Friday, June 20, 2014

Sometimes Life is Hard -- Revisited

I'm planning to write a mini series on the topic of forgiveness and am in the process of praying, researching, and organizing the million thoughts that are running through my head on this topic. So I've been in a quandary. I don't like to let too much time pass before I share a post, but I want to very carefully handle the Word while sharing from my heart with pure motives. Because of this I am not quire ready to share what I am learning about forgiveness. Generally, I share what I am currently learning and what applies to my own life. This month marks the eighth anniversary of Passionate Heart Ministry and we graduated 37 women from our support groups this week. These beautiful women had the courage to feel deep pain, come out of denial about their relationship with food, examine their painfully dysfunctional families, or explore the confusion they had in dealing with their emotions. These courageous women stayed the course so we planed a graduation ceremony. I shared some thoughts with them that were originally from a post I wrote last year. I made some changes for the talk and thought I might post the talk even though it is similar to last year's post. We have added a lot of readers this year and hopefully it will bless you if you are new. I will share some thoughts on forgiveness in the next couple of weeks but for those who were reading last year, I hope you will revisit with me and maybe even leave your thoughts below on how God sees you through the hard. 

"Sometimes life is hard. Life is hard because we experience losses—the loss of loved ones to death; the loss of relationships to conflict; loss of marriages to divorce; loss of things stolen, loss of homes stripped by floods, fires, or wars; loss of sentimental items, representing loved ones no longer here. 

Life is hard due to loneliness we experience. Maybe we married someone who is unwilling or unable to connect at a heart level. Maybe we took a risk and asked for changes in a friendship and the friend ignored us, leaving us feeling more invisible and unheard. Maybe we are dealing with painful issues that must remain private, leaving us feeling so alone. Life is hard when we lose jobs or struggle with poverty face the loss of a home or the fear of not being able to feed our family. Life is hard when we end relationships to preserve our integrity or because a relationship causes pain too deep to bear. Life is hard when we experience abuse. It doesn’t matter if the abuse is sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual—all abuse robs us of innocence, causes us to feel unsafe in our homes, community, church or our own bodies. Abuse leaves us struggling with injustices and judgments—sometimes others and sometimes our own. Life is hard when we realize we can't fulfill dreams or we face limitations because our bodies or our emotions are wounded. Life is hard because we sin and hurt others. We say unkind words we can’t retract and they hang between us and the person we love like a heavy, dark curtain. We hurt others’ reputations through gossip and slander. We say things in haste that deeply wound the hearts of our children. We lose friendships because we are selfish, self-centered, or hurtful. We may regret it, we may repent, and may apologize many times, but sometimes forgiveness isn’t granted and restoration never takes place.

Ironically, the more we love, the more we will experience hard. But, the hard is not always bad. Pain can create a thirst for change. It can create a humility that leads to repentance. It can create a thirst for our heavenly home where there will be no more death, no injustice, no sin, no abuse, and no more tears. The question we need to contemplate in the here and now is, “How do I live in the hard and remain faithful to God?”
There are a couple of things we can do that will help us remain faithful in the hard. First, though simple, is very powerful. We can choose to look for God’s daily blessings and acknowledge them and give thanks to God for those even in the midst of the hard
Second, we can follow the Old Testament example of building monuments. When Israel experienced the hard followed by God’s miraculous intervention, they were instructed to build monuments so that they wouldn’t forget what He had done. When they crossed the Red Sea, they built stone monuments and when their children asked what the stones were about, they told them the history behind them and what God did for them. Each of our monuments might look different. One of my friend has monuments. She planted plants when her four children were born to mark the gifts God had given her. After one child, she planted a sprig of bamboo that grew into a grove. She recently lost the son that the bamboo represented in an accident and she has survived the great pain of grief by praising God and by remembering the gifts God gave her through her son. She can see the grove of bamboo from her window and will someday be able to share with her grandchildren about the son she lost, the lessons she learned through grief, and about his faith in Jesus.

