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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Troublesome Thunderstorms in Our Lives - Suffering and Temptation


Do you know how to finish that little quote?  It is a quote from the poet Longfellow, and it says, “Into each life a little rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.”  You can probably guess why I thought of that; it’s April and here in Kansas, that means thunderstorms and tornadoes.  Maybe the fact that this was written on tax day here in the U.S. makes it especially relevant!

I was recently discussing Jesus’ saying found in Matthew 5:45:  “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”  He also makes the same kind of comment about the sun.  When you are not in a time of drought, forecasts about rainy weather are often seen as gloomy, ruining weekend picnic plans or days working in the yard.  The blue skies and sunshine are what we long for, because they make our days so bright and cheery.  Longfellow’s use of the rain image clearly fits into this mold.  Jesus also seems to be presenting the sun versus the rain as contrasting images, so one draws the conclusion that the rain is the gloomy day and sunshine is the joyful day.  

But what if that isn’t correct?  

We have to remember that much of the land of Israel was rocky desert, and the crops grown there were very dependent on the critical seasonal rains for their survival.  It was the sun that scorches the earth and shrivels the plants.  Now granted, crops need sunshine to grow as well, but from everything I hear, our friends out in California would gladly trade a week of sunshine for a week of refreshing rains and mountain blizzards.  It’s all in one’s perspective isn’t it?  Perspective often flows out of circumstance.

I am thinking life might also be the same way.  

That is, we refer to the difficult times in our lives as the evil days with darkness and gloom.  Give consideration to the thought that those “rainy days” are actually the nourishing times of our lives.  Dark days are the days essential for the growth God seeks us to know.  

These threatening and troubling storms in our lives are the bearers of God’s blessings, more than the easy and prosperous times.  

Romans 5 and 1 Peter 1 certainly seem to suggest that is the case.  What we often interpret as storms may actually be refreshing rains upon the droughts of our inner lives, and we simply may not realize it until after the rains has moved on and left our hearts bursting with the blossoms of God’s grace.  

Sometimes it is all a matter of perspective.  From personal experience you can trust me, when times are hard, I know it is hard to keep a heavenly perspective!

Odds are good that somebody reading this can relate to the sense of wrestling with life’s storms and experiencing them as darkness and trouble rather than agents God will use to shape us.  Not that we need to make ourselves martyrs and long for extra suffering and hardship.  

We do need to remember that not all storms are destructive….many bring refreshment and growth.

Today's devotional from, “Our Daily Bread,” by Anne Cetas, takes God’s promise to provide a way of escape out of temptations and contrasts that with the fact that with suffering, sometimes the only way is to go through it, because escape from the suffering is not always an option provided.  She points out that it was also not an option Jesus could take, as his prayer in the Garden demonstrates.  Then she ends with a couple of pithy thoughts, and today I’d like to end by quoting them for you:

“ When life seems too much to bear, that's when we throw ourselves on God's mercy, and He holds us.....With God behind you and his arms beneath you, you can face whatever lies ahead."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Difficult Anniversary - Remembering and Rejoicing


Leon Crooks
November 21, 1919 - April 12, 2014

Anniversaries are important.  We most often think of anniversaries in relation to marriage, but there are others that we note and experience in life.  

We have just come out of the Passover and Easter seasons, the former is the anniversary of the rescue and establishment of Israel as God’s people, the latter the anniversary of the victory of redemption and the establishment of God’s people in Christ.  

Today I am remembering my father, especially, as it is the one year “anniversary” of his leaving this world and entrance into the heavenly realms with Christ.  It is a day of mixed emotions for me, as I know he was ready and longing to move on from this earth, but it is always so hard to say goodbye.  (Or, I guess, it is legitimate to say instead, see you later.) 

Not all anniversaries are joyful ones.  In the holiday sections of my books, there are special devotions for anniversaries, because anniversaries can be particularly hard after a divorce.  For some, the day that was their wedding anniversary is the difficult day to get through…especially the first time it rolls around.  For others, there is sadness when they remember the anniversary of the day the divorce was filed or finalized.  Some may focus on the anniversary of the day a spouse moved out. 

