Monthly Archives: June 2013

Grappling with Disappointment

disappointment valleyI recently received an e-mail from someone who listed off a whole list of grievances detailing things I had done or failed to do that angered and disappointed them. The e-mail concluded with a statement to the effect that I have failed to live what I preach. (My first gut reaction to that last statement was, “I could have told you that years ago and saved you the trouble!” Look hard enough at me, spend enough time with me, and yes, you will find that I am riddled with inconsistency and flaws, just like everyone else. I only strive to do what I preach, praying one day to get it right, in the mean time living by grace with myself and with others.)

But still, that e-mail was a painfully jagged pill to swallow. It was hurtful and embarrassing.  I did not want to launch into  hyper-defense mode and make a tit-for-tat counter argument that deflects any responsibility and throws back all the blame. On the other hand, I didn’t want to issue a half-hearted blanket apology laced with sappy remorse against a backdrop of woe-is-me self-crucifixion. Either extreme would have been a failure to own up to reality. If I was going to respond, I needed to carefully take responsibility for my wrongs, ask forgiveness, clarify things, and yes, state my own case for their wrong done in this situation, free from anger and innuendo. Tall order… But with God, all things are possible.

Of course, even my best efforts at a fair e-mail will most likely do nothing to satiate the person’s anger with me. E-mails never do that, so I can’t put unrealistic expectations on it. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do except give it to God and let it go, trusting that in time there may be more room for peacemaking. Or there may not be. Either way, I can only do what I can do.

Still, I have been anguishing the fact that I could let someone down like this, no matter how the blame or responsibility should be doled out. “You let me down…” Of all things that could I could bear to hear, that is among the absolute worst. I failed.

Admittedly, some of the anguish I feel stems from one of my incessant liabilities: my need for approval and affirmation. In other words, if you like me and what I do, I interpret that to mean that I’m worthy. However, if you don’t like me or what I do, I interpret that to mean I’m a failure. I’ve come a long way in my adult life to identify and diffuse this liability, but in situations like these, it always attempts to rear its pathetically ugly head. This ugly monster only knows two lines of fire: angry rebuke or playing the martyr, depending on what works best. Part of my response has been putting this monster back in its place.

Personal liabilities aside, I still grieve the situation and grieve my own failures. I have apologized, asked forgiveness, and am prepared to make whatever reasonable amends I can. In all reality, it comes down to accepting that this will have to do. It’s good enough for now.

I’m learning again that a primary key to peace is learning how to live with disappointment– with others, with myself, and even with God. The only remedy I’m aware of right now is grace. Grace is the key to forgiving myself, allowing myself to live with the reality that I have, I can, and I will fail. Others will, too. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). If only all people in a conflict could love like this, there would be enough will to diffuse even the most raging forms of anger.

God's RagamuffinMaybe I could carry around a business card to give people when I first meet them. Under my name, it will say “God’s Ragamuffin” followed by a disclaimer. “Warning: at some point I will frustrate, disappoint, and fail you. I ask your forgiveness in advance.” Then perhaps they will give me their card, identical in every respect except for the name. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

All in all, I am indeed a ragamuffin. I’m a patchwork of success and failure, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, gifts and liabilities,  strengths and weaknesses. This crazy patchwork is sewn onto the fabric of God’s love by a God who daily shows me what it means to forgive the many times I fail, not because God is obliged to, but because my Abba Father truly, deeply loves me.

After all, I am a beloved child of God, more than the sum total of my life’s victories and defeats. I just need to keep reminding myself of that, and perhaps it will give me the confidence and wisdom to avoid putting all my life’s stock in either my strengths or my weaknesses, but in Christ who resurrects me above and beyond mere flesh and blood. Of course, the same reality applies to others, especially to the person who sent me that e-mail!

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Living Terminally

(This post is written in honor of my dear friend and brother in Christ Alvin Dickerson who is in his last stages of terminal brain cancer. Brother Alvin, you have shown me the truth of what I’ve only begun to understand in the words that follow…)

Once in a while I pick up one of those books that is impossible to put down until I’ve plowed through the whole thing at once. In this case, it was Ed Dobson’s Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls ApartFar from a moralistic treatise on how to find hope, the impetus of Dobson’s book is his deeply personal story of being diagnosed and living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was a stunning, captivating story right from the beginning.

Seeing through the FogA healthy, successful 50-year-old pastor is diagnosed with ALS and effectively given a hideous death sentence of slowly dying to a witheringly painful disease. How does one truly live in the shadow of death? Where is God and what is God up to? How can we honestly pray for healing when we’re all but certain of the inevitable outcome? How can we discover hope and gratitude when each day brings about a further symptom that pushes us closer to death?

Ed Dobson struggles through each of these questions in a humbly convincing way that left me both haunted and closer to the God of life and healing. I want to share and briefly reflect upon a few of my favorite quotes from the book. I hope they are also a blessing to you, too.

…I find there is a vast difference in being grateful for something and being grateful in something. In the midst of my struggle I can still be grateful.

I loved Dobson’s honesty and realism concerning thankfulness. We don’t have to be thankful for crap. Thank God for that!

I once pastored a faithful, godly woman who often said of her terminal cancer, “This really sucks.” It certainly did. Cancer still sucks. (I’ve since found other choice words to describe it, which I’ll withhold from sharing here.) And at the same time, we could laugh and smile over the good things she still enjoyed. Sometimes, that’s enough.

