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How long, God? The waiting is killing me!

how long?Pain can feel eternal. Suffering slows the clock to a crawl.

In the hospital where I work, I see people in deep pain on a regular basis. Physical pain that so fills the senses it’s hard for the patient to think about anything else. Emotional pain as a loved one lays in bed, unresponsive, with tubes and monitors all over the place, and going downhill on a slow but definite angle.

We humans know suffering of unlimited shapes and sizes. To have a body is to be vulnerable to pain. To have relationships is to potentially have your heart ripped out. And it happens to all us eventually. In fact, I read somewhere that at any given time 80% of the people you know are in the middle of some kind of relational pain. I don’t know how true that statistic is, but I’m guessing that if any of us would take stock of our lives, we’d find something significantly broken.

Sometimes, the pain just won’t quit. Sometimes, there’s a waiting that goes beyond normal waiting. It undermines our sense of justice in the world. It wracks our bodies. It sends earthquakes through our relationships. It undermines our faith.

There are times when we’ve hung on for so long, we’re on the verge of giving up and letting go.

“How long?” is a cry of desperation. It’d beyond a cry for help. It’s a cry that follows many, many cries for help. It’s a final cry.

Psalm 13 is one of our “How long?” psalms. It begins with four salvos of “How long” questions.

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

As a kid, I waited for my Mom a lot. She was always busy, running from here to there. And there were so many times I was left alone and waiting that we came up with a deal. For every five minutes she was late, she’d owe me a pack of Star Wars collector’s cards. The original Star Wars movie had come out recently and I ended up with the biggest collection of all my friends. Hundreds of cards, thanks to my forgetful mother.

But she didn’t forget me forever. She always showed up. Eventually. There were times, though, when I would get so mad at her for it, feeling so abandoned the Star Wars cards didn’t make up for the hurt I felt. It’s the same way my kids have felt when I’ve forgotten them, too.

To be forgotten is to feel worthless. I’m not even worth a thought. I’m so insignificant, I don’t even register.

Paired with this feeling of being forgotten by God is feeling as if he’s hidden his face. This doesn’t refer to our inability to see God. Rather, it’s a feeling as if God has turned his back on me, that he’s intentionally looking the other way in order to avoid me.

Where being forgotten is to unintentionally turn me into a nothing, to have God hide his face from me is to intentionally turn me into a nothing. A less than nothing. An anti-something.

After the initial questions aimed at God, David the psalm writer, turns a question toward himself and another toward his antagonist. And there we have the three sources of suffering: God, ourselves, and others who are out to get us. I find David a keen observer of his own soul by including his own wresting with his thoughts and his sorrows as a source of suffering.

But once he’s asked his questions, David states his demands to God. He lays down two imperatives.

Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

If God’s face is turned away, he’d better turn it around and look at me. If he’s giving me the silent treatment, he’d better cut it out and start talking. I need a new spark or else I’m dead. Not only will God’s silence kill me, it’ll give my enemies something to cheer about. Injustice will be complete.

Then comes the Gospel word: But.

The word “but” is one of my favorite words. It speaks a new story into one that’s gone spinning out of control. It’s speaks the possibility of something other than my pain.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

The “but” is a present hope for a future outcome, based on a past experience.

In the middle of pain and a feeling of abandonment by God, David remembers what God has done for him in the past (“for his has been good to me”).

Memory of past goodness is essential to a hopeful imagination. It pulls the mind out of its present pain and its cramped imagination that has shrunken down to the size of its suffering. I’m reminded that the bad I’m currently experiencing isn’t the only thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve known God’s goodness in the past. And if I’ve known it before, I can know it again.

David turns his memory into trust and that trust into rejoicing. This isn’t a snap-of-the-fingers thing, but the psalm’s brevity contracts time to show us it’s possible.

God’s love has never failed and will never fail. And even though it feels like it’s failing now, I will trust in it anyway. And this trust leads to a rejoicing in a salvation that hasn’t yet happened.

This is Paul and Silas singing in their jail cell. This is the blind, mostly deaf, and seriously ill man I met in the hospital who longed to go to church, “So I can say thank you to God.”

This is down-payment praise. Salvation hasn’t yet taken place. Pain is still keen. But even so, I start to rejoice with faltering lips and a weak heart, knowing the day is coming when I will be able to let loose with power and passion.

