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.)

Moving On But Not Forgetting

It’s hard to believe, but yesterday marked the three year anniversary of my father’s death. I feel as if I say this every time that I pass a milestone, but in some ways it seems like it was yesterday while other ways it feels as if it’s maybe even been longer than three years. Time if funny when it comes to loss and grief.

While the loss and grief are still new, there is such a tension as to what to do and how best to handle it. How do you grieve through the remembrance? How do you recognize the day without giving it too much recognition? What happens when the day passes you by and you don’t really do anything to remember or acknowledge it?

Every time an anniversary, birthday, or other significant date comes, there is always a tension in me as to what to do and how best to handle it. Do I live into it or move past it? What’s the appropriate level of recognition for it?

When it comes, I feel that I at least have to think about it, otherwise, I feel as if I’m not honoring it. Why is that though? It’s not like those we’ve lost can tell whether or not we are recognizing the day. It’s not as if we are hurting their feelings, they don’t know the difference in how we acknowledge, or don’t acknowledge, the day.

How do we honor the day and the memory of those who we’ve lost while not getting bogged down in the emotion of the moment or feeling sorry for ourselves? How do we continue to acknowledge the loss while still realizing how important it is that we are moving forward? How do we move forward without seeming as if we’ve forgotten the person whom we’ve lost?

The first few years after I lost my parents, I felt the need to stop at the exact time that they died. It was as if I needed to take a moment to remember, acknowledge, and think about them. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been missing them all along, it just felt necessary to me, almost as if I was obligated to do something special in that moment. It was almost as if I didn’t stop to honor the moment that I was forgetting them in some way.

The thing about grief is that it hits everyone different. Even talking through this anniversary with my brother, he had a whole lot of other things going through his mind than I did. We’ve both had a very different approach towards the loss, mine was significantly impacted by my children (in a positive way), my church community, my friends, and my wife.

On the other side of the day, life moves on. It’s essential that it moves on, after all, we can’t stop it from happening. I miss my dad. I feel that pangs inside me when I hear others talk about conversations they recently had with their dads and I just want to say to them, “Enjoy every conversation and every word,” but I’m pretty sure that they do.

Time marches on and I can’t forget. It doesn’t really matter how I acknowledge the day, it’s just a day like any other. The remembering, the rituals, whatever they may be, aren’t for anyone else but me.

Today, I might walk a little slower, ponder a little deeper, sigh a little longer. I’m grateful that God’s given me another day and I’m looking forward to the day when I see my dad again.

Love you, Dad. See you again!

The Boy Who Could

bowie aladdinI came into the world of pop music late in life. Well, late in life in comparison to many of my friends. In fact, there were two things that shaped my infatuation with music that would continue for the rest of my life.

The first was my parents’ prohibition of anything outside of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) and easy listening such as The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Percy Faith, Perry Como, and an assortment of other treasures you can find in your local Goodwill’s record collection. I just wasn’t allowed to listen to “secular” music and was even brought to one of those “Rock Talks” that were so popular in the 80’s where some “expert” stood up and went on and on about all of the popular music groups and what kind of satanic and hedonistic messages they were promoting. Sadly, I probably got my list of “What To Listen To” from that talk.

The second thing was General Music in 8th grade with Mr. O’Donnell. I didn’t actually take the class, I played trumpet in the concert band, but on the days when the band director was absent, I was fortunate enough to have Mr. O’Donnell as a substitute for my class. I had heard the stories of what they did in General Music class over and over again, so I was pleased to finally get a taste of it firsthand.

I remember the day that I walked into class and saw O’Donnell (as we affectionately called him) with the stereo out, all ready to start playing “Name That Tune.” I was so excited….until we actually started playing. I realized just how far I was from the reality of pop music when song after song was played and my ability to identify any of them was virtually non-existent. I think there was a part of me that died that day and another part that made a secret vow to never find myself so humiliated again.

Those two things really shaped the way that I see music to this day. My collection is eclectic and large. It’s hard to pin me down to a favorite style as I like a lot of stuff. Some people say that and then you find out that their so-called “eclectic” style is much more narrow than you thought. When I say “eclectic” though, I mean anything from Iron Maiden to Andy Williams, Anthrax to The Carpenters, Megadeth to Les Miserables, and everything in between.

