Friday, September 30, 2016

Future Hope

 Often, when faced with indescribable loss and hardship, all we can see is the situation in front of us. All we can feel is the pain. It seems impossible to view life with any sense of hope, with any belief that the future might hold a better day. The present seems to override everything else. 
 What allows us to gain a future hope, however, is faith. Faith can sustain our belief in a brighter tomorrow regardless of the hurt we may be dealing with. Those who look with the objective eye of trust in a higher purpose can endure hardship with hope, knowing that the sorrow of the present moment will not last forever. The producer of this faith is a God-Inspired grace. It is the divine strength afforded us in time of need, given by a merciful God to His undeserving children. Reliance on this strength gives the battered soul what it needs to carry on. 
 Six months after losing my grandmother, I wrote in my journal a few thoughts regarding a future hope in a season of grief: 

"...As dark as the valley may seem now, I know that the light will meet me on the other side. My hope may leave me for a time, but it is not gone forever. Sometimes, when in great trial, it is hard to imagine how things could ever turn out for the better, but it is in times like these that belief takes over - that the hope unseen which we claim to hold - becomes our comforter, and we cling to the truth that all things...even the hard ones...will work together for the good of those who love Him. Sorrow may encompass me for a season, but it cannot hold me down. It will not last forever. After the storms, the light always shines the brighter; the sun breaks through the clouds, and the darkness fades away. A brighter day will come. But, for now, pain is my portion and sadness my lot. Yet, it is sprinkled with joy and the hope that all this will become my blessings."

 This kind of hope is not the result of some self-induced optimism. There are way too many people out there who try to positive-think their way to emotional stability only to find that it failed in the end. Their future hope is fake. Faith-induced belief is different. It breeds eternal hope, a lasting hope, a hope and trust placed in the divine. Romans 8:18 is an oft-quoted verse in Christian circles: 

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth compared
with the glory that will be revealed in us."

James 1:2-4 also echoes the same sentiment:

"Consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you face trials
of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith
develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that
you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."

Here is where the future hope is evident: in the ability to find thankfulness and to take joy, even when the circumstances around us do not permit us to do so. It is probably the greatest test we will ever undergo on our journey to the secret of losing, and it is a big choice for us who live on the other side of the door. Romans 5:3-4 says that, for the Christian, 

"...we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering 
produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."


Being like this is not naive. I remember thinking that, for awhile, others who lived this way were totally out of touch. They don't know what it's like to suffer, I thought. I later realized maybe they really did know and that's why they could carry on in such peace and faith. It took me years to even remotely understand what it took to live such a life of trust. 
The great preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon once said,

"The Lord's mercy often rides to the door of our heart upon 
the black horse of affliction."

God knows that, while times of prosperity are nice and comfortable, we do not grow and change the way we do when losses and crosses befall us. Suffering brings us to the realization of our inability to handle life on our own. Being exempt from the evils of life ins't the point. Overcoming and being transformed by them is. A future hope comes from embracing this fact. If we truly want to change, we must go through hardship...not around it.
 Drew Brees, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, put it well in his book Coming Back Stronger. Referring to his nearly career-ending shoulder surgery in 2005, Brees said,

"You have to embrace the pain in order for it to have the desired
effect. The painful things we go through have a way of teaching
us things we can't learn any other way. Pain is a gift I sure didn't
want, but I believe God used it for a purpose in my life."

That purpose would later be revealed when God called him ten years ago to leave the San Diego Chargers, and to move to New Orleans to help bring hope to a devastated community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Reflecting on the adversity he's faced in his own life - his parents' divorce when he was little, the arduous rehab following his shoulder surgery, his mom's suicide sometime later - Drew can say that he's learned to practice what he preaches. I love how he likens pain to the refining process of a blacksmith. In words that I came to embrace following my own losses, Brees continues:

"God's refining process is never easy. It's kind of like a blacksmith 
creating a sword. The metal is strengthened when it is repeatedly 
put in the fire and pounded with a hammer. But the end result is 
perfection. All the heat and pounding create a strength and beauty,
not only on the outside, but especially on the inside. God some-
times puts us in the fire, and it's going to hurt, but it will mold 
and shape us into the people he intends for us to be."

I couldn't agree more. I have found it to be true so often in my life. My faith, my belief, has been tried in the fire so many times. But the future hope I now posses...it came through the grind of suffering I once faced repeatedly. My trials produced perseverance which, in turn produced character. And then came hope. As much as I once tried to fight the refining process of the Master Blacksmith, in looking back, I would go through the same thing all over again in order to have what I now possess. When hard times arrive in my life, I don't try to escape them anymore because I know they're for my growth and benefit. 
 When you're in the midst of a season of suffering, I know how hard it is to believe in a better tomorrow. I once struggled with that, too. Faith can lead us all to a future hope, no matter how devastated our lives become. God can, and will, uphold the weak and grant strength to those who trust Him. Those who mourn can, and will be, comforted. Those who weep can, and will, have their tears wiped away by the hand of the Healer. The future can become bright...even when life tells us otherwise. 



Thursday, September 29, 2016

When Tragedy Strikes

 December 1, 2012 began like any ordinary day for the players and coaches of the Kansas City Chiefs. Team workouts were taking place in preparation for their home game against the Carolina Panthers the next day. Things hadn't gone particularly well for the Chiefs that year - the team was 1-10 and had had both of their quarterbacks injured at one time or another. Now, here they were toward the end of the season, simply hoping for a better performance in their upcoming game. 
 But, across town, something was going terribly wrong in the world of Chief's linebacker, Jovan Belcher. An undrafted player who had been with the team for four seasons, Belcher had always been known as a great teammate and a really nice guy. But all wasn't as it appeared. That morning, Belcher had an argument with his girlfriend (the mother of his three-month-old baby girl), and shot the girlfriend dead on the spot...with his own mother looking on. He immediately headed over to Arrowhead Stadium, where the team was practicing, and happened to see the head coach, Romeo Crennell, and the General Manager, Scott Pioli, in the parking lot. As they exchanged a word or two, he thanked each of them for all they had done for him. As they walked toward the building doors, he turned around and shot himself. Jovan Belcher had committed suicide. Upon hearing the shot, the coach and GM looked to see what had happened and saw the unthinkable. Players immediately stopped practicing, wondering what could've gone on. Within minutes, the team was scurried out of the stadium for safety reasons - bewildered and in shock. 
 The big decision loomed as the tragedy hit the news airwaves: would the Chiefs decide to go ahead and play the game after all that had just transpired? Everyone waited to hear the decision. Later that day, word came from the organization that the game would go on as planned. 
 The next afternoon, as the fans prepared to cheer their team on, they wondered how the players and coaches would do - after all, how could anyone expect them to be at their best under such adverse circumstances? The team had been a disaster all year. What made them think they could pull it together so quickly and elevate their level of play? And yet, what the world was unprepared to see was a display of faith and perseverance rarely seen. 
  On the first drive of the game, the Chiefs' quarterback, Brady Quinn, completed two long passes that led the team down the field with a commanding presence. Quinn, who had struggled since joining the NFL and was now with his third team in six years, had lost another fellow teammate to suicide two years prior while a member of the Denver Broncos. Having traveled this road before, he understood what it would take for him to lead his team and bring them together. Coming into this game, Brady had been a backup quarterback and had only started a couple of other games that season. He had not thrown a touchdown pass in almost three years. But, on this day, December 2, 2012, he was a different player and so were his teammates. Relying on his strong Christian faith, Quinn's production was staggering: completing over 80% of his passes, he threw two touchdowns, inspiring his team to play with a spirit they had lacked all year. The Chiefs pulled off the seemingly impossible and beat the Panthers 28-21. 
 A team that had had numerous turnovers and had done little to give fans much to cheer about in 2012 had just won its second game of the year...and in incredible fashion. With tears in their eyes, the players celebrated their accomplishment with their fans. Just a mere few hours before, Arrowhead Stadium had signified death and despair. Now, it symbolized hope and courage in the face of deep pain and grief. Onlookers said it was the most amazing thing they'd ever seen, and it left them asking why the team would do what they did? What made them play so well in spite of all they had endured? 
 For those who knew Brady Quinn, they understood that, at least for him, God had given him special grace to meet such daunting challenges. Many prayers had been offered on behalf of him and his team, and those prayers had been answered in a special way by a God who is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:17) and who promises to aid those who trust in Him (Isaiah 40:29). This victory had a touch of the Divine, a touch of God. 
 As the press conference later, Quinn addressed the media and gave what some called, one of the finest post-game speeches they'd ever heard. The video later went viral on the internet: 



