The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

Praying in Anger

Ephesians 4:25-32 English Standard Version (ESV)

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

I grew up hearing that anger is a sin.  Yet God experiences anger and wrath.  And the Apostle Paul says in this passage that we are to “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26a).

Anger is an emotion; feeding on anger, wallowing in it, stewing and screaming and acting out under the control of our anger– that is sin.  That is why Paul goes on to say that we should “not let the sun go down on your anger ” (4:26b).  Anger is not a “bad” emotion, but it is a bad master.  We need to take control over our anger to resolve it, and let it go.  In Genesis, God spoke to Cain about this very thing–Cain and his brother Abel had brought sacrifices to God; Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God, but Cain’s sacrifice did not find God’s favor.  The sacrifices were voluntary– Cain and Abel were not in competition to see who could bring the “best” sacrifice.  God had not ordered them to bring a sacrifice only to find fault with Cain’s efforts or the way he chose to present the sacrifice.  The scriptures don’t even say that God rebuked Cain or pointed out a flaw in his offering.   He simply found favor with Abel’s offering– Abel had brought the best he had; the firstborn of his flocks.  Cain had brought “some” of his crops.  The difference in the sacrifices had nothing to do with the content or the manner of offering, but in the intent to worship God halfheartedly, instead of wholeheartedly.  God saw that Cain was angry (as well as proud and envious of his brother).  Instead of rebuke, God offered grace and wisdom:

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Genesis 4:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

God doesn’t want us to deny our anger or pretend we are never angry.  But He does want us to acknowledge it, and deal with it.  Why am I angry?  What should I do about it?  Anger can motivate us to do the wrong things, but it can also spur us to change our course, and do something good.  Righteous anger can spur us to speak out about injustice, and seek to correct wrongs.  Anger can lead us to our knees, asking God for direction, strength, or His intervention and justice.  King David often prayed angry prayers asking God to strike down the people who were plotting against him, or those who were doing evil or mocking God’s people.

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I wish I could say that I had mastered this area, but I’m writing as much for my own instruction today as anything else.  Here are some wonderful steps we can and SHOULD take to deal with anger:

  • Pray!  Anger can strangle us, or it can sneak up and suffocate us, but the worst it can do is drive us away from our source of help and hope.  God WANTS us to come to him.  He reached out to Cain in his anger, wanting to draw him near and help him overcome it; He offers us the same help.  God can handle our anger– he can give us the power to let it go, and direct our feelings appropriately.
  • Own it–Angry people tend to deflect responsibility.  Yes, other people can say or do things that make you angry, but they can’t make you say or do sinful things in response to their actions.  You still bear the responsibility for what you do with your anger– even “righteous indignation.”
  • Question it!–This is something I have found helpful.  Just as God asked Cain, ask yourself, “Why am I angry?  Why am I downcast?”  And then, answer them honestly.  Many times, the root of my anger isn’t justified–instead it’s “just a lie”.  I have no right to be angry with someone else when I chose to waste time, cut corners, or neglect to do what was necessary.  I have no right to be angry or outraged because someone else feels differently or sees a different side of an issue.  In fact, if I keep listening instead of exploding, I might find compassion overriding the anger.  I might even learn something new!  Or I might better understand why I feel or think as I do, and be better able to explain it to others, instead of just yelling the same thing over again.

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  • Deal with it–This is a difficult one for me.  I don’t like confrontation.  If someone hurts me, I just want to walk away and lick my wounds.  And we shouldn’t confront others WITH our anger, striking out at them and seeking to hurt them.  But I have found that a lot of anger and hurt that I have harbored is not only unjustified, but is based on misunderstandings and pride.  It takes humility, but it also takes courage to seek out someone to offer an apology you don’t want to give, or to ask for clarification instead of harboring hurt.

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  • Don’t spread it!  “Don’t let the sun go down upon your wrath”  is not permission to “vent” to seven (or seven hundred) friends by spreading your hurt and outrage  until you feel calmer.  This is particularly true in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  In the short-term, this may seem right– “they need to know what is happening”– but it is just the opposite.  Anger often leads to rash judgments, and hasty actions that we can’t undo or call back.  If you are not talking with the object of resolving a misunderstanding, apologizing, or offering a positive solution, you are engaging in sin.  The old saying, “If you can’t say something nice about a person, say nothing at all” applies here.  And it applies about situations and circumstances, too.  I am angry about various practices and policies by governments, companies, even churches; what I need to spread is not my anger about them, but awareness of how God can change them, and why we should be seeking His justice, His righteousness, and His grace toward those who have been impacted by them.

