Friday, August 24, 2012

Grief Brief

     Yes, another departure from my series, but I trust you will appreciate why.
     Today marks Charlie's and my 6 month anniversary, and in a "coincidence" that only God could have arranged, it is also the wedding anniversary that Jettie and I shared for 41 years. In light of this remarkable blend of past and future, I write some brief thoughts about what I have learned about the grief process, a grief brief of sorts.
     I am sure that some of what I write here, I have written before, but it seems good to write from a place that's farther down the road since I last wrote. This is the year of 2nd anniversaries (birthdays, anniversary, other significant holidays), and it's also a year of new beginnings (wonderful new beginnings!), so perhaps I have learned a few more things to share. Here goes.
     First, this whole healing process takes longer than we think. Although some of the people I know who have experienced great loss try to "get on with life" by ignoring their pain, the general consensus of those who are healing well are united in their agreement with this statement. Significant, life-altering loss takes more than a couple of months to recover from. This is not to suggest that we cannot move on with life, but I do believe that failure to allow for deep healing, failure to anticipate how our internal timekeeper tracks events we want to ignore, failure to gather others around us who will listen and understand will leave us walking with more of a limp than necessary. There is something profoundly healing in itself to just let the process take its time.
     Second, as I just hinted, we need others with us on this journey who will listen and understand while we continue to process. I see now God's wisdom in my asking Him to give me a widow for my next life partner when I began to consider getting married again. Charlie's grace has been extended to me many times over the period of our relationship and marriage because he listens and loves me from a point of deep understanding. (She also prayed expectantly for her spouse to be healed from cancer and felt many of the same things I did when that didn't happen). And God has placed others in my life who have been there to listen as well. I could not have reached the point of wholeness I am approaching without a loving and safe community around me. 
     Third, if you ignore it, it won't go away. I doubt that the old adage about ignoring things works very well for anything, but it certainly doesn't work with the process of restoration from loss. Although we are not to wallow in sorrow and should only visit the valley of shadows with our hand in God's, it is not at all helpful to ignore depression, anger and similar emotions when they arise and we become aware of their connection to the loss. Better to hold things up into the Light and let God's searching gaze discover and heal the wound than to pretend we aren't still hurting. As I have said in many contexts, anxiety in any form (anger, depression, whatever) is God's invitation to healing, a beckoning call to come aside and let the Spirit of truth expose the lies and speak the Truth as He also embraces us. Although I have known that I am Abba's little boy for quite some time, grief has solidified this to me in a remarkable way. I realize more than ever that there will be times in my life until I see Him face to face that I will need a hug, some "lap time," or "shoulder time." So, dear one, when you are tempted to ignore, listen instead for Papa's invitation.
     Fourth, scars are not wounds. This may be a no-brainer, but it needs to be stated. Those of us who have sustained great loss will never be the same. We will bear scars in our hearts from the ripping and tearing that our loss (whatever kind of loss it is) for the rest of our days. But scars are not the same as wounds. When we first face loss, all we have are wounds! But God's healing love and power can, if we allow it, lead us to a place where the wounds are tended to the point of healing over as scars. Funny thing about scars: the deep ones never go away! Thus we carry reminders of the battles we face all of our earthly lives, but they no longer hurt to the touch like a wound. And that's the other thing about scars: you can tell the difference between them and wounds by whether or not they hurt to the touch. If it hurts, let Papa show you how to let it heal. If it doesn't (it's really a scar) view it as a mark of God's faithfulness and redemption. Wounds are God's work in progress, and they hurt! Scars are God's work displayed and they give honor to the Healer and comfort to those still wounded. Thank you, Papa, that far more of my wounds are now scars!
     Fifth, walking with a limp isn't all bad. In the first paragraph I made reference to "walking with more of a limp than necessary." The truth is, I will always walk with a limp in some ways even while I am dancing in a new dance in many other ways. But this limp, like Jacob's, is not a handicap but a means to more of His presence and power flowing through me to others. Paul writes of this in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, and I see more clearly than ever why Papa had me memorize that passage long before the battle began. I am deeply aware of my weakness, in more ways than I can take time to describe here, but I also find that my character is now softer to His shaping, my heart more capable of loving others to the point of its own hurting without flinching, and many other remarkable things that come with the limp. God's power is and will continue to be perfected in my weakness, so I am beginning at least to be ready to rejoice in and embrace my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest upon me. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Walking with a limp isn't all bad!
    Finally, joy really does come in the morning and God does bring beauty from the ashes. My life now is more amazing that I could ever have imagined. To have "married up" twice has been my grace gift from God! And as the future stretches out before me with Charlie by my side, I smile even as I sometimes have to tend to a residual wound. I find myself leaping even while limping. Perhaps that is one of the great mysteries of life lived in the flow of God's redemption, eh?
Limping and leaping.