 He understood that people who live on the other side of the door can often end up the way Jovan Belcher did. The darkness becomes intolerable, and the easiest way to get out of it seems to be to end their own life. The compassion Quinn demonstrated reflected his relationship with God, and many lives were touched by his comments. The response of him and his team to such tragic circumstances blew them away. But what showed the most was that, while winning the game didn't erase the pain those players and coaches felt - and it wouldn't diminish the sadness each will always have to bear and live with - it proved that, even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, God can give people the grace to embrace unbearable loss if only they will depend on Him and look to Him for their strength (Isaiah 40:31). As Quinn later said:

"In moments, tragedies like this, they can define you or redefine
you, and I think this team took an event and allowed it to re-define
us as a team...My thoughts and concerns were just trying to focus 
and doing the best I could during the game when I was playing.
Then after that, just trying to do some soul-searching and praying
about forgiveness for the families and that people could find peace
with the situation."

 Examples like this show us more than just personal courage or a willingness to endure hardship. No, there is more to it than that. Human resolve eventually runs out after awhile. The walls begin to crumble. The pain becomes too much. When tragedy strikes, we are driven to look beyond ourselves for strength and for answers. Many people turn to a faith they may have rejected years ago when placed under the crushing blow of pain. As Brady Quinn points out, soul-searching and prayer are often by-products of such tragedies. Perhaps this is why God allows such things to happen: so that we would come to know His love in an intensely personal way, so that we would be allowed to watch Him make something beautiful out of the fractured remains of our trauma-stricken lives. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Secret Agent: Grief

 Grief is closely tied to loss. It is the companion of letting go. Anytime we must give up something that we love, there is a grieving of sorts that takes place - a longing for the return of that which we released. The emptiness, the seemingly irreparable void, that is left in the wake of our loss, consumes us deeply. It appears, to us, to be impossible to move on. Hope is the last thing on our minds. We ask ourselves, 

How can anyone ever go on? Even more, who would want to?

This is especially true when we have lost a relationship - whether through a break-up, a divorce, or even death, the absence of the life we once enjoyed eats away at us. We feel so alone. We long for the happy times we once experienced, and we sometimes resent the circumstances we now find ourselves in. Naturally, we try to victimize ourselves and look for another source to blame for our sorrow and misfortune. Usually, our anger and disappointment get aimed at God. 
 I so clearly remember one particular day when this was most evident in my life. It was the day my grandmother died. I had already experienced the hardship of loss several times over, but the fact that God was taking her too seemed cruel and insensitive. 

Can't anything be normal, God? I wondered...
Just for a little while?

That afternoon, I had just finished talking outside on the phone with a friend, updating him on my grandma's condition. I went back into her apartment and was struck, upon entering, by the inevitable approach of death. Her passing was imminent. I went straight to the guest room where I was staying at the time, and shut the door. With it, I shut out everyone and everything. I sat on the edge of the bed and started to sob. My clenched fist pounded the bed. In that moment, I had a flashback to three years prior: once again, sitting in the darkness on the edge of a bed - the first time in Alaska, this time in California. Again, I found myself saying "no" to God.

You're ripping apart my life! I said to Him. What kind of loving God are you?

While I knew her death was God's choice, I couldn't surrender myself to the looming prospect that I would have to let go yet again. A few, short hours later, she slipped away and was gone. The loss felt like someone had just sucked the life out of me, too. Even though I knew she was rejoicing with the angels, the bliss of Heaven seemed to be drowned out by the emptiness of earth - the feeling that I would never see her again this side of glory. For weeks on end, I would wonder how I could ever treasure the memories without being stung by the pain. 

How would I be able to adjust to the fact that I could never tell her anything anymore?

With every picture, every obituary in the paper, every phone call to tell someone about her passing - it felt like a blow to the heart each time. I longed to talk to her...just to say I loved her one more time. 
 But strangely, even as I rejected God while battling my grief, He never abandoned me. Rather, He kept on knocking on my door even as I tried to ignore Him and wrestle with my pain on my own. Then one day, came the phone call from Heaven. I was having a dream that my grandma called me on the phone: 

We were at home, and the phone rang. I picked it up, and there she was. I was floored. 
How could she be calling me when she was dead? 
I asked her, "I thought you died!"  She replied, "I did." 
I was so confused.  
"Then why are you calling me? Is this a phone call from Heaven?" 
The answer came, "Yes it is. I wanted to know about everything that's happened since I left." 
I proceeded to tell her about all she'd missed. When I was through, she said, 
"Well, it sound's like you're getting along fine without me." 
And the dream ended...

I woke up soon after and pondered what had happened. 

God, could you really care about my loss enough to do something like that for me?

I felt so comforted by that brief exchange with my grandma that I began to wonder if what the Bible said about God was true:

"He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds."
(Psalm 147:3)

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those 
who are crushed in spirit."
(Psalm 34:18)

"He [Jesus] was...a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering."
(Isaiah 53:3)

After all, I thought, Jesus grieved over his cousin John the Baptist's murder (Matt. 14:1-13) and wept over the death of his dear friend Lazarus (John 11:33-36). He even tasted death Himself so that he would not only save mankind from their sins but that He might also identify with us in our sadness. Jesus knew loss also - loss of reputation, loss of relationship, loss of life. Because of this, it dawned on me:

He should know what I feel even more than any other human being would!

The dream was His was of showing that He truly cares, that I'm not alone in my suffering...nor is anyone else. 
A faint glimmer of trust arose in my heart. Maybe this God I claimed to believe and then didn't was true to His Word, just not in the way I thought. As I contemplated this concept, it occurred to me that grief is the agent which God uses to draw out the soul. When one is deeply hurting, one is forced to confront the truth about themselves and about life. They are faced with the choice of whether or not they will remain behind the door. 
 No matter how difficult the circumstances, we do not need to be governed by our grief forever. It's not that we forget and never remember. We do, but we are enabled in our grief to press through the sting and hold onto the happiness we once enjoyed. It is learning to look back and be thankful. Not so much to long for old days and wish things were different but to cherish what you did have and be grateful. It's the old "glass half-empty or glass half-full" concept. We can concentrate on what we do not have, or we can count the blessings we still do have. 
 God does not afflict us unnecessarily. This I have learned through my losses. He has a reason for everything that happens to us in life, good or bad. Even those things which seem to be contrary to His purposes are, in fact, part of a glorious plan we do not yet know. As Tullian Tchividjian wrote in his book, Glorious Ruin:

"We may not ever fully understand why God allows suffering that devastates our lives. We may not ever find the right answers to how we'll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining, especially not in the ways we would like. But we don't need answers so much as we need God's presence in and through the suffering itself...God's chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and to be Himself for you.
In other words, our ruin may not ultimately spell our undoing. It may in fact spell the beginning of faith. And in the end, that is enough."

 Grief can arouse a stirring of the soul. Brought about by the relentless pursuit of a loving and gracious God, this stirring can motivate us to look beyond our sorrowful condition and dare to see the Light that needs to a new beginning. 



