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

A Million Seconds

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Transplant Day Twelve
November 23, 2019

I have just reached a milestone — a million seconds. My kidney transplant started the clock on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. Today it is a million seconds later. I will remember those million seconds as a time of fear and faith, laughter and tears, rest and painful sleeplessness. I will remember a million seconds filled with hard things, the pain of a large incision spreading halfway across my abdomen, and swallowing pills, lots of pills.

I may one day see those million seconds as hidden secrets, secrets hidden from me by pain and by my body’s struggle to regain some normalcy. I may in time look at those million seconds with glittering eyes and see them as the magic they were. But today I can just share with you what I experienced in a million seconds that began on a Tuesday — November 12th to be exact.

I will remember a million seconds of so many strange things happening to my body and the numerous assaults my body endured. I will remember a million seconds of awe in knowing that a kidney was removed from a living donor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and hand carried by a doctor to me, to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida — a  distance of 1,115 miles “as the crow flies.”

I will remember a million seconds that began when my surgeon took a picture of the kidney, brought the photo on her phone to my room to show it to me, and said, “This is a beautiful, perfect kidney for you.” She planted that kidney, tucked it carefully inside me, took a photo of the incision and about five hours later came to my room to show me a picture she took on her iPhone of a large incision, impeccably sutured.

I will not forget those million seconds of the prayers of my friends, doctors and nurses caring for me and family members hovering over me with concern and relief.

I will not forget the hymn that came to my mind in the long, sleepless nights in the hospital — a million seconds of leaning on God’s everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

A million seconds have changed my life, while all the while, I was leaning on the everlasting arms. It was a million seconds of holy ground, sacred space. Yet I hardly noticed it as magic or miracle as the pain of my humanity took center stage.

Yes, I focused on suffering, physical pain, worry, concern, tears. Instead, I might have focused on the hidden secrets and witnessed the miracle of holy ground inside a hospital room. I could have had a million seconds of miracle, but instead I experienced a million seconds of the raw and real humanity of suffering. In some ways, a million seconds of transformation were lost to me as I invited unfaith into my room.

And by the way, a million seconds is 12 days.

Falling

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In a tiny book of the Bible that has only 24 verses, we find an exhortation for understanding faith and unfaith. The writer must have known us — and known our lives and our frailties and our actions — ahead of time. He must have known about our faith, and about our unfaith.

It’s troubling at times to experience the many ways unfaith moves in on us until our faith is pushed out for a time. It happens, those times of unfaith. And I have to confess that unfaith has certainly been a part of my journey at times. How does it come on me? What causes it to attack my faith? I can describe a number of ways.

Disappointment and disillusionment in the unjust actions of the leaders of our government — That’s a big one these days.

Anger that children and families are suffering at the Southern border as our country behaves as an unwelcoming place — This is a very serious one for me.

Watching God’s Church go through the motions of religion while failing to create spaces for spiritual contemplation and justice making — Always, this has been a struggle for the Church.

Experiencing personal failure to the point of feeling completely defeated — It happens when one puts herself out into the real world.

Falling down in a state of exhaustion, frustrated with the struggle, ready to give up — It’s such a common state of being for me.

It is true that the preceding situations should not have the power to create unfaith in me. Surely my faith, a faith of so many decades, is strong enough to sustain me. The little Book of Jude offers 24 verses of exhortation to me and to us all:

“But you, Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God” (v. 20). In other words, keep unfaith at bay, stand firm in God’s love, keep yourself from falling.

I happen to know about falling, spiritually and literally. I can recall times in my life when I fell into a brief place of unfaith, times when my hope was small and my spirit was assailed. I know all too well that falling is a situation in which you lose control as you completely lose your footing. It happened to me last night, in fact. In one moment, I was getting ready for bed, and in the next, I was tripping over a power cord, ending up on my back end with an excruciatingly painful knee, and slightly less excruciating pain in several other places on my body.

As my knee swelled to more than twice its size, Fred rushed in and together we plotted how I would get up off the floor. It was not easy, and on top of that, now I have to deal with the repercussions of falling: a hurt knee, painful toes, pain in my shoulder, my arm, my back, my hand and my bottom. It would have been much easier to keep from falling in the first place.

And that’s what Jude, brother of James, told us in the most beautiful benediction in all of Scripture.

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,

To those who are called, who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ:

May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Here we have some glorious, sublime Gospel Good News that we can count on:

We are kept safe.

God is able to make us stand without blemish in the presence of God’s glory.

God is able to keep us from falling.

Thanks be to God.