Growing up in the age before digital cameras, I remember waiting for photos to be developed from a roll of film. We would drop off a roll at the pharmacy or photo shop, and pick up a package containing the prints and several strips of negatives from the original roll of film.
I was fascinated by these negatives–images with the exact opposite of the prints– dark was light, light was dark, and everything seemed topsy-turvy. Sometimes things seemed creepy and even somewhat sinister–people with white hair and white pupils shining out of dark eyes; icy trees against a dark sky.
Of course, the negatives were not the prints, nor were they intended to be the finished product. The negatives were included so that new prints could be made at a later time. We didn’t put the negatives in our photo album; we hid them away in a dark place, out of sight and far from the light. Most of them eventually got ruined or degraded over time, while the photos they produced were preserved and cherished.
Life holds a lot of “negatives”– negative experiences, negative emotions, negative thoughts, bad memories, scars–we all have them. But we are given the opportunity to produce something positive out of even the most negative of circumstances. It’s what God does– His light shines in the darkness and changes our view.
But we need to be exposed to the truth, and developed by faith, just like film. And we need to come back into the light, not as a negative, but as a faithful image of what (and who) God intends us to be.
The world is full of negatives– distorted images and situations caused by exposure to sin, pain, grief, anger, bitterness, and hatred. We can dwell on such images, and fill our days staring at the negatives, never seeing the reality of what God has done all around us. Or we can allow God to develop the negatives in our life and create albums of God’s Grace–filling our eyes and minds with the truth and beauty that comes only from our Loving Father.
Philippians 4:6-8 NIV
Donot be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (taken from bible.com)
Someday, God will finish destroying all the “negatives” in this fallen world, and reveal His full Glory. What a sight that will be!
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.
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.
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.
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!
My husband and I own a small retail business. Last winter, we were victimized by shoplifters. They stole several items, worth over $1,000. The same couple stole items from other businesses in the area. The police investigated, compared descriptions of the suspects, traced their movements, and got an arrest warrant. The couple fled, and it took months to find them and bring them into custody. They have been arrested, and we have been to court for a preliminary hearing, with another potential court date in about a month.
The court sent us a long series of papers to fill out, including a victim impact statement, where we were to describe how the suspect’s alleged actions impacted us personally, as well as how our business was damaged. Even though this was not a personal crime (we weren’t physically threatened or harmed, or specifically targeted with an intent to ruin our business), there are still scars–distrust, fear, frustration, and loss, to name a few. Just because a crime isn’t personal, doesn’t mean that no one suffers. It has been an awkward process to write out the victim statement, and to appear in court and recount all that happened that day, but it has also been a good process.
Being a victim is not a pleasant experience. It is frightening, humiliating, maddening, and bewildering. “How could this have happened?” “Why did it happen to me/us?” “What did I/we do wrong?” These are honest questions that go unanswered. But the biggest question may be “Where was God when this happened?” Didn’t he know? Didn’t he care? Why didn’t he act to stop this crime? Why did he allow it to touch us?
In the months since this happened, I’ve learned to ask some other questions of God–
What other “bad” things have you kept from us without our knowledge? What good things have you showered on us that we took for granted?
Who else has suffered the same or worse things– how can I reach out with empathy or understanding?
Where are people suffering without justice? Even though we have had a long wait, we know that the police and court system have been working for us. Where are people living who suffer without hope, in silence, and in fear of seeking help?
What can we learn from this experience? How can we make our store and our community “safer”? How can we heal, and bring justice instead of wallowing in hurt or seeking revenge?
God has a plan, even in times of trial and questioning. We all will be victims at some point in our life–of injustice, of crime, of disease, of poverty, of losses, of disaster, and of sin’s consequences– our own sins and the sins of others. We can also be victors, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can overcome bitterness and addiction; we can triumph through cancer, depression, or heartbreak; we can rise above setbacks and circumstances; we can choose forgiveness and healing over hatred and self-sabotage. We can move from being perpetual victims to eternal victors, through Jesus Christ our Lord!
“Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving–
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon…”
(Be Our Guest from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
Philippians 2:3-8King James Version (KJV)
3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
1 Peter 2:13-19Revised Standard Version (RSV)
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
The English word serve has at least seven different definitions, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary see here, and that’s just the intransitive verb form! The concept of service and serving is often misunderstood and denigrated. Our culture (especially American culture) in general has a low opinion of servants. Value is placed on independence– neither needing service nor being required to give it to others. But service is much broader then “servitude”, and good service requires that we place our value on interdependence, rather than independence.
Good service requires a lot, but I think there are three key ingredients–obedience, humility, and love.
I don’t normally recommend Disney as a source of moral instruction, but just in the short two lines of lyrics above there is a great example of a servant’s heart. A good servant isn’t reluctantly or resentfully dragged into service. (Oh, there are days or circumstances that are trying and tiring, but that’s the exception, not the norm.) S/he is eager to serve, and even restless when unable to be of service. A good servant is also personal. Their service is not given by rote, but with attention to the individual “soul” they are serving. It’s hyperbole, of course, but the verve and giddiness found in the singing and dancing dishes of a Disney movie should be reflective of the kind of service we provide at work, at home, and at church– “Be our Guest!”
As followers of Jesus, we should also look to His example. Paul reminds us that Jesus did not seek fame or attention or demand respect or recognition during His time on Earth. Instead, He gave up all the glory of Heaven to become a man– and not just a man, but a helpless baby born in obscurity and growing up without entitlements and comforts; the child of a working-class family in a small town under foreign occupation. He lived as a homeless itinerant teacher, and died as a common criminal under shameful circumstances– naked and bloody, displayed in public, to be mocked and used as a warning for others. But Jesus wasn’t a doormat–he was humble, he was meek–he CHOSE to submit to the pain and humiliation and even the injustice of a rigged trial and a death sentence by mob rule. He had opportunities to grab the glory, to turn the tide, to escape his unfair fate, and/or to become a great political or military leader. He didn’t take those opportunities– instead, he was obedient to the Father. He showed love and compassion even to those who mocked him, betrayed him, and murdered him.
It’s frightening to serve with that kind of abandon. It’s not humanly possible to let go of one’s life with joy for the sake of those who have taken it from you. My human desire is to grab hold of life and get as much out of it as I can. Even when my intention is not to hurt anyone else, it is not in my nature to put someone else’s needs and comforts ahead of my own. But it needs to become part of my nature.
I want to serve like Serena Williams–slamming my passion at the speed of a bullet train and earning trophies. (And this is not meant to be disrespectful– I am a great admirer of Serena’s talent and drive, and I think there is much to learn from her perseverance and excellence.) But tennis, while fun to watch and good for exercise, does not teach good “service”.
I’d like to serve like a CEO– guiding a company to greater success and huge profits. I might even help hundreds of people by creating more jobs and increasing their wealth. But in the end, this is not the kind of service that has everlasting consequences, or “soul” benefits.
I honor those who have served in the military; those who work in service industries, or provide emergency services. And those who have served in government, whether local, state, national, regional, provincial, or other. Many have served selflessly and given their lives, willingly, in combat or rescue missions. For every story of someone who has abused their office, or fled in the face of personal danger, there are many more stories of courage, compassion, and sacrifice. Such service should also “serve” as an example to all of us.
I enjoy serving customers at work– helping them find something they want or need, or answering questions. But that’s my job. I get a certain gratification, and a paycheck, that help motivate such service.
God wants me to learn to serve from the pure joy of service– pouring myself out with abandon to help others succeed– rejoicing with them when they reach their goals; grieving with them in their loss. And, like Jesus, God wants me to do it, not in my own limited strength and wisdom, but in obedience to His will– not becoming a dupe or a doormat to anyone who wants to step on me, but discerning what is best for others and cheerfully doing what I can to bring it about.
That’s a tall order, and it requires that I take time to ask God and trusted friends– How’s my Serve?
In “Pursuing Prayer”, I want to explore ways to develop my prayers; to become “better” at praying– more confident, more Christlike. But along the way, I have found that “better” doesn’t always mean what I think it ought to mean. Sometimes, becoming “better” requires becoming broken.
