Unreasonable Hope – A Book Review

unreasonable-hopeWhen I picked up “Unreasonable Hope,” I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. As Chad Veach tells the story of his journey with his daughter, Georgia, he pulls the reader into his story. He describes the emotions that he and his wife, Julia, experienced in the anticipation of a baby and the dreams that come for every couple expecting their firstborn child. Veach explains about the disease, lissencephaly, that his daughter has and explains the disease and their family’s journey with it.

It was hard to read at times because I could feel the heavy emotions that this young couple was feeling, which speaks to his ability to describe the situation with such vivid detail, enough to invest the reader into his story. Throughout his explanation, Veach never blames God. He is honest about the struggles but also sees beyond those struggles to what God is able to do through them. He shares about what God has taught he and Julia as well as those around them. He’s honest and realistic about their struggles but he also shares the hope that they have found in and through Jesus Christ.

There were moments in reading “Unreasonable Hope” where I felt like I was reading a Joel Osteen book. Veach is honest about the fact that being a Christian does not insure a pain-free or trouble-free existence when he says, “But just because Jesus is with you doesn’t mean you’re free from trials. Storms will happen when you know and love God.” While he acknowledges that, he still makes it seem as if we should be experiencing blessing and gifts from God in this life, that we should somehow anticipate that God has something more for us in this life.

While I don’t disagree that God wants to bless his children, I think the Veaches own experience is a testimony to the fact that sometimes in life, we don’t have answers that are satisfactory for the troubles that come our way, even as those who trust and follow Jesus. There were moments when it seemed that Veach got this, and it’s evident that he does, considering his circumstances, but the specifics of it weren’t as clear as I think that they could be to prevent someone for having unreasonable expectations of what our life in Christ should be like. He writes, “He’s ready to overflow our boat and give us more than we need.” I just wonder how a Christian living in the Third World might respond to reading that sentence as they are scrambling for their latest meal and watching their children go hungry.

Veach has an engaging writing style and, as I said, he draws the reader in with the honesty of his story. While I admire the honesty and transparency with which he writes, I feel like he misses the boat a little when it comes to explaining that sometimes the hope that we have in Christ won’t be fulfilled until the day when we meet Him face to face.

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

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.)

#struggles – A Book Review

#strugglesAnyone not living under a rock would have a hard time seeing and saying that social media hasn’t invaded our lives. Companies brand themselves while depicting the images of the various social media avenues. We as a society practically speak in hashtags now. As fast and furious as social media came into our lives, have we really stopped to take a good, hard look at its impacts, benefits, and potential dangers.

Pastor, author, and speaker Craig Groeschel does just that in his book “#struggles.” In the introduction, Groeschel writes, “We’re becoming addicted to immediate gratification even as we attempt to control how others perceive us by what we post, pin, and tweet.” But he doesn’t spend the entire booking talking about the evils of social media or throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he points out truths and takes a more detailed look at just what social media has done to change the way that we see, ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Each chapter starts with quotes from both famous people and random people. The quotes are a helpful picture of a truth as well as a revealing look at just what the negative impacts of social media have been on those whose quotes appear. The chapter are spent focusing on how to recover, restore, reveal, resurrect, revive, remember, reclaim, and replenish some of the key character qualities that can easily be diminished if we allow social media to replace face-to-face relationships in our lives. The areas that he focuses on that have been degraded or diminished are contentment, intimacy, authenticity, compassion, integrity, encouragement, worship, and rest.

Groeschel shares his heart and his own struggles with social media. There’s no denying that he and his church have been the benefactors of social media. His church, LIfeChurch.tv, is located in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In fact, his church created the popular “YouVersion Bible” app for Apple and Android devices. But in his own brand of self-deprecating humor and with all of the passion and conviction that he brings in his messages, Groeschel walks through “#struggles” and points continually to what the responsibility of those who follow Christ should be in the midst of a social media driven world.

The appendix at the end of the book contains two helpful sections. One section is on the 10 commandments of using social media to grow your faith and share God’s love. The other section is on safeguards that can be found to help with devices, computers, television, and other things to keep you and the ones you love from going astray. Both of these are helpful resources to remind those reading who are followers of Christ just what our mission and focus should be, regardless of whether we are doing something digitally or in person.