I’m not sure the first time that I heard David Bowie. I have a feeling that he must have been named at one of those “Rock Talks” I went to during my formative years. After all, he was an androgynous spaceman who had been rumored to be bisexual, why else wouldn’t he end up on that list?

Regardless of my first hearing of him, I remember listening to “Space Oddity” and wondering about Ground Control and Major Tom. I remember hearing his collaborations with Freddy Mercury and Queen on “Under Pressure,” with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets,” and with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy.” When I finally came to the place in my life when I heard his song “Heroes,” I’m pretty sure he had me at, “I will be king.”

While I’ve never been a huge fan of Bowie, I can say that I have appreciated his versatility and talent over the years. This past Friday, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, Bowie released his 28th studio album “Blackstar.” That’s quite a career considering he could never be fully pinned down, never lingering in any one thing for long enough for anyone to pigeon-hole him. He was constantly reinventing himself, in fact, it seems that over and over, the headlines are posthumously labeling him “The Master of Reinvention.” He understood the notion of reinvention before Madonna was even a blip on the pop culture radar screen.

As I woke to the news of Bowie’s death on Monday morning, there was a bleakness and sadness that I felt. January is a hard time for me as it marks my mom and dad’s anniversary as well as the date when we discovered that my mom had cancer. Hearing the news of Bowie’s passing from cancer reopened old wounds that never seem to close.

Over the course of the days leading up to Monday, I had been watching Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (a blog post in and of itself) and had been feeling the heaviness and poignancy of that film, so the news of Bowie’s death fueled the fire of melancholy that had already been lit.

I think the sadness that came from knowing Bowie was gone was multi-faceted. He is a dying breed, there are not many true artists who are willing to shun public opinion to do their own thing. In these days of Auto-tune, 3 minute songs, and drippy lyrics, artists are a dying breed.

Another aspect of it is that there is something to be said about taking a chance and being willing to fail. All of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, are too willing to play it safe, to do the thing that is comfortable and familiar rather than trying something new. Bowie is an inspiration to try something new and different, regardless of whether everyone rejects you and criticizes you. It’s a reminder to me that taking chances should be second nature to me, especially as someone who claims to follow the King of Creation who knit everything together.

David Bowie proved to the world that taking chances is worth the risk. He never seemed afraid to try something different and he was never afraid to abandon something that no longer seemed to fit. He proved himself a boy who could in the midst of a world of boys who “know that they can’t.” His artistic spirit will be missed and I can only hope that others might find that same adventurous and risky spirit in order that it might live on.

Walking On

“The hardest part of suffering is that the rest of the world keeps going like nothing has happened.”

Jenny Simmons

I was talking to a good friend the other day who recently went through a difficult time with a Christian organization for whom he worked. He was recounting the hurt that he experienced and was telling me about his new job. While he was incredibly encouraged that he found a new job, it’s not in his “wheelhouse” and it sounds like it’s going to drain him if he doesn’t find something more satisfying.

He said that one of the hardest things that he was experiencing was the fact that people just assumed that since he found another job, everything was fine.

It made me think of the grieving process and the above quote. When there is a loss or pain or hurt, it’s natural for the rest of the world to move past it once the initial shock of the situation wears off. But that same movement that happens for everyone else doesn’t happen quite as easily for those who have actually experienced the loss or pain or hurt. The world continues to turn and people’s lives go back to their own sense of normality, but loss, pain, and hurt have a way of leaving their victims to hold the fragile pieces of their lives in their hands and wonder how to piece them together again.

I’ve been through my fair share of loss, grief, and disappointment. During those times, I discovered this truth and tried my best to navigate through what have become the societal norms when it comes to coping. It seems that we don’t know how to slow down well. We don’t know how to simply sit in our pain. Worse yet, we don’t know how to sit with others in their pain either.

Be still.

 

Be still.

 

Be still.

Those are two words that seem so simple and yet our ability to not only grasp them but to put them into practice seems elusive. They’re not hard words to understand but they’re hard words to follow. How do we find time in the midst of all that we have filled our schedules with to stop and process? More practically, how do we find the balance between completely ignoring the pain and letting it overwhelm and consume us?

God is bigger than my loss. God is bigger than my pain. God is bigger than my hurt. While I believe all those things, they too are hard to actually move from simple assent to full on embrace. How do I take those statements and allow them to be more than trite and superficial advice?