Tom, one of Abba's little boys.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

How Different Our Weapons: Miscellany

     No, miscellany isn't a spiritual weapon, but I needed to take a few minutes to throw a few miscellaneous thoughts out today, so here goes.
     First, since I do recognize that much of what I am writing about weapons for warfare are different and not at all complete, I want to recommend a wonderful and more typical treatment of the subject of spiritual warfare by my friend, Susan Gaddis. See her discussion of weapons in a separate window by clicking here
     Second, in my opinion, no one should ever engage in any kind of "spiritual warfare" without reading John Paul Jackson's wisdom-filled book on the subject, Needless Casualties of War. In a nutshell, John Paul lays out a strong case for Christians not ever conducting war in the "second heaven" directly against the dark spiritual rulers who rule there (see Ephesians 6:12). He cites many instances where people have been harmed by doing otherwise and also makes a strong biblical case for keeping our direct warfare on the "terrestrial" level. Since I too am aware of needless casualties related to this, I highly recommend John Paul's book.
     Third, I am fairly sure that you who read this blog have noticed that the "weapons" I am writing about are not by any means a complete treatment of how we resist our adversary. What I have tried to do instead is help folks not take up the spirit and character of our enemy but rather live out the character of God in the process of "doing battle." Thus when our adversary tries to bait us into a battle and tempt us to use "force against force," we defeat him through kindness, peace, generosity, etc. Notice that these are all traits that show up in our relationships with other people. This is, of course, in line with what Paul tells us about where our real battle lies (Ephesians 6:12 again) and with what Jesus said more than once (bless your enemy). Obviously, we are not talking here about being kind to demons or to the devil, but to their sometimes unwitting human pawns. 
     Having said the above, I plan to write only one more blog on this topic after today's brief look at the armor we wear when we go into battle, and that will be a discussion on the most fearsome weapon in our arsenal: love. And again, I highly recommend Susan's blog for a more extensive treatment of weapons such as prayer, praise, etc. But now, take a brief look with me at our armor.
     Since so much has been written about spiritual armor (based on Ephesians 6:10-18), I will take a little different tack with my discussion of this topic (as usual). That means that I will look first and mostly at the other New Testament passage about spiritual armor, 1 Thessalonians 5:8: "But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet."
     This shorter version of spiritual armor from the Apostle Paul was written in a much earlier letter, but it has the same kind of power as Paul's later and more extensive list of armor in Ephesians. There are several things that make this list distinct from the Ephesians list, but I will mention here only its use of the Christian triad of faith, hope and love as the components of the armor (the "shield of faith" in Ephesians 6:16 is almost certainly "faithfulness," not "faith," and I wrote about that in an early blog entry which you can read by clicking here.)
     In this list Paul tells us that faith and love can be used as a breastplate to protect our heart and other spiritual vital organs. Since faith is growing confidence in Father's love for us and in His good character, it's easy to see how this works. Our inner self is shielded as we experience, embrace and give away Father's love and rest and trust our way into the place of peace that enables us to sleep through and/or rebuke the storms of life.
     Paul also tells us that it is "the hope of salvation" that is our helmet, protecting our mind from damaging defeat. I don't know about you, but the importance of this one just keeps growing on me. First, because Christian hope is a certainty, not just a wish about the future, this helmet is always available. Second, since this hope is for "salvation," which includes healing and deliverance it means that no matter what we are facing as an adversary, we can stand firm knowing that wholeness and rescue are in our future, guaranteed by the faithfulness of God Himself. "But wait," you say, "I have known cases where that didn't turn out to be the case." Do you really? I have known (too personally for my comfort) cases where that seemed to be the case, but I cannot see things from God's perspective nor from the all-seeing perch that eternity will afford us. And it's that eternal hope, unshakeable and basically barely understood by us in the present moment, plus the increasing unfolding of God's kindness to us in innumerable ways in the present age that enable us to ward off the vicious blows to our minds that the enemy directs our way.
     I hope this makes sense. I close with these reminders. First, before Paul writes about this armor he reminds his readers that they are "children of the day," an amazing description of us that I can't take time now to unfold but which will unfold itself to you as you do. Second, Paul describes the putting on this armor as an exercise of a sober, self-controlled will--that is, a choice that grows out of clear-minded thinking and settled conviction. Think about that (pun intended). Finally, none of this armor thingy can be done alone. It is our life in community with others that enables us to keep faith, hope and love alive and our armor firmly in place. 

Suiting up...

