ALL FOR THE GOOD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge,” is a blessing often said by Jews when they undergo a death or tragedy. “This is all for the good,” or “Blessed is the true judge,” is often said by other Jews in response to their tragic news. Rather than being about God’s final judgment of a person, these words remind them that only God can judge whether events are good or bad. To illustrate this point, the Talmud has a story about the second century sage, Rabbi Akiva. One night, the rabbi, along with his rooster and donkey, arrived in a village. When no one would give Akiva a place to stay, the rebbe said, “All that God does, He does for the good.” He then walked to a field outside of town, set up camp, and lit his lantern. That evening, a gust of wind knocked over the lantern breaking it, a fox came and ate the rooster, and a lion came and killed the donkey. In spite of all that, Akiva said, “All that God does, He does for the good!” Just before dawn, marauders came and attacked the village but, camped in the field without light, crowing rooster or braying donkey to reveal his presence, the rabbi remained safe.

The Talmud explains this story by saying that we must bless God for the bad news that comes our way in the same manner we bless Him for the good things that befall us. Indeed, when Scripture tells us we are told to love God with our whole heart, soul and strength it doesn’t mention any exceptions for circumstances we don’t like. While it’s easy to love God with our entire being when all is good, we must also love Him that same way in our suffering, sorrow and misfortune. Rest assured, in the long run, whatever happens to us is for our good. That, however, does not mean everything that happens to us will be good. Indeed, even when we don’t know why, pain, grief and adversity are blessings. All that God does, He does for the good! Blessed be the true judge.

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:35,38-39 (NLT)]

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FULLY AWARE

For I hold you by your right hand—I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, “Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” [Isaiah 41:13 (NLT)]

cousinsScientists have found that even a simple hug or the holding of hands can lower both blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations. Gentle touch also causes a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in oxytocin (often called the “cuddling hormone”). Where cortisol might give a “fight or flight” response, oxytocin causes more of a “tend and befriend” one by increasing feelings of trust and connection. Since we were at a funeral and the previous ten days had been a roller coaster of emotion and tension for everyone, the priest’s request to join hands as we stood in prayer benefitted us physically and psychologically as well as spiritually.

While holding hands during prayer wouldn’t be unusual in many evangelical Protestant churches, apparently it is in Roman Catholic ones (especially when done during every prayer) and it has become a point of contention in some dioceses and parishes. Being a rather touchy-feely Protestant, I enjoyed the hand holding and the feeling of solidarity in prayer that came with it. The priest, however, asked us to do more than simply join hands. “Take the hand of the person beside you,” he instructed, “and, fully aware of the soul you are touching, join in prayer.” As I held the hand of the stranger beside me, I thought of those words: “fully aware of the soul you are touching.” I didn’t know the man and will never see him again. From his rosary, I knew we do not attend the same church. Nevertheless, I knew we worshipped the same God and were there for the same reason: to celebrate the life of the man whose body lay in a casket near the altar. As I became more aware of the soul I was touching, my thoughts turned from my own personal sorrow to the sorrow shared by all who were present in the sanctuary. We were one community, united in our thanksgiving for the man we mourned, in our intercessions for his family, in our love for God, and in our belief in the resurrected Christ and the life everlasting.

I appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with the intimacy of holding hands and find doing it during worship an unwelcome innovation. Whether or not we touch one another during prayer is not as important as being fully aware of one another: not just of the people with whom we pray but of all with whom we interact. Fellow travelers through this troubled world, they are struggling as much as we are to navigate the challenges, sorrow, and pain in their paths. Is there some way we can make their journey easier? Sometimes, we find that answer in a simple touch. While we probably won’t bring healing to their bodies, we may bring some healing to their souls.

At the conclusion of the funeral, the deceased’s family followed the casket out of the sanctuary and his sister passed by our pew. My husband stepped into the aisle beside her and they joined hands as they walked out together. Although we hardly know her, fully aware of her mournful soul, he knew her need to be supported during that difficult walk.

