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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Letting God Strengthen You Today


Have your ever felt as if your world was falling apart?  

If divorce is part of your life story, you know exactly what I am talking about.  But the experience is not limited to divorce.  Job loss, having a falling out with friends or family, accidents and natural disasters, medical conditions or suffering a time of depression are a few examples of other things that can leave you feeling that everything is falling apart around you.  For many of us, just looking at all the things going on in the world around us makes us wonder whether the entire world might be falling apart!

People react to these kinds of situations in lots of different ways, sometimes depending on how personally they are affected by the event.  Some people plunge into despair and isolation.  Others become so troubled by how things are that they choose to take action, attempting to help be a solution to the problem in one way or another.  Some are affected physically, and end up sick in bed.  Still others le the stress come out on those around them, maybe even severing ties with friends, family or work.  Sometimes with devastating effect.

In these kind of experiences, sometimes all that is required of us is to endure our way through.  Sometimes we have to make choices to change our own behaviors and reactions.  Perhaps one of the most healthy ways to respond to these situations is to garner the support of close friends or family, someone who can help them think through their responses.   And of course, prayer and time with God in the scripture can often be the most valuable response of all, because it allows us to gain the eternal perspective we need to face the hard things in our lives.

It is that eternal perspective I wish to highlight tonight.  No matter what you see happening in your life or in the world around us, recognizing the role of God is one of the most strengthening resources to help you through.  When you see things from that point of view, you realize that though it may seem like the world is falling apart, the truth is that God is still on his throne, nothing has escaped his notice, he has not lost control and continues to move history toward the ultimate goals he desires.  I love the verse in Proverbs 19:21: 

Many plans are in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the Lord will stand.                                                      (NASB)

We may think we have things all figured out, or we may think everything is out of control, or that evil men are making plans that will ruin everything.  But this verse reminds us that we can make all the plans we want, but God is STILL in charge, and his counsel will stand.  

When you feel like your life, your world, or everything else is falling apart, it is good to remember that it only appears that way to us because we cannot see all that God sees.  He knows the ending from the beginning, and holds us in even the most devastating of circumstances, and he will work purposes that sometimes are far beyond anything we can imagine.  

God is still on the throne.   

Whatever you are experiencing, know it is going to be okay, if you will yield yourself to the plans that he has, knowing that he DOES know what he is doing.  And in a world as uncertain as ours with all the upheaval we can experience day by day, THAT my friend, is GOOD NEWS!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Question for Valentine's Day


You may have to bear with me today, it is going to be a roundabout journey to the point for this blog.  

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it, that the name of this coming holiday is actually SAINT Valentine’s Day?  It’s kind of like our Christmas friend, SAINT Nicholas.  In all the hubbub of celebrating with our presents and flowers and decorations and so on, sometimes we forget that even today, we are experiencing the influence of Christian leaders from many years ago.  While I don’t adhere to the same definition of the word “saint” that my Catholic friends often use, I do think it important to recall the source of some of these traditions…which is more than just the story of a man called, “Saint Valentine.”

You can find the story all over with a simple search on the internet, but the core is that a priest chose to defy the orders of the Caesar Claudius and provide Christian marriage for young men and women, for which he eventually lost his life.  The man was a believer, i.e. a believer in Christ, and a believer in love.  He chose to make those core beliefs more important than his earthly life, and thus we remember love in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.

My question for you in preparation for Valentine’s Day, whether you are married, single, divorced or engaged, is to simply ask you to consider, what is it that caused this man to believe so strongly in love?  

There have been through the years many poets and songwriters who extolled the virtues and wonders of love.  There have been many who have sought to celebrate love, sometimes in ways that are not about real love at all.  But none of those folks ended up having a holiday dedicated to love that was named after them.  I think the difference is that Valentine knew the source of love, and that real love is not merely about a couple of human beings, but about the God who IS love, and who chose to create humans as male and female and then established marriage in the first place, blessing it with His love.

