This is the Day

exploring the soul's quest for joy

Tag: despair

What am I Leaning On?

 

Last week I buried my beloved father. The lone bagpiper stood sentry, beckoning us closer, as the familiar strains of Amazing Grace echoed in the open cemetery. The once cloudy skies gave way to a brilliant January sun as we approached my father’s final resting place.

 

The snap of the flag breaks the silence as the Major and the Captain begin the ceremony of folding my father’s flag.

 

Fold, fold, fold, tuck. Fold, fold, fold, tuck. Fold, fold, fold, tuck.

 

Until the stripes are enveloped in a sea of blue, covered in 50 brilliant stars of white.

 

The Major is on one knee before my sisters and me. On behalf of the President of the United States of America, we wish to thank you for your father’s service to our country. Piercing blue eyes lock gaze with each of us. Eyes that proclaim I offer you my thanks as well.

 

The flag is in our hands. The bugle is on the bugler’s lips. The strains of Amazing Grace have been replaced by the mournful notes of Taps. And it is finished.

 

Soon, my father’s coffin would be lowered into the same earth that, 55 years earlier, had swallowed the tiny coffin of his beloved and only son, Johnnie.

 

 

My father’s death was “in the natural order of things”; his son’s death was not. Taken at age 8 by a rapid onset of type 1 diabetes, and a shockingly fast decline of all of his bodily functions, my brother quietly slipped from this life into eternity and my parents began their lifelong journey of trusting God despite unfathomable pain and far too many unanswered questions.

 

As my sisters and I began preparations for our father’s services, we were asked this simple question several times.

 

Did your father have a favorite Bible verse?

 

The first time we were asked the question, we all three stopped, looked into the distance, and began what we assumed would be a time of quiet reflection. In less than half a minute, we all agreed that while he never said he had a favorite verse, he did have a life verse. He and our mother inscribed it in every Bible they ever gave us. And it was the verse by which he lived his life.

 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.

~ Proverbs 3: 5-6

 

When my father lost his only son, he had a decision to make. Would he trust in the Lord with all his heart?

 

With all his broken heart?

 

With all his heavy heart and aching gut, pummeled by wave after wave of tears of anguish?

 

With every doubt and fear and sorrow that would rise up from the heart of a devoted daddy who would never again hold his precious son in his arms?

 

Or would he choose instead to lean on his own understanding of how things should have turned out?

 

Lean on his own understanding that a good God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people, to good little 8-year old boys with their entire lives ahead of them.

 

Lean on his own understanding that if this is what God’s favor looks like, then he didn’t want any part of it, thank you very much.

 

While my parents grieved terribly the loss of their only son, they chose to hold onto these words of the wise King Solomon, recognizing that God’s ways were higher than their ways. Even in their greatest suffering, they chose to acknowledge that God is God and they are not. Their trust in the Lord remained steadfast, and not even the death of their son would shake their belief in God’s character.

 

God is good. All the time.

 

I wish I could say that I had the same heart response when my own son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 5-years old. My response to his diagnosis was swift and deep, allowing it to settle over me for a long time.

 

I was angry.

 

I had lived in fear of this disease my entire life. It took the life of a brother I never knew and has afflicted one of my sisters since she was 16. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, and during each of my pregnancies, I did regular urine testing to see if diabetes was invading my pancreas as well. This disease was so personal, so deeply woven into the fabric of my family.

 

God, how could you do this to me?

 

Overnight I lost sight of who I knew God to be. With one finger stick blood test, every hidden maxim of my “since-then” theology was revealed.

 

Since I love God and try to honor him with my life, then he will protect me.

 

Since God is good, then he won’t allow really bad things to happen to me and to those I love.

 

I didn’t even know I was harboring this false theology. But there it was. Out in the open in all its ugliness. The trouble with “since-then” theology is that when pushed, it becomes a slippery slide to an even uglier conclusion.

 

Since my child was not protected from this bad thing happening, then God is not good.

