Friday, September 11, 2015

Worshipping in the "No"

A pastor told me he had read my post "How Long the Waits," which is a post on prayer. He had enjoyed the post, but mentioned I had not addressed the "no" answers to prayer as thoroughly as I had addressed the "yes" and "wait" answers. I told him, I didn't struggle with the "no" as much as "wait" because when answers come quickly and are clearly "no," I know I've been heard and can move on while the "wait" leaves me feeling unheard and unseen. As I reread the blog in preparation to address the "no" answers, I realized my response wasn't as true as I had alluded to several significant prayers that had been answered through "waits" that turned into "no's." Some of those were listed in the blog when I explained that sometimes the answers I got left me full of shame and an obsessive heart searching for hidden sin that might have hindered my prayers.

"I don't know how many times I would find myself waiting on God and find shame and guilt rising in my soul. leaving me obsessively searching my heart for the hidden sin. Over time I learned more about prayer, but occasionally the guilt would come flooding back like it did when I prayed my parents' marriage would be healed, but it ended in divorce. Like it did when I had been praying for a friend to receive Christ and he died in unbelief. Like it did when I had prayed for a friend to conceive, but she died without ever bearing a child. Like it did when I'd been  praying for a friend to find a mate and it never came to be. Like it did when I prayed for healing for a friend battling cancer that eventually took its toll and friends and family had to let go and say goodbye. Like it did when I prayed for God to heal a friend's sick heart, but she died of congestive heart failure. Like it did when I was praying for God to lift the fog of depression but it lingered for several years more. Like it did when I was praying a friendship would be restored, only to realize it won't happen this side of heaven"   

These prayer requests were emotional prayers because I prayed for people I loved dearly. Some felt complicated because sometimes the answer looked like it was "yes," then it turned back into "wait," then looked like a "no," and then repeated. An example of this is when I prayed for my parents' marriage to be healed. Their marriage was one of severe ups and downs, threats of divorce, separations, and reconciliations, and ultimately ended in a painful divorce. All of this taking place from the time I was conceived until they divorced when I was pregnant with my second child. I have been contemplating the "no" answers this week, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about them. There is more in my heart in regard to the "No," than I originally thought.

First, some prayers that were answered with a clear "no" were easy to accept and move past. Sometimes it was because I had little emotional attachment for whom I was praying. If I don't know someone well, I don't experience as much emotional energy praying as I do when I pray for close friends or family members. "No" can also be easy to accept and move past when I've prayed and it becomes obvious that God's answer is "no" and His answer alleviates suffering, as it did in the case of my friend, Karen. She received a diagnosis of lung cancer and was not given long to live. She lived several years past the doctors' predictions and loved God, trusting Him until the end. She reminds me of the group of saints mentioned in Hebrews Chapter 11:39-40 who remained faithful through severe hardships, "And all these, though commended through their faith did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." Although God did not answer our prayers for the full healing of her body, He granted her extra years and the strength and grace to fight valiantly the cancer ravaging her body. She died in faith, believing He could heal her, but her healing occurred in heaven. God's "No" ultimately alleviated her pain and suffering. The years of her fight taught me a lot about faith and about trusting God in the hard.

Other "No's" have been harder to take. I prayed for years that God would heal a friend of a heart condition. I knew the answer went from a "wait" to a "no" when she passed away in her sleep  from congestive heart failure. I struggled with the "no" because I experienced Jesus in my relationship with her. She loved well, forgave quickly, was slow to anger, gave lavishly, and had a heart for others to know God. As I grieved, I knew God had the power to heal her and had chosen not to in this life. It pulled at my heart strings because she left two kids, a husband, and a slew of friends missing her. I don't know why God chose the time He chose to take her home, but when I look back I see God's gracious hand all over the situation. I had called her the week prior to her death and for some reason neither of us wanted to get off of the phone. We had talked regularly, but that day our conversation lasted hours and took on deeper transparency than any of our other conversations. We affirmed our love for each other and celebrated the long friendship we had in spite of the miles between us. She shared that even though she had deeply grieved the loss of three babies when we lived close, she was blessed and thoroughly enjoying the two children God had allowed her to raise. I shared with her the blessings of being a mom to my children. We laughed, we cried, we reminisced, and we challenged each other to love well and to forgive readily. As we hung up, something in me sensed it was our last conversation. I shook it off, but soon after that call a mutual friend called to tell me she was gone. She got choked up and couldn't speak and I gently told her I already knew it was Millie.

The love and comfort I received from the church at her funeral and from our last conversation helped me navigate the "No." In her death, I was given the privilege of seeing things she had done to help that church grow in  ways God wanted it to grow, but she would have never told me about those things herself. Sometimes I wish I could pick up the phone and call her, and I feel a wave a grief that I can't. Yet, I am confident the God she exemplified is good and is faithful to His promises. His taking her home alleviated the painful and scary symptoms she had described to me in that last conversation. I know the impact she had on the church, her friends and her family is ever  evident.  Her impact helped many become lovers of God and lovers of people. I know she is still singing praises, but now I know she has the joy of singing praises to the Lord, face-to-face.