When our granddaughter was born 12 weeks too early, our women’s director gave me a prayer quilt for her. It covered her incubator as she slept and grew. In my mind the quilt is a monument to the God who created this beautiful little girl and saw her through a rocky start. I also planted a yellow rose to celebrate the life of one of the most precious friends I have ever had. She was a woman of grace and humility and a very giving and loyal friend. Its growing rampant by my front door, and every time I see it I think of her and the friendship God gave us and how that friendship created a hunger to know the God she knew so well. 
But most of my monuments are found in my writing. Not only do I keep a running lists of things, I am thankful for, I have published curriculum for support groups that testify to the work God has done in my life. I also publish this blog, sharing the lessons God teaches me so I won't forget and so others can learn from what I have learned.
One monument I wrote about started being built when a counselor asked me to give her one word that described what I felt growing up. Without hesitation, I said, “Invisible.” Several months later I was going through a healing prayer and the prayer director told me she sensed God wanted me to renounce something she had never heard of. I asked her what it was and she said it was “the spirit of invisibility.” I had not told her I felt invisible and was overwhelmed by God’s love in telling her to have me renounce that spiritual stronghold. God then reminded me of the story of Hagar who was Sarai’s servant. After she had become pregnant by her mistress’s husband at her mistress’s request, she developed contempt for Sarai. Sarai became enraged and sent her away. Pregnant and alone in that desert, life was hard for Hagar. She sat down and wept. Genesis 16 tells us the angel of the Lord responded to her. 

“And He said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going/” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” The angle of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”…so she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “El Roi”—You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen Him who looks after me.”

God saw Hagar and met her in the hard. Hagar called God “El Roi,” the God who Sees! The God of Hagar let me know that He also saw me even when others didn’t. El Roi has many implications for us. He sees children abandoned by parents—either physically or emotionally. He sees a child, belittled and abused at school. He sees a girl trying to scrub away the shame of the perverted sexual violations perpetrated against her. He sees a girl trafficked for sex—drugged and held against her will. He sees a family displaced by war, earthquakes, and floods. He sees those grieving the violent deaths of loved ones. He sees parents whose children are starving, sick, or dying. He sees moms struggling with lost babies and those who couldn’t conceive. He sees babies born so small they fit in the palm, struggling to breathe while parents beg God for the life of one out of the womb too soon. He sees those saying good bye to loved ones as they slip into eternity and those grieving because they didn’t get to say goodbye. El Roi! What hope there is in our God who sees.

God gave me another monument through a Bible study I attended. The pastor asked what was difficult about waiting on God. I wasn’t sure why it was hard for me until the pastor shared a verse that pricked my heart. The verse said that God has His ears turned towards those who wait on Him. I was such a compliant child, that when I spoke someone’s name and they didn’t respond, I gave up. I assumed that when God wanted me to wait, that he wasn’t going to respond either and would withdraw from Him. That night I realized God’s silence didn’t mean He didn’t want to hear me. It meant that His ears were turned toward me and it was an invitation to keep talking to Him:
  • Talking until the buried pain in my heart was healed and replaced with joy
  • Talking until the compassion that had been stifled was resurrected and my heart grew passionate again
  • Talking until the lies I believed were exposed and replaced with His truth
  • Talking until my unbelief grew into faith
  • Talking until my hidden sin was exposed and I cried out for His mercy to be fulfilled in me
  • Talking until the desire to know Him became bigger than my desire to experience His gifts
  • Talking until He fully had my heart, God is my Jehovah Shama--the God who hears.

God hears the cries of those facing injustice. He hears the cries of those abandoned or betrayed by parents, spouses, or friends. He hears the cries of those disappointed and those with deep wounds left by those who should have loved them, but didn’t. He hears the cries of those beaten down and trod upon. He hears the cries of those who have been lead to believe they’re never good enough, never smart enough, or never pretty enough and too much at the same time. He hears the cries of those who have born burdens way too big for their shoulders. He hears the cries of those who long for peace and freedom from abuses, freedom from pain, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from addictions, and freedom from hatred. He hears the cries of those who hate their sin and want to be forgiven.