Throughout the book, Groeschel offers challenges in a compelling way rather than through guilt. He shows the importance of face to face relationships and reminds the reader that honest to goodness caring, “means taking some action. It’s getting ourselves involved so we can make a difference in a life. Clicking doesn’t change anything. Caring is not Liking a post; it’s loving a person.” He urges the reader to move beyond digital interaction to restore relationships that happen across a table or even phone line.

I have appreciated Craig Groeschel and his winsome edginess since I discovered who he was more than ten years ago. This book is no exception. I appreciate that he engages a topic that is necessary and yet upon which there are varying opinions. He’s not shy about speaking his mind but he also does not necessarily condone an ostrich approach towards culture, sticking your head in the ground and pretending everything’s just fine. “#struggles” is a helpful read for those of us who are trying to make sense of our place or the place of our children as followers of Christ with social media.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. 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.”

I Doubt It

Anyone who knows me and has spent any significant time with me would not hesitate to label me a “cynic.” While I’m not sure that I would say that I wear the label proudly, I certainly don’t avoid or evade it either. I am not easily convinced but I would define myself as loyal, once you gain my trust and respect, I will go to the mat for you.

In preparation for a message that I gave this past weekend at my church, I read some statistics from David Kinnaman’s book, “You Lost Me.” As president of the Barna Group, a leading research organization, Kinnaman has focused much on what keeps people from engaging in church. He has written a book with Gabe Lyons about what the younger generations really think about Christianity. In “You Lost Me,” Kinnaman talks about the exodus out of the church of young people in the 18-29 age group who have grown tired of many things that the church does (and doesn’t) offer.

One striking statistic for me was that nearly 40% of young people who were polled for the Barna study admitted a period of significant doubting of their faith during their short life. Kinnaman says that a large number of those that doubted did not feel that their faith community was open to this kind of doubting and even made some feel uncomfortable that they would even entertain thoughts of doubt. To that, I say, “What a shame!”

Whenever I meet someone with an overconfidence and self-assuredness in their beliefs, I am suspicious. I am mostly suspicious as to whether or not his person has experienced any real difficulties in their lives. I wonder if they have really had their faith challenged, questioned, and even tested. While faith challenges can lead to a strengthening of one’s faith, they more often than not will result in a crisis of faith, a questioning and doubting of one’s long held beliefs and philosophies.

I certainly don’t think that doubt is disrespectful to God. After all, if he is sovereign as many Christ followers claim that he is, than this kind of doubt should come as no surprise to him at all. The Bible is full of those who have expressed their doubts, who have questioned even the sovereign hand of God in the midst of their struggles and crises. The psalmist, David, was renowned for expressing his doubt and disbelief, but he always came back to the place where he remembered what God had promised, where he was able to see God’s hand at work on a larger scale than the immediate and current.

It’s no wonder to me that so many young people would be turned off to the idea or notion of church when they suddenly find themselves in a season of “question everything” and the church will have nothing at all to do with it.

My hope and prayer is that the church would be open to skeptics. Jesus met many skeptics, but he never left them where they were, he always brought them along, invited the along on the journey. I hope that the church can do the same thing and invite others into the journey and dialogue, allowing for healthy doubt and wrestling. There are so many people that I know who would have benefited from such an environment and I hope and pray that I can be part of something that can create that kind of culture and atmosphere.

 

Why?

Visiting with family in Connecticut, my wife’s sister came over to her parents, where we were staying, with her two boys, their ages corresponding with my boys but off a year so that our two pairs of boys make a successive four year sweep. They all get along well and my in-laws yard is full of adventure and excitement. My father-in-law, a general contractor, has sheds and gardens and tractors, things that mostly excite young boys, especially during summer when the world seems completely “open for business” for boys their age.

