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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Guard Your Heart

Much of our lives is absorbed with lots of activities that consume our energy, thoughts and attention on almost a daily basis.  Things such as working a job to be able to pay bills, or trying to figure out from one month to the next HOW to pay those bills.  Our attention can be drawn to how we decorate our homes and yards, or the desire to travel, or ways to get ahead on our local social ladder or in the work arena.  Some of us like to collect things, while others like to sell and trade.  We fill our lives with lots of activities, and some of those activities can become very demanding.  That demanding nature is certainly the case with the process of divorce, as couples haggle over parental access schedules, the division of property, developing plans for a holiday schedule…all of which have to be determined as part of the process after which the judge will declare the divorce final.  

I remember a couple of conversations I had with friends during that miserable time.  One was surprised at some of the items I chose not take, sharing with me the viewpoint that I had not taken a fair share of items.  Whether the perception was accurate or not, I do not know, but I remember responding that it didn’t matter, as those things were just “stuff,” and that what was really important to me was already gone, which was my intact family and marriage.  Another individual observed my reactions along the way, and commented on being struck by the way I continued to try to seek God’s help and guidance in the struggle, even though it was hard to do.  That was an encouraging comment, whether the perception was fully accurate or not.

There is a verse in Mark 8 that has often reminded me of how easily we can get distracted in life.  The 36th verse simply saysFor what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? (NASB).  I believe that no matter what is going on in our lives, this verse summarizes the trap that exists--that there are things demanding our attention and goals we may seek, but if we do so without considering the eternal consequences of our choices, we have ultimately failed…no matter how successful the world considers us to be.

For those caught in the throes of divorce, suppose you do get your way, obtain everything you want and win every contest at court.  If your sell your soul to get it, did you really win anything?  Everyone faces this test in one way or another.  You might make the top rung in the corporate world, but what price did you pay to claw your way there?  I think of those who like to consider themselves at the height of fashion, popularity or wealth, all of which will gain them nothing if they forfeited their soul along the way.

There is another verse I like as well, from the book of Proverbs, 4:23-- Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.” We are so diligent about doing the work assigned to us, or to keeping the yard up, or paying the bills on time, or being part of that important social club, but it is even more important to be diligent about taking care of our hearts.  We tend to our hearts by keeping them from things that would lead us astray, by keeping them tender toward the voice of God, by keeping our hearts free from bitterness and unforgiveness.  How often life places such intense demands upon us that we can easily become distracted from taking care of the issues of the heart, which is first and foremost an issue between ourselves and God.

One of my seminary professors, Maynard Hatch, used to say, “The trouble with the rat race is that, even if you win, you are still a rat!”  Today, I just want to challenge my readers to a little self-assessment.  Where are you in life?  What are you caught up in?  If you are in the process of divorce, have you allowed it to consume you and lead you off track, or to plant troubling things within your heart?  I encourage you to take a few minutes to sit down quietly, just you and God, perhaps with a calendar, checkbook and Bible before you, to examine your life and your heart, and take a careful measure of whether you have lost focus.  What does it profit if you get things working your way here, if in the end, you forfeit your soul?  Take stock of your life, and make sure that the priorities of your life match the priorities God desires you to have.  And do it before it is too late.  God is more interested in helping you get back on track, than most of us are to find that track in the first place.  God will help you get there, if you but give him the chance.  Don’t let anything, not even divorce or an argument with someone at church, lead you off God’s track for your life.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trauma and Divorce


This is my father, Leon Crooks, traveling through Italy during World War 2 with his Chemical Battalion

My dad was in World War II.  He served in the army, in a mortar battalion that spent lots of time at the front line…in fact, I have been told that only one other army unit had more time in front line combat than my dad’s battalion.  That was because Dad’s battalion was regularly sent to the front of areas about to be invaded, assigned to do the advance work in preparation for the foot soldiers to advance.  Dad’s battalion had a very high casualty rate.  And he was witness/participant in some very awful things, including his arrival at Dachau the day after it was liberated.  .

One day in the final years of his life, Dad and I were talking about his life, and how he handled the adjustments back to civilian life.  Dad described how his brother-in-law and sister had taken him into their business for a while, which included a lot of traveling and working with dogs.  As Dad described the experiences, he said, “Back then, nobody had ever heard of PTSD, though we did talk about guys that suffered ‘shell shock.’  I guess a lot of us had PTSD and just didn’t know it.  Working with those dogs like that probably saved my life.”  It was a very touching moment, revealing dad’s reflecting on and trying to absorb in retrospect all that he had experienced.  He also said that he got to tour Europe…he just had to walk everywhere!  And that, looking back, he doesn’t know how in the world he and his men did all the things that they had done.  It was a very tough and demanding experience in many ways.

