Tuesday, October 16, 2012

COM Ch 23: Keeping the Faith

Chapter 23:  Keeping The Faith

            Now, I’ve already looked at several very important ways to “keep the faith” when times get rough and the wait gets long.  Prayer, Bible reading, praising God, being thankful, getting rid of expectations of how God should answer, focusing on our job today and letting God do His, embracing the fact that we are needy, helpless and dependent, etc.  These are all ways to keep up our faith in the hard times.  But there are more.  And sometimes when the wait gets long, we need to use each and every last resource that God gives us to make it through. 

            As I said, one of the reasons that the Israelites’ time in the desert was so hard and long is because they grumbled and forgot.  Now, I’ve already covered the opposite of grumbling, which is learning to be thankful and to praise in the pain.  I think this is a very important step in acknowledging God as God over all of my life.  But I’m also learning - when the times get rough - how very important and encouraging it is to conscientiously do the opposite of forgetting.  I need to remember.  I need to practice remembering all of the good things that God has done in my life.  (I’ve already referred to this, but I want to get into it deeper here.)
            Remembering is like learning to be thankful.  Cultivating an attitude of thankfulness means looking for the blessings in each day and looking for the good that has come (or can come) out of any situation.  And sometimes, when we can’t see any yet, it’s just thanking God for the most basic gifts: His presence, our lives, a flower, the sunshine or the rain.  It’s learning to find God in everything.  We can get so down in the dumps sometimes, in those darkest nights of our lives, that all we see is the garbage and blackness around us.  Now, we can’t always change where we are at; but we can continue to look down at the filth or we can choose to look up and at least thank God for the stars. 
            Remembering is a lot like that.  Thankfulness is learning to find God in the here-and-now, and remembering is recalling all the things that God has done over the course of our lives.  So even when we can’t physically get out of the dark, filthy dump, at least our minds can.  Our minds can go back to the times that God has shown His power, goodness, faithfulness, and love before.  And I think that we need to be more conscientious of doing this.  Because when we don’t remember what He has done, we forget what He is capable of doing.  And then our current concerns or fears seem so big and ominous.  God knows that we are human and that we will very easily forget how good and capable He is as soon as a new trial comes along.  And this is why I think He places such an emphasis on “remembering.” 
            In Exodus 13, Moses tells the Israelites to remember the day they came out of Egypt.  They were to tell their children about what the Lord had done for them and to keep this ordinance every year as “a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the Lord is to be on your lips.”  (Exodus 13:9)
            They are told in Deuteronomy 7:18 to not be afraid of the people of Canaan, but to “remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.”
            After the miraculous crossing of the Jordan river in Joshua 3 and 4, Joshua tells the people to make a memorial of stones so that they can remember how the Jordon was cut off as they crossed on dry land.  And they were to use this memorial to teach their children about what God has done and can do.   
            1 Chronicles 16:12 says to, “Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced.”
            Jesus even admonished his disciples in Matthew 16 for not remembering how he fed the five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.                             
            It is so important to remember what God has done and what He can do, because we can’t face the future with confidence, peace, and joy when we forget who He is.  And not only this, but we read in the Old Testament that when people forgot, then they didn’t teach their children what God had done, and the children grew up wicked.  (Judges 2, for example)  We need to remember not just for our sake but for the sake of the generation we are raising.  And how capable are we humans of forgetting?  Read this one:
            Exodus 32:1:  “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.  As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” 
            How long do you think it was before the Israelites turned their backs on the real God and made their own?  Now remember, this was after the plagues, the guiding pillar of fire and the Red Sea.  This was after the manna and the quail and the water from the rock.  They had just trembled at the foot of Mount Sinai as it was covered with billowing smoke and fire.  They had just heard the thunder and saw the lightning.  And they pleaded with Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen.  But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”  (Exodus 20:19)
            And then Moses goes up to meet God.  And in Exodus 25 - 31 we read about all the laws that God gave Moses while he was up on the mountain.  And while this is happening, the Israelites are making the golden calf.  So how long do you think it was, after all these miraculous events, before they decided to turn on God and make their own?  How long before they despaired and felt that God could not be trusted?  Before they doubted that He was the One, True God?  Are you ready for this?
            The verse before the God-given instructions to Moses reads this:  Exodus 24:18:  “Then Moses entered the cloud as he went up on the mountain.  And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
            Forty days and forty nights!  Forty days!  It blows my mind that after all that they had been through with God, they would forget who He is and run after man-made idols.  In forty days!  It blows my mind!  And it scares me!
            It scares me because I haven’t seen what they have seen.  I haven’t experienced God in the amazing ways that they have.  And if all those experiences helped them to last only forty days, how much quicker am I likely to despair and bail on God and run after my own “idols”?  How much easier would it be for me to forget who God is and what He is capable of?  Do I really think that I am that much more righteous than the Israelites that I can do better?  It makes me more sober about my judgment of myself and what I am capable of doing to God.  And it really cements in my mind the incredible need to “remember.”       