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  • Repent of any anger-related sin.  Remember, anger itself is an emotion.  God experiences it; we are made in His image, so we experience it, too.  The only people who never experience anger are those who have lost their conscience.

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The Weight of Words

Words have weight– I’m not talking about thousand-page novels or multi-syllable legalese terms– some words simply weigh heavier on the mind and heart than others.  Some everyday words spill out like dust motes carried on a light breeze.  They hang suspended in midair, without any set purpose or destination, and finally settle, forgotten, until someone sweeps them away.  Other words explode, sending shards and pellets at unwary targets.  Some words thunder like falling rocks in an avalanche of guilt or anger or hatred.  And some rare and precious words have the weight of a quilt or a hug, or an arm lifting you up when you are falling.

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One of the amazing things about prayer is that as we pour out our words before the Savior, the weight of our words is lifted off our hearts and minds and given to him to carry– the weight of the guilt, the weight of worry, the weight of grief, the weight of anger, the weight of hurt.  Not only does God take on the weight of our words (and our pain and guilt), but he makes sense of it all– maybe not instantly, or in the way we imagine– but he brings order and goodness out of our chaos and burden.

 

 

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And those everyday words swirling around like dust fall into the light, where they shine like gold dust in His presence.  When we bring everything to God, he transforms it; he transforms us.

 

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Our words have weight in prayer.  And our words to others have weight, as well.  Today, I want to weigh my words carefully.  Are my words burdening others, or helping them lift a load of care?  If I had to carry the weight of my words– my criticisms and clever put-downs, my accusations and angry tantrums, my bragging and comparisons– would I be dragging them behind me with joy and pride?  What if, instead, my words were filled with the weight of shared laughter, encouragement, hope, and compassion?  What if my words held the weight of truth and kindness and peace?pexels-photo-210012.jpeg

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Blinded By the Light

A few months ago, I went to the theater to see the movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.”  It was an excellent movie, not the least because I found so much of it relevant to what is happening in the world today.  The movie was centered around Paul’s time in prison in Rome; the upheaval and persecution facing the early church, and the looming certainty that Paul would be martyred and his words and leadership sorely missed.  The church in Rome was facing division– some were militantly opposed to the corruption in Rome under Nero, and wanted to form a rebellion.  Others wanted to flee Rome in hope of supporting outlying churches, starting new churches, or just finding a safer haven.  Still others were losing hope and wanted to give up or hide.

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The movie also covered (in a series of flashbacks) scenes of Paul’s earlier life.  I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this part of Paul’s life is covered in the Bible, so I will stick to the facts presented there, rather than the drama from the screen…

Saul of Tarsus was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth.  He had studied God’s word intensely his whole life, and became a Pharisee.  He had studied under some of the greatest scholars of his age–in today’s world, he would have been one of the greatest legal minds of our time– a superstar in the arena of law, philosophy, and logic.  Of all the people in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world, Paul KNEW right from wrong.  He KNEW the words of God, the laws of God, the traditions of God’s people.  The result of all that knowledge was an obsession with wiping out those people (Jews, especially, but also Gentiles) who followed Jesus of Nazareth and “The Way.”  Saul was a man filled with righteous anger, and a zeal to have everyone conform to what was “right.”   He was a man of power and influence– a man to be feared and respected.  In his letters, we can still see some of that intensity and the way he has of arguing both sides to their logical ends.  But something happened to Saul..something that changed his entire future, including his name.

Paul, the Apostle of Christ, was still a Jew and a Roman citizen.  He was the same man who had studied vigorously and knew the laws of Moses and God’s words through the centuries written by prophets and historians and psalmists.  But the Paul we see in scripture, while still bearing the intensity of his youth, is a man of gratitude and peace.  Here is a man who works steadily with his hands for honest but meager wages compared to what he might have made as a Pharisee.  He is a man who boldly faces down even Peter and James in Jerusalem, but who nevertheless takes orders from a council made up of former fishermen and tradesmen.  Paul undergoes flogging, arrests, prison, cold, hardship, physical pain, poverty, and disgrace with the kind of stoic acceptance, and even joy, that makes him a great hero of the early church.  Never once does he return to the anger that drove him to persecute others who did not agree with him.  Instead, he is willing to be the victim of persecution at the hands of those he used to serve.

