Tag Archives: safety

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.

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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.

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.

Challenging Forgiveness

“How can I forgive her if she hasn’t said she’s sorry?” My son looked at me with his penetrating blue eyes, his sincere question about his sister unwittingly peeling a scab off my past.

How can I answer him when I haven’t yet resolved this issue myself? My mind instantly brings up the faces of people whose actions and words once wounded me so deeply that I still wince at their memory. What continues to hurt is not what they said or did, but the outstanding fact that they have never acknowledged that it was wrong.

Have I forgiven them?

If forgiveness means that I have completely forgotten their mistreatment, that I carry on our relationship as if it never happened, then no. I have not done that. I’m not sure how I could relate freely with those whose words and actions damaged me so deeply, not to mention radically redefined our relationship. The truth is, I don’t entrust myself to them, not if they haven’t expressed remorse or at least evidenced a desire to change.

Is it unforgiving of me to hold back, to maintain a bit of physical and emotional distance between myself and them? What is it that God is asking of me when He tells me to forgive?

Forgiveness has many appropriate manifestations, each determined by our current stage of relational healing.

Not to hold Joseph up as a perfect life model, but I think his story lays out an excellent example of what forgiveness looks like in the different stages of relational healing. His brothers had stolen from him his identity, his dreams, and his whole life as he had known it. Their betrayal cost him everything, including the ability to trust himself to them again.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”
Genesis 41:51

But even in a state of woundedness, Joseph did not harbor a grudge against his brothers. Rather than feed on memories of how horrible they had been, he simply tried to forget them. Though that was not an adequate long-term solution, I think it was an appropriate form of forgiveness for that stage of their relationship.

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.
Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: …Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.
Genesis 42:7, 14-16

When God brought his brothers unexpectedly back into his life, Joseph did not seek revenge. Nor did he immediately run into their arms and pick up where they had left off. Joseph kept his distance and his anonymity, allowing himself the time and space to ascertain if they had changed. Instead of shutting himself off from them forever, he demonstrated another layer of forgiveness by creating opportunities for them to prove themselves worthy of his trust.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:21, 23-24

Joseph may have seemed harsh and unyielding, putting his brothers through the tests that he did. But his goal was true restoration, not revenge. Like God so often does with us, he graciously set them up for a re-match. Another round of jealousy-inducing favoritism, this time towards Benjamin. The recurring offer to throw their little brother under the bus to save their own hides. But when they pleaded for Benjamin’s life, offering themselves in his place, Joseph knew that they had changed. He knew it was finally safe to come out of hiding.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Genesis 45:1-2

Deep springs of pent up emotion burst forth as Joseph made his startling revelation. That emotion could very well have been anger or bitterness. But Joseph’s tears manifested the forgiveness that had been working its way through the layers of his heart all along. Tears of grief over his freshly-awakened pain. Tears of sorrow over the years of lost relationship. And tears of relief and delight over this wonderfully unanticipated fresh start.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes.
Genesis 45:4-5, 15, 22

Joseph did not wait for an apology or an explanation. He already knew their hearts. He threw himself on his brothers, hugging and weeping over each of them like the prodigal son’s Father. He did the explaining for them, welcoming them back into fellowship and soothing away their fears. And he demonstrated the extent of his forgiveness, bypassing probation and jumping straight into extravagant provision. New clothes. New inheritance. A land for their families to settle in right alongside his. A relationship restored.

…”‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? … So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Genesis 50:15-21

But the reconciliation process wasn’t finished yet. Nor was Joseph’s healing. Years later, after the death of their father, fear prompted the brothers to finally apologize for what they had done to him. It had been a long time in the coming, and in many respects Joseph had moved on, not expecting to hear it, but their apology hit the spot. A fresh round of tears. A healing opportunity to verbalize his forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status,
a heart posture than a court verdict.

I look over these layers of development in Joseph’s story and begin to conceptualize forgiveness in a new way. Maybe forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status, a heart posture than a court verdict. Maybe what God is calling me to is to desire and work towards reconciliation, even if it is not a current possibility. Short cuts won’t get me there. Faking it won’t work. But persistently loving those who hurt me opens the door for God to bring about true restoration, one that neither compromises my wholeness nor denies God’s grace.

So how do I forgive those who haven’t said they are sorry? I pray that, just as He did with Joseph’s alienated brothers, God will write them back into my story. And I wait with open arms.

When My World Fell Apart

I never realized how much I took for granted until so much of it was taken from me. Physical safety. Financial security. A sense of control over what happened to my body, my possessions, my future. The ability to predict how others would act: confidence in my friends’ solidarity with me and certainty in what God would never allow my enemies to do to me.