We’ve got to put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, moment by moment of each day. Like the Israelites journey through the wilderness, the path which we take seems more directed by circumstances or chaos than it is defined by order and understanding. While the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, life rarely affords us straight line paths through grief and pain and hurt.

The ones who understand this best are the ones who have experienced it the most. While there are highly empathic people on this earth, the ones who can understand this the best are the ones who have actually walked their own road, finding out for themselves that straight lines are overrated and journeys rarely go as the AAA Triptik tells us they should, especially through such unstable and unpredictable situations as grief or loss or pain.

We are created for community and we will find comfort and solace when we find others with whom we can share our experiences. We are a gift to each other and we can’t forget that we need others as much (if not more) than they need us.

We will continue to experience loss and pain and grief, that’s part of life in a broken and fallen world, but we need not experience it alone. We can help others to remind them and ourselves how important it is to let the current take you rather than fighting it. It may be a wild ride and it won’t always be fun, but when the journey is through, we will be wiser to share what we have learned with those around us.

The Road to Becoming – A Book Review

the road to becomingWhat do you do when all of your dreams, everything that you have envisioned for your life is stripped away? How do you respond when all that you are left with is a pile of ashes on the floor while you attempt to pick them up and find hope to go on? What do you do when the plans that you had made for your life seem so elusive that every time you get a taste or sniff of them they you feel that they are yanked out from right there in front of you?

From dreams under the leaves of her grandparents’ mighty Mississippi magnolia tree to the office of a music executive in Music City, Jenny Simmons followed her dream from thought to fruition. After years of doing concerts and productions that she put on with her sisters for whoever would listen, years of feeling the calling deep within her soul to follow this dream of making music because of the connection that it had to her soul, she had finally arrived…or so she thought.

Jenny Simmons saw the example that her parents had set for her and her sisters, the example that said to follow your heart, follow your dreams, follow your call, even when it takes you to impractical, hard, and unsafe places. After all, living by faith rarely comes without a price, and it rarely looks as safe as we would like it to look. So, while she learned to follow her calling, she also learned that following doesn’t come without a cost. “Turns out, following God-sized epiphanies doesn’t guarantee instant happiness, and it might even cost your own children some pain,” she writes.

Fronting the band Addison Road who was on the brink of touring with Sanctus Real in the spring of 2010, she and her band lost all their equipment and merchandise when their van and trailer were stolen to fall apart and my plans began to unravel.” Two weeks later, her daughter was born, but that birth was simply the silver lining of a very dark cloud that hovered over her for more than a year. In “The Road to Becoming,” Jenny Simmons chronicles her experience of having achieved her lifelong dream of being a successful recording artist and singer and then seeing it all wash away.

Through the loss of their own personal vehicles, the literal blowing up of a rented RV (complete with band equipment and merchandise), and the additional loss of the band’s equipment and merchandise, for a third time within a year, Simmons found herself in a place of extreme loss and suffering. “The hardest part of suffering is that the rest of the world keeps going like nothing has happened,” she wrote.

But through the loss, she began to realize that the process of loss involves so much more than just simply losing something. There is a necessary death, an embrace of grief, burial, and rebirth that needs to take place after something to painful and deep. Through the loss and through the pain, she had to remember that God still speaks, even though his voice sounds more, “like a whisper and not the roar of a hurricane.”

In the midst of loss and the desert in which she found herself, she realized that things still grow in the desert. Despite the climate in which you would expect nothing to thrive, there is beauty, there are streams in the desert along which there is life and growth. But in order for that new growth, for something new to become, it, “requires the burying of one’s selfishness.”

Simmons seems to be as much of an artist with words and images as she does with music, painting with words much the way that she paints with notes and lyrics. She is honest and raw, vulnerable and transparent, not seeking to offer answers but rather a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold through the deserts and storms. She never feigns a full understanding of the process but is open and willing to share of her own triumphs and her failures.

“The Road to Becoming” is a helpful resource for anyone who finds themselves in the desert, searching for life and meaning and wondering whether God has abandoned them. It’s a reminder that, “The end of the story isn’t dependent on the state of the dream.” Simmons doesn’t candycoat the struggles that she went through but shares in hopes that her own experience might be an encouragement to others who might have to endure the same experiences.

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

Bittersweet

Today is my daughter’s fourth birthday!

