PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. [John 16:20-21 (NLT)]

baby boyOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus forewarned the disciples of the grief and fear they’d encounter in the days ahead. In his short parable about labor and delivery, Jesus prepared the remaining eleven disciples for the emotions they would encounter over the next three days: their anguish and despair as He hung upon the cross, died, and was buried. For His followers, those three days would feel like an eternity of hopelessness. But, as happens when a woman beholds her newborn baby after hours of painful labor, their despair would turn to joy when they saw the resurrected Christ!

At the time, no one could have convinced me that I would forget the pain of my long labor and medication-free delivery but, when I held my first-born, I did. All women do (or every baby would be an only child)! Those first six months of sleepless nights spent comforting that colicky boy seemed endless; I didn’t know how I’d endure them but I did. Yesterday, he celebrated his 50th birthday and the 24-hours he spent making his way into this world make up only 1/18,251th of his life and just 1/26,406th of mine! Even the six exhausting months he spent crying in my arms every night are only 1% of his life and less than .7% of mine! While putting my labor and sleepless nights into perspective, I realized my fractions are wrong because I can’t determine the true length of my life; rather than ending here on earth, it will continue forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Jesus’s parable applies to more than those three days the disciples hid in a room following his crucifixion. It applies to the suffering and pain endured by all of His children (which often lasts far longer than 24 hours, 3 days, or even six months). Anguish of any kind seems interminable and unbearable but, when put in perspective, it is but a blip on our eternal lifeline. For now, we live in a world of tears, weariness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and affliction but, on the other side of this earthly life, there is a place without pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy! Although it’s of little comfort to those hurting, our present suffering must be viewed in the light of eternity. As heavy as the weight of our present pain may be, when put on a scale and weighed against the eternal joys of heaven, it is no more than a feather. That doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is small; it simply means that eternity is absolutely enormous! Let us remember—all that’s wrong in this fallen world is temporary and will be forgotten when we joyfully behold His face in eternity!

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [1 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NLT)]

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WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. [Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)]

water lilyThe billboard’s message read, “When push comes to shove, don’t!” It was sponsored by a nonprofit foundation that uses a variety of media sources to encourage positive values, good role models, and a better life. “Hard to argue with a goal like that,” I thought before discovering that some people took exception to their peaceful message. Re-tweeting it, one rock musician told his fans just to “shove harder.”

Recently, the management of our home association sent an email regarding the previous night’s annual meeting. Being out of town, we’d missed it but, apparently, pushes had come dangerously close to shoves. Because it had deteriorated into arguments, shouting and name calling, the management company found it necessary to inform the home owners that such future behavior would not be tolerated. They warned that, if it recurred, the meeting immediately would be adjourned. I was shocked that such an email was found necessary. These weren’t enemy nations or small children on a playground; neighbors and adults, they all knew better.

When we think we’re not being heard, we tend to get louder and, instead of communicating, we end up with a shouting match. Feeling a bit “holier than thou” while reading about the contentious meeting, the Spirit’s convicting voice reminded me I’m not much different. Last month, my husband took a quick trip. When dropping him off at the airport, I’d asked where he wanted to be picked up and we agreed on the lower/arrivals level. Upon his return, he called to say he was waiting at the far end of the terminal by the Jet Blue door. I parked there and waited and waited. I finally gave him a call and we both heatedly asked where the other was. Back and forth it went—him saying he was right there and me insisting he wasn’t, our voices getting just a little louder with each exchange. My husband eventually paused and asked whether I was at arrivals or departures. “Exactly where you told me: on the lower level at arrivals!” I replied. “Oh,” he quietly said, “I’ll be right there!” You guessed it; he’d been waiting upstairs. If, instead of accusing one another of being wrong, one of us had simply asked where the other was, we could have avoided a rather tense homecoming! Granted, we didn’t call one another names but, on a smaller scale, we were no different than our irate neighbors.

In today’s angry world, rather than have a civil discussion, people frequently intimidate, attack, and demonize anyone who thinks differently. What happened to being able to disagree without being disagreeable? For a civilized people, we seem to have lost all civility. Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He also said, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Of course, in some cases, that man (or woman) doesn’t want to learn anything that goes contrary to what he desires.

We are called to be peace makers and we do that by being humble, patient, and using our ears twice as much as we do our mouths. Not pushing back when push comes to shove doesn’t mean we lie down and allow someone to walk all over us. Not pushing back means we continue to stand, but we stand with civility, kindness, patience, and love. Another billboard sponsored by the same group says, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” If we were, there might not be so many pushes, shoves, and angry tweets!

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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FREE WON’T

Live like free people, but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God. [1 Peter 2:16 (ERV)]

red-bellied woodpecker“Get Fuzzy,” a comic strip drawn by Darby Conley, chronicles the life of Rob and his somewhat eccentric pets: Bucky Katt, a temperamental feline with “cat-attitude,” and the gentle Satchel Pooch who frequently is the butt of Bucky’s jokes and the target of his bullying. In one comic, Satchel pondered the concept of free will. “Having free will means you also have the freedom to not,” says the dog, who then resolves, “I choose to exercise free won’t and not get mad.”

