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Sunday, September 15, 2019

Friends, Anyone?


I tell you what….dealing with the long term post-flood recovery and impact while juggling all the normal activities has just kept the schedule crazy!  Hence it’s been too long since the last blog…my apologies.  On the other hand, as of today another local resident’s home is now winterized with fresh repairs by a visiting ABMen flood relief team. 

Nevertheless, on to the blog….

Recently I had an email conversation with a friend who is dealing with a lot of different kinds of life changes, some of which are amazingly difficult…and is making those changes with patience, courage and perseverance.  In the course of the conversation, we discussed how sometimes in life we find friends who seem to really care about us, but then something will come along that makes plain that their commitment to the friendship isn’t at all what it appeared to be, but was very superficial at best.  In those moments, we are able to distinguish between people who appear to be our friends, and those who truly are the kind of loyal friends who will stand with you throughout all of life’s vicissitudes.  

Often, in a divorce, the couple and their friends go through some very difficult times of sorting.  Sometimes the friends will choose one partner or the other to keep as a friend.  Sometimes they will find ways to make space for each partner.  Sometimes they will avoid the whole issue and just walk away from the friendship.  But sometimes it goes the other way.  Sometimes it is the person going through divorce who abandons friends as they walk away from both spouse and other relationships.  And yet…friends are so important, critical supports we need in these times of extreme stress.  

I read in and old edition of Guideposts the other day the following story of Norman Vincent Peale’s, and thought it worth sharing. The story begins as he tells about a time when, as a young man, he met Henry Ford by chance, and asked him for advice about success in life.  Ford’s answer is:

“Who’s your best friend?  I’ll tell you who it is:  It’s the person who brings out the best in you.  Always associate with the best people—that is where you will find such a person.”

In the Guidepost article, Peale reflects on the encounter and says,

“And there is an opposite side to Henry Ford’s question, too.  It’s ‘Whose best friend are you?’  Try asking yourself that question from time to time.  Then when you answer it, make sure that you deserve that title by bringing out the best in that person every day, in every way.”

The old saying is, “the best way to find a friend is to be a friend.”  I like both Ford and Peale’s advice.  And for those who find themselves in a time of life in which life events are resulting in shifting friendships, I would add a few comments of my own.

First, be very careful about discarding friends. Sometimes it may appear that someone doesn’t care, when in fact they don’t know exactly what to say or do, or they may be otherwise preoccupied and not realize they are letting you down. Good friends in life are rare and precious treasures, do not discard friendships lightly.  

Secondly, when you find those friends who are the kind of friends Ford is talking about, friends who are loyal and supportive, friends whose influence makes you rise to the best of who you are, and friends who walk with you through even the darkest of days, when you find friends like that, treat them like the treasures they are and never let them go.  Friends like that only come our way now and then in life, and as a result, are worth hanging onto.  And the best way to hang on to those friends, is to be that kind of friend for them when theyare dealing with the rough times in their lives.

Thirdly, never forget, no matter what happens with the other friends in your life, Jesus calls his followers his friends, too, and his promise is to never fail us or forsake us!  He’s the best friend you will ever know…he knows you better than anyone else, he cares for you more than anyone else ever has, and his help, advice and counsel are perfect.  When you feel like your other friends have let you down or abandoned you, know that your best friend, Christ Jesus, never will.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Just Do One Thing


Do you ever have days when you wake up and feel so overwhelmed that you would want to go back to bed because you just can’t, there is just too much on your plate, too much to do, and you just don’t have the energy or the brain power to tackle it all?  

Maybe those days come because you have been traumatized.  

Maybe they come because you have become so discouraged that you are barely hanging on and feel depressed most of the time.  

Maybe you have those days when everything seems to all come at once and neither your plate nor your calendar have enough room for it all.   Or, if you have recently gone through a divorce, you may feel that way because of the overwhelming loneliness that has come to your home.  

Whatever the reason, that experience can become debilitating. What do you do?

How do you manage when you feel life has become unmanageable?  Of course it may involve prayer, it may involve counseling, it may involve the support of good friends, but in addition to all of those, there is a simple truth that can help.  When things get to be too much, when there is more than you can possibly do in one day, when the plate is so full that you can’t even lift it, then it is time to adjust your focus.  Hone down your perspective so that your attention is not consumed with everything, but instead is consumed with ONE thing.  

Find ONE thing among all the things, that you can do first.  One thing for today.  One thing for this hour.  One thing to begin with.  Forget about trying to do everything, and do one thing.  Let that become one step.  And do that ONE step.  No matter how long it takes, no matter how much energy it consumes, no matter how many other things you leave behind to do it, do that one thing.  You will then be able to scratch one thing off your list. Afterwards, you can consider what might be the next thing, but that is only afterwards.  Right now, do the one thing.  And measure success by doing ONE thing, not by whether or not you do EVERYTHING.

