Wednesday, November 13, 2013

God's Presence

**If you just started reading, go here to read about why I'm writing.**

About two weeks before my daughter came home, the hospital chaplain paid me a visit. I was snuggled up with baby girl in the comfy chair I had a nurse steal for me and we were watching our usual mindless HGTV show. The chaplain said he had been meaning to come by and just wanted to chat for a minute so I welcomed him in. He asked me how she was doing and I filled him in. He asked me how I was doing, kind of pressed me on it, and I told him -- that all things considered, I was doing pretty well, in large part thanks to the amazing community I had supporting me. I told him about some of the incredible ways God had shown Himself to us through our whole ordeal and he was almost surprised to hear that as my response. He asked me an interesting question that I will never forget. "You say that you feel God with you right now, but has there been a point throughout all this when you felt that God wasn't there?" The question took me off guard because truthfully, I hadn't really considered it. I took a moment to think and truthfully answered, "No, I never felt like God wasn't there." He nodded and smiled and said he was very encouraged by our story and went on his way.

I thought more about that question after he left. I answered him then, but I really wanted to examine my heart, think about what he was asking. We had been through a lot, most of it not good. We were facing questions without answers and some terrible possibilities for the future. At times, we weren't sure our daughter would survive everything she had to overcome. We certainly celebrated many "mountain top" moments when we could point and say, "Look! See! God is here!" But what about the valleys? What about the terrible-awfuls and the frightening parts? Was God present in those moments? Or was He just there for the victories?

As I pondered this, I thought back to a sermon preached by our church's former associate pastor. I don't remember the context of the illustration (sorry, Drew), but I will never forget what he said. He recounted his own experience with a sick child, his son born months premature and fighting for his life in the NICU. He was talking about God's presence in those times and he said, "If someone were to tell me that God wasn't with my son, that He wasn't a part of all this, I would want to punch that person in the face." The congregation chuckled at the thought of this very quiet, mild-mannered man hitting someone. But he said, "If God wasn't there, if God wasn't with my son when he was at his worst, what hope did we have? What hope is there if God isn't with us?"

The real emotion behind his words made my heart do flip flops. Knowing what they had been through and how scary it was, having visited his son when he was still in the hospital living in a plastic rectangle -- I knew that his charge to see God in the midst of pain and struggle came from a place of experience. He had been there, immersed in the pain, seeking to understand how these terrible things could happen and God could still be good. I had never really thought about it before. I had never thought about it in a way that was personal and real to me, in a way that I could truly see, and it scared me. What if I couldn't reconcile this? What if this was so big that it would shake the very foundation I stood on? How would I know if God was there when I encountered suffering in my own life?

The Word of God promises over and over again that God will be with his people always. Moses says this to Joshua as he hands over leadership to him: "It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8)" Jesus promises his presence to his disciples before He ascended into heaven: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)" God promises this in Isaiah: "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you,I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)" In Micah, the Word speaks to God's presence in trial: "Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. (Micah 7:8)" Even when things look dim, God is still present, a light in the darkness.

My heart flip-flopped to think of seeking God in the midst of pain because I know myself. I know that when the going gets tough, I suck into my turtle shell and wait to beat off the intruders with a stick. I talk a good game, but I am not strong; I'm scared and small and weak. I give God my character, imagine He would do as I would, and suddenly the outcome doesn't look so good. Instead of victories, I see defeat after defeat after defeat and when the stakes are high -- say, my daughter's life -- I cannot compute; I don't want to go there; I don't want to have to think about God in the midst of that.

But God isn't me (thank God!). God is a God who keeps His promises and who is there. And thankfully, none of it relies on me. One of my favorite stories from Genesis illustrates this. "The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: 'Fear not, Abram, for I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.' (Genesis 15:1)" Abram didn't understand; he had no children but God was promising him great things and offspring beyond number. Abram "believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." To cement this covenant that God had made with Abram, as a physical manifestation of the promise, God has Abram bring him sacrifices, animals that he was to cut in half and lay in the grass. When the time came to seal the covenant, Abram fell into a deep sleep. God repeated His promises to Abram, and "when the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces." Abram didn't move between the pieces of the sacrifice. Abram didn't uphold his part of the covenant. God sealed the covenant for both parties, for himself and for Abram. God made the covenant with Abram, and God would keep the covenant for both himself and Abram.

All of those promises in the Word, promises to prosper and protect and secure and deliver, all those promises were made by the same God who sealed this covenant with Abram. They were made by a God who upholds His end of the deal and proves Himself over and over. When I look around and see my circumstances, see the pain or suffering around me, I could be tempted to think that God is not present or protecting or delivering. I could be tempted to think that God has abandoned me in that moment and that I am alone in my shell with my stick. But God does not depend on my circumstances. God does not depend on what I see or how I feel. And God is not shaped by my response to the world around me. I don't have to understand or know why. I don't have to be able to explain it or defend it. God's promises are true, despite my feelings or assessment of the situation. His promises are true regardless of how I think things look, and so I can say with confidence at all times that God is "my rock and my redeemer", that when I pass through the waters, God "will be with me" because, as He says, "I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior" and if He says it, it is true. Always. Forever. In all things.

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