As I was lying on the bed, enjoying some time with no responsibility to catch up on the reading I haven’t done in forever, I began to hear a scream, nothing too unusual given the excitement that emerges when these four play together. My parental instinct was to first, determine whether it was a cry of pain and hurt and second, to determine whether that cry was emanating from one of my own children.

Once I realized it wasn’t my child (I breathed a short sigh of relief) and followed the sound to see what had happened. Turns out that my nephew had come across a bee that was none too happy with him. Whether he had stepped on its nest or had just thrown the insect off course from its usual business, it decided to repay him with a sting……and my nephew made it known what had happened.

As I walked into the den where the wounded child was being cared for by his mother, I was struck by the poor kid’s words. He kept saying, “Why?” over and over again. “Why did it sting me? I didn’t do anything to bother it.” My heart went out to my nephew and I began to think long and hard about those words and how often I had uttered them, or at least thought them, to myself.

In fact, I think I’ve done my best to avoid those words over the last few years. I’ve been faced with all kinds of things and my natural instinct is to curl up and cry, like my nephew, decrying against the injustice that’s taken place, proclaiming my own innocence in the midst of circumstances that seem to indicate my own guilt. Why? Why did this happen?

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to allow for my theology to become more reformed (and transformed) from the distorted theology of my childhood. Maybe I had read too many Old Testament stories that had shaped my theology without enough grace. Maybe I had heard one too many sermons that had pointed me towards blaming someone for difficulties and tragedies that would occur. Regardless of its genesis, I had formed some theology in my mind which equated tragedies, trials, and difficulties with something that I had done. After all, bad things don’t just happen to good people, do they?

Ahhh, but yes they do. And if we allow ourselves to go there, we ask ourselves, “Why?” We want to know, like my nephew did, what had been done to deserve it. And the reason that I’ve done my best to avoid that question over the years is because we will always find a reason why we DON’T deserve it. We will always find ourselves innocent of anything worthy of such punishment. We will always wonder why us and not somebody else.

I so badly wanted to grab my nephew and tell him to get used to struggling with the injustice of it. The cynic in me would probably tell him to thank me at a later date, regardless of how I might have warped his theology and viewpoint. But I let him continue to cry and ask his mom why it had happened. He’ll come to it on his own one day, my cynicism need not encroach on his own formation.

But it was a reminder to me that, “Why?” isn’t always a good question to ask. More often than not, I’ve tried to shift the question from “Why” to “What.” What will be different from this? What can I learn? What can I make out of this injustice or trial or tragedy? More to the point, what can God make out of it?

When you do a funeral for a six month old who should have lived long past his parents, trite, comfortable, rehearsed answers seldom work the way that one might hope. When you are faced with a diagnosis that seems bleak and impossible, those same answers are likely to evoke bitterness and rage. When you survey the landscape of your life to find multiple tragedies coming on the heels of each other, trite answers will not suffice. In fact, answers, even well thought out ones, rarely assuage.

Why?

I don’t know……

Those three words have been among the most important ones that I have had to learn. They aren’t words that are easily acceptable or desirable, but they’re the only ones that can really bring any closure to the search.

Life brings with it bee stings and pains that cut deeper, physically and emotionally. What questions are you asking when you’re faced with those pains? I hope to understand more one day, but until then, my search can come up short. Faith upholds and strengthens, but it doesn’t always give adequate answers. God knows, and I know that, but sometimes, I just want to know too. I’m hoping that there will be a day when I will, but until then, I’ll just keep pressing on.

The Daily Grind

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a rut? You know the kind, you feel like your wheels are spinning but you aren’t really going anywhere. You try to turn your wheels or take a different approach but you find yourself going nowhere.

It’s too easy to get stuck in that rut as we go through the daily grind. I always think back to the movie, “Joe Versus the Volcano” when the main character, Joe, is going to work in the beginning. As he walks in line with hundreds of other workers to his job at the petroleum factory, they all look like zombies, simply checking off the boxes and existing rather than really thriving.