            Remembering is important because we are so forgetful.  Similar to practicing thankfulness and praising Him in the hard times, remembering what He has done in the past helps me be more peaceful and joyful in current situations.  And it makes it easier to leave my concerns in His hands. 
            And so as I struggled through this long, discouraging wait - feeling like He might never answer me and wondering if He really cared - I set out to remember some of the amazing things that I have seen Him do in the past.  And while they are not dramatic or earth-shattering, they are enough to keep me going and to remind me that He is really there.  (Of course, the “light as a feather, stiff as a board” event and the five months of nighttime disruptions help me remember that He is really there, too.  I couldn’t forget about the reality of the spirit realm now, even if I wanted to.)  Anyway, here are a few more events that I recall when I think of God’s goodness in the past.     
            When I was a leader in our youth group, I was driving to the Fourth of July fireworks with a carload of high-schoolers.  And we couldn’t find a parking space.  It was packed and we had to get parked so we could meet up with everyone else at the entrance.  So I prayed about it, out loud.  “Dear Lord, help us find a parking spot.”  Short and simple. 
            We turned down the very next lane, and there was a man leaning against a car at the end of a row of cars.  And he flagged me down.  (This is no joke!)  “Hey!  Do you guys want a parking spot?  I’m leaving right now,”  he said.  What an awesome, obvious answer to prayer.  I’m so glad that the youth were there to see it.  In fact, I believe it happened because they were there to see it.  And then it dawned on me what a wild answer that was.  Because what are the odds that anyone would be leaving the parking lot before the fireworks even began?  And that they would wait to find someone to take their spot?  That was really cool! 
            Another time, I was in class in high school when Gina, who was in the campus across town, came to my mind.  I decided to pray for her, that God would give her a good day.  Well, later when I asked her how her day was, she said that it wasn’t going too well until about 11:30.  (The same time I prayed.)  And then, for some reason, she just felt happier.  I knew why!  God does respond to prayer.  And how neat to have a God that cares about a tiny, simple, little prayer about brightening someone’s day! 
            This next one happened a little while back.  This is one Jason and I recall to give us strength as we wait on Him.  We were in need of another vehicle.  For years, we had only one vehicle; a little, two-door car for a family of four.  It was getting old and cramped, and we were expecting our third child.  It was time for a van.  (Oh, yes!  I fought it for a long time, but I was becoming one of those moms!  A mini-van mom!) 
            We carefully searched for a long time and finally picked out one to go look at.  The only problem was that we only had a certain amount to spend and we could not go above it.  This van was just a little out of our reach, but we wondered if we could talk them down. 
            “Lord,” we prayed on the way there, “please give us a clear sign if this is Your Will.  We can’t make a mistake because we don’t have any more money, and we’ve waited two years to get one.  Please, give us a clear sign.”   
            Well, we got there and it looked good.  So my husband went to take it for a spin.  It ran good.  We both had a good feeling about it, so we were discussing it amongst ourselves and talking it over with the owner.  We asked her again what the price was and she told us, “Well, I’m asking for such-and-such an amount, but . . .” And then she gave us a wink and basically encouraged us to talk her down four hundred dollars.  To an amount that we could more easily afford.  Who actually asks to be talked down?  It was a great answer to prayer. 
            And if that wasn’t clear enough.  Jason went to go move our car and, for no reason that we could tell, the starter went out and the car wouldn’t move at all.  It just died right there in front of the house.  It had never even acted up like that at all before that day.  We actually ended up getting the car towed home, while we drove the new van.  It couldn’t get more obvious than that. 
            This kind of clear answer from God helps me have faith that He’ll get His message through when it is time.  I don’t have to freak out that I won’t hear Him or know if it’s right.  (Although I do try to be a little more careful and specific when I ask for a clear answer now.  Like, “Lord, please help us know when it’s time for us to move, but not by being evicted or with a house fire or anything like that.”  Just kidding!  Okay . . . mostly kidding!)  
            And this last one was such a gracious answer to my prayers, especially when I had been so faithless, that it brings tears to my eyes and fills me with thankfulness.   As I said before, Ryder’s front teeth healed on their own when we changed our eating habits.  But he still had decay in some molars, a lot of decay.  And I did not handle it well.  For over a year, I had chronic tension in my neck and shoulders from all the stress and worry.  I would examine his teeth every day and brush and medicate them to try to slow the decay down, hoping we could hold out until he got old enough to see our dentist.  (Poor kid still comes to me and opens his mouth whenever I say, “Hey, come here!  I want to see something!”)    
            We had gone through all the options: knocking him out to fix them, baby root canals, letting them rot and getting them pulled later, spacers, etc.  I wasn’t comfortable with anything.  And I needed to know what God thought the best route was  . . . because He could see the consequences of our choices and I couldn’t.  (And, Oh, how I hated it that I couldn’t!)  The only thing I knew was that I could not get him knocked out and that I needed to be there with him when he was being treated.
