But God Believes In Us

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Doubt is a part the faith experience, including doubts about ourselves. There’s One, however, who truly believes in us.

Martha, a salty saint in our congregation, came to my study on a Monday morning following a sermon in which I had said, “The most amazing truth is not that we believe in God, but that God believes in us!”

“You really got me thinking yesterday,” Martha said, peeking in my door. I invited her to come in. “I realize my greatest doubts are not about God, but about me! I love God with all my heart–but I sure have problems with myself! I wrote this poem last night for you.  I tried to tell you what I mean.”

Then this wonderful woman, who had celebrated her eightieth birthday some time ago, gave me a poem that sets our quest in perspective.

Thomas and I

Thomas knew you well, noting small things…

    The contour of your beard, your sudden laugh,

            The gentle hands, the way your eyes caught fire

            At the desecration of a temple or a life.

            He more than most

            Echoed your fervor when he prayed, “Thy Kingdom come.”

            Yet Thomas doubted.

            Not you! It was himself he disbelieved

            And his companions, fearing their anguished need

            Induced illusions. You did not rail at him,

            But gently, with a smile exposed your wounds

            For added certainty of touch as he had asked.

            Lest I confuse my aching wants with your commands

            Show me your hands.

Martha has now seen the Lord’s hands, having gone to be with him just months after writing these wise words. I am so thankful that she shared her counsel with me. She sets us on the right track.

As we journey on the quest of faith, we are invited to lay aside doubt, including our doubt of ourselves: of our motives, of our abilities, of the distraction of past failed attempts and the anxiety of future expectations.  Just take the next step–that’s what matters now.

[NOTE: This poem by Martha Wynne is shared with the kind permission of Martha’s children Ms. Pat Wynne and Mr. Robert Wynne. Originally presented in Douglas J. Rumford, Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, pages 284, 285.]

The Dark Side of Idealism

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Commemorative Stamp in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution at Flossenbürg concentration camp

Idealism is a doubled-edged sword in life and in leadership. I’ve learned the hard way that while idealism can be a positive force in casting vision, it can also erode joy, contentment and graciousness in relationships. This insight really came home when I read this sentence from German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Bonhoeffer was one of the most fascinating pastoral leaders of the 20th century. He was a complex man. He shared profound reflections on the Christian faith seen in his books like The Cost of Discipleship where he wrote bluntly, “When Jesus calls a man (sic), he bids him come and die.” At the same time he was also involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb that nearly succeeded (This plot was the basis for Tom Cruise’s movie The Valkyrie). Because of that he was imprisoned in Flossenbürg concentration camp and executed just three days before the Allies liberated the camp. You can read more about him in Eric Metaxas’ highly- acclaimed biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

One of the fascinating aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry was his leadership of the Confessing Church seminary community at Finkenwalde (1935-37) immediately preceding WWII. Bonhoeffer was leading and teaching a group of men who were willing to defy the Nazi’s by studying to be pastors of the Confessing church. These men were idealists, committed to Christ and the church to the point of willingness to be arrested and even executed (some of them eventually were.) But, one night in 1935, early in their life together as a seminary community, Bonhoeffer asked for help in the kitchen with the dinner dishes. There were no volunteers, and Bonhoeffer washed dishes alone that night.

I think Bonhoeffer was speaking first to himself when he wrote,

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 27).

When I was first assessed for entering pastoral ministry, the pastoral counselor highlighted what I now call the “dark side of idealism.” One sentence in his report still echoes in my mind, “Doug tends to set very high standards for himself and for those around him and to experience disappointment when these standards are not met.” Over 40 years later… it’s still more true that I would like to admit.

As a person in relationships and a leader in community, I realize the ideals for “the best” can have the unintended consequences of discontent and criticism. I’m continually learning not to allow my ideals to get in the way of developing gracious, realistic fellowship. Do not give up on ideals—the hope for what God can do in Christ. But temper them always with love for who we are and patience with where we are now.

[Special thanks to the Rev. Dr. Steve Stager for his helpful research in preparing this post.]