Tuesday, September 27, 2016

When Letting Go Costs Dearly

 Loss. It's a simple but powerful four-letter word. And it is a crucial one to understand when we are taking the journey to the secret. 
 The greatest gains we will ever have in life almost always follow a significant loss, a sacrifice of sorts that we have had to make in order for us to reach new heights of growth. It may be a financial loss, a physical loss, or even a personal loss. It's the way the journey works. God often demands that we give up something we love so that we can learn and ultimately gain a far more lasting possession. 
 Today, our society is so much about gain that we almost don't know how to handle loss. We've become so obsessed with pursuing success that we have a hard time handling failure. It seems to be getting harder and harder all the time to embrace setbacks, to make sacrifices, to let go. A lot of people find this out with financial crisis and so on. Folks who always depended on a steady income or lucrative lifestyle now find themselves pinching pennies and trying to just make ends meet. But losses sometimes involve more than money or time. They involve a life. 
 As I discovered in my own life, loss means more than simply being deprived of a cherished possession. Loss means surrender. Loss means letting go...and often this act costs us dearly. More than not, loss comes to us unexpectedly. We are suddenly faced with the fact that a prized something has been removed from our life. Especially in the case of a loved one's passing or a friendship's sour ending. We feel slighted because nobody asked us if we wanted to keep holding on or not. We never had a say and, naturally, we think we have a right to. Unless we voluntarily give our permission to let go of something or someone, no one can take it away from us...and, if they do, we deserve to have it back. So we think. This is human nature. We desire control. We want to be in charge over our lives and who is in them. It is bred into the human soul, thanks to our first parents in the Garden of Eden, to want to have the power to choose and order our realities the way we want them to be. Loss, however, destroys these carefully laid plans. We are confronted by the fact that we really have little say or control at all. And this truth is upsetting to us. Particularly when we realize that God is often behind such circumstances. 

Why would God promise to give only to take away?

I think of the story in the Bible where God promises Abraham that He will give him a son in his old age. Sarah, Abraham's wife, her womb barren, would be able to conceive and give birth to a long-awaited child. In the fullness of time, she bears a son, and he is named  Isaac. Years later, when Isaac has come of age, God asks Abraham to go to a nearby mountain to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. But, instead of the usual animal, God asks him to give up Isaac. His one and only son will be laid on the alter to die. Abraham must kill his only child. Now...in the end, God provided another way and spared Isaac's life but, through this biblical encounter, we see God setting a precedent for mankind: sometimes God asks for our best, and it may require the giving up of something or someone very dear. 
 I went through a season of loss a few years ago and, as a young teenager at the time, I found it difficult to grasp the reason behind what I was experiencing. In addition to my dad's illness in 2007 and the prospect that he might not survive, I was watching a long-time friendship grow cold. On top of that, it seemed like death loomed on the horizon constantly. Life appeared, to me, to be nothing more than one, giant funeral. 

Where was the "good life" I had always thought existed for a good Christian like me? 

I desperately wanted it all to just end. 

Just stop the bad dream, and let's move on.

At the time, I couldn't seem to reconcile with this God who appeared to take away more than He gave. 

Don't I deserve a little better here, God? I complained, You might supposedly know how to give good things to your children, but the things which seem to be happening now are certainly not good!

Grace seemed to be running thin. All I wanted was for the pain to end. But it just kept coming...and coming...and coming. And, as it did so, the darkness closed in tighter, and my faith in God grew small. 

A true God of love...a God who really cared, wouldn't take us through this, I reasoned. So why should I love Him anymore? He never listens to what I pray for, neither does He take away the suffocating hurt in my life. All He keeps asking me to do is to let go of someone else. Who is He to be trusted?

Many times, I echoed the words of the Psalmist when he said, 


"I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my
spirit was overwhelmed...Will the Lord reject us forever? Will
He never show His favor again? Has His unfailing love vanished
forever? Has His promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten
to be merciful? Has He in anger withheld His compassion?"
(Psalm 77: 3, 7-9)

 What I didn't understand at the time but would later come to believe is that, while each loss tested my faith and fortitude to the absolute limit, it was in that grinding process of release that I discovered another key to the secret: in laying down our own Isaac, we are given the revelation of God's plan for our lives; we are blessed with a "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17) that only the suffering of having to let go will grant to you.
 For me, saying goodbye to one of the closest people I knew - my 85-year-old grandmother - in September of 2010 was the culmination of my losses. It was like laying down my Isaac. She was so special to me and, upon reflecting later, so many of my hopes and dreams were based upon her being with us for some time longer. Her death initially felt, to me, like I'd been robbed. 

God took her when I deserved to have more time!

I couldn't release her, couldn't turn her over to God. I was angry. I was sad. I was lost without her in my life. Even though I knew she was in a better place, it seemed impossible for me to give up. God was relentless, however, and eventually enabled me to see the bigger picture. I started to sense that, while I didn't understand the "why" behind the letting go, if I dared to believe the "Who" behind the letting go, I was promised a blessing disguised within the shadows. Through the darkness, I would be allowed to see the Light. Acceptance was what I needed. A faith that was brave enough to look for the blind discovery wrapped in the letting go. It was in being stripped away, in being emptied of everything that I thought my life depended on, that I would be fulfilled, restored, healed.
 Only you and God know what it is that you need to lose, to let go of. Perhaps your losses are already taking place. Whatever your situation, God wants for you to release your tight grip on life, to open up your hand and be blessed. His love for you, His plan for your life, cannot take place when your fists are still clenched. As the old saying goes, we need to "let go, and let God." Loss, while painful, can be the greatest thing to ever happen to us. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

When Trauma Hits

 Trauma is bound to touch us all at some time in our lives. Directly or indirectly, it passes no one by. Ever since mankind fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, adversity and sorrow have been touching lives, wrapped in the traumatic experiences we face. We may witness a horrible accident, watch our house go up in flames, see a parent walk out on the family, or hear of a close friend's sudden death. These are the life-situations that shake us to the core. This is where the secret of losing becomes hard to understand because these happenings in our lives change us forever. After going through them, we are never the same - for the good or the bad. 
 For anyone who has undergone a traumatic experience, the stress and fallout of post-trauma is real. Manifesting itself in physical and emotional strain, this becomes the "new normal" in the aftermath of what has taken place. While each person's threshold of emotional pain is different, the shared reality for all is that the images, the scarring, never completely go away and become forever a part of who we are. They are woven into the life-story. 
 Following my dad's illness in 2007 and again when my grandmother passed away from cancer in 2010, I expected the images and the pain that came with them to fade away and leave, thus bringing me the peace I needed. I didn't want to be tormented by these scenes of suffering, by these moments in my life that only stirred up unwanted emotion. I was angry, withdrawn, depressed, uncertain, fearful, and insecure. What I failed to understand at the time was that each of these feelings were completely natural for what I had gone through. Nobody knows how they will handle certain tragedies until they've gone through those themselves. It wasn't that these feelings were un-natural or that I was a bad person for feeling this way...I was simply experiencing a side of myself for the first time that I knew little about: the me who had to suffer. In the beginning, I expected the pain to go away and did not give myself permission to grieve and respond accordingly. As a result, I felt like it was wrong of me to hurt the way I did. 
 I kept telling myself, I shouldn't keep feeling this way. People expect me to move on! Why am I still like this?
 I fought the emotions...wave after wave. But in so doing, I now see that I only prolonged the process that would lead to healing and positive growth in trauma's wake. 
 Trauma threatens to put us all behind the door. For every trauma-stricken person, there are two wars: the sheer shock of the incident itself, and then the anguish left in its path - the latter of which may prove to be more difficult. Just because the originating experience may have passed doesn't mean its horrible echoes have ceased, as well. Often, while we may appear to have survived the impact and seem alive to those around us, we are actually continuing to deal with the reality that something is dead inside of us. 
 One interesting observation that I have seen in my previous conversations with military commanders, chaplains, psychologists, and others who have helped people through traumatic experiences, is that those who seem to fare worse under the emotional strain of trauma often do not have a strong faith. They also seem to carry with them intense, emotional baggage. Witnessing how these individuals handled the painful situations dropped upon them showed these observers that unresolved past hurts, coupled with the lack of spiritual guidance, often make the fallout worse. I certainly found this to be true of myself. 
 Here is where the concept of the door comes into play: if the difficulty of your past has made it hard for you to heal, and you've gone behind the door instead, any adversity or suffering that you face will only drive you further into the darkness. It can also accentuate the negative emotions that you might already be dealing with. Feelings like failure, sadness, bitterness, and regret are then magnified. Like me, instead of journeying toward healing, you may simply carry on with life, trying to cope but feeling emptier the further along you go.
 In reflecting back on this time in my life, one mistake that I regret is my failure to seek a community of healing. The years that followed showed me how terrible it is to walk alone. Going through my own valley has given me the ability to relate to other trauma-stricken people. As I have tried to meet others where they are, I have found that this has proven to be a blessing for me. The beautiful exchange of shared vulnerability has helped me to come to grips with my own pain. Even as I continue to strive to overcome the disconnectedness I once felt within me - the split between my heart and my mind regarding the things I went through - the effect has proved to be a lasting one. As a result, were I to go through the same trauma again, there is much that I would do differently. I would seek out and welcome a community of healing, something that I sorely lacked the first time. Beyond that, I would also not expect the pain to vanish but would rather realize that suffering is an unavoidable part of life. 
 Making it through the first war is good - most of us do - but the second war is, perhaps, more defining. These are the questions that must be asked if we are to emerge from our tragedies as better people: how do we live with the hurting side of ourselves? Can we really give ourselves permission to let go, no matter how much it hurts? 
Ultimately...how do we fight the second war...and win? 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Secret of Losing

