Sunday, 15 January 2017

Thy Victory Singing

I used to pray that God would protect me, and by that I meant protect me from hurt and harm. He didn't, and I felt betrayed by that. I didn't know how to interpret his seeming refusal to help me. It seemed to me that God wanted me to be high and holy, untouched by petty things like emotions...yet I couldn't seem to get there.

It's easy to think that God doesn't really know much about hurt. Of course, he suffered on the cross, which was pretty painful, but after all, he is all-powerful and all-good. He can choose the hard good because he wants it. Nothing is imposed on him, and his good desires make him free from the struggle we so often have between what we know is good and what we want. It seems that the things that hurt us don't really have power over him.

But we don't have the smallest inkling of how it hurts to love. To love deeply and well, to give and not expect in return, to accept the deliberate hurt along with the thoughtless slight, to accept not being known and loved back - and keep on loving - stretches the fabric of omnipotence, and omniscience, and Goodness. It stretches all that God is right out to the breaking point...and still he does not break. He does not release himself from the hurt. He bears the tension of it, and his beauty and His glory are revealed in his continuing to love those who defy him, or worse, the indifferent.

God hurts as we cannot imagine hurting. His pain is not less because he does not run from it; it is deeper and more awful than we would ever agree to.

We who would know God must learn something of his hurting heart. We cannot understand his wisdom or his strength or his great, warm heart without being torn apart by the things that made him the Man of Sorrows.

O break my heart; break it victorious God,
That life’s eternal well may flash abroad;
O let it break as when the captive trees,
Breaking cold bonds, regain their liberties;
And as thought’s sacred grove to life is springing,
Be joys, like birds, their hope, Thy victory singing. —Thomas Toke Bunch

Our hurt, and our willingness to hurt, are precious to God. He wants our emotions and our weakness and our deep shame; he wants our brokenness; he wants us to have them, and to be willing to be torn by them, and to lay them down before him. There are ways to escape hurt, ways to cover weakness - but in our hurt we learn God's broken-open heart...that heart that knelt in Gethsemane and wept and begged and yet bowed all of its questions and fears and laid them at the feet of him who is called Love. We learn the cost of all he gives, and all he lets us give. It wasn't being able to run away that gave Jesus victory; it was the will to bow. This is our victory too.

Here's the thing: we only know what God is giving us, and its value, when we experience the cost of giving it. The maturity that grows out of wrenching hurt is what lets us receive things of value, and know what they are, and understand what it has cost God to give them. Love is willingness to hurt. Hurt lets us know what love is. The great, deep hurt of loving is ultimately what allows us to receive the thing that will heal us. What a paradox.

Yes, God's holiness and his goodness and his relentless love will stomp all over us, and we will bleed. But, oh - we shall know God. And will he not heal us? Let us go to him, afraid by times, and crying by times. Let us go to him. Let us share the deep, hurt heart of the One who Loves.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Hurt and Hope in the Upside-Down Kingdom of Jesus Christ

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 3:45)
I guess the truth is that I'm afraid. Afraid that God won't be all that he claims he is. Afraid that the unimaginable good he gives will turn out to be disappointing - something less satisfying than the good I can imagine. (I forget that all the good I can imagine has come to me from God's own hand. I forget that, having given his only Son, there is no good that God can withhold from me.)

When life starts to hurt, I start to think, "What am I doing wrong?" Job's friends came to him with the same question. The reasoning is powerful: since God doesn't punish unjustly, if it hurts, you must be doing something to deserve it. Only hurt isn't always punishment.

There are lots of things that hurt when you are doing them right.

Like forgiveness, for example. I don't know where I got the idea that forgiveness is supposed to feel soft and smooth, warm and wafting, effortless - a wave of peace and love that washes over the heart, healing wounds. No, forgiveness is the disinfectant spray your Mom used to put on an already-painful cut. Forgiveness is having someone punch you and not punching back. And not asking someone else to punch back. It hurts. All you can think about is how much it hurts, and even that is not the end - the lies come thick and clamourous, sharp with the mocking accusation that you are the weak one, the fool. Oh, forgiveness hurts the most when you are doing it right.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:10)
I will bow myself. I will accept hurt, and fear, and seeming failure. Jesus is here, and he leads the way.  I am all raging and trembling inside, and a new fear arises - that I will stumble and fall here, and then have nothing. I hold to God and beg him to hold on to me.

The answer is, of course, that he is holding on to me. The fact that I long for him is the result of his drawing.

