How Do I Hold This?

On my way to an appointment yesterday, I got a text message from my wife with an update on the father of one of my son’s friend’s dad. Any time I hear the words, “It’s not good,” I always feel like a boulder gets firmly planted in my gut. My shoulders sag, my heart aches, and I do my best to keep the waterworks from starting. Tears seem inevitable, yet I still try to contain them.

There’s so much hurt, pain, and brokenness. I get so frustrated with those false prophets who say that God never gives you more than you can handle. That’s a load of garbage. I can’t find one place in the Bible where it even remotely says that. In fact, I think it says the opposite, that in this world you will find trouble and that if you choose to follow after Jesus, pain will be part of the journey.

As I sit here feeling the weight of all the stuff swirling around me, I keep asking myself, “How do I hold this?” How do I hold onto hope while standing in the face of turmoil?

I’ve always struggled with those who consider themselves Christians and who talk about an absolute assurance with no doubt. My speculation and cynicism makes me think that they’ve never really experienced anything significantly difficult in their lives to be able to hold to that. I’m not saying that I doubt God, but I certainly wonder about his ways at times.

When you’ve seen a godly man like my father who served God for years as a pastor come to a place of brokenness and defeat in his final years and months, it’s hard to have such bulletproof assurance. Again, hear what I am saying, I still believe, but like the man in Mark 9, I continue to ask God to help my unbelief.

I honestly don’t know how people do it without hope and without faith. I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” It’s a heartbreaking read of a father’s letter to his son. But that father has no hope and without hope, it’s hard to just know what to do about the future. What are we sailing towards if we lack hope? How do we step with one foot in front of the other without hope?

In the words of the old hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The problem is, sometimes I wish that my hope could be founded in something that I could see and even touch. Sometimes I wish that I could get a little glimpse of that hope for myself rather than having to hold onto God’s promises. It’s not that I don’t think that they’re true, it’s just that sometimes you want something a little bit more tangible.

After hearing of some more difficult news this morning, I almost told my friends that I think it’s time for a prayer meeting. What else is there to do?

While it might seem that I am in despair, I’m not. There’s a difference between discouragement and despair. Despair happens when we lose hope, and I haven’t lost it.

I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Habakkuk in the Bible. Despite the difficulty of the circumstances surrounding him, he still maintained his hope in the Lord when he wrote the following:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

My circumstances and the circumstances of the people around me don’t need to dictate my response to them. If those things bring me to my knees, then they draw me closer to the One who holds all these things in his hand…..so that I don’t have to.

Finding God in the Hard Times

finding god in the hard timesIf you’ve spent any time around churches that sing contemporary songs over the past several years, chances are that you’ve heard Matt and Beth Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name.” With a focus on God’s presence and provision in both the good times and the bad times, the song takes its refrain from the book of Job, the biblical account of a man who lost everything and still held on to his faith and trust in God.

 

Having both experienced difficult times in their lives, Matt and Beth Redman have written this book (previously released as “Blessed Be Your Name”). Detailing the difficulty of the circumstances that easily crowd out our thankfulness, the Redmans write, “At times, painful life circumstances seem to obstruct our view of Him and His goodness. But we have seen the form of the Lord many times before – in life and in Scripture – and know Him to be as good and as kind as He ever was.” Redman says that worship is a choice, and it’s a choice that we need to make, regardless of whether the sun is shining or if the clouds are endlessly gray.

 

The Redmans don’t shy away from engaging the subject of dealing with difficulties in life. They share of their own experiences that caused heartache in their own lives, but they also remind the reader that worship is a choice that we make always, in good times and in bad. While difficult times will come, we also need to celebrate and be thankful during the good times. Our trust in God cannot be circumstantial and based on whatever circumstance we find ourselves. We need to remember his promises and hold on to what we have seen him do in the past.

