Friday, January 29, 2016

Willing to Bend? Embracing Hope!

            Since the beginning of this year, I have been praying that God would give me a “word of the year.”  And for awhile, I thought it was grace - as in “My grace is sufficient,” as in finding His grace anywhere I can each day (even if I wish that so many things were different), and as in I need to extend more grace to other people.  I do not like the negative way I view people sometimes, quick judgments that I might make about them.  And I want to really “see the person behind the snap judgment.”  I want to be more graceful in my view of others.  So grace sounded good to me.  But I was the one who picked that word, because it seemed to fit. 
            But last night (Jan 28), I was praying again, “Lord, do You have a word for my year or month?”  I really wanted to know what word He wanted for me.  And just as I finished praying, the word “hope” popped into my mind.  “Hope,” it seems, is to be my word.  At least for the month of February.  (I am trying to ask each month for a new word, as part of my “Chicken Challenge,” posted earlier this month.)
            And as soon as I heard the word “hope,” my heart went, Oh, no.  Not that one.  I was a bit bothered that God gave me that word.  (As least I think it was from Him.  I am learning to identify when it’s from my own thoughts and when it’s not.)
            I know this is going to sound terrible, but hear me out. 

            The thing is, I have been working for years to shut-down “hope.”  I have had to learn to not hope that things will be different – in my friendships, relationships, family-of-origin, house-troubles, shattered dreams.  Over the past years, I have tried and tried to change so many things about my life that I don’t like.  I have tried to make it better in so many ways.  But being shot down so many times has broken my heart and worn me out. 
            And I remember the moment that I decided I was done with hope.
            This past summer, after dealing with so many other unchangeable disappointments over the years, I consciously decided to pour my energy and hope into the garden.  At least I have the garden, I thought.  Of course, I have my husband and children and one good friend, and it’s wonderful.  But I also “needed” the garden, too.  I needed that outlet, especially since it’s always been a big way that I connect with God.  And because of all the disappointments and the silence I had been feeling from God, I really needed to connect with Him.  I needed the garden and to see something accomplished in it.  I needed something to be happy about.  And so I poured my heart into it, happy to be back at it after a neighbor’s moldy garage which blew all over our yard kept us inside our house the whole previous summer. 
            And then, the day after I lovingly watered my wonderful, abundantly-growing raspberries, a dead tree (from the moldy-garage neighbor) fell across it during a storm and destroyed a bunch of plants, including the raspberries, the ones I had been carefully tending to and that I was delighting in just the day before.  (Written about in the 2015 August post called “An August 2015 Update: Wrestling with God.”) 
            After my initial shock and my initial thankfulness that the tomatoes weren’t hit, I crashed inside.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Well . . . it was more like a great, big straw that broke my heart and my spirit.  And I decided that I didn’t want to enjoy anything anymore or invest myself in anything except doing my job as a wife and mother.  I am done!  Everything I touch gets ruined.  Every time I hope and dream, I get clobbered!  I am done with this hoping and trying and wanting! Screw it all!  I am done! 
            And while I joked about the fallen tree with others, no one really knew just how much died inside of me that day along with the raspberries.  And I went on auto-pilot, deciding to not care about anything.  Just wake up, do my job, shrivel up inside, don’t dream, don’t care, and don’t delight in anything anymore!  And that was the last straw after years of other heart-crushing, faith-shaking disappointments.
            And one of the only ways I have been able to learn to be content (as can be) with all these disappointments over the years was to “let go of hope,” to get rid of all expectations and dreams that things will change.  Hope hurts too much.  Expectations slowly kill you inside.  Dreams just get you excited, only to have you crash back down to earth in a flaming heap. 
            [Yes, I know I write all these posts on finding God in the hard times and learning to praise in the pain, so this kind of pathetic “hopelessness” sounds so wrong.  But this is the behind-the-scenes look at how I work through it all to get to point where I can learn and grow from the trials and be content with the disappointments, instead of becoming bitter and wallowing in hopelessness.  It’s a process.  And it isn’t pretty!]

