Verse of Encouragement: Hope

The sermon I heard today was about pouring our hearts out to God. Several years ago, when I was reading David’s story, I remember thinking, “I can’t believe he just said that to God.” But God called David “a man after his own heart.” “His” being “God’s.” David had an intimate relationship with God, in part because David knew he could be honest in his feelings toward God. Why do we think God is going to be offended by how we feel? Why do we think God is going to strike us down with a bolt of lightning if we admit to him, “God, I am angry at you!”

Our God is a big God, and, as my pastor made clear this morning, “God already knows your heart.” Why hide out of a sense of reverence, respect, or fear? He already knows, and he can handle us at our rawest, ugliest, sobbiest moments, because those moments are often when we are the most honest and unguarded.

He came to bind up the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1), so why do we try to hide our hearts from him? The author of Lamentations hurt so bad that there was no holding back how he felt:

He [God] pierced my heart
with arrows from his quiver.
I became the laughingstock of all my people;
they mock me in song all day long.
He has filled me with bitter herbs
and given me gall to drink.
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

Lamentations 3:13-18, NIV

Wow, says I, that is a lot of blaming God for one’s circumstances. Is the author exaggerating? Is he being literal? Or is he finding the strongest metaphors possible to express his pain in the most raw, honest way he can? There is so little hope to be found in these verses, how could I possibly post them under the heading “Verse of Encouragement”?

Because the suffering is not the whole story, nor the end of the story. The author pours out his heart, then as my pastor phrased it, “pushed through the pain to find the praise.”

I remember my affliction and my wandering, (“suffering and homelessness,” NLT),
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:19-23, NIV

Who was it who pointed out to me that the verse doesn’t say, “Nothing bad will happen to you”? It says “we are not consumed.” Life throws some dirty punches, no mistake. We might not be spared the loss, the betrayal, the illness. No matter what happens, God has got our back. Without the tragedies, the set-backs, the horrible mistakes, who would I be today? Have I let bitterness dictate who I am, or hope? Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell. Would my character be on the road to refinement? Would I ever learn compassion for others? Would I grow in my faith? Would I learn to listen to that still, small voice and be able to tell the difference between God speaking and my own imagination or desires?

I hate pain. I hate having to be patient one more day and one more day. I hate it when I screw up again and hurt someone I love. I hate it when loved ones die. But because God loves me, I am not consumed. If I let him, he sustains, he strengthens, he shapes. He has endless compassion for me, even when I mess up big time. He wants this independent loner to need him, to seek him, to include him, to grow confident in him, and I’m pretty sure he finds it utterly precious when I finally break and cry out to him.

When I have unburdened myself to him, only then I can remember what he has done for me and those I love, what he promises still to do on our behalf. Then hope pours in to replace the pain.

What is burdening you? Tell him. He doesn’t need fancy language, formal reserve, or grand gestures of reverence. He wants to hear your heart poured out, honest and true and raw. He can handle it. He’s that big. He loves you that much.

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Thoughts: Becoming Myself, chapter 9

Chapter 9 of Becoming Myself, “Beauty Forged in Suffering,” is so full of good stuff, that I found myself underlining and underlining.

And do I know something about beauty forged in suffering. Behold, my little sister. This is sacred ground to me, and I’m sure I won’t get through this post without sobbing.

My sister was one of those fiery, go-get-em kids who wanted the corporate job and six kids. Full of attitude, bullheaded, nothing would stand in her way once she’d made up her mind (we at least have that in common). The goal of corporate stardom dwindled as she matured, but the desire for an army of kids remained. Once she married, she was impatient to have them. As soon as her husband was in accord, she went after it. And something went wrong. The bleeding wouldn’t stop. My little sister just had  miscarriage. What? No! This didn’t happen to women in our family. We are a huge family. We are always surrounded by tons of healthy babies. What is this?

sad girlI made the stupid statement or believed foolishly (I hope I didn’t say it aloud) that the worst was behind her. For a while this seemed true. She soon gave birth to a healthy, gorgeous baby boy. Then came another miscarriage. Then–six years ago in October–came Baby Vaune. I remember when my sister was picking out girl names for this baby. She wanted a name with dignity, a name that would “grow up with her.” To settle on a name, she had to be able to envision a woman in a suit introducing herself with that name. So “Vaune” it was.

Vaune was born the day before Halloween; she was going to be “our little black cat.” We were astonished to hear that she weighed only a little over 5 pounds. Whoa, what? We finally get to have a small baby? Other women have small babies; women in our family have babies between 7 and 10 pounds. We were astonished at first, but not yet alarmed. Then the doctor came in and told us that all was not well, and Vaune needed to be flown to a bigger hospital for tests.