In studying the human brain, neuroscientists have discovered that there is a brief instant between when the brain tells the body to get ready to act and the action itself. That nanosecond is when our mind can implement its veto power—when it truly can exercise “free won‘t”!

We are usually so busy touting all of the things we’re free to do, that it is refreshing to consider the things we’re free not to do. Unfortunately, we don’t exercise that freedom nearly enough. Eve and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, David pursued Bathsheba, Jacob stole his inheritance, Judas betrayed Jesus, and Lot’s wife took a last look. Sadly, they didn’t exercise their freedom to say “No!” Admittedly, I frequently fail at implementing my “free won’t.”

The ability to not choose a thought or action is as important as the ability to choose them. We don’t have to indulge our every notion or whim. Remembering that we can veto as easily as we can approve, all of our choices should be conscious ones—ones where we deliberately choose between will or won’t.

Unfortunately, by the end of the comic strip, Satchel, who had been sorely vexed by Bucky, exclaims that, “I’m starting to get a little free maybe-the-*@#!-I-will after all!” His frustration sounds a bit like us when we try to exercise self-control solely on our own. Fortunately, unlike Satchel, we have a secret weapon: the Holy Spirit. Through God’s power, when tempted, we can exercise the freedom to not respond and make our free will become free won’t!

So, my brothers and sisters, we must not be ruled by our sinful selves. We must not live the way our sinful selves want. If you use your lives to do what your sinful selves want, you will die spiritually. But if you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will have true life. The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:12-14 (ERV)]

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WHERE IS HE?

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?” [Psalm 42:1-3 (NLT)]

white-tailed deer - FloridaNot so long ago, it was hard to face my computer with any enthusiasm. Every beginning led to a dead end or took me down a rabbit hole of confusion. The paragraphs over which I’d struggled had come to nothing and my hours at the keyboard seemed an exercise in futility. It’s as if I had little scraps of useless fabric but couldn’t find a way to quilt them together. I wondered where God was when I so desperately needed His guidance.

The best place to go when feeling hollow or hopeless is God’s word and Psalms is where I usually begin. David certainly had plenty of times of downheartedness and he wasn’t afraid to express his exhaustion, frustration, or despair and yet there always seems to be a ray of hope in his words. I turned to Psalm 42 and, having hit a “dry spell,” I knew what the psalmist meant when comparing himself to a deer panting for water and thirsting for God. Like him, I felt like I was dying of thirst.

It was the psalm’s mention of enemies with their taunts of, “Where is this God of yours?” that really hit home. I don’t share David’s flesh and blood enemies but all of us share a common unseen enemy: the doubt and anxiety that comes from spiritual depression.

The palmist asks why God has forgotten him and I think we all know that feeling. While I can get it when I’m staring at an empty page, that sense of desolation may visit others as they wait for the return of a prodigal, sit in a hospital room, endure chronic pain, look at the empty chair once occupied by a spouse, or have too much month left at the end of their money. We’ve all had times when it feels like God has turned a deaf ear to our prayers or has closed His eyes to our situation.

“Where is this God of yours?” is the enemy’s voice. Wanting us to lose faith or wallow in despair, he causes us to question God’s presence in our lives. God hasn’t forgotten about us; even the psalmist, as depressed as he was, acknowledges that God pours out His unfailing love each day. Nevertheless, sometimes, it feels as if God is looking the other way. Feeling defeated, discouraged, lonely, weary, or insecure, it’s easy to forget that our feelings can’t always be trusted. God, however, always is steadfast and trustworty!

In a gentle reproach, the psalmist asks why he is so downcast and reminds himself of the hope he has in God. That we don’t sense God’s presence, feel His love, see His hand, or hear His voice doesn’t mean that our loving God isn’t there. When asked, “Where is this God of yours?” let us never forget that He dwells, not just in heaven above, but also in our broken spirits. There always will be dark valleys to traverse but we are never alone; we have hope in God and, for that, we praise him.

A loss of the present sense of God’s love is not a loss of that love itself; the jewel is there, though it gleams not on our breast; hope…expects the promised boon though present providence stands before her with empty hands. [Charles Spurgeon]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 42:11 (NLT)]

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NITROGLYCERIN

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

crown vetchMy father had heart disease and often suffered from a burning chest pain called angina. When that occurred, he would stop what he was doing and place a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue. Medical nitroglycerin acts as a vasodilator by dilating or expanding the blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump blood through those vessels.