One thing is progress.  One thing is something.  One thing is one less thing that awaits you.  One thing is an accomplishment.  One thing is one thing you can take off the plate, because it is done. One thing means that you ARE not doing nothing.
Oh, sure, there may be other things thrown onto your plate while you are doing that one thing, and the schedule may become more full even as you make progress on the one thing.  But when you feel like you can’t do ANYTHING, that ONE THING proves otherwise.  And when you are talking about doing everything you can, some days, one thing may literally be ALL that you CAN!  Give yourself credit, then, for the one thing you have done.

Once you have managed to accomplish one thing a time or two, you might decide to take a day to tackle TWO things that day.  Or, it may be that the one thing you select gets done in less time than you thought, at which point you might decide you want to do one more thing unexpectedly.  Eventually, you will get back to being your own self.  In the meantime, give yourself some grace, and focus on what you CAN do, not on what you CAN’T.   

All of this reminds me of a passage in Isaiah that often comes back and gives me hope in dark days.  Isaiah 61, quoted by Jesus as referring to himself, describes the difference God wants to make in our lives, the changes he wants to bring about.  In verse three, a couple of changes described are these:
                  “the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
                                     the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit;”  (RSV)
There is a replacement for the heaviness of heart of our lives.  God wants to replace the gray skies of mourning and fainthearted weakness into gladness and praise.  But often that replacement occurs only one step at a time.  As you step ahead, take time to give God thanks for who he is, for his help in each thing, and to celebrate the fact that one thing has been done.  As time goes by, God will restore your soul and you will discover the gladness and praise that you seek.  

But for now, just do one thing.  And then, let that one thing count!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Struggle and Progress


At my church, this year we are celebrating our 150thyear of ministry.  It is kind of fun, going back and reading all the old stories and looking at a lot of old pictures of those who went before.  People share some of their stories and find the photos often spark memories from days gone by.  

As part of the celebration, we are moving through history decade by decade with reminders of world and church events of the particular decade.  Today, the focus decade was the 1990’s.  

As I read over the list of events, I found striking the number of terrible things that occurred in that decade, the Rodney King trial and riots, World Trade Center bombing, Hurricane Andrew, Oklahoma City bombing, the bombing of the Olympics in Georgia, and the shooting at Columbine.  What a decade of tragedies!  And even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I thought of another tragic event of the 90’s, my own divorce in 1998.  

Now don’t get me wrong.  Life has moved on for me, and I have spent the last 15 years in a good marriage with a great wife, and I can look back and see how difficult it would have been for that first marriage to continue, let alone become a good and healthy relationship.  There remains some tidbits of fallout here and there, some of which still bring sorrow or difficulty, but by and large, life has moved on.  Still, 21 years out of divorce..that seems like such a really long time!  It’s amazing to think that there would be ANY fallout still around.  

My church has also been involved in helping with local flood relief, even after four months.  Many parts of our city have moved on, living their daily lives with little or no impact from the flooded rivers that impacted the area back in March. But this week we had a group of hard workers come from Kansas, North Dakota and Minnesota who worked hard to help some of the folks who haven’t yet been able to move on, because their homes are far from back to normal.  We met people struggling to move on, struggling to get back to where they were, struggling to feel safe once again, struggling to feel that someday things are going to be okay.  They have been waiting and waiting for something to happen, for authorization to make repairs, for enough money to purchase materials, waiting to get through all the hoops and waiting periods required to apply for FEMA help, and then to appeal when they are denied, and then to apply for SBA loans when they still are denied. 

They are tired, they are sad, they are discouraged.  Some of them wonder if things will ever get back to normal, if life will ever move past the disaster for them.

It seems to me, there are some significant parallels in these experiences.  Divorce, floods and other life change moments can hit us hard and leave us devastated and numb.  Forward progress can feel very slow, and the hurt and discouragement can run deep. But, over time, a new normal comes into existence.  It’s just that, it takes time, hard work, patience and perseverance.  

In the midst of the tediously slow progress, sometimes one is well advised to recognize and celebrate the little steps of progress that are made, even while facing a mountain of work ahead.  

A counselor friend of mine offered an insightful statement. She said, “a little progress is still progress.”  Sometimes we want things to get back to normal NOW, to accomplish everything NOW, for the hardship to end NOW.  But often, that simply isn’t very realistic. 

Sometimes, all we can accomplish NOW, is “a little progress.” And a little progress sometimes can count in a very big way.  

