Just to Feel the Sun Again

This week much of the United States will be experiencing dangerously cold temperatures, with some forecasts of wind chills near 50 degrees below zero!  Most will not be able to see any sign of the sun, let alone bask in its heat.  Depending on which part of the country some reside, these Winters can last from one month to six months.  Some may wonder if the cold will ever end or if they will ever see the sun or feel its warmth on their skin.  I live in Las Vegas and it was sunny and warm enough here yesterday that I sat on my patio sans shirt and simply relished the heat as it hit my face after a few chilly months of being indoors.  Whether it’s the first day after a long Winter or those first steps onto your favorite beach, there is something very healing in being exposed to warmth after a prolonged period of being kept in the cold and the dark of a Winter season.

For many, life can seem like a bitter cold and extended Winter season void of sunlight, leaving them desperate and begging for some relief in the way of sunbeams and a warming heat.  It’s been so long since they basked in the glow of the sun that they may wonder if they will ever feel or see it again.  I know this all too well.  There is an agonizing cry out to God for any relief, any comfort, any sign that he is aware of your situation and is listening to prayers you feel are bouncing off the ceiling.  Many of the world’s most successful leaders endured seasons of cold and darkness that left them questioning everything, including their own faith.  As recent as yesterday I read the horrific stories of two prominent pastors of megachurches committing suicide because they were in such a dark place that even their faith in God was overwhelmed by the severity and chill of their circumstances.  A verse in Matthew chapter six says that if the light within you has turned to darkness, how great and massive that darkness can be.  If the cold temperatures and the dead of Life’s Winter months are so great that even studied church leaders can not escape its cold grip, we must all be on alert to protect the light and heat placed within each of us as God’s children.

One of my favorite places to be, my happy place, if you will, is on the beach.  Besides just being overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and majesty of a mighty ocean being reduced to gentle waves kissing the sandy shore where I’m laying, there is also a physical relaxation of soaking up the sun and being warmed from the inside out by its heat.  In that small period of restoration there is such a healing peace and natural euphoria that is hard to put into words.  All life’s stress and issues seem to melt away, at least for the duration of my time in the sun, and the long Winter months become a distant memory.  Perhaps your Winter is one of a serious illness or a less than adequate employment situation.  Maybe its a strained relationship with certain family members or friends.  Or if like me, it is just the pain of being alone when your best life would be one shared with a special someone.  Whatever the source of your sunless days, they can and often do seem like an eternity as you beg God for his mercy in your situation while you seek any comfort or shelter from the elements, like being left out in the cold with no source of heat to warm your face.

But….there is good news!  God may take us places we would never choose to go on our own, but He will never leave us there too long.  When Job was exposed to the harshness of a cold Winter that left him with nothing but frostbite in the form of death, destruction and even physical disease, he begged God to take his life and put him out of his misery.  But God in his never-ending mercy and compassion restored Job to a level even higher than the one from which he was removed, and reimbursed him many times over for his losses.  I can share with you from recent experience that when God looks down and says “Ok child, I guess you’ve had enough.  Sit back and watch what I’m about to do for you!”, and you once again feel the warmth of the sun and the Son on your face as it warms your entire being, the healing restorative power is indescribable. In a very real sense, it is the bitter chill of sunless days that cause you to fully appreciate the restoration of the Son’s rays!  And you find in that warming heat love, joy, peace, fullness and rest from life’s challenging seasons.  There is simply nothing in all the world like being brought back to life by the warmth of God’s compassion and love. Malachi 4:2 read like this;

“For those of you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings”.  And Ecclesiastes says that it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So today I pray that my readers, whatever part of the world they may live in or however cold it may be there, can hold on until they can once again experience the heatwave they seek and can shake the chills of life’s bitter cold temps as they anticipate the end of their Winter season.  Blessings to each of you.

 

Recapturing the Lost Wonder of Christmas

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The tree and its collection of unique ornaments that would rival a Macy’s window creation remains packed away in boxes.  The lights and animated reindeer that was part of a Griswold-esque lawn display is hibernating in storage. Except for a Hallmark movie or a rerun of an old holiday classic on TV, there is little evidence that Christmas is just a couple weeks away.

There is an unexplainable magic and wonder that ushers in the Christmas holiday. It takes us back in time to when things were simpler, more genuine-where Peace on Earth seemed attainable and the very best of human nature surfaced ever so briefly so that all the world was better because of it.  For many this annual euphoria still exists and is eagerly anticipated and welcomed like an old friend you only see once each year. But sadly for others the season is anything but joyful.  Silent Night becomes just that, silent. Old carols become seasonal haunts leftover from Halloween like the Ghost of Christmas Past except unlike the Dickens story there is little hope of redemption given to its chosen victims. While there is no real evidence that the rate of suicides is elevated during the holidays, it can’t be denied that depression is all the more apparent and intense when you are alone or coming off a particularly cruel year of trials. The hope is that like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life we can find our way through the muck and mire of mental games just in time to celebrate but many will carry their depression on into the new year. Just like the Grinch, someone snuck in during the night and stole our Christmas.

Christmas is the ultimate time for sharing-a dance to a familiar carol, a gift to someone not expecting it, your love with that special someone, memories of past years with old friends, the celebration of an Incarnate baby savior. However when those opportunities to share are removed due to loss of income, loss of health, the death of a spouse or loved one, divorce or separation, the vehicle used to share the holiday is rendered useless, out of order, incapacitated, leaving one feeling lonely and nothing resembling Merry. It is during these times that we as believers in Christ, the Christmas miracle, have to rely on the true focus of the Christmas celebration and recreate our own miracles. It is only through our ability to see and recall the Babe in the manger that we have a chance of recapturing the wonder we so long for at this special and holy time of year.

I have always believed in my heart that the reason Christmas is so wondrous is that God opens up Heaven and releases just a little bit of the holy residue that covered the earth those two thousand years ago on that special night when Christ the Son became flesh and stepped into the world He Himself created. It was the ultimate gift, the epitome of love that the Son of the Most High would enter this world through extraordinary means on a journey He knew would end on a cross. He didn’t come here to turn water to wine, to feed thousands with a few fish or to leave behind quotes that make for good wall plaques. Christ the Christmas miracle came with the objective and divine plan to willingly lay down His life as a once and for all sacrifice that afforded us redemption, reconciliation to the Father and a blessed hope of eternal Christmases in an everlasting Kingdom where sadness, loneliness and depression are forever banished. It is a kingdom according to Revelation where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for these things will have passed away-forever!”  It is a miracle beyond our human comprehension or explanation. It is the truest essence of Christmas! It remains the wonder of Christmas, if we can but set our sights above the trials and despair of this troubled world.

It would be a bit cruel to identify the problem without offering suggestions on where to go from here.  Lest I be like the TV commercial where I just monitor a problem (“there’s a problem”) here are some things that work for me. I love holiday lights.  There is something about colored lights glowing in the dark that just make you feel good inside.  I recall as kids my brother and I counting light displays on our way to church-a great memory. So now, I go out of my way to take in light displays.  And instead of the same old TV fare I switch over to an old Christmas show or a Hallmark Movie.  Yes, I still watch Frosty, Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It takes me back 50 years to an innocence I cherish, even if there are those days when I resemble Bergermeister or the Grinch. And who doesn’t enjoy the classic holiday songs that accompany Christmas.  Whether it is taking in a concert by Trans Siberian or a local church production, you can’t possibly walk away without at least a tinge of Christmas spirit. One more great remedy for holiday blues is to find a cause, a charity, a need you can adopt to help bring a little Christmas wonder to others who may be feeling just as left out.  It is amazing the healing properties of adopting a family at Christmas or providing a tree or a dinner or a few unexpected toys.  Their joy is infectious and you can’t help but catch the bug if anywhere near. But perhaps the greatest therapy of all is to seek out Church services billed as Christmas celebrations so that the heart, the meaning and the purpose of our celebration is driven home into our depleted spirit so our focus can be redirected to the source of all wonder, the Christ Child, The Prince of our Peace, God with us, the perfect gift for all occasions that like the Jelly of the Month Club from Christmas Vacation, just keeps on giving.  Let the peace of God, which according to Philippians 4 “transcends all understanding”, all hurt, all depression, all loneliness, guard your hearts and minds in the Christ Child.

If you are hurting and not looking forward to the holidays this year, I encourage you with these words and the sincerest of prayers to kneel before the manger and ask for the peace, the comfort, the healing from the source of all celebration and the subject of our reverence, Jesus. Christmas this year may look a little different than in years past but our Father Who is the same yesterday, today and for all Christmases to come will rekindle the holiday flame that may be extinguished so that you can once again warm up to that lost wonder that is Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The Real Haunts of Halloween

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October 31st, Halloween; a season of scary ghost stories, freakish costume parties, timeless horror movie classics, culminated with the annual tradition of trick-or-treating with our kids or grandchildren.  Whether you are a willing participant and victim of the many haunts waiting for you at local Haunted houses or you are more likely to turn off the lights and refrain from the chaos, it is a holiday hard to escape from.  But after tonight the costumes will be put away for another year, the houses of horrors will close their doors and the candy will be devoured to assure job security for all dieticians for another year.  Halloween will go back to its resting place only to be reincarnated next October.

However, for many people Halloween is nothing compared to the constant haunting from the ghosts, the memories, the regrets, the voices inside each head that are inescapable.  Unlike costumes which can be put on and taken off at our whim, the real haunts inside us never give us any relief and they are much more real than any Hollywood production with all their special effects.  The night terrors that come in our sleep, the monsters under our bed or hiding in the closet don’t go away simply by turning the lights on.  In a twist of irony, these haunts become the real person hiding behind our everyday masks or costumes of normalcy. They can be entirely overwhelming.

Each year we hear of successful, intelligent, enlightened  and even spiritual people who are driven to the unspeakable act of ending their own lives.  We scratch our heads as from all appearances the person had everything going for them that we deem stable-wealth, power, fame, success.  But we were never allowed into their world of haunts and torment and are shocked to learn only after the fact that they faced severe bouts of depression, addictions and suicidal tendencies. Their silent tears and painted on smiles hide the most authentic of haunted houses, the prison of the brain victimized by false voices of condemnation, self-worth and inadequacies.  It can be more gory than any Halloween tradition.

Just last night I viewed a movie on Russ Taff, a Christian Music legend.  His credits are unmatched-18 Dove Music awards, 6 Grammys, a three-time inductee into Christian Music’s Hall of Fame and beloved by anyone who has ever heard him or had the privilege of performing with him on stage.  And yet at the pinnacle of his success, he was haunted by the voices in his head telling him the awards meant nothing, that he was a phony, that he deserved the physical abuse he suffered as a child, that he would never be good enough to merit his father’ approval.  He would leave the Grammys and fall immediately back into the haunted house of his mind even while clutching his latest award in his hand.  The voices drove him to drink because only when intoxicated did he find silence from the voices in his head.  It was a downward spiral that nearly cost him his marriage, his family, his career and his life.  He hid it well until he lost all control and appeared on a Christian music show completely and obviously intoxicated.  He hit the bottom.