I have given Valentine’s cards since I was a child, as I suspect many of you have as well.  We used to decorate boxes or cans and take them to school, where our classmates gave each other hokey little cards as we ate heart shaped cookies with LOTS of frosting.  There was always a special one to give the teacher, often with a little present, and then, of course one for mom.  As the years progressed, cards, flowers, candy or other gifts were given to sweethearts, then to my wife, and shared also with my children.  It is all part of the celebration.  But maybe we ought to be giving Valentine’s gifts to the One who loves us more than anyone else possibly could:  


God showed His love by setting the example that Valentine followed…Jesus laid down His life for love.  Love for you, and love for me; love that paid the penalty of our sin so that we could share in His love forever and ever.  When we soak in the love of God, then loving others is a natural outcome of receiving His love.  Our marriages can be in partnership not merely with our spouses, but with our Savior as well.  The deeper we understand the nature of God’s love, the greater will be our celebration of love on Valentine’s Day and all year long.

So no matter what your status in terms of human relationships this Valentine’s Day, I invite you to prepare for the day by focusing first on deepening your appreciation and understanding of just how much God loves you.  A good way to do that might be to spend some time in what I call the Bible’s “letter of love:--the little book of 1 John way back at the back of the Bible.  It doesn’t take long to read, and it will remind you what true love really is.  

Happy Valentine’s Day!  To you, my reader, and to God, my Savior.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Difficult ... But Not Impossible

The other day one of the news pages linked to an article from Redbook magazine about signs that a marriage is in serious enough trouble to warrant a divorce.  The article, “9 Signs It May Be Time To Get A Divorce” by Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is written primarily from a woman’s perspective, and is a collection of indicators suggested by a variety of people with experience working with couples and with divorce.  The list included things like an unrepentant partner with repeated affairs, being in a relationship that only brings stress and anger, and several ways in which one partner chooses to no longer participate in the relationship--skipping out of counseling sessions or acting unilaterally and irresponsibly with finances.  

As I read the article, I was struck by the idea that so often divorces come as a result of one partner choosing to disengage from the relationship in one way or another, or for a partner to get so bound up emotionally that he or she is no longer able or willing to make meaningful connections with the partner.  The article and those quoted in it suggest that these situations may well indicate it is time to dissolve the marriage.  But I wonder.

It seems to me that there are some factors that were not addressed, some of which would not normally be included in a secular magazine.  For example, when the writer refers to a situation in which one partner feels hatred and contempt, the comment is that it is a result of long standing issues that should have been resolved long ago.  But there is no mention of the need for self-examination, forgiveness, or learning to release the bitterness that one has allowed to fester through things like repentance or prayer.  

In other areas described, trust is described as having been broken beyond repair.  Trust is certainly a bedrock issue in any good marriage, and once violated is difficult to be restored.  

But difficult is not the same as impossible.  

Willard Harley’s book, His Needs Her Needs provides specific steps one can use to rebuild trust once it has been broken.  It can be done.  

In all the situations described in the article, there is no doubt that they describe symptoms of deeply troubled marriages, but whether they necessarily must lead to divorce is debatable.  

It seems to me that in those situations, an important scriptural phrase to consider is the simple phrase, “but God,” a commonplace phrase in the scriptures.  Time and again in the scriptures individuals come up against impossible circumstances, and then that phrase, “but God” appears to introduce God’s involvement, and everything changes.  Sometimes to be sure, even in those stories, there are times individuals refuse to be molded by God’s Spirit and calamity results.  But when individuals allow their hearts to be shaped by God, impossible situations can be transformed.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that the symptoms described in the article are not serious, nor that divorce might be the only viable outcome.  But I am saying that one must never come to that conclusion too hastily, and certainly not without giving God an opportunity to work.  One needs to take an honest look in the mirror with the Bible in hand and an ear tuned to the Spirit of God, because each partner in any bad marriage contributes to the difficulties in one way or another.  When one’s partner has disengaged, it may be the last straw, but one should not jump to that without first calling out to God for his intervention and help.  One might experience one of the “but God” moments personally!  Prayers for a troubled marriage, for a disengaged partner, and for God to reveal one’s own need for change and growth can make a huge difference.  So if you find in your marriage the symptoms that suggest it might be time to consider divorce, let me suggest that those symptoms may well be a call to consider prayer and repentance first.  If you pursue those things prior to seeking a divorce, then if divorce does come, you will at least be better prepared by being in touch with God to guide you during that dark time.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Something Special in Your Future


