“No stars gleam as brightly as those which glisten in the polar sky. No water tastes so sweet as that which springs amid the desert sand. And no faith is so precious as that which lives and triumphs through adversity. Tested faith brings experience. You would never have believed your own weakness had you not needed to pass through trials. And you would never have known God’s strength had His strength not been needed to carry you through.” (Charles Spurgeon)
Growing up in the 80’s, I remember even from an early age being afraid of war and conflict, especially of nuclear war. It was a time of conflict, aptly named the Cold War era. Books were penned and movies made about the conflict between East and West. We crowded around our televisions to watch the battle of the East and West play out in sporting arenas. We practiced hiding under our desks at school (which always seemed to be an act of futility to me… did they not know that our desks couldn’t protect us from atomic bombs?) And then the 90’s dawned with great and sweeping change. It was a season of ease, prosperity and revival even. The Wall came down, the Iron Curtain fell, and even in the Church, there was a revival of worship that swept across the landscape of Christianity. We read books like “The Prayer of Jabez” and sang songs of revival and the “Sweet Wind” of God blowing in our midst. More personal to our family and ministry, the end of this decade marked the beginnings of night and day prayer and worship in a little old trailer in Kansas City. Looking back now, the sovereignty of God and His perfect timing are so evident even in the small beginnings of that 24/7 prayer room in 1999. And then, a new century and another change of season came. I remember getting a phone call from my brother that beautiful fall morning telling me to turn on the TV because something horrible had happened. Like millions of people worldwide, my eyes were glued to the TV and prayers poured over my lips as I watched planes explode, buildings crumble, and thousands of lives lost. I remember vividly sitting in the prayer room in Kansas City later that September day with so many questions weighing on my mind, and seemingly on everyone’s minds. Some were too quick to try to answer those questions (in my opinion), as is often the case with life’s troubles. Job’s friends are always quick to come with answers to troubles, but their words very often fall short of the perfect kiss of mercy and justice in His heart. I don’t know if the world really changed that day, but it sure felt like it did. A new word entered our daily vocabulary and unending news reports: “terror.” Unlike the fears that the 80’s brought, the new century’s terror was more localized and unpredictable. It could and would happen anywhere and anytime, and it might not even be a foreigner. It could be a troubled college student in a movie theater or even an elementary school. Tsunamis swept away tens of thousands of lives, earthquakes toppled cities, and we are now hearing words like “caliphate.” Contention seems to be present everywhere in today’s society. Right versus left, Christian versus Muslim, race against race, neighbor against neighbor (even in the Church), and once again, East versus West. In just the last decade, it feels as though the troubles of the earth are multiplying daily and exponentially. There is an undeniable shaking going on. One only has to open up AP news and read the headlines and feel the troubles of the earth.
More personally, suffering has been a very real part of my journey even from the beginning. “In this life you will have many troubles…” The words in red are not lost on me. Jesus’ words to His friends are very real to me, a testimony and a comfort and a truth because He knew, He knows, and He gives peace and joy and love abundantly when life brings shaking. In the last few years, I have watched and wept as people very near have faced loss and grief and pain unspeakable. Losing a child, a friend, a spouse, their health, and for some, even losing their way. I don’t know if it’s because of my own journey, but I readily step into another’s shoes and I often carry their pain very close to my own heart… heavily. It weighs on me. It’s real to me. I weep with them before the Lord. Almost involuntarily, my soul enters in some small way into the lonely rooms of suffering with my friends and even with perfect strangers. I think for many of us, it’s easier to pretend that that kind of pain won’t ever touch us. We so want Jabez’s prayer for the broadening of our borders and no pain or sorrow to be our only testimony. But sometimes, the most beautiful witnesses of His worth and beauty come not from perfect portraits, but from ashes scattered and strewn about. It is in the dark of night that we discover the beauty of the stars. Sometimes, our borders expand even more through heartache and loss. And as one author says, despite our desire for a life of prosperity and no trials or troubles, “we are not the Author of our stories. We are the characters.” (Kara Tippetts) Jesus Himself told us we would have troubles… AND that we would witness troubles. The earth and all its inhabitants groan and travail for the return of the One who will end our tears forever, but never forget them. Jesus draws near to the brokenhearted (and consequently, so must we, if we long to find Him and know His heart).
So how then do we respond to trouble, to suffering… when the earth reels and shakes and life doesn’t look like we expected it to in all our fairy tale dreaming? As we weep and draw near to our friends and to those all over the earth suffering right now in this moment, as we weep in our own journey of beautiful blessings and terrible troubles, how do we know and trust His goodness?