            After I made deliberate efforts to let go of my dreams and my expectations and to get rid of any hope of making life fit my idea of what it “should be,” I started getting to the point where I could accept life as it is.  And I began to switch my focus from trying to “fix” things and make them “better” to trying really hard to cling to God instead, to embrace His grace in the muck and the mire of life.  I might not be able to change my circumstances, but I can find God in them. 
            And it has been quite a journey, learning to embrace my life as it is and to praise God anyway, to say, “Whether You give or take away, blessed be Your name.”
.           It has been a years-long process.  And I have finally gotten to the point where I am doing okay with it.  Where I no longer need things to be different.  Where I have grown “content” in the muck and the mire, as long as I know God is there with me.

            And then God goes and puts the word hope in my head. 

            Honestly, I really didn’t want that word.  It has kinda been an “enemy” of mine for years now.  And I was doing okay without it.  I had adjusted.  I had learned to face each day without wanting things to be “better.”  I had learned to accept broken relationships, broken dreams, unmet longings, scattered family, etc.  And I was doing just fine without hope.
            I don’t know . . . maybe hope is not supposed to mean that anything will change anyway or that my relationships will get better or that my dreams will be fulfilled.  Maybe there is a different reason for that word.  I just don’t know what it is yet.

            Last night, as I struggled to absorb this new “word of the month,” I found myself struggling a little with God.  I realized that my first reaction was to go, “No, Lord.  Please, not that word.  Give me another one.  I don’t want hope.”
            And my second reaction was to test God, to make Him prove that I could trust hope.  And I began to pray, “Lord, if You really want me to have hope, You are going to have to . . .” 
            And my mind wanted to come up with some way for Him to prove that my hope would be rewarded and that I wouldn’t be let down, such as “heal my shoulder problem, the wear-and-tear from years of carrying kids and digging in the garden and cutting down small trees with a hand-saw (really stupid move!)  I need my shoulder to garden.  Please, heal it.  But if You don’t, then I’ll know You don’t want me to garden anymore.  And I’ll know that ‘hope’ is not really for me.” 
            I just didn’t want to risk getting my hopes up and then being let down again.  I’d rather just not hope at all. 
            But I caught myself and couldn’t get the words out.  Because I realized that it sounded so much like Gideon putting out the fleece to test God, to make Him prove Himself.  And when we read that story in the Bible, we kinda think, “Silly boy!  If God said it then He’ll be faithful.  You don’t have to test Him.  You just have to trust Him.” 
            And my mind started to admonish me, saying, “Silly girl!  If God really gave you that word, He can be trusted.  And He doesn’t have to prove anything to you by jumping through some hoop.  If He said it, there is a reason.  Even if it doesn’t match up to how you think hope should play out.  Will you trust Him or will you doubt and test Him?”     
            And then I thought about some of the things I wrote in the “predestination” posts, reposted next month (February 2016).  I wrote how, in general, God follows our lead.  For those posts, it was about how He hardens people who harden themselves and opens the eyes of people who turn to Him.  He doesn’t force us to do things His way (to be saved, to be obedient, etc.), but He does call to us and offer His free gifts to us and invite us.  And then He lets us choose.  And He responds to how we respond, giving us what we chose, letting us walk down the path we choose to walk down.
            And I realized last night that I was at a sort-of crossroads.  I could accept this word hope or reject it.  I could accept it in anticipation of how He would fulfill it or apply it, trusting that He has reasons for giving me this word.  Or I could stiffen my neck, wallow in my “everything goes wrong” pity-party, and say, “Nope, not gonna have hope.”  And my response to His offer of hope – His invitation to hope - might just affect what happens in the near-future.
            If there is one thing that I have learned over time, it’s that we have so much influence over things that happen in our lives.  He is there for us to call on, to “inquire of” . . . if we choose to pray and choose to inquire of Him.  But He allows us to not pray and not seek Him, if that is what we want.  (Read about how Joshua failed to “inquire of the Lord” in Joshua 7 and 9.) 
            And God tells us how we are to live, but we have to choose to obey or disobey.  He calls and invites us to go down the path He wants us to take,  but we have to decide to follow or to turn the other way.  He is willing to care for us and guide our paths, but we can choose to live self-sufficiently and try to do things in our own wisdom and power and way.  And we reap the consequences of our willingness or unwillingness to bend to Him.

