May 7, 2018

Christ is the Anchor, Will We be the Lifeline?

Grief is lonely.  Suffering in general is a lonely road.  I've learned this truth firsthand.  Grief and suffering can leave you feeling like you can't breathe or like you are drowning.  Even with wonderful people surrounding and lending support, a suffering person can be left battling great loneliness, but those people are part of the lifeline that help the suffering heart grab hold of hope.  I am left to wonder then, how much more lonely is it to suffer and grieve when no one or very few want to or are willing to enter into the hardship a person may be facing?

I find myself asking, Church, why?  Why are we willing to allow our brothers and sisters or worse yet, those who do not know Christ, to suffer alone? 

Sometimes I think it is because we have this idea of what socially acceptable grief is and what it isn’t.  We don’t want to enter in if it could be hard, or ugly, or long, or something we don’t understand. We fear such situations.  It is hard to come alongside someone who has lost a spouse or a child to illness or an accident. There is nothing easy about coming alongside someone who has a terminal illness. However, many people tend to dig deep and show up in some way for that kind of suffering even if it is uncomfortable or awkward. We find it even easier yet to lend support when someone is struggling because of a major surgery, difficult delivery of a baby, or laid off from a job?  These are all fairy socially acceptable ways to suffer and we show up. 

Friends, what happens when the suffering is something that makes us uncomfortable?  What happens when we don’t know how it should play out or what the right answers are in the hard? Let’s get real here.  What if the heartache isn’t what we have defined as socially acceptable like someone who has had an abortion, abuse within marriage or the church (any kind of abuse: emotional, sexual, physical, spiritual), someone battling against same sex attraction, a person dealing with chronic depression, that person who cannot beat anxiety, a family who has lost one of its members to suicide or overdose, or a family who felt called to adopt and has faced endless heartache with the child they’ve made a part of their family. The list could go on. 

I can tell you what we often do.  We talk about it behind closed doors. We come up with high and mighty theology and theories about it. We look down on it. We live our lives thankful we don’t have to deal with that issue. We claim ourselves not qualified so it isn’t our place to be involved. We disbelieve them (or at least show that we do with our lack of care). We avoid it. Subsequently, we avoid those people.  Oh, we may talk to them.  We paste on our smiles and keep things shallow while inside the other person is drowning in the deep.  Without so much as acknowledgement, a question, or a prayer, we leave them to try and hold their head above water another day when they barely thought they could make it through the last day. Or maybe we do let them know we are praying but leave it at that because it’s safe - for us - but the sufferer cannot even breathe. 

Let’s be a people, Church, who refuse to leave the hurting alone in the fire.  A people who will hear of or see someone in the flames and will not let them burn because when we read 1 Corinthians 12:26 “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together,” we know it is talking to us and that hurting soul right in front of us. We need to see them in the fire, and just like God didn’t leave Shadrach, Meshsch, and Abednego alone in the fire, we join them (Daniel 3).  We decide to be a lifeline.  We know ultimately it is Christ the hurting need, but as the Church, we are His hands and feet on this earth.  So, we need to become that life line that is anchored solidly in Christ. 

It is not an abandonment of the idea that Christ is the answer to the grief or the suffering to say we should reach out and be a part of the rescue of these dear souls. Blogger Tim Challies writes: “It is clear from Paul’s use of the word “need” in 1 Corinthians 12:21 that he does not see the Christian’s dependence on other Christians as a defect in our dependence on God. Total dependence on God’s grace does not mean no dependence on God’s means of grace.” We can be the means of grace.

In Luke 10:29-35 we read of a man who was suffering.  He had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. What happens next?  Two religious leaders come along and not only walk past him, but go to the other side of the way to completely avoid him. This example is a good picture of how the grieving and the suffering among us often feel.  They are split wide open and bleeding and those of us who should care the most because of God’s calling to His followers to love big, those of us in the Church and even Church leaders, move ourselves out of the way - especially if it is one of those less socially acceptable sufferings. So who should come along?  A Samaritan man who culturally would have been seen as the person who shouldn’t care, yet the Bible tells us he had compassion. But, before it tells us he had compassion, it tells us the Samaritan SAW the hurting man.  He saw him!  Do we really look at people and see their pain and does it move us to compassion regardless of what has caused that pain?  The passage goes on to tell us he bound up the man’s wounds, treated them, took him to an Inn, and even paid to have the man taken care of into the future.  Culturally, it was an uncomfortable situation - a Samaritan helping a suffering Jewish man.  However, the Samaritan sees the pain, enters in, and does all he can. He became a lifeline.  Whether he knew it or not, He became the physical hands and feet of Jesus to the one suffering. 

So Church, are we ready to be part of God’s means of grace?  I am not saying this because this is something I have perfected. By no means.  I believe I have failed at this more times than I have been a real lifeline for someone.  But by God’s grace, I hope and pray I am growing in this practice of loving the suffering well, and doing it more and more. 