Truth be told, many of us are confronted by similar haunts or voices.  In fact, I would suggest that the stronger you think you are the more vicious the attacks and schemes of our internal warfare.  And the attacks are relentless! You are where you are because of your own inadequacy.  You are broke because you are a poor employee and no one values your contributions.  You are unhealthy because you are lazy and a slob.  You lost your business because you didn’t have the business savvy it took to succeed.  You failed at marriage because the real you wasn’t worth loving.  You are single because you are not attractive to anyone and no one sees any value in a relationship with you.  You never hear from your kids because they still think you were a lousy parent and you can’t ever change that.  You are so flawed that even God can’t look upon you without disgust and contempt.  Night and day the voices inside your head terrify you.  There is no secret door to escape the room, no safe passage or panic switch to stop the ride-you are powerless to the suggestions of failure, of worthlessness, of insignificance that abuse you mentally without relief.

Sometimes the severity of these mental disorders require professional treatment.  Surrendering to seeking help is not a sign of weakness but in fact the first step to recovery.  For others, it may be a matter of reprogramming your brain, or resetting it to the original default spiritual setting through a therapy of scriptural reminders, of which there are plenty.  Christ was no stranger to the tricks and schemes of the enemy of the mind.  He was taunted in every way and we should expect no less.  However he fought back with the knowledge of scripture as his weapon.  It seems too simplistic to assert that quoting Bible verses can reprogram a haunted mind, but it remains our most effective defense.

Romans 12-be transformed by renewing our minds;

Philippians 4-think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable;

2 Timothy 1-the Spirit gives us power and a sound mind;

Proverbs 4-guard your heart and mind;

Ephesians 4-be made new in your mental attitude;

2 Corinthians 10-take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ;

Colossians 3-set your mind on things above, not earthly things;

Psalm 46-be still and remember that I am God.

Hauntings can be fun when we know the blood is fake and the chainsaw is just a prop, or that we can clearly see the escape doors for the faint of heart.  But the haunts of the mind play for keeps and the prize is our soul, our very lives.  There is not a single person walking this planet who has nothing of worth to offer another. Even a recovering alcoholic who has lost everything to the battle of the bottle can be a sponsor to another addict upon their own recovery and sobriety.  Regardless of what the voices in your head want you to believe, we all have value in God’s eyes-we can all contribute something to someone-we can all find love, purpose, meaning to our existence.  We don’t have to succumb to the numbing through intoxication, the escape that a high offers, the relief that suicides seduces us with.  Through prayer, through grace and through retaking control of our thought processes we can expose these mental haunts for what they really are-a fake scary costume that we can take off and put away like any other Halloween costume.  The only thing more relentless than the haunts of the enemy is the relentless love of Christ which chases us down the darkest of alleys and surrounds us in protective layers of his mercy and compassion. When that happens and we can put on the cloak of Christ, we become the haunts to the dark forces who now run from us.

Asking God Questions Doesn’t Make You Weak

My last blog dealt with the hard truth about God’s occasional silence and apparent disengagement in some of the darkest times of life.  While many replied with their appreciation for letting them know they were not alone in their frustration in some vain attempt to discern the mysterious ways in which God operates, some voiced concerns that I had lost my religion or was turning from the faith.  This is one of the problems I have with the modern evangelical approach, the raised-brow responses because some don’t walk around humming Oceans all day long.

If you are a serious student of the Bible, digging deeper than just jotting down notes from the weekend sermon, you should be able to name a few men we consider Biblical heroes who, at some time in their journey, questioned God.  For those who get their religion from television, let me name them for you.  You will see that when I ask God questions to which I know I will not receive answers, I am in good company.

We all know about Job, described as the most holy man on earth in his time.  Job never neglected God and offered sacrifices for his family so that God would favor and forgive them.  And yet God allowed every one of his children to perish as a test of faith.  Job had questions in the midst of his trials.  His ultimate response to God, “It would have been better if I had not been born“.  I don’t hear him singing Good Good Father in that moment.

David, described as a man after God’s own heart, was forced to flee for his life and live in desert caves.  He had been told he was the anointed one to succeed Saul, but wondered if he would live long enough to see it come to pass.  His response, “Why have you abandoned me?  Why have you hidden your face from me?”  Of course God was with him, but David didn’t sense it-he could only respond to the reality of the eminent danger he was facing at the moment.  No Relentless Love playing in the background of this scene.

Jonah ran from God because he didn’t want to be the prophet to tell Nineveh they were going to die for their wicked ways.  After coming to his senses and being regurgitated onto a beach along with the entire stomach contents he had lived in for three days, he obeyed and prophesied to Nineveh, only to see God have compassion and change his mind.  Jonah felt he had been tricked and used and that his credibility as a prophet was now tarnished.  His response, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead“.

Elijah was chased into the desert by Jezebel who wanted him dead.  Elijah, who would live to see God do amazing things through him ended up in the desert under a tree, wondering why he was being so severely tested after he had been nothing but obedient.  His response, “I’ve had enough-I give up God, just take my life.”  I don’t think he was sensing the double portion in the desert.

Joseph, my namesake, was sold into slavery by his own brothers.  He ended up a servant in Potiphar’s estate.  When Potiphar’s adulterous wife threw herself at Joseph and begged him to give it to her good, Joseph literally fled the devil and ran from temptation only to be falsely accused of rape and ended up in prison.  A prisoner for 13 years when he had done nothing wrong.  I’m sure Chain Breaker was not the first song on his lips.

And then there is Jesus, God’s only Son, perfect and blameless, sent to fulfill a mission no one else would ever be qualified to fulfill.  And yet, He sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane asking God to relieve him from his duties.  His ultimate response, hanging from the cross, our Lord and Savior, our eternal hope, our namesake, asked his Father, “Where are you?  Why have you forgotten about me and left me alone?” 

Like I stated, I am in good company!

While it’s true that believers should be role models for faithful living, the life of living from mountaintop to mountaintop that is portrayed by several leaders, with anything less being a sign of something in our spiritual lives that has gone awry, is quite simply a mischaracterization and gross misinterpretation of the Christian life.  In many ways being and remaining Christian is a much tougher road than that of a nonbeliever. We are promised that if we want God’s best, we will have troubles, we will be sorely tested and challenged, we will be refined by fire itself and some will have their lives turned upside down.  Who in their sanity would ever truly welcome that kind of a life?  The beloved 23rd Psalm states that we will walk through, not over and not around, the valley of shadows and death.  It also makes no mention of how many times we will find ourselves there or how long we will be forced to journey through it each time.  If someone in their raw transparency asks the tough questions of God when they are in their own valley, they should not be looked down upon as being weak-they should not have people sending them the latest videos of salvation sermons du jour or be added to the local prayer chains over their backslidden status.

God designed us all as free moral agents so that we would choose to love and worship him.  That comes with the compulsion to ask God questions we want answered, even knowing we may never ever see the purpose or the good that results from being allowed to face difficult life-changing situations.  Sometimes when we look back we can connect the dots, sometimes their is no clear connection or pattern and we just have to carry on.  That doesn’t make us bad or weak or even ineffective-it makes us wholly real!  I have already resigned myself to the fact that I won’t know the answers to my questions until the day comes when the answers will no longer be important.  Until then, I hope to let people know it’s okay to have serious questions.  And yes, lest someone beat me to it, all the examples of men I cited above eventually came to their spiritual senses and were restored, but not before their words and doubts were recorded for us.  Now if they were all such bold men, why do you think the scribes of the Bible were inspired to include their times of questioning?  Something to ponder.

When God Simply Doesn’t Answer…

It’s 2:00 AM any day of the week.  I should be strolling the streets of Dreamsville like most normal people, but I am wide awake.  Sleep eludes me once again like the betrayal of a good friend, leaving me with nothing but night haunts-questions with no answers, situations with no solutions.  I should be accustomed to it by now-it’s been going on so long, but each night brings new frustrations of its own as the only peace to be found is within sleep that won’t come.

I have always attempted to write from a transparent perspective, the emotions and feelings still raw from the latest battle.  But with each post I strive to leave the reader with hope, with words of empowerment and encouragement so they can use my experiences as added weapons against the forces that seek to destroy or at least cripple the believer.  My writings aren’t flowery clichés suitable for inspirational greeting cards.  They are honest, because regardless of the façade we put on for the world to see, God knows the heart and sees the fears and doubt.  I want my readers to know it’s natural and okay to have questions in the midst of fierce battles.  Anyone who would question our faith when we are being sorely tested, is not being honest and true to the process and workings that are allowed for our growth.  But that said, there are those times, those long dry seasons which seem like an eternity, when our prayers go unanswered, our cries fall silent and our petitions are denied.  Every Christian has or will go through these agonizing seasons-mine is going into its fifth year.

There seems to be an unending string of Biblical promises that encourage us to boldly approach God with our needs-“ask and it shall be give, seek and you will find“, or “ask anything in my name and it will be done“, or ” seek first God’s kingdom and all these things will also be added“, or “if you have faith even as small as a mustard seed, you can command mountains to be moved into seas“, and on and on.  As believers, we are compelled to accept God’s words as Gospel, sealed promises available to all who ask, and for the most part we do believe.  What other recourse would we have accept to believe.  And yet all too often, we seek God in desperate situations and plead for his involvement only to be met with the silence of the universe.  It’s not as if we are only petitioning God for material things like more income, bigger homes, favorable investment returns.  No, many of us seek God for much more important and often intangible answers.  We ask that he help save a failing business and the jobs of our employees but receive no response and watch the business be ripped from our grasp.  We beg God in earnest to help heal broken marriages and prevent families from being torn apart, only to end up in family court filing for a divorce we didn’t want because God seemed deaf to our cries.  We plead and fast in hopes that he will come to the rescue of seriously sick family members, knowing from stories left for us in scripture of his miraculous power to heal, only to say our earthly goodbyes to departed loved ones who left us seemingly prematurely.  We agonize over the eternal salvation of family members who never attend church services with us because they just can’t believe.  And many of us travel this life alone, scarred from the wounds of past relationships, but willing to expose ourselves to the vulnerability required to love again, but finding it to be as elusive as the sleep we chase.  Sometimes, God simply doesn’t answer us.

How I wish I could tell people how to navigate these dark roads of life in a way that gives more confidence, but I don’t have those neatly packed 3 step solutions.  Oh, many others will tell us exactly what we are doing wrong.  We don’t have “enough” faith.  Or we aren’t using the right combination of religious words or phrasing to get God’s attention.  Or, we must have some secret sin hidden in our life that makes our prayers ineffective-didn’t sow some financial seed offering to assure our blessings like the days of old before Martin Luther, or, we didn’t use the exact phrase “In Jesus name”.  As silly as these suggestions may appear on the surface, we can’t help but search for some validity in them as we compare our life situations to those in our circle who breeze through life on a spiritual high seemingly untouched by the challenges that are our closest friends.  Surely, we are doing something wrong, aren’t we?