The work the visiting group did for flood victims wasn’t a lot, there are hundreds of homes still needing assistance.  But they DID make “a little progress” by making a difference for a few homes.  And that little bit of progress meant everything to the people who were helped. 

Maybe time doesn’t really ever heal ALL wounds.  And maybe it takes more than just time to make some progress.  But no matter how daunting the path ahead, it is always wise to recognize even a little progress when it is achieved, because life is lived only one day, one moment, one step at a time, remembering that in the end, the journey becomes a long, marvelous trip.

Sunday, July 7, 2019


I was driving the other day and saw a bumper sticker on the car in front of me.  It said, “Single dad’s lives matter.”  Of course, it is a spinoff from the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, also imitated in the slogan, “Blue Lives Matter.”  In every case, the motto is an expression of frustration and a cry for recognition of a problem, a desire for significance.  I understand the frustration of the single dads bumper sticker, though there are lots of frustrations all the way around in the world of divorce.  I thought the topic worth consideration in a blog.

I once knew a man frustrated by the court as he sought custody of his young child, who was living with his mother who had a live-in lover at the time, and the lover was a known drug dealer, and yet the court refused to give the dad custody.  As near as I could tell, the dad was a responsible sort of guy, had a decent home, a decent job, worked hard, attended church, spent time with his kid when he could.  Why did he not get custody.  The man told me that it was because the judge in the county of jurisdiction was biased toward women, and always gave full custody of the children to the mother.  I thought it odd that a judge could actually be that way, until I ran into another couple going through divorce from a neighboring county.  The wife had filed for divorce in the other county not her own, because she knew that the judge in that county always favored giving the mother custody.  These two contacts I had were years apart, miles apart and independently verified that the bias did exist….justice isn’t always quite as blind as the famous statue would suggest.  Since that time, I have seen a lot of times where such bias exists.  I was even struck that a popular Christian divorce recovery program’s materials were written in such a way that they clearly assumed the mother had custody of the children and that it was the dad’s job to be paying child support.  No wonder the car had a bumper sticker demanding that single dads matter!

The battle of the sexes often comes to the foreground in divorce.  I have known of a number of husbands who falsified finances in various ways to keep from having to give money equitably to their divorcing wives.  But then, I have also known women who have done the same thing.  I suspect that the bumper sticker not only originates from custody experiences, but also from all the discussion in the media about single moms and their struggle.  I want to point out that there is often a disparity between single moms and single dads, because our society still has disparity in pay between men and women in a number of fields, so a single mom often has a harder time earning the same salary that the single dad makes.  But not always, of course.  There are a lot of single dads out there struggling to make ends meet, and feeling especially a pinch on the wallet when running a household and paying child support, and sometimes maintenance (or alimony).  It is such a tangled web.

I have also known of parents who use the children as a weapon or as spies against an ex by undermining visitation agreements, or by manipulating children to woo them away from the custodial parent, or by denying access that, though legally granted, is sometimes hard to enforce.  Out there are many dads whose children are living with the ex-wife who are trying to be a good father when only seeing their children every other weekend and a few hours during the week.  I think that the core of the bumper sticker slogan is that dads DO make a difference in their children’s lives, and for them to be marginalized or excluded from the lives of their children, or for their participation to be undervalued by court or society is doing a great disservice to the children of divorce.  Children do best when they have a healthy relationship with both parents all together in a unified home.  When a divorce occurs, the children’s best chance to grow healthy continues to require the involvement of BOTH parents.  Using access to children as a way to inflict pain on one’s ex is a cruel and reckless action that occurs far too often.  Sometimes, single parents who are suffering from that kind of abuse, can use an encouraging word from those of us who are their friends and family.  Probably the guy with that bumper sticker needed to hear someone tell him that he IS important to his kids, and that his efforts to be a good dad DO matter.  Divorce is hard enough.  Turning it into a war zone leaves devastation wherever it happens.

Monday, July 1, 2019

REDEFINING TRUST! A blog about new understandings in trusting God.

Would you mind if I shared some recent learnings on a personal level?  So I had surgery on my rotator cuff, and am now assigned to use that arm for NOTHING for a while, keeping it in a sling.  At the same time, I began physical therapy, but a really odd one.  It is a physical therapy in which my task is:  DO NOTHING!  I lie down, and the therapist takes my arm, and I am supposed to do absolutely nothing with it while he manipulates up and down and in and out and around and around.  Every once in a while (or maybe more), it hurts, I wince, and he pauses.  And then he says:  “It hurts because YOU are trying to help me.  You are NOT supposed to be using your muscles, you need to relax them, let them go limp, and let me do the work.  You have to trust me.”  So I relax, and trust him….until it goes way out and I wince again, and he repeats the mantra! 