I am not the first to fear this way. Joseph, stuck in prison, waited for the vindication God had promised him, but he lost heart and begged his fellow-prisoner for help. John the Baptist sent Jesus a question from his own prison cell, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" I am not the first to fear. I am not the first to wonder if I have come the wrong way, after all.

Why am I afraid? I thought that peace would come with placing myself in God's hand, in choosing forgiveness instead of bitterness, in letting go of my way, in choosing love over pride and grace over vengeance. But sin and self in me have risen up and they wage war against my will. Jesus will overcome, but just now, I am at war.

The way of Jesus is backward and upside-down. It runs counter to my self-preserving instinct and my culture and my comfort-loving heart.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
I don't know when God's work with me will start to make sense, but I hold onto him...and that means he is holding onto me.
 “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” ― C.S. Lewis
Surely Jesus who died will make things right.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Tedious Grief

The nation of the awful stars,
The wandering star whose blaze is brief,
These make me beat against the bars
Of my grief;
My tedious grief, twin to the life it mars.

O fretted heart tossed to and fro,
So fain to flee, so fain to rest!
All glories that are high or low,
East or west,
Grow dim to thee who art so fain to go. (from Fluttered Wings, C. Rossetti)
I am always watching,
always on the lookout for some new way of thinking;
some different way of seeing
that will make sense of this strange grief I feel.
Why strange, when it has been so long?
By now, how is it that this is not yet familiar?
Why grief, when I have lived with less and yet been satisfied?

Why still this sudden emptiness,
this sense of loss?
What have I lost?

Everywhere there is preaching, advice
(I can't complain - I seek it out)
There are answers, smooth and pat and trite
Neat boxes of experience, tied up with bows
People eager to explain what they had not known
People full of contrition now
(I see them in my mind, all wisely nodding)
They had not understood;
had sought the things that pleased themselves -
our Father rescued them.
The hurt is over now, because they see aright

Why can't I see? What is waiting to happen before my healing comes?

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tasting Bitterness

The only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-up... But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
To young eyes, the glory of adulthood lies in freedom. I remember my longing, as a child, to grow up and be free to do as I pleased. Now that I am indisputably a grown-up, I do take satisfaction in my freedom, and I would resent its loss - but freedom is not all. There are deeper glories than children know. The taste for sweet comes naturally even to babies and taste for bitter things is rarely developed in children, but I have come to find that the bitter can, after all, be a better kind of satisfying than the sweet.

All the things my father told me again and again when it seemed I wasn't listening, I hear them in my head. His and my mother's are the voices that converse in my mind, where I am ever a teenager, caught between a comfortable past to which I cannot return and the beckoning promise of freedom in adulthood, always just out of reach. "With freedom comes responsibility," my parents said, and so say their echoing voices, over and over again. It is more than a maxim: there is Truth inside.
I thought of it then as costs and benefits: freedom the benefit, to be gotten for as low a price as possible. I didn't know that responsibility itself could be something savoured.

I recently read Matthew Aughtry's discussion of this paradox in his analysis of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia:
"She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can." (C. S. Lewis, Narnia)
Lewis’ indictment of Susan feels apt for our own culture, which seems to idolize the idea of being young and independent forever without the responsibility that comes with independence or the sense of wonder that comes with being young...
Susan is not the only one of the Pevensies to make this critical error; Edmund also put more stock in being grown-up than in acting like an adult... Edmund betrays his family to the White Witch because he is enticed by her offer of rooms full of endless Turkish Delight... The Witch says that he can be the King when she dies and until then he will be a prince who “would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long.” Since the White Witch is immortal (or at least lives much longer than human beings), one can deduce that Edmund would actually be a perpetual prince, stuffing his face with dessert and never donning the true crown. Edmund’s temptation and Susan’s failure are similar: to be considered adults without accepting responsibility and to reign forever as a prince or princess without ever feeling the crown’s weight.

Glory is something that has weight. It is not flung about the shoulders as the superhero capes children imagine themselves wearing. We need muscle and sinew and deep moral strength to bear real glory, and those mean pain and patience and going forward when we'd rather not. We, like Edmund, are always tempted to sell ourselves out for candies. Eagerly we (I!) would trade in bitterness for sweet - not knowing that the price we pay for things is, oddly, its own reward; that the joy of adulthood lies not just in the freedom that beckons us as children, but also in bearing the weight of responsibility, in sacrifice, in the hurt that tears us apart and yet builds in us something of a value we can't yet know.