I cannot describe the physical pain that descended throughout my body. I had never felt that kind of pain before. I can only imagine what my sister felt, still in her bed robe and hooked up to monitors, or our mother who was sitting beside me and could not protect her own baby from this. I’m not sure how Mom and I ended up in that room alone; all I know is that as soon as we were alone, she grabbed me and started praying. “God, we trust you. We don’t know what this is, but we trust you.”

A few days later, we learned that Vaune had Edward’s Syndrome or Trisomy 18. We did our research and discovered that, unlike Downs’ Sydrome, Edward’s is 100% fatal by the age of 2 and that 1 in 3000 miscarriages is caused by this particular syndrome. We started counting the days. Mercifully, my sister was allowed to bring Vaune home and bring in hospice care. She and her husband and our mother learned how the feeding tube worked, along with the other monitors needed to keep tabs on what was happening inside Vaune’s little body. I tell you, I held that baby every chance I got. I held her so I could see her face and talk to her because I knew our time was short, and I wanted to memorize her sweet little face.

I won’t go into the details, but Jesus came for Vaune on December 7th.

I remember being afraid that this would make my sister a hard, unhappy, bitter person, who resented God and became untouchable to her husband and her family. The opposite is what happened. Through that process of pain and healing and surrendering to the care and sovereignty of God, my sister became the most beautiful person I have the privilege of knowing. I sit back and watch her, in her service to others, with her kids, in her relationship with her husband, in her trust in her God, and I am in awe. This is my little sister(?!), and she is stunning. Yes, she still can be bullheaded, and still has that fiery temperament that has earned us the nickname “the dragon sisters,” but her loss instilled in her a sense of right priorities and unshakable faith.

yellow-angelDid God cause Vaune to have Trisomy 18? I doubt it. But God used that time of unimaginable pain to create something exquisite inside my sister, to strengthen our faith, and in my case, for sure, to prove that I had it at all. I learned that during life’s worst moments, I do know where to turn, I won’t resort to blind anger, we won’t fall apart. And I can tell you that during those few weeks while Vaune was with us, I have never felt more strongly the presence of God. The peace that surrounded us was so palpable I could almost reach out and grab a fistful of it.

I can look back on that time and know absolutely that God is with us, that he does care about the intimate details of our lives – and if we let him, he can take that horrible, undesirable situation and with those hands that flung out the stars, forge something stronger and lovelier inside us than we ever expected.

Favorite Quotes

“In this world you will have trouble.” John 16:33

“Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange is happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12

“Christianity is not a promise to enjoy a life without pain…. It is a promise that pain, sorrow, sin—ours and others’—will not swallow us, destroy us, define us, or have the final word.”

(Becoming Myself, 146)

“The very first thing painful trials try to do is separate us from God. But being separated from God is the worst thing that can happen, much worse than the most excruciating of trials.”

(Becoming Myself, 147)

“God created a world where the choices of angels and human beings matter. We are not puppets on a string. When someone sins, it is not God causing them to sin. That sexual abuse was not arranged by God; he did not cause your brother to be raped any more than he caused those terrorists to bomb the train station.

It is crucial for us to be careful with our interpretation of events. We must ask God’s help in making sense of it all. But for heaven’s sake, don’t blame the sin of the world on God. …

Your interpretation of events will shape everything that follows. It will shape your emotions, your perspective, and your decisions. What if you are wrong?”

(Becoming Myself, 148)

“… though God doesn’t cause all the trials in our lives, he does use them. He does work all things for our good. (Romans 8:28) He will use pain to expose our false beliefs about our hearts and about his heart … to reveal our brokenness so that God can heal it. …

There is more going on here than meets the eye. There is a battle raging over the human heart. Will we love God and choose to trust the goodness of his heart in the face of the immense brokenness of the world? Will we stand in our belief that God is worthy of our worship in the face of immense brokenness…?”

(Becoming Myself, 150)

“How do you find peace in the midst of difficult, painful circumstances? … [Jesus is] right where you are, right smack dab in the middle of your life.”

(Becoming Myself, 151)

This last quote brings to mind something Staci mentioned a couple chapters ago in which she described the circumstances of Jeremiah’s  tortured life and rescue.  She quotes a promise God made, saying, “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you.” (Jer. 1:19)

“But,” Stasi writes, “Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern, and opposed by a false prophet.

“Ummmm. When did God rescue him exactly? After he was beaten. After he was imprisoned. After he was threatened.”

