Category Archives: blessing

To Be Blessed

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IMG_2452Sometimes… you just have to share the encouragement in your life…

Last night my 2 youngest kids (ages 18 and 20) came into my home office around 1030pm. I was writing and they were totally interrupting, but I learned a long time ago to lay everything aside when your young-adult kids want to talk.

They were just chatty, silly even. They just wanted to be with me, which I love. They’ve both struggled a LOT this year, so this sweet, normal slice of life was good to see. My son (the 20 year old – who was about 7 in the photo above) was playing his guitar, asking me to listen to some new things he was working on. This is a particular gift to him, because this has always been a particular irritant to the abuser in his life – he hated when my son would just mess around on the piano or guitar, especially if it interrupted his tv watching…

I taught my son the first few things he needed to learn on the guitar, but he has far surpassed my abilities. He knows, however, that I love to listen and learn from his ‘working stuff out’. So he will often say, “hey, Mom – listen to this…” and play some bit that he’s finally mastered. Last night, he showed me a complex fingering and strumming combination he figured out. It was a sweet moment.  I said, “look at the amazing skill God has worked into your hands!”

Then I looked down at my own – tired, wrinkly, worn. I let the regret that had been building during a rough day slip out and said, “I used to have nice hands, but like so much else they’ve just been used up.” My son stopped playing and, in all seriousness said, “Mom – your hands are beautiful. I LOVE your hands!”

Then he got up, came over to where I was at my desk, took both of my hands in his and with a rare glimpse into the tenderness of his young-man heart, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Mom – these hands have taught me so much. They’ve taught me all the good things I know. These are the most beautiful hands I’ll ever know. They’re not used up – they’re just showing how much you’ve loved us and given to all of us. They’re beautiful Mom, don’t ever think otherwise.”

It was tender and sweet and so encouraging. It was a moment to savor and store up in the treasure of good memories we are trying to build together. It was especially beautiful because it was spontaneous and so heart-felt.

All three of us reveled – and shared – in the sincere encouragement that was given.  That’s a wonderful thing about encouragement, isn’t it?  It’s contagious.

His heart-felt blessing to his Mama opened the door, too, for the conversation to shift to both of them sharing deep hurts they are working through, but also deep thoughts they are wrestling with God over. It was profoundly moving to sit there with these two young souls whose suffering is shaping them, too. This journey is being used by God to shape my kids’ stories, too. I was blessed by what my kids shared with me last night, and as I reflected on what they’d said, I realized that they will be able to bless others in due time with what they are learning and becoming because of all of this. It can be brutal to watch your kids struggle. But moments like these show that much can be happening beneath the surface.

These hands have worked hard to bless my family – and I don’t regret a moment of that. My son rose up last night to tell me how I have blessed him through that loving service, but in doing so, he blessed more than he will know for a long, long time. I suspect, however, that in genuinely blessing me, he went away blessed as well. That’s how blessings go, isn’t it?  They multiply.

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Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma

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Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma

When I was little, I ran to Psalm 23 because in it, God promised to provide for me – The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

When I became a young mother, I ran to Psalm 23 because God promised to give me rest – He makes me lie down in green pastures.

In turbulent times and sleepless nights (whether from toddlers or teenagers), I ran to it because God promised still waters and a restored soul and assured me that I had no need to fear any evil even though I had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

But last year, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before.  Last year I revisited Psalm 23 and looked at it through the lens of trauma.  I made a profound discovery and realized that all the things promised – the provision, the care, the stillness and the restoration, the feast set before me and the defense against evil – all of it happens in the valley of the shadow of death – the very place where trauma resides.

I’d always read “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” as if it said, “even when I walk…” as if the peace of the still waters and green pastures were in one place but the valley of the shadow of death was someplace else.  A place, in fact, to be gotten through as quickly as possible to get back to the green pastures and still waters.  But it doesn’t say that.  It says “though” – it could read, “even though I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death” – which can place the whole psalm in the valley.  The first three verses make sense this way, too – pastures are greenest and most abundant – most nutritious and life-sustaining –  not at the wind-blown mountain tops, but in the valleys.  

Still waters are not found on tops of mountains or even the sides of hills – but at the bottoms, in the valley.  Sheep can’t drink from turbulent waters, but they will drink their fill on still waters.  Without water they quickly die, and without enough of it, they have many ailments.  Water is essential for their survival, but plenty of water is essential for a sheep’s health and vitality.  Plenty can only be had in still waters.  The still waters are mainly in the valley.  