The danger of human intellectual honesty is that it opens the door that leads from the room of doubt into the halls of unbelief, the opening our enemy is waiting for.  Maybe God doesn’t really love us all the same and wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine just to save the one. Maybe we don’t deserve the promises recorded in scripture because God knows all the sins of our past better than anyone.  Or worse, maybe none of it is real.  Just typing those words causes my heart to skip a beat.  God forgive me.  As difficult and trying as life’s trials and as discouraging to feel our cries fall short of his ears, the one thing worse is the thought that there is no God, no Son, no Spirit and that it’s a two-thousand year old hoax.  As Paul wrote, if there is no real eternity or hope, what a miserable existence we have.  We can’t allow the validity of the Gospel to be hijacked by the unreliability of our feelings and skewed perspectives when we are in storms that never end and which limit our spiritual vision to earthly and human limitations.  We are not the first to question God’s silence when we need him the most-David felt it-Joseph went through it, we all know Job’s story, even Jesus experienced God’s deafening silence.  It doesn’t make me feel better about these past few years-if anything, knowing and believing in God’s sovereignty only adds to the frustration during his non-responsive seasons.  But our only hope is in him and the persuasion of his spirit to prod us forward and guide us when we can’t see the road ahead.  If and when we give up that hope, we give validity to the questions and doubts, something that is simply not an option.

I hope you understand that you have much company in these seasons. This may not have been a post that leaves you feeling fuzzy and cozy, but it’s our feelings and our attention to them that gets us to these low points.  It’s our knowledge of God and his ways that will ultimately pull us through.  Let it be so, and soon.

Fighting the Urge to Just Sink

In better (younger) days I was quite the swimmer.  It would be nothing for me to try to swim across a small pond or river.  I can remember even being in great shape, there was always the point at which your muscles started to quiver a bit and exhaustion would set in while you were in the deepest part of the water and you had to stop for a moment to catch your breath and regain your strength.  You knew what you had to do, and how to do it-you needed to put your head back in the water and start stroking again.  You had no other options except to stop swimming and drown. But your body was so tired of the challenge and its weight conspired with gravity to work against your will and stamina.

I would guess in life we have all been there at some point-faced with yet another trial or challenge, you keep doing what you know to do because there are no other options and the choice is either sink or swim.  None of us are guaranteed to breeze by without certain life-altering situations that require stamina and resolve, but some of us tend to get safely across the river only to find it opens up into another large body of water, and the swim seems daunting and endless.  I often refer to this as the Job effect.  The character from the Old Testament lost everything he had through a series of catastrophes, one after the other, although in his mind he had done nothing to “deserve” such cruel and unusual punishment.  While according to the story, he was restored to great wealth and position, it came at the price of his own children, and his life was never the same.

I’m certain that Job must have asked himself how he was chosen to be challenged to the point of death-why was he the lucky candidate. If honest, all of us who go through similar experiences will ask God why he allows such painful, and seemingly never-ending life lessons.  Have we not yet proven our mettle or faith?  Are we being punished for something, and if so, why just us and not everyone else?  Do some escape life’s trials because they are better people or more deserving servants?  Does God’s grace and mercy apply to everyone in unlimited measure—–except us? These are honest responses from those who live large portions of their life in the “valley of the shadows of death”. We are swimming to that spot of land in the distance but we never seem to get any closer to it no matter how long or hard we swim.

And if I had to be brutally honest, even Holy Scriptures sometimes feel more like clichés. And yet for a believer, they are the only reasonable facsimile to a life preserver that we can cling to while we catch our next breath. Verses that assure us that God is always with us-that he is an ever-present helper in tumultuous times, that if he sees the tiniest of sparrows, he surely is tuned into our plight and that nothing escapes his glance.  I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out his ways as they pertain to my life.  The only thing I know for sure is that I will simply never know!  I can’t tell you why some believers and followers have a life that goes from blessing to blessing while others like myself watch with envy while treading the next body of water.  All I know is that we have to keep swimming even when every muscle in our body is screaming obscenities at us because sinking, while easier, is no real option.

 God, who can guess your ways or challenge you methods of testing or who escapes your sovereignty.  I ask you today on behalf of all who are reading this and swimming for their lives, that you would grant mercy and strength to continue the fight in anticipation of eventually reaching dry ground, so that your Son can be glorified in our triumphs. Encourage us today by your Holy Spirit to consider all that is waiting for us when we endure and conquer these challenges so that we can rely upon a supernatural reserve of energy and resolve to keep fighting when it would be so easy to just sink.

And Just Like That-My 2017 Story

Our beautiful Beagle boy finally laid calm in my arms after a 30-minute full Grand Mal seizure. He had been in our family since his birth nine years earlier. An injection of valium calmed him down long enough for what was about to come. The cancer had spread to his brain and the seizures he was having daily were unbearable to witness-it had to end today.  I cradled him like a baby one last time.  The vet asked us if we were ready.  Of course not!  But out of love and mercy I nodded to proceed.  The injection worked quickly, and just like that, this once full of life furry friend lay motionless in my arms as his life came to a merciful end.  I sobbed like  little boy and continued to hold him until the vet finally took him from me and carried him out of the room.  Thus 2017 was ushered in.

In January and then again in February I was served with two different lawsuits stemming from a business I was forced to close through foreclosure in 2014.  I thought that chapter had been closed but aggressive attorneys thought otherwise. The amounts of the lawsuits coupled with the legal fee estimates to defend them were staggering.  I had received nothing from the business when it closed and had lost my entire savings that I had invested when it closed down.  These unexpected court actions left me with little recourse.  My finances and credit were now in shambles.  And just like that a lifetime of perfect credit history was now, well, history.

The following March, thinking things could get no worse, things got much worse. The love of my life asked for a divorce after a twenty year relationship.  What began as a Hallmark fairytale romance that others envied had now been reduced to a signature on a legal document.  To save money, with vision blurred by tears, I drafted the legal documents that would terminate my own marriage.  Upon their completion and our signatures, I proceeded to the courthouse and waited in line for what seemed like an eternity waiting to file them.  Upon the clerk’s stamp, I took them up to the Judge’s inbox and deposited them for final signature, which took just one day.  And just like that the air I breathed for twenty years was taken from me. I felt abandoned, unloved and alone.

The following May I was scheduled for my quarterly check-up with my nephrologist.  I suffer from Polycystic kidney disease for which there is no cure.  I was advised by someone close that with the year I had experience thus far perhaps I should cancel-I should have listened.  I was informed the disease had now progressed to stage Four and I was nearing the need for dialysis.  And just like that an otherwise health-minded man was forced to consider life-altering choices and my own mortality.

In a mere span of just five months every aspect of my entire being had come under severe attack.  I had lost a dear friend, I lost my financial security, I  lost my health and most tragic, I lost the love of my life and best friend.  I was, and in many ways, still am quite the mess.  Any one of these life-changing events would be enough to take down the strongest of men.  But seriously , all in one year?  I was left alone in a 2000 square foot house with empty rooms having nothing but the haunts of the past as a companion.  Funny thing-I never realized that quietness could echo!  Few knew of the numerous challenges I faced this year.  More than one person, perhaps not fully disclosed, reprimanded me for wallowing in self-pity.  My closer friends shared concerns over what I might do.  After all, many have pulled the trigger for much less.

It would be at this point in the story that some, just like friends of Job, would ask how I could still trust in a God who had allowed such destruction to overcome me.  I will confess that God and I had some serious “come to Jesus” conversations as I wrestled for answers or purpose.  If this is what perseverance looks like, I wanted no part of it. But as a long-time believer I knew that faith was not based on feelings or emotions but on knowledge and trust.  My heart wasn’t in it, but I forced myself to find words of hope within the Psalms.  David and I became close friends. He could cry out and lament to God over his turmoil in one breath and confess his hope and faith in the very next breath.  David always went back to what he KNEW to be true even when he was hiding for his life. In a twisted irony He who allowed these things to invade my 2017 was the One who I had to turn to and lean on in order to survive them.  I have surely walked this year through the valley of shadows but Christ has been my comfort and His spirit has been my  lifeline when I had little sense or worth, purpose or direction.

I can now see some light as I enter 2018.  The demise of my marriage prompted me to write a book that has already made an impact in other couples’ marriages.  Claiming a promise of healing, my last check-up on my kidneys revealed the progression of the disease had halted for now-I am claiming a miracle.  The Christmas and holiday season which had left me with old familiar and painful memories of years past was spent with my children, all alive, healthy and well.  And my first gift, the announcement of a new grandchild’s arrival this coming Summer, brought tears of joy, the first in a long while.  My faith sustained me through an impossible year and I now see some sense of purpose and a restored reason to continue the race the Apostle Paul describes. I know I am not alone.  Many this year suffered tragic and heart-wrenching losses-death of spouses or loved ones, serious illnesses, broken relationships, unemployment and the list is long.  When you are shut in by the surrounding thickness of storm clouds it is challenging to see the sun or feel its warmth, but yet it remains.  I want to encourage-no, implore you to seek shelter in the hope and promises of God’s Word and the comfort of His Son, Jesus.  David understood it while hiding in caves-the Apostle Paul got it while singing songs in prison chains.  I’m no David or Paul, but I get it too.

May the hope, the comfort and the love of our Father bring you into a glorious, prosperous and healthy new 2018.  May His will and purpose be revealed in your spirit and inspire you to do great things this year!  May you find in Him the strength and courage to boldly face and navigate the storms that may pop up out of nowhere with full knowledge that the Son is always there!  Happy New Year!

There’s a Little Mary in All Of Us

Each Christmas I attempt to find something in Luke’s Christmas story that is meaningful and sometimes glossed over.  This year I am drawn to the verse in Luke 2:19 that reads “…Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart“. I would guess that many who read this simply believe that Mary was content and peaceful with all that has happened, having reconciled it all and found it to be good.  I might suggest that is not at all what this passage means.

Ponder, from the Greek word ponderare means to weigh.  Defined it means to carefully consider, to examine, specifically, something that is not completely understood or determined.  Remember, the passage records that everyone around her was rejoicing over the good news, but Mary was pondering, contemplating, perhaps partly in personal reverence but also partially in great confusion.  Her first words upon hearing from the angel gives us a clue, when she replied, “why me?”  We refer to her as bless nd she is depicted as this Holy, saintly mother of God, when in fact she was a teenager at best, never married, never sexually active, and now the mother of someone being hailed as the Messiah.  I personally feel she pondered because she was perplexed and a bit less than confident.

How many of us actively seek God’s will or purpose in our lives but become confused at the events He causes or allows to invade our world?  Even for the rare few who can say they heard God’s voice, there is still trepidation when it comes to being obedient to something when we don’t fully understand the purpose or know where it will lead us.  When Mary was told by the angel that she would soon be pregnant, she must have pondered how Joseph and her family would receive her. When she and Joseph hear the words from Simeon that “a sword will pierce your soul too“, she must have pondered those words as well.  When she and Joseph had to flee to Egypt with full knowledge that all infants under the age of two years  were about to be slaughtered because of her son, she must have pondered these things.  When Mary witnessed the brutal beatings and stripes her son bore she must have been pondering.  When she wept at the foot of the cross she surly pondered all these things.  In fact she may have spent thirty-three years “pondering these things in her heart” until the time her son was resurrected from the grave and she finally understood!

