Where Life and Faith Meet

The Branch Logo (4000 x 4000)I’m within weeks of launching out into one of the biggest adventures of my life. After being in full-time vocational ministry for the last fourteen and a half years, my wife and I are being sent out of our church to start another church in the next town.

I’ve been on a journey of growing and learning since I started in ministry all those years ago. I came into ministry through the back door, never having been to seminary when I started. Along the way, I got my seminary degree and learned through the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve been fortunate to have had some patient and gracious people along the way who put up with this Enneagram 8’s challenging ways.

I grew up in the church in the home of a pastor. I was at the church every time the doors were open and it really caused me to try to understand just what I was doing there.

My crisis of faith came in my sophomore year of college. I wanted to compartmentalize my life, keeping things separate in their nice and neat containers. But anyone who’s tried that knows that it rarely works and rarely lasts long.

I came out of that time like something from a crucible, a little more refined than I had been before. I had moved from living a secondhand faith to beginning the journey that moved me towards embracing a faith of my own.

In retrospect, that was probably the beginning of the journey that is finally coming to culmination in the weeks ahead. Twenty some odd years of trying to understand just how to live in that place where life and faith meet. How do I embrace my faith and live in the tension that culture and this world can sometimes (often?) provide?

I’ve not always been the easiest person to lead. There has been a restlessness in me since my engineering days (the career I left to come into full-time ministry). But part of the reason was because I’ve always felt this tension, this in between place in which I live as I embrace faith and yet walk and live in a world that can be so hostile towards those who do.

Compartmentalization isn’t really the way faith is supposed to work. Over and over, as I read through the Bible, I don’t see things that would indicate that faith should be relegated to one day a week. If we want to take seriously the words that Jesus said, we can’t put our Bibles on the shelf and dust them off on Sunday mornings or, worse yet, Christmas and Easter. Life and faith meet in the everyday moments that we live.

This is at the heart of this journey that I am on. The community that God has called me to be a part of is one where life and faith meet. It isn’t a place where we put that faith on the shelf for the times when we need it, because if we are honest, we need it every moment of every day.

This past week, I’ve had a firsthand experience of that. This week is a continuation of it. I will be a part of two funerals this week. One of those funerals is for someone who lived a good, long life. The other funeral is for someone who struggled and whose life was cut short by tragedy. But life and faith met in both of these lives.

As I met with families, sat in hospital waiting rooms, drove in my car, I wrestled in prayer, kind of like Jacob did with that angel in the Bible. To say that I’m walking with a limp afterwards would be appropriate. When we wrestle with God, it should change us. But we don’t always come out with satisfactory answers, and I really don’t think we are always supposed to, although we sure would like to have those answers.

In the midst of the collision of life and faith, pat answers don’t cut it. Explaining to a son why his father’s life was snuffed out can’t be done, at least not in my book. The Bible is a guidebook, a story of God’s redeeming love and just how that love intersects. In many ways, it’s a picture of the place where life and faith meet.

This will be an adventure, but more than that, it’s a calling. It’s a calling that’s probably been there for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a calling that I needed to prepare for, and it’s not just the past five or ten or fifteen years that have been preparing me. It’s a calling that I’ve been being prepared for my whole life. God has been shaping and forming me to embark on this journey.

I’ve rarely met people who feel that they are completely ready and prepared for what is ahead of them. I find myself in the same boat, and that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be. If I felt like I could do this all in my own strength, where would faith be, where would my reliance lie? I wouldn’t be relying on God and I probably wouldn’t be dreaming big enough since I’ve always said that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them.

Here is what I do know. I know that the place where life and faith meet is a place that many people seem to be searching for. I know that this place is a place that needs to be defined by values.

So, here are some of the values that I’m discovering in this place.

When life and faith meet, there is unity not uniformity.

When life and faith meet, not every question has an answer.

When life and faith meet, relationships take priority over preferences.

When life and faith meet, Jesus meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.

When life and faith meet, we are brought to places of discomfort for the comfort of others.

When life and faith meet, ministry and service are not reserved for the “paid professionals.”

When life and faith meet, it can get messy, so we need grace.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I’m discovering along the way.

 

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The Legion of Decency

People who know me well know that I’m a bit of a cinephile, a film buff. Although I’m not completely sure where my love of film came from, I know that I’ve passed it on to my kids, for better or worse. I may or may not have been a little more liberal in my permission of what my kids have seen than my own parents were for me.

The other evening, my boys and I were watching Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Unprompted, my oldest announces to me, “These filmmakers are better Christian filmmakers than Christian filmmakers are. People playing God and paying the price.”