 

The reader is reminded that things won’t always turn out the way that we would like. Sometimes, our prayers for healing won’t be answered. They write, “In His infinite wisdom and kindness, God may well purpose to bring us healing. But perhaps we will have to wait awhile to see our situation changed. Or perhaps we will never be healed this side of heaven. And if we are not, God hasn’t become any less wise of merciful.” These words are reminiscent of the words of the Hebrew boys before they were cast into the fiery furnace. While they trusted God to save them, they were still willing to believe even if he did not save them.

 

The book offers a helpful reminder of the hope that we need to have in Christ as well. While others may grieve as if death is the end, Christians grieve differently. Loss is marked with hope. They write, “Outside of Christ, many a memorial service or funeral is a groping in the dark – a heavy cloud of grief with no clarity as to what lies beyond it.” The hope of the resurrection should comfort those who are in Christ. Not that it eliminates the loss and pain that is felt, but through the grieving and restoration, we need to remember that this is not the end.

 

Still, we also need to remember that God is God and we are not. There will be times when we will face difficulties without understanding, when the answers are nowhere to be found. The Redmans write, “Yes, there are some things we will never understand while we walk upon this earth. There comes a time when we simply have to submit to the mystery.” As we are reminded by the prophet Isaiah, God’s ways are not our ways, his ways are higher and we may never understand them on this side of eternity. It’s a tension with which we may need to wrestle at some point, a tension that feels uncomfortable, yet which is important for us to understand.

 

The book is composed of just five chapters. It’s not a long book or a difficult read. It seems designed to allow for the reader to quickly move through it, something which is important during the difficult times that we may face. The chapters follow some of the lines of the Redman’s song. Each chapter includes questions for reflection at the end. There is also a discussion guide for small groups included at the end of the book. These are helpful for anyone who wants to use this book as a springboard into a deeper study.

 

Having gone through some difficult times of my own and having experienced some significant losses in my life, I very much appreciate the Redmans’ book. They don’t candycoat the subject or try to over-spiritualize difficulties. They are honest and yet pointed in dealing with the subject of hard times in life. This book is a good resource and source of encouragement, a book that could easily be shared with a friend or loved on going through difficulties without feeling as if you are burdening them with a big book full of heady theology. There’s enough here to bring comfort but not so much that a grieving or struggling person will feel weighed down at the thought of reading it.

 

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Healing in the Sharing

Over the past few years, I’ve preached an awful lot of sermons. Although I initially went into full-time ministry as a music pastor, my role has changed as I’ve found my voice, my gifting, and my calling. Teaching and communication are among my strengths and I’ve been trying to live into them more each day.

I could probably write a blog series about the process of sermon preparation. For me, it’s never been quite as simple as opening up my Bible and a commentary and hitting the computer. Like any other creative process, if I want it to be worth anything, I need to give it room to live and breathe, to take shape. Part of the beauty of sermon preparation is that in dealing with God’s word, you aren’t dealing with something stagnant and empty, but vibrant and full of life. I do my best to lean into the Holy Spirit as I prepare.

I’ve known that I was going to be preaching on Palm Sunday for a while. I even knew the text and the subject matter. I had been reading through Mark 14 when Jesus goes to the garden with his disciples for the weeks leading up to Palm Sunday. I would jump into the passage for a while and let myself marinate in it, letting it sink deep into me, shaping and forming me as I read it.

At the same time, me and sermon introductions have a love/hate relationship with one another. When I was in seminary, I would rarely write paper introductions last. I would usually let the introduction set the trajectory of the paper for me, guiding my writing and guiding the direction of the paper. With sermons, that’s not quite as simple, at least, not for me.

Going into Palm Sunday, I had a lot of things going on. It was one of those weekends that we all have from time to time, the ones where everything is scheduled and where you expect you will barely have time to catch your breath between events and happenings. I did my best to gear up for it, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Sometimes, no matter how much preparation, you still feel ill-prepared, it just happens.