In six short verses, David has mined the depths of his pain, not minimalizing or marginalizing it with a brave face and an “I can handle this” through gritted teeth. No. He faces God, himself, and his antagonists head-on but refuses to get stuck in his suffering. Instead, with intense resolve, he stirs up his memory, which fortifies his weary heart.

This is a psalm to keep in a back pocket for easy and frequent access, because pain is never far away.

Questions for consideration

Where are you waiting for God?

What hurts most: God’s silence? Active hurt caused by others? Constantly reviewing the pain in your mind?

Prayer

Lord, come quickly! Delay no longer. Break your silence and turn your face toward me. Ease my pain. Straighten out the path in front of me. End the opposition I face. And turn my mind away from withering replayings of past hurts and toward memories of your good and loving presence. I want to replace my sorrows with songs of joy. I want to live resurrection. Amen.

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Hey God! Can you hear me?

Occasionally, my daughter will call me by my full name. Generally, my kids call me Papa, but when I hear her say my full name, I know that she’s been calling for me for a while and I haven’t been listening. Hearing her say, “Peter Santucci!” snaps me back to when I was a kid and my Mom was frustrated by my inattention.

Every November for the past decade, a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book comes out. We’ve bought each book and my kids devour it immediately. In one of the books, the middle school-aged characters decide to pretend one of their classmates doesn’t exist. When he talks, they ignore it. When he hits them, they pretend something else has happened. It has its effect in making the kid feel lonely and depressed.

One of our deepest human fears is not being listened to, not being heard. As children, we fear our parents abandoning us, not hearing us when we cry out for them. As middle schoolers, we fear the lost and lonely feeling of not being accepted by our peers. As people of faith, we fear not being heard by God.

Like a number of other psalms, Psalm 28 begins with begging God to listen, to not plug his ears:

To you, LORD, I call;
    you are my Rock,
    do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
    I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
    as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
    toward your Most Holy Place.

The worst thing possible for those who pray is for God to not hear us or not be able to hear us. For the only leverage we have with God is our words. If God doesn’t hear us, we’re toast.

Since God rarely gives an audible reply to our prayers, how do we know if he’s heard us or not? How do we know we’re not just “wishing upward” and talking to the ceiling instead of to the God we hope in?

In our psalm, David looks at how God deals with him and with others who behave badly. He lays out a test to see if God listens to him or not: Am I lumped in with the wicked or not?

These people have bright smiles but dark hearts. God should repay them for their deeds. He should match what they’ve done with what is done to them. They should be brutalized by their own brutality. Since they have no regard for God and for the lives he’s built up, their own dilapidated lives should be demolished by the divine wrecking ball and become vacant lots, with the rubble piled up in the corner.

Do not drag me away with the wicked,
    with those who do evil,
who speak cordially with their neighbors
    but harbor malice in their hearts.
Repay them for their deeds
    and for their evil work;
repay them for what their hands have done
    and bring back on them what they deserve.
Because they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD
    and what his hands have done,
he will tear them down
    and never build them up again.

We assume God does just that, because, in an abrupt shift, our psalm stops looking forward and looks backward instead. We’re not told how, but we know the prayer was heard and help was provided. God has been faithful to his covenant relationship (every time we see the all-caps LORD, which designates the divine name Yahweh, we’re reminded that God is being appealed to based on his covenant loyalty, not on his universe-making power). Because trust has been met with loyalty, joy and praise result.

Love is the most appropriate response to mercy.

And wonderfully, God has heard. He wasn’t as deaf as he seemed to be.

Praise be to the LORD,
    for he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
    my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.
My heart leaps for joy,
    and with my song I praise him.

This joy coming from a personal experience of grace is then generalized to all of God’s people as the psalm ends:

The LORD is the strength of his people,
    a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
    be their shepherd and carry them forever.

This is the opposite of what we see in many psalms. Most often, a psalmist will start with the experience of God’s people in the past and prayerfully apply it to his situation. There needs to be a healthy back-and-forth to this in our lives, and the Psalms show us how it’s done.

There are times when we’re in the middle of suffering and we can’t see our way out. It’s in those times that we need to break out of our personal stories and see the larger story of what God has done and, by extension, what he is doing in the world and in my own life. We need to trade the microscopes through which we view our pain for a wide angle lens so we can see the panorama of salvation spread all around us.

But there are times when we have emerged from the darkness of our suffering and into the light of salvation. It’s at those times, we’re called on to bear witness to God’s people of the faithfulness of our Lord. In this way, our stories become part of the community’s memory of our God’s covenant loyalty to us, of God hearing us.