 

It’s easy to trust God when things are going well. When things are going as we want and expect them to go. It’s another matter entirely to trust God when our world has caved in and we can’t imagine how this same world can even spin on its axis anymore. And when, for the life of us, we can’t imagine how anyone can possibly be smiling when we can’t even breathe.

 

But trust is a choice. It’s a daily, moment-by-moment choice not to lean into our heart’s immediate pain-filled response, but to choose to believe in the goodness of the One who holds our heart.

 

In the midst of this season of standing apart from God, judging Him from a distance for not being exactly what I wanted Him to be, a wise friend spoke these words to me,

 

Father is always good.

 

I recoiled at her words. I was not yet ready to receive them. Surely He was mostly good, but how could she say He was always good, since He allowed my son’s life to be forever changed? Forever challenging and never carefree again.

 

The issue of God’s goodness was one I would wrestle with for two years. Blinded by anger and by my indignance at how and when God chooses to act, I needed time to recognize and deconstruct what I thought I knew about God. And then with much study, prayer, and reflection, to rebuild a faith that was anchored on the unchangeable character of God, including his love and goodness, and not on my desire to control everything around me.

 

Ultimately, these words of the psalmist became my words. I hope they become yours as well.

 

Whom have I in heaven but You?

And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. 

My flesh and my heart may fail,

But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

  Psalm 73: 25-26

New Morning Mercies

Image 1                                                                                                                         Lamentations 3

 

When my children were younger, I used to read to them every night before bed. It was the sweetest, most anticipated part of my day. The great nestling in before the long awaited stretch of…well…silence! Some stories stretched over many nights and were heartwarming and thought provoking, while others were short, laugh out loud crazy tales that had us gigging until our sides hurt. One of the stories that we read over and over again was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst. Maybe it was that my first-born is named Alexander. Maybe it was because we could relate to moving house when we didn’t particularly want to move…again. Maybe it was because we can all relate to having days that don’t seem to go as we had planned or hoped.

 

In his great poem of lament, Jeremiah expresses the pain of one all too familiar with living through days where all of his hopes have been dashed. Jeremiah’s cry in Lamentations 3 is truly one of despair. He declares in verses 17-18, “My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, ‘My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.’” I don’t think there is a deeper place of pain to endure than living in the midst of crisis and feeling like all hope from the Lord is lost.

 

Even the non-believing cry out, “God help me!” in times of crisis. If we can’t cry out to God in our times of deepest need, where can we place our hope?

 

Jeremiah feels like all hope is lost precisely because he feels God is to blame for all his adversity. And honestly, doesn’t it feel like that sometimes? “If you had only intervened, God, this wouldn’t have happened.” “Why do you allow this suffering, God?” “If you would only reach out and prove yourself, then I might believe in you.”

 

I love that Jeremiah is brutally honest with God, and it doesn’t stun God in the least. Jeremiah rails, “surely against me He has turned His hand repeatedly all the day…even when I cry out and call for help, He shuts out my prayer.” True, Jeremiah has enjoyed times of deep intimacy with God, so perhaps he has more of a right to this kind of honesty than you or I feel we have. But come on; Jeremiah was devastatingly honest here! Doesn’t it make you expect he will be struck down by lightening?

 

But God doesn’t strike him dead. He allows Jeremiah to express his deepest despair so that in that place, God might meet him afresh.

 

Have you ever experienced such sorrow and hardship that you felt more dead than alive?

 

The picture Jeremiah paints in verses 6-7 reminds me of the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ beloved tale, “A Christmas Carol”. Listen to Jeremiah’s account of his present situation, “In dark places He has made me dwell, like those who have long been dead. He has walled me in so that I cannot go out; He has made my chain heavy.” Can you not picture Jacob Marley roaming the earth, dead not alive, bound in double iron chains, forced to stay in dark places, with no hope of rescue and deliverance? This is the rejection and despair Jeremiah feels from his God.

 

He continues in verse 9 by declaring that it was with intention that God has blocked all his paths and has in fact made his way unknowable. His declaration, “He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked,” is quite a contrast from King Solomon’s words in Proverbs 3: 5-6 where it is promised that if we trust in the Lord and look to Him for guidance in all things that “He will make (our) paths straight.” How do we carry on faithfully following after God when it appears that He is blocking us at every turn?