As much prayer and study that I had put into the sermon, it still just felt incomplete to me. The main place that I saw it was in the introduction. Like the opening moments of a film or the first few pages of a book, the opening minutes of a sermon, in my opinion, are the place where you either grab people’s attention or you give them permission to check out for the next 30 minutes. Sermon intros can make or break a sermon and will define how people respond and zone in on everything that will follow.

Maybe I’m making more of them than I should, but that’s what I’ve been taught through others and through my own experience. So, I do my best to make sure that I take the introduction seriously. It’s not just a throwaway element that means nothing, at least, not to me.

As the sermon crept closer and closer, my discomfort with what I had grew larger and larger. I was leaning towards yet another story about my mom, who died of cancer nearly four years ago. I was apprehensive as I had told countless stories about her to my congregation. I was fearful that one more story might lead to people checking out and feeling as if I were a clanging gong or banging cymbal. I knew how important that it would be that if I shared something to make it different, to make it something that people would feel was worthwhile.

Friday night came and went, Saturday came and went, and in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I woke up with a dread that something was incomplete, not right. I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.

As the sermon had been taking shape all week long, I was focusing on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It was honest and real, it was short and to the point, it was an abandonment of self and an embracing of the Father’s will and glory. There was nothing selfish about it, it was Jesus passing one of his final temptations to embrace the plan that the Father had from eternity past. It was Jesus taking the cup that had been given to him and drinking it although he would have liked nothing more than for the Father to have taken it from him.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Jesus’ arrival at that place and my mom’s arrival at the place where she knew that she wouldn’t live more than a few months. In fact, in wrestling through it all, I realized that my mom was probably the first one of us in the family to have realized and embraced the future. Like I said, I wasn’t sure how much to share as I felt as if I had already shared a lot before. This story was personal and the challenge of anyone who ever tells a story that is personal, who shares a poem that is personal, who sings a song that is personal, is that there is always a fear that the same level of personal connection that is felt by you may not be achieved by everyone who hears.

There is a risk there, a potential for failure and rejection. Any musician or artist knows exactly what I am talking about, anyone who has ever poured their heart out making themselves feel emotionally vulnerable and naked knows exactly what I am talking about. That was the place to which I came at 4:30 in the morning on Sunday, just hours before I was to preach the sermon for which I had prepared all week long.

I ran to my computer and opened up some folders to find the file that I knew was there somewhere. I found the exact file that I was looking for and I opened up our PowerPoint file for that morning, inserting the desired documents into the slides. I had found the missing piece. I needed to share these very personal items to fully convey just how my mom had embraced the “cup” that had been set before her.

The first thing that I had found was what I have come to call “Mom’s Gameplan.” As her health continued to fail, I went to the place where she had gone to find comfort over and over again: her Bible. As I thumbed through the pages, I found two pieces of paper. On the one paper, I found the following in my mom’s handwritten:

  1. Do I really believe God works all things for my good, what does he want to teach me?
  2. Psalm 103:19 – God is in control of all things
  3. Isaiah 55 – have to accept the truth. Won’t always understand all things – don’t lose heart!
  4. Don’t make quick judgments when a crisis comes. Focus on God instead of crisis. Get into Word of God. Avoid focusing on the pain. Recall the past crises and opportunities that followed them. Don’t continue to be angry about crisis. Ask forgiveness. Submit yourself to will of God in my life.
  5. Demonstrate gratitude in the crisis.
  6. Determine in your heart that this is an opportunity for God to work in my life (to get me where he wants me to be).
  7. Refuse to listen to unscriptural interpretations about what God is doing in your life.
  8. Remain in constant prayer listening for God’s instructions.
  9. Refuse to give way to your changing emotions (feelings, etc.)
  10. Obey God and leave all the consequences to him.

