The Goodness of God

Sometimes it’s easy for us to proclaim that God is good, to know and experience God’s goodness, to sing words like these. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes it feels like we’re experiencing anything but the goodness of God. Sometimes it feels more like we’re in the “valley of the Shadow of Death” as David puts it, and yet we don’t feel like the good shepherd is leading us. 

Many of you know that in a few weeks, I’ll have surgery for a tumour in my adrenal gland. Waiting for the diagnosis last fall felt like one of those shadow-filled valleys for me. Labour Day weekend was when things really intensified with one final emergency room visit in a year filled with emergency room visits. That one felt like a turning point and brought me some hope for the first time in a while that there would be a diagnosis. I remember coming to church the first Sunday after that and standing up when we started to sing and praying, “God, whatever happens now, I know that with you I’m going to be okay.” And the Holy Spirit whispering to me, “What if you’re not okay? Will we be okay if you’re not okay?” 

That question was really hard for me. I thought a lot about prosperity gospel, about our desire to believe that if God loves us, it means everything in our life will be not just okay, but blessed. But we can be faithful and believe that God wants to heal us and not be healed. Not have broken relationships restored. Still suffer with mental illness. Still wait for unanswered prayer. 

AND YET God is still good. 

During those fall months, going to church was hard. I was on medication that meant I just didn’t sleep, so I felt awful a lot of the time, but sometimes I woke up feeling physically okay but just couldn’t come to church because I couldn’t handle pretending that everything was okay and I didn’t know how to talk about it not being okay. I couldn’t sing about God’s goodness when I felt like I wasn’t experiencing any of it. 

Now, looking back, I see that God wasn’t absent. God taught me so much about who he is and who I am. God taught me anew what it means to rely fully on him. I learned about the beauty of being in community. I learned to let others help me, the beauty of having others pray for me. I learned that God isn’t just good when our lives are going well, but God is good all the time. I learned that maybe the only way for us to know this truth is to experience the shadow-filled valleys that life inevitably brings us. 

I wonder if Lent is an opportunity for us as a church to learn this too. At Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, as a cross is put on the forehead of churchgoers, the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” are spoken over each person. Maybe we need that reminder of our utter inability to save ourselves, our inability to do anything outside of God. And God uses the hard experiences in our lives to teach us this lesson too. And Lent also gives us a picture of who God is, of what God’s self-sacrificial love looks like.

It’s Sunday today. If you were in a church today, you probably sang a couple of songs about who God is, proclaiming things like God’s goodness. Maybe those were easy for you to sing. Maybe they were incredibly hard. Maybe you feel like you’re in the shadow-filled valley now. If that’s the case, remember that God is there in the valley. He’s waiting to show you who he is.

 

Psalm One

Afternoon church services in my childhood would start with a hymn sing, and the organist would choose and announce these songs before the pastor got up and officially began the service.  Especially exciting were the times that the organist would be confident in his ability to sight-read anything the congregation would throw at him, and would allow people to suggest hymns instead of choosing them in advance.  

In my head I would always chant to those around me, “Choose number 1!  Choose number 1!” I never would have dared to request it myself. But that first song in the hymnal held such a fascination for me.  What could song number one be about?  

One spring day, Dad had to do some fieldwork, and it was my turn to ride inside the tractor with him. As the tractor made its way through the fields, I told Dad how I wondered what song number one was and how I hoped that someone would choose it for a hymn sing.  I shared this probably hoping Dad would request it the next time it was a brave organist playing for the hymn sing.

Dad did something way better. He sang for me then and there.  

“That man is blest who, fearing God, 

from sin restrains his feet,  

who will not stand with wicked men, 

who shuns the scorners’ seat.”

 

He sang it for me until I knew the first verse from memory.  And while it was a psalm we did not sing often in church, it has remained for me a favourite one.  And Psalm One was a natural choice for me to memorize in its entirety later in life. The image of the tree, planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – that was easy imagery for a farmer’s daughter to understand.  