He hears the cries and the questions that rise from the depths of grieving souls and understands that those questions reveal broken hearts. He hears every prayer spoken aloud and every prayer muttered deep within the heart—even the prayers so full of anguish they are heard as nothing more than a groan. Oh, what hope there is in Jehovah Shama who is the God whose ears are always turned toward us.

God is not only a God who sees and hears, He is a God who acts! In response to the cries of the people He created and the pain He saw them in, He came to earth to reveal His great love. He took on a body of flesh and lived among people just like us---people in bondage to sin and people paralyzed by deeply wounded hearts. He spent time with those who had overwhelming needs no person could fill. He chose to die a horrible cruel death—suspended between heaven and earth to bear our shame, our guilt, and our ugly sin. We must never lose sight of the fact that our sin wasn’t placed on a cross, It was placed on the LORD Jesus Himself! He was the One who faced the wrath of God in our place. He died so that God’s unending grace, precious peace, unimaginable goodness, and extravagant love could be poured out upon us. He bore unspeakable abuse so that He could exchange His perfect righteousness for our sin. He came so that we could truly know that God is a God who understands when life is hard.

In the moments when we are overwhelmed by the hard, we can look to the monuments we have built and believe in a God who sees and who hears and who will act in ways that show us His love and His faithfulness.
We must always remember that the painful cross preceded the glory of the empty grave. We must remember to embrace the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, who leads us to repentance and to a deeper connection with our Savior. Jesus took our sin away and He is the One and only one who can heal our hearts and give us hope. Remembering what He has done will help us remain faithful in the hard.

We are blessed that the hard causes us to long for the completion of our salvation that occurs when we are face to face with our Jesus--when our pain and suffering will end and the tug of sin on our hearts will dissipate. We want to live in such a way that we can be used by God to reach people who are lost in the hard! We want to show them that His resurrection speaks of hop, power, and joy. We can only do this by remaining faithful and trusting Him in the hard. Do you believe in your heart of hearts that God sees you? Do you believe that He hears you? Can you trust Him in the Hard? I hope so, because He faced the hard for you and He faced the hard for me."   

Friday, June 6, 2014

God Meets us When our Faith is Small

He said to them, "Because of your little faith.
For truly, I say to you, if you have faith
like a grain of mustard seed,
you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,'
and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you." 
Matthew 17:20

The last few weeks I have been writing about spiritual abuse for a big project I am doing and it's been tough to do research on this topic. One of the most vulnerable places in this world is the church. There are several reasons for this. First, when most people seek out a church they are really looking for God. They may not realize that they are equating the church with God but they most often are. Second, it is also vulnerable because most people know believers are supposed to love and they come into church expecting the church to love better than the world, but. Sadly, that isn't always the case. Third, we are called to live transparent lives and to confess sin to one another. But not every church member is trust worthy and the information we share isn't always treated with respect. Fourth, we are called to confront and to forgive one another. Many people in the church find it hard to forgive, hard to apologize, and most of us hate to confront. These are very vulnerable actions that come with risk. After all, we can't control others and can't force them to repent, apologize, forgive, or hear our criticism even when it is bathed in love. In fact, the church is just full of growing people, not perfect people as we often expect.

Out of all the kinds of abuses I have studied, spiritual abuse has made me the most angry, because it strikes at our most vulnerable need--the need to know our Creator. Spiritual abuse has been around for a very long time. It was addressed in the Old Testament and it was addressed strongly by Jesus. Spiritual abuse takes place when churches aren't structured correctly and leaders place themselves between people and God. It takes place when legalism is present and people add stuff to the finished work of Jesus. It takes place when leaders or church members misuse the Scriptures to shame and humiliate others.

One of the things I read in my research brought back memories of being a young adult and trying to figure out what this thing called the Christian life was all about. I went to pretty good churches, but I was so spiritually hungry that I would watch religious programing and didn't realize that some of it was not true to the Word and some of the teaching was a breeding ground for spiritual abuse. One of the things I hate most about spiritual abuse is that it tends to bind people to shame rather than to show them the heart of God. One type of abuse that occurs is the misuse of the promises found in God's Word. I remember seeing some of that on the television programs, but have also heard stories from people first hand who have had some pretty ugly things said to them concerning promises. The verse above is one of those verses that gets misused and thrown into people's faces. Some people teach that you can ask for anything and, if your faith is strong enough, you will get it. A reading of Hebrews 11 should help us see that isn't always so. Many people in that chapter received great blessings for their faith, but others who were commended for their great faith died waiting for promises to be fulfilled.

