Category Archives: refining

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.

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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!

 

Fasting gives me a headache…

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In case you haven’t heard there’s a lot of talk about fasting this month.  It’s Ramadan, but Muslims aren’t the only ones who fast.

 

Recently a friend of mine asked me if I would fast with her and pray for some friends, pray for her work, and pray about the “stuff” of life.

 

“Sure!” I said on the outside.  “ugh… “ I said on this inside.  And so, like the angels and demons I’d seen on peoples’ shoulders in the cartoons of my youth – my internal war began – again.

 

Fasting gives me a headache.  A serious, throbbing, cannot-ignore-it sort of headache.  I feel grumpy and distracted and completely out of sorts.  I can’t believe how much I think about eating when I’m fasting!  It’s astounding to me that I can spend so much time thinking about what I could be eating – when my goal is to forget about eating!

 

Have you tried it?  Have you struggled?  Have you quit in the middle and said, “This is STUPID!!”?  I have.  I hate to have to admit it, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had to come face to face with how weak and distractable and cowardly I really am.

 

But that is precisely the point.  It is because each and every one of us is weak and selfish and filled up to the brim with lies that we believe about our own abilities that we need to fast.  Contrary to what many believe:

 

We do not fast to make ourselves clean before God.

We do not fast because it somehow convinces God to accept us.

We do not fast to pay for the wrong things we’ve done.

We do not fast to atone for the wrong thoughts we’ve had.

We do not fast to in any way clean up our act, straighten ourselves out, or try in some way to “get things right with the Man Upstairs” (as some of my childhood friends explained their fasting during Lent).

 

Fasting will show you how woefully short you fall of being in any way clean before the Lord.

Fasting will show you how prone you are to pleasing yourself rather than God.

Fasting will reveal to you how many more wrong things you do than you ever wanted to admit.

Fasting will kick up the settled dust of wrong thinking, and show you just how prone you are to thinking about ridiculous things that don’t matter – at the very least – if it doesn’t also reveal to you how prejudiced, sneaky, snarky, and just downright mean you can be.

 

By now you might be saying, “Um, and why is this a good thing?”  It’s good because we need to know these things about ourselves.  We need to know our sinfulness more and more completely, because doing so reveals to us the beauty of the cross and the glory of our Savior in ways that we can’t comprehend without it.

 

How else can the sacrifice of a perfect lamb become truly precious to us if we don’t understand that Christ died for us while we were swimming around in a sewage-filled ocean of our own making?  How else will we treasure the gifts of redemption and adoption if we never realize how far we have alienated ourselves from God and chosen instead to dirty ourselves by continuing to wallow around in and fill up our ocean with more and more insanity?  We lie to ourselves about ourselves far too easily.  We need disciplines like fasting to shake us awake to reality and remind us why we needed a Savior in the first place.  As it turns out, quietly sitting next to Jesus for any length of time will make you want to slither away from Him rather than present your “cleaned up” life to him, because we all know what it’s like to try to clean ourselves up from that kind of mess with a hanky that we’ve had in our pockets the whole time – it’s impossible.  

 

And that is why we fast.

 

When we get to the place where we realize the very best we might possibly hope for is to sneak away unnoticed by the brilliant Son of God, it is then that we can see clearly that He is coming after us – pursuing us with gentleness and love and forgiveness that we know we don’t deserve.  And yet, he brings us to stand there in His presence and accept His thorough cleansing from top to bottom, inside and out.  

 

Do you know that He loves you this way?  Do you want to know?  Come and fast with me.

 

There’s no formula – you will likely need to experience some failures and successes on your own in this because that is part of the discipline.  But we all need someone to disciple us.  It will become painfully clear to you – within about the first 20 minutes or so – that this is going to be harder than you thought.  But here are some practical things that have helped me keep my focus through the struggle to fast.

