the absence of a perpetrator. My body was my prison, with an invisible recording continuously running those nightmarish experiences through my consciousness. I cooked meals, I bandaged scraped up knees, I chuckled at children’s made-up jokes—all on auto-pilot, always distracted by another reality going on at the same time.

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.
Psalm 55:4-5

Usually I could suppress it, choosing to push it to the back of mind so that I could function as a responsible adult. But sometimes it just wouldn’t stay there. Moments when I relaxed my guard and allowed myself to enjoy my surroundings. Experiences that overwhelmed the rigid control I maintained over my mind and body. A migraine. A belly-laugh. An intimidating relational encounter. A fun, chaotic gathering. And then the terror would take over. The horror would overcome me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest–I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

I would search for a quiet, safe place, away from concerned eyes, away from bewildered questions. The strong walls of my own control had crumbled, and I needed a shelter in which to hide until the sobs and shakes had past. Usually that shelter became my own arms, wrapped tightly around my curled up body in an attempt to hold it all together. Sometimes it was the arms of a trusted other, strong enough to face my storm, safe enough to hold me in the midst of it.

But I call to God, and the LORD saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.
Psalm 55:16-18

But through the ups and downs of that tumultuous season, God became my dearest refuge, my closest circumstance. He alone could hear the cries of my soul, too deep for words to express. He alone could see the battle raging within me, far beyond my ability to analyze or direct. I clung to him like a drowning soul to a life-raft. And He never let go.

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.
Psalm 55:22-23

Gradually safety took on a new meaning for me. It no longer meant an absence of danger. For months and years to come, those threatening memories continued to return and haunt me. But I had experienced a Shelter so nurturing, so strong, so true that I wasn’t afraid anymore. I could weather those storms, sure to the core of my being that I was safe in His embrace. My world still felt like a dangerous place, but safety meant that He was holding me. In those arms I could finally let down my guard and rest.

Homeless but Hopeful

I hate packing. Hate is pretty strong language for such a mundane task, but the sight of jumbled piles and a deconstructed home revives unsettling memories of years of frequent moves and unexpected transitions. More than once I have awakened in the morning, knowing that my family’s belongings needed to be sorted through, packed up, and moved out before the end of the day, but not knowing where our next home would be, let alone where we would sleep that night. I have too often fought off that familiar lump of panic in my throat while paring down our possessions, making an endless series of emotionally laden, partially informed decisions about what we should hold on to and what we can give up.

Packing reminds me that I am essentially homeless. Each time I go through the process of either relinquishing or transporting the sum total of my earthly goods, I live out the reality that there is no place on earth that I can call my own. And each time I empty a place that I had cleaned, decorated, and made into a refuge for my family, I am faced with the bare truth that it was never really my home.

What happened to the blessing of being securely settled in the land, of planting gardens and still being around to enjoy their fruit? Is that sense of settled security not something that I should look for, too?

The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Displacement and homelessness have always been a reality for God’s people, transition and immigration have always been our lot in life. When God brought His people out of slavery in Egypt, He took them through forty years of homelessness, forty years of waking up each morning and wondering if this day they would have to pack and move again, forty years of going to bed each night and wondering where the next day’s food and water would come from. No continuity with their past. No security for their future. No place on earth they could claim as their own, except what God provided.

“In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble… By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone– until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by. You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance– the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.”
Exodus 15:13-17

But He did provide. Day after day He showered down food. Night after night He kept watch from the pillar of fire in their midst. He took them through harsh conditions and terrifying moments, leading them away from the only known sources of water and civilization and towards the unknown of adverse terrain and hostile people. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with gratitude at His past provision. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with fear at their future uncertainty. But at all times, God was their refuge, their safe place, their home.

“In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. …If you would but listen to me, O Israel! You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not bow down to an alien god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
Psalm 81:7-10

Like the forty days that Jesus endured in the wilderness, these forty years of insecurity and homelessness were a time of training. God was walking his people through a series of carefully crafted trials, designed to disconnect them from their former home, deconstruct their former identity, and detach them from every source of security save Himself. But through that painful weaning process, He was preparing them for a better home than the one they had left.

…They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. … If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Looking back on all they had lost, the price seemed too high: at least in Egypt they had been settled. But looking forward to the home God had promised, they had every reason to persevere, to embrace the pilgrimage on which God was leading them.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
Psalm 84:1-2, 4-7, 10

Comfortably settled in my own current dwelling, I find it easy to lose sight of the life-long pilgrimage to which God has called me. But when I raise my eyes beyond my pretty kitchen curtains to gaze on the beauty of His dwelling place, my heart churns with longing for my real home. In seasons of comfort and of distress, He has been my shelter.

Pilgrimage is not easy; frequent moves and unsettling circumstances inevitably feed our fears about whether we will survive the journey. But along the way He turns our struggles into blessing, our tears into sources of fruitfulness and beauty. The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Psalm 90:1