I've heard several stories of people who were either struggling with cancer or had children that did. I have heard of a case where a person was prayed for and by the time he got to the specialist no cancer was found and I have no problem believing God chose to do that. But, I have also known people who prayed hard and believed hard and their bodies or their children weren't healed. Some of them received notes or visits from friends who said they must not have believed hard enough or were told that they must have sin in their lives preventing a healing. I get angry just thinking about those comments. Who are we, to judge people for the ways that God chooses to work? The above verse indicates it only takes a little faith to see God work. A story found in Mark 9:14-29 has some interesting things in it.

In this story, Jesus came found His disciples in a debate with scribes. Jesus asks what they are arguing about and it wasn't the disciples or the scribes who answer, it was a father. He had brought his
deaf and mute son to the disciples to be healed of a demonic spirit who had tortured him most of his life. When the demon manifested, it would cause the boy to seize and would cause him to fall--sometimes he had even fallen into fire and into water. I cannot even imagine what this father had gone through in trying to protect his son and to find healing for him. He had asked the disciples to cast the demon out and they couldn't so he says to Jesus, "If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us!" Interestingly, Jesus doesn't immediately turn to the son and heal him as I expected him to. He deals with the father and the issue in his heart first. He does this by reflecting the mans words back to him, "If you can!" Then he tells the man, "All things are possible for one who believes." The desperate man cries so honestly, "I believe, help my unbelief!" and Jesus heals his son by casting out the destructive demon.

Jesus was kind and compassionate towards the hurting. He is omniscient and He knew how long the man had suffered with his son. He knew the man has spent years watching the demon torment and destroy the son he loved. He knew the man had even just witnessed the failure of his own disciples to cast the demon out. Because of this, I don't believe, like some might, that his tone was harsh. His purpose in talking with the man was to help him see that with all that he had been through his view of Jesus had become tainted. He wanted the man to see that the long suffering he had watched his son endure had become a stumbling block to his faith. Jesus lovingly was drawing the man to Himself. He was not just healing the son, he was healing the heart of the father so that his faith would be restored and strengthened. 

If we are really honest, most of us would have to admit that we all have had things that have hindered our ability to fully trust God and His ways. Maybe it was years of praying for a mom to give up her drugs so she could love and care for children. Maybe it was years of praying for safety from a sexual predator that never seemed to be heard. Maybe it was years of watching a child be eaten with cancer that medicine couldn't stop. Maybe  it's the longing for a husbands safe return from battle, but being presented with a flag at his grave instead. Maybe its watching a beautiful young daughter starve herself to death because she believes she's defective, too much, not enough, unredeemable, and a host of other lies. Maybe it's besetting sin for which we repeatedly seek God's help, but find the tentacles of the stronghold of sin draining our hope away. Maybe its our own intellect combined with our inability to accept that God's ways are not our ways, so we choose to hold on to what we think is reasonable and be come skeptical.

The possible hindrances to faith are many and Jesus knows that and he knows each of us individually. Maybe, what we might perceive as a lack of response or inactivity on God's part have really been His grace and His love in action. Maybe He's waits to answer the obvious so He can deal with the underlying issues of our wavering hearts. Maybe He hesitates to answer so that we will be brought face to face with the doubts that lie hidden under masks that belie our unbelief. Maybe He waits to respond until we are desperate enough to become radically honest with Him and with ourselves so that we cry out to Him as honestly as this man did. Then He begins to act in ways we see and His plans fully unfold--plans that may fulfill our desires or plans that may not. But, plans that will allow us to witness the richness of His love, His glory, and His grace--His grace that whispers into wounded, wavering hearts, "Your mustard-seed-sized faith has always been enough." 


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!