 

 

God’s Wink

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Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

I was reading a devotional for pastors and ministry leaders when it suddenly struck me, “I can use this material in the message I am preparing for our missions’ conference.” I stopped, thanked the Lord, made some notes to include this in my message, and then returned to my devotions with another prayer of gratitude. As I prayed, I sensed this experience was like a wink from God. I really like the image of warmth and care conveyed by a wink.

It reminded me of the time Sarah and I were at a restaurant on the North Shore outside Boston, in the town of Essex. I was in seminary and she was a nurse, so it was rare for us to go out to eat. When it came time to get the check, our server came over and said, “I have the privilege of informing you your bill has been paid in full—including the tip!” We were speechless. “How’s that possible?” I asked.

“That couple over there said they wanted to take care of it.”

We looked over, and a physician Sarah worked with at the hospital was sitting with his wife. He gave us a nod, winked and smiled.

We know intellectually God cares for us, but may rarely feel it in our hearts. When it’s hard to feel God cares, it helps to become more aware of the little things we often call “coincidences.” They could better be described as “God-incidences.” Or, as I’m now suggesting, God’s “winks.”

Sometimes love is shown more fully in simple ways. I am deeply touched not only by Sarah’s gifts on my birthday, but by the notes she slips into my suitcase when I have to travel, or that quick text that just says she cares. I am encouraged by those who take time to know and appreciate the little idiosyncrasies that make me me. A couple in our congregation heard that I really like apricot nectar. Periodically we will open our front door to find a can of apricot nectar sitting on our porch. I feel joy and affirmation in that gift.

Jesus continually spoke of God’s joy in blessing us. “So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32 New Living Translation NLT).

Romans 8:31-32 gives us confidence that God is not stingy in his care, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (NIV).

The primary focus of each passage above is God’s provision for our redemption and transformation in Christ. And these include, I believe, the love and care that extends to all of life, often seen most clearly in the small, ordinary “God-incidences” that flavor our days. So watch for God’s “winks”– and you’ll see them more often than you can imagine.

Good Stuff?

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Let’s face it, stuff can be a problem. We are body/ soul beings. (I don’t like to say we “have” bodies because we really are a “package deal” of body-and-soul together in this life—and the one to come!) As a result, we need food, shelter and clothing and have to deal with economic realities. But is it okay to enjoy our things? To have and do nice things? There is a strong streak of asceticism in Christian tradition, in which people abstain from or minimize material and sensual pleasures in order to express their spiritual commitment. This is very personal matter that some really find a struggle, and many have never considered.

I was leaving church at lunchtime one afternoon when a young mom I’ll call Jen saw me unlock my car. “That’s your car?” she exclaimed (Yes, that’s an unusual word to describe her speech, but she sounded alarmed).

“Sure is,” I said, with a bit of chuckle, confused by her excitement.

“That’s not… but that’s not a pastor’s car!” she said with a sense of disappointment.

She was joking, right? She had to be. But she wasn’t. My mind was racing (no pun intended) for a spiritual response. All I could come up with, “It’s a gift.”

You see, my wife, Sarah, is all about gifts and grace and spoiling people, especially me. For my 50th birthday she got an amazing deal on a seven-year old German import convertible by purchasing it from a very close friend. It cost far less than a new Toyota Corolla or similar “affordable” car. Sarah knew I would never buy a car like that for myself—but how could I refuse her gift?

So there I was, standing next to this love-gift, this grace-gift, from my wife, feeling judged by a member of our congregation. Like I had to defend my wife’s expression of love and care?

I have honestly blanked on the rest of my conversation with Jen, if there was any. But I’ve never forgotten the sting of her comment. It made me do some soul-searching, to be sure. I am one who is quick to feel guilty. I spend a lot of time in the tension between enjoying God’s good creation and not being captive to materialism.

I thought of Paul’s words to Timothy in response to those who were teaching against marriage and the enjoyment of various foods.

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5 ESV).

There is certainly a basis for drawing the principle from this passage that there are definitely times and places for good stuff. And we also have Paul’s exhortation to the “rich,” in which he does not condemn their wealth per se, but encourages them to look beyond their own well-being and enjoyment.