Here are several ways that I believe the grieving and suffering need us to be that lifeline:

 1. Do not ignore the hurting person.  Validate the person's pain
 Philippians 2:4 says we are not just supposed to look to our own interests but also the interests of others.  We cannot ignore the suffering and grief of another and live that verse out. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 tells us we are to “encourage the fainthearted.”  Fainthearted means little spirit.  The grieving and suffering often times have little spirit left.  And that word “encourage” means to console and comfort.  We cannot do this if we have not first let them know we believe them, we can see they are struggling, and understand their struggle is for good reason. We cannot be like the Levite and the priest and just pass them by in judgment or fear.  They. Are. Drowning.  And God may want to use us to be a lifeline if we are firmly anchored in Him.  How can we validate their pain?  Let them know we believe them, ask them often what are ways we can be praying for them, send notes of encouragement, don’t pretend life is great, be sensitive to how situations they find themselves in may further their grief. And, don’t be afraid that our bringing up their pain is going to suddenly make them think about their pain and make things worse.  The one suffering and grieving, is always thinking about it.  Our acknowledgment of their pain as real and hard is foundational to loving the suffering well. 

2.  Don’t assume someone else, someone more qualified, someone who has walked that road will help and then do nothing. 
Maybe they will need professional help, and maybe someone who has walked the same road will be able to speak some special encouragement in the life of the hurting, but that does not discount the help we can bring by loving well. James 2:14-17 says:  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”  If we simply say to a  suffering and grieving person, “I will pray for you.  Christ is the answer,” but but do not pray and do nothing to show we care about their needs, we are living out this passage in James - whic isn't a good thing. We have to be ready to sacrifice and give of ourselves, our time, and our resources to meet the needs of the hurting.  What that looks like varies from situation to situation. We should pray and ask God to show us how we can come alongside the sufferer in a tangible way - maybe it’s meals, or regular prayer meetings for that person, or bills that need covered, or being people who can be called at any hour, or helping that person find resources for counseling or other services, just to name a few. 

3.  Be present. 
This action is one of the most important and it doesn’t mean having to be physically present though that is important sometimes too.  In the age of technology and communication, distance does not have to keep us from showing a suffering person that we are present - we are with them in the hurt. Galatians 6:2 says we are to “bear one another’s burdens.”  That literally means to put on oneself, or to take up and carry according to Strongs. Romans 12:15 says we are to “weep with those who weep.” To carry someone’s burden and to weep with them means to be present.  We let the one hurting know that we are in this with them, it grieves our hearts, and we cry with them.  This kind of support can be accomplished through checking in often.  If we really do live in close proximity we get together with that person regularly to listen, pray, let them cry, cry along with them, give them a hug, whatever shows them this matters to us and hurts us because it hurts them. If we don’t live nearby, we can do the same thing over the phone - minus the hug. Showing this kind of support doesn't have to be mysterious to figure out.  It is simply saying, “I am not trying to fix this, I am just with you and love you.”

4.  Listen. Listen without judgment.  
A suffering person’s emotions can be all over the place.  They have to work through times of raw anger, gut wrenching grief, maybe guilt, and on and on. Listen without the need to correct what they are feeling and without casting judgment on what may sound ugly.  They may throw out words they wouldn’t usually use or ideas they don’t normally adhere to.  Listen and give them time.  

Do not be pushy or apply pressure about what they should talk about or when they should talk. No one hurting wants to talk to everyone.  They will talk if and when they want to. Give them space to do so and just be available.

When they are sharing, just listen.  Generally speaking, trying to compare their pain to something in our own lives is a bad idea. If we haven’t walked this particular road of pain, we shouldn't go there.  If we have been down a similar road, we still should not be quick to point back to our own pains. Just listen.  If asked about our own experiences, then answer the question honesty but always bring it back to the sufferer. 

Listening is hard but we get better with practice. 

5.  Pray for and WITH the one hurting.  
A hurting friend of mine recently said that it was good to be prayed for but life-sustaining to be prayed WITH.  Pray for those we know who are suffering but every chance we have, pray with them.  Don’t pass up an opportunity.  If we are in their presence and they’ve been in the middle of a trial causing great grief and suffering, they are always going to be thankful that someone took the time to pray with them. Exodus 17:12 is part of an interesting story involving Moses.  The Israelites were in battle and as long as Moses held his arms in the air, they prevailed.  However, after a time Moses grew weary.  Aaron and Hur came to his rescue.  Each took one arm and held it up for Moses.  The suffering are like Moses.  They are battle weary and we can be like Aaron and Hur when we come along and pray with them because in doing so we are helping to hold up the worn and weary. Prayer is powerful and how much more so when we pray together. 

6. Get educated
Whatever the trial the hurting person is facing, get educated so we can help all the more.  For instance if it is suicide, learn about help, prevention, and after care for families. If it is anxiety and depression, we should learn all we can about what it is like to live with those, and how to come alongside those who suffer with these things.  If it is abuse of any kind, get educated about what help looks like, what the victim is going through, and what abuse looks like in its many forms.  We needed to know what kind of resources and services are in the area to help those who are hurting.  Whatever the suffering, it is essential to learn all we can. 

7. Don’t be in a hurry. 
In our instant gratification society we want to put a time limit on grief and suffering, and we want quick fixes and answers.  The problem is, suffering has its own time table.  It isn’t neat, and tidy.  It’s messy.  It’s long - sometimes life long.  We need to be the kind of people who can suffer long with others. 

I am sure there are many other suggestions that could be on this list, but if we just started here, we would begin to make a difference in the hurting hearts of those around us. 