And a path is needed because the rocks and trees and debris from all the washing down from the high places settle in the valleys.  The valleys can be treacherous, and they can provide lots of places for snakes and coyotes and leg-breaking-crevices to lurk.  The shepherd must lead the way through the valley.  The deepest shadows, toughest obstacles, and craftiest adversaries are there Open pastures that are smooth or rolling don’t have paths – they aren’t necessary.  It’s easy to see where you’re going.  The path of righteousness that he leads us on goes through the valley.

It is in the valley that he provides for us, gives us rest, restores our souls.  Think about how profound that really is.  In the darkest times – when the stench of death is overshadowing us – his rod and staff – tools of guidance and correction – comfort us.  But again – where would a rod of defense be more needed than in the valley?  And where else would we be more prone to go the wrong way and need to be brought back to the safety of the path that is for our good, but in the difficult terrain of the valley?

 The place to hide from enemies is up in the hills – in the nooks and crannies of rocks and outcroppings.  But he is spreading a feast out for us in a breathtakingly shocking way by doing it in the presence of our enemies!  Right out in the open – in the vulnerable place of the valley where we’re easy targets! – he sets up a grand feast.  Who could relax enough to eat a meal in the presence of someone trying to destroy you except that you’re utterly confident of being perfectly protected?  It’s as if he’s showing us off to the whole army of enemies saying, “See these sheep – they’re mine, and you can’t have them.”  Even in presence of enemies in the valley, we can rest in his care.

This Good Shepherd lavishes on soothing, cleansing oil – he knows how hard the valley is for us – and welcomes us as guests he is pleased to have with him at this feast.  He provides more than we can possibly consume – he is neither stingy nor begrudging.  Those kindnesses are most precious to us when we walk through the valley.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.  Stubborn grace will hound me, chase after me, pursue me.  All the days of my life – all the days – not only when things appear good and full of mercy, but also in the valley.

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.  This is what good shepherd’s do – they get their sheep home.  They might feed them and water them and protect and guide them out in the pastures, beside the still waters, and through the paths in the valley, but the goal is to bring them home.  

I think I’ve missed the strength of this Psalm all these years.  This is not a Psalm that talks about the highs of peace and provision and then also the lows of threats and fearsome hardships.  It’s about abundant peace and protection in very the presence of threats and fearsome hardships.

It’s not that God is not in the peaceful times of ease and comfort.  He is.  But it seems to me that the real power expressed here lies in the truth that all these things are true for us in the valley, too.  None of the pleasantness of peace, or abundance of his provision, or his rock solid protection can be diminished by walking through the valley of the shadow of death, for we walk through it with him there beside us.  Through trauma we may realize more fully how treacherous the valley is and the unspeakable evil the enemy uses to try to destroy us.  But when we learn to see who this Good Shepherd really is, and how capable he is to protect and provide for us, we can rest in his mercy and care and follow him – joyfully – all the way home, even though we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Being a Neighbor to those Deeply Suffering

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Being a Neighbor to the Deeply Suffering

The shock of it all was numbing.  My mind – every ounce of energy I tried to find to think – was flailing to make sense of anything at all.  People were talking at me, but I couldn’t mentally connect one word to the next much less understand what they were saying.  I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  My world was collapsing around me and no one could tell me why.  My chest ached with a pain I had never experienced before, and I struggled to breathe and simultaneously try to hold back the sobs that shook me despite my inner protestations for them and everything else around me to stop!  Just stop!

When deep suffering strikes people are left incapacitated.  Whether the blow is physical, emotional, or something else, it knocks us breathless, so that even gasping for air feels like more than we can bear.  An indescribable, wordless, whirlwind of unanswerable questions and unidentifiable emotions flood over us until we feel, often, that we’d rather die than go on.

Do you know what to do to help someone in that state?  Do you know what to say – or sometimes more importantly, what not say to them?  Do you know how to be bodily with them in a way that is genuinely helpful?  How do you find what you need when someone else’s pain threatens to drown you, too?

These are questions I have asked and been asked many times in recent months.  They come from genuinely concerned people whose deep desire is to do something that will help, but whose experiences don’t come close enough to know what that kind of suffering is like.  “What can I do?” isn’t a question that is only asked of the sufferer – it’s one that helpers ask of themselves as well.

Suffering is something that every believer will experience – we are assured of this in scripture.  (1 Peter 4:12) But suffering is not something we are particularly well prepared for.  We live our lives as if suffering only happens to other people, or, more insidiously, less faithful people.  But that is not what the Bible teaches.  Instead we can bank on suffering if we’re Jesus followers.  And since this is the case, we ought to be prepared both for the suffering and the sufferers.  But it is all too common for those surrounding the sufferer to stand by helplessly asking the person whose world has just been torn apart, “What can I do?”  It’s not only not helpful, it’s insensitive and sometimes cruel to ask them what they need.  But what can we do?