Shortly after my divorce, I bumped into an old friend who had himself been recently divorced and remarried, and when we talked about our experiences, he shared with me that he learned in his second marriage that a marriage relationship can be far different from what he had experienced in his first marriage, and tried to encourage me that it really can be different.  In the throes of heartache at the time, I was highly skeptical, and he had to give me some specifics of how he felt his new marriage was so much better and different that his first.  He then proceeded to share some of his experiences about his apparently much more healthy, new marital relationship.

At about the same time, another friend’s words of encouragement to me were that there is a dream called marriage, the old “happily ever after”…or probably more realistically, “healthily ever after.”  As he knew my first marriage had been a difficult one, his comment was that my marriage had died, but the dream did not die, it was still real, and still something worth pursuing.  Again, I didn’t really feel that way, and it was way too early for me to be even interested in taking a chance at another relationship.  But with time, and some intentional efforts at working on my own issues to heal some of those deep hurts and struggles, there came a day when I did meet a woman and we started a relationship that grew into love and the start of a new marriage that has lasted 12 years so far...and that is what I want to encourage you about.

Some of you reading may be recently divorced and uncertain about your future.  Other readers may have friends who are struggling after divorce, and you want to express your concern and encouragement.  While those words from my friends may have been a bit premature for me to hear (although clearly they still stuck with me), the value they had was to open for me the idea of possibilities.  But it was only an idea.  I could hear people discuss the differences between a healthy marriage and one that is dysfunctional in one way or another, but it wasn’t until I experienced these years of a completely different marriage relationship that I came to understand on a personal level what that difference is.  And to believe that my friends were right, it really can be different.

Okay, some may be wondering what I mean about different.  Well, examples (not just from my own marriage) could be things like being treated with respect, have an assurance that you are valued and cherished, not having to always be on edge about whether or not you will say or do something that will cause your spouse to lash out at you in anger, feeling secure in your relationship and free from any fears or suspicions, or maybe just having more actively shared common values in such things as attending church together having times in prayer together.  

There are lots of materials out there that can help you learn to distinguish between health and dysfunctional marriages, and those can indeed be good resources to consult.  But this blog is not about that, this blog is about hope. It can be encouraging to know, when a marriage falls apart and you are in the throes of anguish and loss, that even though you have lost that relationship, it does not mean you don’t have the possibility of discovering something different, something special in your future.  Don’t rush it, or try to force it into happening, but know that in his perfect timing, God can bring to you a person with whom you can experience something special and precious, a fresh kind of loving marriage.  Don’t give up hope, if that is something you long to have.  Work on your own issues, let God heal the wounds, teach you better ways of responding and communicating yourself, and then when you have learned a more healthy way, you will recognize the possibility when that special someone comes along.  And let me tell you straight out, by the way:  my friends were right, it really can be different.  Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for my new wife, Nola, and the experience of learning first-hand how great it is to be in a more healthy and loving marriage.  We keep working on making it better, and have our own issues and need for growth, but I have found when you have a solid base of genuine love and respect, that growth can be pursued together.  The dream has still not died…take my word for it, marriage CAN INDEED be a wonderful experience!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Second Chances


Have you ever longed for a “do-over” in life?  

Maybe you wish you could have chosen differently when it came to selecting a spouse, thinking you might have avoided a divorce if you had.  

Maybe your do-over had to do with things you said or did (or you hadn’t said or done and wish you had), that you think might have made all the difference in saving your marriage.  

Maybe the choice had to do with a career, a college major, or where you chose to live.  

Maybe you just believe if you could just go back and have a do-over, your life would just be so different, and so many problems would not have the impact they have had.