Lord, teach us to be fully aware of the souls we encounter each day. Let our words be kind, our actions helpful, and our touch gentle and supportive.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. [Henri Nouwen]

As it happened, Publius’s father was ill with fever and dysentery. Paul went in and prayed for him, and laying his hands on him, he healed him. [Acts 28:8 (NLT)]

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SEEING THE OTHER SIDE

Monarch buttefliesNow all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

“He’s so young!” said my husband when my brother died at the age of fifty-six. I reminded him that my dad was the same age when he died. “But he was old!” my husband exclaimed. The difference, of course, is that we were in our fifties when my brother died but only in our twenties when my father did. That the same thing can look so different from two viewpoints makes me think of those tilt or magic motion cards that used to come in Cracker Jack© boxes. Done by something called lenticular printing, one card holds two or more different images. Titled one way, there might be the traditional Mona Lisa but, tilted the other way, she would be winking with a goofy grin on her face. Just as whether someone seems young or old depends as much on our age as theirs, what is perceived on a tilt card depends on the angle at which it is viewed.

When we look at a magic motion card, we only see what’s right in front of us but, when God looks at one, He sees if from all sides. Looking at life from just our viewpoint, we only see what’s happening now and how it affects us and those we love. We see the delay and feel the frustration of waiting but, from His viewpoint, God also sees us learning patience. We see the task and protest that our work is too demanding but He sees that we’re learning determination. We see the unknown and hesitate in fear but He sees us learning to trust Him. We see the betrayal and feel resentment but He sees us learning to forgive. We see the burden of caregiving and grow tired but He sees us learning about sacrifice. We see the cranky in-laws and get exasperated but He see us learning about unconditional love. We see the failure and are disheartened but He sees us developing resilience. Rather than looking at circumstances from just our viewpoint, we need to tilt the picture and look at circumstances through the eyes of God.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Unfortunately, that’s about as specific as God gets in detailing those plans. So, just as I can’t see both pictures on a tilt card at once, I have no idea what is on the other side of today’s challenges. I will just have to settle for knowing that our loving God sees it all and His plans for me are good ones.

God allows us to experience the low points of life in order to teach us lessons we could not learn in any other way. The way we learn those lessons is not to deny the feelings but to find the meanings underlying them. [Stanley Lindquist]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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ONE OF THE BEST DAYS

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)]

clam pass - naplesThe weatherman declared it to be “one of the ten best days of summer” and I thought of his words throughout the day. How many of those ten days have we already had this summer? What if, not knowing it was one of the ten best days, I missed it? Could I have been blinded to its beauty by the routine obligations, boring chores, petty annoyances, and minor frustrations of everyday life?

When reading the list of his ordeals in 2 Corinthians, is would seem that the Apostle Paul probably missed enjoying most of the best days of every season. He faced death many times and endured several imprisonments, countless beatings (three times with rods), and numerous whippings (five times with 39 lashes which was the maximum punishment allowed). The victim of stoning once, Paul also was adrift at sea for a day and night and shipwrecked three times. Not only was Paul weighted down with his concern for the early church but he also had a “thorn” in his flesh, quite likely a chronic ailment, that had tormented him for fourteen years. Since he lived another nine to twelve years after writing the Corinthians, that thorn probably continued to plague him and more trials and troubles certainly followed. All in all, Paul travelled about 15,000 miles on land and sea and endured sleepless nights, hunger, thirst and cold, faced hazards from bandits and even his own people, and spent between five and six years of his life imprisoned before being beheaded by the Romans between 64 and 67 AD. He endured all of this to proclaim the gospel and yet Paul never complained about missing out on any of the “best” days because he knew the secret of living in every situation—of making every day his best day.

We shouldn’t need a weatherman to tell us it’s one of the ten best days and we certainly don’t need good weather for the day to qualify. In fact, every day should qualify as one of the ten best days of whatever season it happens to be. Paul, a man who endured horrible ordeals both physically and emotionally for the church, knew that best days had nothing to do with circumstances but everything to do with attitude. He tells us to be joyful, to pray, and to give thanks to God in all circumstances (and not just on the good days). With an attitude like his, in spite of his sufferings, every day Paul experienced must have been one of his best. I’d venture to say that most of us suffer far less than did the Apostle and yet, instead of starting the day cheerfully saying, “Good morning, Lord!” many of us grumble, “Good Lord, it’s morning!” Let this day be one of your ten best; after all, you don’t know how many more remain!

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! [Philippians 4:4 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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FAREWELLS

DAISIESJesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; I would not tell you this if it were not true. I am going there to prepare a place for you. After I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” [John 14:1-4 (NCV)]

“Why can’t they be happy for us,” my daughter-in-law plaintively asked many years ago. “We’re going to where we want to be. This is our dream!” I certainly understood about her friends’ reaction to their news. My son, his wife and their two children (my precious grands) were moving to California. Instead of living a mile from us, they’d be over 2,000 miles away! I was no different from her friends except that, since taking Mother-in-Law 101, I’d mentally duct-taped my mouth and managed to silence my protests.

