Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Broken Lives and Shortbread Cookies

There are these shortbreads I've been baking for 16 years.  They're not ordinary shortbread cookies. They're whipped.  And by whipped, I mean I put butter, flour and a bit of powdered sugar into my faithful Kitchen-Aid, turn her on high and let her roar for ten straight minutes while I go about my business.  Of all the fussy, truffly, ganachy, decadent treats I make every Christmas, these common cookies are by far my favorite.  In fact, I blame them for at least ten of my extra pounds--I mean really, when the recipe calls for equal parts butter and flour, you know the scale is going to taunt you for the rest of your life.  But the key to these cookies isn't in the ingredients.  That's nothing new.  Anybody can make a shortbread.  The key is in the whipping.  A friend was over the other day, and I force fed her one with a bit of Earl Grey tea (because who in their right mind would have one without that specific tea?).  She said, "These are tricky little cookies.  You put them in your mouth, and then they disappear."  Exactly.  There is so much air in those gloriously golden dollops that they melt instantly on your tongue.  Clouds are made of them.  They grow on trees in heaven.  On the day God rested?  He was eating them.  I know this.  I am certain.
But there is one little problem.
They break.
Every year.
When I attempt to place them in a container, inevitably several of them crack the instant they are lifted from the cookie sheet.
It's because they've been whipped.  Hard.
And sometimes life does that to us.  Whips us.
Leaves us feeling like a batter that's been tossed around the planet mercilessly for too many long, lonely minutes.  And those minutes feel like a lifetime of relentless horror.
I know this because I've been watching it all around me.  Lives of those I love have been caught up in some kind of violent cosmic hurricane and the debris and splinters of their world swirl around us.
Children terminally ill.
Family with cancer.
Wedding vows abandoned.
Suicidal children.
Mothers addicted to drugs.
Depression that doesn't lift with talk or pill.
And these aren't just words; these are the stories of souls.  Precious, hurting souls. Souls I've talked with this very week.
They have names; they live, and they breathe, and they break.
Dear God, they break.
And were I to have a hundred hands, still I could not stitch the shards of their lives back together, still I could not wipe away all the tears, still I could not fix the fractures.
Noah saw this same stuff, was witness to great woe.
God placed him on the ark, told him He would send flooding rain.
And Jesus told us In this world you will have trouble. (John 16:33)
God did send rain.  Though Noah expected it, having never seen it, he didn't know how overwhelming a flooding rain would be. And though we know trouble is promised, we are still stunned by its staggering blows.
Noah sat on that boat, goats bleating, crickets chirping, and a family that no doubt freaked as the waters rose.  Did you ever stop to really think of Noah?
Because I thought I knew everything about the whole ark experience.  The two by two animals, the pretty little brown flannel graph boat that floated like a cruise ship on blue felt waves, and the gorgeous rainbow bookended by cottony clouds.  Mr. Thomas taught me all about it at Faith Baptist Church when I was growing up.
He was a good man.  His stories captivated me as he used strips of felt to create a canvas of biblical times. He taught me well, but the truth is, he left a few details out.  The ones that didn't fit neatly on his 2 by 4 foot flannel graph board and easel.
I've thought about those things lately.  A lot.
If I was Noah's wife, I would have been fine for a little while.  I would have let him build his ark.  I would have even helped him, baked him muffins and brought him coffee.  I would have created feeding charts for the animals and packed an overnight bag 'just in case.'  When the rain came, it would have been a confirmation to me that he wasn't crazy.  I would have made tea and sat by a window to watch that strange phenomenon I'd not yet seen as it poured down in sheets of clear liquid like tears.  But friends, did you ever stop to think of the crowds of people desperately crying out and beating their fists against the cypress wood begging to be let in?
God had already shut the door.  And if y'all want things to get really real, we should just discuss God shutting that door.  Because nobody wants to tackle that topic.  Understanding God isn't easy.  He doesn't fit in a theology book or a Dayspring Card.  He can't be tamed, fully fathomed or simplified into words that completely encompass all of who He is.  He can't.  Anyone who pretends otherwise is dead wrong.  But know this, there is not one single description of God in the Bible that is false.  So when we don't understand or God forbid, we don't agree, we stand on what we know to be true.