 

Hunger Pangs:  Saying “no” to food shows us how much we need to say yes to hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matthew 5).  Hunger is a powerful drive that God has given us.  He has intended it for our survival, but He has also intended it to teach us to hunger and thirst for Him.  When I’m fasting and I want to eat something, I pray, “Lord, help me to hunger and thirst after you even more than food.  Help me to know you in such a way that you fill me up and I am satisfied, no matter my circumstance, no matter if my belly is full or empty.  Lord show me what you want me to learn about you through this fast and help me to see you clearly.”  In practical terms though, I have to steer clear of the kitchen and keep my fast elsewhere.

 

Distractions:  It’s usually about half-way through that prayer that I find myself thinking about other things!  It’s as if my heart says, “Fine, if you’re not going to give in on the food front how about we talk about the laundry that needs to get done, or the dishes, or …that stinkin’ kid didn’t take the trash out… again!”  Maybe for you it will be your boss, or the incompetent drivers on the road, or your classmate’s weird outfit, or your coworker’s bad breath, or… you get the idea.  I can be distracted by anything when it comes time to pray.  I have to have a plan.  I have found that writing out my prayers is enormously helpful, and writing out what I want to pray about first, so that my “prayers” don’t become a rambling stream of consciousness instead, is almost critical.  (go ahead, laugh, but you know it’s true…)

 

Sometimes sitting and praying close to electronics is too distracting.  I use prayers written on index cards that I can take into another room or into the car or on a walk or anywhere that I won’t be tempted to “just check real quick.”

 

Boredom:  Yeah, I know – we shouldn’t get bored when we’re trying to talk to God.  But since I’ve already been brutally honest, I figure I might as well go all the way.  Sometimes I feel as if I’ve run out of things to talk with God about.  I get bored with the whole idea of focusing on Him and I just want to do something mindless and easy.  This, too, can lead me to pray, “Lord – teach me to want you!”  And if that doesn’t spark some other requests, then simply spending some time doing ordinary tasks and then thanking and praising Him for them is unbelievably helpful.  “Lord, thank you for this laundry to do for it means you have blessed me with clothing to keep me warm and covered.  Thank you for the family members who wear these things and forgive me for grumbling about serving them.  Thank you for ordering the world in such a way that families are your design that we can learn to trust and grow and know you.  I praise you Lord for you have formed me and each of these whom I love so dearly in wonderful ways.  I praise you Lord for you have created beauty and goodness and truth that surrounds us everywhere.  Help me, Lord, to point others to you so that they, too, can worship you in Spirit and in Truth.”  Sometimes it’s helpful to simply keep your hands busy while your mind is refocusing on why you’re fasting.

 

Sleepiness: Yes, it’s tempting to just go and take a nap rather than try to keep alert and focused – especially when everything is warring against that.  Sometimes I have to absolutely command myself not to give in, but because I am doing most of my work at home, my bed or that comfy chair can be really tempting. If you’re working somewhere else, you might not have this trouble during your work hours, but when you get home you will.  When it happens, you’ll need a plan:  take a walk, put on some worship music, clean the bathroom if you have to, and commit to talking with your Heavenly Father while you’re doing them.  

 

Headache:  Yes, I really do get whopper headaches when I fast.  Sometimes I push through them, and ask God to use them to draw me closer to Him.  If they’re helping me do that, I deal with the headache.  But sometimes, I take some pain reliever.  It’s not about the headache – it’s about my heart’s cry.  Sometimes the headaches helps me to cry out to God, sometimes it really is a distraction.  Talk to God about that, too, and ask him for wisdom to discern which it is.

 

The key to all of this is that we see how much we need Jesus.  Fasting confronts us with our utter incapability of doing all that God requires of us – and realizing that we are hopelessly trapped in that condition is the first step on the journey of sweet, satisfying communion with God for eternity.

 

Come and fast with me as I hunger and thirst after the righteousness that only Jesus can supply.  Come fast with me as I seek to put to death all the loves in my life that keep me from loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Come fast with me as I ask for wisdom to know what those things are and look for ways to be thankful and joyful right where God has me now.  Come fast with me as I ache to be reminded of the One who loves me enough to rescue me from my own willful wickedness.  And come fast with me to rejoice in a salvation that is complete and glorious and free – for we have been loved with an everlasting love and fasting helps us know it.

