Still There

I was hoping for a rainy Sunday, or a federal Monday

for some quiet hum or a morning in bed

for a reposed window seat or a walk down the sidewalk

where no other feet are feeling their way about.

I was putting stock in a change of pace to decrease my heartrate

running is good for the vessel but bad for the blood.

I was counting on a breath of air to refresh my mental state

A/C is good for the clothing but bad for the skin.

I was wanting to go out, or in.

I was hoping for a change of something,

for a change of something,

for a change

in general.

I was trusting in a change of something.

 

Then I got a day off,

and it rained,

and I stayed in bed all day,

and I was still there.

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Unless God Has Spoken

Reminders and prayers when college gets hard.

There is no objectivity
unless God has spoken.
There is no real redemption
unless Christ is risen.
There is no hope of healing
unless there’s an incision.
There is no truth or beauty
without God’s existence.

And the world is a war, waged without waiting for me to wake up.
I’m sleepy from ceaselessly singing my sighs to the silence — speak to me!
Find me in fear, frustration, and f**king things up,
In the midst of the muddiness made by our madness in mushing
Our lies with your truth.
Unmuddle me!

Loneliness lurks, laughing at love and lying about life that’s coming.
I’m tired from trying to take on the task of transforming
The hearts of the hardened, the heads of the half-paying-attentions.
Be with me, bear with me, bring me back to basic things:
Your love of my mess.
Unmangle me!

Because the Lord has spoken,
there is a word that’s certain.
Because the Lord is risen,
I know I am forgiven.
Because there was a piercing,
I know there comes a healing.
Because you are existing,
I’m giving up resisting.

paralyzing failure and God

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go.” 1 Samuel 16:1

To me, how a person responds to failure is one of the truest tests of his or her character – who that person really is.

Samuel served Israel as a judge, priest, and prophet. He was much more than a distant military leader, symbol, or figurehead. “Father figure” is a better way to describe his relationship with the Israelite nation. The Israelites turned to him like children, on the one hand immaturely expecting him to solve their problems for them and acquiesce to their foolish desires, and on the other hand wisely recognizing him as a remarkable leader with a remarkable relationship with God (see 1 Samuel 7:8, 8:5). “I have walked before you from my youth until this day,” he told the people at his farewell address (1 Samuel 12:2).

Samuel was the real thing. He held the nation together as everything was falling apart, leading God’s people with transparency, integrity, and devotion. When the people of Israel demanded that Samuel step aside and replace himself with a king who could lead them militarily and compete with the monarchies of their neighbors, he obeyed, understanding that, fundamentally, their act of rejection was against God, not him. Therefore, he anointed (and thereby identified) Saul as Israel’s first king.

But Saul disobeyed direct commands from God. He became a proud, presumptuous, vindictive man, totally unfit to lead God’s people, much less to hold the title of king (a title previously reserved only for God).

Scripture says, “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul” (1 Samuel 15:35). One can easily infer why Samuel grieved. Saul had transgressed God’s law, disappointed Israel’s hopes, and forfeited his royal title and dynasty. Saul had utterly failed as a leader and as a man of the covenant. To Samuel, it must have felt as if he had failed, too.

To be human is to experience failure. We often treat the two things as synonymous: “You can’t expect everything from her, she’s only human.” “Don’t get ahead of yourself, you’re only human.” In other words, “You are prone to failure and inadequacy simply because you are a human being.” Christian thought associates the undeniable reality of our imperfection with something called The Fall of Man.

When a Christian fails in a major way – or in a minor way, depending on how sensitive the person’s conscience is – there are three levels to it: failing God, failing others, and failing yourself.

Failing God is at once the hardest and the easiest of the three. He asks the most from us and is the least deserving of the offense, but he is also the most ready to forgive. God holds no grudges. Other people are rarely so forgiving, or so eager to repair trust. Perhaps, hardest of all, it is disappointing one’s own inner vision of oneself that hurts the most. “Is this what I really am, after all?” We ask, but we fear the answer.

How do you respond to failure? To letting yourself down? Maybe you wallow. Maybe you allow cynicism to harden your heart, or apathy to atrophy it. Maybe, by giving up on yourself, you give up on God and his promises to make you beautiful in his sight. Maybe, like me, and like Samuel, you simply feel paralyzed. Maybe you cannot stop grieving about Saul, and you have allowed your horn of oil to stay empty for far too long.

God had something to say to Samuel, and he has something to say to you too.

He wants you to know he is pleased when you confess your failures freely, without excuses or attempts at self-justification. What he wants from you is humility and a heart ready to receive grace; what he hates are eyes unwilling to see or lips quick to explain away (cf. Genesis 3:12-13).