For the Lord is good; His love endures forever.  (Psalm 100:5)
So when I think of the reality that Noah could give them no relief, I remember that The Lord is still good in that decision to shut the door even if I don't grasp it.  That right there would have been the end of me.  I'd have climbed out a window, slung out a rope, screamed at Noah to let me help them.  Because who among us can ever sit idly by when another is in trouble?
And this is a rather inconvenient truth.  Our God does allow trouble.
No Sunday School teacher on the planet can make that fit neatly on their flannel graph board.  It's ugly and glaring and uncomfortable.
And still, there is more.  It got way worse.
Did you ever think about the bodies?
Because surely when they looked out the windows of that ark they saw bodies.  Floating and lifeless beings that finally surrendered their fight to survive.  The carcasses of animals and cadavers of their friends and neighbors sloshed about by a deluge so strong that none, not one, single soul survived it.
All broken beyond repair.  I know I'd of wept and wailed, and I am not even going to pretend I would have accepted the decision of a sovereign God.
I'd have yelled.  I'd have pleaded for Him to show Himself.  To explain Himself.  To give me some understanding.  And where is the yelling and hollering and pleading before God for answers in our churches today?  Does that fit neatly on Sunday morning between Bless the Lord  and Oceans in the worship set?  Because what if we all got just a little more honest and spit up just a wee bit of the truth of our souls?  What would church look like then?
But this is what is worst of all.
After the rain stopped its relentless forty days of pounding, there came a deafening silence.
For 11 months heaven held it's tongue.
Our God was silent.
They floated aimless on an ocean of water with no end.  No idea where they were going.  No idea when or if they would hear from God again.  No idea how long their food rations would hold out.  No idea if they would survive.
And if we're being honest, when you've lost that much, would you even want to survive?
They had nothing left.
All I'm saying is we've seen troubles yes, but we're in good company.
God did not speak.  That we know of, Noah heard nothing from God for over a year.
And how does a sometimes silent God work with our pretty paintings of God as a doting Father?  Is this not perhaps the reason people walk away from the faith?
I'm just asking.
Maybe we were sold a Dixie cup of grape Kool-Aid, and after sipping a little while, we discover, there's more.  It's not all grape.  It's not all sweet.  It's not going down easy.  And we feel jilted, deceived, conned.  We feel stupid for falling for it.  We think we're idiots for drinking the Kool-Aid, and we're out.
Because we've tried to live right, you and I.  Haven't we?  Tried to follow the rules, be good little Christians. God said Noah was righteous and scripture says Noah did all that God commanded him.  Indeed he did.
Obedient, God-fearing men and women can do exactly as God instructs and still bear witness to great sorrow.
I'm talking about the kind of sorrow and confusion that follows your child telling you they are gay.
I'm talking about the kind of pain that follows cancer, stage 4.
I'm talking about the knock out punch that happens when you made a bad investment and your family loses their home.
I'm talking about the stuff we don't want to talk about.  I'm saying, let's have this conversation.
In this world you will have trouble.  Jesus said it because He was willing to have this conversation. Not once did he shy away from the truth of who He is or the questions of a people hungry for a Savior.
So Noah and his family are just about in the middle of what seems like nowhere when we read this:
But God remembered Noah.
our God
the God who was silent,
See, that little phrase there is a game changer for me.  It's everything I need.
When He remembered, He sent a wind to dry the land, and He closed the floodgates.
Still though He remembered, He remained silent for over half a year longer.
Why God?
Because I know women whose husbands are dead and children whose mothers are dead, and they've lived through the silence of heaven.
But God remembers.
And this is what we need, is it not?  We need to know that God remembers us.  In Hebrew that phrase means He calls to His memory.
If I'm going to drink from the bitter cup, I want a God who calls me to His memory.  I want a God who doesn't forget I exist.  A God who cares enough to choose to call me to His mind.  Because maybe the Kool-Aid doesn't look right after all, but faith isn't what we see.  It's what we don't see.
Around the seventh month, Noah and his family stopped drifting and landed on solid ground.