Tom, one of Papa's children

Friday, August 10, 2012

How Different Our Weapons: Patient Endurance

     I was going to write this week about love as one of our truly unique weapons, but in the context of researching love, I had a small but important epiphany about how I have been rather skewed in my understanding of God's love, and this epiphany led to today's topic.
     As I read the remarkable passage in Romans 8:31-39, particularly vv. 35-39, I realized that the common American Christian assumption about God's love needs some adjustment. In verses 35-37 Paul speaks of the permanence and unshakeable nature of God's love for in Christ against a background of "tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword." It occurred to me that I for one, tend to assume that when tribulation comes it's an indication that God doesn't love me. This is clearly not the case, as we all realize once we get past our assumption that the American Dream (freedom from pain, pursuit of happiness, etc.) is not God's idea of Kingdom life! Paul was writing to people who, like 40-50% of today's believers, were facing these very things. And since Paul clearly states that God's love is what enables folks facing these things to be more than conquerors, it's obvious that these things aren't indicators of God's love or lack thereof. Rather God's love supersedes, overwhelms, overshadows everything in all of Creation, no matter what circumstances it has to go through to reach us.
     And this brings me to the weapon of endurance. If indeed we will have tribulation in this life as Jesus promised His followers in John 16:33, then we will have need of "patient endurance" (a term from the book of Revelation). And as we consider this weapon, we see how truly powerful it is. Nothing defeats the enemy's attempts to wear down the saints like the saints refusal to be worn down!
     Even in the natural world we see the fruit and reward of endurance (I write these words against the abundant illustrations of this seen in the 30th Olympics!). But in the Kingdom of God, patient endurance is taken to superhuman levels and frequently strikes a death blow to our adversary's plans. 
     But how does one endure? This is a huge topic, far too large and broad to do anything here but give the lightest of treatments. There are so many passages in the Bible that relate to this, one could easily write several books on "How to Endure through Christ." So I offer only the barest of first thoughts. But consider the following simple thoughts.
     Person not principle. Although it's wonderful to sing about "Standing on the Promises," the real secret of patient endurance is to realize and remember WHO is standing with us. "Long-suffering" and "faithfulness" (both related to endurance) are part of the fruit of a Spirit-infused, Spirit-led life. We endure because God is with us, for us and in us and because His love cannot be stopped by anything. At least that's what my Bible says. So when I start to waver, I run to Papa rather than just try to stand on a promise. Yes, I do remember the promises, I do quote Scripture, but I do so not to "make me stand" but to remember that God is standing inside of and with me. 
     Perspective. We endure better when we remember to take the longer view. This longer view has two parts to it. One is the longer view of things in this life. God is working all things, even in this life, for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We know that, of course, but it's easy to forget or not even believe in the heat of battle (I know that one from experience). But God's grace enables us to hold onto this perspective. It helps me at times to see how God's timing works in all of this, too. I am quite sure that Joseph called out to God many, many times for deliverance from slavery and then from the prison, but God knew that Joseph would achieve his destiny only at the time Pharaoh had the dream. An earlier deliverance would have messed up the plan! And then there's that mysterious eternal perspective whereby we know that in some way beyond our understanding God will redeem everything, make all things new, etc. 2 Corinthians 4:17 comes to mind along with many other verses. But I don't think we really get this one very well. Even though our life on earth is but a pinpoint in God's eternal destiny for us, we tend to think that now is forever, eh? But the longer view, enabled by God, is essential to exercising the weapon of endurance. Try it, you will like it!
     Perseverance. Sometimes we just have to hold on to the One who is holding onto us and stand firm in the power of His might (Ephesians 6:10-20). And God doesn't leave us in a vacuum as we do this. Joseph wasn't alone in Potiphar's house nor in the prison. "The LORD was with Joseph" is a resounding theme throughout Joseph's story, and I now know it means that Joseph knew by experience that God was with him. That same experience is even more true for us in whom God dwells! Most of you will know that I write this from personal experience. During the painful journey in 2009-2010 there was never one time that I didn't know, usually but not always by experience, that Father was holding onto me with His strong right hand. And whenever I would quiet myself, turn away from the loud voices of fear and anxiety, I could hear Him. And when those voices were too loud for me to handle, Papa would send a friend. But yes, there were times (and still are) when I stand in the dark, knowing by something deeper than experience, that He is here. I know He will do that for all of us, dear ones. And O how I wish I could write more about this, but I must stop for now.
     This is but the barest of scratches on the surface, I think, but I hope you can see that our trusting response to God as we are embraced in His love and infused with His power enable us to remember to lean upon Him, rest in His perspective, stand when only His power enables us to do so. And when we do, we leave our adversary confused and defeated. One of his favorites strategies goes down in flames (pun intended) when God's people patiently endure.