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I was scrolling through Facebook the other night, and I chanced upon posts from two women I know.  Both are about the same age, both mothers of five children, and both are practicing Christians.  The first woman was posting about two recent difficulties faced by her family, and how God had been faithful and gracious in spite of a huge loss and a tense situation that could have turned into another tragedy.  She spoke of God’s answers to prayer, and how their family was reminded of God’s goodness as people came alongside at just the right moment, and the loss was not as great as it might have been.  I was inspired and encouraged by the way she saw God’s love, and gave credit to all who had helped them.

The second woman spoke in vicious tones about how she would not associate with certain Christians who hold political and social views she sees as hateful.  She cursed fellow followers of Christ for being “anti-Jesus,” and condemned several of her early teachers and pastors.  I read her remarks with great sadness, because I remember her as a younger woman, eagerly memorizing scripture and being a loving and encouraging example to others.  I also read her remarks with pain, because I think she includes me in the “hateful” group based solely on the type of church I attend.

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It is not my place to say that one woman is a “better” Christian than the other– on another day, their FB posts might cause me to think very differently.  And God sees more than just what we post on FB or say in passing conversation–He knows our every thought and motive.  So I want to be careful–these women, though similar in some superficial ways, lead very different lives and have very different experiences of following God.  But I saw in their posts two ways of “seeing” Christ.

When Saul of Tarsus, in his anger and zeal, traveled toward Damascus intending to kill people he may have never met, he was already a crusader for Jehovah– ready to mete out justice against anyone who didn’t meet his standards.  He KNEW all about God.  He knew what it took to be righteous.

But when he actually encountered Christ– he was knocked off his horse, blinded and overwhelmed by a vision.  And when Christ spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Saul didn’t recognize the voice of the very God he so proudly served.  Saul remained blinded for three days, but his vision was never the same again.

As Paul, he became a man of prayer– his letters are filled with prayers for the well-being and spiritual growth of those he misses and longs to see.  They overflow with doxologies and prayers of worship for the Savior he loves and serves with gladness.  He can’t stop talking about God’s goodness– to him, to Israel throughout the centuries, and to the Gentiles who now have access to the throne of Grace.  He still has harsh things to say to some of the followers who “don’t get it.”   To those who want to compromise with sin or go back to legalism.  But he pleads with them; he doesn’t throw stones.

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It can be very frustrating in today’s world and in our society to see Christians who have very different ideas about worship styles, ways of interacting with others, even ways of living out the words of Christ.  Sometimes, it seems that fellow Christians are blind to the needs of the poor, or the sins of their friends, or the hypocrisy in their lifestyle.  I think scripture gives us a clear directive:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5 (English Standard Version)

We should not rush to condemnation, name-calling, and finger-pointing.  Instead, we should do a “vision” test and see if we are looking and acting in love or in self-righteous hypocrisy.

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God doesn’t want us to be blinded by the light of our own knowledge and self-righteousness.  Instead, He wants us to walk in the light of His Word–His Word made flesh!  May we live in the light of Paul’s example of prayer, loving correction, and running the good race.

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“This Should Not Be…”

James 3:9-10 New International Version (NIV)

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

I was caught off guard last night, when an acquaintance of ours stopped my husband and me to warn us about one of our new neighbors.  “You know (person x) has been to jail twice for (X crime).”  Our acquaintance then spewed out hateful curses and fears about all the evil that might/could happen now that this new person has come to the neighborhood, and how they don’t “deserve” to live here.  I hope the fears and curses are unfounded or exaggerated.  I didn’t know how to respond–the anger and fear were palpable, and even understandable.  No one wants to live in an area noted for crime.  But…

What caught me off guard about the encounter was not the possibility that we have a neighbor with a criminal history, or that uncovering a person’s criminal past would make someone fearful or angry.  What got to me was the level of spite and viciousness, and the expectation that our reaction would be immediate and profound.