It was a moment of pride for me. He’s obviously picked up on my disdain for sanitized storytelling in the form of the Christian market. I’m convinced that Christians have a tendency to whitewash things and offer storybook versions of reality rather than embracing the difficulties and challenges of life. I’m all into fantastic storytelling, but when those fantasies are depicted as reality, I struggle.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had some challenges in my life. Maybe it’s because I like to call the elephants out in the room. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of false prophets portraying the Christian life as easy and full of rainbows and unicorns. Whatever it is, I’m tired of that sanitized storytelling.

When I was a teenager, I was a big Stephen King fan. My fandom has been tempered in my adulthood, mostly because I haven’t had the bandwidth to read very many 500+ page books. His book “On Writing” made an impression on me in my own writing and how I look at art. He comes to a place in that book where he speaks of the Legion of Decency and how some writers, for the sake of said league, sanitize their dialogue at the sacrifice of realism. In fact, he writes, “The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of Decency or the Christian Ladies’ Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest….”

When I read those words, something clicked within me and I realized why I had struggled with so much of what had been labeled “Christian fiction” or “Christian film.” While I struggled with the storytelling a little, I struggled more with the lack of three dimensional characters. As King says, when your character hits his thumb with a hammer, he probably doesn’t shout, “Oh, sugar!” There may be certain characters that do, but if we’re honest, that’s not really being honest.

I’m not advocating for letting kids watch movies with objectionable material just because those films let their characters be true. Parents can choose what’s appropriate for their kids to watch. As my mom always used to say, I don’t have to subject myself to that kind of language.

I agree, Mom, but I also don’t have to pretend that language doesn’t exist. Sometimes people swear. Sometimes those people happen to be Christian, too.

I recently read a book, a tribute to Madeleine L’Engle. It was such a fascinating read to me because people just didn’t know what to do with her. To Christians, she was too secular. To secularists, she was too Christian. She wasn’t a fan of the line between sacred and secular and so she chose to not adhere to that line. She blurred that line, not in an irreverent way, but in a real and honest sort of way. Her faith came through in her books, but she didn’t sacrifice her characters or her storytelling simply because of her faith.

I guess that’s kind of the heart of what frustrates me. Can’t we just have storytellers who happen to be Christians? Can’t we have musicians who happen to love Jesus? Why do we have to throw the Christian label on everything so that it can be approved by the Legion of Decency?

Frankly, the Legion of Decency has never done me any favors. It didn’t change the fact that my mom got cancer that killed her and my dad died of a broken heart, both literally and figuratively. It didn’t change the fact that my heart was impacted by a virus I had when I was in high school. It didn’t change the fact that one of my best friends lost his little boy at six months to cancer or that a relative delivered their first child stillborn. So, whether the Legion of Decency likes it or not, I honestly say that those things all suck.

That’s why I hold on to hope in something other than what I see around me. But just because I have that hope doesn’t mean that I have to sanitize everything else. The less sanitized that we admit things are, the more awesome that hope comes across. And I really think that hope is awesome, something far beyond anything I could conjure up on my own, and if we’re really honest, the story of how we gain that hope might fly in the face of the Legion of Decency.

 

12 Faithful Men – A Book Review

12 Faithful MenIf you are in full-time vocational ministry, chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way, someone has given you the speech about your calling and the difficulties of ministry. When individuals have come to me with the prospect of going into full-time vocational ministry, I have counseled them that if there is anything else that they can do and find fulfillment, they should do that. Ministry is not for the faint of heart.

In “12 Faithful Men,” Colin Hansen and Jeff Robinson have compiled the stories of twelve faithful men who have endured many difficulties in ministry. From the Apostle Paul to Charles Spurgeon, from John Calvin to John Bunyan, and eight others, the editors compile these stories chronologically and share snapshots of their lives to see all of the things that they have experienced in their lives.

The stories range from the Apostle Paul and his imprisonment and shipwrecking. They cover the subject of John Bunyan’s writing that blossomed while he too was imprisoned. They describe the losses of a child and a spouse that Andrew Fuller experienced. They chronicle the congregation that was vehemently opposed to Charles Simeon and who wanted him to be replaced with someone else.

Reading through these accounts, it brings some perspective to those of us who may get upset when a member of our congregation criticizes our sermon or when an elder looks at us cross-eyed. The pain and suffering that the authors of these stories describe are true difficulties. It would be hard for any of the subjects of these stories to be questioned if they claimed trial and affliction.

