Thursday, April 16, 2015

Before What Comes Next

For a good time and an uplifting read take a look at the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations - said no person ever. But I am. Not looking for a good time but reading Jeremiah and Lamentations. I committed to read the whole Bible through using a two year reading plan about two and a half years ago. So yeah, there's that. I'm late. What else is new? I may be six months behind but I am dedicated to finishing this plan. So - I'm reading Jeremiah and Lamentations.

People often dive into these books to pull out the lovely, encouraging bits like Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the thoughts I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope) or Lamentations 3:25 (The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him) but did you know that those sweet verse are just a flash in the pan? Before Jeremiah 29:11 there are 28 chapters of doom and gloom prophecy about how Israel is going to face the natural consequences for a life lived outside of God's will. And after this hopeful glimpse there are two dozen more chapters that highlight the destruction and terror that is heading Israel's way. And in Lamentations when Jeremiah writes about God's goodness he is literally standing in the rubble that used to be God's holy city.

Reading these books have been a real eye-opener for me. I'm usually a glass half full kind of girl and if the glass happens to dip below the half way mark I tend to just ignore it and hope things will turn around. I love good news and I pretend bad news doesn't exist so I found the book of Jeremiah jarring. It's 10 to 1 bad news. Even the good news is flanked by bad news. That's no fun! Especially for me, who has grown up spiritually marinated in the promises and goodness of God and happily skipped over the messy parts of the Bible.

But here's the thing, God is in the messes too. He is in the moments of correction, the walking through consequences and in the devastating unforeseen circumstances. He is there - with us. That's the beauty of the mess. We are never alone in it. God doesn't rescue us from the circumstances because He has already rescued our hearts with His love. And that's better. Seriously, it is.

When I was a kid, I thought God was kind of like Cinderella's fairy godmother. I thought He was just waiting in the wings for things to get 'just bad enough' and then He would swoop in, change everything and rescue me. And when He didn't I was hurt, confused and angry. What kind of magical being was He if He couldn't fix my problems? How could He love me if He wouldn't change my circumstances?

I never really got an answer to those questions but somewhere along the way I decided to lock those questions and doubts in The Bad News Corner of my brain and move on. I still felt that God should be more like a fairy godmother, even if He wasn't but there wasn't anything that could be done for it so I let it go.

As I matured I understood a little better how God worked, how He loved and why He did some of the things He did. Occasionally I'd be chatting with a friend about the Bible and God and the question would come up, "If God is unchanging and so loving then what's with all the smiting in the Old Testament?" I would shrug, babble a little and then try to shift the conversation because I had no answer. I wondered what was with all the smiting, too.

This is the first time that I have read every word in Jeremiah, from start to finish and I now kind of understand what was with all the smiting and destruction. Israel took what was holy and made it unholy. They defiled the temple, the city and the countryside with false idols and pagan worship. Every good thing God had given them they distorted into something profane. God cannot be in an unholy place because He IS holy. So what option did He have?

After generations of warnings, pleadings, chances and mercy Israel was beyond repair - but not beyond redemption. God had to start fresh. He had to tear down all that was unholy to make way for His holiness once again. And in the tearing down there was some natural grief, mourning and pain - but God was still there. He stayed with His people. He watched them, comforted them and made a way for them to come back to Him. He redeemed them.

When we make dumb choices, when we are foolish and selfish and vain we defile what God has made holy. When we put selfish gain, fame, popularity or any current idol in the place of God in our lives there will be some natural consequences. We might be able to live a long time with this off kilter perspective - Israel did - but eventually loneliness, despair, greed, anger and fear will creep into your life. And it is only by tearing down that there will be room to build back up. Room for God to build you back up.

This is something I am learning. Something I am living. In order to be ready to handle what is coming next, you have to make room and prepare yourself. Tear down what is holding you back. Remove what is keeping you at a distance from where you want to be. Be okay with being unpopular. Give up your dreams of fame. Let go of your greed and self ambition and be content to work, to love, to serve, to give.

It took 70 years but God eventually rebuilt Israel. He brought them back, held them near and loved them. He gave them everything He had promised - a hope and a future. But it took time. It took walking through the hard road of captivity to freedom to rebuilding. It took learning again how to work, how to be in community, how to trust God. It took generations. But all the while God had His eye on them.

That's me. I'm Israel. I'm in my 70 years - again. I go through these times regularly. Every time God is preparing me for something new He asks me to take a look at my life, my time, my idols. He asks me to tear down, to make room. Sometimes it's easy but most of the time I struggle a bit. It's hard letting go of the life you've planned, of the things you love. It's scary. What if this is the last good thing? What if I let go and there's nothing else for me? What if I free fall?

The what ifs never happen. There's always something better waiting. There is always the next thing when I let go of the last thing. I never fall. I am always carried by God's grace and mercy and love.

Jeremiah and Lamentations are good news books, after all. They are full of hope and redemption and preparation for the next good thing. They are a reminder that God never is far away, never too far to see you, know you and love you. They are a declaration of God's hope and future and plan.

For us.

"And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity …"
Jeremiah 29:13 & 14a