 You look at the calendar and stare at the date: a loved one would've had a birthday today had not cancer not robbed them of the chance to live. You hold the now-meaningless ring that used to symbolize a thriving union but only signifies a relationship gone cold, a love now dead. You open up the bedroom closet and see the clothes hanging there stiffly - your beloved once called those their own, but all you're left with is an aching loss and unfinished dreams. You walk into the nursery that was meant for the life you carried and were waiting to bring forth: the crib now sits empty - a cruel reminder of the shallowness of life...of the existence that never came to be. 
 Life holds so many tragedies for us all: parents bury their children - a life lost too young; a young widow watches her dead husband's flag-draped coffin emerge from the belly of a plane as an honor guard stands ready to receive it; friends die unexpectedly in car accidents; a hard-working, single parent finds out they've been laid off; a fiancĂ© breaks off an engagement to pursue another relationship. Our lives are an endless list of unexpected hurts and sorrows, and nobody is immune to them, no matter how hard we try. 
 Each person, at some point in their life-story, is brought face to face with an important lesson: that of the secret of losing. Because, for all our human desire to hold on to what we have, we find that the older we get, regardless of how hard we try to grip life, we are seemingly forever becoming less in control. We are perpetually in a state of losing - losing loved ones, losing heath, losing money, losing personal property, and so on. It doesn't make sense at first but, in thinking further, it gradually dawns on us that maybe we cannot fully gain anything of lasting value in life until we know what it's like to lose. Perhaps one of the hidden truths of why we are behind the door is because we are afraid to lose. We fear the prospect of letting go. And yet, this could be the secret to uncovering our deepest longings. 
 In so many ways, the journey to finding the secret of losing is one of blind discovery: blind because we are unable to see the reasons behind our losses but discovery because, in time, we are able to watch the unfolding of a bigger plan, a larger story wrapped in the pain we hold at the present moment. It's amazing how this works: someone's death saves another life down the road; one person's reckless behavior and rejection of the faith leads their own loved one to later commit to living a life of following God. Every disaster, every tragedy has a larger purpose to than just our personal hurt or inconvenience. It is the silver lining in every cloud. 
 But, in order for us to fully know and understand the blind discovery, one thing must be paramount: faith. The belief and trust that the grim reality we now experience as the present will result ultimately in our own benefit and that of others. 
 I began the journey of blind discovery several years ago. It started back in the fall of 2006 when I received the sad news that one of the Marines I had met through our family's military outreach had died in combat, leaving a young widow and a one-year-old daughter. It continued with my dad's extended illness in 2007, then was followed by the deaths of both my step-grandfather and a friend at our church in the spring of 2008. Not long after that, a childhood friend of mine almost lost his life in a serious car accident. Sometime later, all of this was capped by my grandmother's brief battle with cancer and her subsequent passing. For me, each situation was one of blind discovery...and loss. Each one had its own emotions, its own trauma. And each one seemed to strike hard at some aspect in my life that I thought to be stable. With me already far behind the door at this point, it would be an especially long time before the "discovery" part of the story became evident...partly because selfish me was standing in the way. More than just gaining understanding about my circumstances, however, I soon found out that I was being taught the secret of losing in every experience I had. 
 No one chooses to be on this journey. Life just puts us there. I am reminded of this as I think of people I know who are battling aggressive forms of cancer. Or of the tragic shootings we've heard of in the news and the many families and friends affected by them. None of these people knew life would end this way. None of these people would've chosen to be placed in these difficult and harsh situations. Part of living in a fallen world is the fact that bad things happen...even to good people. All of us are on the road to the secret of losing, all the while having our moments of blind discovery when perspective is given, and we can see the big picture. And yet, such belief in "the bigger plan" doesn't reach us until we have been on the journey for some time - rather, our present often blocks us from arriving there. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Broken and Stripped Away

 As helpless captives caught in our own despair, we increasingly find ourselves being broken and stripped of anything we had placed our belief and trust in. We have become so disillusioned by our life on the other side of the door that we begin to feel like there is nothing whole about our existence at all...we are a shattered identity, a fragmented reality, a pile of pieces destined for the trash heap. Nothing really has meaning anymore. All we seem to do is wake up each morning and fight the war all over again; we battle the endless reminders of our past, and it makes us hang between two realities: the way things used to be, and the way they are now. Somewhere, back in the memory, we know life was;t meant to be like this. We remember brighter days from way back, but now things seem to be in such a state of dis-repair that we give up hope that the light could ever return - we think that our broken lives can never be made whole again. 
 And yet...this is God's way. By breaking us down, He builds us up. As I noted in a journey entry sometime ago, 

"...God has a way...of disarming us of whatever it is that 
is a supplement to our faith and trust in Him. He uses
trials that strip away our faith in things earthly, break our
hearts of stone, and grind us until we are like powdered
dust. It is then that we have nothing - we are nothing. We
are crushed to the point that nothing can help us beyond
His mercy...At this point, we come to see that we are but
empty vessels that need to be filled. Even when we feel 
like we are unable to trust Christ altogether, we anew
understand that God loves and will not despise 
'a broken spirit and a contrite heart' (Ps. 51:17). No matter
how broken we are, He will not turn us away - ever!
Man's help is temporary and will fade away, but the
mercy of God beckons, even if all we can utter is,
'Help, Lord!'"

 Here is where we arrive at conclusion...one so obvious and yet so profound: all of what has been uncovered about our inner selves, every step of the journey into the chasm, has led us to realize that we can't solve these issues on our own. We are so desperate for someone to save us - to redeem us, to rescue us from this prison called self. We know we're trapped. Our pride is crushed. We have tried to escape on our own so many times but to no avail. 
And so we ask the big question: who can save us? More importantly, who will?
When my dad was hospitalized for so long that summer of 2007, I found ways to escape from the situation. I recall this blue armchair in the waiting room that I would sit in and stare outside, enclosed by the walls of both the internal prison and the external. As one day of uncertainty blended into the next, I looked out at those big windows toward the mountains to the East. Alaska, where I live, is known for its impressive mountain ranges...peaks rising strong to touch the expansive sky, placed there by a masterful Designer. I was used to looking at this amazing creation all the time. I had driven by these very mountains time and time again, but I never stopped to look at them as I did now. Every day, I would come to visit my dad and, every day, I would sit and stare at those mountains. After awhile, a scripture would come to mind:

"I life my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?"
(Ps. 121: 1)

I asked myself that so many times: where does my help come from? From God? From myself? From someone else? Who would deliver me from my darkness? I wasn't sure anymore. I knew I ought to believe the second part of that beautiful verse:

"My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth."

But somehow, I didn't believe it. I didn't think I could. Sometime later, I wrote:

"It takes belief to know that this darkness, this shadow,
will give way to a brighter tomorrow. I often lack the
faith to obtain that belief. I find that my hope is false 
and empty and that I stand clinging to a yesterday that
will only be a memory. I watch dreams die before me,
and I do ask questions: could a better life ahead replace
the comfort of the way it used to be? Will this inner dark-
ness remain forever? Can the light be restored? I guess it's
just that God hasn't showed me enough of the future that
I can truly believe. But should it take such proof for me to
trust a God that I profess to know?"