Fortunately, Jesus has offered some very practical instructions to all of us who want to comfort people in their distress.  We can be prepared, at least to some degree, to be genuinely helpful in the face of unimaginable pain.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus does far more than instruct us on who are neighbors are.  He instructs us on what loving our neighbors looks like, too.  I think if we’re willing to pay attention to the details of the story, we will see some intensely practical concepts for walking with those who are unable to bear the burden of suffering alone.

Know that suffering overwhelms

The first man in the parable was traveling and was attacked by robbers who overwhelmed him.  They stripped him of everything, wounded him severely, and left him for dead.  There are many things that we encounter during the course of our lives that are difficult – really difficult.  They test our strength and stamina, they push us to our limits, and they sometimes make us want to give up.  That is not the kind of suffering we are talking about here.  Sometimes those things are not suffering at all.  Those are hard things, and sometimes we need help, but we use the resources God has given us and we get through.  Deep suffering, however, overwhelms our normal abilities to cope.  Deep suffering renders us helpless – stripped naked of all the resources we had.  You’ve no doubt heard people say things like, “I felt like I got hit by a truck,” or “I felt like I was drowning,” or some other iteration of being swallowed up, buried, or overcome.  All of these kinds of expressions try to articulate the sense of encountering something beyond our ability to cope.  People in these situations don’t just want help, they need it.  They are desperate for it.  Deep suffering overwhelms and renders us helpless.  Those suffering before you don’t just feel like they are drowning – they are.  Physical and emotional pain can render us deaf and blind to everything else going on around us.  Don’t expect much of anything from a traumatized sufferer – they are incapable of directing you.

Respond with compassion

The Priest and the Levite in the parable saw the helpless traveler and did nothing.  We don’t know what they were thinking, but we know from the story that they saw the man, that they made sure they were on the other side of the road – close enough to see, but far enough away to stay uninvolved – and we know they continued on their way.  But the Samaritan saw him and had compassion.  Unless there is something incredibly hard-hearted about a person, it is normal to have compassion on someone who is in distress.  In my experience, and from listening to many other sufferers, many people feel compassion toward a suffering person.  Lots of people say with sincerity, “I’m so sorry.”  It might be easy to take this for granted, but it must be recognized as the necessary first step in being a loving neighbor and actually helping someone who is suffering.  Compassion literally means with suffering (from the Latin, com – with, and pati – suffer).  It is a picture of entering into the suffering of another.  It starts with a stirred heart that is troubled by the pain of another, but real compassion – Christ-like compassion – cannot be satisfied with emotion only.

Move toward the sufferer

In the parable, Jesus said the Samaritan went to him.  We might overlook this because it seems so basic, but the Samaritan didn’t stay safely on the other side of the road and yell, “Hey buddy!  Let me know if you need anything, OK?”  He went to him.  He stopped what he was doing, changed his direction, and went to where the man was lying in the aftermath of what had overwhelmed him.  There is no way to make an assessment of need without going to the sufferer.  This means that we will encounter a bloody mess sometimes (both literally and figuratively!).  It means that, depending on how overwhelmed the sufferer is we will likely need to move toward him or her without an invitation, without instructions, without knowing what we are getting ourselves into.  Yes, it’s scary, but this is one of the hard things that will stretch you and increase your capacity to deal with the stuff of human existence.  The sufferer you’re looking at didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not to be overwhelmed.  Go.

Skillfully dress the wounds

The Samaritan saw what had overwhelmed the traveler and took action.  The traveler was bleeding.  He was in pain.  He was naked.  He was alone.  Most sufferers are all of these.  Their wounds may not be visible, but they are just as devastatingly raw and exposed.  As a former cardiac nurse, I can tell you that pretty much nothing else matters if your patient is bleeding out.  The hemorrhage has to be stopped or all will be lost.  After that, nothing else can be addressed with a patient if they’re in intractable pain.  Measures need to be taken first to soothe the excruciating.  Healing has to start to happen first, then the patient can begin to engage.  The Samaritan skillfully applied life-saving measures by stopping the bleeding, cleaning out the wounds, and preventing infection from setting in.  We can help suffering people by skillfully taking measures to protect them from further injury while they are incapacitated and defending them while they recover.  Sometimes this will be as simple as shielding sufferers from insensitive comments or questions.  Sometimes we will need to guard the door (or the phone) so that they are not repeatedly overwhelmed.  Sometimes we will need to hold their heads while they cry or vomit out the unbearable thoughts and emotions that have swelled to flood levels decorum can no longer contain.  It’s going to be messy and ugly.  Do whatever needs to be done with sensitivity and care.