One of the things I’ve noticed about suffering is that no matter what causes it, there are always some things that look the same. It is lonely and it affects every area of the person’s life. We are surrounded by people in our church pews and the world around us who are drowning and so often, we don’t even notice because we have not taken the time to really see people. Or, it may be that we have seen it, but in our discomfort, we’ve done nothing.  I know I’ve been guilty of such inaction.  Let’s stop letting people drown right in front of us when we have the ability to be a lifeline.  

I know there are some of you out there who do this beautifully. You have loved where it is hard and done it with such grace.  May I just say a huge thank you?  I pray we can all learn from your example.

Just this week I heard this song.  It articulates better than I ever could what it is like to be grieving and what is most needed by those of us surrounding the grieving.  Please take a few moments to listen to what is shared before this song, and listen to the song itself. May the Lord strengthen each of us to do as the song says and pull up a chair next to those who are in the fire. 

October 16, 2017

Peace Which Surpasses Understanding

The tiles are cold underneath me so I pull over a rug to sit on, back pressed against the wall, weary head leaned back, and a towel thrown over my legs - another attempt to keep the cold at bay. My stomach growls every other minute or so reminding me that I am hungry but normally am not up to feel it at this hour, long before dawn’s light will streak across the sky.  I can feel the tiredness through every part of me but not even so much because of the hour but because of life.  Sometimes, at every turn there is hard.  I look and all around me are people struggling under the weight of hard.  I continue to hold the phone close and listen to the tears on the other end wishing there was a way to fix it all and calm the fears but feeling powerless to do so.  

Powerless is a feeling I know well. Friends and family I love and others I don't know well at all but I know of their pain are meeting each sunrise unsure of how to take the next step forward because life isn't what they expected, planned for, or wanted.  I don't even have to leave my own home to find the struggle.  What are the answers?  How can one help?  Sometimes help and answers are far from simple. 

What happens when days turn into weeks which turn into years without solutions?  What happens when the healing is long and slow or maybe there is none? What do we do when our children ask questions we can't answer?  What do we say when the loss is excruciating, the diagnosis scary, the circumstances are overwhelming, the pain (physical or otherwise) is continual, or the darkness is heavy and there seems to be no end in sight?  What do we do when we cannot understand what God is doing and why He doesn't answer the way we ask?

I have pleaded with God in the last few years, tears streaming, asking Him for answers, for healing, for change, for redemption and found myself wondering why when I am asking for things that are good, right, and honoring to Him, does He withhold the answers I seek?  Have you begged God to act in some way, to bring change, and it seems nothing happens?

What is God doing?

The answer is, I don't know. And somehow, I have begun to find some peace in the not knowing.  I still wrestle.  I still shed many tears over unanswered questions.  I still grieve and feel weary many days.  How can there be peace without understanding? The peace comes in the recognition of who I am and who I serve. 

“'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 'For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 'For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.'”
Isaiah 55:8-13 

His thoughts are not my thoughts.  His ways are not mine.  I would write stories differently where children don't die, teens don't get hurt and struggle, peace reigns in all hearts, diseases don't take over bodies, relationships aren't broken, people aren't scarred, and peaceful sleep always comes. However, my thoughts and ways are so very limited and the honest truth is, my end goal would be ease and comfort.  God’s end goal is  SO MUCH more rich, sweet, eternal, and beautiful.  There is peace when we recognize we are finite and cannot understand the mind and ways of an infinite God.  Where we think only thorns and briers will grow, He grows the cypress and myrtle (vs.13).  Where we think only brokenness will grow, He grows faith and vessels for His glory.  In all of the hard He is working to make His name known to the world - His glory known (vs. 13).  In His grace, He is always working for our good as well (Rom. 8:28) but in ways we can't imagine (Eph. 3:20). When I bow to His greatness and sovereignty, when I relinquish the need to understand or have things answered MY way, then verse twelve is true for me and I go out not only with peace, but with joy. 

The pressure is off.  I don't have to know.  You don't have to know and understand.  We cry out and we beg God to work, to save, to redeem, to heal, and we trust that whatever answer He gives is as it should be because it is coming from Someone who can see far beyond what we can, is doing abundantly more than we can imagine, and is faithful beyond what we can comprehend. 

And there is peace.

Peace and understanding are not the same thing.  Understanding is not something we are ever promised.  The outcomes we think are good are never promised. Peace is promised if we will continually believe God (Rom. 15:13) and continually lay our burdens at His feet (Phil. 4:6-7).  

My pillow will be wet with tears again many times over before my life here is done.  God created hearts in us that care so we will rightfully grieve the brokenness of this world.  I will plead and beg of God many times over on behalf of my children in these years before they leave my home and I think even more so after.  I will cry out to Him on behalf of the pain in others I love and even those I don't know well but who are experiencing first hand the pain of this world.  However, I do not have to do any of that without peace.  I can trust the heart of the One who hears it all.  I can stand firmly on the truth that every word that goes out from His mouth will accomplish what He intended for it and all will be brought to completion (vs. 11). 

I ended the call that night when the tears on the other end had subsided, and I turned to the only thing I knew that could transform my discouraged thoughts.  I turned to truth. In God’s providence and goodness, in the hours I was sleeping, a friend had sent me something written around this truth from God’s Word:

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Deuteronomy 29:29 

I clung to it with every fiber of my being.  They - all those things that threaten to tear my heart apart that I do not understand - they belong to God and I can leave them there. He has given me all I need.  
And there is peace. 

