Sunday, 15 January 2012

Death, fear, and the promised land

I have spent the last month away on "holiday" (in inverted comma's because, really, can you holiday with 2 pre-schoolers?) in Auckland and Northland. I have spent a portion of it fighting off the usual bouts of depressing mental scenarios of death and the subsequent consequences on my family and friends. If this sounds a bit morbid and mildly insane, I justify it by saying that 8 years ago I lost a very dear friend far too young on the Northland roads. She was almost 19, I was 22. My closest friend's younger sister. Her death dealt a blow to my faith and my life which I have never recovered from -and I hope I never do, because her death taught me so much and was the event which propelled me into this crazy journey from fear, anger, and doubt to discovery and a journey towards becoming more fully who God has always intended me to be. It's however an odd and unsettling thing that driving those roads, I can't help but think things that I usually manage to keep at bay.
To give a bit of background, for the 3 years after Erin's death I became, I'm not sure obsessed is the right word, but certainly overwhelmed by fear and thoughts of death. It was a horrible time (and weirdly, a wonderful time, as that year was the year my future husband and I were courting, to use an old-fashioned word, and he was a rock for me). 3 weeks after Erin died, another good friend lost a younger sister to a brain tumor - she was 15. That year we lost at least 2 family members. When you have to deal with so much grief in such a short space of time it feels like your heart has been through one of those old fashioned wringer washing machines. I got sick, my body sort of shut down on me, and I couldn't climb out of the blackness in my heart. I was filled with the "why?" and the "how could you let this happen?" and "but you promised you would look after us?", "you promised that you would answer our prayers?", and the clincher "People who love God are meant to have things work out for them!" It was most certainly not meant to be like it was. Death, despair, depression. Around every corner. 
Cutting a long story short (the journey of it all may be for another time), I got through those days. Years. It has been amazing, in the end. I'm astounded by my God and his redeeming power (hence my blog title). 
So this most recent summer holiday, I was going through some depressing scenarios in my head involving funerals and what-if's. There was a horrific news item just the week earlier about a young girl being attacked in a camping ground, and that wasn't helping my state of mind at all. However instead of blaming God and fighting him, as I once would have, I pressed in and tried to seek him through the stuff going on inside me. I also read a couple of awesome books which were just right for me. One was "The Shack" which people either love or totally hate, that's fine. It was what I needed and touched me, so I will leave it at that - read it and make your own assumptions! But I will talk about the other book, "One in a million" by Priscilla Shirer who is an American preacher/teacher from Texas. 
The premise of the book is a very detailed break-down of the book of Exodus, from the Israelites journey from slavery in Egypt to the wandering in the wilderness and then the promised land. From 2 million people, only 2 made it from Egypt to see the promised land. The book is about that - how to be the "One in a million". The ones who get to see the promised land and don't just die out in the wilderness. 
It was an incredible read. Often it's not that bad in the wilderness. Just sort of average, fine, sometimes quite good actually. In her words: "Too many believers... get settled and content on the outer fringes of abundant life, feeling as thought they've got all of God they really want or need. They're pretty much OK with the way things are, not really believing or even desiring more than what just comes from showing up dressed every morning. In fact, if they were being perfectly honest, they think that people who do venture out boldly with God are taking this faith things a little too far, to the point of being foolish. They'd be a bit embarrassed, frankly, to carry on like that." 
For myself, so much of the book rang true. Because I so deeply long to go past the average and the usual with my life as a follower of Christ. I don't want to just live year after year going to church on Sunday, feeling guilty about not reading my bible or praying, being a good neighbour, trying not to swear or commit any other obvious "sin" all the while committing plenty of not-so-obvious ones. I don't say this stuff to stand in judgement on anyone else. I just feel like there is more and we're missing it.  The book didn't hold back in it's blunt assessment of why we get stuck in the same old place for so many years. I learnt so much and here's my main one: Life isn't perfect in the promised land.
