God in the Darkness

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It was thirteen years ago, but I remember it like I am still there. My season of great darkness. To this day I don’t understand why, but the enemy came down on me with both feet. It was an emotional breakdown and it was spiritual oppression. It manifested physically in sleepless nights and body aches with no medical explanation. I could not stop the tears and the constant thoughts of self-destruction. I truly believed I was losing my mind. I had been writing for several years, and I threw all my notebooks in the fireplace because I didn’t think I would ever have normal, sane thoughts again. And I thought God had abandoned me. The enemy kept telling me so. One day my then 12 year old son came through the kitchen singing, “Jesus loves me,” but he stopped short of the chorus. I said, “please keep singing” but he said, “you finish it Mom, I’m going out to play.” But I couldn’t sing “Yes, Jesus loves me,” because I didn’t believe He did.
One morning in the very wee hours, I sat on my back porch, wrapped in a blanket with my Bible in my lap. The only thing I knew for sure was it I had any hope of survival, I had to stay connected to God, even if I wasn’t sure He wanted to stay connected to me. I was reading Exodus 3 and the story of Moses and the burning bush. When Moses asked God’s name, I “heard” in my heart, “Child, who am I?” “You are God,” I answered, “who else could you be?” “Oh, there is so much more to me than you ever imagined. Know me.” I remembered a little book I had picked up for five bucks at a women’s retreat a few years before, that had a list of the names of God with Scripture references. I started at the first name and day-by-day worked my way through that list. God met me and revealed Himself to me every morning, name by name. I researched more names and for three years I studied until the fog dissipated and I could breath again. He saved my sanity and my life.
Now I know that He is El Emunah – the Faithful God and He is Yahweh Sali – the Lord my Rock and He is Yahweh Gibbor Milchamah – the Lord Mighty in Battle. But most of all I know that He is El Hayyay – God of my life. And He’s proven it over and over and over again.

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Names of God Series: Yahweh Rohi – The Lord My Shepherd

shepherd-and-lamb-pic2“God has been my Shepherd all my life to this day” Genesis 48:15.

I remember a painting I saw in a church, a depiction of the Shepherd Psalm – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want” Psalm 23:1. The scene was a rocky mountain-side and a little lamb was precariously tangled in a bush growing out of the side of the cliff.  A shepherd stood over him, reaching out to bring him back to safety.  What has stayed with me ever since I saw it was the expression on the face of the lamb  – it was a look of utter trust and confidence in the shepherd with not a trace of fear.  It was a look that said, “I’m glad you’re here. I know you will save me.”  This is the image of God that I love the most: Yahweh Rohi – The Lord my Shepherd.[1]

In describing the Lord as a Shepherd, David wrote out of his own experience because he had spent his early years caring for sheep.  Sheep are completely dependent on the shepherd for guidance, protection, and provision.  The welfare of the sheep depends solely on the care they get from their shepherd.  The better the shepherd, the healthier and happier the sheep.  When you see weak, sickly, or pest-infested sheep, you can be sure that their shepherd does not really care for or about them.

The shepherd guides the sheep by leading them to the good pasture.  The 23rd Psalm reveals God as our guiding Shepherd, and us as sheep who follow Him.  How does He guide us?  By His Word as we study the Bible every day, by His Spirit as we listen to Him speak to our hearts, and most importantly, by His example in Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ life on earth is our example of trust and obedience, the two most important attributes for a sheep. He always obeyed His Father in everything and because He trusted Him, Jesus’ life was marked by peace even in the face of the cross.   When we allow God to guide us, we have peace and contentment.  Our Shepherd knows where to find the green pastures that nourish us and the quiet waters that restore us.

The shepherd is also the protector of his flock.  Sheep are easy prey for predators.  They have no natural defensive abilities and are easily panicked.   The put their head to the ground and graze, never bothering to look up to see where they are or what is around them.  Sheep have been known to graze right off the edge of a cliff.  A sheep who strays from the protection of the shepherd is completely vulnerable.  The good shepherd knows where the sheep are at all times, calling them back to safety, and searching diligently for them when they stray too far.  The shepherd fights for his sheep – a hungry wolf is bold enough to attack the flock even with the shepherd nearby.  The shepherd must defend his sheep from these attacks even at the risk of his own life.   Jesus said “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  And He did – He gave His life for you and me, to save us from the enemy who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).   The shepherd is always on duty, even at night.  In the evenings sheep were brought into a simple enclosure for the night, it might be stone or mud-packed walls if they were close to home, or just branches twisted and bound together in the open.  In order to keep them safe, the shepherd would sleep with his body across the opening of the sheep pen to keep his flock in and predators out.  This is what Jesus was describing when He said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). He protects His sheep day and night.

