on chronic uncertainty and the pursuit of God

I.

For over two years now I have been listening to Andrew Peterson's "The Burning Edge of Dawn" album. To me it is the sound of autumn and longing and hope. When it released in 2015, I was filled with unease and unrest about so much. We sensed that change was ahead, but had no vision or clarity and we were sitting in anxious waiting for...? For what, we didn't know. I seized this album and clung to the songs and words like a gasp for air. I believed they were ushering me into deliverance. Answered prayer. Wholeness. Peace.

Instead, I discovered Peterson's songs were walking me into the darkness.

It'll shake a man's timbers when he loses his heart, When he has to remember what broke him apart. This yoke may be easy, but this burden is not When the crying fields are frozen by the silence of God      [1]

Later I would describe it as a feeling of abandonment, though I know that idea conflicts with the nature of God. [2] For nearly a year, I'd continued in the spiritual disciplines that I'd learned brought me into intimate communion with my Abba Father. Practices I'd fought for through anxiety and fear and unanswered prayer and longing. Disciplines I clung to, that refreshed my heart and saved me from my own self-absorption. At some point that year, and for the two that would follow, it was as if God simply stopped showing up.

Imagine a standing coffee date with one you love - it's always on the calendar, time hard won and cherished. You come to trust and expect your loved one's attentive presence at these times, you share together in victories and woes, you laugh and cry together; you are strengthened by the mutual relationship. Now imagine your friend arrives later and later, saying less and less. Confident in your friend's love, you continue to meet, even though it appears she is not listening or responding. Then one day, you show up and you wait...and you wait and you wait and you wait. She doesn't arrive. Well, maybe there was an emergency. Grace for all things, you show up again the next time. Alone. And the time after that and the time after that - your friend is not coming.

I told my husband that although I didn't want to place my trust in my brilliant intellectual assessment (ha) of the situation, I didn't know what to make of the fact that suddenly God seemed to have simply disappeared. I knew that wasn't a plausible reality, God being Who He is. But I had no other explanation or way to grasp the silence I felt. The mister and I would pray together, we would enter into confession and repentance. We explored the biblical components of the ebb and flow of a life lived in Christ. Short of asking, "Did I just tick Him off?!", we exhausted our options.

And though I decided to make a choice for faith, acting as though God's presence was near even though I had no earthly affirmation of such, I felt completely in the dark. No, more like falling. It felt perilous and disorienting. I felt unanchored to truths I'd held to since I was a little girl, revelations I'd come into as a young adult, convictions I'd grown as a woman.

I called it a wilderness of sorts. A dark night of the soul. And I just knew (hoped?) that soon God would break through. He'd issue that revelation or divine word or person of peace to burst into the dissonance I was experiencing and make everything right again.

Except that is not what happened.

 

II.

 

Instead, enter my very own Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. [3]

A biblical scholar I respect once summed up the friends of Job this way: Eliphaz appealed to Job on the basis of experience with God, Bildad founded his exhortation in tradition, Zophar was unable to consider the nuance of the whole thing and was completely dogmatic...(and I failed to mention Elihu - I have a notation in the margin of my Bible that refers to him as a "young jackass", though I'm not sure I should say that here).

It's not a perfect metaphor, except to say that at a time when I felt the aching silence of God, I experienced what I can only describe as increased confusion at the voices of people who intended help. The bottom line for each of these friends was that yes, they were motivated by love, but they were each "poor theologians, attempting to box God into their experiences and traditions". I suppose we all do this to a degree. But in the dark night of the soul I've been walking in, the voices added their own confusion and brokenness to the mire and questions I'd been so certain of became impossible to grasp and believe: God's existence. His care for me, personally. His loving attentiveness to His children. His involvement at all with His creation. All muddy, foggy, uncertain.

I was tempted to quote Job himself, "I have heard many such things [as what you say]; sorry comforters are you all. Is there no limit to windy words? Or what plagues you that you answer?" [This last phrase is so good - perhaps should make it a normal part of conversation when unnecessary responses persist? What plagues you that you answer?] I agonized over these relationships, labored over the confusion wrought in my thoughts over well-intentioned but cold comfort.

