It seems unlikely that an Irish stranger would be invited to pull her chair out of the shadows and join the conversation, yet here I am, and for that I am grateful. As I began to write this post I found myself searching for beautiful words that would somehow be worthy of the rich surroundings. If I’m honest, in my head the accent that is part of who I am began to take on a hint of Tennessee. What I ended up with was a post that may have been beautiful (at least that is what I tell myself) but it wasn’t true. And what is beauty if it isn’t true.
For the past few months, truth in my life has been less about beauty and more about brokenness. Last July I watched helplessly as my ten-year-old daughter faced for the first time the moment when childish innocence is invaded by something dark and cruel, an intruder whose presence is a constant and unwelcome reminder that bad things happen. Unexpectedly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, she discovered first hand that this story we live in has evil villains and dark forests with monsters who sneak up on us when we least expect it. For every needle that pricked her skin and broke my heart a little more, another question came. It just felt wrong.
For me, the deepest pain is in the knowledge that something has happened to my child which I can’t fix. No matter how much I want to, I can’t make it go away. I can’t make it hurt less. For Ellie, whose willingness to allow me share this is testament to her courageous honesty, the struggle goes deeper still. Oddly, the least difficult thing for her is not the condition itself. Medical advances and a tenacious determination mean that physically she is doing really well. The hardest thing has been the internal struggle that follows in its wake. The sudden intrusion of deep questions that many people don’t have to face until well into their adult lives. Why did God allow this to happen to me even though I have chosen to follow Him? Why does He not heal me when all it would take is a word? Does He care that I am hurting? Is He even there at all?
One of the reasons the Bible remains deeply and authentically real, regardless of your vantage point, is that it does not hide from these questions. Actually, it embraces them. Within the Psalms in particular there is a depth of intimacy with God and freedom before Him that has pursued me again and again, breaking me apart and breathing strength into my legs in equal measure. It has struck me that whatever situation the psalmists find themselves in, whether unfettered joy or pain and betrayal, through it all they cling doggedly to two truths which are stronger than their enemies and deeper than their pain. The first is that they continue to intentionally anchor their lives in God’s word. The second is that they choose to believe that God is ultimately in control.
This voluntary framework for hope is so important that it is laid down right at the beginning of the Psalms. Psalm 1 paints a beautiful picture of the child of God who, regardless of circumstance, chooses to place his delight in His word. Rather than being led and shaped by surrounding culture, such a child makes the word of God his home. Reading it, studying it, meditating on it and allowing it to speak truth into his moments and his days. The image the Psalmist uses is of a firmly planted tree, with deep roots that are nourished by life giving water whose leaves do not wither despite the buffeting of storms and the passage of time. Instead it produces fruit and, according to the final verse of the Psalm, the fruit is the intimacy of knowing and being known by God.
There is a beautiful passage in George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind that brings home to me again one of the reasons why we must immerse ourselves in God’s word and in pursuing His heart and His character within it. In the story a young boy, Diamond develops a relationship with the North Wind, who appears to him in many different forms. There comes a moment when Diamond is faced for the first time with a side of the wind that scares him, sitting at odds with the goodness he has known until that point. The conversation goes as follows:
“Well, but listen to me Diamond. You know the one me, you say, and that is good.”
“Do you know the other me as well?”
“No. I can’t. I shouldn’t like to.”
“There it is. You don’t know the other me. You are sure of one of them?”
“And you are sure there can’t be two mes?”
“Then the me you don’t know must be the same as the me you do know—else there would be two mes?”
“Then the other me you don’t know must be as kind as the me you do know?”
“Besides, I tell you that it is so, only it doesn’t look like it. That I confess freely.”
If I’m honest, there are times when aspects of God’s character leave me shrinking back in uncertainty, wondering whether my limited understanding of His heart was ever true at all. Then I remember the story that is at the heart of Psalm 2, of a king whose name is love and a kingdom that is coming. The great story that reminds me of all that I know Him to be and gives me the courage to believe that the part of Him I know is consistent with the part I cannot fathom. That, whatever the circumstances suggest, His heart and His love are constant. Those are the times when I climb like Lucy onto Aslan’s back, burying my face in His mane and holding on even as all of Narnia shakes with the thunder in His roar.
By the very act of deliberately and intentionally placing our delight in the word of God and obedience to Him we are taking our place within the kingdom where He is already king. If this is true then choosing to live within the borders of this kingdom is not a restricting of our freedom, but a stepping into something which is infinitely greater and more real than what we see around us. These boundaries of commitment and belief are the ancient writing engraved around the entrance to the place where “why?” is not a hopeless question thrown into the void, but the cry of a heart prepared to accept that God can be trusted even when the answer does not come. It seems almost unnecessary in the Rabbit Room to state that the brokenness we live with is passing; the truth of it whispers in every song and story, but for a ten-year-old whose little ship is being tossed on the waves for the first time, the wonder of it is a longed-for harbour.
I am often asked if Ellie will grow out of her need for insulin and the question is usually followed with the whispered ending “Will she have to do this forever?” I don’t know what medical advancements the future holds but I can answer with absolute certainty that it is not forever. If only the true survives, then all that is not true will one day be consumed by the fire that makes things beautiful, and the only thing remaining of the struggle will be the beauty that was formed within it. The reality is that, as people who were created for eternity, we are defined not by the things that will soon be cast away like an old winter coat with the coming of summer, but by the things that will endure because they are made in the image of God.
I think there are two reasons why I can’t shake the feeling that God is doing something here which goes beyond what we can see. The first is that the God whose heart is evident throughout Scripture is always for His people. He is always about the business of restoring and redeeming, even if it seems at times to us that he has taken the long way round. The second reason is that often, despite the darkness, glimpses of beauty shine through, as though this temporary veil of shadows is being pierced by the light of all that is to come. And so my prayer for my family, born out of this season in our lives, is that we will allow God to fashion in us the treasure that will last, whatever form that takes. That we will choose to anchor our lives in Him and in His word and, believing that He is ultimately in control, we will have the courage to step through the sacred door into a kingdom where broken wings are no barrier to flight and joy is all the deeper for having been born out of tears.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.