The biblical Joseph dreamed of reigning over his older brothers, who hated and ignored him. To his childish mind, the sweetness of the dream lay in his vindication before those who failed to value him. When he became king as an adult, the pleasure of being vindicated paled beside the satisfaction he took in the work, the weight of responsibility, and the opportunity to give good even to those who had hurt him. Joseph learned as a slave and a prisoner what he never could have learned as a prince: how to love past hurt, how to look past the present, how in suffering it is possible to see the face of God.

We all know, somehow, that we were made to be kings, but we grasp so little of what that means that we go willingly when drawn by the whispered lie that our destiny lies behind the protection of castle walls, that our satisfaction lies in desserts and playthings, and so we hide from danger and dirt and hard decisions and use our adult freedom to indulge childish longings for sweets. We become "perpetual princes", never the wise, battle-strong kings we were meant to be. Like Esau, we sell our birthrights and rage over the loss of muttered blessings.

I am not so grown up that I understand it all, nor are my tastes so refined that I am able to know and relish real Good. But I have come to taste that there is more, and to know that bitterness has its own flavour and its own joy. Even knowing this, I still don't want pain. I am easily tired in my heart, and I am strangely more quick to run from hurt than ever before. But I see in truth what I could only philosophize before: that all breaking is not empty; sometimes it's a shell that cracks, and there is a nut inside. I have yet to find the purpose in my own breaking. I am all cracks and wincing and tearing apart. But I am less a child now, and I have hope that there is a goodness in this bitterness that has come to me that is somehow more than the sweetness I desire.

Someday I will see Jesus, and I will know him by his scars. He is no far-off God, benevolently dropping down blessings in response to pious prayers. He knows my hurt as no god ever has ever claimed to know it. But we are bound together not only by his suffering. So I know his heart, too, loving past the hurt. Each of us, in our own wounding, knows the other. I will go to that One who sacrificed for me, but I will not go only as a child wondering at his gift to me. No, I will also go in the glory of adulthood, weak though I am, bearing my own sacrifice, and there will be no need to explain its paucity or inadequacy. He knows the cost of these things.
...that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death... (Philippians 3:10)

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:3)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:43-45)

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Complicated Story

Today was a difficult day. Yes, again. I went to do a demo lesson at a private school I have been interested in working at for some time. I had an interview a couple of weeks ago and it went well. But I woke up feeling discouraged and crummy and tired. Then my multimedia presentation wouldn’t load on the computer. After the class, the school’s director told me he was really disappointed that I wasn’t more creative. I cried all the way home. There’s no one to talk it through with, and I am just so – so - tired of not being quite good enough. Everything is tangled together in my head, and I want to sort out which part is my fault and which part is God’s choice for me – but you can’t separate those things. It all runs together and mingles and the only answer is that God is good, and he will choose the way for me.
And now I sit here in the dim of my apartment – mine for another eleven days – and I wonder: what is faith, anyway? If I say I trust God, but my heart is full of fear and discouragement, is that faith? If I choose to believe in his goodness, even though I have neither power behind that belief, nor joy to confirm it, is it still faith? God knows my heart. He knows that I choose him, even when my whole heart roils with The Question. Yes, that one: Why?
Nevertheless, he is the One to whom I direct my questions. Isn’t that a kind of faith?
A few days ago I was reading 2 Samuel 16 and 17 – chapters full of loss and betrayal, and discouragement. Ziba, Mephibosheth’s steward, had come to David with donkeys and bread, raisins, figs, and wine – and news that his master, Jonathan’s son, had betrayed David. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t remember what happens next in the story. Mephibosheth? I kept asking in my mind. Surely Jonathan’s son could never betray David. Surely he must remember the mercy David had showed him for his father’s sake. Usually I know the endings of the Old Testament stories long before I get there. I’ve heard and read them all before. I kept going through my memory, trying to find something related to Mephibosheth being an ungrateful traitor, but it was blank. I was unexpectedly disturbed at such a picture. What a relief it was to read a little further on that it was Ziba who had lied. (David. You and I both believed him!) But then Shimei comes out, pelting David – the king! - with stones and cursing him, and when Abishai wants to cut off his head, David tells him to leave the man alone in case God is the one telling him to curse. After all, he reasons, Absalom, his own son, is trying to kill him.
David then said to Abishai and all his officials, "My son, my own flesh and blood, is trying to kill me. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. (2 Samuel 16:11)
And then, as if that were not enough, Hushai, David’s confidant, goes to Absalom and says, “Long live the king!”
Absalom said to Hushai, "So this is the love you show your friend? If he's your friend, why didn't you go with him?" (2 Samuel 16:17)
Here is where I cried. How can Hushai leave his friend? Why is David allowed to experience such abandonment? Again, with real relief I read about Hushai’s plan in the next chapter. He pretends to be against David, but his real purpose – and God’s – is to give Absalom bad military advice and maintain David’s right to rule. Phew, right? Wrong. God’s purpose is also to allow Absalom to die.
God allows Absalom to fight David. He allows Absalom to die. He allows Mephibosheth and Hushai to look like traitors. It’s a bit of a mess to understand, really. Absalom’s rebellion is partly David’s fault. He has been a lenient and careless father. Mephibosheth’s loyalty, however comes to him in response to his care for his friend Jonathan and for Jonathan’s son. David responds poorly to the Mephibosheth situation, but then he is human and broken and full of fatherly love at his son’s death. It seems he isn’t either a good guy or a bad guy.
But though the story twists and turns as it is told, God never lost control. He chose seeming and real betrayal for David again and again. He hurt David and rescued him. Nevertheless, the story was always in God’s own hand.
So is my story. I'm tired. I'm lonely. I don't know how much of this is my own fault, and how much is God's grace working in ways that are hard to understand. I don’t know what my future is or who my friends really are, but God does. I’m not sure what faith is, really, but regardless of what I feel, I am in God’s hand. He will untangle the threads and make them all tell his story.