Shortly after my first bout of this, I visited with a friend who had the same surgery some time ago, and she shared with me how she had learned during her therapy that, over time, the shoulder pain had caused her to kind of scrunch her shoulders to avoid the pain, which resulting in tensing up the muscles.  In the therapy then, it became a major task to retrain the brain to relax instead.  When she said that after I had seen the physical therapist, the combination of the two clicked for me.  All of a sudden, I noticed how often I was tensing my shoulder and neck muscles on a daily basis, instead of just letting the arm relax and be held by the sling.  So I have started really trying to pay attention, and it has taken an incredible amount of concentration to tell my arm and shoulder to relax!  It’s crazy!!

When I went in for my second session, I had made significant strides in being able to relax and trust his movements with my arm.  But there were times I still winced.  Times he had to stop.  Times he had to remind me:  “Breathe.  Relax.  Trust me.”

I think God is probably telling me the same thing.  And maybe he wants to tell you the same thing, too.  There are so many things that demand so much attention, so many questions I have about relationships and the future and understanding God’s will for me in THIS moment and what plans need to be made and all the things I need to get done and what things need to be let go of and…, and…, and…, and…

It’s a lot like that song by Johnny Diaz, “Just Breathe,” which you can hear on YouTube if you don’t know it.  Sometimes I think the most important thing we can hear from God…or at least that I need to hear from God…is the same thing my physical therapist is saying:  Relax.  Breathe.  Trust me.

What are the hard things you are facing right now?  What are the uncertainties that are nagging at you?  What are the questions you stress over?  What are the fears that have you in knots?  What are the problems bigger than you can solve?  What are the ways you feel that everything is spinning out of control?  Is God trying to get you to realize you just need to trust Him?  That you need to relax, trust him and just breathe?  That you need to realize that he does know what he is doing, and he has not left the throne, and you are the apple of his eye (Psalm 17:8)?

Relax.  Breath.  Trust.  I will give it a whirl again tomorrow morning.  How about you?

Friday, May 24, 2019

Through the Waters


I haven’t written for a while…been swamped getting ready for some life changing events that were coming my way.  One was that last week I was lying on a hospital bed prepping for shoulder surgery.  My wife was in the room with me, and there was a full medical staff preparing to take me into the operating room.  And yet, in those moments before surgery, I was struck with the awareness that it was me alone in the situation.  I was the one who would be cut on, I was the one who would be going into the surgery room, I was the one whose body was going to experience the changes and impacts of the knife.

Afterwards, returning home with my arm limp and numb, again my wife was at my side to assist and aid, except when she wasn’t. She has other responsibilities. And so it was, in the middle of the day, when I thought about having a tuna sandwich that I realized how dependent I now was on the help of others.  It occurred to me that while I would like a tuna sandwich, I did not have the ability to work the can opener with just one arm functioning.  In fact, there have been a lot of things I have not been able to do on my own, from washing my hair to putting on a shirt to almost everything around the house!  At least, not without learning a different way to do the things.  For instance, I did have the tuna sandwich, when I recalled that Nola had recently purchased some tuna in pouches and I COULD open those. 

It all reminds me of some of the things I experienced during a divorce.  There was that sense of being alone, ultimately, in a house without my first wife.  There was the realization that things were going to be different.  I could continue to do things, but not in the same way.  Tasks that once were shared were suddenly entirely dependent on my own ability to do them.  What had once been familiar routine was suddenly altered and had to be done in other ways…down to the fact that even the kitchen utensils had been divided and so sometimes I would reach for something that was no longer in my possession. I had to learn a different way.

In my case, these changes of how I am doing things is temporary, in a month or two I expect to using that other arm once again.  Many adjustments in a divorce are permanent, but some are also temporary.  In my case, the intense aloneness of an empty house has been replaced with the companionship, love and attention of my new wife, something I have especially appreciated during this beginning phase of recuperation!  Regardless, though, life is always filled with changing circumstances that challenge us to learn how to adapt and shift to meet the situations we face.

The other thing that has come to my mind has been the whole issue of feeling all alone, and how significant it is that God speaks time and again in the scriptures to this need in our lives.  God’s promise is that he will never leave us nor forsake, and as Jesus was preparing to leave earth in the ascension, his words were that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age.  One of my favorite passages is from Isaiah 43, where God promises to be with us when we pass through fire or flood.  As I entered that surgical procedure, and sensed the aloneness that comes in such situations, the promise of God to never leave us alone was reinforced in a fresh way.  Nobody else was allowed to accompany me into the operating room, but no door could keep God from walking with me into that experience.  Even while I was unconscious of what was happening, God was present and aware of each knife cut, each suture, each drop of medication.  Knowing that my church’s prayer chain had my procedure on their list, and that other friends at a distance were petitioning God on my behalf, meant that I knew in those moments I was never truly alone.