In either case, the telling of our grace stories or hearing the grace stories of others becomes part of the answer to our question of whether God hears us when we cry out to him.

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When the silent God speaks, what does he say?

enjoySilence is hard to interpret. In fact, an argument from silence is considered a logical fallacy. And yet, we try to interpret the silences of others on a regular basis.

We question what people think about our words or actions. We question politicians who remain silent about certain headline topics. And we question God for his sometimes overwhelming silences during the emotional rollercoaster rides in our lives.

Psalm 50 tells us what happens when the silent God speaks. But as with much of what we read in the Psalms, it’s not quite what we expected.

Our biggest clue to what the psalm is about is hidden in a few words attributed to God toward the end of it in verse 21:

When you did these things and I kept silent,
    you thought I was exactly like you.

The silence of God is often interpreted as agreement. “If God doesn’t say anything about what I’m doing, he must approve of it.” But Asaph, the poet behind the psalm, shakes his head in strong disagreement.

God’s silence isn’t approval. In many cases, it’s deferred judgment. It’s patient mercy, allowing time and space for change. But this merciful deferment will only last so long. The silence will end. Judgment is coming.

Psalm 50 begins with a summons. God has spoken. We’ve been served. And so, to court we go. But it’s not just us; it’s all humanity who have been summoned to court. If you’ve ever felt the warming sun’s heat on your shoulder, you’re included.

The shining of God from his Zion-based temple (v. 2) reminds us the temple isn’t just the location of worship, it’s the seat of judgment. Whenever we come across light in relationship with God, it’s referencing his ability to see all things. Our culture tends to think of enlightenment in the context of education, simply learning new things. But the biblical view of light is as the revealer of things hidden in the dark.

In verse 3, we see God coming to us. His silence is broken. And the fires of sacrifice have become the fires of judgment.

But don’t be thinking of anything hellish here. Think of a purging, revealing fire, not of a painful, destructive fire. We really need to stop thinking of God as a small-minded kid who wants to deal out hurt in a vengeful tantrum. As verse 6 declares, he is a God of justice:

And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
    for he is a God of justice.

The heavens have witnessed the righteousness/justice of God for as long as they’ve been in existence. A really long time. Their courtroom character witness is established: God is just. We can trust his judgments to be right.

But verses 4, 5, and 7 point to a surprise. It’s not humanity in general who are being judged. All of humanity had been summoned to witness God’s judgment, but here it’s God’s people alone who undergo that judgment. The people with whom God has made a covenant are the ones who will be judged according to that covenant.

And so, the judgment begins. But right off, some potential charges come off the table. In another surprise, God isn’t accusing his people of blowing it with their worship.

Despite our worship wars, worship isn’t a problem in any church I’ve been in. Tired hymns and theologically thin choruses abound, but they aren’t a problem for God. And neither is the passion behind them. Even our most meager efforts seem to be just fine with God, because we’re at least offering ourselves to him in the process. Like the widow’s two mites, our feeble attempts are lovely to God and he is honored by them.

We finally get to what dismays God and draws him from his silence when we get to verse 16.

God hates our hypocrisy. He despises it when our mouths sing his praises in church and then we turn around and trample our relationships.

Asaph tells us that we forfeit out access to God’s law and covenant by our behavior. To the “wicked” person who sits in the pew and offers her tithes, God says,

What right have you to recite my laws
    or take my covenant on your lips?
You hate my instruction
    and cast my words behind you.

This isn’t emotional hatred of God’s words and instructions. This is behavioral hatred. This may include a love of God’s words that has no impact on behavior that completely contradicts them.

Years ago, I knew a young woman who was abused by her father. She said he sang passionately in church and wept out of deep devotion to God during his daily Bible reading and prayer time. She said she was in awe of the beautiful things he wrote in his prayer journals, which she sneaked peeks at. But he was horrific in his abuse of her.

God is enraged by this kind of disconnect. His law calls for one thing. And his people nod their heads while in the act of disobedience. Not only does this turn the stomachs of the unchurched and the dechurched, it turns God’s stomach as well.