Between these words and the prayer in the picture below, it seemed to be the missing piece, the piece that would emphasize just how much my mom had pointed me to Jesus and how much she had come to embrace the will of the Father. In these simple words, she modeled to me that she had learned to pray, “not my will but yours be done.”mom bedside table prayer

The sermon came and I was exhausted. My weekend up to that point had been physically and mentally exhausting. And you know what? When I find myself coming to the end of everything that is in me, it’s usually then that I realize just how much I need to rely less on myself and more on God’s strength. I managed to hold myself together, with God’s help, through the preaching of the sermon. My voice cracked here and there, but I didn’t fall to pieces.

The next day, I was heartbroken to find out that the recording of the sermon had been lost due to a technical failure that had occurred right after I was done preaching. My heart sank as I thought back to how much of my heart I had put into the sermon, but God had some more work to do in me.

As I wrestled through the news that the sermon recording had been lost, I realized that part of my continuing healing process and acceptance of God’s will was connected to all of this. I realized that there just might be something therapeutic and healing about having to preach the sermon again and by writing about the process.

So, here it is; one part of the healing, one part of my own growth. I can’t preach things that I am not willing to follow myself and God rarely lets me forget that important fact.

In the midst of it all, I realized again that there are times when you navigate the waters of a struggle in order that you can be a help to other people. I’m grateful that God has used some of my struggles to help others realize that they are not alone in the midst of their struggles. I’m grateful that God has prompted me to tell my story. I’m not sure who said it, but I once read that God doesn’t waste our pain. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

The Fog

fog lighthouseHave you ever experienced “the fog”? It’s not a literal fog, like when it rains or the temperature changes dramatically. It’s the fog of life, it’s what happens when it seems that everything begins to cave in around you. You feel lost, you feel alone, you feel as if the oppressive fog can actually begin to suffocate you if you don’t find some clarity, if you don’t find some space.

I have a few friends who have been going through an awful lot. One of these friends’ wife and son had cancer. They’ve been cleared for now, but there are always little scares that come along the way. Every status update that I read stops my heart for a split second and that’s what happened the other day. Surgery in their family has become a minor thing considering some of the other stuff that they’ve been through and I wonder how they get through the fog they’re in, I wonder how they can sustain just one more thing.

I have another friend whose wife is being treated for breast cancer, the same cancer that took his mom. They have hope and from the pictures that I have seen, it looks as if they try to laugh as often as possible. I imagine that they are in a fog.

Another friend’s daughter went in to the hospital with what they thought was the flu and hasn’t left since. She has an infection that is being stubborn and inconsiderate, it just won’t leave. He and his wife spend hours upon hours at the hospital. They’re moving towards a potential surgery that they hope will bring some resolution and healing. They are in a fog.

One of my best friends from seminary was burned by a grease fire in Haiti. He was moved to Florida and then back to his home in Iowa to get the best treatment. He has been separated from his kids, has had to have surgery, and is finally being released to continue the healing process. He’s in a place that used to be home, but Haiti is where his heart is. His family is in a fog.

It’s too easy to get consumed by the fog, but the amazing thing as I watch all of these situations play out from my own vantage point is the faith, hope, and love that emanates from my friends. Sure, it’s hard to see in the fog, but they somehow manage to fight the fog with the Light and Hope that they find in Christ. It doesn’t mean that the pain goes away. It doesn’t mean that things are normal and perfect. It simply means that they know that they are not alone.

Can you see the Light in the fog? Do you know that you aren’t alone? Do you trust? Do you have faith? Do you have hope? Those things don’t take the pain and uncertainty away, but when you know the One who gives us faith, who gives us hope, who holds our faith, the fog can sometimes begin to clear or at least there might be a light shining through that thick fog.

I’ve been trying to crawl out of my own fog. I am grateful for the inspiration of friends who walk so boldly before me. I am grateful to call them my friends and grateful that they have shown me faith, hope, and love in new ways. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

Selah

Naming the Truth

Last week was a tough week, just like I knew that it would be after reentering the real world after a few weeks of meetings and conferences. As much as I had been bracing myself for the unexpected, can you ever fully do that? I mean, it’s called “unexpected” because you’re not expecting it, so you can only plan for so much. Life came flooding in with such ferociousness that I was about ready to turn around and head back down the road from whence I had come.