Use your resources

The Samaritan put the wounded traveler on his own animal and transported him to a safe place.  We may not need a donkey, but we may need to use our cars and other resources to get the sufferer to where he or she needs to be.  Sometimes they will need to be transported to a hospital and sometimes they will just need to be taken away from their environment for a little while so that they see that there is life outside of their misery.  We may need to drive someone to a safe house, or to a cemetery.  Or we may need to be willing to bring them to our homes where they can sit in quietness and safety from further threats.  We may need to use our time or money or efforts or comfort or ease as we love our suffering neighbor, but we will need to use what we have.  If we’re willing to help sufferers we will be called upon to use our resources.  It will be costly, and inconvenient, but it will be worth it.

Take care

Most Christians are fairly willing to do all of the above.  We are willing to jump into action when called upon, and graciously use our resources when a need pops up.  We make meals, clean bathrooms, drive, and even pay bills.  But here, right here is where we tend to fall down.  We’re busy.  Our schedules are full.  We have things we were planning to do as well as people waiting for us to do them.  We don’t have time to take care of suffering people.  Taking care of someone – tending to their wounds of body and soul – however, is a slow process that takes great quantities of time and patience.  But we are not a patient people.  We want things to be cleaned up quickly and we want the sufferer to be able to tend to his or her own needs without too much delay.  We tend to lose resolve around the two-week mark, but deep suffering often takes months – or years – to traverse.  Not surprisingly, those who look back on their suffering point to the people who were willing to be with them and take care of them over the long haul as the ones who got them through and helped them the most.  The reality is, the sufferer sitting before you in bewildered confusion at all that has crashed down on them doesn’t really expect you to be able to explain the inexplicable – they just want you to be speechless at it with them.  They want to see you in the room, not leaving but staying.  They want to hear your breathing (and occasionally your voice).  They want to feel your hands, your hugs, and even your heavy sighs that mirror their own as you hold them tight as if trying to hold them together while they feel like they’re flying apart.   Be willing to spend time with the suffering and take care of them.

Enlist others and support them, too

The Samaritan in the parable was on his way somewhere.  He put everything on hold to help the suffering traveler he found.  It was not what he had planned – no one can plan when suffering will strike.  But he was willing to do all that needed to be done to ensure that this man in desperate need was cared for.  We must be willing to do the same.

But no one can put their life on hold forever.  If you’re walking alongside the suffering, you will get to the point where the sufferer’s needs are greater than you can handle on your own.  You will need to do as he did – enlist others and then give them what they need to aid the sufferer.

Jesus said, “And the next day he [the Samaritan] took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”  There is so much packed into this sentence.  When the Samaritan could stay no longer, he enlisted the innkeeper, gave him what he needed to care for the traveler, and promised to return.  He made sure that the innkeeper knew that both he and the traveler would continue to be supported.  In telling the story this way, Jesus shows that the Samaritan was not only willing to help the wounded traveler, but the innkeeper and anyone else the innkeeper needed to employ as well.  Jesus knew that helpers often need help to be able to help effectively.  Many times deep suffering requires a team of people.  It is profound and overwhelming to the sufferer and to those helping as well.  Following Jesus is a group activity, and this is one of the many reasons why.  Be ready as a church to help the deeply suffering.

Don’t say much

One final note of instruction that is easy to miss unless you’ve spent time on the sufferer’s side of all of this is to not say too much.  The Samaritan didn’t say much.  In fact, he didn’t say anything at all to the suffering man – he only spoke with the innkeeper in the parable.  Sometimes arguing from a position of silence in scripture is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) position to take.  But having been in the position of the traveling victim, I’m standing firmly on this one – don’t say too much to someone in deep suffering.

Words are inadequate to describe the indescribable.  Explanations are ineffective for the inexplicable.  And asking someone who is in agonizing pain to tell you how they feel is a bit ridiculous, really.  Let them talk if they want to.  Ask a question or two so they know they can, but mostly, just be with them and listen to their grief.  Let them cry, or sob.  Let them sigh, or moan.  Let them speak inarticulately or not at all.  When you must speak, use short sentences and small words.  Use gentleness in your tone of voice – even when they rail at their circumstances.  Job 6:26 says, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?”  People who are suffering say things they wouldn’t normally say and don’t really mean.  Just let it go, remain calm, and remind them that you’re still there, you’re not afraid of the mess, and you’re not going to abandon them.  The pain of suffering becomes bearable when there is someone to endure it with you.