There are some who have suffered much in their marriages, and the anniversaries related to divorce may be as mixed as my anniversary of dad’s death.  On the one hand, they experience the loss, sorrow and sadness of a marriage broken, with the once uttered promises ringing hollow in their ears.  But they may also experience the anniversary as the day that life was started over, the beginning of a second chance that has delivered them out of their own Egyptian bondage and led them to places they never dreamed could be.

Anniversaries are milestones, important days of remembrance.  Every husband who has ever forgotten his marriage anniversary can attest how important it is because they probably witnessed the resulting disappointment of their wives.

Are there anniversaries in your life that need to be remembered?  

Maybe the anniversary of your commitment to Christ as your Savior.  Perhaps your anniversary reflects on something you have left behind, as the Alcoholics Anonymous members mark anniversaries by years of sobriety, years they have left behind their debilitating habit.  You may have an upcoming anniversary to celebrate, or one to mourn.  

I know that for me, that first wedding anniversary after my divorce was a troubling day, but a day I had to face and begin to lay the past to rest.  Anniversaries remind us of where we have been, but perhaps more importantly, remind us of how far we have come.  God never leaves us stuck in our past; he always invites us forward to new achievements, new opportunities to establish new anniversaries in our lives. 

While life brings some things that are wonderful and exciting, it also brings things that can be troubling and difficult.  It is important to not be so overwhelmed with the hardships that one cannot see the good things in life, some of which even come out of those very hardships.  I hope that some of your anniversaries are celebrations of joy.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Resurrected Life


(The Missing Candy)

I like Holy Week, and all the special services that go with it, especially services that reflect the mood of the Passion Week.

I like the candy.  At least, some of it.  It was a little disappointing this year, I couldn’t find any of those multi-colored oblong hard shell candy eggs with the white stuff inside.  I’ve had some of those around every Easter for as far back as I can remember.

Of course, most of all I love the story of the resurrection and the promise of new life that goes with it.  After the crucifixion, with the few days in the dark tomb, Jesus burst forth from the grave, boldly proclaiming victory over death demonstrating that even what seems like the end to us here has no power over Christ.  

On Easter morning all the pain and sorrow of the Passion was overwhelmed by the glory and wonder of an empty tomb and a risen Savior.  Though the wounds were still visible, they were no longer symbols of suffering by symbols of hope and new life, the power to produce pain had succumbed to the resurrection power of God.

For many people who experience divorce, the resurrection story can be a powerful paradigm of the things God has done and can do in their lives as well.  Often before a divorce, one or both partners suffers many hurts and attacks, some physical and some not…just as did Jesus.  The experience of divorce has much in common with the experience of death.  There is great loss and much mourning.  A relationship comes to an end, even if ex-spouses continue to maintain cordial contact, the marriage has suffered a tragic end.  The time can feel as oppressive and dark as a tomb.  But that is not the end of the story.  

For many, life post divorce shares some degree of similarity with resurrection.  Of course it means starting a new kind of life after years of marriage.  But I have often heard individuals mention areas of their lives that they find “resurrected” once on their own…hobbies and interests they had long since forgotten, in some cases a renewed sense of self and of one’s value before God, and for some it is like a second chance, a do-over in which they make new choices perhaps with a new partner and discover a life that they always thought should be, but had never known.  

In some cases, the individual may end up in a new relationship in which they experience love like they had never known before.  For others, they have a chance to change the course of their lives, perhaps in a new location or a new career.  Most of all though, as time passes and the door of divorce’s tomb begins to roll away, one eventually learns that there is, as a friend of mine once mentioned to me, “life after divorce.”  The wounds are still there, mostly in one’s heart and memory - but as time passes and the new life emerges, their power gradually diminishes as a fresh hope begins to grow.

Happy Easter to you!  May you encounter new life and resurrection at every turn.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Challenge of Holy Week


Were you in church today for Palm Sunday?  We were.  Visitors at a new church it was a nice morning with a good feel and a fresh challenge to the participants.   