In the midst of hearing about various needs in people’s lives, I had a bittersweet meeting with a realtor as we had finally gotten my parents’ townhouse ready to put on the market. Walking into a place that had already begun to feel like a crypt, now completely devoid of furniture or any recognizable remnants of who had once lived there, it almost like I’d been injected with novocain, I just kind of felt numb. I’m hoping and praying for a speedy sale so that I can close another chapter in my life.

Among the stories that I heard from people last week regarding the difficulties that they were facing, I was reminded of my mom’s cancer diagnosis. When we first found out, I was reticent to share too much of what was going on. I am not sure that I ever actually wrote the “C” word down in social media. I’ve not read through old blog posts to see whether or not I really did, but I remember feeling something deep down inside when we first heard the initial diagnosis.

After the shock that struck me like a sucker punch, I remember secretly thinking to myself that if I didn’t ever say the word, maybe it would all turn out to be a bad dream. Maybe if I never said the word it would stay nameless and a nightmare. Somehow or another, in my mind, by not naming it, I was denying the truth and I felt that I could avoid it.

There’s something that happens when you name the truth, when you give it words, it becomes real. When someone you love is diagnosed with something terrible and awful, it’s hard to find the words. It’s hard to name the truth. It’s hard to admit that truth and when you use words to describe it, it somehow becomes real. It’s like speaking and your words go out there and once they’re out there, you just can’t get them back.

There is power in words and when you speak them, not only can you not get them back, but those words begin to describe reality and describing a reality that you aren’t ready or willing to receive is difficult.

So, if you meet someone who has a hard time naming a truth, especially a hard and difficult truth, be gracious to them. Perhaps your graciousness might help them to come to grips with the reality with which they’ve been wrestling. Naming a truth can be difficult but it eventually becomes inevitable, but everyone needs to come to the naming of that truth in their own time.

At Peace in the Storm – A Book Review

Life isn’t always candy canes and roses.  Many of us experience difficulties throughout life in the form of physical problems, family problems, emotional problems, and various other storms that might come our way in the midst of our journey.  In “At Peace in the Storm,” Ken Gire writes of his own struggles and offers some possible remedies to the storms that we inevitably face.

Gire says that, “we should not be surprised that the miracle of inner peace is a journey and a process for us” just as it was for Jesus.  The journey towards peace is something that takes time and effort, it’s a process that we must undertake which can’t be as easily remedied as some of the problems we face in our fast-paced culture.  When we find those places where we can encounter peace that God gives us, we need to erect remembrances, visual or mental, which can help us to remember God’s provision and faithfulness in the midst of our storms.

This peace that Gire speaks of can be found in various places: God’s Word, prayer, a listening ear, friends, music, art, books, movies, the Body of Christ, service to others, God’s creation, and various other means.  Where do we best find it?  It may just depend on who we are as we all won’t experience that peace through the same means.

Our culture moves at a fast pace and Gire speaks of a friend who laments a culture and world where, “we no longer sit on porch swings and anticipate drop-in, informal chats with neighbors and family.”  We don’t take time to rest and find peace and in the midst of our chaos, we experience the very opposite of what we need the most.

Much of what Gire says seems to be birthed out of his own experience.  He shares some of the difficulties that he has had in life and his own need to find peace in the midst of the storm.  Those experiences shaped and formed him to be who he is and have given him insight into helping others find this peace.  The examples and experiences that Gire shares are insightful and winsome, offering solace and comfort for those on the journey.

The book is a quick read.  It is mostly cohesive in its structure, but there are moments when I was lost in a chapter, wondering how it fit into the overarching theme of the book.  In the end, I saw the connection, but it seemed to be more of a stretch.  These moments were few, however, and I found much of what Gire wrote to parallel some of my own experiences of finding peace in the storms that I have encountered.