Neither are you.  Even if you feel that your life has been disrupted in a radical way, even if your house sounds still and empty, even if you sense nothing around you but darkness and fear, God is always present, nearer than your next breath, just waiting for you to reach out and ask him to guide and protect you through the changing life you are experiencing.  I believe that, just as God designed the body so that the wounds made by the doctor will heal, God also has a healing process for our inner beings, and that his remedies for the maladies of our lives are always good. Whatever you are facing today, whatever hard adjustments you are having to make, whatever risks you are taking as you step out into something new, know that God is always willing to walk with you through it all.  You have but to call out to him and ask.  And while you are asking, please feel free to include my own recuperation in your prayers (and probably patience for my wife in handling her semi-invalid husband!).  

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Power of Good Friday


Well, I know that I have been very sporadic in blogs lately, and offer some degree of apology for that.  However, our flood relief efforts have been extremely time consuming and valuable.  Many people who have been really struggling have experienced hope because someone gave them a pair of rubber boots from our supply to wear when they were cleaning out the mud, or because we helped purchase some needed items as flood victims try to put their lives back together.  But it has been a very scurrying and taxing effort on our part. As I said to some of my parishioners one day, it isn’t like we can sit back and have some committee meetings to work out all the details of a perfect plan, because people are hungry NOW, people have nowhere to live NOW, people are trying to get the mud out of their homes NOW.  So we have met as we could, planned as we could, and then just worked hard to do the best we could, and I would say I am proud of what the difference we have been able to make, made possible only through the hard work of our people and the generosity of others who have given funds and goods for us to be able to distribute.

I just can’t let Holy Week pass, though, without at least a word to my readers.  I believe in the power, the promise and the hope of resurrection…not only into the eternal sphere after death, but even here.  When life knocks us for a loop, when our plans shatter, when our hope is dashed and we feel like we can’t go on, when problems arise that appear insurmountable and life takes a sudden downward turn, THAT is the time to remember the promise of the resurrection.

When God is part of our lives and planning, defeat and despair never have the final word.  God turned an ugly instrument of torture and execution into a symbol elevated on church steeples and adorned to be worn around our necks because it became the instrument by which God won our forgiveness and salvation, that same God can bring new life and promise out of whatever circumstances have left you broken, confused and despairing.  I cannot tell you how many times I have visited with Christians who have experienced divorce and then years later are able to describe all the ways God used that changepoint in life to open new doors and opportunities, to create new and better relationships, or even to help those individuals turn to God in a deeper way than they had ever experienced before.  And that is just one of the shattering events life can bring, but which God can use anyway.

Resurrection speaks of the promise of tomorrow. Resurrection speaks of a God who is bigger than whatever problem you face.  Resurrection speaks of a hope that mourning may be turned into dancing and joy will come in the morning.

I know it’s Good Friday, the day we remember the ugliness and awfulness of the painful death of Christ upon the cross.  It was OUR sins that he was dying for…it should have been us there, not him!  But even though this is the day we remember the crucifixion, I want to urge you to realize something in the midst of it:  if there had not been a death on the cross, there would have been no opportunity for a resurrection on Easter morning.  

Whatever hard and awful thing you struggle with in your life, no matter how hard and awful it is, it brings with it an opportunity for God to provide a resurrection of your own as he does something good, something fresh, something powerful on the other side of the struggle BECAUSE you went through the struggle, and you went through it with him at your side.

Remember the Lord’s suffering today, remember the promise of resurrection, and rejoice in the hope that is yours for resurrection beyond the troubles of today!  Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Source of Strength


Sometimes in life, we have things come our way that just sweep everything away.  Here in my part of the country, we have had a lot of flooding come rather suddenly, causing various degrees of devastation in various areas up and down the river. Some homes have been deluged, others washed away, still others have had mud and water in their basements or garages, and some have had no problems at all.  There was little time for many to prepare, to decide what to take when they abandoned their homes, sometimes little warning of what was to come, and yet each person had to make their decisions in a hurry and then face their own particular devastation.  Some people are desperately struggling with the difficult circumstances that have come their way.  Others are franctically working to help others.  This, obviously, has impacted the regularity of my blogs.

Have you ever had your life interrupted by events that come flooding in and suddenly change everything, flooding events that are entirely outside your control.  We can easily experience reversals in life.  Divorce, job loss, sudden death, threatening disease…so many things in life are so uncertain.  How do you prepare for the unexpected?  How do you decide “what to pack up and take with you,” so to speak?  How do you regain your equilibrium?