I was thinking about our conversation, and some of the things I know about divorce and the people who have gone through it, as well as my experiences with grief (both my own and those I have worked with), and realized I have probably never written a blog that ties the struggle of and recovery from divorce to a PTSD type framework.  And yet, often those are certainly both traumatic experiences for the individuals who go through them.  I did a quick search (yes, ME, I really did!) one of the first search results I ran across was this                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    website---www.helpguide.org---which had an article about PTSD that I thought was useful to share.  Their description was very striking:

When you experience a threatening or traumatic event, your nervous system responds by triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response. After the danger passes, your body usually returns to normal. But if the upset doesn't fade and you feel stuck with painful memories and a constant sense of vulnerability, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As upsetting and disabling as PTSD can be, it’s important to realize that you’re not helpless. There are plenty of things you can do to alleviate your PTSD symptoms, reduce anxiety and fear, and take back control of your life.   …any event, or series of events, “that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Sound familiar?  

The site goes on to talk about the lingering painful memories, loss of sleep, avoiding certain places or activities that trigger memories and several other characteristics of PTSD.  

It certainly resonates well with the experience of divorce as well as grief, wouldn’t you say?  

I think that is especially true of the person who suffered the shock of a spouse saying he/she is filing for divorce - and if you've ever seen the scene in Hope Floats - when dad is saying goodbye to his daughter - a scenario well depicted and acted by Mae Whitman and Sandra Bullock.    (Click here to view the video clip on Youtube:  Hope Floats)  

The website’s description of PTSD is applicable in lots of situations, including a serious accident or illness, the loss of a limb or ability, and also the experience of having your parents divorce.  Traumatic events are a part of the lives of many of us, in one way or another.  The shock, pain, losing and regaining equilibrium, and finding ways to move beyond the trauma are issues most of us face at one time or another in our lives.  

I think the first step in working through trauma is to simply realize and acknowledge that you have suffered a trauma, i.e., I have been traumatized.  It is not just a simple parting of the ways in many cases; it is a traumatic event that completely reorders one’s life!

The site then goes on to describe some of the things that can be helpful in overcoming.  Their suggestions include physical activity and exercise, learning relaxation techniques to apply in overwhelming times, taking advantage of healthy relationships with others, as well as working to develop a more healthy lifestyle.  If you are really struggling with these kind of symptoms, you might want to go to the website to read more.  

I find that being part of a healthy church and maintaining a healthy relationship with God can be one of the most healing resources you can find.  I'm not recommending that you should pursue your religious side to the exclusion of the other helpful treatments.  I find that those who do so can often end up in denial and never facing their grief and loss head on.  On the other hand, those who pursue all the self-help remedies and never address their need for God are also operating with less than complete wholeness.  

Nevertheless, one of the great hallmarks of God in the scripture is that he is the Great Physician, the one whose specialty is healing broken hearts and inner wounds.  Sometimes he does so through caring friends.  Sometimes by speaking directly to our hearts, or through scripture.  And sometimes he uses the means that exist in the world around us.  But today, I simply want to suggest that if you have experienced some form of trauma in life, recognize that GOD was neither surprise nor traumatized by what you experienced; he will help you move forward, one step at a time.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Person of Integrity


The process of divorce, like much of life, is highly unpredictable.  

Even the court process is that way.  I have known times when attorneys entered a courtroom fully convinced that they would win their point, only to be surprised when the judge ruled against them.  I have known of judges who tend to favor the wife, others who favor the husband, and then there are those who seek to be as unbaised as possible.  Those reputations get around, with the result that I have known individuals would file in a different county from their own simply to avoid a biased judge, or to be in a court where the judge’s bias might work in their favor.  So much for blind justice, huh?

But the courtroom is not the only place where guarantees are absent.  In negotiations between a divorcing couple,  sometimes one partner may enter the negotiation in good faith, presenting options and accepting agreements in all good faith, only to discover later that the other party was being less than honest and find they have been duped or cheated.  

You may also be the parent (divorced or not), who tries to teach your children what is right, and do your best to make good choices and be the best parent you can be, only to see your child later turn against you or everything you have taught them.  In divorce, this can even play out where a child will choose to side with a parent who has been dishonest, unfaithful and abusive against one who is really trying to do what is right.  It can be very discouraging.  In fact, it can even make one wonder why it is even worth trying to do what is right, when it all falls apart.

