"Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." - I Peter 1: 8-9

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Finding Rest

             
 
"What is your favorite memory from this year?" This innocuous question was posed as a discussion opener in a Bible study class where we were going to talk about having margin or breathing space in our lives. I instantly recognized the intention of the question. Our answers would likely point us to those moments we savor with our families or friends where memories are made and the busyness of life has been set aside for us to focus on the relationships in our lives. These are beautiful moments, and I have had many of them this year - vacation with my family at the beach, time visiting extended family in Tennessee, watching my sons explore a new and dangerous hobby in blacksmithing, sweet and unexpected discussions from the heart with my preteen daughter.

So, my breath caught in my throat and I was stunned when my heart had a different answer to this question. Mvolo, South Sudan. A place where I faced my biggest fears, where my body was depleted with dehydration and exhaustion, where I walked with and talked to men and women who live in extreme poverty and who see death every day, and where I found myself at the end of all my resources and lost my heart to a place and a people of breathtaking, raw beauty. And where I learned to rest in Christ.

I didn't have margin or breathing space in Mvolo. I found something even better there, but it came at a high cost. The path to it was through brokenness before God as I submitted to Him. You see, we went to Africa to prayerfully consider whether or not God might be calling us to be full time missionaries, and everything about that dragged me right out of my comfort zone into a place where I was confronted with my willingness to follow my Savior no matter what. No. Matter. What. As I prayed through this and wrestled with the God of all Creation, I realized my answer to this hinged on something that needed to grow in the face of all my fears. My faith. So, I said, "Yes." But it came at the cost of many tears. You know, those gasping for breath, messy faced, heaving sob-like tears.  And it came at the cost of my desire to have my way. As I yielded to God and began to follow Christ on this path to Africa, the faith to obey didn't come in one miraculous dispensation that made each step and decision easier. It came one step at a time as I trusted Him, cried out to Him, stumbled in doubt, got my shots, updated my passport, prayed some more, entrusted my children into His care through the hands of their grandparents, and finally got on a plane. Deep Breath.
In my foolishness, I thought that was going to be the hardest part.  It wasn't. I'm thankful, infinitely thankful, that God sent me to Africa with my husband and our dear friends, who God has allowed us to do life with for almost ten years now. There is rest in fellowship with other believers as we carry each other's burdens, pray for one another, laugh and cry together. This is a topic for another time, but worth mentioning here. The people that God allowed me to walk this journey with were part of God's provision for me and a place of comfort and rest in a land so foreign. He never asks us to walk alone, so as I deboarded the plane in Uganda, I did it with the support and love of people who really know me and really love God. There is such joy and comfort in these relationships! The culture shock, the poverty, the godlessness of the religion of the land, or the exhaustion could have tanked me in short order. And while the waves of those things crashed over me, they didn't crush my soul because we labored in it together.

So, after acclimating to Africa for two nights and a day in Uganda, we finally arrived in South Sudan and the small village of Mvolo.  As we flew in over the dry expanse of African planes and dusty earth, huge outcroppings of  rock formations suddenly appeared below us and the tiny dots of huts in lovely little clusters began to take shape. I was not prepared for what I would find as we touched down in the middle of nowhere. Hundreds of curious faces, throngs of children, adults with cautious eyes formed a ring of welcome around the plane. And so it began, my real understanding of what it means to trust God when there isn't any margin or breathing space in your life.
What God gave me through this process was priceless and beautiful, and He gave me the recognition of it in Mvolo. In our brokenness, in our darkness, in our fear, in our desperation, and in our desire for more, He gives us Christ in all of His glory, comfort, love, joy, power, and promise. In the starkness of the land of South Sudan and in the midst of a people forgotten by many, God displayed to me His vast and glorious love. He sees them. He sees me. And in those moments, my heart was flooded with a joy unspeakable and full of glory.