            And so I decided to bend to Him.  To trust Him.  I don’t know what that word means for me right now.  I really don’t.  But I decided to accept it.  And I prayed, “Okay, Lord.  I trust You.  I will accept the word hope.  Help me know what it means for me and what I am supposed to do with it.”  And I left it at that. 
            Honestly, our job each day is just to be willing to listen to Him and follow Him when He calls to us, when He leads us in some direction.
            Psalm 25:9, 12:  “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. . . . Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord?  He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.”     
            Isaiah 30:21:  “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” 
            His job is to lead us down the right path and to work it into His plans.  And as the Isaiah verse shows, He will guide us as we walk and as we listen to Him.  But He will not force us to follow Him, to go down the path He wants us to go down.  We have to be willing to bend to Him, to submit ourselves to Him and trust that He will always guide us down the right path.  And if we will take the steps He calls us to take – even something as abstract as having hope – He will straighten out our paths.
            “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)
            I don’t have to know what His plans are, how He is going to use or not use that word.  I don’t have to know what hope means for me right now.  The only thing I had to deal with last night was whether or not I would accept the word He put in my heart. 
            And I did!  Because as much as I might unnecessarily panic over every new trial that comes along, I know Him well enough to trust Him (. . . eventually . . . usually after a lot of panicking at first and freaking out.  I’m still learning to trust.  It’s been quite a journey.). 
            And now that He has my “acceptance” – now that I have chosen to submit to what He wants for me, to be willing to follow His leading – He can weave it into His plans for me.  I am trying to follow where He is leading, to bend to Him instead of expecting Him to bend to me.

            “. . . but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”  (Romans 5:3-5) 
            In this passage, hope is the result of persevering through the trials.  And maybe this is the kind of hope I am supposed to have right now.  Not the kind that's really just cleverly-disguised expectations, daydreams, or presumptions (which is how we usually define hope).  Not the kind that’s about getting what I want, but the kind that comes from not getting what I want and then learning that God is enough for me!  The kind that comes when I let go of everything else that I hold onto (the control, the self-sufficiency, the need to make life what I want it to be) and when I grab onto God alone.
            Trials either break us and ruin us inside or they purify our hope and our focus, helping us shift our focus from our circumstances to God alone, to His love for us.  And unlike the hope that is based on getting what we want, this hope in God’s love – even in the face of trials - does not disappoint!  Because the rewards of this hope will be seen in eternity even if so many things go wrong on earth!    

            Life never really matches up with what we expected it to be when we were young and care-free and full of dreams, does it?
            But I don’t cling to my dreams that life will be what I want it to be.  I cling to God.  And I am just so happy that this life isn’t all there is, that the best is yet to come!  I can think of no more hopeless thing than to think that this life is all we get, that there isn’t a God who is watching over us, who will make all wrongs right in the end, wipe away all tears, destroy death, and make everything new again.  And I will gladly put my hope in Him, in a God who will take all the bad that this life throws at us and weave it into something good.  My hope isn’t in anything this life has to offer.  My hope is in the Lord!     

            I’m curious to see what this year holds for me.  It’s been a long time since I let hope live in my heart.  Yet even if none of my circumstances change (I have been learning to not let my hope rest on my circumstances, on what I can see), I know that He will be faithful and walk with me through the hard times. I know that He will work everything out for good.  I know that eternal rewards will come out of the temporary trials and that all things will be made right in the end.  And I guess that’s the best hope we can have.

            “Therefore, we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

            “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  (Isaiah 40:31)