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  • Writer's pictureMary Nolte

Brackish Water

Updated: Jan 4

I struggle every day.

Just the other morning, I found myself in a state of disenchantment, struggling to see the path before me, a path I had felt very confident about not so very long ago. I felt disoriented with life, afloat amidst a sea of obligations and worries, obligations and worries I had given to the Lord just the night before. I was distraught over the impending winds of change that were blowing into my life, change that I thought I had accepted. I was dealing with new bitterness over old hurts, hurts that I thought I had gotten over. Sometimes I just wish I had one day without struggle, one day without worry over a straying child or a new health issue, one day without uncertainty in the future. I feel like Sam and Frodo, going in circles and exclaiming in frustration, “This looks strangely familiar…Because we’ve been here before!”

Honestly, I get so tired of the struggle.

And so, on this particular morning, as bitterness threatened me, I prayed a simple prayer of confession and a cry to God for help that was the only thing I could think of when my eyes opened at 5:30 and my heart was already in the throes of whoa. And then I found myself in a Psalm of David.

With my voice I cry out to the Lord;

with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.

2 I pour out my complaint before him;

I tell my trouble before him.

3 When my spirit faints within me,

you know my way! (Ps. 142:1-3a)

The shepherd king wrote this as he was hiding in a cave, fleeing from the jealous rage of Saul, who sought his life. David had been driven from his home, from his wife, from his livelihood. He had been anointed as the next king of Israel, yet here he languishes, afloat in the wilderness, falsely accused, a fugitive from the country he was destined to lead. And in his disenchantment, He turns to the One who knows his soul’s deepest fears, the One who hears his heart’s most weary cries, and he “pour[s] out [his] complaint before him” (vs. 2).

Sometimes I feel guilty for being honest with God, for being transparent in my struggle with life. But then I read David, and I know that God is not interested in artificial delight or pasted on smiles.

It's ok to see the struggle for what it is. Why do we forget that? Why do we try to hide the bitter tears? Why do we muffle the deep groans the soul feels as it traverses a cursed ground?

David’s honesty is so stark. His feelings so rawly expressed. We find ourselves cringing at his admission that, “no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul” (vs. 4). Is it ok to say this to God? Has the man after God’s own heart crossed a line? Has David exposed himself as a liar? He has said in another Psalm, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Ps. 34:1). Are we reading a great hypocrisy? Is the Christian life hypocritical?

If I struggle everyday, if I am honest about the hurt and worry, am I making a mockery of the God who said He would “never leave [me] or forsake [me]” (Heb. 13:5)?

I used to think being a good witness for Christ meant my life should look free from trouble. That somehow, if He never left me, there would be no struggle. However, this ideal is not sustainable, as I soon found out, and when life came crashing down around me, and it was obvious to the world that I indeed was struggling, that trouble had definitely found its way into what I had supposed should be a continually charmed life, I simply could not stomach putting on a facade. I found myself in a place where, yes, God was real and present and was meeting me in the hurt, but the hurt was also real and present.

Both were relentless, and I was beginning to understand that life on earth existed in a realm where two worlds meet. The world of the flesh and the world of the Spirit constantly surround me, and my feet are firmly planted in both.

This reality reminds me of an interesting kayak trip I once took, deep into the bowels of a red mangrove forest. The narrow twisting of the channel, right on the edge of the Caribbean was a peaceful contrast to the sound of tourists just a few miles away. It was otherworldly, the silence of those clear, shallow waters, not quite fresh, not quite salt, where two worlds meet. Sometimes the dipping of our paddles was the only sound. It felt like a place forgotten, but our tour guide, a true islander, told us the red mangrove forest was somewhat of a wonder. The roots of these trees go down into the water’s edge, making a buffer from hurricanes, creating a natural barrier to erosion, and there, in the brackish water, they drink both their life and their death as salt gets built up in their limbs and leaves, threatening extinction. Then he pointed out an astounding thing. He called it the sacrificial leaf. It was there, on every branch, a leaf yellowed and withered, sometimes completely brown. To this leaf, the sacrificial leaf, the branch sends all its salt. The leaf clings on, connected to the tree, accepting the deadly poison until, finally, it relinquishes its life, becoming food for the sea, having saved the rest of the branch, whose tender green leaves go on to flourish.

It is nature’s song, a song some will never understand. The red mangrove is a testament that life is full of bitterness- of hopes dashed and dreams gone amiss, of difficulties and trials and the constant struggle with sin. But it is also a testament that a sacrifice has been made to drink the poison so we can live.

And as I read back over my journal, a journal I’ve been keeping for over 20 years, I am amazed to find that most of my entries are an example of this. They start with me “tell[ing] my trouble before him” (Ps. 142:2), but inevitably, they end in praise. Sometimes, the praise spills forth the very same hour, sometimes a day or two or more later. But always, praise comes. Because God takes the sorrows of my soul, every single sorrow, every single time, and envelopes inside Himself the brackish bitterness, so that I can live in joy and hope. Can we bring both a complaint and praise at once? We can, but only in a world of the sacrificial leaf. Only there, can the tree drink poison and live. In the complaint, we are directing the salt to Christ, because we know only He can take it. I recently heard a preacher call it “theologically informed realism.” Life is hard, but God is good. My sin is great, but His grace is greater still. Death is imminent, but eternal life is certain for those who are in Christ. And so Paul can say with confidence, “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous…so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” ( Rom. 5:19&21).

Only He had the power to drink down the last drop of the full punishment for a world cursed by sin, the sorrows of every single soul, and in so doing, give life.

And so my heart could say the other morning, as I sat in a fog of fear and worry, as I felt the waves of unease and tasted the bitter brackishness of life, “When my spirit faints within me, You know my way!” Jesus is our sacrificial leaf, not only enduring the cross and the weight of our sin, but every day, taking on the worst of our fears and disillusionment, every hour, meeting us in our desperation, sucking up the worst so that we can thrive. The Gospel is not just for salvation, something we accept and then move past. The Gospel is the continual lifeline to the heart, as we exist in a world where death has been defeated but our salvation is not yet fully realized.

We may abide in brackish waters, but Christ, our once for all Sacrifice, has taken on the whole of the death knoll so that we can live.

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