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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Struggling with Life Lessons from God?

1 + 1 = 2


Do you remember learning that little arithmetic lesson?  At the time, learning all those addition problems seemed so hard.  In those early stages of mathematics, addition seemed difficult enough, none of us imagined that one day we would have to move beyond that to division, decimals, quadrilateral equations, cosines and derivatives!  But 1+1 was an important basic lesson upon which all the rest of mathematics was dependent.  And looking back on all the different kinds of lessons I’ve learned in my life, 1+1 seems so simple in comparison!  

In the course of your life, have you ever wondered what it is God is trying to teach you, what the lessons are you need to learn?  Even people who don’t believe in God still talk about the lessons they have learned in life, through the school of hard knocks or the voice of experience.  Perhaps you feel like you are at a point in life at which you are having to learn some lessons you’d rather not learn…or at the least, learn some other way!  This may especially be true if you are somewhere in the process of finding your way through the treacherous waters of divorce, no matter how you came to be there.

I once asked a wise friend what I could learn out of my first marriage to help me do better were I to marry again.  He simply said, “Nothing.”  I realized he was teaching me a lesson even then, which was that every marriage I unique and any woman I might someday marry would also be unique, and I needed to treat both accordingly.  At least, that’s what I got out of it.  

What are you learning?

One big thing I learned going through my divorce was, that I NEVER want to experience THAT again!  I also learned that it isn’t the quick little solve all that the $79 divorce package ads, or Hollywood portrayals of it, would have you believe.  I learned how easily the best of intentions can be twisted, misunderstood and create consequences far from what was intended.  But this blog isn’t about what I learned; it is more about tips to help readers who are struggling with life’s lessons.  So let’s move on to that topic.

There are those people who look at everything that comes into their lives as sent from God for the purpose of teaching them lessons.  

Perhaps.  

There are some things, though, that I’m not convinced God sends our way, even though one could argue that he at least allows them to come.  

Somehow I think that thinking they all come to teach us lessons seems a little egocentric. 

Maybe they come because God is wanting to teach somebody else something as they observe our lives.  

Maybe they come because warm humid air met with cold air and created a hurricane or tornado through natural processes in an area nearby where we happen to live, i.e. things occur that are just part of the way the world is.  

Surely there are times when God is trying to get our attention and trying to teach us the things we need to learn, but perhaps sometimes things just happen, too.  

Regardless, though, I do believe that no matter how things come to occur in our lives, whether they are part of God’s “perfect” will or not, God will use everything in our life for our benefit if we are open to God’s voice.  Even awful things that happen to us can be used of God for something good, although we may not always be able to see it right away.

I would suggest that it is important to develop a habit of listening for God to speak, especially through the scriptures, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.  

I would also suggest it can be a mistake to decide in advance what it is God might be using the situation to show us, and open instead to the possibility that his purposes might be bigger or other than we imagine.  It can also be very useful, as we deal with hard times, to learn from the experiences of others by seeking their advice or reading their stories, as a tool for us to discover God’s meaning for our own time.  And I would make another observation.  Many of the lessons I have learned in my life, I often only realized in retrospect what the true learnings had actually been.  Things that seem so powerful and important in the moment have paled over time, while more subtle insights or character traits emerged long after the forging event had passed.


So what are you supposed to be learning in the midst of your divorce?  I think the most important thing to learn is a simple concept, but a hard one to apply:  that God is worthy of our trust, even in the most difficult of situations.  Master that lesson, and everything else will come in its own time.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

God Doesn't Leave Us Alone

LONELY?

One of the most difficult emotions in divorce is that of loneliness, a feeling experienced by many, including those who have been widowed or orphaned especially.  Over the years, there have been a lot of songs whose theme is loneliness and the heartache of breakups.  

One of the major themes of the existentialist writers such as Sarte or Camus is the ultimate aloneness of humans, culminating with the view that the most profound experience of being alone is at the moment of death, which each person faces individually and on their own.  I don’t suppose there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t felt lonely at one time or another in life, the longing for someone to talk with, for someone to hug.  Sometimes that loneliness has to do with the presence of a companion, but sometimes one can feel alone while surrounded by people who love you, because sometimes a silent wall encloses emotions and thoughts too deep for words.  It is a powerful emotion.

One of the things that has struck me in scripture, time and again, has been the presence throughout of certain themes God addresses time and again.  The experience of humans feeling alone is one of those themes.  It first is mentioned in the creation story, when God’s observation after creating Adam was that it is not good for man to be alone, followed by the creation of Eve.   It is the topic of some of Jesus’s last words on earth, when he promised in Matthew 28, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  And it arises everywhere in between, with such great people of faith as Jacob/Israel, Moses, Joshua, Elijah and more.  

