Blessed be the Lord! For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed. Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever.
PSALM 28:6-9 (ESV)
On Father’s Day 2016 the church I was working for burned down.
The morning had already been a pretty emotional one. My best friend preached his last sermon as our Teaching Pastor, having taken a job some months before as Senior Pastor for a church in Ohio. Many tears were shed in worship together, and after some laughs and hugs over lunch, my family got home to settle in for some afternoon rest. I couldn’t sleep, as is typical – naps have always been tough for me on Sundays, for some reason – so I was on the couch, watching an Office rerun, as I usually did to relax for a bit after services. While I was laying there my phone buzzed, and I looked down to see a text from a friend.
The church is on fire.
I thought about it for a quick second and typed back.
Yeah man! God is really doing something here!
My phone immediately buzzed again.
No no no the church is on FIRE!
A picture followed of black smoke billowing from the sanctuary windows. I ran to the bedroom in a panic to tell my sleeping wife, and I grabbed my keys and sped to the church.
When I got there it was pretty clear that the damage would be significant. There was a massive amount of first responders and firetrucks. A sea of people crowded at a safe distance on the grass by the church. Firemen were rushing in and out of the sanctuary from the adjacent student building where the hoses were hooked up. It was a chaotic scene, made worse when the pressure from the hoses burst some pipes and flooding the student building. The sanctuary was gone, and it looked like it was taking out other parts of the campus with it.
The Senior Pastor did an amazing job keeping people calm and providing good perspective. “Nobody is hurt,” he reminded everyone, as people often do in these scenarios. “God will sort out what we can’t.”
For the next sixteen months, everything changed at my church. We moved services to the significantly smaller student building once the flood damage was repaired, but we had to double our weekend services to four in order to accommodate the congregation to the new space. This meant adjusted weekly schedules, longer weekends for volunteers, and regularly reassessing ministry strategies that could not transfer from the old building.
It was a wild time working toward the reopening, and there was far more to rebuild than just the sanctuary. Some people left the church at its weakest point. Others stayed and labored tirelessly. Many volunteers were unable to add more services to their weekend commitments, straining ministries and their leaders to keep it all going.
So much weighed on us that stretch, but through it all, faithful ministry continued. With every new problem and the struggle to find its solution, the staff was reminded again and again that for all the crazy work we were putting in, we couldn’t carry the process to the end on our own. Important things would fall through, despite our best planning. We’d hit a dead end we couldn’t see, and construction would get delayed. The building always seemed just beyond the horizon.
Through it all, God always provided in ways we couldn’t anticipate. Minds seemed to be blown on a weekly basis. Every repair and replacement became a reminder that God was sovereign and sustaining. Things we needed would show up from generous churches and families. Rest came in ways we couldn’t manufacture. The picture in front of us was so vivid, and when the new sanctuary finally opened, with friends old and new gathered together that Sunday morning, we celebrated what we saw. God did what we could not.
I’ve had some large fires in my life, seasons of debilitating depression and overwhelming panic attacks, and these more recent than you might expect. What I have learned in each of these times, stumbling as I tried to walk forward out of a mess, is that there is always a point to reach where I am too weak to go on, where I have to finally stop and admit the inescapable truth. I can’t carry myself.
The truth is none of us can. The often repeated “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” ethos makes for a fine patriotic pep talk, but it’s a cheap, crumbling facade when it stands as a statement of faith. When I look back at the moments in my life where I’ve been pressed to the brink – of emotional well being, of physical health, of sanity – I always see one of two scenarios. Either I could not possibly have avoided the painful circumstances that were ahead of me, or I created those very circumstances by living like I was beyond them. Regardless of the causes, I arrive with the weight of my burdens to the same place: helplessness.
Coming to this place within yourself and expecting to find a way out might seem counterintuitive. We naturally want to engineer the escape route ourselves, find the strength within us to lift what we couldn’t or outsmart the odds in front of us. Admitting helplessness feels like the ultimate loss. But this is a lie. The comfort we seek, the joy we are chasing, the power we need – these cannot come from us. They all have to flow from God’s hands. When the psalmist says “The Lord is the strength of his people,” it’s because they have none apart from God.
When we reach the end of ourselves, there’s nothing left to do but cry out to Him. And while it may be the last thing we turn to, we quickly find it’s the only thing that helps. We learn that our God is not one who turns a deaf ear. He hears us, and He responds. God makes a way where there is none. He breaks powers, sends words of encouragement, gently corrects our prideful laboring, heals the deepest wounds, and holds back the waves from crashing against us. He does all of this because He is the God who cares for His people, the God who brought us into a new covenant with Christ’s atoning death and never forsakes His commitment. Our relationship with God never depended on our ability to find favor with anyone or generate strength among men. He promises to fulfill all our needs for us and to fight the battles we cannot.
Though the road may seem to us hopeless, Psalm 28 says that in this very moment God has us. The way forward may seem perilous and even impossible, but we can have confidence that on this journey with God His arms never tire, His legs never weaken, and His smile never fades. The good shepherd carries His people forever. Blessed be the Lord who hears and holds.
(adapted from the hymn “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” by Louisa MR Stead)
Oh how sweet to trust You Jesus,
Just to take You at Your Word;
Just to rest upon Your promise,
And to know, “Thus says the Lord!”
Oh how sweet to trust You Jesus,
Just to trust Your cleansing blood;
And in simple faith to plunge me
Beneath the healing, cleansing flood!
Oh how sweet to trust You Jesus,
For my sin and self to cease;
And from You, now here receiving,
Life and rest, and joy and peace.
I’m so glad my heart can trust You,
My precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
For I know that You are with me,
And will be until the end.
Psalm 28 suggests to us that there is a direct correlation between joy in heart and trust in God. In the psalm, there’s only one strength and one shield for the people in dire need, and they don’t command it. They run to it. Are you brandishing your own shield, flaunting a strength that won’t help, in the midst of your struggles and enemies? Choose helplessness instead. Cultivate dependence. Trust that God can carry what you can’t, and sing a new song today.