We simply cannot predict the unpredictable, right? We may know that there is something wrong, but we may not realize how wrong until that moment when it all falls apart.  I have observed a lot of people handling their situations in the midst of this flooding, and noticed that there are some things that help.  One of the biggest things I have heard time and again is people recognizing that what is really important in their lives has not been swept away by a flood:  those they love are safe, they still have their health, they still have their faith.  I have especially noticed a profound attitude among people of faith.  

Even though things seem to have spun out of control, they have a sense that things have NOT spun out of God’s control.  They confess a belief that God will do something good out of the tragedy, just as he did through the cross of Christ.  They trust that God will help them, will guide them, will get them through this tough time.  And, interestingly enough, they are thankful.  They are thankful for the things that did NOT happen to them, thankful for what they DO have, thankful for those who are seeking to help.  These people, it seems to me, have faced their flooding circumstances by remembering what the one stable and unchangeable force in their lives is:  God.  

Many times in the Psalms, God is referred to as “a rock and refuge.”  Watching the floodwaters here in Nebraska, with the sandy soil all around, one gets a real sense of the value of a firm, rocky foundation over the undependability of shifting sands.  
Our world is constantly changing.  Our lives are much more tenuous and fragile than we often care to admit.  But the constancy of God’s goodness, of God’s love, of God’s willingness to take us back, to help us through, to give us hope and purpose can withstand any threatening floods that might come our way.  

The thing is, though, that just as individuals around this region often did not have much time to make choices about their valuables or how to respond, and so acted out of the habit and nature they have developed over the years, so in whatever floods and changes come our way, we don’t always have time to figure everything out in a moment of crisis.  Instead, we have to lean on the habits and strength we have developed in the more calm and settled periods of our lives.  

When your crises comes, what are the sources of strength, what are the stabilizing habits you have developed?  The governor of our state issued a proclamation setting aside time today as a day of prayer for those affected by the flood disaster. But I think it is much wiser to not wait until that crisis and disaster come to turn to God for guidance and strength. In the times of stability of life is the best opportunity to develop your relationship with God and establish the habits of strength and time in prayer that will stand you in good stead when you find your world is unexpectedly turned upside down.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Community of Faith


I was reading the other day, and ran across some comments that got me to thinking.  I especially was reminded of this verse from Romans:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”-Romans 12:15

First, notice that there are three different groups of people described here.  There are people who have something special going on in life and are rejoicing because of it.  There are people who are going through some kind of painful experience, and are weeping because of it.  And there are those Paul is addressing, who are the individuals present with the other two groups.  The basic notion, of course, is that we need to be compassionate people and able to share in the life experiences of others in a meaningful way, regardless of what that other individual’s experiences have been.

What particularly got me to thinking was the “weep with those who weep” idea, because the article I was reading was discussing the healing effect of sharing one’s pain and tears with another.  That, of course, is in stark contrast to how more often than not, people avoid sharing their sorrows and trials because they “don’t want to be a burden to others.”  

And yet, if an individual doesn’t share their weeping with you, then how are you going to be able to weep with them?  

And if it is indeed true, that sharing one’s pain helps bring healing, then what purpose is there in try to “keep one’s chin up” and carry on as if nothing has happened?  

I have known a number of people who have been divorced, who chose to keep their struggles to themselves, not admitting their financial and emotional stress.  The same is sometimes true of people who have obtained a dismal medical diagnosis, or who have lost a job, or is having trouble with rebellious children.  We may think we are being noble by trying to carry the burden ourselves, but somehow, in the great design of things, I am not so sure that is what is intended.  

From the very beginning of scripture God makes clear that it isn’t good to be alone, and not only is the creation of marriage a response, but throughout scripture people are part of a community of faith, not out there on their own.

Is there a painful experience in your life?  Are there tears that you seek to hold back or deny? Are you neglecting the opportunities for support and healing that are around you if you will but open yourself up to the possibility?  

On the flip side, are there people you know who are in the midst of crisis, trauma or grief?  Maybe they are nearby and you don’t even know what they are experiencing. Are you the kind of person who creates an atmosphere in which a struggling person could feel free to share their pain?  Or are you a person whose words and actions suppress that opportunity and push them away?

If we could somehow be more effective in breaking down these invisible walls, I think we would find that our churches and our friendships would take on a deeper meaning.  Instead of entering a sanctuary filled with what appear to be happy, together and positive people who have no problems in their lives, we will discover that the church is made up of people just like us:  people who struggle, question, make mistakes and yes, sometimes need to just shed some tears.  

