Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shadows and Scriptures

The world isn't easy. Life is often dark and dingy. It looks pretty good until the sun shines in, illuminating the dust filling the room. It's a mess.

The Ukraine and Russia. The Middle East. Ferguson, Missouri, the homeless on my street, and my heart skips a beat. You can't escape the brokenness. The world's fallen and down to my own problems that now seem so small, and sometimes it's overwhelming, I'm suffocating in the messiness of it all. Crying, where and why.

I am comforted that we are not alone in the valley of the shadow of death. But I wonder, too, why is there a darkest valley? Why must the world be covered in shadow and grief?

Why does a good God allow a dark valley. It just doesn't seem fair.

And it my own little world, where my small problems seem so big, I wonder why it doesn't get better. When I spend time every day in prayer or reading the Bible, pouring through blog posts and theological books, why do I often feel alone? Why do I find myself struggling for joy, when it used to be bright world I lived in and now often feels like a window I only get to glance through, taste the light for a moment before the blinds are shut.

But I'm praying. I'm reading Scripture each day. I'm doing all the right things, so why don't I get the results I want?

A few weeks ago I journaled,

"I feel like I'm being broken so I can be built up. Life just feels infinitely harder recently. I'm struggling to find my identity in Christ, to be filled with joy and thankfulness, to live changed by the Cross. Yet I'm praying, reading scripture, having a quiet time...and often God feels far away or He's there and we're talking, but I still feel like I'm sinking and I don't know why He won't pull me out. I feel like He's just talking to me, not acting. I need rescue. Even though sometimes I resist it. I need Him to rescue me even on the days when I think I don't want Him to. But maybe that's the process. Growth is painful and humility takes work and I'm being torn down to be rebuilt. If beauty comes from ashes maybe I still need to burn. And I feel like that's something God is speaking to me as I asked why He wasn't just helping me and why life feels so hard and His love so difficult to grasp. And He said, "I am." In the sense that He has to break me first...Maybe I need this season of feeling incapable of joy and fulfillment in Christ to realize how much I can't do it myself. I guess what it comes down to is that I've asked Him to make me His, totally free and fulfilled in His love, no matter what it would take to get me there. And I said I knew it would be hard and painful, but I want to be brought to my knees before Him. My everything must be rooted in Him and I need His help to get me there. It feels like I'm doing a lot on my own right now, and maybe that's part of the process. I don't know why He would make me do this alone right now. Maybe it's to help me really, truly see that I cannot do this life on my own and I really do very desperately need His grace to cover my sins, His strength to cover my weakness. He is Lord. He must be Lord. And I can't pick and choose what and when I surrender, I have to surrender it all."

There ya go, my dose of vulnerability for the week, a peek into the scribbled pages of my soul.

A few days later, rather arbitrarily, I decided to read through Lamentations. There's a passage I've always loved and I wanted to read through it again,

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end; 
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. 
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

It's one of those nice, feel-good verses where you highlight just that one part and forget about what's before and what comes after. At least that's how I'm tempted to read my Bible. Find the pretty passages that sound nice on a pillow and forget about the mess of sin. 

So this time I payed a bit more attention to the whole passage. This is a bit of Lamentations 3. It's long, so I won't copy it all here, but I strongly encourage you to read the entire passage.

I am the man who has seen affliction
    under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
    again and again the whole day long.

though I call and cry for help,
    he shuts out my prayer; 

17 my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness[a] is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.”

21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
28 Let him sit alone in silence
    when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
    there may yet be hope;
31 For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men.

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
39 Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?
40 Let us test and examine our ways,
    and return to the Lord!

44 you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
    so that no prayer can pass through.
45 You have made us scum and garbage
    among the peoples.

“I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
56 you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
    your ear to my cry for help!’
57 You came near when I called on you;
    you said, ‘Do not fear!’
58 “You have taken up my cause, O Lord;
    you have redeemed my life.

I'm not sure who wrote Lamentations, but he clearly experienced intense grief, torment, pain, loneliness. He sought the Lord and did not hear from Him. It says God shut out the prophet's prayers. He lacked peace, he forgot what happiness was. Yet in spite of all this, he finds hope in the Lord's steadfast love. Despite feeling alone, and knowing that might never end, the Lord's goodness and mercy never ceased. His faithfulness still great. 

The nice feel-good passage about God's love and faithfulness is preceded by the prophet being alone, even losing hope in God. Then he remembers and calls to mind the greatness of God. And yet still after this, acknowledges there are times of great suffering, loneliness when it seems God has turned His back and is simply silent. 

So what is our job? Is it to just read the nice passages you can hang on your wall and cross-stitch onto a pillow to give away at a wedding? Or is it to seek God, regardless of circumstance. 

The prophet talks about how he has been mangled and attacked, without rescue or comfort or help from the Lord. His prayers have gone unanswered, he has been shut out. Yet the prophet still finds hope, because of the unfailing truth of who God is and because of a trust in a bigger picture. It's easy to "trust" God when times are easy, but hardships, times of silence, that determines true faith and trust. 

God isn't good when my life feels nice. God is good because God is good. Regardless of what my life looks like, my God is great, faithful, enduring in love and steadfast in mercy. 

My job is to call that to mind. To find hope in His unfailing mercy. Not because I feel it. Not because I'm constantly joyful. Not because  I have the job and the car and the house. But because His steadfast love says, "do not fear." For He has taken up my cause. He has redeemed my life. No matter what my life looks like, it is redeemed. And in that truth I will stake my ground. I will find my hope and salvation in the Rock that is higher than I.