Rev. Wallace Smith, the pastor, did a neat little presentation designed to help the worshipers get into the excitement of the original Palm Sunday experience.  Hosannas, palm leaves and garments lain on the altar by the participants.  Wallace spoke as a member of the disciples and guided us through some of the emotions of the day.  

What really struck me occurred toward the end of the service, as he was guiding us to the discussion sheets in our hands, he made a comment about Holy Week, and especially that first Holy Week.  Wallace said (in my paraphrase):

“Holy Week includes not only the excitement and joy of Palm Sunday, but also the struggle, sorrow and uncertainties that came on Thursday night and Friday… and yet the whole range of experience all came together as part of the plan.”  

Then as he went on, there was also the awareness that the same is true of any person following Christ…it isn't always the joyful Hosanna moments, but sometimes we experience the moments of panic, uncertainty and hardship, still part of the plan.

Not to run it into the ground, but what in your life is NOT that way?  When we get married, we never marry a perfect person, only another human being like ourselves, one who has faults and makes mistakes.  We experience the joy of the wedding day and the adventures of a honeymoon trip, but when we get home, somebody still has to take out the garbage and scrub the toilets!  Even the experience of having children, which is sometimes used as an illustration in the Bible, is a mixture of hardship and pain, followed by joy and wonder.  Of course, later on, they become teenagers, which on it's own has a mixture of joy, wonder and challenges. 

Our jobs, our families, our yards, our churches, our relationships….almost everything in life is a mix of the exciting and wonderful things blended with the difficult or even troubling moments.  

The same is even true in the midst of a divorce or as we put life together afterwards.  When one comes out of a torturously bad marriage, some of the divorce process can feel very freeing, but there are moments every day, if not every hour, that can be overwhelmingly hard.

Reflecting on all this makes me remember the Serenity Prayer that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote…the part that all too often gets left out of the middle that goes like this:

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;

We may wish things were always rosy, or that something that is very hard would not be part of our lives, but to be at peace with God and ourselves, we need to take the world, our marriages, our spouses and children, our jobs…to take our world as it is, not as we wish it was.  God will make things right later on, but for now, it is just the way things are, and God promises to help us through it all.  

One of my college professors, Michael Tweedt, once pointed out that mountaintop experiences would not be so incredible to us if we didn't also spend times down in the valleys of life.  Personally, I hate the valleys, but it is part of how things are.  

Thanks Wallace, for helping me remember that the ups and downs of my life were embedded and paralleled in the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Research says... Divorce AND Marriage are a Big Deal!


The caption below the picture is a link to an interesting article about a research project from some economists at the University of Florida.   These economists decided to research, of all things, how getting a divorce affected productivity of individuals who work as hedge fund managers.   They then compared it to how much their productivity was affected when a hedge fund manager got married.  

Somehow, that is a question  I have never even thought to ask.

Have you ever wondered what in the world causes people to decide to research something as peculiar as that?  It probably has to do with government grants, or the need to fill space in a publication. 

However, it is actually interesting that somebody asked whether the divorce or the marriage had more impact on the lives of individuals.  

The long and short of it, in my summary of it, is that marriage generally causes greater impact, but that is primarily true of middle aged individuals.  For younger individuals, divorce created more upheaval.   

Kind of interesting, huh?  Is that what you would have expected?  It raises some interesting questions.  The biggest thing it raises is the notion that there are a lot more questions to be asked to fully understand what is happening.  

Bear with me for a moment as I offer some reflections of my own, totally unverified and unresearched, just thoughts that have come to me as I read it.

First, the fact that marriage has less of a disruptive impact on younger traders than does divorce makes one wonder why.  For instance, is it because when they got married, they assumed it wouldn't change anything in their lives, and so keep on working dawn to dusk, and keep their marriage tied into a tiny little time segment of their lives and dedicate only limited energy to it?  Or could it be just the opposite, that now that they are married, they especially feel the responsibility to bring in a good income and so pour themselves into their work?  And maybe when those younger people experience divorce, it hits them harder because with a divorce they are losing a lifetime of dreams, facing the fact that they have invested way too much of themselves and their time in their work and not nearly enough in the most important relationship of their lives?

