Wrestling Stones

I remember the smell after flood waters start to go down. It’s not something you can forget. We had floods almost every year where I grew up in the Philippines, and they usually did nothing more than turn low lying fields into muddy lakes around houses perched on tiny green islands. But when the water receded it left behind a decaying film of brown on whatever it had touched.

Sometimes a storm changes everything.

When the wind blows and the water rises, the landscape becomes unfamiliar, and whatever isn’t destroyed may never be the same again. A storm can roll in and out like a freight train, leaving us just grateful to be alive. It’s afterwards, when the losses start to pile up and the smell of uninvited change makes it hard to breathe that the weary plodding onward can start to feel hopeless. It’s easy to forget what life beyond crisis feels like.

Other than a couple days without electricity, our home wasn’t badly impacted by any of the recent major storms like so many others were. But this is the first fall in two years that we haven’t been up to our necks in the storm surge of seriously difficult life circumstances. We’re grateful, so grateful, to be survivors.

But here, where our footing is finally firm and the crisis has receded, everything that was familiar carries a film of brokenness. We’re aware now, in a way we never were before, that nothing on this side of eternity is untouched by Adam and Eve’s choice in the Garden.

Just this week I’ve learned of two separate long-time acquaintances who each lived for decades covering dark secrets behind smiles. One is now behind bars; the other has abandoned his family. For years and years and years these two hid deep streams of evil, appearing to be Jesus-loving, genuine people, while quietly and coldly destroying innocence. And the gagging stench of reality here is that their stories are not uncommon, and even (maybe especially?) in church circles, evil sometimes wears a likable face.

This world we live in can make it hard to hold onto our faith. This world where sin can flourish for a long, long time, where children sometimes become prey for sick minds, where people lay down everything they’ve believed in and walk away in despair. This place has no guarantees, this reality where babies sometimes don’t wake up and natural disasters flatten entire communities, and it’s easy to grow weary of doing good when it doesn’t seem to change anything.

So here on this side of the storm, where our eyes are wide open to the not-rightness of the world, how do we move forward? How do we hold onto faith where there’s so much that looks like evil and injustice are having a destructive playdate while God seems mysteriously absent?

Israel’s prophet Samuel came on the scene during a time of national chaos and fear. The Philistines, cruel and evil people, were determined to wipe out the Israelites even after seeing God’s powerful presence in the captured Ark of the Covenant. In the middle of his people’s despair, Samuel stopped. He prayed. He did what Israel’s priests had been doing since the beginning and sacrificed a lamb, acknowledging that God was still God and His people still depended on Him.

And God showed up. Just the sound of His voice was enough to terrify the Philistine army into defeat. But Samuel knew his nation’s history well enough to know how quickly sin and brokenness would erase even a miracle like this from memory. So before moving on, Samuel placed a large rock at the site of their victory and named it Ebenezer, the stone of help, saying, “Up to this point the LORD has helped us.” (I Samuel 7: 7-12)

When Samuel chose truth, he chose faith. God has helped us. Which means He hasn’t forgotten us.

The only way I know to choose faith where there’s a waterline of brokenness on everything is to wrestle a firm foundation into place, stones of truth that rest where I can see them and remember again and again.

Solid, weighty truths like these…

We’re allowed to ache. God knows that all of creation is groaning, waiting to be set free. (Romans 8:20-24) And He doesn’t scold us for our tears. He comes close, gathers them up, and keeps a record of every one. (Psalm 56:8) Our tears are valid, even valuable.

We’re not alone in this. Jesus wept at the death of a friend (John 11:35) and over the heart captivity of people He loved (Luke 20:41-44). He understands better than anybody the full cost of humanity’s rebellion. And He is WITH US! “When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2 NLT)

There are reminders of God’s goodness everywhere we look for them. There are places sin’s dingy residue is thin enough that we can almost catch glimpses of the way things were meant to be. There’s this sky splashed with glitter while we stand small and breathless and seen. There are these oceans that pull our eyes to the horizon and our imaginations to eternity. There are these brilliant leaves all crisp and curled and smelling like happy. There are these hands and shoulders, these eyes and smiles, this laughter and these songs that leak glory. All of this here, because we are loved and He is beautiful.

This is not the end of the story. God hasn’t forgotten us, and He hasn’t lost track and given up. Even now He is taking up all the loose ends and frayed edges and weaving them together bigger and broader than we can imagine. The day is coming (it IS!) when He will live visibly among us, beyond this broken horizon, where He won’t just collect our tears; He’ll wipe them away completely! (Revelation 21:3-4) Our worship there will be sweeter because of the redemption of all we’ve seen here.

Here in this this place that still carries the scents and colors of that first breaking in the Garden of Eden, let’s stop. Let’s do what God’s children have been doing from the beginning and choose faith. Let’s wrestle our own stones of help into place, reminders of who God is and what He has done. Nobody said choosing faith in this place is easy. It takes muscle and sweat and determination. Like most worthwhile things. But the more we choose truth and put it somewhere we can remember it, the stronger we grow and the more our faith can bear.

Up to this point the LORD has helped us. And He is helping us still.

 “And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead us to disappointment. For we see how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. “ ~Romans 5:4-5 (NLT)

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