            But every dentist we talked to or consulted said the same thing, “We don’t treat children that young without knocking him out, and you will have to wait in the waiting room when it happens.”  I was a wreck!  I couldn’t do that!  I decided to give up and let them rot, even though it was causing him pain in one tooth.  I would pull it myself when it died, if I had to!  (Not really, I don’t even like paper cuts.  But it sounded good to say at the time!  So, please, if you are a dentist, do not write me a letter telling me how dangerous and irresponsible that would be.  I know!  I know!  Trust me, I looked it up on-line.)
            There was one dentist left to consult.  We had tried to get a hold of her two or three times, with no luck.  Must not be God’s Will?  But something (Someone?) told me that I couldn’t give up until I got a definitive answer from her.  Then after that I could call it quits and schedule a visit with the dentist forty-five minutes away who would knock him out and make me sit in the waiting room. 
            When we finally got a hold of her, we found out that she was just one mile from our house.  What are the odds that the right dentist would be only a mile from our house?  I’d say, “Pretty good when God’s hand is in it!”  After examining his teeth, she told us that he would indeed need two root canals (Ugh!) and a few smaller fillings.  But she would not knock him out.  She would just use nitrous oxide and local anesthesia, if needed.  And she encouraged parents to stay by their side. 
            This was it!  This was the answer that we needed from God, that we waited for over a year to get!  Thank you, Lord!  I just about cried with relief!  Actually, I think I did cry.  And for the first time in years, I relaxed my shoulders and neck!  (If I had greater faith, though, they would have never been tense to begin with.)
            And you want to know the most amazing part?  Both of the teeth that needed root canals ended up dying on their own, the second one just a week before the visit.  This sounds like a bad thing, but when she treated him, he felt no pain whatsoever.  And I was so afraid of him being in pain and not being able to help him. 
            Had we gotten a hold of her the first two or three times we tried, it would have been months earlier, and it could have been a much more traumatic experience.  And had I not listened to that still, small voice that said, “One more try!” it could have been a lot worse!  He does listen and He does answer prayer, even if the timing doesn’t make sense to us and the wait seems pointless and the detours are discouraging!  My God is a good God!
            (And as an added blessing, this whole procedure cost us $1,500 compared to the projected amount of $5,000 for going to the other dentist who would knock him out.)
            [Oh, and here’s an “answer” to prayer that has become an inside joke between Jason and me.  When we were headed to Wisconsin Dells for our first family vacation, it was exceptionally hot out, almost ninety degrees.  And knowing what a wimp I am in the heat, I’m sure you can guess how very uncomfortable I was.  I was climbing out of my skin as we drove because my side was in the sun.  So, on the ride there, I prayed for clouds.  I prayed that it would cool down because I was dying in the hot sun.  Now, this is not necessarily because of me, I don’t know.  But the timing is strange.  It dropped forty degrees within a day, and rained for hours.  It went from ninety degrees to fifty.  We actually had to go to the store to buy long-sleeve shirts.  Jason doesn’t like it when I pray about the weather now!] 
            It is important for me to recall God’s faithfulness in the past - His gracious care - when I find myself afraid that He may not be listening to us or answering us.  Remembering the past and what He has done is crucial.  And I think this is why He commands it, for our sake.  It is so easy to lose perspective when times get rough. 
            Don’t wait until you are despairing to recall the blessings.  Set reminders around your house of God’s faithfulness in the past.  Talk about them with your family and friends.  Write them down.  Pass down stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness to your children.  Make it a habit to reflect on them often, and to focus on the blessings that He has given us each and every day. 
            I think this is why God tells His people to remember and to make monuments and to hold yearly celebrations.  He knows that we need to, to remember what kind of God He is so that we can make it through the hard times without falling apart completely.  (Or so that when we do fall apart completely, we eventually get up off the floor, dust ourselves off, and find our way back to Him.  I’m getting good at dusting myself off.) 
            On top of remembering, there were a few other simple, but very important, things that helped hold me up during this wait.  One was music.  During this time, I surrounded myself with godly music.  This started during the five months of nighttime disruptions when I began listening to K-Love every day.  But as I noticed the positive effect that it had on my emotions and my ability to focus on God, I kept my radio set to it as the wait dragged on.  This God-glorifying music would uplift and encourage me daily.  It would hold me up just enough to keep me from falling into despair.  I know this sounds like a sales pitch, but what you listen to as you stand there washing dishes or making dinner really makes a difference on where your thoughts go.
            “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - is anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)  
            A simple thing such a switching my music helped me to focus on God, to dwell on His messages, and to be receptive to anything the Spirit wanted to tell me.  This follows the “you reap what you sow” principle.  If I wanted to reap peace and joy and trust and faith then I needed to surround myself with things that spoke of peace and joy and trust and faith.  And so I listened to K-Love all day, every day.  And I let it fill me with God’s truth and with a spirit of praise.  (I am not getting paid to say any of this.  I just really, really believe that this station is really being used by God to bring hope and joy and peace to so many people.  And everyone needs to know about it.  Find it if you can.)   