The good shepherd also made sure his sheep were well-fed.  Sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd to provide good pastures in which to graze.  The shepherd constantly scouted out the best pastures and would lead his sheep to good land.  Because sheep eat continually, the shepherd always had to be prepared with the next pasture in mind.  Sheep couldn’t wander long looking for food – it needed to be available to them every day.  As the Good Shepherd Jesus meets the needs of His flock, both for physical food and for spiritual nourishment.  He fed multitudes of people in his earthly ministry, surely we can trust Him to provide for us as well.  He provides Himself as nourishment for our souls through the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  As we partake of His Blood and Body, our souls are being fed and nurtured.  Jesus is our provider for body, soul and spirit.

The good shepherd has a special, tender relationship with his sheep.  He knows them by name and he talks with them so that they know his voice.  He laughs at their antics and comforts them when they are hurt.  Many a shepherd sings his sheep to sleep at night.  Theirs is an intimate relationship, like a father caring for his children.  Jesus, as the Good Shepherd knows each of us by name and He talks with us so we can learn to recognize His voice – if we’ll listen.   He draws us close just to be with us; He comforts us when we are hurting, binds up our wounds and applies His healing grace.  Not only that but He “will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Imagine that – drawn up in His embrace as His voice floats down on you with songs of delight.

No wonder the image of the shepherd is one of God’s favorite ways of expressing His care and love for us.  It captures the beautiful relationship of God and His people.  The Lord our Shepherd – Yahweh Rohi – will guide us to the green pastures and still waters, He will protect us and care for us with tenderness and love.  He will cover us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives; and when this life is done we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).

Good Shepherd, how blessed I am to say “The Lord is my Shepherd – I am His little lamb.” Amen.

[1] Alternately: Yahweh/Jehovah Roi

Out of the Darkness and into Life

 

crying-eyes-wallpapers-31“I will exalt You, O Lord, for You lifted me out of the depths . . . O Lord my God, I called to You for help and You healed me. O Lord, You brought me up from the grave; You spared me from going down into the pit” Psalm 30:1-3

Memory is a powerful thing. It can bring us delight in the thoughts of a loved one, or joy in the remembrance of a special day. It can take me back to the innocent days of childhood or allow you to recall again the arms of your daddy carrying you up to bed. Memories can also cause grief and pain to resurface, people whose absence haunts us, or situations that come rushing back from dark times we’ve tried to forget. I experience one of those painful memories in, of all things, a computer game. It was a game I played for mind-numbing hours when sleep escaped me and anxiety overwhelmed me. It was one of the deepest, darkest seasons of my life.

Like most of us, I’ve had “blue days” when my heart and mind were in a low place, but they usually came and went in a day or so. Many times they were connected to disappointments, frustrations and hormones (every woman reading this just nodded her head).   But they didn’t prove to be debilitating so I just rode them out like waves at the beach. Until a tsunami of anxiety and depression hit me and knocked me off my feet with a force I’ve never felt before. There was no riding this one out. There was no jumping back to my feet. There was no shaking it off, no bootstraps to pull myself up by, this was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Night after night I lay in the bed trying to sleep, racked with body aches and mental anguish. When I did manage to drift off, as soon as my body relaxed, my muscles would jerk me awake from the tension I held all day. The cycle repeated itself hour after hour, night after night. I drudged through my days in a sleep-deprived stupor.

As bad as the nights were, the days were even worse. The constant bombardment of hopelessness, anxiety, and despair never left me. I cannot describe in words the mental torment I experienced, but anyone who has endured that kind of hell knows exactly what I mean. While I don’t condone it, I came to understand how people suffering from severe depression might welcome the relief of death. At one point I stood in my kitchen contemplating which knife would do the job the quickest when my son came in for a drink, and I realized I couldn’t do that to him. I never thought about suicide again.

