But God frustrates the plans of the wicked

Psalm 146:3-10 Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He keeps every promise forever. He gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. The Lord frees the prisoners. The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down. The Lord protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. The Lord will reign forever.

This is a psalm to turn to when I can’t sleep at night worrying about world affairs at both international and local levels. It describes the kind of world God wants and that we will experience one day, because God keeps his promises! Justice. Abundance. Freedom, both physical and emotional. Protection. Compassion. The Lord provides all these things.

Our friends in Venezuela are showing me that it’s possible to experience all this even when the nation is going to pieces around them. Their eyes are on the Lord. Their hope and confidence are in him, not in powerful people. Living one day at a time with gratitude to find something to eat, they joyfully spend their lives helping others in every way they can. The enemy of their souls is all about destruction. They have learned to be creative even in finding water they can drink and in making full use of every bit of the erratic electricity a given day may give them. They fill their homes with the music of praise and worship, even as they lose their “rights” one by one. They don’t just dream of reconstruction; they invest in planning for it.

By contrast, what have I been fretting over? Having the “right” clothes so that Dave and I won’t be an embarrassment to our hosts in Singapore next week (what exactly is “smart casual”?). Combing the racks at Good Will, I feel the Lord correcting me with a gentle touch of humor: True godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. . . So if we have food and clothing, let us be content (1 Timothy 6:6, 8).

Lord, today, please continue pruning and shaping me through the courage and conviction of my precious Venezuelan friends. Even though I can flip a switch confident of power and run to the store knowing the shelves will be stocked with food, teach me the joy and freedom of dependence on YOU.

P. S. While deforestation Venezuela-style is cutting trees for fuel to cook on, I just learned that you CAN buy corn flakes in Caracas: it will just cost you $17.50/box. The minimum MONTHLY wage in Venezuela is now less than $2.00. Want more? Google “Venezuela news.” Or if you read Spanish, subscribe to La Arepita.

But God will help

Psalm 140:1-2, 12-13 O Lord, rescue me from evil people. Protect me from those who are violent, those who plot evil in their hearts and stir up trouble all day long. . . But the Lord will help those they persecute; he will give justice to the poor.

Forty-two years ago, surrounded by family and friends, flowers and music, Dave and I said “I do” on the shore of a lovely lake in Wisconsin. We had no idea that day of what would unfold in this less-than-perfect union. We didn’t know how vulnerable we were to the troubles the enemy of our souls plotted against us.

Last week a friend who was aware of the high divorce statistics for couples with a chronically ill child, and especially, she told me, those whose child is expected to die but then doesn’t, asked me how we had held our marriage together. I laughed at the question. Did she really think Dave and I had been able to do this? No way. There were so many other factors besides Karis’s illness arrayed against us, beginning with the ways our parents’ marriages had affected us and the ways our personalities meshed to form what Dave calls the “perfect storm.” Had it depended just on us, we wouldn’t be together today.

So we celebrate today the fact that the Lord helped us, through the support of friends and family, and the skills of excellent counselors. But, I told my friend, one of the main ways God helped us is by giving Dave a streak of stubbornness. He was determined to do whatever it took to rescue this marriage, after I, frankly, had given up. His was the energy behind the hard work we both did over a couple of intense years to repair what had worn out and broken. Today, in the joy and comfort of a forty-two-year-old marriage that has been through fire and flood, yet survived because of the Lord’s multilayered help, I want to say thank you to my husband for believing so stubbornly in “us.”

Still “us”

But God called us back

Isaiah 41:7-10, 17-20 The idol makers carefully join the parts together, then fasten the thing in place so it won’t fall over. . . But I, the Lord, have called you back from the ends of the earth . . . For I have chosen you and will not throw you away. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. . . When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched with thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I will never abandon them. I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus. I will give them fountains of water in the valleys . . . I am doing this so all who see this miracle will understand what it means—that it is the Lord who has done this, the Holy One of Israel who created it.

This morning I received a surprise email with a request from someone we haven’t seen since Karis was an infant, asking for news of her. I had to get out the book to see what I had written about this person, because when I wrote it, I had no idea he was still alive. As I sat there absently staring at the cover of Karis, All I See Is Grace, my mind flooded with memories, I realized I have never expressed in writing what the photo on the cover means to me.

The photo was taken by our friend Cole on a day when he took Karis and me bike riding from our home in the Friendship neighborhood of Pittsburgh all the way downtown to the point, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers come together to form the Ohio River. That’s how strong Karis was, just a few days before her first transplant when everything went wrong.

