Tag Archives: Despair

Time, Distance, and Perspective

[King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon] took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
2 Chronicles 36:20-21 (NRSVCE)

Struggle, discouragement, loss, conflict, death, and divorce. Along my Life journey I’ve experienced both events and seasons I didn’t understand in the moment. I had no good answers to the “why” questions. From my vantage point on the road of life, the dark clouds surrounding me had no silver lining. Daily life became a slog through confusion, anxiety, grief, and even despair.

I know my experience is not the exception, but the rule. While the exact events and seasons may differ from person to person, I don’t know a single person who has not experienced at least a few “mountain top” moments in life, nor is there a person I know who hasn’t walked through what the Psalmist aptly describes as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Even Jesus in His earthly journey had His mountain top transfiguration contrasted with His guttural cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In today’s chapter we finish the book of 2 Chronicles. It’s a Cliff Notes version of the final Kings of Judah who become puppets of both the Eyptian and Babylonian empires. The season of Judah as an independent kingdom is over.

What fascinated me as I read the Chronicler’s final chapter is how he left the story. It’s very different than the scribe who wrote a parallel history in the book of 2 Kings. The scribe of Kings was writing at the time of the Babylonian exile. The story simply comes to an end with the fall of the Kingdom to Babylon. He is writing in the dark cloud of defeat. He has no vantage point of time and distance. He has no answers to the “why” questions. He is struggling to make sense out of the circumstances.

The Chronicler, however, is writing post-exile. He’s is further down the road of life and history. Cyrus, King of Persia, has allowed the Hebrew exiles to return to Jerusalem and has made allowance for wall of Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt. There is a new beginning. There is hope. The Chronicler looks back at the exile and sees prophetic fulfillment. He sees that the exile has allowed his homeland to experience sabbath in preparation for a new season, the planting of new seeds, and the anticipation of new life and possibility of a fruitful future.

This morning I’m thinking about the ebb and flow of our respective journeys and our stories. There will be mountain top moments. There will be deep valleys and despair. I won’t always have “why” answers in the moment. In fact, I come to accept that I may never have certain “why” answers that satisfy my heart this side of eternity. If I keep pressing on, however, I may be able to look back with much needed perspective. Like the Chronicler, I may see in retrospect that to which I was blind in the moment.

At the end of every valley is another rise, and that which lies beyond. I won’t see it until I get there.

Possibility. Anticipation. Hope.

The Story is NOT Over. The Story WILL Go On.

He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
2 Chronicles 22:12 (NIV)

I am convinced that there are stretches along every person’s life journey in which the road descends into chaos. Things we trusted to remain solid fall apart. Tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, another bomb drops. The compass we’ve always trusted to point true north spins out of control. We lose our personal bearing. Nothing seems safe. It is as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

For the people of ancient Judah, their unshakable faith in God’s promise to King David had provided them with a sense of peace. The Davidic line would remain as a trustworthy sense of stability. The throne would pass from father to son, from generation to generation. You can count on it.

Until things descended into chaos.

Jehoshaphat marries his eldest son, Jehoram, to Athaliah the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Jehoram kills all of his brothers in a bloodbath intended to solidify his control. His reign implodes as enemies invade and kill his entire family with the exception of his youngest son, Ahaziah. The only viable heir of David, the young Ahaziah is placed on the throne. His one-year reign is a disastrous chain-reaction of events ending in his assassination. Ahaziah’s power-hungry mother, Athaliah, kills off the rest of the royal family to consolidate her own power over the nation of Judah.

The Davidic line wiped out. That which was trusted is lost.

The people of Judah had to be reeling in the valley of chaos. They trusted the Davidic royal line would be forever. A member of the reviled and evil house of Ahab and Jezebel is on the throne of their nation. The compass they always trusted to point true north is spinning out of control. Nothing seems safe. It’s as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

But, the story isn’t over. While the circumstantial events in the valley of Judah’s chaos seem eternal and inescapable, the perspective of history allows us to see that this is simply a dark chapter in the Great Story.