For those struggling with this elusive peace, Gire doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking or earth shattering here.  His insights are personal and warm and can prove to be salve for the wounded and aching soul in the midst of the journey.  If you are looking for something deeper than solutions and suggestions for finding peace in the storms, you might try C.S. Lewis as he wrestles with the problem of pain, but for those seeking comfort, this might be a good place to start.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers.  These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Why Have You Brought Me Here?

Years ago, I recorded a CD.  I did it in a converted chicken coop with some friends who had their own equipment.  Back then, I was a somewhat avid writer of music.  When I would let my melancholy self out to play, I would generally wax philosophical and find some somber tune to match the melancholic words that would seem to roll effortlessly from my brain.

It’s not  often that I find myself so vain as to quote any of the music that I wrote, but among all of the songs that I did pen, there were a few there that I was proud of, not the least of which was a song called “Why Have You Brought Me Here?”

In the years that have passed since I wrote the song, it seems that its poignancy has grown.  I can return to the lyrics and find new meaning there, seeing how the song was not only relevant for my life at the time but almost prophetic for the life that was to come, completely unbeknownst to me.

Whenever I find myself in a difficult situation, I will ask myself what its purpose is and what I am supposed to learn from it.  It’s cause for introspection and a helpful reminder to me that my pain is rarely or never wasted.  There is always purpose behind it, although that purpose may not be evident then or even in the not too distant future, possibly not ever.

As I have faced some difficult situations over the last few years and even looked at the purpose of some current struggles, I have found myself asking that question over and over again.  Why am I here?  How did I get here?  What is the purpose of the struggles in which I find myself?

Answers don’t always come, but sometimes answers aren’t the most important thing.  Sometimes it’s the wrestling, the questioning, the struggling or coming to grips with the situation.  Even if there are no valid conclusions, if it’s caused me to reflect and do some deeper self-criticism, I don’t think that I can say it’s a bad thing.

I don’t know that I can say that I am grateful when I experience difficulties.  The Bible says to consider it joy when trials and difficulties come, I’m trying to get there, but it’s not an easy task.  I work towards it in hopes that each subsequent struggle will get me a little closer than I was before.

In the meantime, I continue to ask the question and while it may seem vain and self-promoting, I occasionally listen to the song.  It’s helped me to realize that there is a bigger picture to see, a picture that I am a part of that encompasses much more than the “now” experience.  When we find ourselves in difficulties, we can get stuck in the weeds, failing to see the forest for the trees and missing the greater purpose in the midst of it.

Nope, I’m not there completely.  It’s a journey, and it’s not for the weak of heart.  I press forward and know that there is purpose in it.  God doesn’t waste my pain and my growth is a process that will continue until the day that I breathe my last.  Why has he brought me here?  I might never know, but I’ll keep trying to find out, even in the midst of those dark and frustrating situations.

Ministering to Problem People In Your Church – A Book Review

Ministering to Problem PeopleAnyone who has worked in any kind of ministry for any length of time will know that difficulties arise and difficult people will always emerge.  Marshall Shelley has written on this in his book, “Ministering to Problem People In Your Church.”  He comes at the subject with a candor that can only come from experience and investigation into these problem people that he appropriately terms, “well-intentioned dragons.”  Shelley claims that his book is, “about ministering while under attack.”

From the outset, Shelley grabs the reader with his stories (the names have been changed but the scenarios are real).  As I read them, I had to look around to see if I could spot the hidden cameras into my life.  The scenarios were so spot on, paralleling so many of my own personal experiences in ministry or the experiences that I have heard firsthand from people who are close to me.  I could feel my heartbeat speeding up as I found myself relating to so many of the stories, completely understanding the emotions of those who were being described.