There are innumerable situations in which these kinds of experiences happen.  Promotions at work may be given to those who lie and manipulate, while the honest, hard worker is left high and dry.  Social circles may shun those who are sincere and honest, while favoring others who treat people shabbily or talk about them behind their back.  Fame and fortune is one place you can see this kind of apparent injustice play out.  There are many people considered very “successful” whose behaviors are reprehensible, and yet they are adulated by the masses.   

Does it pay to continue to try to be a person of integrity?

These things remind me of the verse in Matthew 5:45, where God is described as the Father in heaven who, “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”   The things we observe as the way the world works, simply does not always operate based on the principle of appropriate rewards for good and for evil.  Jeremiah asks the question of God, in chapter 12, of why the wicked prosper, surely out of the context of his own suffering while following God’s leading.  

It is a frustrating experience.  

So why bother?

Well, might I suggest that there are some issues that are easy to overlook?  For example, sometimes doing what you know to be right isn’t really about getting the results you hope you will get so much as it is about being the kind of person you truly want to be.  Choosing to be less than honest, to start acting as if the ends justifies the means, results in your own character being tainted or diminished, and though you may get a particular reward, the price you pay is very high.  In addition, there is the fact that any of these evaluations are very short term.  While things at the time may seem unjust and evil, in the long run, God will make all things right… at the final judgment if not in this world.  Time and again we are encouraged in the scriptures to set our focus on those things that are above, not on the things here on earth.  When circumstances turn against you, it can be hard to look above.

There simply are not guarantees that things will always work out the way we think they OUGHT to be.  But while there are not guarantees like that, I would be remiss to say that there are NO guarantees.  

God guarantees to ultimately honor all those who follow his will and live according to his principles…even if people don’t.  

God guarantees that you never have to go through any of life’s hard experiences alone, for he is always present, whether you sense him or not.  

God guarantees that no deed of service to him and no tear shed by his people goes unnoticed.  

God guarantees that he will give you the strength you need to face whatever comes, if you turn to him and seek it.  

And the nice thing is, God’s guarantees are not just for a lifetime, they are promises for eternity.  

So while you may have to face and accept some things in life that just seem so unfair and so hurtful, don’t fall into the misconception that what you are experiencing is the end of the story.  Ultimately, when all is said and done, when you finally see things from God’s eternal perspective, you will see God make all things right, and realize his way truly was best.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Waiting on God


If I told you that sometimes I think I need to buy God a watch for Christmas, would you know what I mean?  

Sometimes, especially when in the midst of hard times, it is easy to question God’s timing, and to feel like maybe he has forgotten us in our situation.  Maybe as you are reading this, you are experiencing a time in your life when things seem very difficult, and while you are waiting for God to help, the wait seems interminably long.  It can make you wonder whether God can tell time!  Hence, my temptation to send him a watch…

You might be interested to learn that this is not an uncommon experience, even for people in the scriptures.  The question asking “How long?” is fairly common in the Bible, occurring in Psalms alone over a dozen times, such as this one from Psalm 13:1 (NASB)---

“How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?”

In the New Testament, Peter reassures his readers that God is not slow about his promise (2 Peter 3:9)…which clearly indicates that they felt like maybe he was!  The book of Revelation depicts martyred saints asking God the same question (6:10).  Job asked the question, David asked the question…so if you wonder how long God is going to wait to help you, you are in good company!

It can seem as if God no longer cares, or as the Psalmist said, that he has forgotten you. 

But he hasn’t.  

And he isn’t running late.  He is always on time.  Perfectly on time.  

It’s just that we can’t always figure out the whys and wherefores of his timing, especially when we are ready for some kind of deliverance from sorrow or struggle, and it just seems to take forever!  Often, once God does act, it is possible to look back and see how it was indeed, the perfect timing…but it is sure hard to fathom other times!

On the other hand, in case you have never realized it, there are many times in the scriptures it is God asking US how long!  Asking how long we will wander away from him, how long we will waffle between two opinions, how long we will delay turning to him for help.  Sometimes it is our own sluggishness to respond that creates the difficult situations in our life and leaves us far from experiencing God’s care.  

Much as I might like to give God a new watch, somehow I suspect he doesn’t really need help from me.  He has the kind of eternal perspective that means he sees things much more completely and much more clearly than I ever have.  Though it is hard to trust sometimes, it is critical that we learn to do so, and the only way to learn trust is to go through experiences in which all we can DO is trust.  Afterwards, we will see that God really DOES know what he is doing, even if WE don’t understand what it is.  As a matter of fact, if we fully understood, it wouldn’t take much trust!  

When I am in those dark times, there is a little verse in the Psalms that I find particularly encouraging, and I think I will close these thoughts by sharing it with you.  It is from 30:5 (NASB)--

For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning. 

Hang in there…morning will come.

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.