I brought much before the Lord on those tiles that night.  There are so many hurting and so many circumstances I do not understand and feel powerless to help. After much prayer, I got up off those cold tiles and dried the tears.   There was nothing fixed.  I had no more understanding how to move forward, how to help, how to fix,  and I still do not.  I did leave there though different than I had sat down.  I left with peace because I had laid down the need to understand - at least for that day.  I will need to repeat over and over but that's the wonderful thing about God, His supply never runs out.  Each time I come earnestly seeking peace, ready to trust Him with all that doesn't make sense to me, He lavishes me in His grace with His endless supply of peace. 

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”
Proverbs 3:5

July 5, 2017

A Good God

God is good, all the time. I've been pondering this truth the last few weeks.  Good all the time?  Good no matter what happens?

Four weeks ago I thought I was driving there to sit with them while they lost their son.  Getting hit by a semi doesn't usually end well with people.  I felt physically sick.  It was the kind of drive where you pray non-stop begging God to act, to save, to work a miracle.  I had made the drive to this ER before.  I had prayed the same types of prayers only they were for my own son. I have stared death in the face, and I prayed fervently all the way there that these friends would not have to do the same. 

The grief was intense and the wait for that wonderful and awful life flight chopper was long. Though different, and though 13 years had passed, it all felt a little too familiar - the ER, the chopper, the time of year, a son. I did the only thing I knew to do - be present and pray. I stood by and sat by them in the same way they had sat by us 13 years earlier.  The weight and the wait felt too much for anyone to bear but I knew from experience, He can make anyone able.

The chopper came, the doctors went to work, and then the news came.  God had answered.  No broken bones.  No major internal trauma.  Full recovery expected. Oh the joy and relief that washed over that waiting room of so many loving, caring people!

The next day brought news that felt discouraging but following days only pointed more and more to a miracle and God was answering the prayer of not only a life saved, but full recovery.
God is good.  Many said it, myself included. 

As I drove back and forth to the hospital many times over the next several days I had to wrestle that truth out a little.  God is good.  I never stopped believing it but I throw that statement out every time God answers in the way that I think He should.  How often do I say it when He answers in a way that breaks hearts?  Is He only good when He gives me what I ask, or when He does what I think He should? When are we as believers willing to say He is good?  Is He good when we are standing over a grave, or we get a hard diagnosis, or we are still alone, or we have faced endless hurt? Is He good whether he saves a life or not even though He is always able?  Sometimes we are afraid to ask the hard questions.  The real question is, is He good all the time?

True goodness must always be good. His goodness is not based on outcomes or circumstances.  I know He is good because His Word tells me so:

“For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
Psalms 100:5

I also know He is good because He has shown me so in loving me no matter how undeserving I am, in faithfully meeting me and carrying me through the hard circumstances life can bring, in gifts of grace and joy that I haven't earned, in laying down His life for me when I was His enemy (Romans 5:10), in bringing beauty out of the ashes of my life (Isaiah 61:3).  His steadfast love and faithfulness have been evident throughout my life and the lives of those I know.

“The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”
Psalms 145:9

 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Romans 8:28

He is good.  He is good to all.  He is working good.

The Bible is clear on God's goodness.  How I define “good” is the real problem. In my limited thinking I always want to tie it to what I want, what I see as best, what I understand.  I know my heart and mind though, and I don't want a God who bases good on what I think or I know.  I am not good.  I have come to trust that what He sees that I can't and His very character is much better than my sight and character.  His goodness is true and constant regardless of what my feelings say and regardless of what things look like through my eyes. I see so dimly (I Corinthians 13:12).

I was challenged four weeks ago, as I celebrated God’s saving and miraculous work, to proclaim His goodness even in the hard.  I am beyond overjoyed that our friends are spending this 4th of July with all of their children.  It absolutely thrills my heart that they can walk into his room and hug him.  I love that God has things in store for that remarkable, young man and his parents can be there to celebrate the milestones in life like graduation from college and perhaps marriage and grandkids.  I am praising the Lord with them for his life and God’s goodness to them.  As I look back thirteen years though, I realize that though it may not have felt like it at the time, though I didn't immediately proclaim it, God was just as good as I held my son for the last time and as I stood over his small casket.  His goodness is not defined by my circumstances and that is something that should give me great confidence.  His goodness means something bigger and beyond what I can comprehend.  He is working in a way I can't even imagine.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Ephesians 3:20-21

Is God good all the time?  Yes.  Yes, He is if I define it correctly and don't tie it to my desires and my limited knowledge. Then I can stare into the valley of the shadow of death in all its darkness and unknowns and know with confidence that His goodness and mercy will forever be following me until one day I am at home with Him forever (Psalm 23). I can proclaim God is good with the same joy and certainty as when He works wonders before me knowing He is still working just as remarkably but beyond my scope of vision.


Four weeks later and lots of thinking about how God answers our prayers I have definitely determined all the time, God is good. 

April 18, 2017

Faith In the Furnace

I paced in the tiny emergency room with a team of people working steadily and soberly on my 4 month old.  It is not a situation I ever expect to be in.  As I watched the surreal moments unfold, I wrestled deep within.  First, I wrestled with my own choices that evening.  Second, I wrestled with who I believed God to be and what I believed Him able to do.  