Life changes for Joe when after his hypochondriac self goes to the doctor and he is diagnosed with a “brain cloud.” The fog lifts from his eyes and he begins to see things as they are rather than continuing to “drink the Kool-Aid” that everyone else seems to be drinking. There is a stunning moment when Joe and all his fellow workers are walking into the factory and Joe looks down to see a flower that has been trampled by all of the other workers on their way into the factory. In their dazed and confused state to get to work, they’ve missed beauty that is right in front of them. Joe bends down to care for the flower, straightening it up and trying his best to restore it to its former glory.

The movie remains one of my all time favorites. I even did a paper on it in seminary for a class called “Movie Theology,” comparing and contrasting the ideas presented within the movie to the philosophies of Kierkegaard. It’s a very existential film that’s worth watching if you like films that make you think and are a little quirky as well.

But my wheels have been spinning and I’ve expended a lot of energy. I’m feeling tired and stuck. How many times have I heard people quote the old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Far too many times to count, yet it doesn’t seem to prevent me from falling into that rut.

This week, as I quickly approach the three year anniversary of my mom’s death, I find myself feeling nostalgic and stuck, all at the same time. The last piece of the puzzle to help move through my grief is the selling of the townhouse that was a dream for my parents. Instead of being filled with life, love, and laughter, it sits empty, having been filled with death and shattered dreams instead. Selling it will remove a large weight from my shoulders.

I can feel the weight on my shoulders and in my gut. The tension lives within me like some alien creature, waiting to come out, kind of like the creature in the movie, “Alien.” Frankly, I think that kind of entrance into the world would be a bit dramatic for the tension within me, but the sentiment still stands and the explosiveness seems hardly to be contained. I wonder when and how that feeling will ever subside, but I have hope that it will, that there will be a day when I wake up without that ache and discomfort in my gut.

Until then, I’ll continue to press on. I’ll move through these days of remembrance as stealthily as possible, not immersing myself completely within them and not simply existing to get through it either. There is a held tension in which we navigate those waters of grief, a tension of embracing the pain while not letting it overwhelm us at the same time. There are times when one takes over and there is an imbalance and other times when it feels like there is complete balance. Finding and maintaining that balance is the challenge……that’s the challenge that I now face.

Life goes on. I wake up, I move through my day, the world moves on around me, it stops for no one and nothing. In the midst of it, I find hope. While Marx may have considered religion to be the opiate of the masses, I find faith as the giver of hope, the strong foundation for which I can bring all of this tension, all of this grief, all of the challenges that I face. It is that faith and hope that help me move through the grind, reminding me to stop and notice the flower that droops after being trampled, reminding me that I am part of something greater and that there is more than I can see with my eyes. Now I see in part, through a mirror dimply lit, one day I will see in full.

Hope, that’s what we need. Without hope, we find ourselves in despair. So, I move on in hope. It might not be as obvious at times as it is at others, but it’s there, hiding beneath the surface, waiting to take reign when it needs to the most. It’s that hope that helps me move on and through the ruts that I inevitably face.

Facing the Past

I’m quickly approaching the three year anniversary of my mom’s death. As the day approaches, I can feel anxiety and other emotions begin to rise within me, recalling the events not only of the day but the days leading up to that final day. Once you have experienced loss and once you have seen a loved one suffering, images are burned on your brain and no matter how hard you try, it’s really hard to excise them from your mind.

Currently, there is a dear woman within my church who has been struggling with cancer for a number of years. The doctors have tried experimental treatments and everything has come up short. Over the last few months and weeks, it’s been incredibly difficult for me to watch her downward progression. She is a strong woman with an incredible spirit. She is a fighter, a warrior of sorts, who has endured so much and, yet, her demeanor and countenance have hardly seemed shaken as she has faced reality with her head held high.

I have struggled immensely when I have seen her on Sunday mornings. I love this woman, she is a dear sister in Christ, a godly example to her peers and all those who are younger as well. I have found myself torn as to whether or not to go speak to her. I know that might sound harsh, but understand the images and emotions that are conjured up within me when I catch a glimpse of her frail body. This once strong woman has been beaten down, just like my mother was, and although three years is a long time, it’s hard to separate my own experience from the reality that sits in front of me.