There are many things I could say as answers to that question. But lately I have been thinking about the stars, the sun, the moon, and the mountains out my window. I cannot escape their beauty and their always-ness. They are always right there in their place singing out their reminders of His faithfulness and mercies, new every morning and also always the same as faithful witnesses to His greatness. I think about all the ages between the beginning in that Garden and today – about men and women living quiet lives of monotony, some remembering their God and Maker, some forgetting, and some altogether mocking and hating Him. I think about the evils of murderous empires and individuals and all the horror and glory that takes place under the brightness of that sun. That beautiful sun – giving light and making things grow, not too far away that we are all frozen and not too close that we are burned into extinction. I think about sailors navigating the seas by gazing at the heavens, about wise men from the East looking to the stars to find an unexpected King, the God of the Universe, toddling into His mother’s arms in Bethlehem, and about my own boys with their new telescope and the days ahead where they will gaze up at the stars and wonder at their faithful lighting of the night’s sky. I look up to the heavens just as the watchers of the night who so long for the morning sky, and it dawns on me: His greatness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His mercies, and His kindness are holding them all in their place – the sun, the moon, the stars. Day after day, He upholds them by His Word. He upholds them to tell us something about Himself. He never leaves. He never forsakes. He never stops loving. As sure as the sunrise, as sure and the lights in tonight’s skies, Jesus loves us and His mercies span over all of time, over all the shakings and the evils of this world and over all the blessings and the weak hearts who have reached for Him in the night. This is the comfort that God told Isaiah (Isa 40) to speak to Israel of their impending exile. These are the words of our God for the forerunners of that day and for the forerunners of this hour:
Comfort, comfort, my people…
Behold your God!…
Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He Who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
Who brings princes to nothing…
To whom then will you compare Me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of His might,
and because He is strong in power
not one is missing…
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might He increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:1a, 9b, 21-23, 25-26, 28-31 ESV)
These are the words of God Himself. And it is not the first or the last time that He answers humanity’s cries of distress and offers comfort, or at times a rebuke, by pointing to His own glory and greatness as seen in creation. Even in the most desperate human story in the Bible of a man named Job, God speaks and He answers much the same as the words of Isaiah 40. He is saying, “Look up, behold who I AM… see all that I have made and still uphold. I know when a single bird falls from the sky. I know the number of the hairs on your head AND the number of your days. It is Me alone who holds the stars in the sky, who rotates the earth for each new sunrise and who gives you the moon in the night hours to light your way. If I do all of this… if I cause the sun to rise on the just and the unjust… if I have held all the stars in the skies and the sun in its place from generation to generation… if I Myself left My heavenly throne and clothed Myself in dust as all the heavenly host watched in wonder so that those whom I have made could hear My voice and touch My hand… if that earthly journey led me to a bloodstained cross as men berated and mocked the One who gave them breath and voices and choices… how much more do you need to trust Me? Can you believe? Can you lean on Me and trust My goodness and know that I am enough? I AM the Lord your God and I am great and able to save to the uttermost and I am near. Behold your God. I am your comfort.”
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps 73:25-26 ESV)
This winter, I turned 40. And I don’t know why, but this birthday has impacted me more than any birthday before. It was as though suddenly (slowly over time probably, and then all at once), I realized that our days are truly numbered. We come with expiration dates. Our days here on this side of time have an end. Our bodies grow old and fail us, regardless of how much organic food we eat and how many miles we run to try to keep that expiration date at bay… it is there on our horizons, and each year seems to pass more quickly than the last. (I know now what my parents were speaking of when the said that time went by faster when you are an adult versus at child… that is SO real, though I’m not sure I understand why?) And along with that reality came another personal realization… one where I look back on how difficult the degeneration and accompanying pain have been in my body especially over the last couple decades, and now as I am looking forward, I know that what is behind me will not hold a candle to what is before me. The degeneration and pain from here on out (apart from a miracle of the Lord) will be markedly worse. Those two realizations – 1) of numbered days and a desire not to waste one minute of the time He gives on this side of the veil, and 2) of a future that is marked by possibly even more suffering than that which I have known thus far – these realities have shaken me to the core. They are defining me and my days in a new way and bringing me to my knees before my God and King. But outside my windows (and inside), His presence is inescapable. His faithfulness is ever present and evident in all that I see. I look to the mountains. I look to the heavens. I look at the little faces sleeping in their beds. I feel my beloved’s hand around mine as we drive down the road and his cold feet cuddle mine as we lay beside each other on a cold winter night. I feel the sunlight on my face. Even winter’s death is beautiful, the secrets of new life hiding just below the surface. Everywhere and in everything, I see His goodness. So even in the sorrow, there is joy. There is gratitude unspeakable. I live in a constant state of thankfulness, falling ever more in love with a God that gives abundantly, whose mercies are unending, and whose love is unyielding. I am conquered by affection for Jesus even when the troubles of life weigh heavy and the ground feels shaky. I don’t want to miss a minute of gratitude. I want to adore Him in every twist and turn. His greatness and worth far surpass any of the lesser realities and they demand my attention and my affections.
“I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for the heavy perfume of wild roses in early July and the song of crickets on summer humid nights and the rivers that run and the stars that rise and the rain that falls and all the good things that a good God gives.” (Ann Voskamp)
He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
He gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
His understanding is beyond measure. (Psalm 147: 3-5 ESV)
Mine has been a journey of suffering, and I have processed much of it in this blog over the last eight years. But far greater than suffering and perhaps because of it, I have known Jesus. I have found Him to be enough. He is good. His mercies far outweigh the troubles of this age. He leads us through the shadowlands with cords of lovingkindness. Yes, my heart feels the weight of the groaning and cries all over the earth and even in my own soul. I feel the fragility of life and the tick tock of our numbered days bears down upon me with new heaviness. But the stars, they sing to me, the sun speaks, and the lamp of the moon reminds me even in the night that Jesus is greater. Jesus is better. Jesus is enough. And so I am left with love and gratitude overflowing. Can you hear the songs of the stars? They are singing of His greatness…
“Out of the rough oyster-shell of difficulty she extracts the rare pearl of honor, and from the deep ocean-caves of distress she uplifts the priceless coral of experience. When her flood of prosperity ebbs, she finds treasures hid in the sands; and when her sun of delight goes down, she turns her telescope of hope to the starry promises of heaven.” (Charles Spurgeon)
Just look up. Look beside you. Peer into the Word. Behold your God. Jesus is enough. Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.
“Hope itself is like a star—not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity.” (Charles Spurgeon)
“Who that had never witnessed a springtime would have guessed that these lifeless branches held concealed all that hidden power of life! It will be thus with us at the resurrection. God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars.” (Martin Luther)
** The amazing photos above are from Andy Best Photography. I follow him on Instagram (andy_best) and look forward to seeing the new photos he posts everyday. Highly recommend if you love creation and photography.