Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Sometimes in life, we have pivotal moments arrive in which we have to make decisions of one form or another, and that one decision makes all the difference for everything that occurs afterwards, just like a chain of dominoes.
That one moment, that one choice, that one opportunity of a lifetime is the moment when it is critical to make the kind of choice that won’t haunt you for the rest of your life.
Are you finding this concept one relevant for you? Perhaps because of a career decision, perhaps because of choices related to divorce, perhaps…well, you can fill in the blank.
I remember when I was going through my divorce, there were a couple of matters that had to be decided, and my attorney drew a distinction between the two. One issue, she indicated, would be an issue that would evolve and change as time passed, and my decision would relate to how it would be handled at the outset. The other issue, however, was one that once decided could not be reversed, and so she encouraged me to decide carefully and thoughtfully, and then double checked the answer before filing the appropriate papers. There are lots of decisions that parallel both of these.
My most recent book, Finding Strength in a Season of Caregiving, is one that comes out of my experience in caring for my parents in the sunset years of their lives. They had desires of how they would like to spend the last years of their lives, and for those desires to be fulfilled, if I chose to help meet them, meant that a lot of my own life plans had to be placed on the back burner. But many a time I would repeat a little mantra that came to mean a lot during that time: you only get one chance to decide how you will be there for your parents when they are aging.
As an ordained minister, I have been around many families in the midst of grief, and some of those families included individuals weighed down with a great deal of regret for all the things they did not do, did not get settled, did not say. Perhaps that is part of what beckoned me to choose wisely so as not to regret the irreversible decisions I would be making.
There is an interesting biblical example for such moments in life. Hebrews 12:15-17 warns against missing the opportunity to obtain God’s grace, and illustrates the discussion with the story of Esau, who sold away his birthright to his brother, Jacob, for a something to eat at a time when he was hungry (the entire story is found in Genesis 25). In his desire for fleeting satisfaction, Esau gave up his entire future, because he made his choice based on impulse and his earthly needs, not on the priority of spiritual discipline. Hebrews said he regretted his choice afterwards, but the decision could not be reversed, even though he cried for it in his heartache.
I encouraged you to go back and read the story, and then ask yourself what are the choices that stand before YOU in life? A lot of choices during divorce entail far reaching consequences. I’d like to say that I have always made the best choices, but some choices have not worked out as I thought they would, and I have to deal with the things I cannot reverse, myself. These choices might be in relation to your parents, or to your children. They might be about a career, or about a retirement. Of course, the most critical choice any of us faces is the choice of what we will do in regard to the sacrifice Christ made for us on the cross. Of all the choices in life, it is critical that choice especially be made wisely, for the irreversible consequences of that choice impact each of us not only in this world, but for all eternity in the world to come. How are you doing with the “only one chance” questions of your life?
Sunday, April 17, 2016
GAZING IN THE MIRROR
I’ve been a minister for longer than I am going to tell you here today. A number of years ago, I was first introduced to a few principles that have shaped my thinking and ministry ever since. These principles are even at the core of my devotional books about divorce, and are principles that make a huge difference in how one approaches ministry, and how one views the work of the church they lead or attend. I’d like to share with you the things I learned, because perhaps they will be helpful in your own context.
The first principle I learned when visiting with an acquaintance who, though technically a member of the church I was at, was not actively involved at the time. He made the comment to me that though he didn’t claim to know a lot about church, he did think that the sermons were being preached in the wrong place. Based on what he saw in the evangelistic appeals when he watched Billy Graham, he thought his church was acting in a misguided way: he thought that they were preaching in the wrong place on the wrong day. Instead of Sunday in a church pulpit, he thought God’s people ought to be down at the local bar on Saturday night instead, because he believed that was where the people were who needed to hear the message of hope. Good point, huh?