(Becoming Myself, 116)

And lastly, back to Chapter 9:

“We need to be honest about what we have done with our suffering. What have we allowed it to do to our hearts? Have we become more fearful? Controlling? Has resentment toward God or others entered in? … bring that to Jesus, for this is cancer of the soul, and it ravages what God means to make lovely.”

(Becoming Myself, 154)

For Jesus came to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Have I let him do this for me? Have you?

When_My_Sadness_Born_by_j3ff3rson-800

“When My Sadness Born” by j3ff3rson, 2009

 

Thoughts: Becoming Myself, chapter 8

“The Company of Women.” The chapter title itself provides a challenge for me.

Ironically, it was while I was reading this chapter that a friend texted me and invited me to lunch. Not my husband and me, not a group of friends and me, just me. Cheryl doesn’t know this, but that was the very first time I have “done lunch” with a person, one on one, who is not family. I was able to bounce some internal struggles off her, and she provided much needed encouragement.

I had to shake my head in wonderment at the timing. God was speaking, and I replied, “Thank you for what you’ve done.”

As I mentioned in a previous “Thoughts” post , making friends and holding onto them has been difficult for me, because in my earliest years “friends” were temporary. They were the kids I could get along with easiest in class for the couple of years that we lived in that particular town. But it wasn’t worth the effort—and the pain—to really open my heart and care about someone.

This carried over into my adulthood. Case in point, even though I had just graduated college, I had only a sister and two cousins for bridesmaids at my wedding. Family sticks. “Friends” don’t. In four years at the same college, I made not one single friend. During the first seven or eight years of our marriage, my husband befriended a couple of co-workers who he hung out with. They brought their wives around, and then they got divorced, proving that “friends” are one of those temporary things one endures, like head colds.

women talking

When we started going to LifeChurch, I had no idea the blessings God was waiting to pour over us. We decided we would get the most out of the experience if we joined a small group. I was so skeptical, so hesitant. “They’ll be shallow,” I said. “They’ll be straight and boring and shallow, and all we’ll talk about is petty junk.” Wow, was I wrong. They were weird! They were quirky! They let all their issues hang out in the most honest ways, and during only our second meeting, I was confessing the darkness in my soul. There was something so genuine and loving about this group of people that we felt invited to be real, knowing we would find acceptance anyway. I say “we” because I wasn’t the only one. Others drifted into the group later, and I watched the same closed-off self-protection mode dissipate. Bonds grew. Activities outside our small group were held so we could get together and share life.

One of these couples moved away. I tried, in my time-honored way, to let them go, let the relationship end. But they refused to let this happen, and I’m so glad they were persistent. “Distance” doesn’t necessarily translate to “over.”

But the blessings don’t stop there. In addition to the small group, we started volunteering to serve at our church campus by making coffee, counting offerings, and typing up prayer cards on Sundays. Three years later, I looked around and said, “Whoa! I have friends! Lots of them. How did this happen?” We serve with the same bunch of women (and a few men) every weekend. We started sharing life and prayer needs, and before I knew it I came to love these women. They are so sweet in their uniqueness, their brokenness, their faith, their growth. And I’m speechlessly grateful that they actually like me. Me? Quirky, introvertive, awkward me? But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s their quirkiness that make them special to me in return.

Sorta proves that God loves quirky people. And a lot of quirky people in the same room loving each other? It’s a riot, let me tell you, and God is right in the middle of it, adoring us and the friendship we are willing to risk sharing.

Favorite Quotes

“Women are awesome. Yet sometimes getting near them is like approaching a cactus, hugging a porcupine, or taming a skunk. …

“A true friend loves you when you are being kind and when you are PMS-ing all over the place. They may not love what you are doing, or the dragon you are manifesting, but they love you. …

“A friend sees who you are meant to be and beckons you to rise to the higher version of yourself.”

(Becoming Myself, 125)

“[Jesus] is the source of our true identity. He is the one we must look to first to fill us with truth, acceptance, and love. Then we can bring our hearts … to our friends without demanding that they fill us. We can offer ourselves, open to receive good gifts from them but vigilant to stay close to our God and screening every experience, every word, through him. He has promised to never leave you or forsake you. ”

(Becoming Myself, 127)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

Spiteful Thoughts

swear word bubble “Oh, good grief, can you drive any slower? The left lane is for passing, you idiot. Get over!”

“Get off the phone while you’re driving, you moron. You’re going to kill somebody!”

“How can you people not have cilantro??? This is Walmart, for God’s sake. Since when does Walmart not carry cilantro?!”

“Seriously? A huge space for the one thing I need. Who is stocking these shelves? Who mis-ordered the cereal this time?”