When this dear sister breathes her last breath, it will be a difficult day for me. I’ve never been one to shy away from asking hard questions. I’m also smart enough to know that every answer doesn’t have adequate answers. I’ve struggled with faithful and godly people being afflicted by the ravages of cancer while others whose attitudes and behavior are hardly becoming seem to hang around forever. Trust me, I’ve often wondered if those filled with the most piss and spite have somehow discovered a secret elixir that acts as a preservative, keeping them on earth longer. Not that I would wish for anyone’s death, but the injustice seems nearly ironic, nearly psalmic to me……the evil prevail while the godly perish.

Death is hard, but as a follower of Christ, there is hope beyond what we see. That hope sustains, it propels us forward. The path is not easy, it’s not fun, but it’s necessary. Amidst the difficulty, the question “why” continues to pound my brain, and as that question flows back and forth through the echoes of my mind, I continue to come back to Jesus’ words in John 12:24, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Somehow, when a seed dies, it brings life. Somehow, out of one dead thing comes the life of many.

I know the impact that my mother had on so many people and I know a little of the impact that this dear woman in my church has had on so many people. In death, both of these women will have pointed to the One whom they have served with their lives. In death, they will continue to act as a witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, testifying to the abundant life that they received, not for the present only, but for the future and eternity. It doesn’t seem fair or even just, but somewhere lurking in the eternal perspective of this all, there is purpose and meaning in it. I might not fully know it today, tomorrow, or some time from now, but now, I only see in part, one day I will see fully, without distortion or distraction. That will be a day that I will look forward to, and in the meantime, I will simply press on.

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.

Why I Blog

I’ve been getting together with a friend every Tuesday morning for the past half a year or so. We’re going through our second book together. Having started with “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning, we’re finishing up “To Be Told” by Dan Allender. Allender is the president of Mars Hill Graduate School near Seattle, Washington. He is a professional counselor, therapist, speaker, and author and speaks/writes/counsels not only out of his education but out of his own story and experience.

As I come to the end of Allender’s book, I come to realize more of why I choose to blog. Allender shares that we all have a story to tell. While many of those stories have their fair share of victories, joys, and celebrations, many of those stories are also marked with hurt and pain. Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to share our stories, to allow others to enter into those stories. In doing so, we allow them to know us more but we also allow them to know that the hurt and pain that they have experienced or will experience was not specific to them. In other words, they aren’t alone in that pain and hurt.

Writing is therapy and I have had to write a lot over the past few years. Out of the brokenness that I have experienced and the pain that I have been through, it felt like an essential part of who I am to write, to do my best to put into words what I have experienced, what I have felt, in order that others might know that their stories are not simply floating out there in space, solitary and alone. Allender even takes a step towards saying that sharing our stories is required of us as Children of God. Our stories are what God has given us and they can be used for the benefit and healing of others. If we fail to share out stories, we fail to be stewards of the gift that we have been given.

I’ll be honest, my story doesn’t often feel like a gift to be shared. The hurt, the pain, it isn’t something that I would have chosen for myself, but at the same time, I can’t let it be wasted, especially when there is a chance that it might connect with someone. In my blogging, I have encountered others whose stories have far outdone my own as far as tragedy is concerned. But it’s not about outdoing one another in pain and suffering, it’s about entering into one another’s story, learning to listen, learning to practice the gift of presence with those who simply need to be heard.

More than once over the past few years, I’ve heard from others who have experienced loss. They have shared with me that the words that I have shared have had the power to capture feelings and emotions that they’ve felt but were never able to fully articulate in words. Those messages have made it all worthwhile to me, even if there are only a handful of them.

It gets very tempting for me to write in order to get more hits on my blog, and I will admit to pandering towards certain topics which I know will generate more interest. But I can also admit that some of the pieces that I have put the most effort into are the very pieces that go seemingly unnoticed, and I have to be okay with that. Quality is important. Quantity? Not so much.

I will keep writing. Writing is as helpful for me as it is for those few that have somehow connected with what I have written. I hope and pray that I am being a good steward of my story and in being a good steward, I hope and pray that my story can be used to help others in the midst of whatever story in which they find themselves.