I don’t like being broken. I don’t want to be shattered, ruined, like a broken vase. I don’t want to pray like a broken record– sending up the same failures, the same weaknesses, the same painful memories. I don’t want to be pinched, and cracked, and mangled. I don’t want to be stretched and molded and squeezed. I want to have comforting chats with God, not drawn-out confessions, or rebukes, or unanswered questions.
It is tempting to avoid brokenness–cover it up, pretend, deny, ignore its existence. I don’t want to bring God my questions, my fears, my hurts. I don’t want to open up the dark places of my soul. I want to wear a smile and make small talk with God–“How are you today?” “Just lovely, Father, and how are you?” “Fine weather we’re having.” “Yes, thank you for the breezes yesterday. And could I just put in a plug for my neighbor’s gall bladder surgery? I told her I would pray for her, so could you just give her a speedy healing? That’d be great. Well, gotta run. Talk to you soon…Oh, and I’m sorry for the way I blew up at the kids the other day. I don’t know WHAT got into me. You know I’m just not that way, right? So I’m just asking for grace to kinda cover that up and make it ok again. Thanks.”
God is not fooled. God is not impressed or amused at our shallow righteousness. He’s not impressed or overcome by our brokenness, either. But He wants it, anyway. He wants all of it. Because He wants to build honesty, intimacy, and most of all, restoration. God doesn’t want us to wallow in our failures, any more than He wants us to gloat in our false perfection. He wants to break the bondage they have over us. He doesn’t get tired of hearing our voices, even in guilt or shame, rage or despair…if they are raised to Him. He doesn’t want us to stay shattered and ruined. But He needs us to be redirected, refreshed, rebuilt, rekindled, and renewed.
There are many things that need to be “broken” to become better– we “break” in shoes, we “break” ground to create a new field or prepare for a new building. We “break bread” to eat it and share it with others. We “break” horses in order to prepare them to run or work more effectively. We “break” bad habits. We even “break” the ice in a new friendship. The point is not to stay broken, but to “break through” whatever is keeping us oppressed and held down.
When I am feeling broken, and I cry out to God, He doesn’t deny my brokenness; He doesn’t turn away in disgust; He doesn’t stick a hasty bandage on my wounds. God acknowledges my pain, He listens to my questions. He loves me enough to come and stay with me through the worst moments–even when others have gone; even when I deny His presence and turn my face to the wall–and He begins the process of turning even those scars and cracks and tears into treasures.
Brokenness is inevitable in our fallen and broken world– God is not out to break us; people and time, circumstances, and even our own good intentions will cause us to fall and fail–am I willing to uncover my brokenness and need, and allow God to reshape my shattered dreams?
Several years ago, singer and songwriter Billy Joel created some controversy with a song he wrote, called “Only the Good Die Young.” The song was about a young man trying to convince a young catholic girl to give up her virginity. Many were offended by some of the lyrics, and by the general tone of the song, which was sacrilegious; sneering at the notion of sexual purity and waiting for marriage. One of the lines in the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints..The sinners are much more fun.”
It may seem that way to many– Christians (along with many Jews, Muslims, and others who are sincere and spiritually-minded) seem stern and sober in comparison to free-living, fun-loving heathens. Why should this be so? Shouldn’t those who are closer to God experience more Joy and happiness than those who do not know Him? Why are saints and prophets so often shown crying, wailing, and weeping bitter tears?
The author of Ecclesiastes (assumed to be King Solomon) writes:
Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)
7 A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death, than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.
This doesn’t mean that God wants His people to be depressed, hopeless, and constantly weeping. But God DOES want us to be aware and to see the world as it really is– fallen, chaotic, filled with needless suffering and injustice. Why? Because He calls us to think about the consequences of our actions, and also to have compassion for those who are hurting. It may be more “fun” to ignore the consequences of sin and to “live it up” if you are young and healthy, but it is not at all true that “only the good die young.” Death comes unexpectedly and randomly– taking both good and evil, both wise and foolish. The difference is that fools get cut off and caught off-guard. The consequences of their actions find them unprepared and filled with regret or bitterness and pain– all of which might have been prevented if they had not ignored reality.