What got to me even more was my actual reaction.  It wasn’t anger at the new neighbor, but suspicion toward my acquaintance.  Why the urgency in spreading this “news”– why the visceral hatred? (The crime in question wasn’t murder, and no details of the crime were related.)  Following close on the heels of this was the thought that this was very much like some of the posts I see on social media or in my e-mail–sensational reports of crimes, and Hate Speech, and scandals–vicious stories, often exaggerated or even untrue, about everyone from people I know or used to know from my hometown, all the way up to heads of state and “respected” celebrities falling from grace.

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And how do I react to those pieces of cyber gossip and internet sensations, and “fake” news reports?  Do I eagerly spread the word, sparing little thought of the worthiness of the information or the consequences to both the guilty and innocent people involved?  Do I ever wonder what would happen if I were the subject of such wildfire rumors or smear campaigns?

Romans 3:13-18 (NIV)

13 Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit. 
The poison of vipers is on their lips.
14     Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.
18  There is no fear of God before their eyes

Is that me?  Do I, with the same mouth that praises and prays to God, curse and spread poison about people made in His image?  People I don’t even know or never have met?  Do I delight in pointing out the worst in others?  Do I rush to shed blood (figuratively) and destroy the lives of other people from the safety and anonymity of my computer or phone?  Do I play judge, jury, and executioner because it makes me feel clever or self-righteous?

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This should not be.

Lord, search me and know my thoughts and words.  Give me the strength to tame my tongue and the fingers that itch to “share” poison and lies and misery.  Help me to know the way of peace, and to speak truth about your grace and your holiness, not what I imagine my own to be.

Forgiveness is Free: It Isn’t a Free Pass

Yesterday, I posted about praying for our enemies– those who have hurt us.  We are commanded to forgive those who have wronged us, to do good to them, and to pray for them.  But I want to make sure I don’t give the wrong impression about offering forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to excuse the inexcusable, or trust the untrustworthy.  Forgiveness is trusting that God, in His wisdom, His Holiness, and His timing, will bring justice, healing, and peace, when nothing else can.  This is important to remember, both as someone who asks for forgiveness, and as someone who gives it.

Jesus offers forgiveness–full, and free, and perfect– he died to make that offer.  He gave it to whoever believes on His Name.  But here’s the catch…he didn’t make that offer so you can temporarily wipe the slate clean and go on sinning without consequence.

Oscar Wilde wrote a chilling novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Dorian Gray/Wikipedia    in which the title character finds a way to trap his soul, with all its ugliness, hatred, anger, and sin, inside a portrait.  No matter what Dorian does, no matter how twisted or evil, he continues to look fresh, young, innocent, and handsome.  The effects of his dissipated lifestyle–drug addiction, sleepless nights, years of hard living, even murder–are all trapped in the portrait.  Over the years, the portrait haunts Dorian with its monstrous transformation from young man to gnarled wraith.  In desperation, he “kills” the portrait– and himself– in disgust and anguish.

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We live in an age of appearances– if all appears well on the surface, we ignore the deeper, long-term consequences of our sin.  If we “get away with” small sins, we run the risk of sinking deeper into a sham lifestyle.  We go through the motions of asking forgiveness, when what we really seek is escape from the consequences of our own actions.  We begin to see sin as a valid alternative to obedience–I can obey God if it is convenient, but when it’s not, I can just ask forgiveness.  This is a road strewn with lies, excuses, evasions, and it ends in death.  It is a lifestyle that makes a mockery of God, of his Holiness, His Sacrifice on the cross, and His loving offer of restoration.

God doesn’t just want to transfer your ugliness and rebellion into a painting to hide it away.  He wants to remove it “as far as the east is from the west.”  We don’t become perfect in an instant, but our past is expunged so that we can be free to choose obedience and live more abundantly in fellowship with a Holy God.  When we are truly sorry for our sins and seek true forgiveness, we want to make better decisions, we want to right wrongs– we want to redeem the past rather than merely escape from it.

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When we, as imperfect people, offer forgiveness to someone else, we are not able to do what God does.  Our forgiveness is imperfect; like love, or discipline, or a new habit, it needs to develop and grow.  Forgiveness is not about freeing the offender, or wiping the slate clean for the other person.  It’s about freeing yourself to heal, to move away from slavery to the pain of the past, and to learn to trust God to bring justice.

