As I thought about what I wanted to cultivate in my faith in 2012, I set out reflecting on 2011 and yet found my mind going back to 2005. That year acts as something of a watershed in which a series of extremely difficult circumstances began to shape the way I viewed and related to God. 2011 continued on that path as we lost dear friends and family to illness. It was not an altogether bad year and very good things happened like the marriage of close friends, a new call for me, and my wife and I feeling more at home in the Bay Area. Still, the loss and pain have dominated my thoughts, which is not surprising since I tend to see the glass as half empty.
Grief and confusion have been companions for much of the past six years. Some of my most consistent prayers have been questions like, “Where are you God?” or “Master of the universe, what are you doing?” (That last prayer was lifted from Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev.) I do not think it was a coincidence that I was in seminary in 2005, studying the prayers of lament and complaint found in the Bible, notably in the Psalms and Job. The fact that the God of the Bible is not only open to, but welcomes our laments when things go bad, saved my faith as friends and family died, as marriages dissolved, as we struggled in our communities of faith, and as the world endured tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, and war. Through my lamentations, I experienced Jesus’ presence in ways I had not previously.
As a result of the parade of hard experiences, I became more comfortable with the darker side of faith: the side that struggles to hold on to God in the midst of storms, that reallizes doubt is often just as present as certainty. I knew the “cost of discipleship” in ways I had not previously understood. In many ways I am grateful for this season and what God revealed to me in the midst of pain, grief, and doubt. This is not a lighthearted gratitude, however. Following Jesus during this season has not been necessarily delightful, but my conviction that Jesus is our best hope for the world has strengthened.
There is a story in the sixth chapter of the Gospel According to John that resonates deeply in me. Jesus has just offered a very hard and off-putting teaching and many of his followers leave him. As he looks at the few who remain, this encounter happens:
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (v.67-69)
Peter’s words ring true to me. In the last six years, I have heard Jesus’ hard teachings, his difficult demands for sacrifice and forgiveness, and though having faced the temptation to just walk away, have been able to say, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I look at the alternative gospels of different faiths, of our economies and politics and can say Jesus has the words of eternal life, even if they may be hard to accept at times.
In reflecting on the pain, doubt, lament, and fragile certainty, I find I deeply miss the delight in Jesus that I once had. I miss the joy of discipleship, that sense of excitement I would feel when I opened the Bible, trusting that God would reveal something new and good that would lighten my burden, not increase it. So in 2012, I choose to seek to delight in God. I do not wish to gloss over the harsh realities of life, but to also give my attention to the sweetness and delight that is also present. I want to seek the joy in Jesus that I know exists. I want, once again, to “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” (Psalm 34.7a)
In my new efforts to find delight, I have been reading thanksgiving psalms, or what Walter Brueggemann calls, “psalms of new orientation.” There are psalms that praise God when life is good and ordered (e.g., Psalm 1). Then there are psalms — laments — that cry out to God when things go wrong (e.g., Psalm 88). There are also psalms that thank God for deliverance from evil or harm. These psalms do not deny that life sucks sometimes. They are born out of lament. I like that Brueggemann uses the term “new orientation,” because deliverance does not return the world to what it once was. The loss and pain still happened. Instead, God establishes something new, God creates an altogether new order in which that pain is redeemed, not eliminated.
I have been spending a lot of time in Psalm 34, with verse four saying the words I have longed to proclaim: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” I have discovered new fears these past six years and I want to know God’s deliverance from them. I love this psalm because it does not assume that life with God will be pleasant or easy. Verse 19 reads, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” This psalm knows from experience that bad things happen. It also knows from experience that God is a deliverer. It has tasted the bitterness of loss and it has tasted the goodness of God’s new orientation. This year, I want to taste and see that goodness again. I want to delight again in God.