            During this time, I also read many inspiring, godly books from our church library.  I cannot keep myself out of despair when left to my own resources.  This is why I needed to lean on other people who have written about their experiences with God.  And so I checked out as many good books as I could from our church library, and I immersed myself in the faith of others when I felt my own faith faltering. 
            And I have to say, I was shocked and saddened to see how many of these wonderful books hadn’t been checked out in at least a decade or longer.  There are so many hidden jewels in our church libraries, so many people who have gone before us in trials and have so much wisdom and encouragement to share.  And we are missing out on it.  But I found these stories of God’s faithfulness, goodness, and love to be life-savers, thrown out to keep me afloat through the hard times.  And I am so thankful that these people took the time and energy to share their stories with me. 
            Now while radio stations and books are very important, they do lack the warm-bloodedness of fellow believers.  We were made to be in a community of believers, to lean on each other, and to encourage each other.  We were made to worship and fellowship together with others who follow Christ.  Fellow believers are a very necessary and wonderful resource when you are hurting and need help.
            And I have to say that I wish that I had leaned on them more.  I didn’t confide in or seek support from others nearly as much as I should have.  Like I said, I cried on my own shoulder.  Yes, I did ask for prayer from others to make it through the wait and to know where God wanted us to go, but I didn’t seek out even my closest friends and share the struggles that I was dealing with, to the depth that I was dealing with them. 
            Jen even told me that she didn’t realize how discouraged and depressed I became during this time.  And that’s because I never told her.  Not in the way that I needed to.  Sure, I told her what I was going through, but I didn’t let her (or anyone) know that my faith was crushed, that I was heartbroken over God’s silence, and that I was falling apart.  I kept my chin up and tried to look like I was bravely fighting the “long wait” battle.
            In a way, I ran to books instead of living people.  After all, books can’t let you down.  And if they do, you can just close the cover and put it away.  You’re in charge.  But leaning on a living person is a risk.  And I wasn’t good at looking weak, at needing others, at risking rejection.  And so I read.  A lot.  I found “friends” in the authors of the books.  (I really do love reading.) 
            (When I was walking up and down the sidewalk outside our moldy house for hours, I remember particularly enjoying any book by John Eldredge.  John, you have a way of writing that just made me feel like I was visiting with a friend.  And I desperately needed it at that time.  Thank you for the encouragement and support that I found in your writing.  You are so transparent and real.  I tried to write this book in that same spirit, too.  And your books are the only books – outside of yard care books - that my husband devours.  It’s been great to see him impacted by your writing, too.  Thank you!)
            As I said, books can be a great source of encouragement.  But we also need living people in our lives to help us through the hard times.  And so this is one thing that I am sharing with you of what not to do.  Don’t just go to books or music.  Don’t try to do it all on your own.  Lean on the people in your life, too.  Let them know of your needs and your pain. 
            I wish I had leaned on my closest friends more.  I wish that I had dropped the facade and just said, “Man, this stinks.  I’m need your help and your prayers because I’m completely losing it.”  I didn’t have to have all the answers and look like I was doing it all right.  I wish that I had been transparent with them, as I had learned to be with God.  They could have been huge sources of warm-blooded support. 
            God put us in a family of believers for a reason.  We can’t make it through this life on our own.  And yet, so often we choose to.  (Okay, I choose to!)  And then we miss out on the rich fellowship and encouragement that come with leaning on others when we can’t go on by ourselves.  But I’m learning to be more authentic with others now. 
            The funny thing is, other people don’t think less of us when we let them know how hurting and broken we are, when we run to them for help and support.  We might think less of ourselves for that.  But others actually want to be needed.  We all want to be needed and to be able to support and encourage others.  Yet we don’t let others do that for us.  It takes humility to seek support from others.  And for so long, I didn’t do that.  But I’m learning.  
            Now, to be honest, throughout this whole wait, I have cycled through many times of faith and then despair, assurance and then depression.  I wanted so badly to be godly and faithful during the wait and the darkness.  And yet so often, I found myself just plain overwhelmed with hopelessness.  (I don’t give up control and self-sufficiency without a fight.)  And I remember one particular Saturday not too long ago when it got bad again. 
            This was months ago, when I began sleeping in the bunk bed with Jackson because of the mold upstairs, and Jason and the boys were sleeping downstairs on the floor.  (And yep, we’re still sleeping that way.)  On this night, I found myself despairing . . . again.  I was feeling so neglected by God, so over-looked.  I had waited so long to hear anything from Him.  And yet, I was still getting nothing, and things were getting worse.   
            I remember thinking how much I wanted some stranger to come up to me and say something like, “Hang in there!”  Or, “It’ll be okay.”  I wanted God to tap some modern-day prophet on the shoulder and say, “Hey, see that girl in tears over there, she needs a little encouragement.”  But no one had a special word from God, just for me.