Whichever side of the equation you happen to be on, how about seeking fresh ways to bring healing into your world?

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Scooping Ashes


As my wife walked out the door, she wish me a Happy Mardi Gras (or something like that), which reminded me that it was “Fat Tuesday,” which means that Ash Wednesday is next.  

In my churches, Lent was not something we generally spent a lot of time with, and occasionally I might have some things in relation to the season, but the primary focus in my churches has always been on Holy Week itself. However, as I thought about it being the time for Ash Wednesday, I thought it worthy of a blog.

I do know that the ashes used for Ash Wednesday are from the burning of the palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Multiple times in the Bible, ashes are used in the ceremonies of grief, placed on the head (probably more of them than the usual spot found on the foreheads of Ash Wednesday observers) as a symbol of grief and anguish.  Ashes always derive from something that was once something else, but through the extreme experience of fire, that something is reduced to the remnants we call ashes.

I think in life, we experience a lot of fiery moments, moments that test our mettle, moments that push us to the extreme, moments that can push us to the limit, make us grow discouraged, sometimes even to the point of despair.  And sometimes, in the aftermath, things that we once held dear have been reduced to ashes. 

Divorce is one of those kind of experiences, when afterwards the vows from the wedding day and all the plans for a future life together are consumed with the process of the separation and end up as ashes, tatters at our feet.  But it is certainly not the only such experience.  Lots of losses, lots of disappointments, lots of disastrous experiences can create the same thing.  

When some piece of life as you know it has been reduced to ashes, what can you do?

I was reading an article by Terry Helwig in an old Guideposts this morning, and thought it had some pretty good insights I would like to use to launch this blog with today.  The comment was that Terry had learned that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” contains within it the symbol for “opportunity.” I don’t know whether that is true or not, but the illustration provided is kind of cool.  The writer mentions an article some years ago about an airport forced to close because of snow, with all the usual reactions from those stuck there. Except that one lady decided to use it as an opportunity to teach “kindergarten,” and gathered the children around and led a fun little class, much to the delight of both parents and children.  I like this transformational notion.  The ashes of cancelled trips was reformed into that opportunity that became something new and special.

In Laura Story’s book When God Doesn’t Fix It, there is a similar notion.  In referring to shattered hopes, she says:
         “In that moment, we think life as we know it is over.
            The truth is, life, as we’ve yet to know it, has just begun.”
Can you relate to that?  I remember a good friend sharing with me that after her divorce had all settled, she began rediscovering things that she had once enjoyed, and was able to embrace them into a new future.  I know that many of the things I have experienced and had opportunity to do became options post-divorce.  I have seen the same thing happen in churches, when a church I am working in faces a crisis moment, and some dreams are dashed, but then new ones are born that were not possibilities in the previous environment.

So, as we come to Ash Wednesday this year, consider the portions of your life that have turned to ashes, sent you into mourning and dashed your hopes.  And while it may not be exactly what those who observe Ash Wednesday might intend, let me invite you to do something with the day.

Let illustrate the idea this way:  over the course of my life, I have had many times I lived in homes with fireplaces or pellet stoves.  Many a time the task that has fallen to me has been to get out the little shovel and scoop up the ashes, carry them out side and cast them away. Are there ashes in your life left over from some shattering experience, maybe divorce, maybe something else?  How about using this Ash Wednesday to get out your spiritual and emotional shovel, scoop up some of those ashes and let them go, so that you have a clean and fresh start for the opportunities that are just around the corner?  You might be surprised how nice it feels to have cleaned out those dusty, dirty corners of your life, so that something new can live there instead.  I even suggest you find some tangible way to symbolize what is going on internally for you—burn a photo, throw away an old letter, give away something that represents the things you need to let go of to make room for the next phase.  And you can do this even if, like me, you won’t be putting ashes on your forehead this Ash Wednesday.  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Power of a Snowstorm

A few days ago I was visiting with my sister and she described the huge shutdown on the coast in Washington state because of the snowstorm.  I am not always very sympathetic when the coasts complain about snowstorms.  It seems to me that when I watch the news media, there are often blizzards and deep snows throughout the plains and mountain states, but whenever it lands on the coasts, suddenly it is an emergency situation worthy of national news! 

I remember with a chuckle the time when Barack Obama was president and after arriving in D.C., they had a snow accumulation of an inch or so and shut everything down.  Then President Obama laughed and said that he was just flabbergasted that everything was shut down over such a small amount of snow, because back in Chicago it would have been considered a mere dusting and people would have been out playing in it (as close as I can recall his words).   And, as my sister pointed out, I need to remember that they have steep hills there that make a difference, and since they don’t get heavy snow very often, they don’t have the equipment to handle it.  I think the latter point is the significant one, because, last time I checked, Colorado gets lots of snow and has some pretty steep “hills,” but manages to handle snow crises in ways that help them keep going.  