I had been writing in notebooks for years, before blogs were ever the thing to do, thinking someday there might be something to my words. But in the midst of this season, I believed I would never get my mind back, never be able to write anything that made sense, and I threw years of writings in the fireplace and watched my words curl up in the flames and turn to ashes. I couldn’t bear to be constantly reminded of what I had lost and would never get back. Besides, I reasoned, I won’t be able to take them with me into the mental institution I saw as my future.

So how is it that I am here, ten years later, writing these words to you now, pursuing my dream to study as a seminary student and finding joy in my life again? How did I go from the deepest pit to standing here with the sun shining on my face? In a word – God.  Even from the beginning, I sensed that if I had even the smallest chance of survival, it would only be if I clung to God like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. Somehow – no, not somehow, I know how – deep in my spirit I knew that God could rescue me. I knew that if I grabbed onto whatever I could of Him, I had a sliver of hope. The truth is, I wasn’t clinging to God because all along God had been holding on to me. The only solace I found was in my Bible, in the pages of the Psalms. They speak to every emotion man experiences, and they were the words I couldn’t find at three o’clock in the morning. I read the Psalms constantly, wrote them in my prayer journal, prayed them aloud and wrote my own. They were my lifeline to God. They were God’s gift to me.

And one more thing – one early morning as I was reading Psalm 19, I noticed how David called God “my strength, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (vs. 1-2). I sensed God speak to my heart, “Child, who am I?” “You’re God,” I said, “Who else could you be?” Again in my heart I heard “There’s so much more to me than you realize. Know me.” Those two words rang through my mind the entire day – “Know me.” I remembered a small book I had picked up several months earlier at a conference, Time Out: Planning a Personal Prayer Retreat, by Mary Kassian. It was published just for the retreat – I bought it for $5 – but it had listings of the names of God in Hebrew with scripture references. This book became my personal study manual as I poured over each of those names, looking up the Scriptures and writing each one out. I began to see God as I had never seen Him before. God was Yahweh Magen – the Lord my Shield, Yahweh Rophe – the Lord my Healer, El Emunah – the Faithful God, and the name that became most precious to me, El Hayyay – God of my life. Every name gave me renewed strength and hope and peace. In studying the names of God I felt like a parched, cracked desert suddenly graced with spring showers, drinking in liquid life.  That study continued for six years as I found more resources with more information. I began to study the original word terminologies in the Hebrew, a passion that has carried over in my studies and writing today. The God of the Bible literally saved my life. I will be sharing some of these names in a series of blog posts in the coming weeks. I pray you will find new facets of who God is and come to appreciate His multi-dimensional nature. I hope you will find a special name that becomes your personal, intimate connection to your Creator.

It was two very long years before I could sense a return to “normal” (whatever that is), and I still have bouts with depression from time-to-time. I learned later that I was experiencing a serious chemical imbalance that triggered the depressive episode. Medication is part of my self-care routine, but I always turn back to the Psalms and my studies of God’s names when I feel myself heading down into the pit again. I’ve learned through study and by experience that whatever I need – whether a Rescuer, Helper, Redeemer, Rock, Shield, Defender, Healer, or Comforter, God is always and forever El Shaddai – the Almighty Sufficient God. He is whatever I need.

El Hayyay – You are the God of my life, You saved me from my sins and you saved me from despair. You are Yahweh Shalom – the God of Peace, for only You could bring peace to my misery and pain. You will forever be Eli Maelekhi – God my King, and I will forever serve You. Amen.

Lessons From A Woman Scorned

“The angel of the Lord found Hagar…” Genesis 16:7

I’m spending some time in the Word this morning studying Genesis 16 and 21, specifically looking at one woman’s encounter with God.  Hagar was an Egyptian slave, serving as handmaiden to Sarai, the wife of Abram.  You may know them better by the names God would give them later: Sarah and Abraham.  A woman in Hagar’s position was bound by any request of her mistress, and Sarai needed Hagar to perform a service that was quite common in the Ancient Near East – to serve as a surrogate mother and bear a child for the barren Sarai.  Without being terribly indelicate, that meant Hagar would sleep with Abram. When she learned that she was pregnant with Abram’s child – something that Sarai couldn’t accomplish – Hagar “began to despise her mistress.” (Gen. 16:4b). In my Alabama home, we would say Hagar got uppity with Sarai.  This caused much strife between Sarai and Hagar, as you can imagine. Sarai returned Hagar’s attitude and began to mistreat the Egyptian, to the point that Hagar ran away from her mistress, into the unforgiving wilderness

Lesson #1 – When God blesses you, don’t get prideful and uppity.  When the Lord initially called Abram, He made this promise: “I will bless you…and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).  Pride is a dangerous thing before God, especially when we become prideful over the blessings God has poured out on us.  He blesses that we might in turn bless others

In the wilderness, Hagar stopped to rest.  Scripture tells us “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7).

