Musings on Unfaith

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Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.

In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.

I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

— Psalm 73:14 NIV

Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.

I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.

Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.

I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.

As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?

I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.

After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.

Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:

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.

Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV

For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
 and my portion forever.

—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV

This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abiding faith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.

So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?

Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.

As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.

* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain

The Sign at the Car Wash

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Every Monday morning my routine is the same: wake up early, go get weekly labs drawn.

I have memorized the routine and the route, so I rarely spot anything new or exciting along the way. Until today! It was at the car wash at the intersection just before we enter the ramp onto the interstate. Their colorful LED SIGN caught my eye. On the sign were words I had never seen on that sign before. The words?

Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not fear, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

— Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Normally, I’m not a big fan of sacred scripture rendered in LED. It seems a bit sacrilegious to me. So why did it catch my eye today? And not only did it catch my eye, it reached right into my deeper place. It poked on my heart and grabbed my spirit today. As I mulled over this passage of scripture over the next few minutes, I determined that it was worth remembering, worth my time to dig a little deeper into what it means and why it captured my thoughts today.

It certainly wasn’t the setting or the art that illustrated it. The art, I recall, was bubbles! Just your everyday, predictable car wash bubbles! Not so inspiring. Yet the text lingered with me a while and, obviously, seemed blog-worthy.

So here I am in a place of just a little awe that I might have received a holy message this morning. I am in awe at receiving a word of comfort urging me not to be afraid and promising me the protection of the Most High God. The words were not, “God is with you.” The message given especially to me this day was, “I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up.”

And all of that on a car wash LED sign illustrated by bubbles!

Even in frightening days like these, days that have brought a deadly virus spreading across the world, we can bury this promise from God deeply within our hearts for the times we need it most . . . “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

Yes, I feel fear that the virus will come closer to home, as most of us do. I fear for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my church family. I fear because I know that if the virus does reach into my life, I must be separated from those I love. So all that remains is this comforting promise from God, “I am with you.”

Even for a hyper-religious person like me, that doesn’t feel like enough. I need my family close, and my friends, those who have comforted me throughout my life at different points on my journey. I think maybe all of us need that, even more in these days.

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Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
  Albert Camus

My Sunday School class meets every Sunday night, religiously, because we need one another. Our relationship is a covenant between us and among us, and so we are never afraid to be vulnerable with one another and to tell the stories of where we are, how we feel, what we fear. Our stories are mostly about how we’re making it through days of isolation, what challenges us, what frustrates us, what causes us to worry, what we’re most afraid of . . . and our stories affirm two constants: 1) God is with each of us all along the journey; and 2) We are present with each other when our journeys lead us through times of faith and through times of fear.

My community — my sisters — often bring to mind the heartbreakingly beautiful story of Jephthah’s daughter from the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges. Jephthah’s daughter was in a place of deep mourning because her father inadvertently betrayed her. She was facing death, but before her time of death, she begged her father to give her time to go up into the hills with her sisters to mourn.

Grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept.

— Judges 11:37-38

Such a sad story! Like some of our own sad stories, stories we tell only to our special, safe people. This is a good day to remember and to give thanks for my sisters, those who are nearby and those with whom I share a deep connection across many miles and decades.

Today’s blog was a little bit about sad stories, yes! But it was even more about today — a good day for me to notice an LED sign with bubbles and the comforting message: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” There is hope in those words on the LED sign. There is comfort there, even if the words are among the bubbles!

I wish for you the peace of this same assurance, that you will know beyond any doubt that God walks with you on your most frightening pathways, and that your community of friends do, too.

 

Tired

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I’m tired. Down deep bone tired. Not because I trimmed bushes in the hot sun today. Not because I spent two hours in my doctor’s office today. I’m tired for no obvious reason. Or maybe for the most obvious reason. Maybe I’m tired of trying and persevering and persisting like we women are expected to do, if we’re strong enough.

It doesn’t matter, really, what I persist in doing. It doesn’t really matter what cause it is that is worth my perseverance. Whatever it is — whatever goal or outcome — it has made me tired and depleted my strength. When I try to describe the feeling, I am almost at a loss for descriptors that adequately express the reality I’m experiencing. 

Drained. Exhausted. Spent. Worn down. Frazzled. Weary. 

I’m not quite sure which words to choose and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is finding ways of replenishing. My doctor suggested meditative visualization. Like visualizing myself as active, moving and full of energy. I actually think visualization is a good tool and a way to open up the emotional doors that will allow me to recharge my life. I’ll try it.

But I have another tool as well. I will meditate on a promise God made many centuries ago. I will hold on to the assurance that “God gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” (Isaiah 40:30)

From there, I still need to go somewhere to rest, so I go to a place I know — a safe, refreshing resting place where I have rested before. I find that place in the words of the Prophet Isaiah. 

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. 

— Isaiah 40:31

 

 

 

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.