It wasn't until quite sometime later that it began to dawn on me that every other solution to which I had looked was coming up short. My real problem was that I felt like I didn't need God. I thought I could find a way out of the darkness on my own. Now, I realized that only He could provide the means of escape. And only His path was the right one. All other paths would lead to a dead end: if I kept on following my own way, I would still find myself a prisoner. I would still be trapped on the other side of the door. I didn't fully understand where God's road to deliverance would lead or what it would cost me to take it, but I was desperate enough that I was willing to try.
 It was at this point that the words of Francis Lockwood Green became my newfound prayer:


"Teach me the truth, Lord, though it put to flight
My cherished dreams and fondest fancy's play;
Give me to know the darkness from the light,
The night from day.

Teach me the truth, Lord, though my heart may break
In casting out the falsehood for the true;
Help me to take my shattered life and make
Its actions new.

Teach me the truth, Lord, though my feet may fear
The rocky path that opens out to me;
Rough it may be, but let the way be clear
That leads to Thee..."

Until we realize that our lives are incomplete without Christ, we will continue to walk in falsehood and live out a lie. The hunger that is born in each of us won't be satisfied unless we find Him to be fully satisfying. Everything else ew attempt to fill that void with will only leave us desiring more. Our shattered lives are only repaired when we allow God to invade our darkness and become our Light. It is only in recognizing our need for God that life-change will ever become a reality. He is who gives us hope. He is the way out. 
 No person is too shattered, no heart too broken, that He cannot mend it with a touch of His nail-pierced hand. We are blind guides and will continue to stumble until we are given the Light to show us the path (Isaiah 50:10; Prov. 14:12). If we truly want to become all that God wants us to be - if we truly desire to step from our past a better person, our journey must begin with five simple words: 

Teach me the truth, Lord.

The decision is ours: no matter the cost, are we willing to follow Christ into the paths of peace?


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Selective Memory

 A very crucial part of understanding our personal journeys is that there are chapters in our life-story that we wish had not been written. There are painful memories we wish to not revisit, places we never want to see again, people we hope to never meet with for the rest of our lives. In order to deal with our hurts, make the choice not to deal with them. These things are, to us, better left forgotten. Why rub them in anymore?!
 Like most people, I lived for sometime with self-induced selective memory. To me, certain people, certain places, brought it all back to me, and I didn't like the feeling I got when these flashbacks happened. All I wanted was to stop re-living the emotion of these experiences each time I thought of them or when somebody brought them up to me. 

Just lock those nightmares away away in the secret closet of the mind and never open it. Let them gather dust and be left alone...

This worked for a time. Avoidance did the trick temporarily and yet, there came a point when that secret closet started to bother me. I knew what was behind that closet. I knew all about it. But I simply wanted to forget. I couldn't understand why these unresolved memories kept coming back to haunt me. I tried to run from them, but they still chased after me. Finally, I came to the conclusion that trying to ignore what happened to me didn't actually solve anything. It only left an unresolved chapter, an unfinished story waiting to be completed.  
 If we never go back to the place of pain and come to terms with our innermost feelings of loss, anger, hurt, betrayal, and neglect, we may forever be bearers of a burden no one ever knows. 
 For many years since my dad's hospitalization in 2007, I tried to ignore the emotion of the circumstances, refusing until just a few years ago to even to the hospital for any reason. To me, it signified pain. It reminded of everything I didn't want to remember. As a result, even the grace moments that were intermingled with the pain began to be washed away from my memory. Since my dad's initial health scare, I have had to go back to the hospital several times, most recently this past summer for yet another unexpected scare with my dad's health. The tightness in the chest still grips me, the cold sweaty palms remind me that this place is still a tough spot for me to go to. But I've become willing over the past few years to express to others that this happens. I've been willing to fight my fears of the past with faith. And I've learned that the only way to avoid the lingering effect of personal pain is to put it into the open and face it for what it is.
 As we begin to see dimly through the dark walls of the chasm that is our soul, one thing becomes clear: we are prisoners chained to our past. We cannot escape it. We are slaves to lies, the tragedies, the losses, the failures that brought us here. We are starting to be able to hear the Voice of Truth speaking to us louder, and we sense an inner longing - a deep desire to be free. How we can ever hope to achieve that release that are wanting to be ours seems beyond us. But we wonder... we try to believe that it might be available to us. Can the chains be broken? Can the prisoner be set free?
 For me, this part of the journey was a strange one. I had never thought of myself in terms of being a prisoner of my past. Coming to the realization that I was trapped in the firm hold of my inner darkness was difficult. It was quite painful to admit that the life I knew on the other side of the door had failed me. It had finally dawned on me that I needed to be freed. The darkness was losing its appeal. I struggled to understand why I couldn't shake the chains. Even in my growing desire to obtain a life unbound, I still wasn't willing to fully let go and allow Another to release me from my prison of the soul. I still wanted to be my own liberator. I kept coming up short. I couldn't find my way out. I couldn't see the way of escape. I knew I wanted to be free, but I wasn't looking to the only One who could bring it to me. I began to despair. In my journal, I described what I was feeling:

"I have felt bound by the pain - both inward and outward,
making me unable to feel at peace with God, myself, or 
anyone else. I [can't] accept reality as God [is] writing
it, so I turned inward and looked to myself for the
answers. Withdrawn, broken, and hurting, I began
to distance myself from the things that would give me
hope...I so desperately want to be set free..."

 Prisoners know that their mistakes landed them in this impersonal place. They feel their own misery. But, in some cases, they give up hope of ever getting out of prison. Some even have a sentence to prove they will never be given a chance at freedom. The prison cell will be there home forever. The dark room will never see the light. I think sometimes we can relate...
 We ask ourselves if this is the case with our souls. Is this the way the Supreme Judge gives verdicts? Is God the type that never offers any the opportunity to be redeemed? Even if the physical is bound, can the spiritual become liberated...free to worship and enjoy the One who gave it life? These questions capture our mind. Is there hope for us caught in the dark room? Could the God of the Universe care enough about us to set us free?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Facing Our Fear

 One of my favorite movies is called Facing The Giants. It is an incredible story of faith and hope seen through the eyes of a small-town high school football coach and his team. Both are facing insurmountable circumstances that are testing them to the absolute limit. They are faced with the choice of whether or not they are going to "face the giants" and confront their worst fears. Will they trust their own judgement, or will they dare to believe that God has a different plan?
 The thing that makes this movie so relevant is that "the giants" aren't just for the story - they exist for all of us...in real life! Every single person faces certain fears each day, fears that determine who they are and choices they are making. For some, these fears are so strong that they actually hold a physical impact on them, causing stress and strain in the body...better known as panic attacks. They can feel the blood pressure rise, the heart rate elevate. These people tremble at the thought of a potential situation where these fears might arise. Regardless of the degree to which these play a role in all of our lives, we must acknowledge that these fears exist and that they have too great an influence on our day-to-day existence. They have taken up residence with us on the other side of the door. They control us more than we perhaps want to admit. They come in many forms and are different, depending on the person and their past:

Fear of Failure - The need to meet certain standards in order to feel good about yourself.     Your worth is tied to how you perform. Anything less than meeting the expected standard results in a personal sense of devaluation and failure.

Fear of Rejection - The need to be accepted by certain people in order to feel good about yourself. Your worth is tied to what others say and think about you. Anything less than their total acceptance results in an inability to receive love and a hyper-sensitivity to others' options of you and a feeling of rejection.

Fear of Shame - The feeling that the shame of your past makes it impossible for you to change or experience true happiness, peace, or joy right now. Your worth is tied to your past. You think you are the way you are. You feel stuck. This leads to a sense of hopelessness.

Fear of Reproach - The sense that you have been despised or become the object of contempt. Your worth is tied to anything that causes people to point the finger of accusation against you.

Fear of Inadequacy - The sense that you are unworthy of love and lesser than another because of your appearance or abilities. Your worth is tied to your looks and your thoughts that you're not good enough; somebody else is always better than you.

Fear of Change - The sense that change is always seen as a negative. Your worth is tied to the security of your present circumstances. This results in an inability to take responsibility, to take risks, and to grow.

Fear of Death - The sense that you are unprepared to face death, perhaps because of an unexpected health diagnosis or of an impending life-threatening scenario of another kind. Your worth is tied to your physical health. Anything expect total health is considered cause for anxiety and fear. 