“Is it too hard to remember to close the toilet lid? Close the *#!^ shower curtain! Seriously?!”

* * *

My list of spiteful thoughts goes on and on and on. I’m usually not shouting these remarks. Most often they emerge as grumbles under my breath or bitter whines. This doesn’t improve them, because the same spite colors them all.

Jesus brought this to my attention about four weeks ago. At that time, road workers were completing the long, undesirable task of resurfacing several miles of four-lane highway that connects my house to the towns where I do all my shopping and family-visiting and church activities. Just a few more days and those big machines and detours would all be gone, and we who must drive this stretch of road would have a new, bump-free ride to the grocery store. Awesome.

But on that particular Tuesday, my grace for folks was in desperately short supply. I didn’t even have the excuse of being hormonal. I know my cycle, and this didn’t count. Little things added up throughout the day. That complaint above about cilantro? Yeah, it really happened on that Tuesday. I had a recipe that called for cilantro, but I would have to do without, which felt, at the time, like a huge injustice. Petty, right? I paid out of the grocery store and thought, “Ah, the worst is behind me. I’m headed home. I can relax.” I forgot about the road construction, the single line of crawling cars, the big machines swinging terrifyingly close to our tin-can vehicles.

I made it to the stoplight where I turn to finally get home. I have to turn right, but it’s the right turn lane that is blocked off, so I have to do that which is illegal in most instances and turn right from the middle lane. Okay, fine, I can do this. But a huge tar-laying truck pulls up beside me in that right lane. He’s waiting for the light to turn green, too. I’m thinking, “No way. Tell me you’re not going to block all of us from turning.” I pray, “God, help me. Don’t let me lose it here. It’s no big deal. I really need your help here.”

The light turns green, I start to drive around the truck (because the light says go and there’s no guy with a sign waving us to stop or obey the light. Well, that tar guy is way bigger than I am. I hit the break, and he proceeds to fill the entire intersection with his tar-spraying machine. How many green-red lights are we supposed to sit through until someone comes to direct us to go or stay? I’m first in line. I have to make the call for every driver waiting impatiently behind me. Do I go or not? I have no idea what to do.

road rage This was the last straw. Even though I was fervently, desperately praying only seconds before, my top blows. I start cussing and ranting and raving at this guy (from inside my car, of course, where he can’t hear me), and as soon as he backs up enough to let me squeeze through the lanes, I gun it, honk my horn, fishtail it around his front fender, nearly hit the car waiting in the east-bound turn lane, and make a complete idiot of myself.

I relive this incident, posting it forever in a public place, because it shook me up. It deeply disturbed me. And it provided the catalyst for a beautiful life lesson. I think God orchestrated this encounter so I could clearly see something ugly inside myself. He and I talked about this moment over and over during the following week. “What is this thing?” I asked him. “How can I be so violently ugly inside?”

A few days later I happened to be driving somewhere on that same road (now completely resurfaced and no tar trucks in sight), and again I was talking it out with God. His response this time rang quite clear. “Spiteful thoughts,” he said.

I cannot explain the relief I felt as soon as this thing had a name. It was like a light coming on in a dark room. Ever since that moment, I have felt equipped to deal with it, recognize it, give it over to God when this beast starts to surface. Case in point:

I was driving home (note the common trigger here) from the chiropractor’s office last week after having an amazing massage. I was driving five miles under the speed limit (no one behind me, thank goodness. I would’ve sped, I swear!) with a stupid grin on my face because I was so relaxed and tenderized. Before I had driven two measly miles, I encountered a driver who was swerving on the narrow two-lane, no-shoulder road. They were clearly texting or putting on lipstick or or cleaning up a spill or something equally dangerous. And what happens? Under my breath, I say, “You idiot. Put the *#^! phone down. Drive already.”

ZAP goes the gentle lightning bolt right down my middle. Stop and listen! There is it! Rearing up its brutal little head. How easily they start, those spiteful thoughts. How fast they escalate into hateful attitudes, temper tantrums, ruined hours of a perfectly good day. “God, I’m so sorry,” I prayed. “Thank you for showing this to me. Cleanse me of this. How gentle and merciful you are in your lessons. Thank you for loving me enough to grow me and change me into who I am meant to be.” I’m pretty sure I also lifted that other driver in prayer, a prayer for protection over them and whoever they encounter on the road.

If I am to be ever more transformed into the likeness of Christ, well, spiteful thoughts simply won’t do. I am thrilled to be working with God on this. How he loves me. Despite my ugly bits. The beauty is in there, waiting to be uncovered, like a tarnished silver vase.