There is a woman. There is a baby.

(How often can we quote that line in the Great Story?)

The woman is a daughter of the king. She is the wife of the priest.  She has the courage to risk her life for what is right.

The baby is the son of the king.

In the moment, no one knows it. In the chaos they cannot see it.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the valleys of chaos into which I’ve descended. I’m remembering my own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. And, I’m looking back from a waypoint further down Life’s road that provides me with a much needed perspective.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

A Faith Investment

Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessedin the territory of Benjamin, in the villages around Jerusalem, in the towns of Judah and in the towns of the hill country, of the western foothills and of the Negev, because I will restore their fortunes, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 32:44 (NIV)

A few years ago I read a couple of books about the Monuments Men. During World War II this small group of art experts were tasked with finding the hoard of European artwork that had been stolen, looted, and pillaged by the Nazis. Most all of the artwork had been taken from Jewish collectors, dealers, and artists as the Jews themselves were sent to Nazi ghettos and death camps.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a Jewish art collector living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The round up of Jews has already begun and you’ve personally witnessed the homes of your Jewish neighbors and fellow art collectors being raided. All of their possessions, including their priceless artwork, has been confiscated by the Nazis while your neighbors have been loaded onto trucks and carried off to God knows where. You know that it’s only a matter of time before you hear the dreaded knock on your own door.

Then, an angel of God visits you in a dream and tells you to take all of your life savings and visit a local art dealer to purchase a rare painting by Van Gogh for your personal collection.

It doesn’t seem like a wise investment, does it?

In today’s chapter, it’s just that kind of investment that God tells the ancient prophet Jeremiah to make. The Babylonians have begun the siege of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the land around it, and every single thing that is within it will become the property of King Nebuchadnezzar. God tells Jeremiah at that very moment to make an investment in the purchase of some land.

We’re back to God’s favorite medium of communication: the world of word pictures and metaphors. Jews in Europe during the holocaust would be foolish to invest in artwork unless they knew for a fact that they and their artwork would survive. It is similarly foolish for Jeremiah to buy a piece of land when the Babylonians are clearly going to take it all for themselves in a short period of time.

But Jeremiah’s financial investment was not the issue in God’s . His people’s faith investment was. Jeremiah’s public purchase was made to be a message of faith and hope to his people in a moment of hopelessness and despair. “My people will come back to this land,” God is saying through Jeremiah’s metaphorical purchase. “All that you think is being pillaged, stolen and lost in this moment will eventually be restored.”

Jeremiah’s investment reminds me this morning of God’s faithfulness. 2 Timothy 2:13 says that “If we are faith-less God remains faith-full because He cannot disown himself” (emphasis added). Being faithful is at the core of who God is even when I have trouble seeing it in the blindness of my short-sighted humanity.

In the quiet this morning I’m grateful that The Monuments Men succeeded in finding and restoring much of the artwork stolen by the Nazis (It’s a good movie, btw). I also take solace in knowing that Jeremiah’s people did return to rebuild their city and their temple (as told in Nehemiah). Even in the darkest moments of the Great Story, when all seems hopeless and lost, I have to remember that it’s not the end of the story. I just have to have to make an investment of faith.

Transitions, Trees, and Promises

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NIV)

It seems as if Wendy and I have been in a season of perpetual transition for years now. Transitions in life as teenagers come and go, make their own way (and sometimes return for a time). Transitions in family. Transitions in life stages.  Transitions of houses. Transitions in roles and work. Perhaps I am slow to accept that stability is simply an illusion when Life is a constant flow and we are each steadily progressing on our respective life journeys. Yet, the desire for life to slow down and find some equilibrium doesn’t seem to fade within me.

In today’s chapter God speaks to Jeremiah and riffs on a word picture that had previously been channeled through the lyrics of the Psalm writer (Psalm 1):

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

In Jeremiah’s case, I can’t help but think about all of the prophetic messages he’s thus far delivered in his prophetic poetry:

  • pack your bags
  • life as you know it will end
  • all you have known will be destroyed
  • enslavement
  • exile in a foreign land.