YES.  I knew I believed He could heal my baby.

  I believed He could undo what had happened.  I decided I was sure of it!  I believed and prayed with every ounce of faith I could muster amidst the sounds of beeping and voices that surrounded me. 

Later as I sat in a back seat for what seemed an endless drive to where my little man had been airlifted, I had faith that God, the Great Physician, who had brought Lazarus and others back to life, could restore life and health to that tiny body.  However, in those still moments in the darkness I also wrestled and confirmed in my heart that He was God and whatever He chose, He was still trustworthy.  I had read the whole Bible.  I knew that sometimes we believe, sometimes people long ago believed, and God healed, and God raised from the dead, and God protected or provided.  I also knew that sometimes we believe, and people long ago believed, and God answered in other ways - ways that we may never understand but somehow are just as good and right.  He worked then and works now through our faith in crushing circumstances to make people more like His Son in a way we never would be had God listened to our suggestions of how life should work out. 

Faith.

What does that really mean?  When I stepped into that room in the second ER that fateful night, I had such faith that when I saw my man holding our sweet boy with not a wire or tube connected to him, I believed for an instant that God had answered in the way I wanted despite feeling all the way there that He was preparing me to never see that sweet smile or hear that deep laugh again.  My heart leapt!  Then reality crashed down on me like a giant tidal wave crashing against the rocky shore.  He was gone - that was why there were no wires, no tubes.  

In those first moments of reality taking hold in my mind and heart, my faith collided with a wall it had never before faced.  As I wrestled with what this meant and how I would move forward, my strong husband was speaking.  He told of singing "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" as our son went to be with our Father.  

Do we have faith enough to say great is His faithfulness when our whole world falls apart?  Or is it a fair weather faith that only lasts as long as God does what we think He should?  

David lost a son.  John the Baptist was beheaded.  Stephen was stoned.  Peter was crucified.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh, was thrown in prison, was ship wrecked, and was beaten - all multiple times.  And would we dare say that these men lacked faith?  Would we say they did not believe God enough and if they had, they would not have suffered so?  Had I just believed a little more, had a stronger faith, would my boy still be here to wrestle with brothers, play ball games, and celebrate birthdays?  

Faith is not telling God what we want to happen and expecting Him to do it.  Faith is trusting, believing God can do anything and will do what is good. 

Sometimes faith takes you right into the fire.  The furnace is heated up hotter than ever, and faith means stepping into it because no way out is offered.  And as we look at those flames, Satan tempts us to dismay.  Would your god do this?  "And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?" (Daniel 3:15b) 


Faith Knows.  The three men who faced the fire in Daniel Chapter 3 knew in whom they had believed.

  “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."”
(Daniel 3:17-18)

 Our God is able, but even if He doesn't...  Sometimes he takes us into the flames and our prayers aren't answered the way we think is best but it isn't because He isn't able, or isn't good, or because we haven't believed enough.  It is because He knows what is the very best.  Faith means believing in God's power, sovereignty, and goodness when you can't see it for the flames.

Their faith was in the One true God. 

In verse 23 we are told they fell bound into the fiery furnace.  Sometimes we enter the flames bound as well.  We find ourselves in bondage to one thing or another and it holds us captive.  In the midst of those flames though, God will often set us free.  In verse 25 it says the king saw that the men were walking around unbound and that there was a fourth man with them like a son of the gods. The Bible doesn't tell us if the three men in the furnace could see that fourth man, but I like to think they could. Regardless, God made His presence known.  Very often, it is in the flames, when the furnace is heated to its hottest, that we see God the most clearly.  In those times, our faith grows, and the shackles that bind us fall away. 

For me, what bound me was fear, and it would take years but the furnace of loss is what God used to begin to set me free. 

They had faith in God's ability to keep them from the fire.  They had faith that God could save them if they had to enter the fire.  And they had faith that even if they were not saved at all, God was still God and He was good and worthy of their praise.

  That. Is. Faith. 

The king brought them out and one of the most powerful statements in the story is made about those men after they came out.  Their hair was not singed, their cloaks not burned, and they didn't even smell like smoke. 

They didn't even smell like smoke.

Faith knows God can take you right into the middle of a furnace and bring you out again without even a foul smell about you.  You will still be, and I believe even more so, "...the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
(2 Corinthians 2:15)

No one wants to go into the furnace.  No one wants to face the flames.  I can guarantee these three men in Daniel chapter three didn't want to be thrown into that furnace.  Their faith wasn't one though that said either He saves us or He isn't God.  They had true faith that said He IS able, but even if He doesn't they were going to trust and worship the One true God. They knew the truth of Romans 8 long before it was written: 

“No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
Romans 8:37-39

They knew He was God and He loved them and no furnace could change that. No extreme heat could melt away the truth they stood firmly upon. 

Perhaps God has some flames He has asked you to walk in.  He is still God.  Maybe He is going to set you free through those flames, or maybe the heat will help you to see more clearly who He is and how He is working, or maybe He is going to use it to make you a sweeter fragrance to this lost and hurting world.  True faith doesn't mean we avoid the pain of the furnace if we just have enough of that faith.  True faith means that whether God chooses to rescue us before we ever enter; or allows us to go in and rescues us out of it; or allows the furnace to end our life; we still believe He is a good, faithful God because His Word tells us He is and He has shown it to be so all throughout history. 

