thirty-one

last weekend i turned thirty-one. in dog years that’s about four for a medium dog – i’m about a medium person. in binary that’s just one shy of one hundred thousand and is special on account of the fact that it’s all ones: 11111 (other all-ones ages are 1, 3, 7, 15, and 63). during this past year i think i was in eighteen distinct places from malaysia to indianapolis to wichita falls, texas. it was either the most difficult or second-most-difficult year on record but i’m still here pressing forward.

what did i learn?

hope has long been the most relevant aspect of my faith and in this past year it has grown immeasurably more important. we live through one failure after another and we witness destruction and grief and hopelessness every day. we feel resentment and abandonment and imprisonment in different forms. how can we make sense of this? how can we not give up? it is for me only because Christ has overcome the evil and darkness in this world and only because the truth lies in a story of true redemption. the pain we know each day does not have to be a story of desperate souls swimming towards an abysmal nothing, but of God’s blessed enduring for a while until the promise is fulfilled.

in psalm 13 we see king david cry, “how long o lord; will you forget me forever; how long will you hide your face from me; how long must i take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” david dealt with hopeless matters both trivially personal and dramatically national, yet in his cry of recognizing the darkness within he finishes by declaring that his “heart shall rejoice” because he “trusted in [God’s] steadfast love.”

in 2 samuel 12 we have this story of david mourning, fasting, weeping, and praying for his dying son. when the son finally dies he stands back up and washes his face, ending his grief instead of starting it. confused, his company asks him to help them understand his behaviors: “while the child was still alive,” he said, “i fasted and wept…who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live.”

david held on, sometimes quite foolishly, to the hope he saw in God’s power to restore, deliver, and reconcile. he was surrounded by enemies but was also his own enemy on more than one occasion. he clung to a hope which was shrouded at times by his own anguish and doubts as we see when he cried out. our image of a “man after God’s own heart” is full of contradiction, selfishness, fear, and failure of will; it’s held together by a faithful recognition that God is good and God delivers those who call on him.

if you are reading this you are probably familiar with some of my own struggles and darkness but you may not be aware of just how many different factors have come together in the past year to grieve me and distract me from that hopeful promise. in 1 kings 19 we find elijah at a point where he had given up on hope and longed for the release of death. just then when he needed it most an angel touched him and led him on a retreat to hear God’s voice in a whisper. “the journey is too great for you” said the angel, and truly it was – it was necessary for him to understand how much this life depends on God’s will and not ours. inspired by this and other retreats in the scriptures i fled to the black forest in germany in order to drown out life’s noise and listen for God’s whisper.

what is the conclusion? put frankly the cure for hopelessness is gratitude and perseverance. what God has promised he will deliver and the greatest gifts of all he has already delivered: he has not abandoned me but rather has chosen me; he has not neglected me but despite my choices he has guarded me and blessed me; he has not turned away from me but was patiently waiting for me to return to him. in those times when i too beckoned, “how long oh Lord,” he was allowing the suspense in my heart to build until the day i started to recognize the revelation, that two thousand years ago he heard us and answered and that, dear friend, makes all the difference.

so the greatest gift of all is a kind of trump card. do we then deny all of our struggles or bury our longings? by no means! it took me too long to start to understand how i can be inwardly glad and thankful for life yet while things remain broken and dim. the paradox is that joy and sorrow are bound to intermingle until the fulfillment of the promise. the peace of God does not mute the pain and hopes and struggles of a wandering sojourner like myself. the gift does not depend on my worthiness but rests on God’s mercy and grace.

various people have made it clear they think my hope is foolish and think it will hold me back as long as i hold on to it. this in itself has been discouraging. we cannot give up our hope in God’s salvation because he has demonstrated the biggest reconciliation possible; he has conquered death and sin in us and offered us a new path forward in him. i chose to move on in hope not because i have reason to believe that what i want will eventually come to pass, but because i know that against all odds God may choose to intervene and heal what has been broken. without hope i find no reason.

when i retreated into the mountains of the black forest the first time and was preparing to propose i was inwardly torn by a recognition of my own failures and tendencies into the darkness: am i doomed from birth? am i destined to fail? should i just give up now? well, the answers were probably “yes” to those, except for hope. it was the hope and knowledge of repentance which gave me the confidence to start the most precious relationship i’ve ever known. i know i will fail, but i know that deep inside my heart i long for the goodness which God offers and i know that through that contrition and desire he could mend even the most broken circumstances. with faith there is always an unexpected and better way of healing and gladness for all.

what now? well i clearly failed my wife whom i deeply love and i don’t know if restoration shall ever come. i’ve shied away from my calling to love and show compassion for the needy among us. i’ve let fear overpower my innermost desires. i don’t know what to do. but, i hope. i pray for restoration and i pray for healing and i pray for God to make things right.

we must be foolishly hopeful if we want to overcome the darkness around us. this is the whisper i have been hearing from God for as long as i can remember and this is what he reminded me in this past year. do your best, persevere, and rely on hope because the journey is too big for you. strength does not come by jumping away from one difficulty to another but in learning to stand firm when things are bleak and finding that the struggle is worth it.

what shall i do next? what’s in store for thirty-one?

well, let’s see. i want to continue to learn what it means to be a faithful and godly husband and continue to address my own personal issues. i think also that it’s time to settle down for a bit and get involved. being away from friends and being away from a church has been really hard for me. it was harder than i anticipated in 2014 when i moved to germany and became largely isolated. it continues to be difficult while moving around the world as a nomad. my happiest time was back in new whiteland with mandi when i was active at church and helping at the food bank and supporting the refugee community in indianapolis.

darkness continues to sweep over our country and the outlook seems helpless. i’m convicted that it’s time to stand up for the victims of fabricated narratives supporting fear over love. i want to continue to pray for the unlikely healing and reconciliation of our nation before we do something so heinous that it tarnishes our identity for generations to come, causing terrible pain and suffering along the way. hope requires humility and that means continual prayer for even the perpetrators of these injustices. we are broken not because there are a few people orchestrating evil but because inside each and every one of us is a selfish desire which can grow to cause great evil, because we collectively have chosen personal comfort over justice and equity.

life is a daily struggle and and it’s not easy for me to foster gratitude. like the thorns in matthew 13, my own depression and issues choke out the good which i am designed to accomplish. i think thirty-one should be “be ye grateful” as a reminder to orient my mind towards the giver of so much good, to the one who may yet be planning on restoring that what seems irretrievably broken and lost.

for all you thirty-aughts out there i hope you will have a year more successful than i did.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offeringfor the LORD your God?

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