Category Archives: grief

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.

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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

Fight for joy…

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James Winn (acrylic on paper)

Fight for joy…

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass might be green, the humidity and temperatures high, and flip-flops the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My fear of what might be, based on what has been, wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.  Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.  Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.   That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My fear of what might be based on what has been wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  The world may look a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfect.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all, ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.

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.

The Lack That Fills Us Up

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I was recently with some friends and we were sharing with one another how the hardest things in our lives – the really hard things – are the things, in the end, that we are the most deeply grateful to God for.

This was no list of “privileged” suffering – this was raw, painful stuff – abject poverty, abuse, barrenness, deaths of spouses, and real struggles that make most people uncomfortable to even acknowledge the existence of.  Yet this group, through tears even, rejoiced and expressed gratitude for what God had allowed – or perhaps, more specifically, what God had withheld.

Who among us doesn’t want food and shelter?  Who doesn’t want love and safety in their relationships?  How many of us plan to lose a spouse before we’re old?  And while I’m aware there are some exceptions, how many women do you know who don’t long to bear and raise children?  These are things so basic to our human existence that many people – most people – can’t really imagine what it is like to live without them.  And yet, there we were, without any plans to accomplish this – and to be truthful, not really having even realized all this about our little circle (it’s definitely not why we were together) – sharing how God, in his providential care, had chosen to withhold them from us in various ways.  It was an intensely beautiful time together.

There was real grief shared – painful, sorrowful, hard experiences.  And yet, all of it was accompanied with rejoicing for the deep and profound lessons – the gifts of those lessons! – that God has taught through them.  There was no sugar-coating of the realities involved – the experiences of grief and suffering can feel harsh, unrelenting, and even cruel.  But shining through the lines of story after story were beaming, glorious, wonderful realizations of the light of God’s goodness and kindness in withholding the good things that we had each longed for and providing lack instead.  

How do we learn that God is our provider if we never have to look to him for provision?  How do we learn that God cares for his children if we never know what it is like to lack care?  How do we know how long-suffering God is with our sin if we never face long-standing patterns of sin in those we love?  How can we know the sweet comfort of the Comforter if we never need to be comforted?

We can’t.

And so the truth is, God orchestrates lack into our lives in order to fill us with something infinitely better than what even those very good things can bring – Himself.  When we lack food and shelter, he is our portion and our cup – the bread of life.  He is our strong tower, our refuge and he would rather allow us to hunger and thirst for him than to have a full belly and no taste for Truth.

When we are victims to the horrible evil that dwells within men’s hearts, we find a suffering Savior who knows what that is like because he suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of the deepest evil the world has ever known, and through it demonstrates how he delights to make beauty that can only truly be appreciated through seeing and knowing and living in the ashes.

When we are devastated by tragedy and loss, we come to know the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief who would rather let us experience the searing pain of loss than let us miss out on what a Perfect Bridegroom can provide in the midst of all that pain.

And when we long for something so badly that our chests ache and our souls burn, we find the tender, compassionate Shepherd who would rather give us what he knows we ought to long for so they will shape us into a better reflection of his goodness and care, than allow us to become arrogant or proud in the fulfillment of our lesser desires.

It is so contrary to what we want!  It is so opposite of what we think!  We want good things – and they are good!  But the problem is that they are not good enough – and that is what our lack reveals to us.  Not having what we long for reveals our real needs to us.  Not having the things we want refines our tastes for the things we need.  Suffering the loss of what is precious to us helps us value the One who is most precious of all.

Our lack – especially of good things – ends up making room for the best things.  Praise God for being willing to bear our sorrow and broken hearts in order to fill us with joyful, thankful ones that know him better and love him more because of it!

 

Acquainted With Grief

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Something was terribly wrong

The two women knew something was wrong when their otherwise strong, vibrant brother went to lie down on his bed in the middle of the afternoon.  “This isn’t like him,” they thought but dared not say, though the glances that they shot at one another told them both they were thinking the same thing.  In the morning he had been fixing the gate at the pasture, at lunchtime he was not his normal light-hearted self, but quiet and tired.  Now he was in bed.

 

“I’m sending a message for the physician,” the older one whispered.  “He’ll know what to do.”  With all the speed she could manage she found someone going to the city to take the message that he was urgently needed and to come quickly.