What made it stick, though, was the example of my godly parents, who spent time reading God’s word, who prayed with their kids, for their kids, and on their own. Parents who talked about their faith, who sat at the dinner table long after the meal was done to answer questions that had come up in the Bible reading.  Who expressed their faith that God would use all things in our family to his glory and grace, even when we couldn’t see how that was happening.  

My parents are truly Psalm One people.

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1: 3

Day 9: Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada

I can’t believe I have walked for 9 days already. Early this morning I passed the 200 kilometre mark, which means a quarter of the Camino is behind me!
I woke up early this morning, even without an alarm. I made a quick stop at a pastelería for a pastry, and then was off. Nájera is the first town where I felt like the way was not really clearly marked. I had had trouble already last night, so I had looked in my guide book in advance. I found my way to a 13th century church, and thankfully the arrows picked up from there. Partly up the hill on the way out of town, my Ohio friends caught up with me. We had a lovely conversation all the way to Azofra, where we made a coffee stop (okay, I hate coffee so I was drinking pop). We continued on together and descended into some mud. And what mud it was! Our guidebooks had actually warned that La Rioja’s red mud might be pretty when dry but dangerous and sticky when wet. No joke! The mud stuck to our boots and weighed them down. For a while we walked in the ditch, just for some relief.
By 10:30 we came up a very long hill into Cirueña. It was a little like something out of Twilight Zone or a Stephen King novel. There was no one in the town! As compared to the so charming and quaint Spanish towns we were used to passing, this one was subdivision housing at its worst – identical, ugly houses. Only about 10% of them looked to be inhabited. We passed one house where a boy was standing at the second floor balcony door, leaning against the glass looking down on us. It didn’t help the creepy feeling. But the next occupied house had all the kids on the balcony waving at us. That made up for it! Are pilgrims the only entertainment they get, though?!
We didn’t stop for a break because there was literally no option beyond a picnic table next to some houses that looked like a prison block. We pushed on and went through some more endless fields of grain. Only one field was growing something else, and we puzzled over what it might be until we came across a plant someone else pulled up. (I’m guessing it was another pilgrim wondering what the crop was.) it was some kind of root vegetable, but I don’t even know what. A rutabaga, maybe?
We arrived at Santo Domingo de la Calzada before noon. That’s where we are stopped for the rest of the day. Our walk was a nice 21 kilometres today, and we get a whole afternoon for cleaning and relaxing!

Santo Domingo bears mentioning. He was a great patron to the Camino in the 11th or 12th century and did a lot of work to make sure pilgrims had bridges to use in order to cross rivers and good roads to walk on. The town bears his name in his honour.
This town also plays host to a famous Camino myth. The story goes that a young man and his parents were making pilgrimage to Santiago and passed through here. The young man caught the eye of a local young maiden, but when he did not return her advances, she hid some silver in his pack and accused him of stealing. The young man was sentenced and hung for his sins. (Different versions have his parents either continuing on obliviously to Santiago at this point or discovering things right away but too late.) When his parents discovered, at whatever point that was, they also discovered that by some miracle Santo Domingo had kept their son alive despite the hanging. They went immediately to the local magistrate, who was just sitting down to supper. When he heard their story, he merely laughed and told them, “Your son is no more alive than this chicken on my plate!” At those words, the roast chicken he was about to eat stood up and walked off. Aghast, the magistrate went out to the tree with the parents and saved the son. (No word on what punishment the deceitful young maiden suffered.)
In honour of this myth, the albergue that I am staying in today, one of the original pilgrim hospitals (in an updated building THANK GOODNESS!) still keeps chickens in the garden. I can hear them as I write!
Even better than that, I took a tour around the cathedral and there are a cock and hen kept IN the cathedral! It’s a coop built into the stone wall at the second level. You can see damage on the front of the stone where pilgrims hit it with their sticks to try to get feathers to prove they’d been there and for good luck!
Santo Domingo wanted to be buried here in the town, and his crypt is in the cathedral. In fact, the street the Camino is on actually jogs around the cathedral because the chapel his crypt is in was added after his death!
It was really nice to have time to really appreciate some of the local history. I paid a euro for an audio guide at the cathedral, but it was worth it. We just don’t build churches like they used to!