The next event came out of some things I read or conversations I had a few years later. Though I don’t remember the exact source, I remember well the point, which was that it is important for church folks to learn to see their building and their service through the eyes of someone from the outside. This was easily illustrated by just noticing whether someone coming into the building for the first time could easily find the restroom if they needed to visit it, or would they have to go through the embarrassment of having to ask a stranger. The challenge is to walk through one’s facility attempting to view it with the eyes of a first time visitor. I once led a worship service designed to help teach that very thing, accomplished by simply making significant changes in our worship service so as to include unfamiliar hymns and readings, or for things to be way out of order, including standing when we normally sat and vice-versa. That kind of experience can help a long time member begin to get a sense of what it must feel like to visit a new church for the very first time.
The goal in both cases is to be able to identify the unnecessary and sometimes hurtful barriers we create for those who might be interested in deciding to follow Christ. The final piece is a logical conclusion of those considerations along with a thoughtful reflection on scripture. The conclusion is this: if we want the Christian message we proclaim to be relevant to the lives of those who are not part of a church, we have to learn how to meet them on their turf, with sensitivity to their needs, perspectives and experiences. The scriptural mandate is clear, but often unnoticed. The Great Commission challenges Christ’s followers to GO into all the world, not sit in their buildings and expect the world to COME! (What does this have to do with divorce? Bear with me…)
After developing some of those thoughts, the thread went one step further when I had opportunity to hear Rebecca Pippert and read her wonderful book, Out of the Saltshaker, Into the World. She told the story of a time she and a friend bumped into some students on the beach and visited with them for a while. Her friend was disappointed that the students did not accept Christ, and that the friend didn’t get to present “all the steps” of the gospel. Rebecca responded by asking her friend the names of the students, which he could not remember. The more questions she asked her friend, the more she realized her friend was far too focused on his own agenda and being able to check the boxes on the list showing he said everything he wanted. That also meant he was NOT focused on the individuals with whom he talking, and inattentive to any needs they have. A corollary is that when one approaches individuals from that perspective, we often end up helping them based on the needs and help WE think they need, which may or may not be the appropriate way to address their concerns or the primary need they are experiencing.
This all leads to the principles that we do best when we are willing to take a long hard look in the mirror at our church and ourselves, and risk seeing how we are seen by those outside the faith. I find it VERY significant that the religious leaders were the individuals whom Jesus challenged most and who were most uncomfortable and resistant to what Jesus said. Those who were “publicans and sinners” loved being around Jesus and felt welcome and comfortable in His presence. And that is a major reason why I wrote the devotional books about divorce. It has been my experience (even in my own pre-divorce ministry) and in almost every church I have attended or visited, that most churches and those in them tend to be clueless and ineffective at best, in how they (we!) minister to individuals going through divorce. Even our good attempts, such as a ministry I found helpful myself, DivorceCare, the program is designed for a far shorter time period than the time divorcing individuals struggle, and contains occasional assumptions that result in disconnects here and there. I still remember one in particular that struck a sour chord in me as I worked the program, because of assumptions underlying the teaching.
This has been on my mind of late, because I have been reading again a marvelous book called, Jim & Casper Go to Church by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper. The whole book is built around presenting the honest perceptions of an atheist as he visits and experiences worship at a variety of churches with a variety of styles. While there are points here and there in the book that I might take exception with, it remains such a wonderful resource to help us Christians recognize whether we truly are letting the light of Christ shine through us, or whether it is something else that gets through. I think far too often the light of Christ is NOT what is shined on individuals struggling in the midst of divorce, instead it is all too often a harsh and judgmental posture, or the expectation that someone recently divorced needs to just get over it and move on…all of which demonstrates the great disconnect that exists. Well worth reading, I assure you.