Imitating our primeval parents with attempts to hide our failure, whether from God and the angels or mom, dad, and the world, is the last thing we should do when confronted with our own inadequacies. Running to Jesus (and Jesus alone) for the confidence to be transparent before even the harshest judging eyes is really the only thing for us. The cross says: you have nothing left to prove to God. With acceptance from the everlasting God, total vulnerability before our fellow mortals is the only thing that makes sense.

God is present in strength and success. He grants and blesses them both. He is not absent, however, in weakness and failure. There is truly a sense in which he is even more deeply present, more deeply there, in our weaknesses and failures than in our strengths and successes. We are closer to God at the end of our ropes than anywhere else.

The deepest mysteries of the gospel – the incarnation, when God became a man, and the atonement, when God died – speak of lowering, humbling, weakness, apparent defeat, and death. The gospel itself is the precedent for claiming God is deeply present in our failures and intensely near to us when we come to the end of ourselves. We are weak, but he is strong. Paul said it like this:

But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Not longer after, he said,

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 2 Corinthians 13:3-4

We who live with Jesus by the power of God are no longer at liberty to let our failure paralyze us. It precisely when we fail that we know Jesus’ strength, precisely when we disappoint everyone and ourselves that we know Jesus’ sufficiency.

God told Samuel to leave Saul behind, fill his horn with oil, and go. Jesus told Peter to leave his boats behind, “feed his sheep,” make disciples of all nations, and go. The Lord tells us, now, to leave our regrets and our failures behind, cling to him, hold on to our hope, and go forward: his mission in mind, his cross behind.

lessons from the psalms

Of any single book of the Bible, the book of Psalms is perhaps the most quoted, most sung, most prayed, and most memorized. This would be no surprise to its authors. The psalter (the book of “praises” in Hebrew) was the hymnal and book of common prayer for ancient Israel. From Moses straight through to the closing of the Old Testament canon, Israelite believers of all kinds cried out to God through the writing of the psalms.

The psalms contain the full range of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, from overwhelming joy to impassioned sorrow, bristling confidence to crippling insecurity, abandoned worship to withdrawn confusion. No one would call this people Stoic, unemotional, or detached – neither should it ever be said of Christians. The psalmists never thought of the God they worshiped as a distant, irrelevant old man in the sky: he was the center of their universe.

The honesty of the psalms is breathtaking. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible. Sometimes I get disillusioned with church. Sometimes I feel afraid of God. Sometimes I wonder if everything I believe is just a myth, if I really am the self-deluded hypocrite my culture says I am. The psalms, thank God, give me the freedom and the precedent to present these very fears and doubts to God, and to do so with full disclosure. The psalmists’ heartbroken cries of “how long?” and “where are you?” surface again and again. God does not demand that I clean myself up before I come to him. I am poor and needy for mercy and he knows this. The blood of Jesus alone presents me as acceptable to God. As one redeemed and purchased by this blood, I can, I must, be honest and vulnerable before him. He beckons me to come as I am, simply entrusting myself to his grace – amazing.

The psalms do not deny the deep “valleys” of the believer’s life. Rather, they validate these valleys, these times when life feels dark and dangerous, these “dark nights of the soul.” Are you familiar with the “regions dark and deep,” whether spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 88:6? Be comforted. God is familiar with your suffering; he chose to give it a voice in his book some three thousand years ago. He gives it a dignity which no other system of thought quite manages to do.

As amazing and satisfying as the honesty of the psalms is, however, there is something even more. What is truly incredible, and unusual, about these ancient prayers is that there is suffering – with hope. Doubt, with trust. A desperate feeling of abandonment with a resolute confidence in the promise of God’s presence. Over and over the psalmists say: “God, I do not understand what is happening. It looks as if you have abandoned us. I feel lonely, angry, hated, afraid – and yet I know who you are. I know the promises you have made to us. I know you have redeemed my life and I know you are good. Therefore I will praise you still.” That is what living faith looks like. Faith does not deny what it sees and feels or stifle its thoughts and emotions. It does just the opposite. Faith confronts what it sees with what it knows to be true, and decides to find rest in the promises of God.

When the fear and doubt come, which they surely do and surely will, I must also remind myself of the truth I know. I know how Jesus Christ changed my life. I know the testimonies of others. I know that his word alone speaks the words of life and the message of redemption. I remember what God has done for me and I remember what I know of him – and that is enough. I do not need all the answers, as much as I may want them. All I need is to cling to my God, my refuge and my strength. As many times as the cry of “how long” can be heard echoing through its chapters, the true chorus of the psalms is “hallelujah” – praise Yahweh.

If you are not familiar with the book of Psalms, dive in. Read them, pray them, mull them over. Some are not easy to understand, but all of them are wonderfully real. Come to God with empty hands, a broken heart, a guilty conscience; lay these before him and find rest.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. Psalm 116:7