I took this picture last August from our balcony at the beach. A powerful storm was coming off the shore, pushing over the sea. We had been stretched out in the sun just an hour earlier; but in a matter of minutes, tents were broken down, chairs were cleared and a surf full of children was left empty. Thunderstorms aren't a rare phenomenon for most of us, but we experience them differently at the beach. We notice the changes that come before - the temperature drops, the water stirs, the clouds darken. At home, obviously those signs don't go unseen, but they have our full attention on a stage like this. Nothing is obstructing our view and all we can do is watch and wait and wonder.
The months leading up to vacation had felt like this moment, living life on the outer edge of a storm - weeks in the overcast, weeks in the rain, moments in the sun - deeply grateful for what we had while desperately trying to not to break under compounding pressure. Like that afternoon at the beach, the air felt different for most of 2016. That colder, darker, less stable place - it was is if we were living there. And as the election progressed and the year wore on, it seemed like everyone was living there.
For the Joyners, much of 2016 was bands of rain hitting us in the face, but we were safe and the road out wasn't too long. We saw broken transmissions and flooded basements and empty bank accounts. We saw emergency rooms visits and surgery and a long cycle of rotating household germs. In July, the sky grew darker with the death of my grandmother, a pain that continues to linger today, as I expect it always will.
We know the hard stuff of life is inevitable. We know we're going to get knocked down from time to time, but by the summer, our house felt like it was taking one blow after another, like those hard moments were being concentrated into a single, grand slam year.
The bare bones of our theology get worked out when the clouds roll in and the water rises. We're faced with questions we might not otherwise ask. 2016 made me question what it meant for God to be faithful.
Somewhere around the start of the summer, I told BJ that I was wondering if we had fallen out of favor with God. The question was deeply unsettling for me and from the moment I asked, I was mostly certain that I didn't believe it was true; but I found myself asking where he saw us in the mix of the world.
Was God's favor a good fortune umbrella and had we slipped beyond it's protection?
In 2016, while we were struggling with the normal stuff of life that seemed to be snowballing, I watched some of my most devout friends suffer. I watched parents bury their children. I watched moms die of cancer. I watched brilliant, hard working men lose their jobs and their income.
It was clear that the core of God's faithfulness was not attached to outcomes.
Certainly, he opens doors and closes them and provides in moments when the tracks are about to end. Babies are born where there was infertility. Life returns when death seemed certain. Provision comes when it seems impossible (BJ and I are living proof for this act of God's faithfulness). But when we say that the Lord will never leave or forsake us, it must be something that extends beyond circumstances.
There's a lot to be said about suffering, perseverance and hope, and God's faithfulness throughout that process. For a bit more on that, let me introduce you to David Dwight and his opening sermon in a new series on perseverance. As a church, this has been an especially meaningful way to start the year.
2016 was about something else for me though. It turned my mind to what it means to be faithful to a person we love, to be loyal rather than wandering. While we are never promised the outcomes we pray for, we are promised his enduring, unending faithfulness. We are promised his nearness and his fidelity. We are promised that he won't turn to another. We are promised he won't walk away.
This idea of God's fidelity didn't mean much to me until a few years ago. Foolishly, and perhaps arrogantly, I assumed it was a given, rather than a covenant. Then I made it through the first 7 years or so of marriage. Things were breaking. Money was, at times, inconceivably tight. We were well acquainted with each others' worst and least charming selves. In a human development class I took last year, we learned that of the marriages that end, the average year to be separated by is year 7 and the average year to be divorced by is year 8. That felt pretty accurate.
We hit that spot where faithfulness and fidelity, where the not wandering, stopped seeming inevitable. Even just the wandering of the mind...the leaving the present to be somewhere else, someplace easier with someone or people who hadn't seen the whole of our ugly mess. It made sense how that turning away could happen.
We learned that faithfulness was a decision to return to each other out of a covenant promise we had made. Faithfulness was a determination to do the work needed to thrive.
When I began to think about God's faithfulness in terms of his promise to never leave, I saw his faithfulness in his commitment to stay, to hold us, to love us, and to make his peace tangible in his presence.
If my kids are hurting or are scared, sometimes the only I thing I can offer them is my presence. I can rub their back and pull them close and wait with them. In 2016, I came to many places where the circumstances were not going to change, but that promise of the Lord to be near, to pull me close and hold me through it, to wait with me and never leave, that promise was enough. That promise of his faithfulness and the experience of his presence was, at times, all we had - and it was enough.