When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.” O LORD, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.
Psalm 30:6-7

But in one tidal wave of events, the peace of the garden was replaced by the chaos of the flood. My assumptions of how the world worked were overturned, my soul left tumbling and swirling in a sea of helplessness and confusion. The foundational truth of the first Psalm, that the righteous always stand firmly planted by God’s nourishing stream, gave way to experiences that forced me to question everything I had ever known.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty
Psalm 93:3-4

That tame, predictable stream had now run over its banks, rising until it threatened to completely engulf me. The world was no longer a safe, nurturing place for me, those who populated it no longer a source of understanding and acceptance. Who could comprehend the atrocities that had been forced on my body, the horrors that would forever be imprinted on my soul? Who could protect me from further attack, both in physical reality and in the ongoing reality of my memories?

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do ?”
Psalm 11:3

As the fallout of those experiences continued to break over me, I felt myself being washed away in a torrent of devastation and confusion. My secure foundations crumbled beneath my feet, failing me just when I had counted on them the most. Tossed about by the chaos of uncertainty and the power of destructive forces, I reached a breaking point within myself.

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me… In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help.
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
Psalm 18:4-5, 16-18

I could no longer cope with the overwhelming circumstances without and the rising terror within. Without immediate intervention, I would be overcome. I cried out to God in panic, a drowning soul with nothing else to grab on to. And He showed up with an ark.

The ark of His love saved me from the overwhelming flood of my trauma.

Safe in His hold. Secure in His love. His ark held me through the gale that continued to swirl all around me. This ark of our relationship was one that He had called me to build long before I could have comprehended the life preserver it would turn out to be. Year after year I had worked on it, dutifully laying plank after plank of prayer and Bible study, faith-building choices and love-driven obedience. Little did I know that what I thought I had been constructing for His sake, He was planning for mine.

O LORD God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.
Psalm 89:9-10

As my life as I had known it continued to be washed away by trauma’s flood, I found rest in the sweet security of my relationship with God. His unfailing love for me became my anchor in the storm, my safe place in the midst of danger, my true north through waves of disorientation. He became my defining circumstance. More than the storms of traumatic events, more than the messy wasteland of their aftershocks, His unshakeable love formed the foundation in which I could root myself.

God became my defining circumstance.

The storm did eventually subside. The waters slowly receded, revealing the radically altered terrain of my world. Relationships redefined. Circumstances changed. I held back, afraid to emerge from the safety of the ark, reticent to leave the comfort of the cocoon. But His dove-like Spirit nudged me forward, assuring me with the rainbow-sealed promise of His ongoing presence.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall…
Psalm 46:1-5

Together we have done a lot of rebuilding, not according to the blueprints of my former life, but from scratch, making something new. For a long time I looked back and mourned all that I had lost; I now rejoice in what I have gained. New roles. Different abilities. New communities. Old relationships, deeper for having withstood the storm. But most of all, I rejoice in the new identity He has given me, one so firmly rooted and established in His love that I no longer fear the future. Now more than ever, I am that tree flourishing in the garden, roots sunk deep into the stream of Living Water.

Expecting the Unexpected

“I’m nervous about this, Lord. How can I be sure that You will show up and heal her? What if I have misinterpreted You? I’m afraid to put Your name on the line, to expect something of You that You may not plan to do.”

Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it also kept my faith from growing.

Miracles were as foreign an idea to me as giants and dragons. I believed that they happened, but were more likely to occur long ago in a far away land. Why? Because, in my experience, that wasn’t the way God usually worked. Because the cost of discipleship had oriented my expectations towards suffering and struggle, not healing and deliverance. And, if I were perfectly honest, because I was too afraid to expect more of God and then be disappointed.

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
John 14:11-13

But Jesus’ words raised my expectations. They called my bluff, pulling aside my cover-up of piety and surrender and revealing my wimpy faith. Why didn’t I ask Him for more? Was it because I believed that asking for miracles would be inappropriate for a mature believer in His sovereignty, or was it simply because underneath my theological excuses, I was compensating for a lack of faith that God would actually do what I asked?

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:7-8

As I studied Jesus’ final interaction with His disciples before His death, I heard my own weak faith reflected in their responses to Him. Resignation. Fear. Doubt. And I heard Him nudging me to ask for more from Him, to extend beyond the safety zone of my expectations and risk disappointment with Him. Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it would also keep my faith from growing.

I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
Psalm 2:7-8

God the Father had invited His Son to ask. Jesus in turn invited His disciples to ask. Now it was my turn to ask, taking Him at His word that both His glory and my joy would be increased through my doing so.

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
John 16:24
Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful… Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
Acts 3:2-6

And so I asked Him to heal my Hindu friend, whose rheumatoid arthritis had kept her crippled and in pain all the years I had known her. I went to her home and laid my hands on her knees, asking Him out loud to restore her ability to walk. And I returned to my own home, relieved to have dispatched my duty and wondering what would come of it. Would God show up and do what I had asked? Had I just raised my unbelieving friend’s expectations of a God who might not rise to meet them? My action had either set her up to encounter God in a powerful, personal way or to turn away from Him in disappointment and disbelief. Petrified, I could only watch and wait to see what He would do.

Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.
Acts 3:7-8

A few days later I went by her house. Much to my astonishment and my joy, I found her walking around without support, something I had never seen her do. My jaw hit the floor. It had worked. God had done what I asked!

When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?
By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
Acts 3:12, 16

As it was for the disciples, my friend’s healing afforded me the opportunity to once again call her and her husband to faith in Jesus. But her healing also called me to greater faith through Him. Learning to trust our Father meant learning to ask Him for the impossible. I could not claim what He would or would not do with my request, but I could rest in the assurance that He would hold my faith in His goodness regardless of the outcome. Just as He had taught me to accept the undesirable, He now taught me to expect the unexpected.

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.

I Need a Hero!

Terrified. Trembling. Powerless. Crushed. I’m not big enough to handle this. I can’t keep fighting it. Where can I find a champion strong enough to protect me? I need a hero.

David had always been that hero, the one who showed up to protect everyone else. He had thrown himself at the lions and bears that threatened his sheep, charged at the giant who bullied his people, and chased off the armies that terrorized their land. From childhood, he had been fearless and undaunted in facing down his enemies. So why was he now a trembling wreck?

Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
Psalm 5:1-2

Vulnerable. Bewildered. This time the enemy was not so obvious. This time the danger was hidden, intimate, within the bounds of a relationship that he had thought was safe. He had not been on his guard towards Saul. He had looked up to him as a leader, a protector, not someone from whom he needed to protect himself. He had trusted Saul like his own father, and Saul had used that trust against him. Now which hero could he trust? To which refuge could he run?

When David had fled and made his escape, he went to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. Then he and Samuel went to Naioth and stayed there.
1 Samuel 19:18

Samuel seemed the right man for the job. He was a spiritual giant, the one who had appointed Saul to his position of power and the one who had gotten David into this mess by anointing him, too. And yet Samuel was riddled with fear for his own life when it came to Saul. He welcomed David and listened to his painful story of betrayal and abuse, but there was little he could physically do to protect him, or himself, from Saul’s jealous rage.

But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies– make straight your way before me.
Psalm 5:7-8

So Samuel took David to his place of refuge. Naioth was no fortified city; it was merely a ragtag community of prophets. What made this place safe was not a wall of stone around it, but rather the Spirit of God within it. Together they took refuge in God, receiving the comfort and assurance of His powerful presence surrounding them.

You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.
Psalm 5:4-6

Despite David’s escape into prayer and worship, his troubles soon caught up with him. He watched with horror as a group of Saul’s men approached their sanctuary, armed and ready to forcibly return him to his abuser. He witnessed his worst nightmare unfolding in front of him, and he was powerless to stop it. But his Hero wasn’t.

Word came to Saul: “David is in Naioth at Ramah”; so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they also prophesied. Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied.
1 Samuel 19:19-21

One by one David’s feared aggressors stopped in their tracks, dropped their weapons, and joined in the worship. Their ferocity was turned into futility, their hostility into halleluiahs. Two more groups of soldiers arrived, and twice more David saw God turn their strength into weakness, their crafty plans into blathering incompetence. And as he watched, David’s fear was turned into faith. He had never seen anything like it. What kind of champion could overpower people from the inside out?

At the height of our vulnerability,
our Hero proves His super-ability.

But could this Hero protect David from his abuser? When Saul showed up at David’s safe place, David was brought face to face with the man whose very name struck terror into his heart. The mighty warrior was once again reduced to a quivering mess.

So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night.
1 Samuel 19:23-24

At the height of David’s vulnerability, his Hero proved His super-ability. Saul the arrogant oppressor fell flat on his face. He was not allowed to touch David, not able to speak a word to bring him harm. Overwhelmed and undone by God’s Spirit, Saul was reduced to public stripping and incoherent babbling. David’s heart slowly stilled, his fears put to rest by the sight of his terrifying abuser rendered as helpless as a child before God.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.
Psalm 5:11-12

Abuse turns the mightiest of us into frightened children. It strips us of the confidence to defend ourselves and leaves us in search of someone else who will. In the desperate search for a hero, we are tempted to indiscriminately latch on to anyone who will take us in and provide us a sense of safety. Sometimes we unwittingly turn to people who are abusers in disguise, who prey on our vulnerability and take advantage of our desperate trust. Sometimes we find people who are worthy of our trust, who will do all within their limited power to love and care for us. But standing head and shoulders above all the others, God awaits, ready to gather His trembling lambs into His arms, able to come to our defense. We have a hero.