When Redemption Wins: broken hearts and songs of praise

In the last week, via the work I do, I’ve heard two stories about pastors’ families that have broken my heart. Left me in tears and whispering incoherent words of prayer for these families and what they are facing as they make some attempt to move forward through what’s left of the lives they once knew.

As if there isn’t already enough to break your heart these days.

You don’t need me to tell you how completely shattered this world is, how completely weighed down with heartache and hate the very earth seems, how hard it is to find even the tiniest glimmer of hope for the future our children are growing into.

And you don’t need me to itemize it all either. You know. It’s a terrifying world, and, on the one hand, I do not have time to be afraid; on the other hand, I often have to fight the fear back, and I find myself breathing such quiet prayers of thanksgiving for the simplest things, the simplest moments, because not a single bit of it can be taken for granted in a world where getting shot just because you went to the grocery store at the wrong time is a reality; in a world where real, struggling, honest working families already living paycheck-to-paycheck are learning that their tax liability this year is considerably higher than last year and so have to make really difficult choices (meanwhile, college admissions and degrees are essentially being purchased by those who can afford to do so…); in a world where we seem incapable of real conversation, much less actual relationship, with people who do not look like, think like, act like, or believe like we do; in a world where there are mamas literally fighting for food and water and safety for their children; in a world where there are papas trying so hard to protect their families and love their children against the chaos of a world trying to define those same children by their appearance or bank account size.

It’s all utter nonsense. Excuse me…utter bullshit.

I know and love people who were taught a faith that says, essentially, “Follow God, say you love Jesus, and all will be well. Do what the bible says, and you’ll be okay.” And this works just fine…until it doesn’t.

Because sometimes awful, terrible, gut-wrenching, life-changing, horrible, unimaginable things happen to the very best, the most faithful, the kindest, and the most gracious folks. Faithfulness is no guarantee against pain.

I don’t know when this one particular message began to form itself in my soul, when it began to etch itself on my heart, but I am grateful every day that it did. And that message is this: that it isn’t about God preventing our pain, it’s about God standing in us with it.

It isn’t so much about Jesus giving us a list of to-do’s for success and happiness; it’s about taking into our hearts a way of life that seeks to love others as we have been loved, to do kindness, to love mercy.

It isn’t so much about “doing what the bible says” (’cause lemme tell ya, that’s a slippery slope if you’re going to take every single sentence literally–even in the New Testament); it’s about this magnificent testament of faith poured onto paper by centuries of people who believed mightily that life is best lived with God. With God. And the bible is the best way they knew to express that–and it’s the best way I now know to live that life with God, even if, full transparency, my own bible is currently dustier than I would prefer it to be.

Look, here’s where I’m headed–it’s easy to love, to practice kindness, to foster mercy when things are going well. It’s easy to be generous of spirit when we are feeling as if we have and are enough. It’s easy to extend grace when we are feeling graced ourselves. It’s easy to proclaim God’s love and bless God’s name when the sun is shining down on us and the road is abundant with goodness. Or, as Matt Redman sings:

Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
Blessed be Your name

And there’s no shame in this. It’s understandable, even.

But the thing is, while the bible is a bit nebulous on more than a few things, and it is complicated and difficult to grasp on more than a few other things, it is very clear, Jesus is very clear, God’s history with God’s people is very clear, on this one particular and very important thing: God is love.

God is love. And so God is good. And so God is with us always. No matter what.

Love does not cause pain. It carries you through it. Goodness does not create evil. It fights against it with you. And God’s presence is not dependent upon your choices or behavior or mistakes or failings. It is unconditional.

And so, as Matt Redman also sings:

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering 
Though there’s pain in the offering 
Blessed be Your name

You see, redemption isn’t about completing a set of “back to good graces” tasks assigned to us by some divine generator. It isn’t even about just saying “I’m sorry,” and being done with it. And it isn’t about trying to be better.

Redemption is knowing that good, bad and even fiercely ugly, we are not alone, and that even in our deepest pain it is possible to know the love of a God who will not let us go, and who stands with us as witness to goodness and grace. I have to believe this transforms our hearts. Calls us to a way of being that, while it isn’t required as some sort of payment to some divine benefactor, is a right and real and proper response to having been loved so fully and completely.

Because loving, really loving, begets loving.

Goodness, real goodness, begets goodness.

Presence, real presence, begets presence.

Out of our broken hearts, it is possible to sing praises to a God who has not, and will not, let us go.

This is grace.

This is redemption.

This is love.

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