Fear of Vulnerability - The sense that appearing weak and vulnerable is a bad thing. Your worth is tied to being strong, tough, and in control and giving the best impression to others that you have it all together. This leads to an unrealistic self-reliance and an inability to be honest with yourself and others.

 There are so many other ways that fears can manifest themselves to us. They are, without a doubt, some of the most powerful enemies that we have. Yet at the root of these problems  is a failure to believe and trust God. When we lack the faith to know that the One who formed us, who sees everything about us, is able to guide every aspect of our lives, we become anxious and discontented with our circumstances. We want to see them with our human understanding, to rationalize based on what we think we know and desire. Such man-centers thinking fails to put believe into the all-knowing plan of God, to release the feeling of entitlement to look at life with our own perspective. It is the lack of using our spiritual senses to fall into the ever-present presence of our Creator. 
 For every giant that we face, God sends himself to fight for us. We are not alone with our fears as we want to think. We must open our minds to the fact that we do not fight on our own. The Maker of Heaven stands ready to move and give us the victory. Of our own will-power, we cannot simply decide to tell our fears to leave. But as 1 John 4:18 says,

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."

No human possesses this "perfect love." The love we have is not strong enough to destroy such fears. But the God who is the very essence of love, the very definition himself, His love is perfect. His love has the power to do beyond what we could ever hope or dream. As the characters in Facing the Giants discovered, fears shrink at the sight of God's light and, through His enabling, everyone becomes possible, tolerable, manageable. 
"Be anxious for nothing," Jesus tells us, "I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). 
Do we believe Him?

The Regretful Life

 Since the beginning of time, there has only been one person who even lived a regret-free life. That man was Jesus Christ, the perfect and sinless Son of God. Ever since the dawn of human history, people have gone to their graves, wishing they'd lived their lives differently. Sadly, many of them feel so ashamed of their mistakes that they despair of even bring healed or restored again. For them, reflecting on their past is nothing but one, giant guilt trip. Often, these people turn to various additions, hoping to drown out the shame and regret, feeling like it's better to give up and die than to carry on with such haunted memories. I want to be clear here that these are not just little failings such as we all have: the job we ought to have taken, maybe even the move we should've made. No, these are the deep wounds: the unfaithfulness of a spouse; the abuse of a loved one; the friend we tried to save but couldn't; the baby we could've put up for adoption but aborted instead. It is this kind of regret that scars us for life and often keeps us tormented by its presence as we sit in darkness on the other side of the door. Too often, others don't even know the burden we're carrying. 
 This is the misery that the consequences of bad decisions bring upon us. Even though we may hold the secrets to ourselves, the effect it has on those around us - through our words and actions - can be clearly seen. No person can live a whole and fulfilling life while harboring such shame and guilt. Feeling this way can often lead us to believe that we are the objects of others' judgement and harsh criticism, that our behavior has led us to a place of facing people's rejection and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is often a literal reality. This world can be a very cold and insensitive place. Even the most well-intentioned people who are simply trying to help you to get real with yourself can go a little too far sometimes, doing more harm than good. You already know how had things are, how different it would've been if only you hadn't done such-and-such. 
 You lie awake at night, thinking of the boyfriend you never should've said yes to. The cries of the unborn pierce your thoughts; you remember your former spouse - the one you cheated one, or who cheated on you, which led to an ugly divorce that are not proud of; your mind wanders to that sibling of yours that is now behind bars, serving a criminal sentence. Whatever the situation, whatever brought you her to this place of regret you now know all too well, you just know that you don't need more condemnation. You don't need others to remind you of these horrible mistakes and failures. All you really want is redemption...just another chance to make life right, just another opportunity to repair what's been broken. The path to that place doesn't seem clear, but you know you desperately want to find it. 
All you ask is, 
Somebody please show me the way...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Anger and the Wall of Separation

 Anger has a big part to play in our life on the other side of the door - often more so than we realize. I never thought of myself as being an angry person but, in hindsight, it became clearer to me just how often a spirit of anger ruled my life. Those I loved sadly had to bear the brunt of it. Although I couldn't grasp it at the time, this angry attitude came out in the smallest of things...and I knew something was wrong. 
 To understand the heart of this anger, we have to trace it back to its source. Sometimes anger is the result of bitterness over something in the past; other times it comes from the process of grieving an intense loss. Many times it is also passed from one generation to another over some grievance many years before. Sometimes, we can't even identify where it starts. We're just angry. That's all we know. 
 In looking back, I was angry at lots of things - God, other people, myself - and I tried to store that anger away on the other side of the door. I lied to myself that it was useful "for motivation" when in reality, it was only "motivating" me to become more angry...to want to find a way to get even with those situations or people that I wasn't happy with. It eventually turned into an, I'll show them kind of spirit. I was out for justice: to prove that others were wrong, that God was wrong, that I was right.
 On the contrary, God's way is for us to put away anger (Eph. 4:31), for us to care more about being justified through Christ than being out for justice. Anger causes us to not be able to rationalize properly. When we're hotheaded, we can't see others or ourselves in the correct light. After all, anger caused the first physical death in the Bible when Adam and Eve's firstborn son, Cain, killed his brother Abel, because he was jealous that God had honored Abel's sacrifice instead of his own (Gen. 4:1-16). Anger, when provoked, can easily lead to rash decisions and, ultimately, to guilt and regret at a later time. 
 The most important consequence of anger is that it often leads us to hurt other people - physically and emotionally. As a result, they can sustain wounds that last a lifetime. 
 In order for us to face the darkness, to plunge even further into the chasm, we need to be on the look out for a spirit of anger and ask the Voice of Truth to show us what is at the heart of it. 
 Closely tied to anger (and often it's perpetrator) is unforgiveness. It's what I call the wall of separation. In many cases, it is never torn down after being erected. When an offense has occurred and the offending party refuses to repent and ask for forgiveness, there can arise such a division that people often simply walk away and determine never to speak to one another again. 
 None of us can avoid being hurt. We all say and do things that inflict emotional and physical pain on one another. This is an accepted fact of life. All you've got to do is see this demonstrated in a classroom of children: kids can be very cruel and often say the meanest things to each other. We've all got the potential to be this way...from children all the way to adults. We think it's our right to hold a certain position on something and, whether we intentionally hurt someone or not, it serves the other party right to apologize first...not us. They started the whole thing first; they have no right to be forgiven unless they apologize. In our minds, we think that what transpired was too painful to be forgotten and let go of. No grace given here, we say. 
 For most of my life, I would've denied that I had a problem with unforgiveness. I thought I dealt with offenses pretty well. My parents had demonstrated from my early years wheat forgiving others was all about, and I felt I had learned that lesson a long time ago. What I didn't realize was that forgiving only gets harder with time. To forgive a friend or sibling for taking your toy is one thing...but to forgive someone who betrayed you or said hurtful things against you or somebody you love...that takes the concept to a whole new level. A totally new type of grace is needed to forgive one who perhaps murdered a relative of yours, or who neglected your child, or who bullies your disabled sibling at school. Often, we find it harder to resist becoming angry, hateful, and resentful under these circumstances than under those we dealt with when we were little. It took me a long time to fully grasp the effect that my unwillingness to forgive was having on myself as well as others. When I became willing to be candid with myself regarding who I refused to forgive and why, I was shocked at how many names and situations came to mind. The anger stewed within me...because I had excused myself of any responsibility in these situations and was waiting for others to make the first move. 
 The thing about forgiveness is that it dares us to do the unnatural. In many cases, it seems nearly impossible to extend grace to someone we feel does not deserve it. They hurt us, we think; what's a little hurt in return going to do to them?! Serves them right for the way they treated us! Sadly, many people take this so far as to try to even the score and to seek revenge on the offending party. Thus, the hatred and resentment is perpetuated...
 I so clearly remember when God first began to walk me deeper into the chasm and reveal to me the shadows of my broken light - the darkness brought on partly by my resistance to the healing power of forgiveness. I didn't understand at the time how such a concept was even possible. 
So often I asked God, Doesn't the offending party have to be the first to seek restoration? 
How can I forgive when they've done nothing to seek it?
As the Voice of Truth answered through my disillusionment, the response left me both surprised and bewildered: forgiveness isn't so much for their benefit as it is for yours. Don't wait for them to release their hatred first...you go ahead and release yours. 
 While I took in this mind-blowing concept, it also struck me that I was far from being at a place where I could fully comprehend such an idea and put it into practice. I still wanted to know the reason behind why they weren't willing to change. But I also was constantly reminded that I was angry about it all...and the real issue was, could I change? Would I be the first to let go?