There is nothing noble, high or holy about giving thanks for bad things. But, there is always cause to give thanks in those bad things for the gifts and blessings we do have. That perspective keeps us real about our pain while rescuing us from being victimized by it.

I needed to shift my focus from myself to my creator. And I shouldn’t focus on God’s power to heal me, either; I should focus on the all-around wonder of God and spend more time with Him each day without the goal of receiving healing for my good behavior. I needed to trust Him with my life not because I was sick but because I should trust Him that way always.

Dobson addressed a dangerous strain of unchristian thought that says if I have faith enough and am good enough, God will deliver what I want. Conversely, if I don’t have what I want, it’s because I’m not faithful or good enough. This is theological travesty at its worst. The reality is that the Bible is filled with stories of God blessing people whose faith was lacking at best and in the same breath saying “no” to the most holy, faithful people- the prime example of the later being Jesus.

So rather than egocentric prayers, Dobson learned to focus himself and then fully immerse himself within God’s wonder. That led to trust, assurance, and an affirmed identity of being God’s beloved child, no matter the outcome of his life or death. All of this reminded me that above all other things, you and I were created to be loved by God and to love God with our worship.

On healing:

The Bible seems to indicate that there is a vast difference between being cured of a disease and being healed of it. It is possible to be cured, but not healed. And it is possible to be healed, but not cured.

The difference between healing and curing may seem like a clever game of Christian semantics. It’s not at all. The Bible describes healing as wholeness, peace, and reconciliation. So yes, a person could be cured of a disease but still need true healing. And a person may never be physically cured of a disease but could die, having been fully healed.

Lastly, here is Dobson’s beautiful definition of healing:

So we see healing is made up of finding peace in three areas of life: with God, with others, and with yourself and your circumstances. This is very similar to the definition of the Hebrew word shalom, which would substitute the word wholeness for peace. Shalom is wholeness with God, with others, and with yourself.

More compelling than Dobson’s definition was his personal story of how he found this healing- between God, between himself and others, with himself and with his painful circumstances. It’s one thing to offer a definition of healing. It’s quite another to illustrate it with his arduous journey into healing.

It’s often been said that the best sermons are stories. I agree. I know I’m not always in the mood to be preached to, most especially when I’m feeling beat up and bedraggled. But an authentic story is always good preaching. For these reasons, I highly recommend Ed Dobson’s book, no matter the season in which you find yourself. There is always more room to live, most especially since we are all effectively terminal. Perhaps it takes a story like this one to encourage us to live, love, persist, and worship more passionately and intentionally.

 

 

 

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Jesus in the Nitty Gritty

dirty handsThis has been a tiring, at times deeply frustrating week of moving, unpacking, cleaning, and adjusting to a whole new home, routine, and neighborhood. If you’ve made a recent move, you know the feeling all too well. I feel like I’ve been treading in a sea of bewilderment and disorientation, moving from pastoring a church to being “church-less” in a new position in which I’m resourcing lots of churches. And of course, switching from one set of comfortable digs to something altogether dissimilar shakes up all those subtle routines and environments I had come to unconsciously rely on.

It almost goes without saying that this has been a test on my walk with Christ and on my closest relationships. (I have to confess: poor Blairlee has at times been the undeserving victim of my tattered patience and sensitivity! Please forgive me, Sweetie…) Far from the mountaintop of mystical bliss with God, I’ve been in the trenches of sweat, boxes, dirt, and discombobulation.

But God is all about timeliness, God’s time, of course, and so– lo and behold!–  I found a daily devotional reading from my hero Brennan Manning, a man who knew all about God in the messiness of life. Here’s what he wrote. Read it carefully:

Am I unjustly criticized, rejected, betrayed by a friend? I can touch the life of Jesus who faced the same things and can will myself to respond as he did. The power of his Spirit passes into my spirit… Christ is formed within me not just in peak moments of transcendental bliss but in the nitty-gritty of daily life. I am confined to bed, sick, nauseous, racked with pain, utterly incapable of prayer. I have only to whisper, “It’s yours, my Friend,” and it is no longer I who lie there, it is Jesus Christ. And so it goes. Jesus slept. I can unite my sleep with his. I’m having a rollicking good time at a Cajun barbecue in New Orleans. I shout with them, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll), and connect with the Jesus who multiplied the wine at Cana to keep the party going.

-Brennan Manning, Reflections for Ragamuffins (HarperSanFransisco: 1998), 166 (bolded italics mine)

I love that. It’s another reminder of the truth that the Word of God (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus will not confine himself to church services within the walls of a beautiful sanctuary. Jesus moves with and pushes beyond my solitary moments of prayer and devotion. Jesus is truly with me and in me throughout the nitty-gritty toils of daily life.

That’s a far cry from the way we are prone to compartmentalize faith and religion to one “holy” segment of our lives, relegating God to the diminishing vestiges of piety and religion. (Isn’t it true that we usually only talk to God during the day when we need something we can’t handle on our own? See what I mean??)

Why can’t there be something tremendously holy to the menial things of unpacking boxes, throwing out the trash, the rigors and struggles of family life, the daily grind of work and study, as well as our times of leisure and rest? If Jesus is real and is truly with me, then it follows that I can find him, obey him, and experience his Spirit within my spirit, even in the throws of the most exhausting, frustrating things of dirt, grime, sweat, and tears.

So you can bet that I’ll be pausing to remember and follow Jesus in the moments of nitty-gritty living. I think it’s there that we can truly experience the powerful presence of the Holy. If not there, where else?

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