I sat for a bit this morning at my desk, coffee in hand, watching the wind sweep the snow across the street. A candle was lit, Bible and prayer book and a new year in front of me…
I sat in silence for some time, adoring the Lord, letting the Spirit guide my thoughts – into the past, into the future, showing me my story afresh.
I found myself taken back to this same day four years ago, when I sat in Wisconsin scraping the bottom of my soul for reasons to be optimistic about the future, finding none. Mandi and I had walked through the hardest year personally we had ever been through, and after concluding our Christmas Eve services, loaded up the van and headed north to see our families… physically, emotionally, spiritually “on fumes” as it were.
In years past I had always looked forward to our little Christmasy/New Yearsy getaway. A chance to pull back from the noise, evaluate the year that had past a bit, and look ahead. A new year had always felt like a fresh page to me, an empty canvas… waiting to be filled with light and form and color.
This year, however, was so different. 2014 was darkness, and for the life of me, on the human level, I could not find a single reason to be excited about the coming year. Mostly, I dreaded it. And I told the Lord so. In my journal, I wrote, “I’m spent, and I hurt, and I have almost no hope. So… there it is, Lord.” One of the emptiest feelings of my life.
Later that day I did a little sermon prep. The idea of having to preach in a few days, honestly, was laughable to me. I’m gonna stand up and try to give people encouragement for their futures on the first Sunday of the new year… when I have none?! In my mind, I was stuck between two terrible and totally unacceptable options. Either, on the one hand, I stuff my feelings and lie to the congregation; or, on the other hand, I be as honest as I can be with them, and leave everyone feeling as depressed and dark as I did.
Turns out, the Church’s wisdom saved me. With little to no inspiration, I turned to the assigned readings in the church calendar for that Sunday. The OT reading from Jeremiah 31 slapped me awake:
3 The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. 4 I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful.
The people are in exile. Their life has literally been ripped to shreds. All that’s left for them is the rubble of old hopes and dreams. And here, in the midst of that, the prophet stands up and has the audacity to try to give them hope? I remember being a bit angry with Jeremiah. His words seemed ludicrous and even irresponsible to me. Where does he get off talking like this? How can he be so glib?
But, see, that’s the thing. He’s not being glib. The prophet speaks truly because he knows something about the covenant God of Israel. “The Lord appeared to us in the past,” he says. The God worshiped in Israel is the God who swore himself with solemn oaths to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with promises like “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you…”
Never. Never. It is an absolute commitment.
Covenant is the basis of hope. And it hit me like a ton of bricks that day. The people have a future not because of their own righteousness or because anything circumstantially is looking particularly sunny… but because God has determined to be God for them, come what may, outpacing their failure with life-restoring grace. And one day, perhaps late, perhaps soon – they will take up timbrels and dance the dance of the joyful once more…
I preached that Sunday like I have rarely preached in my life – at once insanely honest and also insanely hopeful, without a trace of rosey-eyed optimism. (You can listen here if you’d like.) Faith, after all, is not optimism. Faith is confidence that God will be God no matter what. Later I scratched Jeremiah’s words out on a sticky note:
4 I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt…
…with the words “rubble and promises” underneath.
Rubble and promises.
Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got. The note remained on my desk for years – a solemn reminder that there are brighter days ahead, even when idea of it seems ridiculous.
As I read the journal entry from that New Year’s Eve four years ago this morning, my eyes wetted with tears. Mostly, I think – odd as it may sound – they were tears of compassion for that man, standing at the brink of a new year, in so much pain, totally gassed. And frankly, there was more pain to come. But he had God in his darkness. And that kept him going. Rubble and promises…
And now… so much has been rebuilt. He has and is making us fruitful and restoring many times over what was lost. And even the things that still hurt – places where we still “limp” a bit – he has poured out blessing, and used the limp to create goodness: praise, prayer, wisdom, and watchful obedience. He keeps making light break in the darkness. Such is his signature.
I’m writing all this to those of you who stand at the doorstep of a new year in a place similar to where we were, where I was. I am here to tell you – not theoretically but experientially – there is hope for you. For God is determined to be God for you, come what may. The covenant God. Just hold on.