A state park on the point features a large fountain. That’s where the photo was taken, with downtown Pittsburgh in the background. What you can’t see in the way the photo was cropped are the letters UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) across the top of the tall building behind the fountain. U.S. Steel built that skyscraper, and it’s emblematic of our adopted city’s history that UPMC is now the largest employer in Pittsburgh.

With thanks to Cole Van Ormer

The significance for me of the fountain spraying across the UPMC building in this photo is contained in the verses from Isaiah 41 that I quoted above. All the medical stuff seemed so solid and real (and often scary). But God, who IS the fountain of living water (see Jeremiah 2:13, 17:13; John 4:10, 7:38-39; Revelation 7:17), covered us with his grace. The metaphor is apt for a girl who was so often thirsty, battling dehydration her entire life. God called us from Brazil to a place of high plateaus and valleys, where he provided for us, strengthened, helped us and held us up.

Only the Lord could have performed the miracles through which he called Karis back from the valley of the shadow of death after her first transplant. And that is only one of so many times he acted on her behalf. I pray that the book will communicate how worthy he is of our praise and our trust; how powerful his grace.

But God sent his servants

Psalm 105:8, 25-26 The Lord our God always stands by his covenant. . .  Egyptians turned against the Israelites and plotted against the Lord’s servants. But God sent his servant Moses, along with Aaron, whom he had chosen.

A few days ago, God sent someone to talk with Dave and me. In many ways it was a difficult conversation; for me it ended in tears. I felt embarrassed by things I blurted out and could not take back. Some things, once said, can’t be un-said.

Through the next hours, including part of the night, I wrestled with myself and with God over what was behind my part of this conversation. As I tried to write out what I was thinking and feeling, many things became clearer to me. I was able to pray in a different way.

Sunday afternoon, Dave proposed an exercise that I was at first skeptical would really help. But God showed me something about myself through doing it that made all kinds of pieces fall into place in my life. I suddenly felt like I could take action that for many months I had felt blocked from taking. I woke up the next morning with a sense of hope and direction.

Along the way, I remembered God’s burning bush conversation with Moses. It’s recorded in Exodus 3, coming after a time when Moses totally blew it. Moses had a hard time believing that God could still use him. He even asked God to send someone else. God sent Aaron to come alongside him, giving him courage and confidence in God.

Who are the Moseses and Aarons in your life right now? God doesn’t mean for us to do life alone. Part of what complicated my problem, which I articulated—however awkwardly—in that difficult conversation—was trying for a whole year to resolve it by myself. I felt humiliated. I felt like I should be much more together and mature than this. The reality is that I am free again to grow, now that I’m facing with help an issue that has held me back for waaaay too long. Confession is awkward and painful. Humiliating. But it does seem to be good for my soul.

But God is always the same

Psalm 102:26-28 [The earth and the heavens] will wear out like old clothing. . . But you are always the same; you will live forever. The children of your people will live in security. Their children’s children will thrive in your presence.

I share a birthday with my friend Jim. That’s how I think of it, though actually I’m five days older than he is. Yesterday I had the delight of talking for an hour with his wife Barb (one of the people I most want to be like when I grow up). Just as we were concluding, Jim walked in from work, so I got to talk with him for half an hour as well.

Jim and Barb have been through huge losses and pain in the last months. Without minimizing any of that, they told me how faithful the Lord has been to them. He has given them joy along the way, especially through seeing their children and grandchildren thrive. I left the conversation deeply grateful for friends whose way of doing life is oriented and informed by their absolute faith in God’s unchanging trustworthiness, despite the tough times. Really tough times.

Jim and I, turning 65, are facing into the fact that during this next phase of our lives our bodies will start to wear out. We laughed over the fact that our minds still think we can do everything we used to do, but our energy wears out before our commitments and ambitions do. Here’s what Jim and I both want for our birthdays:

Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green. They will declare, “The Lord is just! He is my rock!” Psalm 92:14-15

Jim helping Karis fix up her freshman dorm room at Notre Dame, 2001

But God’s love remains forever

Psalm 103:13-17 The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are . . . Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him. His salvation extends to the children’s children.

I’ve found great delight in watching our son-in-law, Cesar, father our grandson, Caleb.(Cesar, by the way, just became an American citizen—which means he knows more about American history and polity than I’ll probably ever know!) This often requires single-parenting as Valerie puts in her long shifts caring for other people’s children as a critical care nurse in the Children’s Hospital ICU.

Caleb is 21 months old today!

Cesar’s good humor and affection for Caleb are very special. Their relationship gives me a point of reference in thinking about God as my father. Caleb doesn’t have to worry that his father might not be there for him. The precious practice of trust comes naturally.

