Sunday, January 20, 2008

From Despair to Hope and Rest

By the time it came to the edge of the Forest, the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly.  For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, “There is no hurry.  We shall get there some day.” 

—A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

On the first warm day of spring this year, I went out to my favorite forest preserve for some quiet reflection.  I followed the bark-chip-laden path, winding through the almost bare trees.  Here and there signs of spring dared to poke through the damp brown: a little green on the forest floor, a few buds, and patches of bright, happy blue-bells heralding the coming of warmer days.  I hiked around the bend when the brown gave way to a great grassy expanse that took my breath away: a new, spring green, a fresh-after-the-storm green, a glowing with dew-jewels green.  Draped around it the quiet stream beckoned.  “There is no hurry,” it seemed to whisper.
 It reminded me of Pooh’s river, which draws a beautiful picture of growing up—and also a picture of our faith growing up, of trusting in God, of learning to rest in Him.  But I find many times that I am more like the “little streams higher up in the Forest, [going] this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it [is] too late.”  I fight, I wrestle, I wonder why God doesn’t act sooner.  Often, I reject His rest.  It is not the gift that I want.  I want change!  I want action!  I want it now!  God offers instead the power, the strength to weather the storm, the deep rest of abiding in Him.

Martin Luther said, “it’s not by reading or writing or speculating that one becomes a theologian; it is rather living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian.”  

I find in his words someone who understands the constant struggle, the testing of life, the questions that come, and the relief of knowing I’m not the only one.  This is the truth he realized when he read Psalm 22:1, later quoted by Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

When I struggle, I often feel as Paul did, hard pressed on every side.  I read the stories of Jesus healing so many, yet live with a husband God has chosen not to heal.  And then my children—how do you read story after story, “Jesus healed…Jesus healed…” and not feel slammed into the wall by the daily “no” you face when your chronic illness is not healed?  Do you hope God’s answer is “not yet?”  Do you wish for the relief of death?  Do you resignedly accept your “fate,” or do you continue to allow yourself to be emotionally beat up by unanswered prayers, hoping this time…  What kind of hope carries you through, carries you beyond? 

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.”   And he wrote this only 3 chapters to the verse after proclaiming in 1:8, “ We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” 

How did Paul go from a deeply despairing man to one who did not despair, who was not crushed, who knew he was not abandoned, and that destruction was not his end?  He continues, “Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers…”

Paul had good reason to despair, who wouldn’t?  He was imprisoned, flogged, and “exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…”  2 Corinthians 11:23-28. 

He despaired—and then he relied on God, gained strength to go on, and found he did not despair.  This is the comfort we pass on one to another.  When we find a God so reliable, so trustworthy, so unmistakably loving and sovereign that we can turn to Him in the most severe trouble, fix our eyes and our purpose on Him, and believe Him when circumstances deny His existence, then we have found the secret of comfort.  And in our prayers and in our love, we can carry a battle-weary brother or sister into the presence of the God who heals us by His wounds.  

The Psalmist cries out,

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?

And Isaiah calls back,

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God’?  Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” —Isa 40:27-31

You can almost feel the river growing, gaining strength as the Psalmist continues,

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, "I have overcome him,"
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me. —Psalm 13

Winter is sometimes very long.  But spring is coming, and the love of our great and sovereign Lord is unfailing.  We know where we are going.  And there is no hurry when we rest beside the quiet stream, where He restores our souls.  

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