Conclusion

Beloved church – we must not be surprised when suffering comes, either to us or to those around us.  We must, instead, be prepared for it to happen.  Our own suffering proves whether or not we have faith – when everything is stripped away and we are wounded and exposed we find out quickly what we really believe.  If we are running to God – even in hurt and anger and disbelief – the proof is there.  It might be weak faith, it might be trembling faith, it might be doubting faith that says, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”  But that is faith that is proven, and that proof is a gift, that we will be thankful for eventually.  But we must also be prepared to care for the suffering in our midst.  We must be willing to put our own things aside – our schedules, our priorities, our expectations – and bend low enough to stoop down to help the wounded soul who has been left decimated by the side of the road, helpless and desperately needy.  That’s actually what Jesus did for each of us.

My path of deep suffering is not over – I am very much in the raging waves and tossing winds of it.  Some minutes are good – most are a black, confusing, thick fog.  I am part of a great church with a kind and loving pastor and we are struggling together to learn how to walk this road with integrity – learning from and teaching one another as we figure it out by trial and error.  It’s hard to be both sufferer and tutor at the same time, but I’m convinced that God is teaching me even this so that I might be used to help others as he builds his kingdom.  Until then, I pray for strength to continue to walk one painful, faithful step at a time.  Learn from those who do this well.  Teach those who don’t.  Walk together with the ones who are suffering deeply.  You will bless them, of course, but you will be blessed too, for you will teach, and you will learn, a great deal about your Savior.

Christmas Letter to My Kids

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Christmas Letter To My Kids

This was a hard, but beautiful Christmas in our family.  Heartache causes us to reflect and to look for beauty that will come out of ashes.  My kids amaze me with their grace and their capacity to love through all of it.  I could not possibly be more thankful for each and every one of them.

The following is a letter I read to them Christmas morning.  I know many people have to look for good through the lens of suffering and this time of year intensifies that.  I hope this will encourage others as well.

Two Strange Passages for Christmas

To My Beloved Children:

I want to read you two passages from the Bible which, at first, might not seem appropriate for Christmas, but I think you’ll understand why I chose them by the time I’m done.

The first is from the book of Genesis – from the story of Joseph.  This is near the end of Joseph’s story – after his brothers had been so wicked and envious of him that they plotted to kill him, sold him into slavery instead, lied to their father and told him Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal, and Joseph had suffered years of slavery, loneliness, unjust imprisonment, and through a myriad of sovereignly appointed events, had risen to enormous power in Egypt.  These years had shaped Joseph and had put him into a position to organize the Egyptians to store up vast amounts of grain during years of plenty because he knew that years of famine were coming.  But Joseph’s family didn’t have such stores.  Their father sent all but one of his sons down to Egypt because they heard there was food there.  The story is a little long, so for brevity, I’ll tell you that it had been many years since Joseph had seen his brothers and when he did, he was both relieved and filled with apprehension.  He remembered all they had done to him.  When he saw them after all those years, he recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him.  He decided to test his brothers to see if they had changed.  If you read the whole story, you’ll see that they had changed… some.  Joseph brought his entire family to safety in Egypt where they stayed and flourished, but when their father eventually died, the brothers revealed that they had not ever really reckoned with what they had done.  Here’s what they said:

“It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’  …  Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Genesis 50: 15-20

Nothing Wasted

The point of the story is this:  God used even the evil that Joseph’s brothers had committed for good.  He used it to accomplish his good purposes.  Through all the hard and painful events of Joseph’s life God made him into a humble, powerful leader.  He used it to save the lives of millions of people by giving Joseph the wisdom and strength he needed to rule well.  And he used the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers to save them too.

Nothing is wasted that God ordains.

The second passage I want to read to you is from Matthew 23.  Jesus was talking to a large crowd of people who had gathered to hear his teaching.  The crowd consisted of people who genuinely wanted to follow him, some people who weren’t sure what they thought, and there was also a group of men called Scribes and Pharisees – religious rulers who were supposed to lead the people in all God’s ways.

But there was a huge problem.  The religious leaders – the ones who had full access to the scriptures and knew all the things God had told his people, were using their positions to fleece the people.  The  truth was so mixed up with lies that it was impossible for the people to know what God really required.  And they had become harsh and cruel.

