The trail diverged in three different directions. And I am directionally challenged on a really good day, on a well-marked highway. I followed the arrow that pointed to the right, but it wasn’t the trail I that I had been on before. It was overgrown, and I had to pick my way through the prickly brush and mud and beat back the mosquitos that swarmed. It was slow going, more like army crawling than hiking. As I walked I prayed.
This is a heavy season, one of sharing the painful burden of unanswered prayers with several friends. My mind has been consumed with the stories of marital brokenness, illness, depression, and troubled children. All of them devastating, all of them seeming unsustainable.
When I first hear each diagnosis or troubled tale, I spring into action. Faith wells up and it feels like fire in my belly.
“This situation must change,” I think.
I don’t just believe in the miracle but I feel in my bones that it’s the next likely step. The words of hope and encouragement flow easily in these early hours. I feel the promise of them even as they emerge and I am encouraged too.
When the answers are slow in coming.
After all, I’ve been there. I know a thing or two about desperate places. And I have a few unanswered prayers I’m still waiting on myself. So I pray and send hopeful words out expecting a return.
And then days turn to weeks turn to months. And the answers haven’t come. And the heart breaks.
One day I sit down to pray for a friend and don’t know what to say anymore. Nothing comes. I still believe the same things, but the words start to take on a hollow tone. They even turn and mock me a little.
Maybe your faith wasn’t strong enough to begin with.
Maybe there’s not an answer on this side of heaven.
With time the situation starts to take on a permanent feel. Hopelessness creeps up around the edges threatening to demoralize my faith.
We abide in otherworldly places.
Surely this is the darkest valley of Psalm 23, the one David tells us about that lies in the shadows. It’s the long trek that has no definable end date. The suffering that has no name and no promise of a cure on earth.
And yet in the same breath David tells us that he lacks nothing, that he is refreshed, that he doesn’t fear, that he is comforted, that he’s well fed, and filled with the Lord’s love. He abides in an otherworldly place that makes no sense.
What did David know and experience that we need in these times of unanswered prayers?
It’s clear when you go back one chapter that David had his own questions and concerns for God. He wasn’t immune to the struggle. And at the same time his heart was filled with gratitude and worship.
His trust was intact.
He knew how to live fully even in the midst of his pain.
We are right where we are meant to be.
As I picked my way through the trail, grabbing branches for stability, I stooped low under a colorful flowering limb and saw the tiniest fern growing out from the rocks. I’ve been fascinated with ferns since teaching my oldest daughter botany years ago and hiking through low light under the California redwood canopy to study them.
But I’ve never loved a fern. They’re….lowly.
And as I looked at this little fern, my heart weighted with a thousand worries and concerns, I heard in my heart, “You are the fern.”
Huh? I’m a fern? Close to the ground? Moist? Plain?
What does that mean?
The response came.
“You thrive where others would fail. You grow from the rock, the soil, the branch. You find sustenance wherever you need it. You stretch out toward the light from dim places.You want to be the rose that flowers in a hundred different colors, that needs the perfect conditions to flourish. But, no, you are the fern. You are abundant and fertile and perfectly formed for your place in this world.”
I AM the fern.
Embrace God’s provision for the rough places.
I thought of David, laid low by every hard thing. Abandoned, running for his life. He knew humility. And yet he thrived there in the cave. He gave us the most beautifully crafted songs of worship. They came from a gutted, yet hopeful place, from an unshakeable knowledge that God was still good.
This is where the fern lives. And it is where I live. I live in a place with some tough, unanswered prayers, some disappointments without explanations. And yet I know God is still good. And so I embrace the provision that he has given. I embrace being laid low because I know I have all of the provision I need there, under the canopy, in the dark and dank places.
Maybe those places of complete abandon and trust are the holiest places after all.