Forgiveness isn’t natural or easy.  No one deserves forgiveness– that’s what makes it a miracle that God offers it to anyone who asks.  But God doesn’t undo our sin.  He doesn’t erase our actions, or clean up the messes we have made.  If I commit murder, God can forgive me, wash away the guilt of what I’ve done, and give me the power to live a life that seeks to do good, rather than evil.  But he’s not going to bring my victim back to life, or cause a judge and jury and the family of my victim to say, “Aw, that’s alright– you’ve probably learned your lesson.  No hard feelings.”  He can (and has) caused amazing healing to happen in such situations, but that’s the exception, not the expectation.

Similarly, if you have been hurt and you offer forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that the other person is no longer responsible for his/her actions.  It doesn’t mean that you were never hurt or betrayed, and it doesn’t mean that you trust them immediately and without reservation. It is not hateful, intolerant, or unforgiving to allow justice to catch up with someone who has hurt you– it IS unforgiving to seek beyond justice to vengeance and self-defined retribution.

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This is particularly important in cases of abuse.  If someone has abused you, physically, emotionally, or mentally, they are likely to make you feel the guilt they don’t want to deal with.  “You drove me to it.”  “You are the only one who understands my anger.”  Forgiving this person does not mean– it NEVER means– that you agree with their tactics and false accusations, or that you are giving them a pass.  But it DOES mean that you are giving them, and the damage they caused, over to the God of all justice.  Your case is closed; your final judgment is in his hands, and you are free to begin again– begin to heal, begin to see how God can bring something important and good and eternal out of something broken.  Forgiveness is impossible, but God will give you the power to do it– it may take several attempts, and several years, but when it comes, it will be the miracle of God working through you to glory!

Can You Hear Me Now?

We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend.  No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs.  We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal.  And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!

It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster.  I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication.  Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope.  (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)

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Isolation is an earthly concept.  God is eternally Triune.  He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18)  God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.

That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential.  It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

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But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us.  Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face.  Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer.   Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?

I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer.  I don’t know.  I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:

  • what comes easily has less value to us.  Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied.  Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge.  The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt.  Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being.  And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought.  We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.

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  • sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy.  When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
  • sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer.  However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong.  Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed.  Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
  • sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe!  It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith.  Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up.  God DOES hear, he DOES care.  Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!

And what can we do during those times?  Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:

  • Learn to “pray outside the box”–
    • Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
    • Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
    • Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
    • Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up.  Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?

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  • Count your blessings
    • Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
    • Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
    • Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack?  How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
  • Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
    • Search for answers in His word
    • Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
    • Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated

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The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.

 

What Did You Say?

Every once in a while, I like to check an app that counts the words I use on Facebook.  The end result is a cloud full of words that people see when they read my posts.  (You can see my most recent one above.)

Sometimes, I like the cloud– I love to see it filled with words like Love, People, God, Prayer, Joy, Peace, Thankful, etc.  I’d like to think that this is how I always look and sound.  Of course it isn’t.  I don’t always speak encouragement and love on people.  Sometimes, I complain and rehearse negative self-talk, or I explode and rant about bad drivers, rude customers, constant bills, and more.  Checking on my word count may not keep me from using negative words altogether, but it does show me patterns I may not be seeing or hearing on my own or from my friends.

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My prayer life acts in this same way–especially as I journal about my prayers.  I can look back through my prayer journal, and see patterns in prayer requests, notes, and even answers to prayer.  Sometimes, I see patterns of struggle–desperation, need, frustration.  Sometimes, the pattern is steady; other times it is a roller coaster of ups and downs.

It’s important to spend a little time periodically getting feedback like this.  Why?  Because what we actually say (and pray) may be very different from what we think we have said.  Jesus was very careful about words:

Matthew 12:35-37 English Standard Version (ESV)

35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Mark 10:17-18 English Standard Version (ESV)

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Paul is also careful to distinguish between words:

Romans 5:7-8 English Standard Version (ESV)

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

I include the last two examples because they both refer to “Good” people.  I want people to see God’s goodness in me.  But idle or careless words and habits can show up in my thought life, my prayer life, my on-line life, and my face-to-face conversations.  In attempting to show how “good” I am (self-righteousness), or how clever I am (even at someone else’s expense), or how__________________________________ (daring, popular, hard-working…you get the idea) I am, it compromises all that I want my life to say about God, and all that He is waiting to say through me.

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Words matter– whether in praying or blogging or commenting on someone else’s post.  I pray that I am making mine count!

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