He hasn't promised me an easy life if I trust Him.  He's promised me He will be with me whether fire, or flood, or both (Isaiah 43:2).  Standing in the ER nearly thirteen years ago, all I could see were the flames all around me but I know, He was walking around in them with me.  Thirteen years later, I know there is not even a scent of smoke.  

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Jeremiah 29:11

Not perfection and not ease, a future and a hope.  Sometimes those things come best through faith in the midst of the flames.

December 24, 2016

Have a Mary Christmas (because sometimes Merry isn't possible)

Have yourself a merry little Christmas...except when you can't.  

What happens when you are celebrating Christmas as a family of three instead of a family of four?  I remember wrestling every single day through the month of December.  Everywhere, everything was about merriness, joy, family togetherness, and fun and none of that was a possibility for me or my family. Everything felt so incomplete and it was all a reminder of how much I wanted life to be different than it was.  I wanted two little boys to take pictures of, to help open gifts, to play with and read to, and put their names on Christmas cards.  However, where there had been two, there was now one.

Merry?  No.  Christmas was not merry.

What happens when you can’t find any merry?

What happens when your child is suddenly gone right before Christmas?  What if it was your fault in some way?  Where do you find any merry for Christmas?

What happens when your family is such a mess that you are ready to just quit and all you have left is tears?  You’ve tried all you know to bring them together and now what?  How are you supposed to have a merry Christmas?

What happens when cancer strikes?  Maybe your child, parent, sibling, or friend is sick, or maybe he is already gone.  Now what about the merry in Christmas?

What if medical mysteries have you stuck in a hospital over Christmas and your family can’t be together?  You never got the shopping done or even remembered it was December most of this month because of the stress!  What now?  Do you dig deep and just be merry because ‘tis the season?

What if the unthinkable happens and someone you loves takes her own life?  You may wonder how you can ever find merry again?

What if your house is empty again this year?  Still no children to help make cookies and decorate.  Is there even a reason for merry? 

Or what do you do when three days before Christmas, you watch your husband unexpectedly pass away, and you are left with several children?  Merry?  I don’t think so.

Those are just tiny pieces of what I have heard or read from others over the last month.  Just one month - so much heartache.  And what about others? What about when you find yourself alone for yet another Christmas and you don't want to be?  Or another anniversary of a death?  Or still no job?  Or the marriage is on the rocks and can you really keep going like this day in and day out?  Or when you find yourself flat on your face in failure?  Or maybe darkness has enveloped like a blanket and you don't even know why and no matter how you've tried you can't shake it off, All the while as we face these circumstances ourselves or know those who do, we hear crooning over the radio, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas..."

What happens when "merry" can't be found?  What then?

What happens when everywhere you look is a painful reminder of what isn't?  When merry and bright aren't even a thought? 

Then you are perfectly ready for a Mary Christmas.  A merry Christmas isn't always possible, but a Mary Christmas can be. 

The world Jesus was born into was not a perfect place.  It was filled with hardship and darkness just like today.  Mary was not some super human.  She had struggles and fears just like you and I and though being the mother of Jesus was an incredible honor, it was also fraught with hardship. 

In Luke 2:26-38 we are told about Mary’s frightening encounter with an angel when she is told she will be the mother of the Son of God.  She, this young woman who was not married and had not been with a man!  People were the same then as they are today.  Being an unmarried, pregnant woman was going to get talked about and it was something that would definitely be frowned upon.  She would be very much alone.  The Bible tells us in those verses she is troubled at first, and she is confused by what she is told, but her response to the angel and thus to God is remarkable. 

“I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary.  “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Mary goes on in the next verses to praise and glorify God.  So she looks at this hard road God is asking her to walk; she responds in faithful, humble obedience; and then praises God. This is how Mary starts her praise:

"My soul proclaims the greatness of  the Lord, and my Spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave." (Luke 1:46-48a)

There are several things we can learn about Mary and about difficult circumstances by looking at her praise.  First, she focuses on God's greatness.  Second, she knows to rejoice in God not in circumstances.  Circumstances change and can be full of hardship but God is unchanging.  Third, she sees that He is her Savior no matter what her circumstances.  Finally, I love that she takes note of how God really sees her and the condition of her life.  He is great.  We can rejoice in Him even when all else falls apart.  He is our Savior.  He sees exactly the condition of our lives and has not forgotten us.

She carried that baby to term and you know the story.  She had to travel to Bethlehem. She and Joseph found themselves alone (which was unusual for their culture), with nowhere to go, and they ended up in a stable.  She had to give birth in less than ideal circumstances, had no help, and nothing better to offer her baby than a manager.  We don’t know exactly how Mary responded, but the Bible tells us that after the shepherds had come to visit them Mary treasured all these things in her heart and meditated on them.  All through her life she seems to have this faithful, trusting response to what God asks her to go through.  It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.  It doesn’t mean there were never tears or there was never fear, but she chooses faith.

We don’t know exactly when, but at some point in those first two years, after the magi come, Mary and Joseph have to flee with their tiny boy because Herod is out to murder all the baby boys two years old and younger.  Do you think times seemed dark?  I have often thought about what that must have been like for Mary’s mama heart to know the blood shed that took place all because of her son, the Son of God.  So many mamas had to lose their little boys.  Such darkness must have seemed to prevail.  What faith it must have taken to believe that darkness was not going to win out.  Do you think this all sounds like a Merry Christmas? 

