Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Does God Care?

In the darkness of a long trial, this question often comes to my mind.

It's a question I never would have thought to ask several years ago. I may have even looked down on someone who asked. I would have said-- look at the birds-- look at the sunsets-- look at the way our hearts beat, our lungs expand-- the beautiful, intricate symphony of our body systems that keep us alive and going. I would have said, "Of course God cares! Look around you! What more proof do you need?"

But that was before the wilderness. It was before God said "no" to me. Repeatedly. For years. I cry out, "I'm in pain, God! Don't you care?!"

Some of you reading have either had a time, or are in the middle of a time, when God does not appear to care. Your burdens and pains may be secret ones. And when you shake hands in church or go to the grocery store, you plaster the understudy smile on your face (the one that is "on call" for when there is no genuine smile left), and you fake it. Meanwhile, there is an iceberg-sized hurt under the surface, just waiting to sink your life like the next Titanic. There appears to be no solution, and you just don't know how much longer you can take the pain.

If that has ever been you, or is you-- you may ask yourself-- Does God care? How can such private, secret pain ever be turned for good like Romans 8:28 promises? How can God be glorified by your anguish when He is the only other party aware of the true sorrow in your heart? After all, wouldn't it be more powerful if people could really perceive what you were dealing with-- to fully understand God's strength that holds you upright and helps you put both feet on the floor to start each new day?

I prayed to God about this, and in my despair at the moment, expected another silence. I prayed for faith-- faith to see the answer to this deep and perplexing question that haunts me. Is this all for nothing? Is all the endurance of pain just a big waste?

And as I was talking to my mom today, the answer came straight out of my mouth from the Holy Spirit-- referencing a verse I didn't even realize that I knew prior to this. It stunned me how quick and sharp the Sword of the Spirit can be-- going right to the heart of the matter.

When I ask what will become of the pain I carry in secret, Jesus responds:

"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs." (Luke 12:2-3)

This is such good news for those of us who suffer silently, who have been misunderstood, misjudged, rejected, or who feel isolated as we struggle to maintain faith. The bottom line: Our choices made in private do matter. The darkness will not last forever. Jesus is the "light of the world," and when he shines, nothing will be able to hide.

Jesus went on to say:

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

God does not overlook the small matters. If we feel insignificant and forgotten by God, we must ask ourselves-- are we as small, cheap, and tiny as a common sparrow? Are we as disposable as a hair? God keeps close track of those things. How much more will he care for you as a precious being made in his image and likeness? He cares for us with an everlasting love... (and as Elisabeth Elliot always reminded me on the radio every morning before my freshman math class) "...and underneath are the everlasting arms."

God does care. Do not lose heart.

The execution of Jesus is the proof that intense darkness comes to those whom God loves dearly.

Yet the empty tomb of Jesus is the proof that God sees, God hears, and God's light shines-- overpowering all darkness-- to reveal His glory in those who continue to cling to Him when there is no light.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Beauty of the Little Bit

I recently graduated from an online course which gave me some extra skills for working from home. It took me a year and a half to finish, and it was self-paced, so the motivation to continue working had to come completely from within.

It was not easy for many reasons, but one is peculiar to my personality. I don't really like to do things that I can't get done instantly. Now, instantly is a relative term, but in my mind, I like to get results quickly. When I run into a snag, my gut reaction is to throw in the towel.

Now maybe some of you perfectionists out there can relate to my irrational reasoning. I like to do things right the first time. If there is no progress and I see a project stalling out, I want to do something else that can give me the satisfaction of a job well done. I just shift focus and try my hand at a different project-- often abandoning my previous efforts because I was convinced I'd never make it across the finish line.

There is a problem I read about in 10th grade math class called Zeno's paradox. The problem involves a race, and a man named Zeno proposed that the race could never be completed because in order to run it, you would have to run half of the distance, and half of the half, and half of the half of that half-- on into infinitely small steps that could never be completed because there were, well, infinity steps. Sometimes I feel that way in my walk with God. "I'll never make it, Lord. There are infinitely too many steps."

The resolution of this paradox comes from calculus, which (to sum it up!) says that infinite parts can combine to make a finite whole. As we know from experience, the race can be run to the end. It's just that devil telling us these tiny, almost imperceptible steps we make with God will never add up.

I have many unfinished books dotting my shelves with bookmarks sticking up like weeds in my abandoned literary garden. When it comes to my time with God, I made big strides for a few days or a week, spending hours reading and praying, then when I hit a roadblock of distraction or discouragement, I scale back to near nothing again. When I exercise, I stay consistent for a few weeks or a month, only to get off track and then never come back to the routine. In my head I think, "Well, I've missed so many, so what's the use." I just quit running.

These highs and lows plague me so that I can only do short term projects, meet short term goals, and get small rewards. I have chronic New Year's Resolution Syndrome.

That was until I joined the Mini-Goalers. Mike once mentioned that this sounded like a little league soccer team, but, in fact, it is an online forum thread that opened my eyes in a big way to the beauty of the "little bit."

