Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 23, 2014

At A Loss For Words

I have found myself in a number of situations lately where I have been at a loss for words. A friend of mine from seminary wrote me a letter last week saying that after 3 years of ministry he has quit his job as a pastor and is wrestling with atheism. He is depressed and is struggling to see God. Last week I visited a woman who is living with a chronic illness that has no cure. She expressed that she is spiritually depressed and unsure of where God is in the midst of her suffering. This weekend I talked with a man who is estranged from his daughter and does not see much hope of reconciliation.

It is hard to know what to say in situations like these. I often find myself feeling pressure to say something helpful or to come to God’s defense. If only I had the right thing to say I might convince people of hope or help restore their faith in God. If only I could recall the perfect quote from a brilliant theologian all might be well.

This anxiety is symptomatic of a deeper issue I think. It reveals my tendency to believe that it is up to me to fix what is broken in our world. To use Parker Palmer’s phrase, I often live my life like a “functional atheist.” While I say that I need of God, I function as if my ‘success’ in life is dependent on my own ingenuity and skill.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a reflection on the famous verse in Isaiah 40 where the prophet calls us to,

“Prepare the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low.”

This verse is so well known that we often fail to read the rest of the passage. If you keep reading, though, the prophet continues by saying,

“Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever.”

When we read these two verses together, it becomes clear that one of the ways we prepare for the Lord is by removing the barrier of pride. One of the mountains that need to be brought low is our giant ego. In order for God to come to us we need to acknowledge that we need him. We have to come to terms with the fact that we are like grass. We are perishable and vulnerable, prone to fade and wither. Without this recognition there is no place for God to rule in our lives.

For a short moment this morning I experienced the liberation of this good news. It happened as I was meditating on a similar text in Isaiah chapter 9. Here the prophet describes the coming of God’s kingdom of peace. The passage ends with the prophet declaring, “the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

This is welcome news to those of us who are feeling the pressure of trying to pick this broken world up by the proverbial bootstraps. The Advent story reminds us that God is the passionate initiator of hope and healing. His zeal is establishing and upholding what we are longing for.

Ironically, when we humbly recognize God’s role in all of this we often become more helpful. When we acknowledge that it is not up to us to defend God or manufacture hope for people, we prepare the way for God to intervene. We no longer attempt to patch up God sized problems with human bandages. We no longer see the need to suppress big questions with easy answers, or cover up deep grief with worn out clichés. Instead we become safe people – people who are more at ease because we know its not up to us to solve the problem, people who can take the risk of listening to pain, people who are willing to sit quietly with others in the darkness and wait patiently for God to reveal himself.

This Advent I have found myself at a loss for words. As I have sat with people in the darkness of abandonment, sickness and grief, I have rarely known what to say. In this vulnerable place I have been challenged to simply sit and wait for the light to dawn.

Truth be told, there are situations where I have struggled to see much light. Some of the friends I have been walking with are going through a dark night of the soul. The full realization of God’s kingdom of peace and justice remains a future hope for us.

Yet, in the midst of the darkness there have also been many glimpses of light – glimpses of this God who is zealously at work establishing peace and upholding his people. I saw a glimpse of this light last week when a friend of mine with recurring cancer testified to an inexplicable peace that seems to be carrying her through a difficult time. I saw a glimpse of this light recently when another friend going through chemo said that he felt supernaturally upheld by the prayers of our community.

At Christmas we celebrate the hope of a new-born king and the establishment of a new kind of kingdom. We often think of this in terms of the big picture. Perhaps, though, the regime change that needs to take place this year is within our own hearts. Perhaps this Christmas we might experience the liberation that comes when we realize that it is God, not us, that is able to mend this broken world. Perhaps this might give us hope when we are at a loss for words.

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Responses

  1. The saddest part of this is that most who turn away from God have never truly experienced his power.

    They are usually rejecting the rituals, the disciplines, the flailings of the conscience, and have never entered into the soul-quaking awesomeness of the Almighty. Who, knowing such love, could ever turn away from it? Who, having experienced the presence of the Creator of the Universe living inside him, could dispose of Him for emptiness?

    His power can defeat the darkness that surrounds us. His authority can beat back the demons of depression and illness, and bind the broken hearts that tear families apart.

    • Hey Amanda,

      Thanks for your thoughts! I know you testify to this from an authentic place. Grace and peace to you in Christ!

      Phil

  2. Thanks for being honest about being at a loss for words. I’ve also wished that I could “recall the perfect quote from a brilliant theologian” to answer someone’s doubts or questions. Knowing that a trained minister doesn’t always know what to say helps me to realize indeed, “that it is God, not us, that is able to mend this broken world.”


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