“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 ESV).

If you really want to wrestle with this more deeply, start with Romans 14:1-5. But for now, let me just say I thank God for the goodness of life and seek to enjoy that goodness and share it with others. How about you?

“I’m a Video, not a Snapshot”

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Too often our opinion of a person gets “frozen” in time, especially when there’s been a conflict. We allow one negative experience to become the defining factor in our view of that person. Because of that “snapshot” image of the person, we get stuck in our expectations and perceptions. We may even withdraw from them and avoid them. This hurts our relationships, especially in the community of God’s people.

Russ, an elder in one of the congregations I served, taught me a key principle about people and change.

We were meeting for prayer together before a Sunday service and began by reviewing the service assignments. There was a definite ‘contemporary’ (a reference my Presbyterian readers understand!) tone to the services that Sunday, and I had heard that Russ ‘hated the drums.’

“Russ, I imagine this service may be a challenge for you,” I said.

“Really? Why’s that?” he responded with genuine surprise.

“Because of the drums. I heard that you weren’t really a fan of them.”

“Oh, I used to make a pretty big deal about that, but I’ve changed over the years. Worship needs to connect with all God’s people, not just us ‘traditional’ types. I’m not a snapshot, I’m a video.”

That really hit me: a video, not a snapshot. A continually changing image, not a static one. We are not wise when we lock our perception of a person or group of people into one position, as if they are frozen in time, like a snapshot. We need to expect that many will continue to work through their ideas and preferences and make changes. People, especially those actively pursuing growth in Christ, are dynamic, changing, growing and learning.

Paul describes our transformation in Christ as a process of changing “from one degree of glory to another,” as the Revised Standard Version translates the following verse.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 Revised Standard Version).

I appreciate that image of degree-by-degree, step by step; and most often it’s baby step by baby step.

The stimulus for change comes as we break free from the limited and limiting perspective of this world. We learn to view everything with the eyes of faith. Another way to say this is that we are learning to see life from the aspect of eternity. We are gaining perspective and a sense of proportion by viewing life as if we were seated with Christ in heaven.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7 English Standard Version).

This is a staggering concept with countless implications for every aspect of life: our values, priorities, relationships, commitments and so on. For now, let it remind us that we need to give each other grace to grow. Instead of getting stuck with a negative impression of a person and their ideas, check to see how they have changed with time and experience.

 

Peace from a Heart Sunk Deep

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Huntington Beach Pier, California

We will never experience peace if we depend on outward circumstances. There’s always something going on in the world around us to stir anxiety: political turmoil, gun violence against students, international conflicts, terrorist threats, economic disruptions like sky-rocketing gases prices, and the everyday problems and tensions in our lives and relationships.

Yet Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27 NIV).

How do we experience that peace? It’s helped me to realize peace is a product of our heart-attachment. If my heart is attached to worldly comfort and calm, peace will elude me. If my heart is grounded in the love and gracious character of our Triune (Trinitarian) God, however, peace will endure like a firm foundation in the midst of life’s craziness.

Think of the difference between a boat on the ocean and a pier coming off the shore. A boat on the water is fun, no doubt! But it is extremely vulnerable to the ocean conditions. Calm water is one thing, but seven-to-ten foot swells of waves and strong currents are quite another.

In contrast, a pier is a fixed structure not nearly as vulnerable to oceanic conditions. I live near a number of piers on the Pacific Ocean and one of my favorites is Huntington Beach Pier. It measures 1,850 feet in length and is one of the longest piers on the West Coast.  (The longest is Oceanside Pier at 1,942 feet). The pier is 100 feet above sea level. It was built with concrete and reinforced steel, coated with epoxy, to protect it from the corrosive effect of the damp salt air. Huntington Pier was engineered to withstand 31-foot waves or a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Its stability comes from the fact that 1/3 the length of each piling is driven into the earth, with 2/3’s above the surface. The key to stability is to be “sunk deep.”

A boat or a pier: how would you describe your experience of peace (or lack thereof) right now?