My daughter and I put the seeds in the dirt And every day now we've been watching the earth For a sign that this death will give way to a birth And the rain keeps falling

Down on the soil where the sorrow is laid And the secret of life is igniting the grave And I'm dying to live but I'm learning to wait And the rain is falling

Peace, be still Peace, be still                                      
[4]

 

So I'm waiting for the King to come galloping out of the clouds while the angel armies sing.  He's gonna gather His people in the shadow of His wings And I'm gonna raise my voice with the song of the redeemed 'Cause all this darkness is a small and passing thing.      [5]

 

Perhaps, perhaps, I am entering into peace. I am not sure. But the darkness is a small and passing thing.

 

III.

A little over a year ago, our son arrived. Six weeks ahead of schedule, on the day we were only planning to meet his birthparents. I remember the unreal-ness of the drive, two hours away, and breathing anxiety-ease oils the whole way. I remember the sense of apprehension walking into the attorney's office first, for a quick meeting. I remember the uncertainty and dare-not-hope I felt when the attorney said, "Well. Birthmom thinks her water broke this morning." I remember how I felt walking out of there to meet the birthparents at a sonogram appointment...and sitting across a table with them later, eating barbecue and talking about baby names. The whole thing surreal and unbelievable. We took a picture together. We agreed to text.

We decided to stay at a family member's house in town, on the off-chance it were true, and she really was in labor. Later that night, we got the text from birthdad: "Hey - doctor says her water broke and she's 5cm dilated and baby's coming tonight. We'll keep y'all posted."

It was a whirlwind of NICU nurses and paperwork signing and finally, finally getting to tell our daughter that she was going to really truly be a big sister. And then it was the real life of midnight feedings and baby reflux and social worker visits. It was the big sister sitting on the couch and admiring her baby brother, only to be followed by, "Don't you remember I asked for a baby GIRL?" It was parenting two kids who are nearly 5yrs apart through preschool graduation and part-time work and packing up our apartment to move again. It was an answer to my heart's longing, but that did not make it easy. And it did not fix my heartsickness.

I remember telling a friend through tears, I think this year is just going to be WORK. The work of adjusting to a new baby, the work of another upheaval and change, the work of the spirit - though I don't know what that will yield. I sometimes I can't help my "why bother" that slips out, whenever I pray or attempt to meet with God. I'm not ungrateful - I love this baby more than I thought possible. But heartsickness I guess just isn't fixed with a 'yes' to my prayer. I know there's just WORK to be done.

The idea of work took root in that moment and took on flesh last summer. As I skimmed through the story of Job again (note: not comparing my circumstances to him duh should any of us ever), I recalled the way Job and his friends went through cycles of conversation and exhortation. I read Job's responses and his friends' attempts to help him wrap his brain around GOD ALMIGHTY. As if it can be done! As if God's purposes, His ways, His means of moving through time and circumstance can be neatly tacked up under golden words like "sovereignty" or packaged nicely into categorical explanations.

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you and you will instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

[5]

I know now, as perhaps I knew in part when the disciplines yielded an emotional connection to the Father, that this is work. That my heart will not simply wake up one morning and be magically restored to wholeness. That I cannot throw Christianisms at my mind and I cannot garner good feelings simply by clocking in with Jesus and hoping He punches my timecard.

But I believe He is able. Even in my chronic uncertainty, even in my help my unbelief, even in my daily confessions of not I, but Christ. He is able.

I had a dream that I was waking at the burning edge of dawn, I could see the fields of glory, I could hear the Sower's song. I had dream that I was waking at the burning edge of dawn, all that rain had washed me clean, all the sorrow was gone. I had a dream that I was waking at the burning edge of dawn And I could finally believe the King had loved me all along. I had a dream that I was waking at the burning edge of dawn and I saw the Sower in the silver mist -- and he was calling me home.   [6]