Faith is believing solid ground will surface and the boat of our lives will land there because our God will not forget us.
Around the tenth month, Noah and his family could see the tops of the mountains again.  Earth was still there.  It did not give way.
Indeed the earth is established, it cannot be moved.  (Psalm 93: 2)
Then, after 370 days Noah and his family set their feet on soil.
Do you hear me when I say it was a year?  An entire year of their lives they drift and float and wait. Lord knows we drift too, don't we?  And finally, their God speaks.
And when He does?  Do you know that He just picks up the conversation right where He left off?  No Hi, how are you?  It's me, God. Missed you.  How you been?  What did you think of the ark?  How'd the elephants do all cooped up?  
Why?  Because He already knew.  There was no catching up needed; He was always there.
Emmanuel--God with us.
And He is here now in the midst of your story and my story.
Right here.  Right now.  In the middle of the debris.
The Lord is near to all who call out to Him, to all who call on him in truth. (Psalm 145:18)
I will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5)
There's the whole rainbow bit too.  Everybody loves that part, but for me, it's just Him talking to them like He never left.
And while we're discussing Him.  God isn't afraid of our questions.  He's not phased by our doubts. He's not offended by our disappointment.
In fact, I think when we get real and honest and quit pretending, that's when we start to really see God.
Not the God of fairy tales.
Not the God that's just sugar and no spice.
The God who has His own will and plan.  The God who didn't make us so we could enjoy life, but rather who made us so we could have life.
And by the way, that life we get to have?  It's HIM.  He said, I am the way, the truth, and THE LIFE. (John 10:10)
Romans 8:5,6 says this:  For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped  by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by things of the Spirit.  For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace.
Maybe this is the crux of it all.  To survive the flood, we must live according to the Spirit.  And there's only one way to do that.
By faith.
It always comes to this, doesn't it?
Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for the one who approaches God must believe that He exists and the He rewards those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)
That same passage says Noah became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
Faith that he exists.
Faith that He rewards those who seek Him.
Faith that if God be for us, who can be against us?  No enemy can stand against the power of His name.
Faith that He will shelter you with his wings, you will find safety under his wings.  His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall. (Psalm 91:4)
Faith that our God's love is loyal. (Psalm 92:4)
Faith that though our God is a consuming fire, the Lord is (also) just in all His actions and exhibits love in all He does.  (Psalm 145:7)
Because the outlook of the flesh is death.  And when we're in the midst of a flood, sometimes all we see is the death, but
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
Knowing this doesn't remove the angst of life.  It isn't a promise that our spouse will return, that children won't go hungry, that the stroke won't take his speech or that Alzheimers won't steal her memory.  But knowing it changes our outlook to one of life and peace. It reminds us that beneath the raging waters, solid ground remains.
Cookies crumble.
They just do.
And life?  It stings sometimes.
It just does.
But God remembers.
And that is enough.


Pat Strickland said...

Sarah, you truly have a gift for sharing your heart. What a blessing to see such depth in one so young. God is using you and your family to bless not only the youth of our church but all of us who struggle with the crumbles of our lives. Thanks for reminding me that God remembers and is always there to pick up the pieces.

Pat Strickland said...

Thanks, Sarah.

Linda Troiani said...

Hello my darling girl..Sarah.....I am sitting by my Christmas Tree with Sydney&Sophie by my side reading your Christmas letter. As always I savor every word you write and imagine you and Jeff and the boys in Georgia. A place I really want to visit. Then I found "broken lives and shortbread cookies" and had to read it as well.
Thank you Sarah. You are a gifted writer and we love to read what you write. It makes us ponder life and look at it with hope instead of despair. Love you Aunt Linda xo
Merry Christmas....and go easy on the whipped shortbread!!!!!! :)

Sarah said...

Thank you all for your generous words. you all are gracious to read my fleshing out of walking with God . . . Writing it out helps me to gain perspective <3
Love you all.