I’m fifty-six year old and I ponder things and events all the time.  Why would God allow this event to shatter my world?  What purpose is there in going through this particular situation?  What can possibly be worked out for my good from this impossible situation? If we are to be honest, we all have seasons where just like Mary, we ponder these things.  And guess what?  It doesn’t upset or Father in the slightest that we have honest questions, so long as at the end of the day, like Mary, we have a servant’s heart and can honestly say, just as she did, “very well, let it be unto me just as you have spoken“.

This Christmas many are in an unfamiliar situation, missing loved ones, suffering diseases, enduring trials unknown to others, and may be pondering, weighing, contemplating things for which there are no apparent answers.  My prayer is that you find peace, hope, joy and love in the Christ Child we celebrate with full knowledge that His purpose in our lives is clear and perfect, even when we are left pondering.

To all my followers, let me say again how humbled I am that you read and subscribe to papaswords.com. I wish all of you, from the bottom of my heart, a very Merry and Blessed Christmas.

book cover 3    my soul cries out  Available on Amazon Kindle.

 

Navigating Life’s Devastating Losses

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The date was April 14, 1994.  I had only been at the office for about an hour when I received a call from a neighbor.  “You need to come home quickly. Your residence is on fire!”  We jumped in the car and sped home to asses the situation.  We couldn’t get close because of the number of fire engines on the scene.  We got out of the car and ran toward what was once our home.  I was devastated to see that there was nothing left but smoldering timbers and a burnt out shell.  We were left with nothing except the clothes we were wearing.

I’ll never forget the feeling of loss when the fire crews escorted us back to the scene to see if there was anything we could salvage under their close supervision for our safety. “Things”, as people suggest, can be replaced. But photos of the kids in various stages of their lives, parties, family heirlooms passed down, one-of-a-kind keepsakes-all gone in an instant. Thirty five years of history and collections reduced to ashes.  Grateful to be alive, of course, but the loss was real and the mourning genuine.

This week as we witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding that is still wreaking havoc, my heart goes out to the victims because I know exactly how they feel and the challenges they face financially and emotionally as they begin the slow process of rebuilding. Some of these victims were already displaced by Hurricane Katrina.  It does my heart good to see how the Texas community has already come together to offer shelter, aide and whatever assistance is necessary to assure the best possible outcome to the neighbors they have never before met.  In a world of social media wars and disingenuous outrage over issues of little significance in comparison, the things that matter most quickly rise to the surface when such tragedies occur. Our thoughts and prayers will be for the people of South Texas as they begin the rebuilding process.

However, burnt timbers and flooded homes are not the only signs of a devastating loss.  For some, life may have seemed to be going fairly smooth when suddenly everything they held dear was stripped away and they are left sitting in a pile of rubble no less devastating as the aftermath of a powerful natural disaster. Through the death of loved ones, broken relationships, divorce and other emotional tragedies, one can find themselves sifting through the rubble trying to find anything they can salvage from life as they knew it.  The stress and psychological effect can be paralyzing, the will to move on temporarily nonexistent and the realization of the losses traumatic.

I would offer up that it may in fact be easier to replace shelter and bedding and clothing than it is to replace the overwhelming loss of the infrastructure that makes up one’s life and the broken hearts that are left with no real consolation. Time may heal all wounds, but how much time is always the question, as is the real level of recovery expected. It is in these times of loss that God’s grace is the only remedy and hope one can cling to without being disappointed or let down. God is close to the brokenhearted and collects our tears as His gems.  Only those who have suffered the loss of everything they own can fully relate to the sense of loss others in similar situations experience.  And only those who have lost all they hold precious and dear can fully appreciate the feeling of hopelessness as they somehow try to muster the strength and courage to regroup, rebuild and recover.

The best source of hope we all have in dire circumstances can be found in scripture.  They may for some ring a bit hollow at first, but through repetition and eventual adaptation, they become our strength:

From Job 5, “He sets on high all who are lowly and lifts those who mourn to safety”

From Isaiah 41, “Don’t be afraid for I am with you. Don’t be dismayed for I am still your God. I will strengthen and help you and hold you in the palm of my mighty right hand”

From Matthew 11, “Come to me, all of you who are weary with heavy burdens (and broken hearts), and I will give you relief.”

However devastating our losses may be, whether material or emotional, our Father is not oblivious.  There is noting hidden from His view, nothing that catches Him off guard and nothing too big for Him to resolve.  I tell myself this everyday-I have to.  May it be so for you as well.

 

Making Your Way Through a Blackout

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Today I ventured out to a popular mall on the Las Vegas Strip.  Upon my ascent up the escalator to the main entry hall I was met by a lady who seemed frantic as she explained to me that there was no power anywhere in the mall.  I tried to assure her that these sometime occur here and not to worry as I maneuvered into the main corridor.  Well, she was right.  There were no lights, the restaurants stopped all service, the stores had the roll cages pulled down for security and you would think we were there after hours by mistake.

I couldn’t help but notice the people seemingly lost.  Some paced back and forth nervously, others just sat quietly in the darkness and still others had their noses pressed against the store front windows as if they might see something if they looked intently enough. For a bunch of tourists on vacation, it was a very somber mood, almost like a zombie apocalypse movie.

Rather than sit with them I decided to walk the halls just to keep moving.  There was a heavy security presence at every turn guarding stores and merchandise. The fountains were silent as I rounded another corner but still I walked.  And then, a store with power, and another followed by others.  Turning another corner it was clear that this part of the mall had power and was fully functioning with food being served and cashiers ringing up sales.  Only half of the mall was without power but I would have never discovered that had I simply sat in the darkness with the others.  And all those who sat there this afternoon may be under the impression that the whole mall was dark because they never ventured out to discover otherwise.

That’s a bit the story of my life this past year.  Many of the things that brought light into my world have been removed leaving the feeling of navigating through darkness.  Perhaps you are reading this and can relate.  And like those people in the mall the tendency is to just sit and wait out the darkness or to feel helpless that there are no source of light anywhere within your immediate view. I can freely admit that at times I stopped moving and just stood there wondering what’s next, do I keep moving or just fade into the background.  When you are exposed to prolonged darkness it becomes a familiar place if not a familiar friend, almost comforting if that makes any sense.

But with time you learn that your surroundings or circumstances may never change, and your only recourse is to change your location, that is keep moving.  A popular Psalm says “even when I walk through the valley of shadows…”.  Its a journey that compels us forward even when we sense little direction, motivation or benefit for doing so.  And it’s a path that we truly never travel alone even though the isolation is at times overwhelming.

I’m so glad I kept walking through the dark halls of that mall today to the well-lit portion full of lively people enjoying their day.  It was one of those “a-ha” moments, a real life lesson.

One is the Loneliest Number…

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When God created Adam and placed him in paradise, He is recorded as saying that it was not a good thing for man to be alone.  Up until that 6th day everything He had created, He called Good. Loneliness was the very first thing God labeled as Not so good.  This was not an oversight on God’s part, or heaven forbid a divine epiphany-we’re talking about God here.  It was always the plant to create a mate for Adam to share life with, and for the most part it has remained thus through the ages. Maybe God knew that Adam needed someone to press his fig leaves or dress the wild catch of the day for dinner.  Or perhaps, He simply knew that human connection was an integral part of the grand design.

We live in a society of lonely people.  They are all around us in plain sight yet hidden from us.  They may hide behind smiles and activity, bar-hopping, social media and yes, even church involvement.  But truth be known at the end of the day these go home to a cold and lonely dwelling where the only voices are heard over their airwaves of the television.  Because of the stigma of admitting loneliness, especially among men, they choose to remain silent and battle solitude while those closest to them are completely unaware.  Loneliness is a major factor in depression.  Feelings of irrelevance, isolation, despair, worthlessness-all symptoms and results of one who suddenly finds themselves alone.

Many in bad relationships long for the day they could have total freedom without answering to anyone-the ultimate bachelor.  But even those who relish the thought and through unexpected circumstances get their wish, find that the novelty wears off when they go to bed night after night by themselves and wake to mornings the same way.  It can be a vicious cycle and get old very quickly.

I find it ironic that in an age of social media where people are connecting with friends they haven’t seen in years, social media plays such a large role in loneliness.  Even with FaceTime and Skype, personal interaction is becoming a lost art.  Business calls are replaced with emails.  Sales meetings have been replaced with much cheaper video conferences.  Even dating clubs for singles have fallen to sites like Match, Christian Mingle or OurTime.  Land lines are now obsolete-greeting cards requiring thought and postage are slowly being phased out by e-cards. I even have to check  my own groceries at most stores where clerks are now computer kiosks. And dare I even suggest that church attendance is now a choice of getting up and going to a gathering place or watching a live stream from the convenience of your own living room. We are being systematically screwed by a technical age that is turning us all into mindless loners with no social skills or personal interaction.  I may have introverted tendencies but being alone is not my preferred way to live life.

Right about here is where I would normally list scriptures that give us hope and encouragement for the topic of the post, and with this topic there is certainly much the Bible has to offer. But sometimes a Bible verse is not the best remedy.  Yes, I know, Amy Grant caught hell for saying that back in the day, but she was right.  Even the Word asks us what good it does to tell a person to be well without meeting their need.  I must have ten different versions of Bibles at my disposal but the human element is not present.

When I was younger the news of a house fire had little impact on me.  However in 1994 I learned first hand the meaning of empathy when I lost everything in a fire.  Now when I see news of a fire my heart goes out because I’ve been there.  If you’ve ever been alone you know how others feel, the despondency and everything associated with isolation. It is through empathy that we connect and offer healing to those who travel where our feet have been previously.  You don’t have to look far to find lonely people-bars, nursing homes, orphanages, even Facebook. A visit, a beer, a baseball game, a phone call goes a long way in helping others who would otherwise have little or no connection to a real person.  Yes, in Christ we have “a friend who sticks closer to us than a brother“, but flesh and bones are preferred. Ask God to allow you to see others as He does so that you can be aware of those you can help.

my soul cries out

The High Price Paid for our Worthlessness

We have entered Holy Week, those days approaching our Easter or Pascha remembrance and celebration of the events that have become the foundation of our faith and belief in Christ.  It is a somber time of reflection as we recall the written words depicting as best as mere words can the horror and excruciating pain suffered by our Lord on our behalf for the remediation of a sinful world. Even Hollywood with its special effects could never accurately capture in film the physical brutality of a suffering Christ.

It is so easy in this life with its trials and disappointments to lose sight of not only the heavy price paid, but the reason Christ endured our just punishment. Life sometimes is simply not fair, at least as we view fairness.  We work hard but are still laid off or our position eliminated, we take care of our bodies but still receive the negative medical report, we give it our best but our relationships still end.  The normal human response is to measure the obvious against the given standards of success and feel a sense of worthlessness as we recall a trail of failures. I know because I do this constantly.  Do I measure up?  Am I leaving anything of worth behind in my wake? Are people who come in contact with me left better or worse for the encounter?  While self-examination can be a motivating tool, it can also cause great harm if our measurements aren’t true because of corrupt criteria.  And to continue in our false sense of worthlessness is to completely diminish the work done by Christ on the cross on our behalf.  And therein lies the error of this line of thought process.