            And so, that discouraging Saturday night, I did the only thing I could think of.  I prayed.
            Lord, please give me some guidance if I am right to keep waiting or if I am being foolish.  Other people think we are.  And I’m afraid to humiliate You when I intend to honor You and bring You glory.  Lord, please tell me if I am right to keep waiting.  It’s what I feel we should be doing.  But I need some affirmation from You, some clear guidance.” 
            And I went to bed.  And the next morning at church, Pastor Bob gave a sermon that was hand-written by God just for me.  He had been tapped on the shoulder.  Never had I had a sermon so clearly speak to the very need that I had.  And I think that it’s a sermon that many people need when they find themselves wandering a large, lonely, dry desert, and they have no idea what the next step is. 
            He was speaking about 1 Kings 17 and how Elijah was radically obedient to God, even when sent to the desert of the Kerith Ravine.  And given that I had already felt as though I was wandering around a wide, dry desert, this hit me where I needed it.  I walked into church that day discouraged and lost, tempted to give up on waiting for God.  But God gave me that little bit that I needed to hang on.  Actually, it was big bit.  And with Pastor Bob’s permission, I’m going to quote a big section of it, the parts that God knew I needed to hear that morning, more than anything .
            As Pastor Bob said, Elijah had just been sent to the desert, where he waited for God’s command of what to do next.  And in this desert, in the times when he had no idea what was ahead, he was learning to rely on God, moment-by-moment.  He was learning to live without knowing the big picture, to wait for God to speak and to reveal the next step, and to be radically obedient when He did.  And then Pastor Bob went on:
                        “Elijah’s ready response to God’s instruction [to go to the desert] reminds me of the words of Psalm 123.  The psalmist says, ‘I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.  As the eyes of the slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.’  
                        They’re looking to the hand of the master to just give some kind of a point, some kind of a hand command. . . . That’s how we should be living.  A servant keeps quiet and just watches the hand of their master.  And when that hand moves, giving a sign of direction, they obey without question.  That’s how Elijah is doing life.  It’s remarkable.  We see so few doing that!. . .
                        There are some lessons about doing life God’s way that we want to take from Elijah’s experience in the Kerith Ravine.  And the first lesson is that the sovereign God leads us one step at a time.  When Elijah confronted the king, he had no clue what was to happen next.  God tells Elijah, ‘Go confront the king. . . pronounce this judgment!”  But God doesn’t tell him what was supposed to happen next.  He doesn’t tell him until he needs to know.  Then He tells him.  He leads him one step at a time. . . .  [Elijah] didn’t have to pursue the word of the Lord.  God revealed it to him.  And He revealed it to him at just the right time . . . .
                        Some of you are experiencing [God’s silence] as well.  Some of you know this deafening, uncomfortable silence.  Elijah’s being taken to the Kerith Ravine where, as much as we can tell, he spent months, perhaps even into years.  Just like some of you.  Suddenly, it sort of seems like a stale struggle that is never going to change.  But is that really what was happening?  And is it what’s really happening with us?  And I would suggest that we are looking at it entirely wrong if that’s how we’re feeling and thinking. 
                        Because I believe that God’s hands were all over Elijah’s life, and God has His hands all over our lives.  Even as we are wrestling with our own impatience.  Even as we are sensing some of His temporary silence.  He may be silent in some areas, but He’s not silent in all areas.  And we need to see the areas that He’s not silent in and we need to appreciate them. . . .
                        God is in our stops as well as in our steps, as difficult as that may be.  But you know one day that the word of the Lord will break through.  The word of the Lord will reveal the next step.  It may be through an open door or it may be through a passage of Scripture. . .  . It may be from the gentle nudging and goading of the Holy Spirit that we just can’t ignore any longer.  It may be through a mysterious and miraculous change in our situation. . . .  But God’s word, revealing the next step, will come in His timing.  And His timing is perfect.  It will come for you.  It will come for me.  It will come!
                        The sovereign God is as much in control of our lives as He was in control of Elijah’s life.  And so we must wait upon Him with expectant hearts, with trusting hearts.  And when that word comes, when the breakthrough happens, then we must take the next step by faith and obedience. . . .  The sovereign God leads us one step at a time.
                        And secondly, God’s stops are, in reality, graduate schools of faith. . .  . An advanced school of spiritual learning, of learning how to live more than you’ve ever lived before by faith. . . .  And it’s in the graduate school of faith that God has some really deep digging that He wants us to do. 
                        He wants us to dig deep into our hearts and He wants us to see just how sinful we are.  And to own up to it!  And to become purified through it!  He wants to remind us of how untrusting we can be and then to expand our faith.  He wants us to discover how mixed our motives are, that our motives so rarely are pure and true.  There’s way too much of self in everything we do!  He wants to remind us of how insufficient our puny strength really is, that we can’t do life apart from Him.  We need Him desperately.