Have you ever asked yourself why?

Isn’t it interesting that long before the existentialists first voiced their concerns, God had already acknowledged and addressed those very feelings centuries before?  The existentialists certainly struck a common nerve with their focus on the sense of feeling alone.  However, many of them never found that feeling alone is not the end of the story, because the solution was provided aeons ago.  The ultimate cry of loneliness is the cry for companionship of the soul with the only One who is faithful and near forever, the cry for God.  Like so many of the basic needs of humanity, God answers the need of the human heart by giving himself.  

Time and again God’s promise of scripture is that he will go with us, that he is near, that he will not fail or forsake us, that he will dwell with us and in us, and that his presence shall give us rest.


Whenever you experience that feeling of loneliness, and your heart cries out for intimate companionship with one you can trust to stand with you in your hour of deepest need, don’t miss the answer to that heart cry by looking to the wrong source for your answer.  Family can be the blessing that gives us roots and foundation for our lives.  Friendships are one of the truly special joys of life.  A loving relationship with the opposite sex is wonderful.  But the real fulfillment of the heart’s longing for deepest relationship is met only in Christ.  Let those moments of loneliness be the reminder that God beckons you to meet your true need for companionship by your relationship with him.  God NEVER leaves you “alone.”


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Intentional Living

CUE BALL OR EIGHT BALL?

Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo give a challenging sermon, about whether in life we are like the eight ball on the pool table, that just gets bounced around by whatever happens to bump into us, or whether we are like the cue ball, which is the one that sets a direction and makes things happen.  I really like the image, and have considered it a lot in life.  I think it applies for those who have experienced divorce as well, and in ways people may not realize.

Of course, in the divorce process itself, one can simply let everything happen as the opposing attorney brings, make no stands for one’s own rights and just end up wherever it leads.  Sometimes that happens to us even if we DO try to stand up for our own rights, because courts and attorneys operate on a different set of definitions of right, wrong and justice that most of us do.  

What about after all the court proceedings end? do you live like the eight ball or like the cue ball?  I suspect in many cases, it is more like the eight ball than we might want to admit.

Let me explain.

Many of those who have gone through divorce re-enter the world of dating.  Often, when they do so, they create a list of things they are seeking and things they want to avoid in a spouse.  A careful examination of such a list may reveal that instead of actually making choices about what kind of a relationship the individual truly desires, the list reveals the writer is merely reacting to the bad relationship they have left.  No more angry men!  No more nagging women!  No husband who can’t be faithful!  No wife I can’t trust!  Reacting to the past, instead of choosing for a future. 

Or sometimes it manifests itself in the way the one handles the children from the marriage.  Allowing things simply because the ex denied them for so long, or making decisions about how to handle time with the kids, in ways that intentionally brings hurt to the ex.  Or choosing to parent differently just because I don’t have to be like I was before in that marriage.  All eight ball reactions, not cue ball intentions.

Even apart from these things, and individual may restructure a future life and still be bound in reactions rather than choices.  Certain tones of voices in others or specific experiences or locations can set off feelings totally unrelated to the current event, creating a reaction based on events long, long ago.  A person who has been beaten down may decide to go out and PROVE “I can make it on my own,” again just as a counter to the messages drummed into their heads for years, rather than choosing to pursue a path because it is the path toward a longed for future goal.  

Even in the realm of one’s emotions, one can be bound up reacting to the past instead of moving forward whole into the future.  Hurts from an abusive marriage, anger over a nasty divorce process, bitterness over the betrayal of an affair all have the power to lodge in our hearts and shape our personalities if we let them.  And if we let them, then once again, we have given control over who we have become to an individual who is no longer central to our lives, and denied ourselves the opportunity to become the person God would desire to shape us into now.  Eight ball emotions, rather than cue ball healing and hope.

This applies, of course, not only to divorce, but to lots of life experiences, whether growing up in an alcoholic home, suffering abuse as a child, failures in school, almost anything can take the place of our ability to make healthy choices if we choose to let them dominate our thoughts and emotions.  Letting go of the past and refusing to give the power of our future to those who have hurt us in it is a tough task to undertake, but it is the most freeing and healthy way to move forward as we allow Christ to guide us into the perfect design he has for our lives.  


So again, what controls your life?  Are you really living as a cue ball?  Or are you simply bouncing around like an eight ball, reacting to things that should no longer have power over your life?  It’s an important question to ask.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Endurance

HOW LONG?