Along the way, Shelley offers many practical means by which to handle these well-intentioned dragons.  He humorously categorizes them and lists out ways in which we can engage them and others.  Among his greater points to me was the fact that, “sometimes enlarging the frame of reference helps remind us that one mouth isn’t the whole church, one critic isn’t the end of our ministry, and even one church isn’t the whole body of Christ.”  We need others to grow and we need others to encourage us.  We can’t like everyone and everyone won’t like us, that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact, but we are called to love everyone, and some make that more difficult than others.

If I have any criticism for the book it’s that it felt that the idea of just up and leaving a church was given as an alternative too often.  I fully admit that the landscape of ministry is changing and long-tenured pastors are not as prevalent as they once were, but studies have shown that time served is what is most effective in allowing change to take place.  I have served a church myself where things began to unravel.  The pastor eventually left and his successor undid everything that had been done up to that point.  How effective was that?  It’s possible that Shelley sees that leaving a church should always come as a last resort, but I didn’t feel that he made that as explicitly clear as it might need to be.

Overall, Shelley offers a humorous and practical approach towards handling difficult people.  As long as we deal with people, they will be difficult.  There is no getting away from them.  Shelley ends the book with a story of a little known monk who originally went the way of the desert monks, sequestering himself and separating himself completely from the world.  Eventually, he realized that his growth could not take place without the presence of other people.

Shelley’s bottom line is this: “developing Christian virtues demands other people – ordinary, ornery people.”  We cannot learn in a vacuum and expect that we will actually grow.  We can’t simply read books without incorporating some kind of praxis to apply the knowledge that we have gained.  If we want to move along in our own sanctification process, we need other people, difficult, frustrating, and real.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers.  These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Wrestling With God

Sierra Exif JPEGWhat happens when you engage in a little divine wrestling match?

Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God?  You knew what you wanted, knew what your next move should be, but you just couldn’t get the edge.  Can we ever really get “the edge” on God anyway?  Yet, we often find ourselves trying to gain leverage, as if we could somehow overpower God.

In the book of Genesis, Jacob finds himself wrestling with God (found here).  It seems that he’s been doing a lot of running lately.  Running from his father-in-law and running from his brother, both of whom were angry with him.  Jacob is following God’s instructions and returning to his homeland, but he knows that he will have to face his brother, Esau, soon enough.  He’s not crazy about that idea, who would be?  He cheated his brother out of his inheritance, Esau has great reason to be upset with him.

It seems that Jacob is tested often in his life, and in the midst of it, he is obedient.  But obedience doesn’t mean that we always like that to which we are obedient, and Jacob was no exception.  Jacob sends his whole family across the stream and then goes back to be alone.  It’s there that he meets a man with whom he wrestles.

The passage doesn’t really say much as to why they wrestled.  It doesn’t say that they disagreed or that they were angry with each other, but they wrestled for a long time, until daybreak.  The man told Jacob to let him go, but he refused until the man would bless him.

Now Jacob has already come out of this situation different.  He couldn’t be overpowered, so his hip was touched and he was forever changed, never to walk the same again.  But his name is changed as well, changed to Israel.  And Jacob finally realizes that this man whom he has been wrestling is not just any man, Jacob has seen the face of God and he names the place, “Peniel” because it means “the face of God.”

Jacob is forever changed, and he’s got a limp to prove it.

When we wrestle with God, we will be changed.  It might not be what we would think as for the better though, but in God’s economy, it is.  Remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12, that God’s grace is sufficient in spite of the thorn in his flesh.  There’s no inference that Paul’s thorn was caused by anything that he had done, unlike Jacob’s hip which was caused in a wrestling match with God.

If you follow Jacob’s story from here on, does it seem worth it?  He is used by God and he is a testimony to faith, despite circumstances that seem bleak and uncertain.  God had Jacob’s best in mind, but we can never see as far as we like, and not as far as God has planned.  That’s precisely why we need faith.