It is in these times that we are compelled to recall those verses we have all heard and grown up with but failed to apply on personal levels. This is what Holy Scripture has to say about our worth and value in God’s eyes:

Matthew 10:29; Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them fall to the ground without the Father seeing it? But even the hairs of your head are numbered! You are of more value than many sparrows.

Isaiah 49:15; Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she would have no compassion for him? Yet these may forget but I will not forget you. See, I have engraved your name on the palms of my hands-you are continually on my mind.

We are a people of emotional responses and triggers; we love passionately; we grieve over painful losses; we fear uncertain situations. But the journey of faith can be easily hijacked by our emotions.  In times of despair when all seems hopeless we have to hold fast to our knowledge of the written Word as our plumb line and not the false indicators of human response. We may or may not be moved by the verses above and others like them when we are at our lowest, but we have to hold them to be irrevocable truths that emotions can’t alter.

Our Lord would not have endured the cross for losers, failures, those deemed worthless.  In fact the opposite is true.  It was us who need hope, who need forgiveness and restoration that He is most compassionate toward and He proved it on that Good Friday as the world and all creation went dark while He took His last breath and temporarily surrendered to death. And it was all for love, a love we could never comprehend, and certainly never merit. Again, reflect of these undeniable truths:

Romans 8:35; Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or danger or sword?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 John 4:9; In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Ephesians 2:44; But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ.

The death of Christ once and forever tore and removed the veil that separated sinful man from a Holy perfect God in that we are now made perfect having our sin removed from us as far as the East is from the West, and we are encouraged to boldly approach a God as His children and siblings of his Holy Son.  There is nothing we could ever achieve on earth, no title given, no award of prestige we could ever claim that has more value than being referred to as Children of God. While this designation should be grasped with humility and reverence, it should never be tarnished by the deceit of human feelings during trying times. He Who knew us before we were born died a horrible death so that we could be forever united with Him in a kingdom yet to come. He would not have done so had he shared the same appraisal of us that we accept as true.

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my soul cries out

Job’s Story: Restored But Scarred

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I am convinced that the unknown author of the Biblical book of Job simply got the name wrong; surely it’s the Book of Joe. The similarities are to striking to be coincidental, the lessons taught touching nerves that cause us to wince.  Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you believe it should be the Book of Steve or the Book of Cathy because you know too well the pain of living from one calamity to another, waiting on answers that never come, believing for miracles that never come to fruition.

The recording of Job is one of the great mysteries of the faith and one that most of us if honest really struggle with.  It’s tantamount to asking your dad “why” only to hear him respond, “because I said so”.  We in our selfish nature want to attach to this story our understanding of justice and fairness.  Our finite comprehension of God wants to ask the same questions Job’s friends did.  We who read carefully want to inquire of God why it is the He pointed out Job to satan and why He removed His hand of protection from a man that the Bible describes as the most righteous man in all the earth at the time. Surely if Job was not spared what chance do we stand who would hardly be labeled as righteous?  Why must rain fall on both the just and the unjust? Aren’t we supposed to be blessed as believers-to be highly favored and to prosper in all we do?  Isn’t the Word of God unchanging and His promises unbreakable? Or is the hedge of protection around us only so high?  Why must believers suffer great losses here on earth if we are attempting to walk upright before God?  Age-old and still unanswered questions that have always been and will always be.

The story of Job is one that most of us have heard or read so many times that we feel we could tell it ourselves.  It is always preached the same as if the sermon is simply a boilerplate template from Sermons Du Jour that any seminary grad student has access to. But there are aspects to this story when digging deeper that you never hear taught from the pulpit.  One is simply an oversight, that of Job’s wife.  Those who mention her do so with contempt as the devil’s advocate without considering her plight.  For instance, the ten children Job lost, she bore, and a mother’s grief is unbearable. She shared in Job’s wealth so she too suffered in his losses. And when she had lost all her children and her financial stability she alone was left to take care of a husband who was sick and helpless.  Yes she spoke out in anger at a low point in her life, and so have I-many times.  But she remained and endured and is seldom credited for her faithfulness to her husband “in sickness and health, good times and bad”. Much more could be written in her defense.

But while reading the story again, as I often find myself doing during those times when I can relate, I saw something I missed the first hundred times I read the story, something obvious but not noticed before. When Job’s life is preached we usually hear the same outline, Job good, satan bad, Job loses everything, Job repents, God restores Job double for his losses.  The implication is that faithfulness in God always pays off in the end and that everything lost will be restored many times over.  It makes for a feel good Osteen-esque sermon, even though we still can’t get past the human response to question God’s purpose in picking on such a godly man. But this is what I missed and what I want to share in case you missed it as well. Job did not emerge from this fierce Heavenly tug of war without serious permanent scars and painful reminders of his season of loss and torment. First there is the consideration of his physical affliction.  Scripture says that upon satan’s appeal God allowed him to attack Job’s body.  It is recorded that Job was suffering from painful boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.  It also says that Job tried to escape the agony by scraping these boils.  I would never interject what the Bible leaves out, but we do have knowledge of boils through modern medicine and from this we can deduce that these boils, just as they do now, left permanent scars, especially given the fact that Job scraped these, a definite no-no in any modern medical journal because doing so increases scarring. In reading of God’s restoration of Job in chapter 42, no mention is made of Job’s physical healing.  We can assume in time his health was restored but the Bible is silent so we can only apply what we know of these boils now-painful with permanent scarring.  If so, every time Job looked in a mirror he would have been reminded of his epic battle with satan. And if like me many of the same feelings and questions would have surfaced and Job would have to remind himself each and every time of God’s faithfulness.

While Job’s physical state is left somewhat to speculation, there is something else I noticed that is right there as plain as day-something else that would have served as a painful memorial to Job’s battle.  Scripture records that everything Job lost was restored two fold, and that he was even blessed with ten more children, the daughters being described as beautiful beyond belief. But Job is recorded as living another one hundred and forty years after his season of testing.  Here is what I missed.

Everyday for one hundred and forty years Job had to walk past the graves of his first ten children.

We are given a glimpse as to how dearly Job loved his kids.  We know they were adults so Job was a part of their lives for many years and they were a big part of his. We know Job considered their welfare so much that he offered up sacrifices for their sins so God would have mercy upon them in case they stepped out of line with Him. As we read how the story unfolds each messenger comes and relays to Job how his oxen and donkeys were stolen and his servants killed, how his sheep were wiped out by a fire from heaven, how his camels were stolen and those servants also killed, all with  no response from Job. It is only after the last messenger tells Job that his children all perished when their house caved in on them that we read Job became distraught, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground in grief. It is apparent that Job’s greatest and most unbearable loss was the death of his sons and daughters.

Decorating the graves of our loved ones is a tradition.  Even knowing our loved one is with the Lord we are compelled to visit the place where we laid the shell to rest and to remember the life and reflect on the earthly absence in somber remembrance. Most likely Job’s children were all buried on his property with stone markers that would be evident from a long distance and I would imagine Job would have been compelled to visit, decorate and remember, just as we do today.  Yes Job was restored and his faithful wife was blessed to give birth to ten more children (blessed? that would make 20 natural births). But those who have lost children or spouses are painfully aware that no number of children or any blessing of a new mate will ever erase the memory of those you loved and lost. Through photos, memories and grave stones they exist forever.

Job’s earthly restoration was miraculous and generous, but not complete. He was left with scars, battle wounds and constant reminders of his testing and lived with them for another one hundred and forty years. To be honest I have never liked the story of Job, primarily because I have a hard time getting past my selfish arrogance in questioning God’s fairness and purpose with my finite comprehension. I don’t like or relish the thought of being the battleground God uses to prove a point to satan.  I want to grow in the knowledge of Christ but without the pain that accompanies the testing and refining process. I don’t want my friends looking upon me with pity.  I want to be the one who raises other’s spirits, the life of the party, the happy-go-lucky person with the Teflon persona that nothing sticks to. My desire is to be that person who is blessed on earth by a wealthy God who spoils me with goodness that the preacher describes in his false teaching of prosperity by works. But that is not my life and it’s probably not yours either.

Scripture is clear that we will each be rewarded in a heavenly kingdom.  We are told to lay up for ourselves treasure in Heaven.  We are told that our good deeds are credited to a heavenly account. All indications are that we must live life and endure trials, hardships and losses here on earth without any guarantee of a Job like restoration. We will go through periods, seasons and for some lifetimes of silence from a God we have to trust in the darkest of times and the fiercest of storms. We sometimes have to navigate life when we can’t see our hand in front of our face and can only take one step forward at a time when the winds are blowing directly against us. We have to pray when there are no words, study when there is little desire and believe when all indicators suggest not to. If there was a magic potion or spell to make this process we all face easier, I’d own the world. God knows our doubts, sees our struggles with faith, hears our non-verbal prayers and feels our distress. I wish I couldn’t write these words from personal trials and seasons of my own doubt, but I can and I do. When tears no longer come, when the pain is so intense it causes numbness, when all hope and light seems to have vanquished from your world, God remains.

Just one more observation from this story, one which supports the notion of a heavenly reward and eternal afterlife. Job received back double for all his losses, except his children.  He lost ten but was only blessed with ten, not twenty.  Did God oops?  No. Job realized that portion of his restoration when he was reunited with them in paradise.  God didn’t forget or short change Job, and He won’t forget us even when we are tempted to give in to our own disbelief. We have no other recourse. It has to be so.

 

 

 

 

Grandma’s Shiny Christmas Pin

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When I was but a boy I delivered flyers for a local grocery store in Indianapolis-I was paid a penny per flyer.  I made about $3.00 per week and loved doing it. On most weeks I would take some of my money to Long’s Bakery where I could buy second day donuts for half price as my reward.  The grocer is long gone but the bakery remains. However, whenever Christmas rolled around I looked forward to taking my two or three dollars to the local G. C. Murphy or Kresge store to buy my grandmother a shiny colored pin for Christmas.  She loved her collection of costume pins and wore them to church each Sunday. These stores would have tables of little white boxes each containing a different pin they brought in just for Christmas.  I would be in there for hours picking out just the right pin for her.  The funny thing, it didn’t really matter which one I selected-she would love it just the same.

At age fifty-five this remains one of my favorite Christmas memories.  It was a simplistic time, the pride of buying a gift for my grandma with money I earned, the thrill of the search for the perfect pin, the joy of giving it to her on Christmas Eve and the love she showed when opening it.  I could have given her a purple hippo pin with orange ears-she would have never said a word but would have loved it and worn it proudly.  In my grandmother’s eyes, I could do no wrong.  Simple, loving, cherished, pure!  How times have changed.

I’m all grown up now.  I live in a world where acceptance and approval is sometime difficult to acquire. It’s almost as if our lives are lived as an obstacle course full of hazards and opportunities for failure, lined along the way with our share of naysayers telling us we didn’t study hard enough, we didn’t work hard enough, we haven’t earned enough, we haven’t given enough, we haven’t loved enough. And all along the course we are looking for grandma in the crowd to give her unconditional approval but she’s long since gone to her reward and no one really cares for our shiny pins anymore.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at Christmas time.  The intensity of the season serves as a natural amplifier for all emotions and feelings, good or bad.  For the lucky ones whose lives are balanced and in order Christmas is a magical time where love and hope abounds in volume. But for those who have been beaten down by failure, by rejection, by battles unknown to others, Christmas can be a lonely, dark and empty time that only reveals to us the desperation of our current state.

