Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"The Valleys are His"

The last time I posted, I wrote about courage. Well, you’ll never guess what was attacked by the devil after that! That’s right, my courage. Instead of boldness and confidence, my weeks were clouded by anxiety and fear. And it really shook me. I am sensitive to a lot of things, and my own unease is high on the list. As my fingers fall to writing these reflections, a part of me feels like I’ve come a long way. But then I look at the past weeks and I see how difficult it is for application to sink in. It makes me feel two-faced and faithless; unequipped and weak.

So I stopped typing. I literally wrote the above paragraph and then left it sitting there with lots of blank space beneath it. It wasn’t until 11 o’clock last Sunday night that I felt I had something more to share. And the irony of it: it’s about how unworthy I ultimately am, in all of this.

I’d already been in bed for a half hour. But thoughts kept nagging at my brain. So I got up and began typing as quickly as I could by the light of my laptop screen (I’m not a great typist—there were lots of mistakes). If I’ve learned nothing else: when the inspiration hits, write it down.

I used to really love worship music. Summer camp was a spiritual high as we sang songs that were buoyant with praise and expectation; the early years of attending a church that sang modern music made me feel vocally connected to God. But in recent years, and in recent months especially, these cheerful songs have rubbed me the wrong way. Give me a good somber hymn, or at least a modern version of one. This trend parallels my spiritual appetite as well. As I follow blogs and look at the books on my to-read list, I don’t gravitate towards the ones that are too uplifting or cheery. I find comfort and relatability in the struggles, suffering, and yearnings of those who have walked ahead of me.

So on Sunday morning, when the congregation began singing a children’s song before the little ones were dismissed for Sunday School, I had quite an epiphany. The words are simple enough: My God is so Big. So strong and so mighty. There’s nothing my God cannot do. But then the next part hit hard: The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are His handiwork too.

The mountains are His. The valleys are His. The highs are His. The lows are His. I should not feel “unspiritual”, unworthy, or hypocritical for dwelling on the hard things. They are God’s, just as much as the times when my soul is ready to respond with praise. What fortuitousness!—as I continue to carve out this theology of suffering—that a simple children’s song would speak volumes to my heart.

Now, with most of the things I’ve learned in this journey, this Truth had a big impact in the moment, but later on I am left wondering how to apply it. I feel like a peddler with a cart full of useful trinkets but no idea how any of them work. I can share them with you (and I will), but I am still learning what they mean for my life. And in the same way, you will have to go through the process like I am. My experiences are not the same as yours. But I take comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit uses any truths that come out of suffering to speak to us, in our own unique ways.

With no planned connection to the month that hosts Valentine’s Day, the following are heart descriptions I have had- , and hope to have. If the valleys are His, my heart in the valley is also surely His. Each of these helps me take a step closer to understanding what that means:

A BROKEN HEART: A few evenings ago I was speaking to my friend (who moved to another city in October) on video chat, when she said, “Becca, we left you with a broken heart didn’t we?” Unquestionably, I was distressed by my friends’ departure (then and also through the years) and the ripple effect this has had on my life, but I hadn’t thought of my pain in those terms. But the brokenness is important. Where there is pain, there can be healing.

The image of light helps make this point: I thrive on light. I don’t often like to be in the dark, especially metaphorically. But when there are times of great contrast—of sorrow or pain—it is those times that speak more deeply to my soul than when my life is full of light. The challenge is to look for these contrasts and respond rightly, even when the heart doesn’t “feel” it. That’s why, since the beginning of January, I have tried to be extra diligent about reading a Bible devotional each morning. Some mornings nothing I read seems relevant or impactful. Other mornings, my heart is itching for some healing and the following nuggets of truth sink in.

A MINDFUL HEART: I read the First 5 devotional app every morning, and this month we are going through Judges. If you’ve ever read the book of Judges you’ll know that it’s full of stories of God’s people doing stupid things, but then being turned back to the truth of God’s faithfulness and plan. These are reminders that we need to seek God’s wisdom in all things, and at all times. Not just once, but as a repeated action.

AN OPEN HEART: I often feel ill-equipped for what God has or might have for me. This is what I like to refer to a pre-worry. I’m really good at it. But there’s a story in the third chapter of  Judges (and similar instances later on), where the Israelites succeed in battle with tools much simpler than war-ready weapons. I often grumble in my heart, “I’m too tired; I don’t have enough money, or time, or faith to do x,y, or z.” But do I have a willingness? Perhaps that’s what needs to change. The writer of the Judges 3 devotional reminds me, “God’s hand is never limited by what we have in ours.”

A STEADFAST HEART: Do the next thing. I have read multiple devotional and articles this month that reiterate this. I think it’s a natural response to the dreariness of winter and the very real seasonal depression that can settle in around us. Elizabeth Elliot often spoke of this. She would quote an old Saxon poem by the same name:

"At an old English parsonage down by the sea,
there came in the twilight a message to me.
Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven
that, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven.
And all through the hours the quiet words ring,
like a low inspiration, 'Do the next thing.'

Many a questioning, many a fear,
many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from heaven,
time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus, do the next thing.

Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing.

Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
working or suffering be thy demeanor,
in His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
the light of His countenance, be thy psalm.
Do the next thing."

Whether it’s spiritual or physical exhaustion, this plus God’s grace is what gets us through the valley. We are not left to our own devisies. The Lord places people, and events, and circumstances in our path, urging us to do what is next with diligence and trust.

In Judges 6, God saw Gideon as someone who was faithful in the small tasks set before him. So He confidently says to Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14). The author of the devotional for Judges 6 states, “God often uses the weak and lowly things of this world to accomplish His will (paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 1:26-29). . . He is not looking for our ability. He is looking for our availability.”

A HUMBLE HEART: There’s a section of Judges 7 where God tells Gideon that he will not allow Israel to boast in their own strength when they go into battle against the Midianites. So He diminishes the Israelite army from 32,000 to 300. But God goes on to say that He will give Israel the victory—and He does! The writer of the Judges 7 devotional puts it this way, “Any time I make myself bigger, I make God smaller. Our God refuses to be made small.” This is a reverse comfort to me because in this current season, my life feels very small. My influence, my circle of friends, my accomplishments—they all seem to be shrinking rather than growing. In earthly terms, this doesn’t look good. But in the light of this story from Judges 7, it’s the “right” place to be in. God demonstrates time and time again that He chooses to work from the desperate, seemingly impossible circumstances.

This is something I can hold onto! But it is also a warning. Only once chapter later, in Judges 8, Gideon arrogantly seeks his own glory after the victory over the Midianites. I often don’t think of my desires for a new job, a steady income, friendships, and relationships to be about “my glory,” but they can easily fall that way when my focus, and even the direction of my prayers is too inward. For both James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 says, “God opposes the proud bu gives grace to the humble.”

Knowing that in the valley, my heart can be both broken and mindful, steadfast and humble—these are the things that help me understand the lyrics of that song: 

My God is so Big. So strong and so mighty. There’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are His handiwork too.

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