Babylonian Slave Market

Would you allow me to share with you some thoughts that came to me as I was preparing for a message I shared this weekend in a nearby church, as well as our little Saturday night group?  It kind of begins with a passage that includes a verse that is a favorite for many, but starting a little earlier, out of Jeremiah 29—

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Jeremiah 29:10-14 NASB

As I was trying to develop a sense of context for the lesson, it occurred to me that we have a modern day parallel that might help us understand the impact of what Jeremiah was saying.  

The example?  

According to reports I have seen on the news this week, the ISIS terrorists have captured and are holding upwards of 3,500 Yazidi women, children and some men as slaves (I double checked the recent reports for the numbers).  

Could you imagine being sent to tell the Yazidi people that if they will be patient and wait for 70 years, then God will come visit them and deliver them out of their oppression?  I’m not sure they would find that message particularly encouraging; I wouldn’t if I were them!

Today, we observe the things ISIS has been doing, and are horrified at the barbaric behavior and atrocities they commit.  But realize, their atrocities are not any worse…and maybe not even as bad…as they kinds of things the ancient Babylonians did to those they captured and enslaved.  And they, too, bragged about their vicious nature!

It was into that context that Jeremiah proclaimed that God knew the plans he has for them, the plans for good and not evil, and that those plans included 70 years in captivity to the barbaric Babylonians.  It was a message so horrific that Habakkuk was repulsed at the thought that God could possibly allow the Babylonians to have dominance over the Jewish people for any time at all.  Seventy years!  That’s a lifetime.  In captivity, it might be more than one lifetime, for that matter.  Jeremiah even goes so far as to suggest that the people need to accept this situation, plant vineyards, build houses, settle down and wait.  

Only then, after the 70 years had passed, would the promise be fulfilled for God to show them the good he has planned.  After the 70 years in captivity, they would find God, God would hear them, God would restore their fortunes and bring them back to the Promised land.  And that is the plan that is meant to give them hope!  A miserable time was coming upon them, but God’s promise was that it wouldn’t last forever.  As the unnamed old preacher who used to say that his favorite phrase in the Bible was “and it came to pass,” because “it came to pass,” instead of saying “it came to stay.”  

The point of this was for us to try to approach things with a bit of God’s perspective in terms of time.  What may seem like a lifetime to us, is but a brief moment in eternity.  When it seems like God is slow to answer, it is that we do not realize God’s timing is perfect.  The end of Hebrews 10 challenges us in the face of such adverse circumstances, to endure.  Endurance is highlighted as an essential character trait for believers; we are to hang on to our faith for God’s ultimate good purposes to come to us in God’s perfect timing.

For many dealing with divorce and its aftermath, there are plenty of opportunities to “endure;” too many in fact.  For many in grief, there are opportunities to endure.  For those who face devastating illness and financial reversal, there are opportunities to endure in faith.  Or given this weekend’s news reports, even if the hardship is due to a blizzard paralyzing traffic and threatening electrical power!  


It is hard not to believe in the midst of those kinds of hard times that something has gone awry, or that God has abandoned you.  But feeling that way does not make those beliefs true.  Truth is found in the scriptures, which clearly state that God will never fail us or forsake us, and that when we go through hard times God will be there with us to help us through.  

It doesn’t say IF we go through hard times, nor does it say everything will feel okay and we will feel like God is really close, because we may not.  But no matter how we feel, God remains faithful to his character and his promises, and we can count on him to bring things to the good resolution he has in mind for us.  Even if it takes 70 years of slavery along the way.  

Tonight, I just want to encourage you to wait for God’s timing and trust that he DOES know what he is doing, and that his plans really are the best for us, even if we can’t quite fathom them.  Endure, reader friends, endure.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Struggling with Injustice in Your Life?

IT JUST ISN’T FAIR!

One of my readers raised a question with me, that I suspect many of us have struggled with in one form or another.  While experiencing a long drawn out divorce, with a lot of dirty tricks by the opposing side, my reader observed another whose divorce was quick and clean.  In anguish, the reader wrestled with why their own divorce was such a mess and God didn’t provide the kind of deliverance the other person had experienced.  I would suggest that if you have an easy answer for that question, you are probably wrong.  Life is much messier than our easy answers would imply.  I would like, however, to offer some thoughts.

Whenever someone goes to court, the center of justice in our society, one is hopeful, maybe even expectant, that the decisions that will be rendered will be fair and just.  However, even when I taught my philosophy class, the college students were fully aware that our court system often falls short of the ideal called “justice.”  Even the best of intentions can become warped with the process.  John Grisham has illustrated some of the extremes of injustices in many of his novels about lawyers and their interactions at court.  Sadly, individuals caught in the process of divorce can experience the same kinds of frustrations and disappointments with the court and with their attorneys, some of whom may not always be serving the best interest of their client or mindful of their client’s financial resources.  This is but one of the illustrations of how imperfect the world we live in is; even the best of institutions fall short of true justice at times, because they, too, are staffed by imperfect human beings.