One part of Cesar’s parenting that I find particularly endearing is the way he puts Caleb to bed. They have a routine, of course, that I learned when I recently stayed with Caleb in their home while Cesar and Val enjoyed a getaway weekend. Caleb knows he can lie down and go to sleep in peace, security, and comfort. He usually sleeps straight through the night and wakes up happy and ready for the new day.

To the children’s children . . . Cesar Sr, Cesar Jr, and Caleb

Just like me? Hmm, not so much. Often when I lie down to sleep my thoughts bloom with concerns and anxieties. All that I haven’t had time to think about in the course of a busy day suddenly demands attention. I worry about relationships, decisions, how I’ve spent my time, and tough problems friends and family members are facing. Sadly, my default is too often trepidation instead of trust.

I’m trying to learn a bedtime routine with my heavenly father that will lead to trust. And peaceful sleep.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Ephesians 5:1

But God avenges

Psalm 99:4, 6, 8-9 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established fairness. You have acted with justice and righteousness throughout Israel. . . They cried to the Lord for help, and he answered them. . . O Lord our God you answered them. You were a forgiving God to them, but you punished them when they went wrong. Exalt the Lord our God, for he is holy!

Most English translations say God avenges or takes vengeance, rather than God punishes. These phrases might strike us as strong and disconcerting, but I find them comforting. Isn’t God loving and kind? Yes! AND he is holy and just. What would a world be like if there were no consequences for wrongdoing? Even more frightening: What would a world be like if vengeance or punishment were up to us individually?

In Brazil, I had the privilege of working with victims of incest. Anger was a natural and appropriate part of what they had to deal with. But there was always the temptation to become obsessed with personally paying back the aggressor for the harm he had done. The need to see justice done in the face of betrayal is powerful.

The courts have their place, but many times, significant healing took place when a person was able to give over to God the right to avenge and punish, knowing he promises to do it. And he promises to do it with justice, fairness, and righteousness. No one else knows all the factors at work in each situation. No one else can unerringly hold justice and mercy together. No one else can be fully holy and at the same time fully loving. Only God has that kind of wisdom.

Don’t let anger control you (Ephesians 4:26 quoting Psalm 4:4). How is that possible, when we have been victimized? Fully acknowledge the ugliness and wounding of the sin that was committed against us. Fully acknowledge our anger. Allow ourselves to feel and express to God the profound pain that is behind the anger and fuels it. Acknowledge that only God can appropriately avenge our suffering and thank him that he will do so. Offer all of that to God: our emotions, our wounding, our limitations, our needs. Ask him to take it from us and free us, so that the sin committed against us no longer dominates our lives.

I had the privilege of watching this dynamic many times. It surprised and amazed me that often, after going through all this, the person would spontaneously express forgiveness for the offender. It flowed naturally from the exquisite sense of freedom coming from entrusting to God the heavy burden of retribution.

Exalt the Lord our God, for he is holy!

But God is compassionate and merciful

Psalm 86:14-15 O God, insolent people rise up against me; a violent gang is trying to kill me. You mean nothing to them. But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.

The last twenty-four hours have brought horrible shootings to El Paso and Dayton. I come to the assigned readings for today in tears, looking for comfort and hope. Psalm 86 is one of David’s very personal prayers for himself. My distress flips it into “Bend down, O Lord, and hear our prayer; answer us, for we need your help. . . Protect us . . . Save us . . . Be merciful to us . . . hear our urgent cry . . .”

We are a nation desperately in need of the Lord’s intervention, his protection from ourselves. I need—we need—cleansing from our collective fears. “Teach us your ways, O Lord, that we may live according to your truth! Grant us purity of heart, so that we may honor you” (v. 11).

Our travel in and out of so many countries gives us an interesting perspective on the United States. Shaking their heads, people say “Your problem with immigration is puzzling. Why would anyone want to live in such a violent country? Bring all your family to live here—it would be so much better for you!” Here being Colombia, or Brazil, or Bolivia.

We are not, as a nation, doing a good job of modeling the Lord’s ways: compassion, mercy, slowness to get angry, unfailing love and faithfulness.

Look down and have mercy on us, O Lord. . . save us . . .” (v. 16). Break what needs to be broken in us, Lord. Heal what needs to be healed.

Someday—can’t it be soon, Lord?

              Justice will rule in the wilderness and righteousness in the fertile field.

              And this righteousness will bring peace.

              Yes, it will bring quietness and confidence forever. (Isaiah 32:16-17)

Lord, I beg for your mercy on every family suffering today terrible, senseless loss. Please, today, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.