So often we have a grass-is-greener mentality on our lives. So many dangerous and pointless words we preach to ourselves: "if only...", "once I have done...", "if I just had that..." then my life would be better. Then I'd feel better. Then I'd get myself sorted out. If my husband changed, then life would feel better. If my kids slept through the night, then I'd think about reading my bible again. I'm just going to enjoy my life for a few more years before I get serious with God. Every time I try to be a good Christian, someone else messes up and no one cares so why should I try so hard? And know this, I am so talking about myself here. "If only our house was finished, then I'd be more hospitable and welcome people into my life". "Once I've lost weigh then I'll feel better about myself". "It's just not realistic to spend heaps of time with God when you've got young kids and you're tired". "Well I know those books do have some stuff in them that isn't great, but the story telling is so wonderful and people would think I was a dork if I got rid of them". All just rubbish that holds us back. I can't say it as good as she can, so I highly recommend you read the book. 
The promised land for the Israelites was not easy. It wasn't free from troubles. There was war, battles, conflict. But they were in God's will. From the book again: "Promised land living. This is what it looks like. Not easy chairs. Not happy-go-lucky. NO, it's something far superior to that. Promised land living is power, confidence, endurance, thankfulness. It's boldness that can't be shaken by anything, even when an earthquake is erupting all around you. No matter the noise level and magnitude. It's forgiveness, freedom, full-expectation. It's strapping on the armour and daring any devil in hell to try defeating what God is accomplishing in you."
And through the bible you see this. I realised in the years after Erin's death that I had always remembered the good parts of the scriptures and not the other parts. But we can't take that stuff out of context and then yell at God "But you promised to protect me!". Here are some examples. 
Psalm 91: ... Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor fear the dangers of the day, nor dread the plague that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday. Though a thousand fall at your side, though ten thousand are dying around you, these evils will not touch you. But you will see it with your eyes..."
I don't know about you, but if I had terrors at night, dangers during the day, plagues, disasters, thousands falling and dying around me - I wouldn't feel like God was with me. I wouldn't feel like I was in the promised land. But you can't read a psalm like that and just put "When you call on me, I will answer, I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue them and honour them" on your fridge and ignore the rest. 
Jesus himself told us what to expect in John 17: "When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you. The world would love you if you belonged to it, but you don't. I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you... Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you... The people of the world will hate you because you belong to me, for they don't know God who sent me"
And at the end of that is one of my most loved verses of all time, when Jesus says to them: "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world".
Paul in Phillippians talks about learning to get along with food or without, with nothing or with everything. When I have no food I can't say that I feel particularly joyful or thankful. And the faith chapter, Hebrews 11, lists all the awful things that these people of faith endured. Including being sawed in half , chained in dungeons, and having their backs cut open with whips. Nope, not the promised land by our usual standards.
The grass isn't greener. You can move town, divorce your husband, get a new job, cut your hair, lose weight, and none of it will make a bit of difference if on the inside you stay the same. What matters is our heart, our attitude, and our relationship with our maker. When we start with this stuff, we are in a better place to appreciate the blessings when they do come, and we can endure and be thankful during the trials. I'm on a journey to this place, and I'm determined to see it through. My fears include the fear of alienating people close to me by being "too Christian". Argh. I hate that one. I'm not sorry, I am not going to compromise in order to make sure that everyone else around me feels ok about where they are at. I am sorry though if I lose people close to me because of it. But "one in a million" is going to be a lonely place and I want to go beyond the drudgery that sometimes normal life can be. I'm scaring myself writing these words. I am grateful that I serve a God of grace, who is good, and who loves me, and who will take my hand and lead me through as I continue on this journey of being a follower of Jesus.
I hope this has served as a start for a lot of thinking and praying, and that it inspires someone. Don't let it drive you to guilt because that's not of God and it's not going to do any good. God is with you on your journey too.
Sarah xxx

1 comment:

  1. This is a lot of what I have been thinking about lately. I even have a typographical painting in my head on the topic. Having Beatrix feels like the promised land and it is and I love these words that you quote from the book: Promised land living is power, confidence, endurance, thankfulness. It's boldness that can't be shaken by anything, even when an earthquake is erupting all around you. No matter the noise level and magnitude. It's forgiveness, freedom, full-expectation. It's strapping on the armour and daring any devil in hell to try defeating what God is accomplishing in you."It is EXACTLY how I feel. I also feel the responsibility that I feel comes with being in the promised land. It's a special place to be. Certainly not to be taken for granted. Thanks for writing this post.