A second consideration might be how the process is approached.  Imagine a ball game in which one team meticulously observes every rule while the other pushes every limit by cheating whenever possible and doing whatever it takes to win (as long as they don’t get caught).  “Deflategate” and steroids are two words that come to mind!  Much as we like to believe that “cheaters never win”, often those who are willing to bend the rules and play dirty come away ahead in the game.  I think back to the Enron scandal, where the man at the top walked away with millions in dirty money, while the good, hardworking individuals in the ranks found their pensions robbed by those they trusted.  Sometimes divorce in court is a mess because one of the individuals and/or their attorney are willing to make it a mess.  Some do so to deprive an ex of money they deserve, some do it to inflict pain, some do these things because they are caught up in anger and hurt…there could be lots of reasons.  The point is, though, that sometimes divorce is messy because one individual chooses to make it that way.  In these cases, I personally find comfort in remembering that although it may appear they are getting away with it all now, when the ultimate justice is dispensed by God, those individuals will have an awful lot to answer for and God’s justice does not play games.

While the things above are true, they don’t help much when you are the one caught in the struggle of the injustice.  It is a hard thing to feel trapped, cheated, and struggling while others are able to move on in life with few entanglements holding them back.  Knowing that courts aren’t perfect, or that an ex is manipulating things does not make it easier to endure.  And, if you are a person of faith, sometimes it is a hard thing to understand why God has left you in such a difficult situation when others have been delivered.  I would like to offer a few feeble thoughts on this dilemma.

Let’s first acknowledge that even being in divorce means we are in a realm already far short of God’s ideal.  Marriage for a lifetime was the plan in the Garden, and only because of our fallen state in sinfulness did God make provision for divorce in the laws of Moses.  Second, I would remind us that none of us are immune to the adversities of life.  A quick review of the life of Paul—one of God’s greatest servants—would remind us that following Christ does not also guarantee an easy life here.  The guarantee is a meaningful life here with God always at your side, and a glorious eternal life in his presence forever.  Jesus pointed out that the rain falls on the just and unjust, and illustrates such “randomness” by mentioning a tower in Siloam that fell on whomever happened to be there. (see Matthew 5 and Luke 13)

I shared with my reader the interaction of Jesus with Peter at the end of John 21, in which Jesus described to Peter the manner in which his life would end.  In response, Peter asked about John, and Jesus replied with a statement that basically means, “that has nothing to do with you…you focus on your own relationship with me and leave my relationship with John to me and John.”  While it may be harsh to hear when we are struggling, it is true that how God works things out for somebody else is between them and God.  God’s reasons are not always obvious and clear, and I have learned that while I think I might like what somebody else experiences, I don’t always know the full story and there are sometimes other factors I would NOT want to experience.  God tailors each of our lives experiences according to a personally designed plan for each of us.  At the same time, Satan does the same when he tries to undermine our faith and bring us down…he knows which attacks are useless and which will have effect.  

The assurances we have from God in times such as these are clear:  God will go through the fire with us, and never leave us alone (even though we can feel very alone at times).  God’s plans for us are for our ultimate good, even if they don’t feel so good at the time.  Following God through those tough times instead of going our own way will always produce the best results.  God will forgive when we stumble and fall or make mistakes along the way.  God is sufficient, his help can get us through, he does notice each thing we suffer and struggle with, and his answers are the best in light of eternity and his ultimate plans.  

Those truths are hard to cling to when the winds of adversity batter hard at us, but they are also the only eternal truths to which we can cling with any assurance.  And I have always enjoyed the story about the man whose favorite words from the Bible were, “it came to pass,” because he rejoiced that the troubles never came to stay!    

Divorce is an awful enough tragedy on its own.  When the process adds additional troubles, or a cantankerous ex decides to inflict misery, it can become a devastating experience.  But even then, it only comes to pass!  And God promises to walk with you day by day, whether you can sense his presence or not.  Eventually, the day comes when the gavel falls, the children are grown and you begin to see the future God still is planning for your life.  That, by the way, is the explanation of the covers of my books, for the first volume is gray, cold and desolate, addressing those awful days of divorce.  The second volume is green and verdant, and addresses the new life that begins to spring on the other side of the court experience.   If you are in the throes of the struggle, I encourage you to hang on, because when you make it to the other side, you will find there yet remains hope.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Avoiding a Lifetime of Bitterness