                        And it is there, in the ‘Kerith Ravine school of faith’ that we absorb - we absorb His power, His presence, His peace, His purification, unlike we’ve ever known before. . . .  Part of what God is trying to teach us in the graduate school of faith is to put our identity in Christ.  To realize that that’s what is going to make us strong and mighty and able to have a life that is effectual for His glory.  To know that we are really loved by God, that we are kept by Him, carried by Him, protected by Him.
                        There’s another lesson for us [from seeing how God cared for Elijah in the desert].  The most important lesson that we can learn in the graduate school of faith is that God is faithful all the time - all the time!  Even when we don’t feel like He’s faithful, He is!  I hope that you have made this wonderful discovery - that God is a non-forsaking, unfailing, always faithful Father who will always supply everything we need!”     

            Pastor Bob may as well have gotten up there, pointed a finger at me and said, “Heather, listen up.  This one’s for you!”  Oh, how God grabbed my heart with that message!  And it gave me the strength to continue waiting.  In fact, even just reading it again brings tears to my eyes.  It so neatly parallels my life and the journey that I have been on these past few years. 
            While I didn’t choose to enroll in it, I have been in the graduate school of faith . . . the Boot Camp of Faith, if you will.  I had to face obstacles of self-sufficiency, climb walls of fear and insecurity, and swing over (or more accurately, wade through) sloughs of despondency.  At times, I felt like I was running and running, but not knowing where I was going, and not feeling like I was getting anywhere.  I felt stranded in the middle of nowhere, far away from where I should be.  And through much of this, I just felt so alone.  Like God had pulled away from me, no matter how much I reached out to Him. 
            But all of that was to help me find my identity as a child of God, and to teach me that most important lesson:  “God is faithful all the time - all the time!  Even when we don’t feel like He’s faithful, He is!”  It’s ironic to me how we have to go through feeling like He’s not faithful and like we have been abandoned before we can really believe in His faithfulness and know for sure that He will never abandon us.
            Because of my time in the furnace, I can now honestly say that I have made that wonderful discovery:  “God is a non-forsaking, unfailing, always faithful Father who will always supply everything we need!”  And my faith will never be the same!  Two weeks as a leader at Boot Camp with Teen Missions International was a piece of cake compared to years as a worm in the Boot Camp of Faith.  But I would take the second one over the first any day.  Any day!       
            That Sunday morning, during that sermon, I was brought to tears.  I was so humbled to know that even though I had gotten to the point of wanting to give up - of just about losing all hope and faith - God was reaching out to me.  He was encouraging me that I was right where He wanted me to be.  It was as if He was patting me on the back and saying, “Hang in there, even though the road is long.  You’re doing just fine.  I’m proud of you and I’m with you.  And I know that you are struggling with giving up on Me, but I won’t give up on you.  Hang in there!”      
            I wanted Pastor Bob to understand just how much that sermon meant to me, how crucial it was to help me keep my faith up.  And so I wrote this letter of thanks (a mini-book, actually) to him for the encouragement that his sermon gave.  I wanted him to know how God used him to minister to me in my moment of desperate, hopeless, helpless need.  

            Pastor Bob,
                        I just wanted to say Thank You for your Sermon on Jan 10 about Elijah and waiting and faith.  It was just what I needed to hear.  We have been facing a long time of waiting for God to move us, (literally) and it’s been wearing on me lately. 
                        When my husband and I married in 1999, I was still in school to get my Master’s in Counseling degree.  And we believed that I’d be working after I got my license.  But since we didn’t know where, we chose to rent until my career settled us someplace. 
                        Well, It’s over 10 years and 4 kids later and we are still renting a small 2 bedroom house (half of a house actually - it’s a duplex).  And this is the third place we’ve rented since getting married.  It just never worked out for us to buy, because I chose to stay home when the kids were born and my husband doesn’t make much more than what we live on.  And we don’t live lavishly.  In fact, we make most of our own cleaners, get hand-me-down clothes and furniture, and I cook almost all of our meals from scratch.  We are happy to do it because we feel it’s being wise with our money and controlled in our spending and it’s allowed me to stay home.  Which I wouldn’t trade for anything! 
                        But we always expected to be able to buy soon.  But then with the housing bubble, we couldn’t afford an adequate house.  And with the economic recession, Jason’s been making even less.   We do have many things to be thankful for, like our health, his job, children, a roof over our heads, and food on our plate.  But for a long time, I had to struggle with my discontentment over still renting. 
                        It’s not that owning was really the “goal.”  But as someone who moved around many times and who has had 4 dads, all I really wanted was stability.  Having one place to raise my kids and put down deep roots has always been a dream of mine.  I wanted the yard to garden in and to set up a swing set.  I wanted to be able to get a dog.  I wanted to decorate a house and make it a home that reflected us, instead of using all hand-me-down furniture and garage sale finds.  (I simply can’t put money into new furniture or things until we have the house we know we are staying in.)  I just wanted a home, one home to raise my family in.  And so it kind of broke my heart to find that we are still renting after all this time, feeling like a half-adult.