Talk about life transitions. It’s rather encouraging to consider my own tame life transitions in light of what Jeremiah and his tribe were staring down.

It’s interesting to find in today’s chapter that amidst all of God’s prophetic rants of punishment and justice for His people, He also provides promise. Along life’s journey I’ve found that the times of greatest fear, despair and anxiety have been when I have forgotten God’s promises during a time of intense life transition.

Life flows like a mighty river. It doesn’t stop. It ebbs at times and rages with floodwaters at others. I can’t control the flow of Life any more than I can control the weather. I can, however, control where I place my faith and confidence. Come drought or flood God’s promise is that if I place my faith and confidence in Him then my roots will go deep; I will find stability in turbulent waters and refreshment when Life’s flow dries up in a season of drought.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the places that people, myself included, seek to find stability and security in the intense transitions created by the flow of Life. For me, sleepless nights always accompany such times. I find my anxieties and fears lessened, however, when I follow the advice of the Psalmist:

My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
    that I may meditate on your promises.

Amidst transition, don’t forget God’s promises. Meditate on them.

While We Wait for Deliverance

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—
Isaiah 63:7 (NIV)

We love stories of the lone hero. The mysterious figure shows up out of nowhere to aid the victim(s) of injustice and take out the bad guys who are oppressing the many. We see echoes of this theme from chivalrous medieval tales like Robin Hood, to the great Westerns like High Plains Drifter, and even the classic Samurai movies of Kurosawa.

As I often say, all good stories are echoes of the Great Story. In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah presents us with a poetic vision of Messiah who stands alone in doling out wrath and vengeance to the oppressive enemies of His people. This theme, and Isaiah’s imagery, is intricately wound into the visions of John’s Revelation, which would come hundreds of year’s later.

Isaiah’s poem starts out all bloody wrath as Messiah alone dispenses divine justice. Then, Isaiah’s poem turns to reveal the kindness and compassion towards the victims of injustice. Isaiah proclaims this kindness towards a rebellious and undeserving people who, in Isaiah’s current circumstances, are suffering from the destruction of their nation and God’s temple. The poem ends with a plea for that mysterious hero to show up.

I’m reminded this morning that we all go through times in our lives which seem dark and hopeless. We long for a hero, mighty to save, to dispense justice. Our hearts pour out pleas for deliverance as an unceasing mantra. Both of these are longings for that which we do not control. Yet amidst the two, the hope for a Deliverer and our pleas for deliverance Isaiah places a simple act:

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal there was an article with advice for those who chronically worry. One expert advised that people “tell themselves a different story.” I think that’s exactly the example Isaiah provides us. Even in the darkest of times, as we wait for deliverance and better times to come, we can recall the stories of blessings we have been graciously afforded, and ways that God has strengthened, provided, and shown us faithfulness.

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

Hope

The_Vision_of_The_Valley_of_The_Dry_BonesThey say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them….”
Ezekiel 37:11b-12a (NIV)

Over the past year, the news on the Vander Well home front has been less than encouraging. Late last summer my mother was diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In February of this year my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a treatable but incurable form of cancer in his bone marrow. This past Sunday dad told us that, based on the available data and the doctors’ formulas, they guesstimate that he has around 3.5 years left in this life journey.

As I read this morning’s chapter, I found myself identifying with the groans of the Hebrew exiles. There are times in life when we feel dried up, cut off, and without hope. But, the point of today’s chapter was God’s response which was to provide a word of hope. To an exiled people who had seen more than their fair share of death, God delivered through Ezekiel a message of homecoming, resurrection, and life.

I have known many who have battled terminal illnesses over the years. I have observed that one of the key differences in outcomes is determined by simple differences in attitudes. I am reminded this morning of God saying, “I have set before you life and death. Now, choose life, so that you and your children may live.” I recognize that there are stretches in each of our life journeys when we are free to choose to focus on despair and hopelessness, or to choose to focus on life and hope.

I pray that I always choose the latter.