It is my hope that my devotional books, and this little blog, can provide not only hope and encouragement for individuals struggling in divorce. Beyond that, however, they can also be good teaching resources to enhance the ministry effectiveness of pastors and laymen who seek to be used of Christ to encourage their struggling friends. I learned of a group of pastors who chose to read through the books together as a way to enrich the effectiveness of their ministries, since few of them had been divorced. I heard that one person in the group, who had been divorced, made the comment that, “this is way too real!” I had another friend who commented that she thinks it would be great for any pastor to read them, so as to have a real sense of what his people are experiencing when divorce strikes. Regardless, I would encourage you as a reader to look around you in life, and seek to notice the individuals who might need a word of encouragement or hope from you…maybe because of divorce, maybe for other reasons. When you notice that they are there and then start to listen to what their needs and experiences are, perhaps you could then also start to take a long, hard look in the mirror to determine whether there are ways you could be more effective in ministering the love of Christ.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
THE POPE, DIVORCE & COMMUNION
I am not Catholic, and never have been. My wife was Catholic when we first met, but as she was recently divorced, she was struggling with her ambiguous standing in the church to which she had given her time, treasure and effort, with doors closed to communion should she choose to move on in life, as she, indeed, has. In those days, I was able to hear from a personal perspective what it feels like to have doctrine and dogma run over persons and pain. But this week, there were headlines out indicating that things might be changing.
There was an article by Anthony Faiola and Michelle Boorstein with The Washington Post outlining some recent proclamations by Pope Francis that are being interpreted as offering hope and opportunities for those divorced and remarried in the Catholic Church. According to the article, Pope Francis released a family life document Friday that:
“amount to an exultation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in his own words, isn’t always ‘perfect.’ Yet rather than judging, he commanded, that church should be a pillar of support.”
The article goes on to say that there is no clear change in church law in the document, but there was a certain vagueness that suggests Pope Francis is supportive of local priests being able to make determinations in a case by case basis whether to allow some divorced/remarried to partake of the Eucharist. Interestingly enough, the statements have met with a very mixed response, with some individuals outright opposed to making any accommodation, equating such actions with “coddling sinners.” Others have complained that the message didn’t go far enough, and wanted the Pope to also address gay marriage positively in the document, which he does not, according to the article. But the fact remains that the pope calls for the church to not take the posture of judgmentalism, but to apply moral teaching in conjunction with compassion and recognizing that,
“the church must deal with the world it lives in, not the world it wants,”
according to the article. The article summarizes the document by saying that it
“emphasizes and reemphasizes a single point: Support families.”
It isn’t my place to tell the Catholic Church what it should or should not do, but I sure seems to me that it is about time their theology begins to address the realities of life on a planet filled with sinful people. After all, when Jesus took on flesh to dwell among us, and gave himself upon the cross as penalty for our sins, he did not offer that grace to a select few, or to those who failed only in certain ways. Time and again in scripture, the new birth commemorated in the Lord’s Supper is offered to “whoever,” “any,” and “all,” not just a select few that people deem worthy to come. After all, the only truly worthy one is Jesus, not any human in any church or church office.
My observation has been that churches of all flavors have wrestled with the realities of divorce and remarriage, and have had difficulty determining how to stand for the sanctity of marriage while also standing for individuals who need grace and encouragement when their marriages come to a screeching halt in divorce.
I appreciate the need to consider each person’s situation on its own merits. The practice of blanket policies have meant that spouses who have been abused, cheated on and neglected have been lumped in with those whose marriages ended because of their having slept around or committed atrocities against a spouse.
I believe the Pope is making a positive step in the right direction, though as I am not Catholic, there are plenty of other issues with which I take exception anyway. But those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, no matter what church affiliation, need to honestly take long, hard looks at ourselves to determine whether we are living and acting in ways that draw people to Christ or push them away.
Being supportive of families can include families in which only one parent remains, or families where children live in more than one home. Those of us who have been through divorce know how critical support in such times can be. As I have said before, the scriptures themselves in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament make clear provision for the possibility of divorce, even though they also express sorrow over the conditions that lead to divorce and its devastating aftermath.
Personally, I continue to find most telling the ministry of Jesus with the woman at the well described in John 4. Jesus pulled no punches about the woman’s troubled past and present in relationships, and yet she clearly recognized that he had a place for her, and in fact she became one of the best and earliest advocates for Jesus recorded in scripture.