It is during this season that we are compelled to look beyond what Christmas may have become and instead consider the divine purpose of the Holy Incarnation of that special night when God became flesh to show us an unconditional Grandma type love that would lead to us being called children of God. The arrival of that baby Christ-child was not trumpeted in the courts of kings or revealed to the religious leaders and holy men.  It was instead heralded to the lowliest of the low, the shepherds, society’s outcast, those whose lives were expendable, unwanted, invisible. Christ came to give all men equal status and acceptance into a new kingdom where worth and value are not placed on income levels, educational degrees or corporate titles, but rather on who you know, specifically, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. When we come before Christ and lay down our lives in surrender and sacrifice with all our sins, our failures, our bad decisions, our regrets He doesn’t look upon the darkness of our status or see the obvious soil on our robes.  He sees shiny Christmas pins, full of color, sparkling in the light as if they were Lennox or Swarovski crystal. We are received and set at the same table next to kings and royalty as VIP guests of the highest honor with full access and privilege to the King of all kings, the Christ, now wearing our shiny pins as His badges of honor.

My grandmother has been gone almost twenty years now and I still miss her at Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Giving Thanks When Feeling Not So Grateful

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How does one offer thanks when they are in the midst of less than thankful circumstances?  How can someone sing praise when everything inside them screams for help?  Tomorrow across America most families will come together in what has largely become the first day of the Season of Consumerism, yet some still set it aside as a day to reflect on the many blessings they have received.  For believers it is just one more occasion to acknowledge the never ending provisions we are granted as children of God.  But for many it may be difficult to find a grateful heart due to personal situations or circumstances for which they are anything but thankful.

It’s hard to gather around a table that first time when one chair sits conspicuously empty due to a recent death.  It’s difficult to act gracious when the latest medical report was anything but positive. It’s hard to enjoy the day when you are wondering how you are going to get your bills paid, let alone shop for Christmas presents.  It’s hard being single for the first time around friends and family after a broken relationship.  We are falsely led to believe by some that Christians should give thanks for any and all of their circumstances like zombies on an acid trip as if nothing can touch us because of our faith when in fact most would be shocked to know the pains and concerns our Christian siblings harbor secretly.

1 Thessalonians 5 tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. To this day I cringe whenever I hear someone say that everything happens for a reason. That is simply not true!  God is not the author of disease, calamity, broken hearts, unemployment or loneliness.  It is His desire that we avoid these things when possible.  And yet it is correct to say that He can make magic from a mess, wholeness from brokenness.  Only He can truly turn our sorrows into dances of joy but our approach to God has to be one of a grateful heart.  Sounds a bit contradictory.

The heart of gratitude is something that goes much deeper than the surface circumstances. In one of my favorite movies, National Treasure there was a map on the back of the Constitution that was not visible on the surface but could be seen with a special pair of reading glasses.  Those who successfully maintain a grateful heart have learned how to read the whole of their lives with special glasses that see and understand things hidden from all outward appearances.  They understand the old but proven cliché that bad times don’t last but good people do. They know the meaning of “count it all joy” when considering present situations in light of the much bigger eternal picture.  They realize the temporal nature of this earthly life and set their minds on a much higher reward.  I can’t say that I am quite there yet, but I know how to get there.

This Thanksgiving Day I want to offer words of hope, comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling to find any spirit of gratitude. This may come across as a bit lecture-ish but as you gather tomorrow, consider the food that thousands of others only dream about. Look across the table and see the smiling faces of your kids, grandchildren and family and be grateful for their presence and safety. As you bless the gathering, take a moment to consider where you might be if not for a loving Father who provides all that we could ever need if we sincerely seek and acknowledge Him. Consider the dwelling you are gathered at in light of the thousands of homeless families with children right in your own communities. I know, it sounds easier than it really is, but there is a peace that comes from an earnest attempt to come before God with a heart and a spirit of Thanksgiving even in the midst of life’s troubles.

The following is just a compilation of various Psalms written by a man named David even as he was in the desert running for his life.  His comfort was his knowledge and recollection of God’s goodness.

“I will give thanks to the Lord due to His righteousness and I will sing praises to the name of the Lord most high”.

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount his wonderful deeds”.

“I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify Him with thanksgiving”.

“Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise”.

“And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and tell of His deeds in songs of joy”.

“Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good.  His mercies are everlasting”

I hope and pray each of you have a wonderful, meaningful and grateful Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

Finding Hope in Times of Great Loss

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None of us are shielded from unexpected events that rattle our lives like an erupting volcano or a major earthquake.  The strongest among us can be brought to our knees when faced with certain life events or painful losses-the loss of a child, the loss of a home, the loss of a job or a business, the loss of a spouse due to death or divorce.  All of us will eventually face one or more of these events or know of some who have and can bear witness to the long term damaging effects it can have on an individual’s attitude, their outlook on the future and their quality of life.  And all of us who have already been visited by any of these can attest to the resulting sense of hopelessness and isolation.

Besides the obvious impact these losses or changes can have on the emotional or mental health of a person, these events can also alter the physical health as well.  In 1967 two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of more than 5000 patients to see if there was any correlation between some life events and eventual major illness.  Their findings have been confirmed by subsequent independent studies and the results are the same, and not at all surprising.  Based on their data they developed the famous Holmes and Rahe Scale, used to determine the chances of a person suffering major illnesses in the future.  Each event was given a numerical value in line with the severity of the event.  Here is what the scale looks like with events and numeric values listed:

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When you begin to take inventory and add up the numbers, especially if you are older, the results can be scary in light of the rating scale based on your score. The things that happen in our lives have a measurable impact on our mental and physical health-there is simply no disputing this.

But before you add up your score and head for your garage to start the car and close the garage door, take heart-there is a disclaimer!  These studies are based on the normal conditions and responses of the normal person.  There is no allowance or consideration given for the person who has overcome or survived these events due to the hope they have through their faith in Christ. Upon our conversion we are promised that we become “new” creatures, that is with clean slates, having all old things and events “pass away”.  That is certainly not to say we don’t suffer the same pain or agony when faced with any of these major life-changing events-we do, believe me. However it is to say that we have the promise and the assurance, the Hope that even though we walk through these dark places (not over or around as some suggest) that God is with us to provide comfort and courage and strength to endure.  We may not sense His presence during these trials in life but we rely on the knowledge through the Holy Spirit that His word is true and that He is faithful and completely incapable of breaking His promise or His covenant with us when we need Him the most. The great disclaimer to the Holmes Rahe Scale is Christ. He is or can be the great equalizer to those with high risk factors and scale totals-He is the unaccounted for variant in the numeric scale.  You may score high, but Christ…

Holy Scriptures are alive with resounding promises of hope, too many to list.

You may have lost a loved one but you can “lie down and sleep and wake again because the Lord sustains you”. You may have lost a job or a business but “you have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for food”. You may feel abandoned or that God has overlooked you, but in your heart you remember “Has he said and will He not do it or has He spoken and will not fulfill it?”  You may have lost the person closest to you but you can hold fast to the words “Fear not, I’m with you; don’t be dismayed for I’m your God and will strengthen you and hold you steady with my righteous right hand.”

Some of us have faced the events measured on this scale more than once. In fact if not for the disclaimer mentioned some of us may not have lived to tell about it.  But hope is like a skin graft that offers immediate healing and comfort and eventually manifests itself in new growth so that hardly a scar remains.  And by the way, these aren’t just shallow words but first hand testimony that is continuing to be rewritten.  I added up my scores, assuming just one time per episode although I have faced several of these events more than once.  My score….931!  But Christ.

 

The Dark Side of Hearts Day

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December 26th-shelves filled with Christmas products just the day before have been reduced to a single 50% off Clearance aisle.  In their place, the newest assortment of red heart-shaped boxes, stuffed furry animals and oversized cards, the annual commercial tribute to Valentine’s Day. And although given almost two full months to select the perfect gift, most will wait until just days before, some out of true love and others mere obligation. The Valentine’s Day holiday is a thirteen billion dollar annual event (that’s $13,000,000,000.00). More than 180 million cards will be exchanged, 480 million roses and more chocolate than any of us need. Ironically, while it’s the best time for a man to buy that card once a year that says the things he can’t articulate, one study says 85%of these cards are actually purchased by women.

While many joke that the day was created by Hallmark, it’s romantic roots can be traced back to a 13th century poet named Chaucer who in essence wrote that all creation comes together in love and harmony, etc. etc. etc.  Simply stated, it is a dedicated day each year that gives most an opportunity to freely express or reaffirm their love for their significant other, accompanied by many passed down traditions and gestures.  In Europe for instance some still exchange Valentines Day keys that signify an invitation to unlock the heart of their lover. But sadly for just as many, this day only serves as a reminder that the locks to the hearts of their special love have been changed and their keys no longer work.  A day that brings joy to those in love brings severe pain and isolation to those who bear the scars of broken hearts.

Statistics may not prove that suicide rates are higher on Valentine’s Day than on others but many studies support that depression brought on by broken relationships is a leading trigger for suicide attempts. When asked of those who survived such attempts, they responded that they didn’t necessarily want to die, they just simply had no reason to live. I can speak from past experience-there is no greater pain than to love someone with all your heart only to know they no longer love you in return. The feelings of loss, hopelessness and loneliness resulting from a severed relationship are no different than those feelings of mourning the sudden death of a loved one.  All of us, if breathing, have experienced it at least once in our lives.  The brave dare to love again, some more than a few times, but others shy away from the vulnerability necessary to love again for fear of the possibility of yet another broken heart already scarred by past loves and the pain associated with it that can bring even the strongest to their knees and turn their world upside down.

I wish I could offer words of healing or a fix-all solution for a quick recovery for those who feel the sting of rejection while witnessing others exchange their flowers and chocolates on this day of love.  If I could I wouldn’t be writing a blog post but a multi-million copy best-seller.  The pain of rejected love can be found in the earliest recorded writings in existence. It is a timeless tragedy that all will eventually suffer.  Some may bring calamity upon their love due to their own indiscretions-some due to apathy or just being oblivious to symptoms of trouble, and others will simply be innocent victims of a heart gone astray. Whatever the reason, the euphoric feelings that many celebrate on Valentine’s Day are the daggers that re-wound broken hearts haunted by abandonment and rejection and lingering memories of past loves that play over in their minds like an old movie projector with no Off switch.

If there are words of hope to offer, they must be found in Holy scripture.  I know that curling up with your Bible on a lonely night may seem to offer little in the way of comfort or companionship but there are words that can serve as a salve to help ease pain until such time as the heart can begin to recover.  Here are but a few to consider;

Psalm 34:18; The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 147:3; He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Psalm 73:26; My flesh and heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

1 Corinthians 13:7; …love endures all things

2 Corinthians 12:9; My grace is sufficient for you and my power made perfect in your weakness.

Lamentations 3:22; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end.