As I look back at other "nos" I realize there were seasons of life in which the "no" answers challenged my faith and caused me to close myself off from God. I was afraid to ask, fearing the "no" because I believed it to be a pronouncement of judgment on me and my walk with God. I have since accepted we all have a fleshly sinful core that runs deep. But it is really all about God's grace and His grace is always bigger than my sin. It His is grace that saved me and it His is grace that is slowly and surely transforming me. It is His goodness that leads me to repentance, not a fear of "no' answers and surely not the fear of not having the approval of others over my spirituality.

For a time I also struggled with the idea that the "no" answers meant I was less loved than others who share how God answers their prayers. But as I look back at my life I see something more about how God has relentlessly pursued me. I never deserved it, it is all of grace. I didn't ever physically run from God, but I did run emotionally from Him by closing off my heart and living in an emotionally  numbed state. One day I finally realized that whenever I "ran" there would always come a point that I felt like I hit a proverbial wall, emotionally and spiritually and I am thankful that "wall" that I ran into was Jesus, Himself.

I have come to realize God doesn't work the same way in everyone's lives. Three mothers can ask God to heal their children. God takes one home. He heals one. He teaches one how to live with chronic illness. Yet I believe God relentlessly loves all three mothers and the children for which they prayed.

Four mothers can pray for their sons or daughters to return safely from war. Yet, one comes home in a coffin, one comes home seemingly unscathed, one comes home with emotional wounds running deep to the core, and one comes home with missing limbs. Yet God loves all four mothers and the children for which they prayed.

Several dads pray for their drug addicted children to come home and get clean and sober. Yet one has to identify his son in the morgue. One has to pass his daughter on the street corner, prostituting herself on the street to pay for her habit. One has the joy of watching his child work hard for sobriety, return to Christ, and help others overcome their addictions. And God loves every dad and the children for which they prayed.

Several moms pray as their children struggle with depression. One loses a child to suicide, one sees her child healed, and one watches as her child learns to find joy in the midst of the depression. And God loves the moms and the children for which they prayed.

Then their are catastrophes like the Twin Towers. People prayed for family members to be rescued.  Some came home and some didn't. Then there were those who had last minute changes in flights and their lives were spared. There were some who stopped to help others and lost their lives because of the sacrifice they made, while there were some whose lives were spared because they too had paused at just the right moment as they were helping someone. Yet, somehow I believe God loved
relentlessly and was pursuing people in the midst of what appeared to be chaotic abandonment. And God, He loved them--those who lived, those who died, and those struggling still because of what they experienced that horrific day.

There are times we, as Christians, judge others who have prayed and have received life altering "no's." We act as if they were somehow more sinful, less worthy, or less faithful than those whose prayers were answered with resounding "yeses." Maybe, just maybe, we do this because we're uncomfortable with a God whose ways are bigger than our ways, who is not bound by our human finite minds, and who can say "no" to the things we so desperately desire. We want a magic formula to insure we get what we ask for, but maybe prayer isn't so much about the answers as it is about the relationship we develop in the humility of the asking.

Not one of us has everything figured out about prayer. When a tsunami hit Thailand several years ago, many believers claimed it to be God's punishment for overt sex trafficking of children occurring there, not realizing it is happening here in our own communities. Maybe some traffickers died that day, but so did victims and believers who never trafficked anyone. Yet, in the aftermath grace was visible in the midst of horrific trauma and Christ was extended through believers who went in and provided relief and that tsunami access to those who needed Jesus and those who needed help out of the trafficked life. Many things, we tend to be so judgmental about, are invitations to be Jesus' hands and feet to people who have been made vulnerable by the Master's design so that they might  recognize they need Him. Those things making them vulnerable are our calling to meet their need.

I watch as women struggle with God's sovereignty over abuses they experienced. Many prayed God would protect them and carry great shame because He didn't. They mistakenly believe His lack of protection to be a pronouncement of their worth. But the truth is there were people who turned their heads, pretending not to see. Some believed healing would come from understanding the "why's" now understand that it came from a transparent relationship they developed with God as they wrestled honestly with Him over His seeming lack of protection. That wrestling helped them accept that their life story as a redeeming life story God, Himself, is still penning.

I have learned over a long period of time with a lot of wrestling that I can lean into God in total honest transparency when life is hard. The harder I lean into Him, the more I can see His goodness as He reveals it in the "yes" answers, in the "wait awhile" answers, and in the "no" answers. As I boldly, specifically, and continuously pray I want to have an open heart that accepts that His ways are not defined by me, but by Him. I want to believe whole-heartedly that He is fully present even when I don't sense Him and when I can't understand what is happening. It is in prayer that I find my relationship with Him growing and the more real I am the more I pray like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is then that I see His will revealed not only in His Word, but in the way He chooses to answer prayers. God is not mean. God is not manipulative. God is not seeking to control me with fear. God is not seeking to destroy me. He is gracious and every action and decision He makes is filtered through love scarred hands and a heart that has been pursuing me relentlessly. I can't help but wonder if the "no" answer is often the intervention God uses to bring me to the place I am humbled enough to open my heart fully to Him. And maybe it is the prayers I pray and the praise I give in the aftermath of the "no" when my heart has been laid bare and doubts have surfaced that allows me to exercise faith and participate in worship in its purest form as I proclaim, "God is good!"

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!