                        I had always assumed that it was just around the corner.  But as time has gone on, it has been emotionally harder to wait for God’s leading.  It’s hard to explain to some people (especially those who are not believers), but I believe that God will bring us to the right place when it is time.  And I am determined to wait till He leads.  I don’t want to go out and find any old house and hope God blesses it.  I want to be where He wants us.  He knows the neighbors who need reaching or need a friend.  He knows if it’s a moldy or sick house.  He knows how happy we would be with it in the long run (not that our happiness is what it’s about).
                        And I can’t see those details on-line when I look at houses.  In fact, anytime I started looking at houses on-line, I would get a pounding headache.  It was too much for me.  In some ways, I think it was God’s way of saying that I shouldn’t be looking right now.  That it wasn’t my job.  My job was just to be the mom at home and do my best where He has me now.  And He would take care of the house when it was time.  He has shown Himself faithful in so many other ways that I really have no reason to doubt that He’ll work it out.  
                        But we have been in this house now for over 5 years, and we still don’t have any guidance or “green light” from God.  And so we wait.  He says that if anyone seeks to know His Will, they shall find it.  A well-meaning friend of mine once said “Just hang in there!  I have a feeling that God will bring you something really nice soon because you have waited so long.”  And I really appreciated her sentiments. 
                        But I had to say, “What if He doesn’t?  What if He chooses to keep us renting or in a home or location that I don’t like?  Can I still bring Him glory in that?  Can I still praise His name and be thankful?”  I had to ask myself if I really want His Will over mine.  Am I willing to give up my rights to my dream and accept His Will for me? 
                        I don’t know if it’s theologically accurate when people say “You know, God just wants you to be happy!”  Does He just want that?  Were the prophets happy to do the hard jobs they did?  Was Noah happy to spend years building an ark, knowing that those around Him would be destroyed?  I doubt it.  But they still did it, and they praised His name while doing the very difficult, unpopular jobs. 
                        Yes, I think He delights in making us happy.  He enjoys when we enjoy the good things He gives us.  But that’s not the highest goal.  The highest goal is bringing God glory and doing the best we can wherever He puts us.  It’s ultimately not about making us happy, but about praising and glorifying Him no matter what.  About being the light of Christ in the difficult times, as much as (and even more so than) the good times.   
                        And so I had to admit that I really do want His Will above all.  But emotions can be more difficult to get in line.  I still struggle now and then with a sense of sadness or loss or self-pity.  But I do try to remind myself that God has been faithful before and that He can be trusted.  I can’t trust myself sometimes to make a right decision, but He can be trusted to always make the right decision.  I just need sometimes to get out of the way and let Him do His job, while I do the job He has given me today.  So I asked the Lord to show me His Will when it was time.  But it’s been years and the waiting is hard.
                        I am usually confident and strong and don’t lean on others too much, even God.  But I think He used this (along with other trials) to break me of my self-sufficiency and to help me learn to make Him my Heavenly Father, instead of just God.  And I have also learned how important thanksgiving is to our attitude. 
                        I’ve always loved the verse “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” 
                        There were times that I would pour out my concerns to God, wondering why I didn’t feel His peace.  Didn’t He say we would have peace if we prayed and petitioned?  No, He said we would have peace if we prayed and petitioned with thanksgiving.  It’s by remembering how He’s been faithful before, how He has answered prayers clearly in the past, and how He’s proven that He is a good, trustworthy Father that I can have peace with leaving my concerns in His hands.     
                        But it’s been hard because, at times, I’ve questioned myself.  I’ve wondered if I’m just fooling myself.  If it really mattered to God where we lived.  If He was really listening.  Was I not asking in the right way?  Was I worth His concern and time?  There are famines and wars all over the world, and I’m concerned about the “right” house?  How selfish! 
                        Or maybe I’m just spinning my wheels, waiting for God to move us, but we are supposed to go find something ourselves?  There are people who are more comfortable with “forward motion” until God stops them or changes their direction.  It’s not a bad thing.  But I still hear that small voice say “Wait.”  (Or do I?)  Maybe I’m taking the easy way out or I’m too scared to make a decision, so I use the excuse that I’m “waiting” for God? 
                        I know the answers to these things in my head and in my heart.  But when too much “thinking” confuses me and I’m feeling “forgotten” by God or foolish for waiting when others are telling me to be bold and make it happen, it helps to hear a message like the one you gave. 
                        It’s as though that message was meant for me.  I had just asked God that weekend to give me some sense if I was waiting in vain or if I am right when I believe that He has told me to wait longer.  And then I heard your sermon.  What a great affirmation!  I needed to hear how a servant waits for the Master’s hand to move and give direction.  I needed to hear how God leads us one step at a time and that He is watching over our stops, as well as our steps.   I loved the idea that when God is silent in one area, He is not silent in all.  And that we should learn what we can in the areas He is not silent in.