Til death do us part…”. Apparently some die more than once in their lifetime.

For better of for worse…”. And some must be beyond “worse”.

Time is the universal healer of brokenness and Christ is the accelerator of the healing process. The feelings of loneliness felt by widows, divorcees and others on Valentine’s Day are natural and can’t be avoided without crawling into a hole and coming out when the stores start stocking for Easter. But there is no reason to feel totally unloved or uncared for.  There is another simple verse that reminds us if we will take heed…

cast all your cares on Him for He truly cares for you..

The Hope That Heals All Christmas Pain

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Its almost time for Christmas, one of the holiest days of the year

The world for a moment stops spinning to send tidings of love and cheer

But for some this day’s a challenge as they try to find some gladness

For each one has a story that for them gives way to sadness

Seems everywhere they cast their glance they’re reminded of the reasons

Why they just can’t find the simple joy of this yearly Holy season

For some a dated ornament, the first Christmas spent together

A love to last the storms of life the two of them would weather

But one storm showed no mercy as it tore the two apart

Leaving nothing good of Christmas and instead, a broken heart

For others there’s and empty chair a loved one used to fill

Though gone, they’re not forgotten and their seat is empty still

They spent their lives united, gave their all to one another

But failing health and extended years claimed one but left the other

Some approach the season just a few weeks unemployed

And find it hard to celebrate being robbed of all their joy

They can’t afford the usual gifts that bring their children laughter

Feeling like they’ve failed again with no prospect of work hereafter

While for some there sits a present wrapped in true anticipation

Of the joy when finally opened at the family’s celebration

But something unexpected, a life so quickly taken

Leaves a family asking questions and the day completely shaken

There’s bitterness and anger as we wrestle with God’s purpose

Trying hard to hide the obvious pain that lies beneath the surface

Why now, why me, what good can come from allowing us these tests

And how do we now reconcile that God still knows what’s best

Yet, in the corner, hardly noticed, a nativity scene displayed

In the center lies the Child of peace, born that Christmas day

His entrance ushered hope and peace for all who would believe

A hope that heals the deepest wounds when to Him we humbly cleave

He understands how hard it is for some to find their cheer

And offers us eternal hope that will last beyond our tears

The cure for all that ails us entered earth that Christmas night

It’s His hope that brings a lasting peace and His love that sets things right

It heals all wounds, fills all voids, brings comfort to ease our pain

And chases tears and sorrows so that love alone remains

We all have things we’d wish to change to make our lives more pleasant

And questions we would pose to God if He stood within our presence

But He knew our pains before our birth and addressed them from above

When He sent His Son to heal all hurts in the ultimate show of love

So we’ll gather on this Christmas day to commemorate His birth

The Christ child come to soothe our pain, the greatest cure on earth

It comforts loss and covers scars if we’ll but humbly kneel

To worship Him who heals our hearts with a peace we each can feel.

 

Unseen Pain

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On July 4th I was walking on the top floor of a local casino parking garage to get a panoramic view of the city’s fireworks displays. I noticed a strange pain in my left foot but kept walking. The pain intensified and by evening I was wrapped in a blanket with chills from the intense pain (it was 105 outside). The next day I could barely walk and by the third day I could put no weight on the foot. Reluctantly I went to the local Quick Care for treatment but multiple x-rays revealed no injury.  When offered pain medication I declined, thinking I could just live with it if it didn’t get any worse. It got worse. A couple days later I was back at the quick care begging for drugs.  It’s amazing what strong narcotics can do for pain relief. The pain had become so severe I could not think-I could barely communicate-I could not function normally-it was crippling!  Upon administering treatment I was back to some level of sanity and could focus on something other than the pain.

We live in a world full of hurting people. Their pain may not be obvious but the hurt is no less severe. We encounter them everywhere we go unaware-unaware because we seldom take the time to notice. The pain they endure may be from a broken relationship with a mate or close family member. They may be that teenager who just can’t seem to measure up to their parents’ expectations. Some suffer the pain of acute loneliness that could be relieved with a simple conversation or visit. Some carry the burden of failed marriages or businesses.  Psychologists agree that a man responds to a failed business much the same as he would to the loss of a loved one.  I know that to be true. The wife who gives her all to her husband and kids but never receives appreciation or affection from them walks in silent pain. The incarcerated serving time in a lonely cell for one bad and costly decision or act suffers a pain we can’t comprehend. The young girl who thought aborting or giving up her child was the right decision may now be carrying the pain of guilt and regret. The man who lost his family over indiscretions and now sees another care for what was once his suffers a dull pain that may never go away. These are the pains that left untreated can cause one not to think clearly-not to be able to communicate-to not be able to function normally-the unseen pains that are crippling.

How I wish I had the time-the capacity-the reach to embrace these who suffer silently. We all know how our hearts ache when our kids or grandkids cry. We don’t need to know why the tears-we just want to hold them until they stop flowing. How much more does our Savior react to our pain. How cool is it that we have someone to call out to who lived the human experience in the Earth He created so as to empathize with our hurts and our feelings.  Psalm 34 tells us that the Lord is always near to those with broken hearts and crushed spirits. Sometimes in the midst of our pain we can’t see or accept the relief that comes from calling out to God for mercy, so we go on through life thinking like I did, that we can live with the pain if it doesn’t get worse.

There are no quick fixes to deep emotional stress carried unseen by so many.  However that is no excuse to not be engaged or aware of those around us who may be hurting. It is surprising how many of these people worship with us each week in our churches!  I am always on someone’s schedule, running here or there, but I am trying to remember to ask God to help me see others who need a word, a hug or a meal. If you know of individuals who suffer in silence, get involved, go out of the way, send a card, make a phone call, buy them coffee-whatever it requires to just be a presence at a lonely time.  We don’t need answers-we don’t  need to bombard them with Bible verses. We just need to let them know we are aware of their hurts so some healing process can begin. It’s not about deeds and works and righteousness-it’s about love, about caring, about sharing the burden of pain that is too great or someone to carry alone.

Father, help us see the pains in others that you see and respond as you would with love, with empathy and with presence.

Looking Up When You’re Feeling Down

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If you are one of those who are always on top of your game, you wake up and kiss the sky and your kitchen sings to you while you make breakfast, this post isn’t for you. It’s for the rest of us who don’t live in Disney World, those who strive to live a positive life but still battle the demons of failure, sin and worthlessness-real people.  I am one-I’m with you-those days when you wonder if you really matter, if you are really loved, if you would be missed if you were gone, if you are having any positive impact on those you love and pray for. Those small doubts become large gaping holes of opportunity for attack. Each day is a new war to wage against the dark, spiritual and tangible forces that are well trained at knocking us off course.  If you aren’t the target of such attacks, you aren’t fully engaged in life or your faith. The following are excerpts from a sermon I wrote years ago but still as relevant as it was then.  There are key weapons at our disposal to aid us in our daily battles against weariness, depression and discouragement.

“There are times in our faith walk when we find ourselves in a spiritual funk.  We are on a straight and narrow road, running this race-running like Forest Gump-running and running and running. There comes a time when I just want to stop running.  I see a little spot off the beaten path and I pull off the road just to stop running.  The place I find myself in here isn’t necessarily attractive-it’s isolated-it’s disconnected-it’s quiet.  It’s not lively, it’s not dead-it’s just hereHere is a place where my prayers don’t seem to travel far.  Here is a place that is under the radar from the dark forces of life.

Eph. 6:12 reads “For we fight not against people made of flesh and blood, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in heavenly realms”.

The enemy is highly trained to target those who are engaged in their faith.  But as long as I’m here, no one cares.  As a Christian, I know all I need to do is call on Jesus for help and get back on the road.  I can even see the road from here, but it is just easier to stay here.  This is my spiritual funk.

Now that I’ve painted you a picture of spiritual funk, how many of you have been here too?  How can we get there from here?  I have come up with 5 easy but vital steps for Christians to follow to avoid these funks.

Step 1-Guard your thoughts.

We are so easily led astray by our own thoughts.  We haven’t mastered the art of bringing every thought into captivity. I have struggles with reassurance issues.  In my mind, I tend to put myself up here more than I should.  The problem is that it doesn’t take much of a parting shot to knock me down to here-an unhappy customer, something the kids say, a series of unlucky events, any form of rejection.  If I believed in blind luck, I would be the one person he can’t see.  When things don’t go your way, or the people around you point fingers, you start to believe that maybe you are the problem. Job’s friends told him he was the reason for all the calamities God allowed in his life, and Job tended to believe them.  We completely disregard every positive thing scripture has to say about who we are in Christ. This is the ultimate trick of the deceiver-he wants to remind us of all our past mistakes, all our failed relationships, all our closet skeletons, and we buy right into this trick.  The result is a feeling of inferiority, insecurity, and unworthiness, all contrary to what Christ thinks of us.

Philippians 4:7 says this; “Tell God what you need and thank him for all he’s done.  If you do this you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.  (Vs 8). Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right.  Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable.  Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise”. 

Step 2-Seek out positive nourishment

There are several good sources of Christian nourishment available to us.  One of my favorites is Christian music.  I’ve always loved music-it is the one medium that can completely change your attitude or actions.  For example, when the classic rock song “I can’t drive 55” comes on, amazingly, I really can’t drive 55.

Music can be uplifting-I’m always amazed how a piece of music that was recorded years ago on electronic media can still become a worship experience in your car.

Our brains are complex recorders-we can recall every good or bad thing we’ve seen or heard in the course of a day.  If that’s the case, we should expose ourselves to positive influence, whether music, or a good book or a good TV program.

Romans12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.  This is a daily process if we are to avoid spiritual funk.

Step 3-Choose your friends wisely

This one is interesting to me.  I don’t personally believe that as Christians we are only supposed to hang with other Christians.  That’s not the model Christ gave us.  In fact Jesus, according to scripture, was quite a party animal. But his closest friends were believers.  When we socialize it is important to spend time with those who share your faith-they will become a great help and support to you when you’re in trouble.  And be very careful about those you hang with who are not Christian-they can easily lead you down a different path.  Our non-believing friends need our influence, but we must not yield to theirs.  It is too easy in the course of having a good time to let your guard down or compromise your core values after prolonged exposure.  The friends you confide in will ultimately be advising you.

Psalm 1:1 reads “Oh the joy of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.”

Step 4-Know your weaknesses

I have weaknesses.  I am not alone.  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian, we all have kinks in our armor.  The enemy always knows your weakness.  For some maybe it’s lust, for others maybe pornography.  Some may have a substance addiction-maybe you gossip-maybe you eat too much-maybe you have a gambling problem-maybe you’re just plain crazy.  Having a weakness is not necessarily the problem, especially if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself and to God. However yielding to your weakness over God’s strength  can put you in your own spiritual funk.  Putting yourselves in situations where you could stumble is just not responsible as a Christian.

1 Peter 2:11 says “Dear brothers and sisters, you are foreigners and aliens here.  So I warn you to keep away from evil desires because they fight against your very soul”.

