Last Saturday evening, I sat in the living room of a couple I'd just met and listened while they shared the story of their past four years, a story marked by five miscarriages, the unexpected death of a best friend, and a baby they were told by doctor after doctor would certainly not survive birth. They bounced this sweet, so very alive baby on their laps as they talked, a tangible reminder of answered prayers in the midst of so much unexplainable loss.
On my way back to Virginia the next morning, as I rounded the Capital Beltway near the lofty peaks of the Mormon Temple, Pandora began playing a song I didn't recognize and can't remember really, a song about God and the way He builds His kingdom, the sort of song that is supposed to inspire believers to march forth and do great things for God. I generally like this sort of song, like to feel inspired by grand visions and lofty missions.
But today, I thought of the family I'd been visiting and of all the families I've been talking to the past year. I thought of the collective pain of their stories: decades of waiting for babies who didn't come, dozens of babies lost, lifetimes of pain and struggle and lingering questions and doubts. I thought of all the things these people might have done for God if they hadn't had to spend all this time suffering, and I tried to reconcile the reality of their lives with the advance of God's kingdom, with His call to reach more people with the good news of salvation.
It didn't make much sense to me. Why would God allow His children, the very people He's appointed to spread His message, to languish for years in pain and suffering, to wrestle with questions, to doubt the very truths He wants them to share with others? To me, it would seem the gospel would advance best and most efficiently through the strong and healthy, not the broken and the suffering, the grieving and the doubting.
But in that moment, God reminded me of another story, the story of Ruth. I thought about Naomi losing her husband and both of her sons, coming back to Bethlehem far from an exemplary spokeswoman for God's kingdom. "Don't call me Naomi," she says. "Call me Mara because the Almighty has made my life very bitter" (Ruth 1:20).
And yet, in spite of her pain and the resulting bitterness, God worked - both in her lifetime, to bring her joy again in the form of a grandson, and after her death, to bring the Savior through the bloodline of that grandson and to include her story in the greatest book of all time. Her life, messy and broken as it was, became part of the advance of God's kingdom in ways she couldn't have ever imagined, even on her death bed.
I realized in that moment that my vision of kingdom advancement to this point has been very people-centered, based on strategy and vision and human initiative. And while I do believe God calls us to think strategically about carrying the gospel forward, I am learning this is not the only, or even the primary way.
I am learning this: the gospel is His story. He writes it. And He's very comfortable with not only our sin, but also with our suffering selves, with the wounds we carry with us. He advances His kingdom not by leading a parade of the triumphant and mighty, but by carrying in His capable arms the injured and limping, those of us who sometimes can manage nothing more than to whisper His name.