For those who are older, the marriage has more disruption than a divorce.  What would you speculate about that?  I kind of wonder if it has to do with the fact that when somebody gets to be an old codger like me, you realize that making a commitment to a marriage is a major undertaking and is going to require real arranging of priorities and schedules to make the marriage what it ought to be.  Maybe divorce does not have as much impact on job performance at that older age because after being around for a few decades, one experiences enough struggles and heartaches in life to develop some skills in knowing how to face them effectively.  

Or…..maybe it is just that when you reach a certain age, productivity has already dropped because you are slowing down, and so the divorce isn’t going to have the same impact because you are already moving more slowly anyway!  Trust me, I feel some of that every day!

Okay, regardless of what the economists from the University of Florida pointed out in the whole matter (if there is one), I think there is an important point to be observed in the discussion.  Marriage is a major life change event that will also require significant lifestyle changes away from the worldview of singleness into a world in which there is one earthly relationship that is more important than any other earthly involvement.  That commitment must be honored, protected and nurtured if the marriage is going to be successful. 

At the same time, many people realize how much their life changed after they married, but fail to realize that divorce has a similarly powerful impact on every area of one’s life.  Viewing the change in the context of comparison to the life change of marriage is probably not a bad context to use---it IS a big deal.  

I remember a time when I was so discouraged because I felt like I was progressing through the emotions and recovery of divorce way too slowly.  In that time, a wise friend said to me: “Maybe you just need to give yourself permission to NOT get over it quickly, to recognize that it really is a big deal and that it is going to take time to recover from it.”  

Turned out she uttered some pretty wise words that day.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Don't Rush! Time for Healing


I am not a big follower of television/radio/internet preacher types and don’t make a very good groupie for their work.  I have heard several over the years one way or another, but don’t really keep up with any of them to any degree.  This week, though, I happened to be turn on a car that had a Christian radio station on, and Ravi Zacharias was speaking in his regular show.  I generally have enjoyed his messages the few times I have heard them, so appreciated listening to him during my short jaunt across town.  

I picked it up in the middle of the message, and had to turn it off before it was completed, but in the portion I heard, Ravi was discussing 1 Timothy 5 and the church’s obligation to widows.  

In the course of the presentation,  I noticed that he mentioned verse 9’s description of widows who qualified for assistance, and that he referred to her as “being faithful” rather than having only had one husband.  I didn’t get to hear his full discussion of that, but was pleased because that has also been how I have understood the reference in that passage.  Many have taken the wording there and the wording regarding elders and deacons back in chapter 3 to mean that the individual cannot have been divorced.  Being a one woman man, or a one man woman, could be taken that way, but it seems to me more natural to go with what I think Ravi was saying and place the emphasis on being faithful to one individual in our marriage relationship, rather than rejecting all who are divorced, which does not seem to match with other statements of Paul.  I may have misunderstood what Ravi meant, since I missed the other part and probably won’t be looking it up, but I think I caught it correctly.

However, the main thing that I really appreciated (and which reinforced my understanding above), was that Ravi made a point to say that if someone’s spouse dies…or if an individual ends up divorced…then they would be wise to wait at least two years before considering entering into another relationship or making a major decision, and recognize that during those two years, one’s ability to make good judgments is likely impaired.  

I was pleased that he included both options of losing a spouse, and I am in full agreement with his recognition that one’s ability to think clearly and make good decisions is clearly impacted by the trauma of death or divorce.  Just as a physical injury takes time to recover before regaining full strength and restoration, so also the emotional and spiritual impact of loss of a spouse (or other close loved one), will leave an imbalance that takes time to be renewed.