Standing because He stands in me,

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Saturday, August 4, 2012

New Covenant Lenses

     I am leaving the weapons series today but will return to it next week).
     There's a scene in the Visual Bible Matthew video that often captivates people the first time they see it. The scene is set in the Upper Room (Matthew 26:17-25) when Jesus (played by Bruce Marchiano) predicts Judas' betrayal, telling Judas, "Yes, it is you." Bruce chose to show Jesus saying this with tears in His eyes, with an obviously broken heart, with love for Judas clearly His primary emotion. The first time I saw this depiction of this event in the Visual Bible, my heart leapt with joy. I realized that this is indeed how Jesus would have responded, not in the almost angry, accusatory fashion that most people think of when they read about Judas' betrayal. Jesus didn't love Judas any less than any of the other disciples and was surely heartbroken at what He knew to be Judas' path to destruction.
     This story gives me the subject for today's musings. I want to write for a moment about how important it is to read the Bible (all of it) through New Testament lenses, the lenses of love, rather than the lenses of religion, our own brokenness and/or the Old Covenant. 
     What am I talking about? I am talking about "assuming" love and kindness and integrity as motivations when we read about events and read letters in the Bible. Perhaps a few examples will help with this. 
     First, let's look at Philemon (verses 8-9 and 19 in particular). Years ago when I taught this book to college students I noticed that they inevitably interpreted these verses as attempts to manipulate Philemon into doing what Paul wanted (welcome Onesimus back as a brother in the Lord, etc.). There are many reasons why this is a wrong thought, and I won't list them all, but here's a few thoughts. First, Paul knew that you can't manipulate or coerce people into reconciliation. To suggest that he would "pressure" Philemon is to make Paul profoundly ignorant of this basic truth about relationships. Second, in verses 8-9 Paul mentions that he could order Philemon to welcome Onesimus not to give a hidden threat to Philemon but instead to deliberately choose not to coerce Philemon. If you got a letter from an apostle asking you to do something, wouldn't you be inclined to obey regardless? So Paul had to mention his authority to Philemon in order to lay it aside. And as for verse 19 ("not to mention that you owe me your very self") Paul is talking in the context of his willingness to pay Philemon back for any damages his formerly runaway slave may have cost him, not trying to subtly force Philemon to do something against his will. I trust that helps clarify this little letter, but the real problem my students had was that they were reading this passage through the lenses of our American culture--where people manipulate people all the time. Furthermore, unfortunately even in the church few people understand the level of integrity in which Paul and the other apostles lived, so we tend to think they resorted to this kind of dishonest communication. Sigh...
     Another example of reading through the wrong lenses happens when some folks read the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. For years I assumed that Peter was filled with anger and righteous indignation when he confronted Ananias, but I realize now that it's far more likely that Peter was tender and trying to appeal to both of these people. He knew the danger in which they were walking better than anyone else and was surely filled with grief as he exposed the truth to Ananias and gave Sapphira an opportunity to choose a different path (he asked her about the sale of the property not to entrap her but to give her opportunity to choose rightly, but most of us can't see that, at least not at first).
    Another example, again corrected by the Visual Bible, is in Matthew 23 where Jesus pronounces "woes" to the Pharisees. Most people picture Him saying these words in anger, but knowing His heart of love, isn't it far more likely that He spokes these words with sadness, rather than anger (as when He wept over Jerusalem)? Reading this passage (and many others) through a New Covenant Lens of Love changes how we see it, doesn't it?   
     One more example. I frequently hear people describe someone who is black and white (and usually somewhat judgmental) as "prophetic," especially if the person does indeed move in some of the revelatory gifts. But a person who is "prophetic" in the sense of a New Testament prophet would instead be known as one who was particularly good at comforting, encouraging and building up (see 1 Corinthians 14:3). A "prophetic" person who is judgmental and/or otherwise unkind is simply immature, not prophetic! But the reason some tend to use that designation is due to a misreading of the OT prophets, seeing their strong words of correction only as expressions of anger rather than appeals to turn back to God. And OT and NT prophets are very different for many reasons of course, but I will save that for another time (one big hint: Old Covenant prophets sought to enforce a covenant while prophesying to people with hardened hearts who couldn't hear God for themselves, whereas New Covenant prophets illuminate a covenant while prophesying to people with new hearts who can hear God themselves.) 
     What's the point of all this? Why does it matter what lens we use in reading Scripture. I trust that the answer to that is obvious, but just in case, consider this: How we view the things we read in Scripture affects how we view God and that affects how we view our relationship with Him and that affects how we treat ourselves and others. For that reason and many others, I highly recommend that you acquire and use New Covenant Lenses!

Learning to see through lenses of love,

Tom, one of Abba's little children