Peace is our “birthright” our “inheritance” in Christ. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus twice bestowed peace on his disciples. One is the John 14:27 verse quoted above. The other is John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (NIV).

I recently developed a working definition of peace. I invite you to consider this and develop one that works for you.

Doug’s Working Definition of Peace: Peace is a multi-faceted fruit of the Spirit that includes reconciliation with God, healthy relationships with others and serenity within ourselves. Peace’s restfulness and calm arise from our confidence in God’s care for us, positively influencing our attitude and our efforts in our relationships.

Peace is a result of our heart-attachment. It will elude us if we’re floating on the waves of life without a firm anchor in faith. Let’s go back to the pier: its stability comes from the fact that 1/3 the length of each piling is driven into the earth. So what helps you drive “deep pilings” into the shores of faith? I hope you’ll journal on this question. Let me suggest two things:

The first is remembering that peace is the “natural condition” of those who believe in Jesus. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2 NIV). Be still and embrace this promise until you experience it.

We also “sink deeply” through our intentional experiences of both worship with God’s people and personal time daily with the Lord. Knowing and glorifying God anchors in his love.

 

Hurricane Downgrade

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Hurricane Charley near peak intensity shortly before landfall in Florida on August 13, 2004

Hurricanes are serious business. When I initially drafted this post in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast of Texas. The storm made landfall on Friday August 24 with 130 mph winds — the first Category 4 storm to hit the United States since Charley in 2004. It reminded me that my wife’s parents, Wayne and Marian, experienced Hurricane Charley on Friday August 13, 2004. They lived in Punta Gorda (a town near Port Charlotte on the west coast of Florida) where wind speeds reached 140+ miles per hour. They lived on the second story of a three-story condo complex where the roof was severely damaged. Damage to the state of Florida from Charley was over $13 billion. The devastation to Wayne and Marian’s condo and surrounding area was so significant that they left Florida and moved in with us in Kansas City, where we were living at the time. They never moved back to Florida.

So I know hurricanes are serious business. But not all hurricanes make landfall; not all cause the damage initially predicted. In August 2016, Sarah and I were on the Big Island of Hawaii when we got emergency bulletins that we were in for the possible historic event of two concurrent hurricanes, Madeline and Lester, bearing down on our island nearly simultaneously. It could be a real disaster. A number of individuals and families on the island cancelled their plans and flew back to the mainland rather than chance the consequences and dangers of the hurricanes. We decided to stay.

The day the hurricanes were scheduled to make landfall, we woke up in Kailua Kona, on the west coast of Hawaii, to the typical morning of sunny skies and no evidence of rain. Hilo, as usual, got the worst of the rain, but Madeline had been downgrade to a tropical storm. Then we learned that Lester was also on the downgrade ramp. From category 4 hurricanes, both were downgraded to tropical storms. Still fairly serious, but not devastating. We were grateful for the mercy and enjoyed the rest of our vacation.

Whenever I hear of hurricanes now, I reflect on the hurricane level of anxiety I often experience as I anticipate problems. True, some problems do have incredibly destructive results. I’ve been through my own Category 4 or Category 5 times, to be sure. But over the years I have learned that by the time they actually have to be dealt with, most problems are often downgraded in intensity. Many of my problems have, mercifully, been much less stormy than their initial potential.

You likely expected me to quote this fundamental advice from Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (NIV).

That is priceless counsel. But keep reading Philippians 4:8-9 because there we read some of the best advice for preparing our hearts to stay calm as we anticipate whatever is coming our way.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (NIV).

Spiritually speaking, storms and even hurricane-level events will come. What do we do? Prepare. Watch. Hope. And live in the moment, without fear. You’ll be ready to endure the tough one if it comes. And keep track of the downgrades to remind yourself to lower your worry-reactivity.

 

The Fun Cut

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I rode my bike with two of our sons, Matthew and Peter, to a park near us for our own version of spring training. We had a great time hitting and throwing the baseball. Yes, there were a few touchy moments, like when one threw the ball at the other’s head — not on purpose, of course… But we had a good time.