There have been times when I’ve felt that I have wrestled with God.  Some of those times have felt as if God doesn’t play fair.  But my perspective is jaded and limited, I can’t see as far as I think that I can.  I’m sure there will be more wrestling matches with God, the question is, how hard will I fight and do I think I’ll end up on top?  Whatever the outcome, I know that I will be changed, different, and I need to trust that God has my best in mind.

Rejection

rejectedA friend of mine posted an article on social media last week that caught my attention.  It didn’t catch my attention for the reason that it was catching others’ attention though.  I was not reading deeper into this article about a baby elephant being rejected by its mother.  I really read it at face value and it struck me because rejection is such a powerful force, and according to the article, extends beyond just humans to other animals as well.

If you stop to think about the harshness of rejection, you might empathize with this baby elephant.  If you extend that to those of us who have experienced rejection on our own, it becomes that much more painful.

To reject someone is to tell them, in a way, that you are better than them, or that they are worse than you.  To reject them is to acknowledge that they are not worthy of being associated with you or being in your presence.  People feel this kind of rejection and it cuts deeply into who they are, they feel that pain and it feels as personal as it is.

To be rejected is to feel abandoned, cast away, left alone.  Even when rejections seem insignificant or inconsequential, it is very hard not to take them personally.  We may be rejected for a job, for a project proposal, from a school, for a role in a play, and each of those rejections is felt deeply and personally by us.  Is it really possible to separate our own personal connection to the rejection that we experience?  Is it possible to not feel it so deeply?

Not only does the one being rejected feel that it reflects personally on them, deep down inside, when we reject someone, aren’t we really saying, “you’re not the right person for me/this/ that/etc.”?  As much as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, making a personal statement against a person by rejecting them, deep down inside, if we really analyze our intentions, is a personal thing.

True, there are times when rejection is appropriate.  I hope that someone will reject a marriage proposal if it’s not the right thing.  It doesn’t lessen the blow of the rejection, but in the long run, it will be healthier for everyone involved.  Sometimes, when we are rejected, there is something that is better waiting around the corner for us, but we often don’t have the privilege of seeing it at the time.

The poor.  The broken.  Those who have been cast aside by society, they have been rejected and they have taken it personally.  How can they not?  This is the reason liberation theology resonates with so many people because it puts Jesus on that level with those who have been cast aside and rejected.  It takes a look at how he relates to those who have been rejected.  Christ was rejected, cast aside, when he was arrested, tried, and crucified.  We see a picture of this in Isaiah 53 and surrounding chapters with the “suffering servant” of whom the prophet speaks.

The writer of Hebrews connected these points when they wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”  Jesus experienced the suffering that we know as human beings, and so much more.  But we can’t see that as the sole reason why he came.  In fact, if he only came so that he could empathize with us, then the cross was not necessary.  Christ came to be our sacrifice and to accomplish what we can never accomplish on our own.  The fact that he experienced suffering and was able to relate to our suffering is an act of God’s grace.

How helpful is this when we pray?  When we lift up our concerns, our frustrations, our thanksgiving, how much more meaningful is it to us to know that the One to whom we pray understands more deeply than we could even imagine?  He experienced rejection…….and he did it on our behalf.  That’s powerful.

I can’t think of many people for whom I would willingly experience rejection.  Rejection stinks no matter how you slice it, because, let’s face it, none of us ever wants to feel rejected or abandoned.  So to take that on for people that you don’t know or, worse yet, people who hate you, that’s a difficult thing.  But that’s just what Christ did for us.

The next time I feel rejected or cast aside, I know it will hurt, it will be painful, but what can God do with that pain?  How can it be transformed into something beautiful?  That’s not to say we adopt a sadistic approach towards rejection, longing for it, wishing and waiting for it to come, but when it comes (and it will inevitably come) will we look beyond the pain to the potential?  What would have happened if Jesus didn’t see past his rejection at the restoration and redemption that would be accomplished through it?