Monday, 27 October 2014

As The Ruin Falls

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains. (C.S. Lewis)
God wants my heart, broken. On the outside and to me it seems cruel, even senselessly so. But I believe that He who loves me best breaks to build. He empties to fill. He is tearing me apart, but I believe that he will build me up again. Who but He really knows this long, long hurt and the tearing and the emptiness in me? Who but He could choose this for me? Who but He could have the restraint and the wisdom to sit silently and wait with me in the dark, and resist the urge to comfort, to undo my breaking? Oh, it is a mystery. Yet Jesus who wept can never leave me alone. Jesus who bowed himself in the dirt and sweat and bled and cried - and asked "Why?" - He can be trusted with all that belongs to me.

And yet here, in the middle of all my hurt and my embarrassing weakness, I am hard pressed to give thanks with my heart. My faith is a groan, not a song. How to reconcile this desperate trapped flapping of mine with the freedom I have known in Christ?

My confusion cannot change the truth: He is working in me and for me. This breaking is blessing. Jesus of the Scars is the One who stays his hand from rescuing me. God-With-Us metes out my wounding. I don't know why He gives this. I don't know the reason for his silence, nor can I understand why He waits to change me. It is mysterious, but so is the truth that those who have not known emptiness never know the real joy of fullness, and only those who have been deeply humbled can be trusted to carry the great things that belong to God.

I trust Him. I trust Him. I will let him break me all apart. I will cry out all my tears into the bottle that God himself keeps. I will gather together all my broken pieces to worship Jesus the Wounded.

Lord, give me bravery bigger than the hard things. Give me long patience to wait for You all through this breaking. Send me faith that sees the light beyond this darkness. I will trust You for the future, but hold me as the ruin falls. I'm falling too: speak Your peace to me. Remind me that there is a Man beside You who bears nail prints in His hands. Tell me again how the slain Lamb reigns, and He waits for those He loves, and He is our all our shield and sun. 

And for this hopethank You. Let all my folding up and falling in lead me into such freedom and light.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

No Promise But Jesus

This was a hard week. A week full of trying and going forward and falling again. A week marked by rejection and deep-inside-weariness. Don't think it's just other people pulling me down - my number one enemy is my own weak and treacherous heart. You can't run away from yourself.

When my hurt seems to go on and on, and hope burns low, I think about Joseph sitting in that prison for years, and Abraham waiting around for a son until his life was almost all drained out, and I take heart again. "But," always comes the sidling whisper, "They could wait. Joseph had his dreams, and Abraham his promise..." And again I am undone. It's true that I have neither dream nor promise. Nothing tangible. Nothing to hold to.

"No promise but me." The voice of him who is Truth.

I have no dream. I have no promise...except who Jesus is. Jesus who knows the indignity of being tired and dirty and sad. Jesus the reject, the criticized, the used. I have what Joseph and Abraham never had.

