Saturday, December 31, 2016

An Awful Year and an Awesome God

2016 was genuinely the worst year I've been through. I don't say this in the half-joking way in which many speak of this year. I lost my dog. I lost a close friendship. And most devastatingly, I started the year by losing a child.

At the end of 2015, I was taking great strides in my walk with God. My understanding of what it meant to live in the Kingdom of God was deepening and having a profound effect on every aspect of my life. I was praying for wisdom and God, true to his promise, was giving it. I was happier and more content than I had been in a long time.

One year ago today, I sat in the ultrasound room grinning, excited to see my second child for the first time. That excitement died when the nurse said, "I'm sorry. I have to get the doctor. I'm having trouble finding the baby."

"Having trouble finding the baby?" I thought. "What does that even mean? It can't really be anywhere but where it should be." Of course, I knew exactly what it meant. But I didn't want it to be true, so I clung to the silly hope that there was something going wrong with the ultrasound equipment or that the woman was new to her job. My eyes got a little misty, but I held my wife as we made our way to the waiting room and avoided acknowledging what we already knew, what she had suspected for days while I told her there was no way that's what was going on.

After an eternity in the waiting room and several awkward minutes of the doctor telling me what was happening while I struggled to grasp it because he refused to refer to our child as a baby, he put it in cold, blunt words that finally made their way into my brain. "A pregnancy started and a pregnancy has ended." I felt cold. My wife and I helped each other into the car and then fell apart. In between bouts of sobs, I called all of the family we had announced our good news to the week prior to let them know it had become terrible news.

The rest of the day is a blur of numbness and tears and the loving care of family and friends. The next morning I began a recently acquired ritual of prayerfully reviewing the previous day's events and looking for where God was present. He and I had a good conversation that morning and the peace which surpasses all understanding engulfed me while Romans 8 took on a whole new meaning.

This set the stage for the year. Although the first blow was the hardest, 2016 had plenty of hits to deliver. We faced several difficult family situations. My loving dog, Layla, suddenly became aggressive. She bit a friend hard enough to draw blood, began attacking neighborhood animals, and nearly pulled Remi from Jessica's hands. We finally ran out of options and I held her, weeping, as she fell asleep for the last time in my arms. I lost a close friend and a few other friends. Some drifted away and some were lost through conflicts, some of which felt very silly to me. In ministry, I tried my best to guide some kids through situations they should never have had to deal with. I saw evil, unmasked, and its devastating effects.

Through all of this and more, though, God was there. There were mornings when I couldn't force myself out of bed, but I learned to rest in him and to rely on his strength. I found myself afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, struck down again and again but not destroyed, because of his power, not mine. When one chaotic situation after another sprung up this year, I felt no anxiety, just peace because I know what Kingdom I'm really a party of and I've read the end of the story and I know this darkness will eventually give way to dawn. I watched God weave all things together toward that ultimate good, and even in the situations where it's not obvious how that will happen yet, I trust that he is doing so.

I know firsthand the truth that suffering is a refining fire. When you find yourself in its heat you impurities consistently rise to the surface. I have stared at my own pride, anger, bitterness, and a whole host of other sin and brokenness. When you walk with God through suffering, though, he takes that opportunity to begin to skim away those impurities. I have found myself transformed through the fire of suffering. He still has plenty of transforming work to do, but I'm grateful for what he has done this year.

As you seek God in every moment, even in suffering, you become aware of just how many gifts we are given. For a year so filled with bad, there was also a lot of good. As God strengthens us in weakness and soothes us in pain, he also brings even more intensity to the beautiful, joyous moments of life. I see more clearly the little gifts I am given constantly. I have seen with fresh eyes the splendor of creation in sunsets and starry skies. I have thanked God for the pleasure of tasting cream soda and good coffee. I have cherished many nights laughing, surrounded by friends. Every morning I wake up to see the most beautiful woman in the world. I have watched my daughter bring new adventures and smiles every day.

And there have been big gifts, too. Several people I love have taken their first steps into the Kingdom of God this year. I've watched several teens I played a part in discipling grow in maturity as they become adults. I have another child on the way in a few months. My list of sufferings is long, but my gifts are innumerable. Realizing this brings a lot of joy.

All of this has better equipped me to love others. I find myself growing in patience, kindness, and a whole host of other traits I felt I would never develop. As I become less focused on me and what I can gain in various situations, I can see more clearly how God is working among all of the people I come across. There's a lot of joy in this, too.

In short, yes, the year was rough. But, it was a significant year, because much of what I simply believed on the basis of the words of others has now been lived. I was familiar with the map, but now I've walked some of the paths. And my prayer for whoever takes the time to read this is that this would point you in the direction of the Kingdom. we enter into it through Jesus. Then, he begins to transform us. We find joy, peace, and love in ways we never knew we could. It transforms us, changes how we approach life, and it impacts the world around us.

Happy New Year. May you seek and find him in the midst of whatever it holds for you.