The focus then was not “merry” but let’s not miss Mary. We don’t know exactly how she responded in each situation, but in the little windows we get into Mary throughout her life, in all the hardships she continually responds in faith and obedience.

You don't have to pretend everything is okay this Christmas.  You don't have to hold back those tears.  Sometimes the world is dark.  The world was dark when Jesus came into it too.  The world was dark for Mary as well.  God can handle your tears, your grief, and your heartache.  You don't have to be merry.

The same God who was sovereign then is sovereign now.  God was bringing hope in the midst of incredible darkness as babies were being murdered at every corner.  No one could fully understand in the midst of all that loss of life that God was making a way for death to be conquered permanently (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)!  God was bringing hope to all mankind through His Son who would one day take on the sin of the world (1 Peter 2:24), die, and then rise again.  That same God is working out a grand story of hope beyond our comprehension now in the midst of the darkness we are living in with His living Son, Jesus Christ.  We can’t see how all the pieces fit and can't see exactly what God is doing, but we can choose to ponder it all in our hearts, trust Him, and walk in obedience - like Mary. 

In Ecclesiastes 3 it says there are seasons for everything. 

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)

Sometimes life isn’t so dark for you and it isn’t your season to mourn.  Maybe it is a season to dance.  If that is so, then dance with your whole heart.  But if you know someone who is mourning, maybe pause the dance to sit a while with them. No guilt needed for the dance, but understanding needed for the one lacking merry.  You see as we mature we begin to realize that although there is a season for everything, the seasons overlap each other for different people and we need to be aware of what season another person may be in.   


Mary wasn't perfect.  She didn't have life all figured out.  She just faced the uncertainty of her days and the darkness with a trust in the one, true, great God.  We can do the same whatever we face when we wake up tomorrow.  So this Christmas, if the world feels dark and merry feels beyond your grasp, remember Christmas is all about bringing hope to you.  There is a great God you can trust with your future (Jeremiah 29:11).  Have a Mary Christmas.   

September 24, 2016

Be a Jonathan

I never remember it is coming, and yet, every year, faithfully for the last 12 years, there it is in my mailbox around the same day as the year before. It is always wrapped in the same brown paper, and I see the familiar handwriting scrawled across the top.  The paper and the handwriting have become as much a symbol of friendship, care, and hope as what they hold inside.  A gift.  A reminder that I have a friend who cares and does not forget, which is also a reminder of God's faithfulness. Such grace I don't deserve. 

I always feel a little choked up in the opening, not so much because of what the gift holds, but because it was sent.  It was sent and is sent every year helping me to hold onto hope on one of the hardest days of the year for me. She lives hours away and yet with a little brown paper, a little card with note written, and familiar handwriting, I feel cared for, remembered, and loved.

I've often been asked, "What do I do?  What do I say?  I don't know how to help and come alongside the hurting friend or family member.  I don't know how to help the person who has lost someone or is hurting."

She called.  Every. Single. Day. I don't have any idea how long it went on.  She didn't call because she had all the answers.  She didn't call because she thought she could fix it.  She didn't call because she had walked the same road.  She just called, and I knew she remembered me in my darkest days.  She called and I knew someone cared that the world was moving forward when I could not.  The calls weren't long.  Sometimes we chatted about the mundane.  Sometimes I shared my heart.  Sometimes I didn't.  Sometimes she offered to run an errand or take my little man and I would do a grand task that took lots of energy like vacuum the floor - because sometimes that is all a person can muster after great loss. The calls reminded me, God sees and He cares.

When people ask, "What do I do?"  My answer is usually simple - just show up.  It doesn't have to mean being physically present.  When that is possible, that is good too. Remind them God cares by showing care.

Many days another friend just stopped by.  Even in the midst of my deep grief, I knew how hard and painful that stopping by was.  I knew she battled her own feelings of survivor’s guilt.  I knew she had the inner struggle of not knowing what to do or say.  Yet, there she would be at my door again ready to just be present, or to listen, or to pitch in, in some way, in my life.  Sometimes she bore simple gifts to help, and sometimes she came empty handed but carrying something greater than money could buy - compassion and love.  We weren't the closest of friends at the time so it isn't even like there was familiarity to help ease the difficulty of the visits.  We were still in the baby stages of friendship, but she made herself available even when available was hard and that cemented a long lasting friendship. The visits were the visible evidence that God was present.

It isn't grand words of wisdom and solid answers that ease pain.  It isn't always what you can carry in your hands either.  Struggle, heartbreak, and hurt are helped by others being "present" in some way.  Be available to people. Show them God is near by being near.

In more recent trials, another friend was always available to listen again to the pouring out of my heart.  She was quick to pray; quick to point to where real answers are found - the Word of God; and quick to send an encouraging word, verse, or song.  She couldn't be physically present but she "showed up" over and over showing herself available.  She showed she remembered, she cared, and more importantly, pointed me continually back to the One who cares most and knew all about it.

Showing up isn't easy, but it isn't as hard as we make it either.  It is simply "seeing others."  See them where they are at and then being willing to "be there."  It is a slowing down enough so people aren't a blur we are passing but are hearts with real hurts and needs.