Verse 18 points to the breaking of the 8th and 7th commandments. And verses 19-20 point to the breaking of the 9th commandment. As good worshipers, the “wicked” have kept the first four of the Ten Commandments, dealing with their relationship with God. But they’ve neglected their human relationships and anything God has commanded about them. And as James 2:10 tells us, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

Verse 22 calls those who engage in such hypocrisy “you who forget God.” The biblical term “fear of the Lord” doesn’t so much have to do with being afraid of God as it has to do with remembering God in all circumstances. It could just as easily be translated as God-awareness-in-all-things. The opposite of those who fear the Lord are “you who forget God,” those who worship God and then get on with life as if he doesn’t exist.

Hypocrites are practical atheists.

As the psalm ends, we hear the formerly silent God speak. What he says is that he wants two things: honor in our worship and blamelessness in our human dealings.

Honor in our worship doesn’t mean having the utmost passion without an ounce of doubt or distraction. It means simple self-offering.

Blamelessness in our human dealings doesn’t mean relational perfection. It means loving our neighbors as ourselves so that God won’t have to bring charges of injustice against us.

Or as Micah 6:8 puts it:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

When God speaks, this is what he asks for: honor and justice. Love all the way around.

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Is God silent?

Is GodThe Bible is a record of God speaking.

God speaks.

He speaks creation into being. And through the words he speaks to us through others, our faith comes into being. As Paul writes in Romans 10, “faith comes by hearing.”

But here’s the question: Is God ever silent?

If no, what is he saying right now?

If yes, why is he silent?

They are two radically different answers, which lead in two radically different directions, with two completely different sets of questions of their own.

And here’s the thing: We tend to answer that question based on our experience of silence or our experience of God speaking. If God feels silent to us, then we say, “Of course, God is silent most of the time.” If God feels close and vocal to us, then we say, “Of course, God is speaking all the time.”

Here’s a story which helps me with this.

My first big crush was on Anne.

I was in sixth grade and just about as whipped as a boy can be by a girl.

She lived three houses down from me at the end of our dead-end street. And I used to sit by the window, listening to the longing lyrics of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, hoping she would walk up the street, just so that I could get a glimpse of her.

I was so stupidly infatuated that three times in one summer, when we were at the swimming pool at the end of our street, she called me over to talk with her next to the pool and then pushed me in — with all my clothes on. But I kept falling for it, because I had fallen for her.

But one winter, she and two other guys from our little street went up to the mountains with a group of other kids for a winter weekend camp.

The snow was deep, and there were long icicles hanging from the cabins. Huge ones.

Well, the three of them ditched me. So, I was wandering around by myself, looking for the biggest icicle. Eventually, I found one that was so big I couldn’t get my gloved fingers around it. But I snapped it off of the cabin and was carrying it with me, when all of a sudden the three of them reappeared, ambushing me with snowballs.

I fell down in the onslaught and broke my icicle. [Cue sad background music.]

Humiliated to be ditched and ambushed and angry to be wet and have my icicle broken, I threw the leftover stump of ice at the closest of the three.

It hit Anne square in the nose and left the absolute biggest shiner under her eye that I’ve ever seen. It was a black eye Rocky would have been proud to have dished out (if it hadn’t been a girl).

Well, now I was completely messed up.

I had given a black eye to the girl I was head over heels for. I was angry and forlorn all at the same time. She would never like me back now. [Cue sad background music.]

So, I did what any reasonable sixth grader would do: I totally shut her off. Thus began the silent treatment, the cold war.

For six months, I didn’t talk to Anne. Which was tough to do, since we lived on a small street. Our dads worked together across the street as faculty at a small Bible school. And we could hardly avoid each other at church or elsewhere. Our lives were ridiculously entangled.

But the silent treatment endured … until one day, during the following summer. We were at the Bible school’s swimming pool, and she swam over to me. I still remember sitting on the top rung of the ladder in the deep end. And she apologized.

I don’t think she knew what she was apologizing for, but she did it anyway.

And that was that. The ice cracked. The distance between us was gone. But so, too, was the crush. From then on, she and I were able to be just friends.

Later on, she told me how confusing the whole thing had been to her. I had given her a black eye, and yet she had to apologize to me? How did that work?

Now, here’s the point: I wasn’t the only one being silent, was I? Anne was being silent, too. But her silence was a different sort from mine. She had been ready to speak to me all along. But my silent treatment of her kept her from speaking to me.

So, the question is: Which one of us was in God’s position in the story? Was it me, punishing Anne by my silence? Was it Anne, being punished by me with my silence and waiting for a chance to finally speak again?

O God, do not keep silent;

       be not quiet, O God, be not still (Psalm 83:1).

O God, whom I praise,
       do not remain silent (Psalm 109:1).