While we often may think we would like a second chance at some of these things, it is a deceptive notion.  If we really had the chance for a “do-over,” we would probably still make the same choice, because it is only the 20-20 hindsight of looking back through the knowledge gained from experience that even causes us to realize we might have preferred the other option.  

The conundrum is, though, that if we hadn’t gone through the experiences we have, we wouldn’t be the persons we are now, and so what we think we would have preferred would apply to a person far different from the one we have turned out to be.  If we went back and made a different choice, it may well have turned out to lead us down an even more troubling path.  

And sometimes God is actually working through the experiences of our lives to help us learn to make better choices for our future.  Maybe the only way we could learn to make those better choices was by going through those experiences that taught us those lessons.  If God had desired us to learn lessons another way, he could easily have chosen to put obstacles in our path and kept us away from those regretted choices.  Actually, all of these things are mere pipe dreams anyway, second chances do not come to us through do-overs, but they can come to us.

I would suggest that, in the case of divorce as our example, lessons you have learned through the failures of your previous marriage, or through recognition of the mismatch you had accepted are the things that can inform you to make wise choices as you move toward your future.  Everyone certainly makes mistakes, but none of us needs to continue to make the same mistakes if we will take seriously the lessons we have learned.  

Do you want a do-over in life?  

Then take on that next challenge, the next opportunity, the next risk, and taking the challenge, apply the lessons you learned from previous hardship, disappointments or failures.  None of us is perfect, but all of us can grow and make progress.  Falling down or failing is not the problem, choosing to not get up to try again, that creates problems for our futures.  Instead of “doing over,” how about doing better next time…because all of us have more opportunities ahead just waiting for us to take them on to create a better future for our lives and our world. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Chance for a Fresh Start

Last night, all around the world, there were people staying up late, celebrating, rejoicing, partying and enjoying fireworks and concerts and fun times together, with parades and football games today to continue the celebration.  

What was it all about?  

We got to turn the page on a calendar!  

Now we put down a slightly different number whenever we write the date.  In case you can’t tell, I’m not a person who thinks turning the page on a calendar is nearly as big a thing as is so often made of it each year.  I often get together with friends for the evening and we play cards until midnight, kiss our spouses and then call it a night.  Woo woo, huh?  But we enjoy it.

Some people use the date as a reason to make a fresh start, to take a second chance, to attack problems afresh with resolutions and plans.  They are ready and longing for something new.   That decision, of course, could be made at any time in our lives, and in the cases of some of our concerns, the sooner we work on them the better!  Still, there are times in life that are just naturally points of change, newness and fresh starts, some of which we like and others which we do not:  a wedding, the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, a relocation or a new job.  Divorce is also one of those significant fresh start moments.

Someone who had just gone through a divorce finds themselves on the verge of a new phase in life, the design of which must they choose for themselves.  That can be challenging, exciting, troubling, frustrating, enraging, painful all of the above and even more, all at the same time.  I recently saw a television show in which some of the characters had been divorce, in this case about a year, and the ex-wife was frustrated because her ex would not “just move on,” a view which was also articulated by others in the show.  

“Just moving on” makes a nice idea, perhaps, but in many cases, that is simply very unrealistic.  The person longing to be out of the marriage may well be ready and pleased to be moving on and escaping to something new, such as a new partner, the freedom of singlehood, or safety from abuse.  But for the person who has felt shunned, abandoned or discarded, still in love with their spouse or finding their dreams for the future shattered, “just moving on” and “getting over it” is not such an easy nor quick task.

Nevertheless, no matter how you arrive at being divorced, and no matter how you feel about being there, you end up on the verge of a new phase of life and now must decide what to do with it.  Certainly some of that new phase will be consumed with working through the grief and emotional distress that accompanies the tearing of one’s heart in divorce.  Memories surface at inconvenient times, especially on holidays such as New Year’s Eve, and one must face the loss in order to effectively rebuild life.  But even in the face of such pain, the rebuilding process can be a very positive experience in life.