What does this mean?  It’s simple really-if you can’t hold your liquor, you should stay out of bars.  If you have an eating disorder, the Carnival Buffet is not for you.  If you can’t get on the internet without migrating to a porn site, stay off the computer.  If you’re down to your last $3, don’t spend it on Megabucks.  If you like spreading rumors, don’t listen to any new ones.  Are you starting to get the picture?  Don’t give our enemy any advantages against you.

1 Peter 5:8 says “Be Careful. Watch out for attacks from the devil, your enemy.  He prowls around like a roaring lion looking for some victim to devour”.

Step 5-Spend time alone with God

Perhaps one of the hardest things to do when you’re in a spiritual funk is to spend time alone with God.  Part of being in this place is the feeling of disconnection you feel.  When you cry out to God, it’s as if you hear the echoes of the canyons, but when you pray, you almost feel the prayers bouncing back off the ceiling.  It is in these times that it is most imperative that you habitually seek God out, remembering he hasn’t gone anywhere, even when we don’t feel his closeness.

James 4:7 says “Humble yourselves before God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw close to God and God will draw close to you.  (vs. 10).  When you bow down before the Lord and admit your dependence on him, he will lift you up and give you honor.”

Sometimes our path is dark and cold and each step is just another step of faith into the unknown. But God promised to be with us in the valley of shadows and death, not to take us around it as some might suggest but to be our guide and companion until we can navigate through the density and the turns. Our yellow brick road to Oz may seem more like a muddy trail through an endless swamp but in Christ, we can be sure that our final destination will be worth the hazards of the journey.

 

Dancing With the Scars

dancing with the scars

There is a popular reality television show that everyone is familiar with, even if they don’t watch it, called dancing with the Stars. The concept is to pair up professional dancers with known celebrities from the world of entertainment and sports who have little to no professional dance training and turn them into reasonable facsimiles of Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire.  I watched with curiosity the first episode of this season because a NASCAR Driving legend, Michael Waltrip, was on the show and I wanted to see if he had moves on the dance floor that compared to his moves on a race track.  It became apparent within about ten seconds why he is a racing legend and not a dancing star.  In racing terms, he missed a gear on the start, was loose in the corners and tight exiting, had no grip and could not stay close enough to his dance partner to take advantage of the draft.  I don’t see him being a celebrity dancing judge anytime in this lifetime. The same can be said with many of the celebrities selected to appear on this show.

The title of this week’s blog is obviously a play on the title of the popular show.  Dancing in it’s truest form is an expression of joy and freedom, whether you can dance the waltz with grace or you are like me and do the Humpty Hump like a white boy at the club.  Most people enjoy cutting loose and letting your inhibitions go once the music comes on.  How many times have you seen people deep in conversation in a club suddenly jump to their feet and head to the floor proclaiming “that’s my groove!”.  There is a release that comes from personal expression, even if you have three left feet.  But for many dancing through life is a difficult task.  Present or past circumstances prevent one from feeling totally free. Scars from previous episodes are too painful to dance through.  Those scars may represent the emotional wounds of silent depression, bitter divorces, physical or mental abuse, addictions that still haunt you, rejection by those close to you-there are an unlimited number of traumas that leave scars in our lives that may not be evident to everyone but are real just the same.  Those scars are sometimes like heavy chains weighing one down to the point that freedom of any joyful expression is nearly impossible and like Michael Waltrip, awkward at best.

In my life I have felt the pain of divorce, lived through the destruction of alcoholism, suffered the devastation of total loss of fire, dealt with serious illness-all things that can shake a person’s faith to the core. Joining in to the dance of life with joy is not always easy.  There tends to be a hesitation or even a fear that any joy expressed will be temporary as you are always expecting something else to come your way and add another scar.  And in the deepest and darkest times of despair, you even question the willingness of God to sustain or restore you.  The enemy convinces you that your scars are ugly before God and that even He won’t look upon you because they are repulsive.  When God delays His responses to your urgent beseeching, you wonder if maybe the enemy is right.  Job must have felt this when God removed His hand of protection and blessing from him, leaving him literally scarred and in a heap of ashes.  Listen to his words found in Job 10;

18 “‘Why, then, did you deliver me from my mother’s womb?
    Why didn’t you let me die at birth?
19 It would be as though I had never existed,
    going directly from the womb to the grave.
20 I have only a few days left, so leave me alone,
    that I may have a moment of comfort
21 before I leave—never to return—
    for the land of darkness and utter gloom.
22 It is a land as dark as midnight,
    a land of gloom and confusion,
    where even the light is dark as midnight.’”

Remember if you know this story that just a few chapters earlier the Bible describes Job as not only a righteous man, but says that in all the earth there was no one else like him!  Job was the standard for Godly living for his time.  How quickly and completely was his destruction and how deep the scars inflicted, that the most wealthy and righteous man on the face of the earth could so easily question everything he believed about God because of the overwhelming circumstances he found himself in, through no real fault of his own. His kids were destroyed while they were dancing-Job had no more desire to dance.

How many of us have been there in our lives, or maybe you are reading this and going through a similar stage even now?  We become self-conscious of our scars and reluctant to show them.  Reluctance can lead to isolation and from there to depression and hopelessness. We shun dance floors. What is our answer?  Here is the solution, at least as best as I can put into words that carry some truth. Our feelings of despair, our awareness of the ugliness of our scars and our repulsion to others and to God, as real as they may feel, are a FALSE SELF PERCEPTION!  How do we know this to be true?  It’s simple.  Scripture tells us over and over and over again that GOD LOVES US! There is no shortage of passages that refer to God delighting in our existence, in God accepting us as we are, in God forgetting our sins and removing our scars as far as the east is from the west!  God relishes contriteness, brokenness, disillusionment, all manner of emotional suffering and reaffirms that nothing in our life, our past, nothing in Heaven or earth, nothing we’ve done or could ever do can ever separate us from or change the level of God’s love for us.  God sees our scars as beauty marks, as evidence of battles we’ve endured and lived to tell about.  We are encouraged to dance through the pain like no one is watching, to sing out loud even if we miss the notes and to live life as a celebration of the uniqueness of our experiences-to DANCE WITH THE SCARS!

Don’t miss out on life because of your inability to put steps together.  No one is judging or voting on our elimination. Don’t fear the freedom of joyous expression as you live your life, scars and all!

On a personal note, many of you have opted to follow my weekly blog.  There are millions of us doing this-I am deeply honored that you follow mine.  I welcome feedback and certainly all referrals to your friends and family if you like what we put out each week as we attempt to exhort you to living your faith in real life.  God bless you all!

Realness of Despair, Remedy of hope

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Eph. 6:12

Girl standing in rain

 

This has been a tough week for many as the death of the world’s funniest man, Robin Williams, has revealed the truth of one the world’s toughest battles, depression. Many have been the commentaries on the subject, varying from a coward’s choice to a weakness of faith to a legitimate mental disease.  Some have carefully approached the subject with compassion while others have breached it with judgement and vile. While I am not an authority on the correct diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, I am familiar with depression-he is an unwelcome friend always lurking on the other side of the door.  These are my observations and experiences regarding depression.

Depression does not discriminate and most certainly does not prey solely on those of weak minds.  I did some research yesterday and was alarmed to find that many of the world’s most intelligent people have suffered from depression. Among them are Abe Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, O’Keefe, Tolstoy and even Beethoven-all arguably people of extraordinary intellect and yet all victims of the darkness of the mind. I was further stunned to learn that the suicide rate of Christians is nearly the same as those who profess no particular faith, and that even ministers of the Gospel have fallen victim to suicide. If even clergy who have applied themselves  to advanced study of the Bible to be spiritual leaders are subjected to the fatality of depression, then we have little option but to recognize the scope of the battle many of us deal with in our minds.

Many who know me would describe me as a laid back, cool, easy going personality with a teflon approach to life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I keep locked in my mind a demon that is very real and always looking for ways to escape.  Few have seen me in the heat of these battles except my wife.  Miraculously she is still with me.  I have often accused God of toying with me for His amusement.  Don’t get me wrong, God certainly takes pleasure in testing me, sometimes without a chance to catch my breath, but the war that rages in me is not God sent but mentally seeded and exploited by those forces who would seek my eternal destruction.  And they are real.

The church has done a great disservice to many parishioners who have come to them for help in fighting depression. Many clergy mistakenly dismiss depression as just a bad perception of reality and in turn dismiss the legitimacy of the parishioner’s cries for help.  Others, feeling it’s strictly a spiritual matter, throw some oil on them and quote a Bible verse or two and send them home.  And then there are those who make their member feel completely shamed by “reminding” them of all the good things in their life, suggesting they have nothing to be depressed about, adding to their depression the burden of guilt.  As a result there has been a stigma placed on mental illness in the church that has left many people feeling isolated in their fight and ashamed to openly seek help from even their own Christian siblings. If one came to a pastor requesting prayer for lumps in the breast or chest pains the pastor would not hesitate to refer them to medical experts. Why should disorders of the mind be treated so differently?

And yet with all sickness there is hope. We must never be so disillusioned as to forget the magnitude of the God we profess and His ability to heal any disease. Even in the grips of our deepest despair nothing is to great for God to resolve.  We must also cling to the healing properties of hope, and do all that is within our power to find, recall, strain for and acquire the assurance that each of us who are in Christ possesses, the blessed hope of eternal life beyond the battles of our earthly existence. My bouts with depression are never so severe that a grandchild in my lap can’t bring a smile and reminder of God’s love for me.  But that is only possible with constant contact.  If I were ever left alone for long periods of time during these battles, with no one checking on me or simply being with me, who knows that I may a sad statistic. Depression requires comfort and comfort comes from the strong presence of peers, unlike the peers of Job as he struggled, who implied his troubles were his own doing and that he should just shake it off an move on.  Dealing with loved ones who are depressed requires love, patience and in some cases a tight lip.  It never requires judgment ridicule, guilt or shame.

Corrie Ten Boom, author of the best selling The Hiding Place, battled deep depression while she was in the German concentration camps.  I had the unique privilege of hearing her speak in person about the book and her ordeals in the midst of unimaginable circumstances.  This is an excerpt from one of her stories:

The Ten Booms, all devout Christians, had provided a hiding place in their home for persecuted Jews during World War II. Corrie, who was fifty-nine at the time of her arrest, was placed in an isolation cell for the first few weeks of her imprisonment. Depression and the struggle to maintain a sense of hope consumed her.

“Only to those who have been in prison does freedom have such great meaning. When you are dying – when you stand at the gate of eternity – you see things from a different perspective than when you think you may live for a long time. I [stood] at the gate for many months, living in Barracks 28 in the shadow of the crematorium.

Corrie lived within the smell and cries of the cremation chamber where many of her friends died.  Surely she felt isolated and depressed. and yet she clung to all she had, the hope of eventual salvation through Christ, and he miraculously restored her and allowed her story to touch the hearts of millions around the world.  She was imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis and by the chains of her mind, but the realness of the hope she held helped her survive.  We have the same hope within us.  Love those who are battling-hug those who are depressed-comfort them with compassion and if need be, help them seek treatment from those trained in the area of mental stress disorders.  Pray for them but don’t dismiss them as weak or immature in their faith journey.  No one but God knows the intensity of the battles being fought in a person’s mind.  No one but God can shed light on the healing hope in the darkness of warfare.