I Like Big Buts…

 

Psalm 13
O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?

    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
    Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.

But I trust in your unfailing love.
    I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
    because he is good to me.

The words of this Psalm seem so tender to me.  I can think of months… years… when my prayers sounded just like this.  Hard times find us all.  And when we are in the midst of them, it seems as if God is so very far away, that he has forgotten us.  Psalms of Lament (like Psalm 13) make up almost 1/3 of the Psalms in the Bible.  Clearly, God wants us to know that it is ok to come to Him with our pain.  To cry out in the midst of the situation, to bemoan the hard place you have found yourself in.

I love that we serve a God that gives us permission to be in pain. I love that we serve a God big enough to handle our heartbreak, our fears, even our selfish concerns.  I love that in the Psalms, He models for us what it looks like to lay yourself out before God, exactly how you are.  No artifice, no pretending.

However, in the times I have spent in this place, I have noticed that I can become myopic.  We get so stuck on our story and our situation that we lose the greater picture.  Our prayers become smaller, and, eventually, lose focus on God and become completely focused on ourselves.

It is in this, too, that the Psalms of Lament can be our example.  Because, in their formula, there is always a common thread…

a big BUT.

But I will trust in your unfailing love.  I will rejoice because you have rescued me.  I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me.  

Remember.  The Psalmist is still in the midst of the pain.  There is no rescue in sight.  And still, the ‘but’ remains.  In the midst of the darkness, he is affirming what he knows to be true.  That we serve a powerful God.  One who loves us with unfailing love.  He celebrates a rescue that seems far away and still incomplete.  He chooses to sing of the Lord’s goodness in the midst of the darkness.

That’s one pretty big but.

What is the difference between a lament and a complaint?

That is a question that was posed in my Sunday School class a few weeks ago.  And, truly, I think that the primary difference is the presence of a but.  We can lament, while still affirming God’s sovereignty.  We can mourn, while still acknowledging a Plan that is at work.

When we complain, we forget to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness, and we get lost in our own pain.  We are limited by our own perspective. Our story ceases to be The Story, but becomes our own story, smaller, diminished.  We don’t choose to believe in the redemption that is coming, both for us as individuals, but also us as a People of God.

Buts are important.  Crucial even.

 

 I like big buts.  And I cannot lie.

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even in darkness

139

I had a conversation a few weeks ago where someone asked me what I thought about times in one’s life when you don’t feel God’s presence as strongly as you once did.  While the person seemed to be asking me an open ended question, I felt the tension of needing to give the ‘right answer’.  I knew that what I was supposed to say is that when you feel far from God, you just grit your teeth, double down, and wrestle your way back into the Light.  So, in my shame and cowardice, that is what I said.

But here is the truth.

I am in that place- the valley.  I have been for a while now.  And right now, today, I don’t have the strength, or even the desire to pull myself up by my bootstraps.  I’m weary.  I’m battered.  And, paradoxically, I am okay with it.

Because here in this valley, I am in the process of learning one of the most valuable lessons I have ever been given.

Though I may waver, God is faithful.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord.
 You go before me and follow me.
    You place your hand of blessing on my head.
 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too great for me to understand!
Psalm 139:1-6

Me? I am fickle.  I am bound by circumstance and perspective.  My view on life, on God, on everything, is bound by time and situation.  I can’t see my way out of this place.  Also- I am tired.  My days are consumed with watching small children, with holding down a full time job, with walking the dog, and doing the dishes, and the dozens of other small obligations that seem to crowd into my life.  When I reach the end of my day, I am just as often crashing into bed feeling like I narrowly escaped catastrophe as I am going to sleep with a prayer on my lips.  Right now I do not have the time, quiet, or capacity to be pursuing God like I ought to be.  Like I want to be

…and that is okay…

You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.
Psalm 139:16

Because God never changes.

His love for me is unwavering. No matter how I act, no matter what I do, His love for me remains.  Because Love is knit into His character just as firmly as fallibility is woven into mine.  God’s love is not based on merit, on effort, or on intentions.  It is based upon the fact that we are His beloved children, created by Him and treasured by him.

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
    They cannot be numbered!
I can’t even count them;
    they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
    you are still with me!
Psalm 139 17:18

I am, by nature a do-er.  I grew up in a family known for their good works.  My temptation is always to view my worth in terms of my worthiness in terms of what I have done to deserve love, to deserve mercy, and (let’s be honest) to deserve applause.  Living life in a day to day race to the finish line makes me feel as if I am somehow not measuring up.  When a day goes by and my Bible remains unread, I imagine it glaring at me from the nightstand, resentfully neglected.    When the pile of Christian Living books on my bookshelf is covered by a layer of dust, I see this as physical evidence of my unworthiness, of my failure as a disciple.

And yet, when I read scripture, this is simply not true.  God’s love for me is not tied to my efforts.  Who I am, my identity in Christ, is hidden in something much more solid than my own efforts.  I am a child of God.  Dearly loved.  Redeemed.  Delighted in. Known.  Seen.  Treasured.  None of this depends upon or even reflects what I do to deserve it.

I am beginning to feel that this time of darkness is truly a blessing.  Though I don’t always feel competent successful in this phase of life, I can come to rest on the truth that God’s love is built on the solid truth of who HE is, not on the capricious reality of who I am at the given moment.

I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
 If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
 even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me.
 I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
   but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you.
Psalm 139:7-12

When you next find yourself in the valley, straining to feel God’s presence, and feeling condemned by your own shortcomings, I invite you to see this as a time of invitation.  A time to rest, to reflect, to intentionally not try to climb your way out.  Instead, join me in the process of waiting and listening.  And trust that God’s love is still there, still unwavering, still the truest thing about you.  For this has been a lesson that is changing my life right now.

Yet also, realize this- when I speak of the valley, I am using present tense.  I think we often view these chapters of life as lessons that need to be learned, or times we need to endure before we can bounce back, invigorated and ready to overcome.  Yes.  I am learning.  Yes, God is speaking.  But, yes.  I am still here in this place.

Often we don’t know the reasons or the answers to why things happen to us.  And that is yet another time when the big-ness of God can be a comfort.  For he knows I am here.  I am not forgotten.  Though I may not feel the closeness with God that I crave, though I may not feel the delight I once felt, I know God is there.  And for now, that will have to be enough.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Psalm 139:23-24