But the authors make it clear that suffering and affliction has been a pattern that has built the church. In fact, Robinson writes that, “one certain indicator that God has called a man is that he stands firm and perseveres in ministry after he has been thoroughly buffeted by a hurricane of affliction.” These difficulties that are persevered in ministry shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a detractor or even a sign that someone isn’t where they are supposed to be but instead that they are in exactly the right place.

Ministry is hard and the authors of these stories paint that as a clear picture for the reader. But it’s hard to get the full picture in the brief chapters that touch on these twelve individuals. So, this book may be seen as an appetizer or buffet of the lives of these twelve men. These stories can whet the appetite of the reader and then he or she can choose to dig deeper into the lives of these men if they so choose.

While there were familiar names in here such as Paul, John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon, there were also unfamiliar names, at least to me. Names such as John Chavis, Charles Simeon, Janani Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao. These chapters were a great introduction to these men, their lives, and the difficulties that they endured.

I thought it was well worthwhile to read, especially for those in full-time ministry. Even for those who are simply church members, this book can be a sobering picture to the average person of some of the difficulties that may be endured by those embarking on the journey of full-time ministry. If you want to get a taste for twelve men who experienced difficulty, tragedy, and hardship, this book is a great wade into that. If you read it, you just might find that you want to read deeper into the lives of these men and others who have followed the call of God even through trial and trouble.

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

What Are You Hiding?

In the wake of the suicides of two prominent public and successful figures, many are reeling and wondering just what happened. How did two people who had experienced such success find themselves in such darkness and despair that they felt the need to take their lives? How did it come to this? And the question that haunts me more than any other is, “Did anyone really know how bad it was?”

We live in an age of information. We get up to the minute news details from around the world. At our fingertips lies more information than generations before us could gather in a lifetime. We call ourselves “connected” but deep down inside, there are so many who are alone, afraid, and in desperate despair.

I’ve been through my own struggles lately, none which have led me to the sickness unto death. Struggles are one thing, but where do we go with them?

My thoughts on my own recent struggles and experiences are raw, but one thing that has emerged larger than life to me is that we are rarely honest people. We love to cover things up. We will divert and project and use all kinds of tactics to ensure that no one has a clue what’s really going on inside of us.

Even the answers that we give of our despair are untrue. We tell ourselves lies, and we tell those lies to others. Why? Why are we trying to hide? What are we trying to hide? What keeps us from confronting the truth of the situations in which we find ourselves?

I am a student of people. I watch, I learn, I gather information. Over the years, I have been both frustrated and intrigued to find that the answers that people give and reasons for their actions are rarely true. I’ve rarely received an answer when asking for a reason or rationale that I haven’t felt the need to mine, dig deeper, and discover the real reason behind the reason.

In an age when we are all supposed to feel closer than ever, we couldn’t be more further apart.

I have been blessed by many things in the midst of this world, but three stand out to me.

First, I have a family who I love and who loves me. My family has gone through transitions in the past few years, losing my parents, losing other loved ones, but we adjust. I am grateful for what I have in the form of loves ones.

Second, I have a select group of friends with whom I feel I can be more honest and open. Some are near, some are far, but the benefit of having those who I feel no need to hide from, whom I don’t need to don a social media presence before, that benefit is invaluable.

Third, my faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, critics of Christianity have criticized it as a crutch. Many horrid things have been done in the name of Jesus, but putting the blame for those things on Jesus hardly seems fair. Call it a crutch if you will, I know the depths of despair from which I have been rescued because of the hope and faith that I have. While that certainly can’t be distilled down into any empty statements suggesting that Jesus is all you need to avoid despair, depression, and suicide, I know that the smallest glimpse of hope has saved me and helped me to seek help in trying times.

I want to be part of a community that knows how to be honest with one another, even when it’s awkward, even when it hurts, even when it’s uncomfortable. I have seen the alternative and it’s been less than appealing to me.

And when we can’t be honest with each other, when we feel the need to hide, can we dig and probe and ask questions to get to the bottom of the despair that’s plaguing our hearts? Can we not settle for, “I’m fine” when we know that it’s less than an honest answer?

Two passages from the Bible come to mind. The first from Proverbs 20:5, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” It takes time and trust to get to the deep waters of a person’s heart, are we willing to spend that time? One who has insight and wisdom will take the time and will do their best to draw it out.

I am also reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul from one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible, Romans 12:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

As much despair as there is in the world, there is always hope, we can always find it if we look in the right place. I hope and pray that wherever you are, wherever I am, that we might be honest enough with those around us that we can face our despair and find hope in the midst. And if we can’t be honest, for whatever reason, I pray that there are those around us who will take the time and do the hard work of loving us and drawing out the purposes of our hearts so that we can move towards hope and peace.

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.)