Lesson #2 – God will seek out His wayward children.  The Hebrew word for “found” means “to cause to encounter,” God purposefully put Himself in Hagar’s path to cause her to have an encounter with Him. Go with me to Jesus’ parables in Luke 15.  First the parable of the lost sheep – the shepherd goes out on a mission to locate and rescue His lost lamb (Lk 15:4-7).  The woman searches her house over to find her lost coin (Lk. 15:5-10) and the father searches the horizon continually, looking for his wayward son.  God doesn’t go on a seek-and-find mission, He set Himself right where He knew she was going, because she was His wounded child and His heart was tender to her.  (Note that her wounds all started out of her own pride and arrogance.  Even when we are the root of our problems, God still desires to restore us to Himself.

Hagar encountered God – and gained precious insight into who He is.  Through the angel’s assurances, she learned that the God of her master was very much aware of her and her plight.  She named the Lord El Roi – “the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13).  This was an awesome insight for the Egyptian, because the pagan gods gave no notice to humans, unless they displeased them in some way.  But here God revealed Himself as a God who watched over His people and tenderly cares for them.

Lesson #3 – God often reveals Himself to us in our times of struggle and pain.

Had Hagar not been lost in the wilderness, running from the hard hand of her mistress, she would have never encountered the Lord and come to know this tender heart of the God who saw her.  I know this lesson has been true in my life.  So often I have discovered aspects of God that I would have never known had I not been in difficult circumstances.  When I was unable to pay my rent, I discovered Jehovah-Jireth – the Lord who Provides (Gen. 22:8). When my husband was desperately ill I found Jehovah Rapha – The Lord our Healer (Ps. 103:3). When I was discouraged and fearful, Jehovah Shalom – The Lord is Peace (Jud. 6:23-24) and Yahweh-Tsuri – The Lord my Strength (Ex. 15:2) came to encourage and strengthen me.  If you are in a difficult season, look for God to reveal Himself to you in a new and encouraging way.

After the birth of Ishmael (which means The Lord has heard – Gen 16:11) Hagar and her son were forced to leave their home with Abraham and Sarah, because of Sarah’s jealousy.  Abraham gave them a little food and water and sent them to wander in the desert.  This was a certain death sentence, and sure enough the water ran out and as they became dangerously dehydrated, Hagar recognized their inevitable deaths.  She put Ishmael under a tree and walked away, so as not to watch her weakened son die.  She and the boy were both crying, and God – once again – came to Hagar and assured her that they would not die, for God had a future planned out for the boy.  Genesis 21:19 says, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Oh see the beauty of this passage, El Roi – the God who saw Hagar, now opened Hagar’s eyes so she could see.  He showed her a well of water, life giving water that would minister to their bodies and to their spirits.

Lesson #4 – The God who see you and me will open our eyes so we can see Him. When your eyes are blinded with tears, God will come and tenderly wipe away your tears so you can see that He is with you and will comfort and care for you.  This is one of the most precious promises in the Bible to me “The Lord your God will be with you where you go” (Jos. 1:9).  I have found myself in some difficult places and very hard circumstances, but I have never been out of my Heavenly Father’s sight.  In the margin of my Bible I have written these words that God spoke to my heart: “Child, there is no place you can go that I will not be.”  Whether they are physical places or emotional pits and spiritual dark caves – God has promised “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Jos. 1:5)

If He went to the cross, and into the dark grave of death for us, then we can trust that He will never abandon us, no matter where we are.  Did Jesus not say, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

I think of all the lessons we can take away from the life of Hagar, the most important one is this: Lesson #5 – God is forever faithful.  He was faithful to a frightened, lost Egyptian slave girl, and He will be faithful to you and me.

 

El Emunah – The Faithful God, thank you for always keeping Your watchful and loving eyes on me.  Wherever I am Lord, I will trust in You.  Amen