I was really getting into the Dad thing, so I suggested we ride to Thrifty Drug Store for ice cream cones. We each had two scoops — I am one generous dad, you know — and then started to ride home. Peter, age 7 or 8 , was leading us and started to turn down a street that would take us a long way home.

“Peter, where are you going?” I call out. “That’s not a short-cut.”

“I know, Dad,” he said, “It’s a fun-cut!”

I stopped pedaling. A fun-cut! What a concept! I laughed out loud. It changed the whole ride home. Suddenly, my focus wasn’t on the destination, but the joy of riding with my boys. Sound corny? I mean it: I took time to look around at the houses and chat with the guys instead of racing home to the next activity.

Looking for short-cuts is a hazard in our hurried lives. As we try to cram more activities into each day, we shorten the time and attention given to any one of them. Those afflicted with this malady of “compulsive short-cut-itis” find themselves thinking of the next thing, instead of the thing they’re doing. We’re not present in the present.

Not all short-cuts are negative, of course, but there are some shadow sides to them. For example, if I do only those activities that come quickly, I miss the joy of hard-won victories. If I do only the familiar, I miss the joy of adventure. If I do only that which is comfortable, I miss the joy of discovering I can push myself to endure and give more than I imagined. If I rush, I fail to savor the experience.

Among other things, a fun-cut means taking time to add elements like creativity and caring touches. One family showed me this recently. Joanie, the wife, came home and found her husband, Gary, very upset. He’d lost his money clip that held a significant amount of cash from a bank withdrawal he’d just made. They scoured the house, turned his pants’ pockets inside-out, checked chair cushions and car seats. They retraced his steps. He’d just gone to the grocery, and heaven forbid if it had fallen out of his pocket in the check-out line or parking lot.

“Just call the manager,” Joanie urged. After initial resistance, Gary finally called. When he described the money-clip, the manager said, “I found it and took it home for safe-keeping. I will get it and have it here for you in ten minutes.” What a relief!

Here’s the fun-cut. Gary offered the manager a reward, but the manager refused to accept it. They could have just walked away in gratitude, but this couple got a gift certificate to a local restaurant and took it to the manager the next day. “We wanted to thank you again for your honesty. We’re letting others know about the integrity of the person managing this grocery. Please enjoy a great dinner on us.”

What a great way to affirm someone! It took a little creativity, time, and expense. But you can’t match the joy!

The Bible calls us to “redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15). I used to think this meant living efficiently with diligent time management. Now I affirm the wise stewardship of time, and believe it also includes living in a redemptive way. That means appreciating the fact that a bit of extra effort, a bit of “wasted time,” even a bit of indulgence, may have far more impact than just getting more tasks completed.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 is the most well-known passage on time in the Bible. Consider these verses as an invitation to take fun cuts even in the midst of life’s most difficult times.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:…
…. a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
… 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 New International Version)

Shortcuts may get us somewhere more quickly, but they may not be worth the cost in creativity, enjoyment and a more relaxed pace.

 

Bucket Theory: What happens when you hit your limit?

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When my wife, Sarah, was working as a nurse in an allergist’s office, one of the common questions was about the “sudden” onset of an allergy in a person who had not previously been bothered. This physician said there was no definitive explanation, but that one theory seemed quite possible. It’s called the “bucket theory.” According to this theory, even as a bucket has the capacity to hold a certain volume of liquid, our bodies have a certain capacity to resist reacting to certain substances. Once that capacity is hit, however, like the bucket, it begins to “overflow” with various reactions. Our bodies can resist for a while, depending on the capacity of our “allergy-resisting bucket,” but then we start to react.

I see a message here. It seems to me this provides a framework for assessing the well-being and reactivity of our emotional and spiritual lives. Have you ever noticed that you “suddenly” have a problem with anger, impatience, or working on a project? Perhaps this is an indication that you’re hitting your limit in a certain area. The onset of “symptoms” is more about the condition of your heart, mind and soul than it is about the particular symptom.