My online course involved a community of classmates, created through an online forum. And on that forum, a small subset of students had come together to keep each other accountable. Every week, a member of the group would create a post which had a note of encouragement and would ask each participant by name if they had completed their specific course goal for the week. It was a friendly group, strictly voluntary, and there were no consequences for not meeting a goal.

At first, every week I would post a goal. When I met the goal, I'd race back to the thread to post my accomplishment along with my new goal. I was going along like a locomotive. But somewhere around last summer, when Grammy had her stroke, I stopped working and stopped posting for a while. It was my typical give-up moment. A distraction occurred. I lost focus. I suddenly looked up at the mountain I was climbing, and it looked too high for me. With my nose up close to the sheer volume of work I was facing, I felt like it was time to pack it up and go home. I had no chance of finishing any time this century.

But the Mini-Goalers continued to press the message over and over-- "You can do it. One lesson at a time. The way to victory is to keep pressing on."

Before that time, I saw very little value in doing work in small chunks. In the tortoise and the hare race, I was the hare. When I was 3 years old, my playmate and I would build tall towers with building blocks. When hers would start to crumble, she'd patiently and methodically replace the broken walls one block at a time. However, when my quickly-erected tower started to crumble, the construction efforts ceased. My chubby demolition arm came swinging through. The tarnished tower met an untimely demise.

God made me passionate and strong willed. When I come out to meet a challenge, I meet it with all my strength and energy-- head-on, full sprint, holding nothing back. I truly believe God loves that about me, and I believe it's helped me in my faith to push closer to him with all my gusto behind my prayers pleading to see his face, to know him more deeply. But there is a down side to expending all your energy at once. There is a let-down and a fatigue that sets in when you don't pace yourself for a long race. People like me can lose the joy of constantly abiding with Christ when we trade it for the constant ups and downs. We miss the beauty of seeing the steady progress of the "little bit" which leads to great glory at the end.

When I made my final push to the end of the course, I knew I'd done more than just finish some online requirements. I set up my schedule to do 5 tasks per day. And very uncharacteristically, each day, I did my 5. I didn't do more and burn myself out. I didn't do less and give in to the discouragement to quit. I just did my 5 per day. Now, I'd be lying if I said I didn't try to sneak in a few extra here and there to speed up the process, but what I learned was the beautiful reward of not quitting, and not burning out. For a moment, I dropped the all-or-nothing attitude to focus on the little bit.

I see all around me the glory God creates in the lingering moments that add up to ultimate victory. You can see it in his creation as the sun slowly processes across the sky-- barely perceptible to us as we run here and there. But ultimately, in those small increments, the sun completes both its ascent and descent into the dusk of achievement. In the same way, the seasons bloom and whither, each into the next season.

As I was riding in the car this week, my eyes studied the landscape for signs of fall. All I could see on the trees were muted browns and yellows-- hardly the kaleidoscope I've been yearning all year to see. Absentmindedly I muttered, "Is this it!?" Only to be reminded immediately of how impatient I still am, of how much is yet to come.

A science website by Abram Teplitskiy, Ph.D. compared the race paradox from math class to this gradual color change:

"The Zeno paradox is similar to the color spectrum paradox. If you go from red to orange on a spectrum of colors, you can move in steps that are small enough so that you cannot detect any color difference between the first red and the second, between the second red and the third, and so on through a large number of "successfully" undetectable differences until you get to orange. One could conclude that there is, therefore, no real detectable color difference between red and orange."

Obviously, this is false. Red is quite different from orange, just as a new believer in Christ is much different from the man or woman who will one day stand complete before God in heaven. In both cases, those many imperceptible changes add up to a very perceptible difference in the end. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says: "And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image." All believers are on the path of transformation from "one degree of glory to another" or "from glory to glory." Likewise, in autumn, no one sees the individual, gradual changes of color in any particular leaf, but each leaf itself goes through every painful step of the transformation process. Finally, after all changes have been made, the breathtaking beauty of the completed process will be revealed to the world in one grand debut week-- full of laughing families gathering pumpkins, drinking apple cider, going on hikes, and munching on donuts.

It's hard to miss God calling us to growth. No solid relationship is built in days, but years. When you get a bad haircut, it takes months to grow out. Our fingernails and toenails appear to never go anywhere, but once a girl puts on some polish, a few weeks later, she can see the slow, methodical work of God. Life breathed into us, into this earth, has us all moving and growing toward one glorious conclusion. As we have been studying at church lately-- we are all moving toward "That Day."

I've always been an instant sort of girl-- instant messaging, microwaves, e-mail, drive-thru. I like easy and quick. What would we gain by remembering the old way of doing things? -- the yearning and the longing of waiting. The slow brew. The aged wine. The buggy rides. The long walks. The smell of a fireplace fire that comes from actual burning logs instead of flipping a switch for gas. The homemade soup that simmers all day. The conversation that's unhurried and held face to face. The sound of being still and knowing that the LORD is God.

Proverbs 13 reminds us: "A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul." "A longing fulfilled is a tree of life." When we long for God on this journey and consistently come to meet with him, it will be to our great benefit. Let's aim to follow Paul's advice who urges us to persevere in this hard race:

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do:"

Philippians 3:12-14