I think the song DOES have a message to Christians–while we shouldn’t be fools chasing after fleeting pleasures that leave a large wake of pain and regret and filling our lives with empty laughter, we should not “die young” in the way of the Pharisees of old. Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” for good reason. Their “goodness” came from self-righteousness and piety. They shunned sinners, and chased others away with their long lists of rules and disdain for anyone who didn’t keep up appearances. Such “saints” never cry– they are more likely to crow about their own “goodness” with dry eyes and closed fists. Jesus attended feasts and parties with the sinners– but his heart was not for the “fun” they were having. It was for them– for their lost souls. Jesus wept! Jesus wept for the loss of his friend Lazarus; he wept over Jerusalem; he even wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane!
The “Good” have many reasons to cry– millions of innocents suffer needlessly every day–abuse, slavery, genocide, abortion, bigotry, war, starvation, murder, theft, addiction, homelessness, disease, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and more fill our world. People waste time angrily shaking their fists at Heaven or at governments, but so much of the suffering is a direct result of sinful actions on the parts of individuals. In my own country, in my own lifetime, over 50,000,000 babies have been aborted–without legal consequence, but with a terrible consequence on the soul of our nation. If we could shed one tear for each life lost it would equal over 660 gallons of water (here’s how I got that number )– just one tear for each life, and those are only the abortions that have been recorded in the past 45 years in the U.S. If we were to shed a tear for every broken marriage, every rape, every life lost to addiction, suicide, murder, or war, every violent assault, every broken promise, every lie, or every corrupt deed in our world over the past 50 years, we could fill an ocean! The power of tears, or of any running/falling water is so great, it could generate electricity to light the nations! ( Here’s an interesting article on the power of a drop of water!)
I would far rather “cry with the saints.” But more than that, I would rather pray with the saints, and arise from both to work with the saints–the power of tears pales in comparison with the power of God’s mercy and grace!
Everybody has enemies. And when I use the term “enemies”, I’m really referring to two types of people. There are the people who are your enemies– they hate you. They are scheming to hurt or destroy you; people who defame or slander you; people who betray you; people who cheat and lie to and steal from and abuse you or those closest to you. Then there are the people for whom you are an enemy– you don’t like them, you don’t trust them, you don’t respect them; you probably defame or gossip about them, and you hurt them, even if it is unintentional. Some enemies fall into both categories, but not all.
I would love to say that I have no enemies–of either type. But, alas, they exist– both types. God calls on us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to show them kindness, and to bless them! In our own power, we can’t do this. We can make the attempt to forgive the unforgivable, to love the unlovable, and reconcile the impossible, but we fall short in our attempts: the betrayal is too deep; the hurt is too overwhelming; the damage is irreversible, and the impossible is just…well…impossible.
Loving our enemies is one of the proofs of God’s existence, his goodness, his power, his own boundless love at work through our imperfect words and efforts. Praying for our enemies, showing kindness and grace in the face of hatred and betrayal–these are miracles that defy explanation. That is one good reason to keep praying for the enemies in our lives– God can work through us to effect reconciliation, healing, and peace.
Another good reason is that prayer changes US. Praying for our enemies is difficult. It is humbling. It breaks our pride and forces us to let go of the bitterness and recognize God’s rightful place as judge, avenger, and healer. It reminds us that God’s love, being boundless and eternal, stretches to those people who don’t deserve it, whether that is the hurtful person you don’t want to forgive, or the hurtful YOU who needs to be forgiven.
But praying for our enemies isn’t just about bringing peace and harmony or transforming us into better versions of ourselves. No amount of willpower, or good intention, or logic, or internal fortitude, or peaceful meditation, or persuasive rhetoric, or even powerful prayer are enough to eliminate our enemies or make us perfect in love.
We pray for our enemies, but not all of our enemies. There are two enemies we need to pray AGAINST– Sin and Satan. They are the true enemies, trying to destroy both sinner and sinned-against. They are not just our enemies, but enemies of God. Both are defeated. Their power is illusory, and their damage, while intensely painful, is temporary. And when we refuse to pray for our human “enemies” we serve their destructive purposes.
Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration. But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year. Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers. There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.
I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.). I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor. So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.
But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”
Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year. My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”
My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten. God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died. Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.” Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children. God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers. He sees you too. He hears you. He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.
More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort. He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace. He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love. God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.
God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.