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Disease of Bitterness, The Laying of Blame

 When I looked back at the road that had led me to the other side of the door, I discovered a deadly disease, a hidden cancer that had affected me for years but one that I never truly knew the extent of until this point. It was the deep infection of bitterness. We all have potential for it and many of us have felt its stinging wounds. You may even be struggling with it as you read this post. 
 This disease of the soul is so easy to contract because adversity happens to all of us - offenses and hurts take place all the time and, in our pain over the situation, it is so easy to begin to resent what happened and even to resent the source of it. This is especially common in marital or family problems where people take sides over an issue and get to a point where they can't even speak to or be with the source of the hurt, let alone even dream of forgiving and moving on. 
 Until I ventured further into the chasm, I had no idea just how deeply this infection had gone. I was bitter over certain aspects of my father's illness; I was bitter over a crumbling friendship; I was bitter over some recent deaths that had happened as well. Most of all, I was bitter at God. As I reflected on all that was going on, it appeared to me that He had made a mistake...many of them, actually.
 We can all find reasons to be bitter - perhaps someone mistreated us and we feel we got the bad end of the stick; maybe we received a terrible diagnosis from which we aren't expected to recover; maybe some tragedy has just taken away somebody dear to us. Whatever the reason, we can very easily resent what has taken place and promise ourselves inwardly that we will never move on. 
 But not only does this eat away at us on in the inside, it is often contagious. Bitter people breed bitterness in other people. Hebrews 12:14-15 says that it is better to "...follow peace with all men...lest any man fall from the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled." To become bitter and resentful toward others and your circumstances not only robs you of a whole and freeing life but it robs others around you of it, too. 
 When people are bitter about their circumstances, blame seems to be a common outlet for their frustration and pain. They will often find someone else to put the responsibility on and say that it's their fault that life turned out this way. Many will even take it so far as to blame God. 
 As I referenced before, I was once at this place. In my eyes, God wasn't being fair. Quite honestly, as I kept getting knocked down time after time, I stopped trusting Him at all. 

Seriously...who wants to love a God that just keeps letting bad things happen to you?

The longer things went on, the more places and people I sought to hold "accountable" for what was going on in my life: 

If only they had done such-and-such, things wouldn't be this way...
And by the way, God, You just keep saying You're a God of love, but until I see things looking up, I'm not going to believe it.

There's an old saying that, "for every time you point your finger, there's another finger pointing back at you." What I came to realize in time is that much of what I sought to lay on others (or on God) as responsible for my situation was, in reality, my own fault. I'm not saying that the actual circumstances were my fault but the bitterness, the anger, the disillusionment were nobody else's fault except my own. I alone was responsible for my emotions and my feelings. Blaming others didn't do anything to fix my circumstances and only served to keep me in denial that much longer. While I had no control over the actions of others, I did have control over my responses and and how I was going to let my situations affect me in the future. No matter how hurtful my outward situation might have been, it was of no benefit to find another source to blame for how I felt. I was the one who had to choose how I was going to deal with my adversity. 
 I also realized that, while God had allowed these trials to come upon me, He was not the cause of what happened and thus was exempt from any fault as well...because He's the perfect and true God who never does anything amiss. My getting angry at Him was useless - just like it was with anybody else. 
 Denial often keeps us from seeing the truth, and blaming others for where we are now is a form of denial. We cannot expect ourselves to acknowledge and deal with the hurts of our past until we accept our responsibility in the matter. We must look to ourselves first, and not to others, to determine the source of our bitterness. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Plunging Into the Chasm

 As my own journey unfolded, I found myself at a place where I did not want to be - a place I'd long avoided. To a certain extent, I'd avoided it for so long that I'd almost forgotten the pain that resided there. For some time, I had given myself self-induced selective memory: I had tried to forget about this place...this side of my existence on the other side of the door. But now, I'd been brought here yet again and, this time, I knew I couldn't walk away from it. It was the chasm of darkness - the deep place that housed my greatest fears, my innermost feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and despair. 
 It took some time before I was able to sum up enough courage to enter in to such a place. The only thing that even made me remotely want to plunge deep was the thought act my path down the chasm would be lit by the light of God's love and that future relationships (friends, family, future spouse, children) would be impacted by whether or not I made the choice to plunge deep into the darkness, to uncover everything, and to face my hidden secrets for what they were. 
 And so, with much fear and trepidation, I entered the chasm. 
I hadn't gone far when I began to discover things...things that I never wanted to see, never wanted the world to see, but things which, if left undealt with, would haunt me for the rest of my life. 
 What I realized early on is that this journey would require weakness. Weakness is seen often as a bad thing. Negative feelings are seen as a bad thing. Admitting faults is seen as being a bad thing. While we each know in our inner soul that we're not perfect, we seem to want others to think we are. Imperfection is our enemy. The mistakes we've made are oftentimes too painful to admit. And yet, we have to say that such thinking is really a form of denial. It is a lack of honesty. We are lying to ourselves by expecting behavior that is simply unrealistic. Refusing to acknowledge our weaknesses is to not recognize one of the basic qualities of human nature: that of the imperfect. 
 Ever since the encounter with God in the Garden of Eden involving Adam and Eve, people everywhere have had to live with the effects of a fallen creation. What was once made in total perfection now resides in total imperfection. All of us are walking stories of failures, regrets, mistakes, and sinful decisions. Nobody goes through life and then dies having lived the perfect life. Only one person ever did, and that is Jesus Christ, the One who desires to restore us to the perfected state of glory we once fell from. Once the fall occurred, God already set up a plan to redeem us from the disgrace of such woeful disobedience. By sending His Son to die for every wrong act, every bad choice, every mistake mankind has made since the Garden...one death - that of Jesus - paid it all (Romans 5:17-19). The beautiful thing is that He isn't afraid of our weaknesses. In fact, He knows about them even before we recognize them ourselves. 
 Life is about learning to see and embrace the whole of ourselves - the bad as well as the good. It's being free and trusting enough to not be afraid of God's response, or the response of others toward your story. 
 And so God invites us all:
Come into the chasm and face the darkness. I will be with you!