What do you desire to be the values by which you live?  What do you want your reputation to be?  What are the changes you long to make, the hopes and dreams you once had but have seemed to have gotten lost in the process of living?  Perhaps now is the time to revive those dreams and pursue a refined version for your future?  What are the challenges you have hesitated to embrace, but could choose to make priorities in the next chapter of your life?  What are the things you have longed to accomplish, the projects you want to complete, that have been on hold for too long?  Why not make some plans to do some of those now?  

Most of all, what might God be beckoning you to in this time of life?  What wounds does He desire to heal, what character traits does he seek to build or reinforce?  What might be the ministries God has planned for your future, and how might you use this time to prepare for them?  No matter where you are in life, as long as you are still living here on earth, God is not done yet, he still had plans for your life and ways that he longs to use you.  Whatever other plans you make, be sure to make these the central concern.   And then go, make 2017 a Happy New Year for real!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Discombobulation of Mary and Joseph


How are your plans for Christmas going?  Those of you who might be newly divorced or separated may find that the plans are very difficult as emotions swirl, schedules become awkward and times of loneliness and loss come to the fore.  

Perhaps you can relate to the notion of a “discombobulated” Christmas.  Though almost 20 years out of divorce myself, Christmas remains one of those holidays regularly impacted by the fallout of divorce as even grown children have to make choices regarding their schedule and plans that would have not been an issue apart from divorce.  Yet life goes on, and there develops a new normalcy.

But life gets discombobulated for other reasons, as well.

For me, this year, Christmas will be very different. 

I very recently took on a new pastorate in another state, which will result in making a move of our entire household.  Our situation is such that the move will be in stages, and include some time with my wife and I not always in the same place.  I am celebrating Christmas and Christmas Eve with a new congregation, and we are sharing with one another our traditions and celebrations, some the same, some different.  Most of our Christmas decorations were moved to a new house, but mainly in time for a chilly reception as the polar winds dipped down and dropped temperatures throughout the Midwest and announced that the decorations may be best inside their storage containers this year. 

With some things here, some things there, and other things yet to be located, we are experiencing some discombobulation ourselves.  In addition, as we celebrate Christmas in  a new location, our participation in family Christmas is going to be in one of the kid’s home this year located halfway between our new and old homes, while we are in transit from one to the other.  Discombobulated. 

But you know what?  I was reading through the Christmas story again in preparation for our worship services, and somehow, I think that was a fairly discombobulated time for Mary and Joseph as well!  My discombobulation may be more akin to Joseph and Mary’s experience of Christmas than the best laid plans and celebrations that are normally the makeup of our traditions.  

At least our move was because of choices we made, they had to leave because of an imperial order!  It seems likely to me that they had family and possessions scattered in Nazareth, Bethlehem and who knows where else that first Christmas.  They didn’t even celebrate  Jesus’ birth in a home at all.  In fact, as I was reading G. Campbell Morgan the other day, he pointed out that even the word “inn” from the story doesn’t refer to an inn as we might think of it, but was more of a walled enclosure in a field where people could bring their cattle for protection at night.  No host, no restaurant, no cozy bedroom, just some open space with perhaps a few spaces of shelter for people inside.  Mary and Joseph couldn’t even get a place there!  And then, later on, after the wise men came, they had to abandon home again and escape to Egypt in fear for the life of the new baby.  


And yet, in what may have been the most discombobulated time of Mary and Joseph’s lives, God was working the most incredible plan of history, working in ways they would never have imagined.  This Christmas, what in your life, feels discombobulated to you.  What things just don’t seem on track, or where do you just feel out of sorts?   I invite you to consider that it might be a Mary and Joseph moment for you, that God has a plan he is working through your time of discombobulation, even if it doesn’t feel like there is much of a plan.  Just as in the moment of creation, God brought order out of chaos, so God will bring meaning and purpose out of the most discombobulated times of our lives when we submit our will and our ways to him.  

And you know what?  Christmas is the perfect time to do just  that!  Offer God the discombobulated areas of your life, and invite him to use them for something wonderful.  It just might be the best Christmas present of all!.