 

And this is not the only reference in the chapter to God seeming to act contrary to a promise given elsewhere in scripture. Again it is Solomon who proclaims that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe.” But that’s not exactly Jeremiah’s experience, is it? Jeremiah says that God “has bent His bow and set (him) as a target for the arrow.” Have you ever felt like you were God’s target practice rather than His beloved whom He would protect and keep safe?

 

Not only does Jeremiah feel like God is blocking his progress and using him for target practice, but he feels like God is intentionally deceiving him. Have you ever felt like that? Like God just couldn’t be trusted? The image I get here is of the Lord approaching Jeremiah in his anguish, offering him something to eat—to nourish and sustain him. And with an open heart and an open hand, Jeremiah takes a mouthful of the food God presents to him. No sooner does he bite down than he realizes he has been deceived. This isn’t food at all. “He has broken my teeth with gravel!” How do you restore relationship with the One who is to be your protector when it appears to your mind that He knowingly deceived you in order to harm you?

 

Perhaps you have experienced times of unemployment, sickness and disease, financial disaster, estrangement from family or friends, or the death of a loved one. Or perhaps you have even had to endure some terrible combination of all of these challenges at the same time. When we encounter such desolate times that it seems God has removed His hand of blessing from us, it is all too easy to forget what we know of God from scripture and feel like God is actually acting against us.

 

And when we feel that even God is against us, we can, like Jeremiah, be overcome by a terrible sense of shame because of the destitute state in which we find ourselves. Jeremiah acknowledges that in his present state he has “become a laughingstock to all (his) people.” Like Jeremiah, we see the look of pity in others’ eyes, and wonder if those feelings of pity are not in fact shifting to thoughts of disdain for our impoverished state. After all, doesn’t everyone like a winner?

 

Jeremiah responds as any of us would. His “strength has perished and so has (his) hope from the Lord.” When we experience devastating loss, where one blow hits after another, our strength will naturally falter. And when it does, it is all too easy to focus on our difficulties and lose any real sense of hope of things ever changing for the better.

 

In his classic novel “A Separate Peace”, John Knowles observes, “Now, in this winter of snow…I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before, that sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn’t make yourself over between dawn and dusk.” Can you relate? Have you ever longed for change but felt hopeless instead?

 

And then, as if awakening from a very bad dream, Jeremiah interrupts his lament in verses 20-21 as he instructs his soul to speak truth to his mind. Jeremiah declares, “Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.” What is it that Jeremiah’s soul remembers and what is it that his soul recalls to his mind that brings him such hope? Precisely this…

 

“The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I have hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.”

 

When things look bleak, and there appears to be no way out, it is time for our usually less-active soul to speak to our always over-active mind the truth about our God.

 

Our God is compassionate and faithful, loving and kind beyond all measure. And His mercies are new every morning, just like the manna that would mysteriously appear every morning in the desert for the wandering children of Israel. So while our particular situation may not have changed between dusk and dawn, His mercies are there, fresh, every morning to meet us in that place of suffering, disappointment, and pain.

 

Jeremiah’s soul reminds his mind one of the greatest promises from God, that the Lord is his portion. This little word is packed with powerful meaning. In Biblical terms, one’s portion is one’s inheritance. When Jeremiah declares that God is his portion, he is reminding himself that he is but a sojourner on earth; his real destiny is his eternal destiny with God. And God has promised Jeremiah an eternal inheritance with Him.

 

No matter how bleak life may seem, our inheritance in God transcends all else. This is what truly gives Jeremiah hope despite the intense emotional and physical pain and searing loss that he is encountering.

 

The same promise of an eternal inheritance is available not just to Jeremiah, but to all who believe in the Lord Jesus. And that is our real source of hope.

 

So when times of suffering, hardship, or disappointment threaten to undo you, that is the time for your soul to practice speaking to your mind the truths about God and the incredible hope we have in Him.

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