Jesus said:  you say one thing, but do another.  You’ve played games with peoples’ souls and they follow you to hell – becoming even worse than you!  You’ve made it appear to those you should have been caring for that you were being faithful, but really you were feeding your own greedy desires at their expense!  You’ve neglected and taken advantage of the ones you were supposed to protect and care for!  You do not examine your own hearts but cast judgement on others!

But after he brought all these charges against them he mournfully cried out, saying,

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Matthew 23: 37

Freedom to Grieve

So – why did I choose these two passages?

First, these have been a huge comfort to me and I wanted to share that with you.  This is a hard time in our family and it would be silly to try to act as if it were not so.  But I am convinced that God is working – even through all these hard things, and yes, even through the wicked things that have been done against us – for good.

Second, I want you to know that it’s ok to grieve over the way things should have been.  I’ve often asked, “how does one grieve over something one has never had?”  But then I remembered Jesus’ lament.  The Scribes and Pharisees were terrible leaders.  Their indifference to the suffering they caused was wicked and cruel – they should have shepherded, but didn’t.  That caused Jesus to grieve deeply.  We can grieve, too.

But very shortly after Jesus lamented over this, he was taken away, beaten and tortured and hung on a cross to die for them – for us.  He wept over the way things were, and then laid down his life to change that.  He might have wept bitterly, but he did not become bitter.  He loved.  We can do that, too.

That’s why he came.  That’s why we have Christmas.

I love you guys.

Mom

Yet…

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Yet…

These familiar verses have been spoken many times to me over the years, but I have only recently begun to understand their beauty – and their weight.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls

yet

I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Habakkuk was facing no small thing – the enemies bearing down on his people were ruthless, merciless, vile perpetrators and the terror they induced was real and justified.  He was not exaggerating in his complaints to God, and it is perfectly understandable that he would want God to intervene.

He called upon the character of the God he knew – the God he served and trusted – but who seemed silent and distant in the face of unimaginable horrors and carnage advancing upon him.  You can almost hear him pleading, “I know you’re there – where are you?!?”

Mercifully, we have the record of God’s response.  But when we already know the outcome of a story, it’s hard to absorb the weight of how it unfolds.

Habakkuk is bewildered why God isn’t doing something to correct the evil of his own people – the evil God abhors and he knows needs to be corrected. Bit why, he laments, can’t God just take matters into his holy hands rather than putting them into the hands of ruthless, vicious men? Couldn’t he do something a little less destructive to call his people back to living the way they should have been living?  Why did it have to be so unbelievably severe?

God reminded Habakkuk of who he is.  He reminded Habakkuk of his character, justice, power, and might.  He reminded Habakkuk of his promises and of his faithfulness.  He validated that the desolation that Habakkuk saw coming was accurate and true.

And then he did nothing.

Absolutely nothing changed… except Habakkuk.

Like Job, Habakkuk meets the God he loves and trusts in a way that knocks him off his feet and back to his knees in wonder and praise.  Like Job, Habakkuk realizes that there are many, many things about God and his purposes that he cannot begin to fathom.  And like Job, Habakkuk shows us that we need to encounter God the same way.

The terror was real – the nation that was coming for them was despicable in every way.  The destruction of everything they knew was bearing down hard on them and there was nothing Habakkuk could do about it.  And now he realized that there was nothing God was going to do about it, either.  It would happen, as God said it would, and that was that.

But knowing the character of the God behind all the carnage made Habakkuk praise him anyway.  How could this be?  How could someone clearly see destruction and waste just ahead of him and yet… rejoice?

The answer, of course, is that he was able to rejoice in God – not in his circumstances or even in what they would produce.  Habakkuk laid out all the impact that was coming – no food, no income, no provision at all.  And said, “yet.”

I might lose everything, yet

I might be starving, yet

Everything might look hopeless and desolate, yet

I know you, God.  I trust you.  You have proven again and again that your faithfulness is unbreakable.  You love your people.  You will do right by them.  These circumstances are terrifying – they’re dire – and yet…

I will rejoice in YOU.

I will take joy in YOU.

YOU are my strength.  YOU are my provider.  YOU will offer defense.  YOU will raise me up and I will live with YOU forever.

Habakkuk got to the place of not only knowing that he should praise and rejoice in God in the midst of pain and fear, but why he could.  We all need to get to that place, because that is where we plant our feet squarely on the rock-solid foundation of faith and realize that it is strong and secure.