Let me know how you have learned how to fast – or what you’re struggling with.  Let’s encourage one another as we walk this journey of faith together.

 

(image credit: https://www.magnoliabox.com/search?q=sad&type=product)

What if…?

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Yesterday I was challenged with a “What if…?” question.

“What if” questions require imagination.  They require us to ponder the possibilities, explore the potentials, and mentally fly to places unknown.  What if questions are usually an invitation to hope and dream about positive, wonderful things.  I encourage my kids to ask “what if?” all the time.  I want them to learn to imagine and dream the biggest of hopes and possibilities.  It’s a good exercise.

But I have to admit that when the question was first being posed to me, I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative…or positive…or wonderful.

This particular “what if” scenario wasn’t about imagining the possibilities of great inventions or missions opportunities or travel destinations.  It wasn’t about letting my mind take me away to possible twists and turns on my life journey or even hopes or dreams.

No.  This “what if” question was about pain.

“What if,” my friend asked me, “this current pain that is so hard is actually meant to be life-giving rather than the death you think it is?”  I knew where he was going, but I was not particularly jumping up and down about going down that imaginary road with him.

I was thinking, “But the pain is… well, I don’t mean to sound dense, but… it’s painful.  And I want it to stop – yesterday. I don’t want to open myself up to the possibilities of it – I want to close myself off so it stops hurting so much.”

I knew that probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say out loud.  Even as it was rolling around in my mind, I could hear the stories of Joseph and Job and Paul objecting to my objections.

Still, I wanted to say, “But…”

I didn’t.

I listened.  Wanting desperately to object to the idea that the pain had to continue, and wanting to object vehemently to the notion that it might be for my good.

“Why does pain have to be such a harsh task master?”

Why, oh why can’t we learn the hard things through easier means?”

These were the questions I wanted to raise like a child wailing at the top of her lungs while the Physician was trying to administer a life-saving remedy.

I don’t want pain.  I certainly don’t want pain that has to last and last.

But I know better.

I know that the painful lessons are the most thorough ones.  I know that the tutelage of pain has the most lasting impact.  And I know, more than anything, that the painful times bear the sweetest, truest, deepest, richest spiritual fruit in my life.

Do I want to embrace this pain as the faithful teacher I know it to be?  Not really – do you like hugging porcupines?  But I’ll hug him again and again if I have faith that there will be an even greater reward than I can ask for or imagine on the other side of pulling out the quills.

I’ve been asked to trust that the pain will achieve its purpose because it has come through the hands of my loving Heavenly Father.  And I’m being asked to consider the possibility that hopeful anticipation for the blessed reward on the other side of it all will make me wonder what I was so afraid of.  Big requests, really, but honest ones.

Opening one’s self, voluntarily – willingly ­– to the lessons of pain feels like giving one’s self over to the tyranny of a tormentor… Unless we know our Teacher well.

Trusting in human beings is risky business.  But trusting in the One who loves me enough to lay down His life for me isn’t risky at all.  Keeping my eyes – and heart and thoughts and hopes and dreams – stayed on Jesus will bring me safely to the other side of all of this.  Even if it goes on and on He will sustain me and comfort me and be enough for me.  I know this to be true.

So onward pain.  Do your work. Have your way with me and mold me into a woman who radiates the tested beauty that only the heat of a refiner’s fire can produce.  Keep me captive until I have learned the God-exalting lessons you have prepared for me.  And do not leave until this work is accomplished.

And Lord, for what it’s worth… I do believe all of this.  I know that you work all things together for my good, because I am yours.  I know that you have plans for me for a future and a hope.  I know that my help comes from you and you are my defender and ever-present helper in times of need.  Lord, I do believe all that  – but please, help my unbelief.