DEVELOP THE RIGHT ROOTS


“Whatever happens, don’t let yourself become bitter.”  Those were the words I heard from an old friend I hadn’t seen in years who unexpectedly showed up on my doorstep during the dark days of my divorce.  I don’t know how he heard, I don’t know how he found out where I was living, and I don’t know what he was doing in town, but somehow he had decided it was a priority to come share that warning with me.  He then explained why by telling his own story when, having ended up divorced after a long term marriage, he had allowed himself to become bitter and found it was a hard journey back.  But anyone going through a hard divorce knows, the temptations to follow the paths of unforgiveness, hatred and bitterness are very, very strong.  Divorce is, after all, a very “bitter” pill to swallow!

Have you ever been around a bitter person?  You can see the bitterness in their facial expressions.  You can hear it in their voice.  Genuine smiles are rare occurrances on their faces.  Their lives are wrapped up in complaints and grumbling.  They are convinced nobody has ever had it as bad as they do.  And frankly, they are just NO FUN to be around.  Which, of course, means most people avoid them, resulting in their being even more bitter!  It is an ugly and vicious cycle.

Even worse is the impact bitterness can have on other people.  I have always liked the verse found in Hebrews 12:15—

See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;   (New American Standard Bible)

Have you ever seen that happen?  Families filled with negativity or torn apart by bitterness.  Individuals who make the work environment miserable and almost unbearable, resulting in continual employee turnover.  Churches where attendees feel anything but welcome.  Bitterness is an evil infection that festers and throbs and produces nothing good in anyone.


The antidote, of course, is to nurture the opposite traits.  Things like forgiveness, kindness, generosity, helping others, investing in the future instead of rehashing the past.  

Forgiveness isn’t the one time choice that suddenly makes everything all hunky-dory.  It is a discipline that requires continual practice and reaffirmation, until the day comes when the pain subsides and the danger of bitterness has passed.  The imagery of a root is a good one to consider, especially if you are person who has tried to remove a stubborn plant or tree whose roots have dug deep.  You have to intentionally dig, struggle, destroy and attack such a root if you are going to win the battle.  The same is true of the battle against bitterness.  

I encourage you to consider joining the battle, because the sooner you do, the less chance bitterness has had to send the roots deep, and the more content you will be with whatever life brings your way.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Bill of Rights for the Divorced

TEN BOUNDARIES TO CONSIDER

Boundaries and borders are much in the news these days.  Some countries are considering closing their borders, others, such as the United States wrestle with how to secure the borders and what that security should be like.  Across the Middle East, boundaries are being defied while invaders seek to claim new territories through warfare.  But the concern for boundaries applies also to homes established after a divorce, but just like international boundaries, they can be very tricky to define and enforce.

One of the tough areas in the early days of divorce is learning how to set and hold appropriate boundaries, and then determining which boundaries might need to be more open to negotiation.  Does your ex enter your home?  Is it okay for him or her to call you every day?  What about ignoring the assigned times for picking up children?  Sometimes an ex thinks it is their place to inform the former spouse of all the parenting mistakes their ex is making.  Other times, an ex will make plans for a child on a day that the child will be at the other parent’s home, and then set up the child to come bounding in and say, “That’s okay, isn’t it?”  

The hard part is that there are no clear rules that are hard and fast, in that the relationship between one set of divorced parents might work well enough that the doors to the home can be open and welcoming.  On the other hand, another divorcee may not be able to trust the behavior of their ex in the home, finding things missing afterwards, or inappropriate suggestions.  Some individuals, especially in the early days of divorce, somehow get it in their heads that they can be divorced but go on living as if nothing has changed.  In truth, everything has changed, from the very fundamentals.

Here are a few suggestions that might provide helpful guides---

  1. You have the right to create whatever boundary is necessary for you and your children to feel safe in the walls.
  2.  You have the right to not have to endure harassment from an individual who no longer wants to be your spouse.
  3. You have the right to expect to be treated with appropriate respect, even if the relationship cannot be cordial.
  4. You have the right to say, “no,” when doing otherwise would infringe on your time or emotional health.
  5. You have the right to have private space.
  6. You have the right to give yourself time and opportunity to heal emotionally.
  7. You have the right to arrange the next chapter in your life in whatever ways you and God find acceptable, whether your ex does or not.
  8. You have the right to explore a future for yourself, to step forward and try new things in your life.
  9. You have the right to change your mind, and reconcile with your spouse if that opportunity arises, whether others approve or not.
  10. You have the right to do only the best you can, making mistakes along the way…because, after all, you are only human and are charting a new and unexplored land of life on your own again.