We are blessed when we are able to join Habakkuk (and so many other faithful saints who have gone before us) in saying,

“Even when everything around me looks utterly hopeless and there is nothing about my circumstances that points to deliverance, yet

“Even if all the gifts you’ve given are taken away, yet

“Even if I have no idea how this will all work out – or IF it will all work out, yet

will rejoice.  I will take joy – in YOU, God, who are my strength.  In YOU who are my defender.  In YOU who are my fortress and strong tower.

Even if everything around me points to destruction and desolation, if You give me YOU, all will be well, for I will have everything.

 

God is doing more through your circumstances than you can possibly know…

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debashis-biswas-197401 (1)You cannot know all that God is doing…

There are events and circumstances being woven together in and around and through your life that you cannot possibly fathom.  That is the truth.  Encounters, trials, illnesses, conversations, music, traffic and every single little thing that happens is purposeful in setting things up to be as they must be in order for other things to happen.

These are the kinds of thoughts that can make our heads spin, but it’s important to give them consideration, at least for a little while every now and then.

I’ve been thinking about this lately – mostly because there is so much in my life, and in the world around me that is not the way it ought to be.  Sin – my own and the sin of others – ruins things.  It distorts and twists into unrecognizable forms the beautiful, good, and true.

We need to see the design – we need to see past the distortions and defects.  In Jon Bloom’s excellent book, Don’t Follow Your Heart (see ch 3) he lays out 46 sovereignly appointed details that were necessary for the “saving of many” through Joseph’s life described in Genesis.  He helpfully demonstrates how seemingly inconsequential details – like the forgetfulness of Pharaoh’s cupbearer – each had monumental impact on the lives of millions of people.

But Joseph didn’t know any of that.  And he couldn’t have known any of it.  He grieved painful losses, endured unimaginable cruelty, languished in unjust slavery and imprisonment, and on and on.  I’m certain (because Joseph was a human being) that he cried out for his circumstances to change.  But they did not.  The reasons they did not are myriad, but most importantly, they are good.

Consider Rahab, too.  Joshua tells us that she was a prostitute in Jericho.  Stop and let that sink in.  No child – regardless of how poor or uneducated – grows up thinking, “I’d like to be a prostitute when I grow up.”  What happened in Rahab’s life that got her to a place where she felt like that was her only option?  Who let her down?  Who failed to protect and provide for her?  Who profited by her misfortune?  How many took advantage of her vulnerability in life?  And what did all of that really look like?

I’m certain that she, too, cried out for her circumstances to change.  But they didn’t either…

And yet, we learn that neither Joseph’s nor Rahab’s circumstances are pointless wastes of human suffering.  God had immeasurably good purposes for them.

Through the tapestry of millions of details working together at just the right time and just the right way, Joseph was used to save the lives of millions of people.  And in doing so, he was used to preserve God’s chosen people to ultimately bring salvation to the world.

Similarly, the same tapestry of woven details intertwined and looped together to not only bring Rahab into the world of prostitution, but also into understanding of the world around her, to keen perception into the intricacies of human nature and behavior, and to equip her with the wisdom necessary to do the right thing in the face of incredible risk.  God used a prostitute to accomplish his plan for his people – but God also orchestrated the millions of details in every moment of her life leading up to the moment she hid Joshua’s spies… including all the painful life circumstances that drove her to prostitution.

It’s hard – so hard – to see the goodness of God in painful circumstances.  We rail against them, and in our pain and anguish, we beg for God to take them away.  But if we can step back a bit, and see the character of God in the midst of our suffering, we catch glimpses of the possibilities of the good that he is weaving together in this tapestry of human history and divine purposes.  Romans 8:28 is often thrown out as a “band-aid” verse at suffering and sufferers, which is unhelpful and, truthfully, unkind.  But there is truth there that is worth getting past this tactic for.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to right the wrongs around us.  We should.  But when we have done everything, and our circumstances persist, we can trust that God has good for us through them.  How do we know that all things will work out for our good?  Because we get a glimpse into God’s character by seeing how he worked it for good for the likes of Joseph and Rahab.  And he is the same yesterday, today, and forever more.

Joseph saved his people from starvation, and through that preservation, God significantly shaped the people he was calling to himself.

Rahab, a prostitute, gave Joshua’s army victory over Jericho… and through aligning with God’s people she became the great-grandmother of David.  And out of the house and lineage of David a Savior was born, who is Immanuel – God with us.

We can praise God for the circumstances in Joseph’s life that led him to saving God’s people from starvation.  We can praise God for the circumstances in Rahab’s life that led her to being a prostitute who hid spies, which then led her to being part of Jesus’ family tree.  And because the story isn’t finished yet, and we are part of that story, we can praise God for our circumstances, knowing that even though we cannot possibly know all that God is doing in them, or through them, he will work them out for our good.