                        He may be silent about where He will move us (or if or when), but I have really heard Him speak to me about other things as I have waited.  He has told me about the ways I have tried to control and lead and be independent, and how that’s not what He wants for me. 
                        Given my broken home life, I had never really understood what having a “daddy” felt like.  I had several fathers, but never a daddy.  Never one who I felt completely comfortable with or that I belonged to.  I struggled with feeling like anyone could care that much about me.  And I’ve always worried about being a burden to anyone. 
                        And this sense of detachment, not surprisingly, tainted my view of God.  “Why would God want to help me in this area?  I’m just a burden to Him.  This little need doesn’t really matter to Him when there are people dying of starvation and wars and other tragedies.”  Oh, I always knew God was a good God and I’ve always loved Him.  But I’ve never needed Him to be my Heavenly Father. . . until He brought this time of confusion and waiting (along with some other independence-breaking trials). 
                        These past few years I have begun to rely on Him (and need Him) in a way I never did before.  And your message has helped to give me the strength to keep waiting, even when I can’t see a way out of it at all.  I can’t see what He will do, and I have no idea how He will do it.  To me, it’s a no-way-out situation, because I know that we can’t make it work ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  But I know that if I wait for Him, He will do it. 
                        The waiting has been hard.  But I have had the joy of learning what it means to live by faith (not that I always do it right).  It wouldn’t be living by faith if I had all the answers up front.  I’m learning to walk without having the answers or the control that I love.  But I do need the reminder every now and then to hang in there.  So thanks for your message. 
                                                                                                Sincerely, Heather

            Not that it will come to anything. . . But I am writing a book about how the trials I went through and how being a mom helped me learn to make God my Heavenly Father.  And I wonder if I can include some quotes from you that you gave in your sermon.  I don’t know if it will get published.  I really started writing it more for myself.  But if it does, Could I quote you?  Thank you and God Bless You!  I have really enjoyed being under your leadership the last 10 years.    

            It’s these times of confusion and unfulfilled hopes, in the desert of waiting, that make or break faith.  It’s an opportunity to despair and give up all hope, or it’s an opportunity to grow.  And it’s a terrifying - but exhilarating - opportunity to look forward into a darkened path, grab God’s hand and say, “Okay, Lord, I will trust You still.  Thank You for this opportunity to walk by faith, to see You move mountains and part the Red Sea.  And even if You remain silent, I will still praise Your name.” 
            Sometimes, though, when we get too lost and hurt and confused, we have nothing left to offer God, not even a little bit of trust and faith.  At these times, all we have to offer God are empty hands and empty hearts.  But it’s up to us if they are opened or closed.  And God can work with “open.”  Closed hands and a closed heart make us bitter and prevent us from hearing His guidance and experiencing His power.  And keeping my hands closed tightly around my hopes and dreams and desire for control just ends up leaving them empty anyway. 
            But an open heart and open hands throw open the door to Him.  And we open our hearts and hands by accepting what God brings into our lives.  Trials to grow us.  Pain that prunes away dead branches.  Encouragement, guidance, and conviction from His Word and from prayer.  Encouragement from others, from music, and from our church family, etc.
            We accept trials as from God’s hand because He has allowed them to happen.  He allowed them to happen and He can make something good out of every hardship, if we love Him enough to trust Him and to let Him have control.  And we accept the help that He brings us in all of its forms.  He knows that we are so human and that we can’t do it on our own, and so He sends things and people to be His loving arms, to uphold us and encourage us and guide us. 
            We show our openness to Him - our willingness to have Him fill our hearts and hands with what He wants - when we choose to obey no matter what.  When we choose to learn from the trials and to let them drive us closer to Him.  When we praise Him when we hurt, no matter how pathetically small our effort may seem at the time.  And even when we can’t do it with our emotions, we can praise through our wills.  And I think, ultimately, we show our openness to Him when we let Him prune away all other pursuits and idols until He becomes enough for us. 
            And when He becomes enough for us, He can then come into our hearts and our lives fully and fill them with what He knows is best for us and for His glory.  In all of this “time in the furnace,” I was learning to do this.  I was learning to open my hands and my heart - to release my “rights” and my dreams into His loving, wise care - trusting that He would fill them in due time. 
            When I was in PNG, I remember thinking about how I wanted to simplify my life.  I wanted to clean out the clutter in my home (Still working on that!) and bring things back to the basics, back to what really mattered.  But I was learning that it wasn’t just my house that needed to be cleaned out, it was my life.  I needed to clean out the fears that I carried around, the misconceptions I had, all the idols that I ran after, the selfish desires that I set my heart on, and all the other ‘gods’ that I leaned on and sought support from (including myself).  I needed to simplify my life and bring it all back to the one thing that really mattered:  God!
            But as I said, this journey will never really end this side of eternity.  And the deeper you dig, the more you find.  And even after all of this, I found one more doubt that that I didn’t know was there.  One that I never thought I would ever have to admit to.     

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