Let me close with a single thought If you have been divorced, and struggle because you find that your church either has no place for you, or chooses to put constraints upon you as a second class Christian, I encourage you to follow the model of that Samaritan woman. She no longer cared what other people thought, because she knew that the most important person of all, the Messiah Jesus, had accepted her and valued her.
God always has a place for “whoever,” whether the church does or not!
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Easter was just a Sunday or so ago, but I have an unusual habit: I read old devotionals. Oh, I read current ones, too…I’m kind of a devotional junkie. In fact, during one of my radio interviews, the interviewer asked me why I used a devotional format for my divorce books, and my reply was that first, the reading of it could extend over a longer period of time, which can be helpful since divorce takes a while to get through. Secondly, I indicated that I enjoy devotionals myself, and have found them to be useful in my life, so wanted to share that special treat as well. ANYWAY, since I mix in older devotions, I end up with some odd combinations. Such as, today one of the devotions had been for Good Friday of the year for which it was actually written…and another was on a different day of Holy Week. So the neat thing is that I am experiencing an extended celebration and reflection about Easter and the surrounding events.
One of the things that struck me in my “after the day” readings about Easter was when I was reading in Luke 24, the stories about the two men walking on the road to Emmaus to whom Jesus appeared. Careful reading of their words indicates that they were headed home, headed back to pick up the pieces now that the one they “had hoped was the Messiah” had been crucified.
Jesus makes them tell him about everything they had experienced that week, and as they did so, they mentioned that some women had come claiming to see Jesus, and the disciples had gone to inspect but hadn’t found him. In other words, these guys had heard the news about the resurrection, but were going home anyway! I kind of feel the same way when I read John 21 and notice Peter saying that he was going fishing. They had news of the resurrection, but in spite of the news, they went back to their old routines.
Interestingly enough, into both of those stories the resurrected Jesus enters and makes clear that death had not won the final battle, and when they really grasp that, they never return to their old lives again. Instead, they find new energy, new options, new hope, and new lives!
So Easter was ten days ago,
Could I dare to ask whether it has made any difference in YOUR life? That is, now that the celebration of the day is over, has the power of that resurrection meant that your life has been changed for the good, not just for a day, but for each and every day afterwards?
Or have you gone back to fishing, feeling that you wish it had made a difference for you, but it hasn’t? Because I am reading these old devotionals, I find myself immersed in an ongoing Holy Week repetition and celebration, and I am finding it meaningful and interesting. We each choose whether we open our hearts and lives to resurrection energy, hope and change, or dwell in the past that weighs our hearts down.
In life, there are many events that can send us spiraling into despondency. Divorce is certainly one, but it is not the only one. Not only is that the case, but many individuals go to wonderful Christian conferences, hoping that it will make a big difference in their lives, but return afterwards and find themselves in the same old drudgery. Let me challenge you today to examine the drudgery and routine of your life.
Have you lost track of the resurrection?
Have you lost hope that Jesus was YOUR Messiah and would make a difference for the rest of your life, not just for a moment?
Have you spent so long dealing with dark and troubling times that hope is a word you can scarcely define, let alone claim as your own?
If so, I invite you to join me in going back. As Jesus led those Emmaus disciples back over the events of Holy Week, let God lead you again through the stories of the triumphal entry, the prayers in the garden, the last supper and crucifixion, and the resurrection that IS Easter! Let those stories remind you that darkness does not win. That despair is not all powerful. That despondency falters before the resurrection power of God to change lives forever. Invite God to let the light of Christ burst forth afresh in your soul, breaking open the stony places just as the rock rolled away from the tomb. And then go forward unencumbered by the past, but living the promise and the hope.
Go forward to what God will do in your life AFTER the chapter of divorce. Or what God may do when he resurrects your marriage and brings it to a place you never thought possible. No matter how dark the days have been you have experienced, darkness is NOT the end of the story. God’s light overcomes the darkness, and the power of the resurrection can break any stone that tries to withstand it. God can, and will, do marvelous things for you when you seek him…even if, as the disciples themselves had to learn, the things that he does don’t always match up with the expectations you have. Instead, they are better!