Friday, September 16, 2016

The God We Want vs. The God Who Is

 Honesty is key in coming to grips with our life on the other side of the door. If we aren't willing to be objective about our circumstances, we can't stop being subjective about them and come to a real understanding of what got us to this point. 
 For anyone who has felt the suppressing enslavement of being trapped in such darkness, we can all admit to having listened to certain voices in our head - voices that told us things long enough that we began to believe them. Whatever the messages have been, we've latched hold of them. We have embraced either the lies of others or we have created our own and used them to fuel our life on the other side of the door. These become part of our new reality, and begin to view ourselves through this lens as well as the world and others around us. We sort of enjoy the power we feel at being able to interpret life the way we want to. 
 But eventually, we find ourselves beginning to question whether or not these things we have believed for so long are true. We start to wonder if there isn't another side to the story...one we've refused to look at: God's side of the story. We read in Psalm 51:6 that God "desires truth in the inward parts." Also, we see in John 8:32 that knowing the truth will set you free. And yet, we ask ourselves, What is truth? -  harkening back to the very question asked to the face of Jesus Christ himself (John 18:38). 
 In the spirit of humility, we can be led to search God's letter to us in which He promises to reveal to us the true facts about ourselves and about Him that lead to true life-change: the Bible is our guidebook. God is the voice of truth, speaking into the darkness of our inner being, challenging the lies to leave, and calling out to us yet again, "Where are you?"
 But this time, we don't turn away as quickly as before. Now, things have gotten so bad that we are starting to get sick of our act and our life on the other side of the door. We know that He's been watching all along but, somehow, something makes us want to delve deeper - to compare our script to His and see what comes of it. The Voice of Truth has gotten louder; it hasn't drowned out the other voices yet, but we are starting to hear it above the din. 
 As we go along through life, it is very easy to form our own concepts of who God is and who we are in relation to Him. When the world is saying that "you can have your own interpretation of God and everybody else can have theirs," we often go along with it. Whether we are earnest about church and faith matters or not, we can become accustomed to defining God the way we want Him to be, not the way He really is. 
 Looking back, even a lifetime of sitting in church didn't stop me from creating my own personal perceptions of the God I claimed to know. In my mind, God was distant...aloof maybe...and not really engaged in the personal aspects of my life. He wasn't accessible. I wasn't sure He listened to me on the rare occasions I prayed, let alone cared for me and loved me. And I certainly didn't look to Him as a Father, even though the Bible told me so (Psalm 103:13). I picked and chose what I wanted to believe...and the crazy thing is, I was really into being an opinionated Christian: There is a certain way to believe and I know it! Just ask me - I'll tell you! The fact is, I was more concerned with mastering my definition of God than being mastered by Him. I had given Him no control over my life, and I began to feel as though I could get along quite fine without Him...God, you just stay in your little box where I put you, and everything will be just fine.
 In time, I came to see how very wrong I was. You can't contain an all-sovereign and holy God and put Him in a box and tell Him to stay there. He was meant to be at the center of our lives and to work a mighty and greater thing within us than we ever imagined. As referenced in previous posts, God is all about relationship - He communicating with us and us with Him. Everything we can think of to want from a human relationship - love, acceptance, approval, commitment, forgiveness - He can provide and does unconditionally, whether we choose to see and receive those things or not. The God who is is far beyond the one we want. The god of our own making is fallible, just like us. And we treat the true God like one of us: always coming up short, never being enough, never giving us what we want, letting us down when we think He owes us better. But the God who actually exists, not the one we've created, breathes life and meaning into the depths of our aching souls, and He yearns to give us something that nothing on this earth ever can: life abundant. The real question now becomes...will we allow Him to?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Exposure

 For most of my life, I never doubted that God existed. But growing up in church and a Christian home wasn't enough to convince me that God was worth following and that He cared about who I was and where I was going with my life. My relationship with Him was shallow - more theoretical than experiential - and not a true belief in my soul. To me, God was more of a back-up plan. He was kind of like the distant parent you know is there, but you don't put anything into the relationship and you only go to them when you're in trouble and you need help. While I continued to go to church, I did it to socialize more than anything else. I rarely prayed, and my Bible gathered dust. 
 As the darkness closed in, I began to lose my way. I took less and less interest in the things of God. I thought I knew enough to be a decent Christian but the problem was, I thought I could believe the lie and still stay in the garden, too. I could still claim to be a Christian while staying in the refuge of my own deception. My fear and insecurity drove me from approaching the God I claimed to believe in. And yet, I never stopped asking the same questions that haunted me: is God for real? Can He be trusted? Does He truly care about me? I knew I shouldn't be hiding in the darkness and running from God. I knew I wasn't living out what I said I believed. But my fear, like Adam's, was too strong. 
 For me, that lonely night in the dark bedroom of my friends' house was the first time I can clearly remember hearing God's voice calling out...

Where are you?

 To be honest, I can understand and relate to the fear Adam and Eve had because, just like them, I was hiding also. I was afraid of what God might discover if I let Him come any closer. Somehow, deep inside, I knew He'd been watching me this whole time, just as our first parents knew that God was aware of their sin before they even spoke up. And yet, I felt that the longer I stayed hidden, maybe God would just quit calling and go away. But He didn't...
 Perhaps you are a bit disillusioned with God, too. If so, you're in good company because I've been there and so were Adam and Eve. It is so easy to feel as though God hasn't done enough for you and to walk away from the faith world completely. The lie that God isn't completely satisfying continues to echo down through history, and we've kept buying it...time and time again. We lay down the best He has to offer us and keep coming up empty. We now no longer live in a natural state of relationship with God and, instead, we look for the nearest bush to dodge behind when we hear God approaching. I don't know what your standing is with your Creator. You may even claim to believe that He doesn't exist. Whatever your reason for hiding from His presence, the truth is you're not alone. Because, for Adam and Eve as well as for us, isolation seems to be a common response. Seeking a place of hiding is a trait of fallen man, and only the relentless pursuit of God is the thing which can cause us to come out from our darkness and become like those described in John 3:21:

"Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light,
so that it may be seen plainly that what he has
done has been done through God."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Beyond the Self Part 2

 Performance plays a big part in our society today. As noted yesterday, excellence - be it in the classroom, on the athletic field, or in business - is a big deal. Everyone seems to focus on some aspect of what it takes to be #1 at whatever you do...because being #1 means you're somebody! This "failure is not an option" attitude can drive people in a positive way to reach for the top, but it can also make them despair if they feel the standards are too lofty and thus unattainable. Then it becomes easiest to simply not try at all. After all, it's a shame to fail these days - at anything - and who wants to go through that?
 I'm an idealistic person and, for many years, I tried to reach goals set for me by others and those I set for myself...perfectly. The problem was, I rarely found success because I was too focused on what wrong in the process. Thus, by always concentrating on the places where I let those expectations down, I began to personalize the results: I am the problem; I am a failure. I felt like nothing I ever did was good enough. Whether in my piano lessons or in my education, any inability to achieve absolute perfection was a wound to be sense of self-worth. It got to the point where even positive criticism from others was taken as negative. Simply put, I didn't want to fail but, in my mind, that's all I ever did. So I quit. I stopped giving life my full effort. 
 Interestingly enough, Jean Twenge, author of the book Generation Me, points out that this mentality is another characteristic of GenMe: the belief that there is no point in trying. She adds that the modern generation is so used to the message that "you can be anything you want to be," it is seen as reason for quitting when there is a breakdown in the pursuit of achievement...either through the lack of tools, experience, or opportunity. This also produces a lack of vision in some aspects - because, these defeated people think, how could one person, who feels like a failure, make any positive change in the world? It's easier to say, whatever, and give up. After all, if you're not at the top, whats the use of trying to get there? 
 Living in this culture produces as certain amount of anxiety: every time we walk outside, the thought crosses our minds - are we good enough for "them"? Do I measure up to "their" standards? Will this maybe be the time "they" finally accept me?
These questions cause us to feel insecure and, often, this comes out in one of two ways:

1. Control - We try to grab hold of our situation and attempt to do something about it. We promise to come up with the right answer, the perfect wardrobe, the right look. If we just keep working at this, we know we'll get it right. Time will help us eventually win over our doubters. The right job will open up, the right "significant other" will come along, the right everything will happen. It's only up to us to change our way of life, and it will all come together.

2. Withdrawal and Passivity - Rather than try to control our life and circumstances, we just pull back and think, "So I'm a worthless bunch of nothing anyway...so who cares!" In so doing, we then invite and allow other's criticism to come right into our lives..."I'm your doormat; walk all over me if you wish. I don't matter anyway." We withdraw from relationships and from the connections that give us meaning. 

Either approach, however, doesn't prove to be a lasting fix. The feelings of insecurity persist, and we can never allow ourselves to feel safe and at ease. We are forever on guard because, in our minds, nobody can be trusted. Everyone is suspect. 
 The truth is that all of our self-centered thoughts, our constant need for perfection and elite performance, our desire for validation, the false expectations that are placed upon us by the culture in which we live - they're all broken light. They are fragmented reality. Because, contrary to God's original plan - that mankind derive its meaning from its Creator - our society looks to man as the source of all knowledge, affirmation, and success. Thus, we become the ones who define each other...not a Higher Authority. Only ourselves. 
 As we have become increasingly more self-oriented, we have lost the higher things that once made the foundation of one's identity - things like faith, family traditions, social morals, relationships, and...most importantly...God. There are still glimmers of light that prove we haven't totally abandoned these roots, yet the light is clearly broken and weak. All of the things that tell us, "you only need this, and you'll have the good life," seem to have come up short. And we find we're still asking the same questions. While we sit in our darkness on the other side of the door, we wonder: is this really all there is? Or could there be something more...something waiting to be discovered on the outer side of the door?