When I was a girl and my dad took one of his nitro tablets, I didn’t know how they worked. Having seen enough Saturday matinees to know that liquid nitroglycerin is so unstable that the slightest jolt can cause it to explode, I couldn’t understand how my father could safely carry it around in his pocket, let alone put it in his mouth. After all, Sylvester the Cat exploded when Tweety Bird put it in his medicine and I’m sure Wile E. Coyote tried to use it on the Roadrunner! Whether in its liquid form or stabilized with clay in dynamite, nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive there is. How could something capable of blasting a hole in the side of a mountain keep my father’s heart from exploding in a heart attack?

I suppose trials are a little like nitroglycerin—they can destroy or help us. The end result depends on what we make of them and how we use them. We live in an imperfect fallen world and, like it or not, every one of us will face ordeals and troubles. Some we bring on ourselves as consequences of our own sin. But, as happened with Job, many of life’s trials seem as random as a tornado and descend upon us without rhyme or reason. Without God, those trials can demolish our lives as easily as nitroglycerin can demolish a building. With God, however, like medicinal nitroglycerin, trials can help our heart for Him.

God’s purpose isn’t to give us easy comfortable lives; He wants us to grow into the image of his son, Jesus Christ (which is what sanctification is all about). Everything in our lives, both good and bad, is designed to help us reach that goal. Unfortunately, when all is going smoothly, we tend to forget about God, just as easily as my father forgot about his diseased heart when relaxing in his recliner. But, just as the pain from stress or strenuous exercise made him turn to his nitro, trials force us to turn to God.

I lose the parallel between trials and nitroglycerin here because, while those tiny nitro pills alleviated the pain in my father’s chest, they didn’t cure his heart disease. They were merely a temporary fix and he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 56. Trials, however, do more than ease the symptoms of what’s wrong with us; they can actually shape and fix us. Disappointment, despair, and disaster, unlike heart disease, don’t have to kill us. Faith is a muscle and, just like the heart, it grows stronger when it is exercised. Somewhat like a cardiac surgeon, God fixes our hearts with trials.

Whether our trials are as destructive as liquid nitroglycerin or as therapeutic as nitroglycerin pills depends upon our reaction to them. We can become bitter or we can consider them a blessing. We can rebel or choose to trust God and accept His grace to deal with our difficulty and pain. Fortunately, rather than a cardiologist, we have the Holy Spirit who will give us all of the comfort, strength and wisdom we need to endure our trials. Because of Him, we can emerge from our trials with mended hearts and a stronger, purer and more mature faith.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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UH-OH!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. [James 1:2-4 (MSG)]

double rainbowThe most obvious way God speaks is through the Bible. Sometime, however, He whispers to us in the “Aha!” moments. Serendipitous, they are God’s love notes that gently remind us of His presence, His love for us, and the magnificence of His creation. While they vary from person to person, I tend to find them in things like butterflies dancing among the flowers or a double rainbow after a spring storm.

God speaks louder with those wonderful “Oh, yes!” moments—the joyful times when all seems right with the world. We recognize His voice when the healthy baby arrives, the surgeon says the word “benign,” or the prodigal returns home. Along with the welcome “Oh, yes!” moments are the unwelcome “Oh, no!” ones—times when the bottom falls out of our world. They come with words like “malignant” or “inoperable,” a phone call in the middle of the night, or in the ICU. In all of these occasions, we quickly seek God with either our incredible feelings of thanks and praise or in our deep sense of desperation and need. The only way we can make sense of either the awe or the awfulness of life is to believe and trust in our all-powerful and loving God who knows exactly what He’s doing.

While I can find God in the “Aha,” awesome and awful, my problem comes with God’s ”Uh-oh!” moments—the unexpected and unasked for minor frustrations of life. It seems easier to turn to God in the extremes than in the routine detours, roadblocks, and nuisances of everyday life. We all have them—waiting on hold for ten minutes only to get disconnected, losing the car keys, anything that involves technical support or the DMV (and possibly the post office), waiting all day for the repairman who never shows or engaging in wrap rage while trying to open a child-proof package! These are the moments when my fruit looks far more like impatience, peevishness, self-pity, childishness, and rudeness than anything produced by the Spirit.

We often talk about the joy and peace we have as Christians but rarely about how we deal (or fail to deal) with irritation and frustration. While the emotion isn’t sinful, often how we act in response to it is. The enemy doesn’t have to tempt us with a cannon when an annoying barrage of pellets from his BB gun will make us forget who we are and in whose arms we are held!

I doubt that I’m the only one who has difficulty maintaining perspective and patience in the face of the little aggravations that are part and parcel of living in our world. Perhaps it’s because we think those minor annoyances are solely our concern when, in actuality, like everything else, they belong to God! Focusing on whatever is upsetting us simply makes it grow in importance but focusing on God shrinks it back to size. Let us remember that our God listens—not just to our praise, thanks and heavy-duty pleas, but also to our prayers for perspective, patience and peace. It’s by focusing on God that we can turn those “Oh-oh” moments into “OK!” ones!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. [Colossians 3:1-2 (MSG)]

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