Last year, when life weighed heavy and one boy ended up in a hospital bed, more people made themselves present in our lives.  One of these was a brother-in-law.  The days were long and weighty filled with unanswered questions.  No one could just fix it.  Nearly daily, there he would stand in the doorway, smoothie in hand, smile on his face.  It probably seems a small, simple gesture to most.  To the person in that room all day, me, it meant the world.  Someone remembered.  Someone cared and took a few moments to slow down and see.  He showed up.  He didn't come with answers.  We didn't have deep discussions.  He was just there.  He came, he brought a simple token that met a need, and he prayed. I was reminded that God provides.


“David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God.”
1 Samuel 23:15-16

One man struggling and in the wilderness and the other goes to where he is and "strengthened his hand in God." What a beautiful picture of friendship and of what we can do as spouses, parents, members of the Body of Christ, and friends.  We can go to where people are.  We can meet them in their wilderness.  With technology today, that is possible from anywhere in the world.  You can strengthen another person in the Lord from anywhere.

Have you looked around lately?  Do you see hearts?  What kind of wilderness are the people around you in?  How can you show up and strengthen their hand in God? 

You and I don’t need all the answers.  We don’t need eloquent words.  We don’t need to deliver grand gifts.  We don’t even have to understand what it is like to walk in the wilderness the other person is walking. We can all be Jonathans.  Jonathan did three things.  He paid attention to where David was and what was going on in his life.  He got up and went to David, meeting him in his time of need.  Then he strengthened David’s hand in God. The strengthening comes from just showing you are aware of their need, you remember them and are praying, and you cared enough to reach out.

God has faithfully provided many Jonathans in my life.  I could write a long time if I told of all of them, and I am eternally grateful.  My prayer is that I can continue to grow in my ability to be a Jonathan to others.

How about you?  Who needs you to be a Jonathan and strengthen them in the Lord?

 Maybe it is a simple gift sent; maybe a phone call, text message, or letter; maybe it is a physical visit; or maybe it is as simple as a smoothie in hand.  Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know, or how inadequate your words seem.  God doesn’t need any of that to use you to encourage another.


He just needs you available and willing – like Jonathan.

July 1, 2016

Peace

I have heard it said, on more than one occasion this month, "I can't wait until June 2016 is over."  Some have even said they cannot wait until 2016 itself is over.  So much tragedy and heartache leads people to make these comments and I understand. I don't feel the same way though.

I have thought a lot about life as I have lived it this month.  I've worked long hours.  I've played with babies and listened to their sweet laughs.  Skies have been brilliant blue, and I've watched the clouds and sunsets in wonder.  I've grieved the loss of people and other losses with no simple answers. The smell of fresh cut grass has been in the air and I've breathed deeply.  I've cried with and for my kids as they struggle to figure out this thing called life.  I've seen baseballs thrown with precision and speed and heard the crack of the bat.  I have rejoiced over wins and comforted in losses.  I have been left with questions unanswered.  Time has been spent bent over letters unsure what words you can really write to the broken.  I've laughed with friends and found joy in surprises.  I read with shock and grief the tragic news in our country and around the world.  A birthday was celebrated and new life for those who have tragically lost in the past.  I've felt great exhaustion.  I've played with, laughed with, listened to, prayed with, and cried with many youth.  I have prayed earnestly when completely unsure how to handle intense situations.  I have prayed rejoicing over God's goodness. Tears, laughter, grief and sorrow, wonder and beauty.  Every month is filled with a myriad of complex emotions and  experiences like these and years are filled with months like these.  When a month is a little more weighty like some can be - like mine has been - it is easy to wish it away because we don't like pain and we don't like hard.

I don't think we should wish it away though.  We shouldn't because all of those experiences, both the glorious and the gut wrenching, are what life is made of and we see and get to know God in the midst of all of them.  Our hearts though, long for peace and rightly so.  Peace has no connection to our circumstances.  No matter how great the loss, how deep the wound, how unsure the mystery of unanswered questions, there can be peace.  That is what I thought about all this month of June.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;  do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

 Our lives will be filled with months like June 2016, but we don't have to have life perfect or answers to all of the questions in order to have peace.  We don't have to understand.  God has never, even for a moment, been out of control or left us alone.  He wants us to do as it says in Philippians - turn off the anxiousness and turn to Him in prayer with what is weighing us down, grieving us, that which we don't understand.  Then the remarkable takes place.  His peace, which we also can't understand, will move in to replace the anxious feelings and will guard our hearts and minds.  That word guard means like a sentinel at the gate of our hearts watching for and fending off worries.

When the worries, the grief, the unanswered questions threatened to choke me in June 2016, I claimed this truth and rested in that peace.  It's July.  July starts for me with the battle to be busy and not walk down a road of memories I wish I didn't have.  The temptation to be anxious already exists.  I have no idea what the rest of the month holds or the rest of 2016, but I am sure it will be filled with the good and the bad all from the hand of God.  I am also SURE I can have peace no matter what takes place.  God says in His Word He is faithful, He can carry our burdens, He is in control, and He can guard my heart with peace if I trust Him to be who He says He is. So whatever the coming days of July, the rest of the summer, and the rest of 2016 bring, I am going to keep bringing it all to the feet of Jesus, and accepting the peace He offers and that my heart always longs for.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
John 14:27