Another analogy for this is “saturation.” Like dry ground soaking up water, we can absorb a great of activity and pressure—until we hit the saturation point. Then we become overwhelmed, resulting in reactions like shutting down, withdrawing, or stressing out.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson, M.D. writes,

Often we do not feel overload sneaking up on us. We instead feel energized by the rapidity of events and the challenge of our full days. Then one day we find it difficult to get out of bed. Life has become a weight… What happened to change our enthusiasm to pain, and why did the change come upon us so unexpectedly? Not all threshold limits are appreciated as we near them, and it is only in exceeding them that we suddenly feel the breakdown.

According to electronic systems expert Roberto Vacca [writing in The Coming Dark Age], the development of many modern systems exhibit “the character of continuous and exponential growth, and their variation obeys a well-known mathematical law, the law of the phenomenon of growth in the presence of limiting factors [my emphasis]. At first the effect of these limiting factors is hardly noticeable, but there comes a time when they begin to predominate and to produce the phenomenon known as ‘saturation’… Often the effect of the limiting factors is not felt gradually: it may be felt all of a sudden.”

We are all human, with inherent limiting factors. This is not an excuse, but a reality to which we must pay attention. Maybe this is what happened to Moses in Numbers 20, when, instead of speaking to rock to bring forth water in the wilderness, he struck the rock in anger.

Maybe this helps us understand (not excuse) David’s vulnerability to seeing Bathsheba bathing.

Maybe this is a clue to Paul’s impatience with John Mark in Acts 15.

I love to push life to the limit, experiencing all God has for me and giving my best in God’s service. But I have learned (often the hard way) I have capacity limits that cannot be ignored. Even good and great things can become too much. Again and again I come back to Paul’s wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV), “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

 

PAIN CHECK Part 2: When pain stops – it’s not back to normal.

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What does it take to get your attention? What does it take to motivate change? What’s your wake-up call?

I left myself in pain at the conclusion of my last blog, so let me briefly share the second chapter of the “Pain Check.”

The back spasms continued through the weekend. I preached three services Easter morning and crawled into my bed-sheet grave as soon as I got home. The next morning, I sent a text to an orthopedic surgeon in our congregation. He put me in touch with the “spine guy” in his group. By God’s grace, I saw him Tuesday morning. The course of treatment included a shot and a round of medication over the next six days. Within a few hours, the relief was amazing. Oh, thank the Lord! After 8 and a-half days of dreading every movement, I could walk, sit and move with minimal discomfort. So, off I went, doing a few projects that had been on hold… (You can see where this is going, right?).

That night, feeling so much better, I was getting ready for bed and moved my leg just the wrong way and– Wham!–that familiar shot of pain went up my back and took my breath away. I cannot express the fear, the anxiety, the regret that overwhelmed me: How could I be so careless? Had I just undone all the relief the initial dose of medication had provided? (More “Pain Check” questions).

I went to bed, fuming at myself for my carelessness, and prayed and prayed.

The next morning there was a measure of relief again. Mercy! I got a call from one of our sons, Peter, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, asking how I was doing. I shared the story of the relief and the relapse. And that’s when he “corrected me gently” (1 Timothy 5:1) as only an adult child can do with a parent. “Dad, he treated the pain so you could rest and get relief,” Peter said, “not so you could just ‘go back to normal.’ You need to begin to rebuild your foundation with core-strengthening exercise and learning proper body mechanics so this will be less likely to happen again.”

So now I’m in the process of developing a “new normal.” I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I don’t want to be sidelined by pain and immobility again.

Pain is most often the body’s warning system. In many cases, it signals a need for attention, and often a need for change. For a “new normal:” like proper body mechanics in movement, or a healthier diet, rest, and exercise. And that’s where I make the connection to soul distress. Soul pain is often a signal to pay attention to God, to my inner life, my priorities and perspective. It’s often a call to pursue a “new normal” spiritually.

There are several images for this in spiritual formation. One is “putting off” the old nature and “putting on” our new nature in Christ, as we read in Colossians 3:5-10:

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you… 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (NLT)

A second metaphor is moving out of bondage/ slavery into freedom, as we read in Galatians 5:1-13.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law… 13 For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. (NLT)

When pain comes, be ready to consider the possibility that it is signaling a call to a “new normal.” Put on the new thing– and be free!