I have heard it said that healing/restoration after a divorce takes 1 year for every 4 (or some say 5) years of marriage.  That is, if you were married 20 years before divorcing, the healing of the brokenness you are experiencing will require at least 4 years, maybe 5 or more.  Not that it isn’t possible to move forward before that “deadline”, but the wise individual will be very cautious about how far forward and how quickly those steps will be.  And I really agree with Ravi, that major decisions should not be made for a while, and two years seems to me to be a good number. 

Unfortunately, as Ravi also pointed out, our emotional state can become so impacted that we long to move forward and are tempted to rush the process (or short circuit it).  We are tempted to get out of the pain and uncertainty by lunging ahead and not recognizing that our thought processes have been significantly hindered, because we have been knocked so off balance by the trauma of our loss.  

If you are a person who is recovering from a divorce or death of a spouse (or know a person who is in such a state), I strongly encourage you to not allow yourself to be hurried by the whirlwind of emotions around you.  

Though the pain may be intense, and the loneliness overwhelming, moving into another relationship out of that intensity and loneliness can set you up for a second loss with further devastation on down the road.  Much wiser is the one who first works with God on his or her own recovery and emotional healing, walking through the pain to get there, so that if a time comes when a new relationship emerges, he or she will enter that new relationship as a healthy and whole person, rather than as a needy and unstable one.  

The truth is, though you may want to rush, there is no need to do so. 

If God indeed has another relationship for you in your future, that relationship will be there at the appropriate time, and since God is in charge, can wait for you to heal up so that what you enter next will be the best relationship possible.  

God’s timing can move quickly or it can move slowly, but it never hurries, and it never rushes things.  

God’s timing is deliberate and wise, and for us to move forward with God, we need to be the same way.  I have known individuals who tried to rush these things, and ended up creating more heartache and loss as a result.  

Instead, walk with God toward that healing first, one step at a time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Avoiding Divorce


Many years ago, one of my college professors, Bill Ballinger, made a comment that I have remembered over the years as a statement filled with great wisdom.  It is a simple little sentence:

                      “When you take something from someone, you also take  
away their opportunity to give it to you.”

It is a statement I have often quoted during pastoral counseling sessions with married couples or engaged couples planning for their life together.  The phrase is relevant for lots of contexts, but seems especially relevant for life as a couple.  

How many times does a partner in a marriage try to get their way about one thing or another, and attempt to do so by pouting, or by nagging, or by browbeating, or by…well, you can make that list as well as I can.  

It is true the person may get their way about the thing, but it will have a bittersweet taste to it.  There will always be an underlying uncertainty, “Did my partner do that only because I coerced them into it?  Would they have ever given me such a great thing as a gift of their own free will, just because they love me?”  

The sad thing is, the one asking such uncertain questions will never know…they took away the opportunity their spouse had to do something just because, and created a situation where the deed was done with lots of baggage attached.

I have spent many hours talking with individuals in relationships discussing this very fact.  I could harass and harass and harass my spouse (and sometimes I misguidedly do!) until she finally, grudgingly, gives in and does the task I am harassing her about.  But it will be obvious that is was done grudgingly.  Instead of building affection, it will have fed resentment.  OR, I could develop the kind of relationship where I let my needs or wishes be known, maybe even have a little reminder note I put on the refrigerator, ONCE…and then let her choose when and if to comply with the request, which she might choose to do as a special surprise one weekend, or do in way differently, probably even better, than I might have requested.  As a result, she will feel good about knowing she is doing something she knows that matters to me, and I will have a pleasant surprise  as I receive a gift of a nice service done in response to a request, and we will have grown our love and affection for one another just a tiny bit more.  And THAT is a good thing!

The same principle can apply with our children, our co-workers or subordinates at work, or in a host of other relationships.  The way we make our requests can foster hostility, or friendship and love.  

Will it always work?  Probably not.  There are things we may simply have to decide we will just have to do for ourselves.  But choosing to take away somebody’s opportunity to be nice to us is in all likelihood, rarely a good choice.  

Who knows how many divorces would have never occurred if the couples had applied these few simple words...