I remember when we found out that we were having a third child. Between the stress of work, the stress of school (I was in seminary at the time), the stress of kids, and the general stress of life, circumstances led me to put my fist through a door. Not my finest moment!

“We thought we were done at two!” How many times have you heard that said before? But God had other plans and after having two boys, we were blessed with a girl.

Not too long after we found out that we were having our third child, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I wept like a baby when I got that news, knowing that the outlook was not very good but still remaining hopeful. Even before I knew that we were going to have a daughter, I got a sneaking suspicion that it was going to be a girl.

Once we found out for sure that it would be a girl, I began to see the way that things were lining up. My mother had always wanted a daughter, but she had two boys. I realized that there would be a race for time to see whether or not Mom would live long enough to meet her granddaughter. I think that she willed herself to die before she had the chance. I think it would have been too much for her to have met this little girl that she had dreamed of and who she would only be able to spend a short amount of time getting to know.

Just two months and three days after my mom died, my daughter was born. September 22nd, 2011. My mom’s birthday was September 11th and I found it interesting that my daughter was born when she was. My daughter came into the world with all the spunk and determination of her grandmother. She is funny, smart, determined, moody, playful, and so much more. She is my little princess.

Every day, when I look at her, I see my wife, I see my mother, I see myself. I wonder what might have been had my mother lived, yet I know that the legacy of my mom lives on in this little blonde-haired beauty. There are times when I wonder if my mom can see what’s happening because I think that if she could, she’d be smiling if not downright laughing at just who this little girl is becoming and what a gift she is to those around her.

Today, I celebrate this gift. Before we had children, I wanted a daughter, but after having two sons, I was perfectly content with them. Now that I have a daughter, the world just looks different, brighter. Not that my sons didn’t brighten the world, but little girls are just different.

Happy birthday to my little princess, the one I adore. She is a gift to me and always reminds me of the bittersweet moments in life, the moments we lose, the moments we gain, the moments we find ourselves struggling for answers in the midst of the pain. I am so grateful for this gift of a daughter and I can’t wait to see how she grows. Four years into life, I think it’s going to be a wild ride!

Happy birthday, sweet girl. I love you!

Easier

Dylan and Irene 2School started for my older children a few days ago. Weeks ago, my wife and I sat down with our Fall calendars and began to offer collective sighs as we began to feel the exhaustion set in before it even started.

Fall is always a busy time for me. Four of the five of my immediate family members have birthdays within a three and a half week period. If you add cousins and grandparents into the mix, add another four weeks, there are seven additional birthdays.

Once upon a time, there were eight additional birthdays…

My mom would have been 77 years old today. A friend messaged me the other day to check in on me as she knew that the day was approaching. I had gone silent on social media and she was concerned. Having experienced her own share of losses, the impending dread around certain dates was familiar to her.

I started thinking about this day at least a month ago. My thoughts weren’t necessarily thoughts of dread, they were just reminders, preparing myself, bracing myself, maybe, for what could potentially hit me as the date approached.

This is the fifth time that I’ve had to pass this birthday without celebration and without my mom. Dare I say that it’s gotten a little easier with every successive year?

Don’t get me wrong, not a day goes by that my mom is not on my mind. There’s still a hole there that cannot be filled. But the ache is more dull than it once was, it doesn’t feel as fresh but rather resembles the throb of an old scar that sends shivers when touched, poked, or prodded.

There are still sharp pains and aches, they mostly have to do with my kids. Baseball games. Basketball games. School programs. Moments when I wish that she was beside me, not necessarily for what she could offer me, but more for what she could offer my children. Whether they know it and feel it or not, there’s a gap, a hole, in them as well.

Other than this post, today may go by with little to no acknowledgement of this event. Maybe I should start some kind of tradition with my kids, maybe I should take some time to remember, but I remember more often than not, doing it today isn’t necessary.

I’m a better man because of what my mom gave me, so it’s hard for me to fully comprehend the gravity of this day. If this day hadn’t happened, neither would I.

Yes, it’s gotten a little easier since 2011, but I miss her still.

Happy birthday, Mom! I love you and I’ll see you again!

They Say It’s Your Birthday

Mom and Dad 2001 - Don Miller PartyNo matter how hard I try, memorable dates still keep repeating themselves year after year. Anniversaries, birthdays, and other events, whether they are noted on my Google calendar or not are still embedded in my brain.