 

When she returned, her brother was burning with fever, writhing in pain, and moaning in a delirium.  The two sisters prayed that the physician would get there soon.

 

He didn’t.

 

By morning the women knew it was just a matter of hours, if not minutes, and their dear, kind brother would be gone.  They had seen this many times before.  Death – or rather dying – was not the unfamiliar thing to them that it may be for you or me.  They had watched their parents die, and the tell-tale breathing, weakness, and draining color were all there.

 

And they were right.  He was gone by mid-morning.

 

The tears flowed freely and the pain of losing him was almost more than they could bear.  The sobs racked their small frames and though they were surrounded by a host of neighbors and family members, all they wanted was for him to come back.  They had never been without him.  Ever since their parents died, the three siblings loved and cared for one another as few have known.

 

Because of the heat and the lack of provisions to keep his body at home for a few more days, the burial arrangements were made quickly.  He was laid to rest with all the honor due a wonderful man, but he was dead – and gone – nonetheless.  The sisters were heartbroken.

 

The Inexorable Grip of Grief

Grief is a terrible thing.  It holds captive the mind and the emotions as few experiences can.  It is all consuming, inexorably gripping, and in its rawest moments, literally painful. Grief hurts in a way that no other emotional experience can.  Breathing hurts.  Sitting, lying down, and thinking all hurt.  And these two sisters, at a time and in a culture where their brother was not only their dearest friend, but also their protector and provider, were not only grieving the loss of their beloved friend, but also facing a future of unimaginable consequences.  

 

Four days later the physician, their very close friend, finally arrived.  They were so happy to see him, but nothing could assuage their deep, abiding, and overwhelming grief.

 

They asked with aching hearts and burning, tear-filled eyes, “Why didn’t you come sooner?”  “If you had come right away he wouldn’t have died – I know you could have helped him.”  “What kept you?”

 

When Jesus saw them weeping, and those who were gathered together with them also weeping, he was moved and greatly troubled at their distress.  When he asked the sisters, “Where have you laid him?” and they showed him, Jesus wept in such as way that others gathered near whispered to themselves, “See how much he loved him!”

 

This story can be one of the ones that we become a little callous to – because we know what happens next.  But the truth is, Jesus knew what was going to happen next, and yet he grieved with them.  

 

Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” and until I heard this story again about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus the other night, I had never connected the two.  I know that Jesus bore many griefs that we will never begin to understand – the sin of the world, the rejection, the agony of the wrath of God and the separation he felt – these are real and undeniable (and not even close to an exhaustive list).  So Jesus knows what it is like to feel grief – more intensely and more profoundly than we ever will.

 

Jesus enters our grief

But this story makes it clear that Jesus knows what it is like to enter into another’s grief as well.  Jesus knew  that he would raise Lazarus from the dead – he told his disciples so before they began the journey to Bethany where he already knew that Lazarus had died.  But the sight of the sisters in deep, agonizing grief moved him with visible compassion.  Jesus wept because he saw the pain that death had caused his dear friends.  He wept for their sorrow and for their broken hearts.  Jesus wept because he became acquainted with their grief.

 

What kind of love is this?  He didn’t need to do that.  He could have just gone straight to, “Lazarus, come forth!” and gotten him out of his grave clothes.  He could have said, “What’s all this fuss about?  He’s not dead, but only sleeping.  Come now – stop your crying and see.”  But he wouldn’t deny the pain that these two sisters were in – even though he knew their sorrow would turn to joy in a few moments.

 

Beloved – this is our same Savior.  He knows that our lives are but a vapor, but he is acquainted with our griefs.  He doesn’t just relate to our grief because he has felt his own – he enters into our griefs with us because he loves us that deeply.  He knows that he will change our sorrows into joy before we know it – and that from the perspective of eternity, this is very, very little.  But as Jesus entered into the pain and sorrow of Mary and Martha’s grief, even knowing what he was about to do, he enters into ours as well.

 

Jesus was indeed a man of many sorrows of  his own.  But he was also a man acquainted with grief – not only his own, but his beloved’s as well.  Jesus doesn’t only enter into our grief because he knows what grief is like and can understand what we are feeling.  He enters in and feels it with us because he knows and loves us.

 

That is a good and kind Savior.  May the joy of this Risen Friend be more deeply yours than it ever has been – each and every day.