Another fun example was when, a few years ago, my wife and I drove down to Dallas late one winter for a family event, and the whole city was paralyzed because they had a snow of an inch or two.  Driving into the city, as I observed people on the road, I quickly got off the four lane highway as it was obvious the people had no idea how to drive appropriately in the snow and were risking multiple accidents.  On the side streets, I ended up making much better time and avoided inexperienced drivers, even though those streets had not been cleared at all.

We are seeing snow all over the place this week.  I read an article from Flagstaff, Arizona describing their record snowfall, and have seen other reports of the snow down there, reminding me of the time we drove our exchange student to the Grand Canyon only to find that there was a record breaking snow storm then, too.  

As I write this, it is on the Sunday after our community received approximately another 8” of snow on top of the previous 5 or 6 inches still on the ground.  Crews have been out working through the night and morning.   (And, I might add, having driving into Omaha the day after the last big snowfall, these crews up here do a good job of taking these storms in stride!)  At the same time, I know some major highways nearby have had significant closures because of the storm, the drifts and accidents, so even here these things can have impact.

Today, many churches cancelled their services, yesterday when I stopped at a local bank branch they had a sign up announcing an early closure due to the blizzard conditions.  When I went dog walking this morning, I had to first shovel a path so we could get to the street since the snow everywhere else was too deep to walk in, and then off we went.
Flooding, blizzards, drought, earthquakes and other natural disasters can shut down human activity in a matter of minutes, can’t they?  

I have been in many an ice storm that left many homes without power in just a matter of minutes.  In fact, I have always been struck by the highways and roads that we put down which, despite the latest technology, often end up with potholes due to freezing and thawing, and upheaval of segments due to the same thing and heat exposure.  The best of our technology is really not as powerful as we think it is.  

These things remind me of the questions God asked of Job in Job 38-41, such as this passage from Job 38:22 (ESV)—
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
    or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,”

Those questions asked of Job were designed to remind him that God is God, and Job was not.  Neither are we.  Snowstorms such as this one can remind us of how fragile the constructions of our lives are. Despite what we like to tell ourselves, we are not as in control as we think we are, nor are we quite as powerful as we might like to think. 

I like how this same concept is pointed out in Natalie Grant’s song, “The King of the World.”  Here are a few of the lyrics from this song written by Natalie Grant, Sam Mizell, and Becca Mizell:

When did I forget that You've always been the King of the world?
I try to take life back right out of the hands of the King of the world
How could I make You so small?
When You're the one who holds it all
When did I forget that You've always been the King of the world?

Just a whisper of Your voice can tame the seas
So who am I to try to take the lead?

Whether it is a snow storm, a drought, a divorce, a devastating illness or whichever of life’s challenges you face that just seem too overwhelming and leave you feeling powerless, I urge you to let those circumstances remind you that God is the King of the World and we are not.  

Let those huge events remind you to not make God small in your own life, to remember who it is who can tame the seas and who it is that can simply ride on the waves in a tiny boat.  And then, let it cause you to reflect on who you really lean on to get you through those tough times, your own limited knowledge and ability, or the God who is and always has been, the King of the World.  As I pointed out to my congregation recently, that phrase, King of the World, is a phrase common in Jewish prayers.  Sometimes it is translated that way, but there is another translation that I like, which reminds me of who God really is:  Master of the Universe.  

I haven’t seen the heavenly storehouses of snow any more than Job has, only the little bit that has happened to land near me.  Scientists today describe how these snowflakes are created, the various processes and temperatures involved.  I recently ran across of the  photographic work of Don Komarechka of Canada, which depicts the amazing construction of snowflakes…much more beautiful, delicate, intricate and varied than you might think. 
 Don Komarechka Snowflake Gallery

Just looking at the amazingly beautiful detail of this white stuff so many of us curse, and thinking of the artistry God uses to create this troublesome fluff, which only lasts but for a brief time before melting away, causes me to realize how amazingly great God is, and how much he cares about even the smallest of details of my life and yours.  

If only I can remember not to try to limit God to whatever box my little mind can concoct, when he is so much bigger, more powerful, more amazing and more caring than I can even begin to imagine.  

If there is snow outside your house right now, I encourage you to take a minute to look out at the beauty, at the artistry, at the amazing power of something as simple as frozen water, and then realize it is a demonstration of the God who can get YOU through anything life .brings, and will do so in amazing ways if you just let him be not only the king of the world, but the king of YOUR world, too!