Today would have been my father’s 73rd birthday.

Birthdays were always a fun time in my family. At some point, after my brother and I grew out of parties and presents, we still converged upon my parents’ house to have dinner and cake.

The cake was always a Carvel ice cream cake. It was kind of funny to watch the cakes shrink in size over the years. As the price went up, the size shrunk.

Along the way, we developed a tradition where all of us (¾ of whom were decent singers) would sing probably the most atrocious version of “Happy Birthday” that anyone has ever heard. Although we could sing, we would somehow find a way to disguise our voices to sound like the most tone-deaf singers you could ever find.

I remember the first time that I brought my wife (then girlfriend) to a birthday. I think that I probably spent some time during the car ride explaining what would happen so as not to shock her. Thankfully, my explanation was good enough that she didn’t run away. It probably helped that she comes from a family with a wicked sense of humor as well.

The tradition hasn’t been well carried on with my own children, so I miss it terribly every time that a birthday comes around, especially the birthdays of my parents.

Today, I remember my father. He wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t athletic. He wasn’t even always funny. But I loved him dearly!

I can’t even begin to express how grateful that I am that I was blessed with him as my father. He did the best that he could with the shoddy example of a father that he had. He gave himself to his church and to his family. He sometimes worked too much. He sometimes got uptight. He wasn’t always the most patient of people, but he loved in a way that he could only have learned to love from his heavenly Father.

I miss you and love you, Dad. I am proud to be your son and to be a living legacy to the love that you showed to me. I can’t wait to see you again! Happy birthday!

Two Years…Again

Today marks the two year anniversary of my dad’s death. Time keeps passing by, there’s just no stopping it. I can’t really say whether or not it actually feels like two years have passed.

It was such a wearisome process that brought us to April 17th, 2013. Many times I thought the day would have arrived much sooner. Many times I wished that the day would have arrived sooner, if I’m brutally honest. It’s not that I wanted my dad to die, it’s just that there are times when what we might call “living” doesn’t really equate to a really good definition of that. While he wasn’t taken by something like Alzheimer’s or ALS or some other devastating disease, depression and heartache can take their own toll on the human soul. And that’s just what they did.

In many of the same ways that I have begun to see the growth that has come out of the death of my mom, I’ve started to see the same thing with my dad’s death. Relationships within the family that had been strained or non-existent have been reborn and restored. What might have seemed impossible or improbable has actually become real and existent. Who am I to doubt what God can do with broken and dead things….or people, for that matter?!

There are certain things that I’ve done that might seem weird to people. I still keep my parents’ phone numbers in my phone. It’s not like they still belong to them or that I can actually pick up the phone and call them. They won’t answer if I did and the people who belong to those numbers might think me crazy if I did, nothing new for me though. I’ve left voicemail messages on my phone from them as well. It brings me comfort to hear those voices. There’s something about hearing my dad say, “I love you very much” in a message. It’s as if all of the weakness that I was seeing was stripped away, even if for a moment, and I was left with a glimpse of what used to be.

I still want to pick up the phone and call them both. I still want to share things with my dad, to get his insights, to hear his voice, but I can’t. Nothing can replace him, just as nothing can replace my mom. They’re gone, not forgotten, and there still remains hope.

While some people have seen my sharing of thoughts as possibly exhibiting bitterness or anger, I can honestly say that those emotions haven’t really been strong within me. Sure, there is remorse in lost moments and maybe some regret as well. The regrets are more selfish though, I wish that I knew more about this or that, they don’t have anything to do with what I did or how I treated my parents. I wouldn’t take back anything. There’s nothing that I wish I had said or done. I feel like they left with things in as good of a place as any for us. Still doesn’t change the fact that I still wish for them to be here, to share more moments with me and my family.

Two years have come and gone and my heart still continues to ache. On these days, it’s almost as if the pain is palpable, that I can touch it and feel it more than other days. I imagine that no matter what anniversary it is that I’m remembering, those days will always give way to a fresh feeling to that grief and loss, as if it had just happened. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, unless I let myself get swallowed up by the moment. Feeling pain can sometimes help us remember that we’re human and that we’re alive.

I love you, Dad. I miss you every day. I can’t wait to see you once again.

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.”