Be encouraged.  Don’t give up.  He is doing more through your circumstances than you can possibly know.

The Incredible Gift – and Power – of Being There

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I have seldom heard such crushing news that I couldn’t bear listening to it.  I have heard many hard stories.  But this one broke my heart and almost made me run – almost.

I sat and listened as a woman told of her journey that began as a Christian physician in a worn-torn, Muslim-majority country which weaved its way through bombings, bullets, and resettlements as a refugee.  Her journey brought her to the US, where her faith in Jesus strengthened her yet again to learn English, a strange culture, and to start life over again as an adult.  It was all too much for her husband who left her with a young son to care for, so now she’s doing it on her own.

But none of this is what broke me.  None of this was new to me, and (hopefully this doesn’t sound callous) none of this surprised me.

Since she told me she was a believer, I asked if she had been able to connect with a good church here – had she found community among other believers in the US who were helping her cope with the arduous task of beginning again?  Her answer is what made me catch my breath and try (unsuccessfully) to hold back tears.

She said, “I go to a good church.  The people there – they have been kind, very kind.  The Word is preached, and they have been very generous.  They have helped me find a home and work.  They have helped me with my bills.  They have helped me figure out how to go to school and how to get needed help for my son.”

And then it came…

“But they leave me alone.”

She said, “In my country, if I was having a very hard day – 7 or 8-hour surgeries where I didn’t know if the patient would survive, babies born dead, limbs shattered because of guns – anything – I could call my brothers and sisters in Christ and they would be there.  They would dodge bullets if they needed to – THEY DID!  They would come to me and be with me.  They would let me cry and let out my anguish without running away from it.  I could endure all of that because they were always there.”

She went on, “You asked if I have found community with my church here.  Not like in my country.  People here don’t know how to sit with someone in pain, but my brothers and sisters there did.  They knew they couldn’t take your pain away, but they weren’t afraid to sit with you in it.  My church here is kind – but they run away from things that are not comfortable.  And my life – my pain – is not comfortable for anyone.  So, they leave me alone.  I am very alone.”

If that doesn’t break your heart, there is something very wrong.  I felt overcome with sadness for my new friend, but also a deep, deep sense of shame and grief for my beloved brethren here.  I know that what she said is too true.  We don’t know how to sit with people in pain.  We don’t like being uncomfortable.

I found myself asking, “What kind of suffering does it take to wake us up?”  If a refugee who has been so terribly traumatized won’t do it, what will?  If abused women and children won’t do it, what will?  If death and disease and trials that brake us won’t do it, what will?

Beloved church – dear, kind, generous church – we must wake up to the tremendous power of our presence in another’s life.  We don’t need to know the answers – most of them are unknowable!  But we do need to show up.  We need to let people cry and pour out their anguish and pain.  We need to be patient when they need to do it again and again until the storm is past.  Suffering doesn’t care about schedules, and no sufferer will trust you with their story if you can’t first sit in the presence in their pain.  We need to be there – and stay there while the storm rages.  And since the weight of suffering is so great, sufferers usually need multiple helpers.

We don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable to the discomfort of much of anything really, let alone sitting in the presence of unrelenting suffering.  None of us wants pain.  We don’t know what to do with it.  We don’t know how to just let it be.  But we’re called to bear one another’s burdens – it’s what makes us different from the world around us. It’s how we demonstrate Christ’s love.

What keeps us so distant?  Work?  Sports schedules?  School plays?  Ministries that keep us running around with zero time to spare?  These are not bad things, but none of them is good enough.  We are called to die to ourselves for the sake of the gospel.  If a brother or sister is naked or hungry, we feed them well enough, which is good.  But if one is in prison (and what sufferer wouldn’t describe intractable pain as prison?) we are told to visit thembe there. 

We all needed flesh incarnate to understand the love of God.  We see it in Jesus – Immanuel – God with us.  But we learn it from one another.  We learn it from someone demonstrating it to us.  God uses us to reveal his incarnate presence to others.  Think about the awesome privilege that is:  you, a frail and faulted human being have the honor of representing the living God in this way to a hurting soul.  This is a powerful gift to humanity.  Take it up – cheerfully, gladly, reverently.

Who is there in your life right now that you can give some of yourself to?  Who is there right now who is suffering and lonely?  Who is there who is aching for another human soul to simply show up and be there with them?

Go.  Be there.