I will hold tight to Emmanuel, the God who wept. He sees my long, long struggle, and my often failure. He will give me his good. I will remember: his mercy endures.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Way God Hurts

Oh God, I know that you afflict
in love,
and I would bear this hurt
and give you thanks -
but I am weak and flopping,
and I don't know how to do what I would

How can I blame you - you who hurt for me?
Yet it is hard to understand the way
God hurts
Because you are strong -
you chose your hurt, but I could not choose this
Give me the love that makes strong
enough to hurt

If I loved you better, I could seek you (and not the comfort
you can give)
Yet how?
I am trapped within myself - bound by my own lack of love
and made small by my own in-turned self

Rescue me
and let me love you;
make me brave to bear.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

When You're on the Ground

"Even your God won't drop life in your lap," he said. 
"If you keep having problems, you should ask yourself if the problem is you," she said.
"You should be thankful for what you have. You have no real problems," she said.
They were trying to help, not hurt. And every word they spoke was true. But, oh. On a day when I am struggling to hold back the tears.
They say nothing really shuts you down
Quite like shame, it kicks you when you’re on the ground
Even with your good intentions
You always seem to lose against it (Jason Gray, Love's Not Done With You)
Must my weakness be so evident, so open to comment? Will I ever be strong enough, warmed enough inside, to bear the coldness of this place? Will I ever have enough grace? Where is that Comforter I have known? I have come this far, and how is it that I am so suddenly, awfully ridiculous, and so weak?

God knows. He knows the coldness that grips me, the emptiness that howls. He knows the reason I am here. There is a reason, firm and rich and full and worthy, for this senselessness, this confusion, this loss, this humiliation. I will trust in Him. I will wait here with Him. I will trust that He knows both the cost and the value of this hurt of mine.

These days, I am too often wretched and desperate and clawing, aware of only my own pain, and clumsy, awkward with the way I deal with others. I have struggled and fought to overcome, to give love when I am sore and empty - but everything is twisted, rotten at the core. The dim is all around, and it is hard to even see my own heart. I try to do good, but there is so little love in it that it falls in pieces as soon as I withdraw my hand. And sometimes I am fooled into thinking I can give a gift, but I am filled with such awful expectation when it's given that it is not a gift at all, and I am overcome with regret that I have tried. When, through exercise of will, I am able to tear out and hand over a shred of self, it is misunderstood and rejected, and I am left more bitter than before. Oh, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 

I am ashamed and tired, and I don't know where to hide my hideous self. I am full of grief, but I have lost nothing - yet I am full of emptiness. I know my thinking is wrong. I could give myself all the advice people long to give me, but it's useless. I have no power, no strength, no understanding. Where is Jesus, to rescue me?

He will use this, too, for good. He will love me back to life.

God! Let this make me gentle, not cold and dull, to others' pain! Burn off the sharpness and the selfish anger that pour out of me, and overcome my spewing hate, and love me into soft, warm, kindness. Let Jesus overcome me, and change me, and live in me.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Past Finding Out

They say the truth will set you free
But I have sought the Truth
And here I am in chains,
If truth be told.
Where is God?
His ways are past finding out
And there is no one else beside;
I only wait for Him.
Why does He hide himself?
I cannot tell.
I only know that He is Love, and that
The enemy is cruel and he bombards my broken places
Till they ooze loss and ugliness;
To tell the truth, and not what ought to be
I have no grace,
And I am all in pieces.
Where is my escape? Or if there is no escape, then
Where is the strength that only God can give?
Why will He leave me bleeding here,
And yet refuse to slay me?
Oh, where is He?
But Jesus cried. And Jesus was alone. And Jesus, King of Heaven, took on shame.
It's baffling.
He is not far,
And yet I fail to find
The grace, the help that I expected in this place.
Where is God?
I know the answer,
And I could write it, smooth and neat, on an exam:
The Man of Sorrows knows my grief, and
God is here with me, close to the broken-hearted,
And I should not forget that He who Loves is working for me
Better than I can imagine.
All this is true; I know it in my deep heart's core
Yet I am full of emptiness
And grace is given to others, not to me
And I am broken-hearted,
Lost, and weary, disappointed in myself -
After all this time.
Oh, where is God?
I cannot bear the waiting -
Hope drags hard and grace has gone
And I wish I could be one of the strong, sweet ones
But I can't
(I thought that He would help me!)
Nor can I find the door that would eject me from this purgatory,
This anxious waiting, empty-handed and ashamed:
When I would give up hope, my heart will not!
It cries and cries to Him - that Man of Sorrows,
Surely He will hear the cry of one for whom he bled!
Though I fail Him; though I stumble in the darkness; though I fall-
Jesus, whose strong love made him full of tears
And too weak to bear a cross all the way to Calvary
(Yet he was strong to die)
Must come to me
He will not fail!
I wait for Him to rise
Triumphant over mocking enemies
And put all my broken pieces back into one
As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)