I felt her words in my heart. Why couldn’t I be happy for them? I was so blinded by my loss that I couldn’t see their gain: a beautiful new house, an ideal climate, a super school, and their dream location of surf, sand and sunshine. I asked God to change my heart: to take the sadness and replace it with gladness and to take my self-pity and replace it with encouraging words and enthusiasm. I knew this wasn’t the last time we’d see each other; after all, we only would be a plane ride apart.

It’s been several years since their move. When I see how happy they are in California, I can’t believe I ever allowed my sorrow at their departure blind me to their joyous arrival in a new location. Besides, my husband and I now have a wonderful place to visit.

Many of us are at the age when our friends and family are departing, not to live across the country, but to move from this world into the next. Why is it so difficult to be happy for them? That final move is the best one yet for them. They are leaving a place of pain, sin, anxiety, and sorrow and going to a new home: one where there is peace and joy and love. Moreover, they’re going to a place where, eventually, we all want to be! It’s just so difficult to stop focusing on our loss to see our loved one’s gain: a home in heaven – no pain, no tears, and the presence of God! Remember, this won’t be the last time we see them!

Heavenly Father, when our loved ones leave us, let it be less about us and more about them. Please lessen our sorrow at their departure and increase our joy at their destination.

Death is an incident, not an end. It is a transition for a Christian, not a terminus. [Billy Graham]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

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CROWNING GLORY

Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained by living a godly life. [Proverbs 16:31 (NLT)]

The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old. [Proverbs 20:29 (NLT)]

GrandmaGrey hair may be a crown of glory and the splendor of old age, but that’s about all the splendor and glory I see in advanced years. As my mother-in-law approaches her 102nd birthday, there is little about her quality of life that I consider glorious or splendid. Her sparkling personality, vigor and enthusiasm, along with her hearing, visual perception, ability to reason, and memory are vanishing. Occasionally a spark of her old self resurfaces but, for the most part, the essence of the woman who has been a mother to me for over fifty years has disappeared.

When I join my mother-in-law for meals at her senior residence, along with gray hair, I see plenty of stooped, shuffling, and incapacitated people. While speaking with them, rather than words of wisdom, I often hear the words of confused and failing minds. While writing about fear yesterday, I realized that, while I’m not afraid of old age, I am afraid of the infirmities that can come with it.

Fear may lie about plenty of things but he doesn’t lie when he tells me I’m getting old. The mirror, arthritis, my worsening eyesight, and my less than sharp memory tell me that every day. Fear, however, doesn’t stop at telling me I’m old. When I walk into a room and forget why I went there or fail to recall someone’s name, he whispers “dementia.” When my knees scream or my back aches, he flashes an image of an old woman hunched over a walker. If I need a magnifying glass to read directions or a small flashlight to scan a menu, he tells me it’s only a matter of time before I’m blind as a bat. Fear, however, doesn’t know what the future holds and neither do I.

My life expectancy at birth was almost 70 years of age. Having passed that milestone, I took an online test to determine my expected expiration date. Based on my zip code, marital status, and present health and weight, it’s a high probability that I’ve got twenty-five more years. Rather than finding that number reassuring, I find it terrifying. I don’t want to require help to bathe or dress and I don’t want to give up hikes through the woods or riding a bike. I don’t want there to be a time when I can’t read my Bible, remember the verses I’ve worked so hard to memorize, or do a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. I don’t want to need Depends, use a wheelchair, or forget my children’s names. I want to stay the way I am now but, short of dying today, that’s not likely to happen. Moreover, what I want doesn’t matter. Time will take its toll on all of us and, for some, that toll will be great. All we can do is take care of ourselves the best we can and trust the rest to God. As long as He gives us breath, He has a purpose for us. Our job is to live purposefully, thankfully, and joyfully all the days He’s given us.

As for my mother-in-law, in spite of her loss of vitality and mental faculties, she remains cheerful, pleasant and friendly (and she looks fabulous). Her younger tablemates tell me she’s an inspiration to them. Indeed, when I think about it, she’s an inspiration to me. She is facing the ailments and indignities that come with advanced age with faith, grace, and love. With God’s power, I can do the same. I will make the most of today, send fear packing, and let God worry about my tomorrows!

God never said that the journey would be easy, but He did say that the arrival would be worthwhile. [Max Lucado]

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever. Psalm 73:26 (NLT)]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. [2 Corinthians 4:16 (NLT)]

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