When I think of my stained, dry feet as I walked the dirt roads in the village, I think of Christ walking among the least of these and showing them compassion. When I think of the beautiful faces of the children in Mvolo who laughed and played and stared at us in curiosity, I think of Christ calling the children to Himself. When I think of the women asking us to heal their children and the men begging our husbands to stay teach them God's word, I recognize the limits of my ability and pray for them and know that God sees their need and delights to meet it. There is little margin or breathing space for the people of Mvolo where food is scarce, work is hard, and the death rate is high. And yet they have learned to share in one another's labors, enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and laugh together in the midst of sorrow. Even more lovely to behold were the ones who have Christ. They shine with joy and hope. They have learned to walk with their Savior and find rest in Him. Such simple, beautiful, life-changing faith.
Yes, Mvolo is seared in my memory and written on my heart because God met me in my need and showed me a world beyond my imagination. Even better, He walked with me there and I am forever changed. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Heartbroken to Healing

Yesterday was soul crushing hard. By little blows like behavior issues in my children  and by hard knocks like heart breaking losses, I found myself curled in a ball weeping in my dark closet by dinner time.  All I had left to pray was, "Oh God, draw near. I am laid low."

In the midst of that sorrow, I heard Him whisper, "I see you."
It was enough. I got up and finished my day knowing the Almighty God was near. My heart was still heavy with grief and I surrendered to my day early with a 9 o'clock bedtime, but God sustained me. He even gave me the gift of laughter in the form of a little three year old boy we were babysitting, who naked as the day he was born, did a happy dance in our living room over the prospect of swimming.

The night ravaged me with horrendous dreams, but as I fought them off and opened my eyes to a new day, I heard again a whisper in my soul, "Celebrate, even with a broken heart."* I recognized the voice, not because it is a line from a song I love, but because God used that song to awaken my soul to worship today. I obeyed.
By worshipping God today in my brokenness, I am beating back the darkness and God gets the glory. All of a sudden I find joy rushing in like a balm on my wounds to soothe.  Hope stirs in my soul as I remember His promises and I set my eyes on Truth instead of the lies that tempt me to despair. 

Because God does not ask us to walk alone in this life, I asked my children to help me fight my battle today and worship God with me. I just am not strong enough to stand on my own, and that is His design. We are put in community and He gives us brothers and sisters in Christ to carry our burdens with us. They saw me struggle yesterday, prayed for me at lunch when I couldn't hold my head up any more, and forgave me when I lost my temper with them. I would be a fool to hide from them in my brokenness and exclude them from my healing.  They need to see me walk with Christ. So, my children and I alternated reading a Psalm and singing worship songs. My oldest son read from Psalm 16.

"Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.
 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.  I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.  I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken."

         Yes. Though I am broken and stripped of everything, I have all my needs met, security, hope, wisdom, guidance, and confidence in Christ.  May His name be praised.  I do not know what road you are walking today or what battles you are fighting, but I know one way to fight back is to surrender.  Lay yourself low before the God of all Creation and worship Him.

"You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand."

Psalm 16:11
 
* Rend Collective's "Celebrate"
 


Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Look at Suffering Part 2

I am finally getting around to sharing this here.  Our family has walked through a really challenging year and I needed to be quiet for a while to wait, learn and listen to God.  This study is by no means comprehensive; it was written for a weekly small group, but are some of the lessons that Scripture and walking with God have taught me.  

What The Christian Must Know in Suffering

1.  The Lord Sees Your Suffering

When I hurt, I need to remind myself of this great truth and hope:  He sees me.  There is no place I can be physically, spiritually or emotionally that God is passively unaware of or failing to act on.

Exodus 3:6-8 (ESV)
6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.


Psalm 56:8 (ESV)
You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your book?

Psalm 56:15
Precious in the sight of the LORD
is the death of his saints.


2.  Our Suffering Has Purpose

There are no trite platitudes here.  Suffering comes to us from various sources as part one addresses.  AND IT HURTS!  Minimizing or ignoring the pain of suffering is as destructive as wallowing in it.   As a Christian, our hope and spiritual health depend on our response to the truth that God is capable and willing to redeem our suffering, regardless of its source.  Are we in sin?  Suffering can break our heart and turn us off a path of destruction.  Are we betrayed or slandered?  Suffering as Christ did raises us up in His likeness and allow us to see His protection and defense of us.  Are we sick and in pain?  Suffering teaches us the transcendence of spiritual truth over the temporary, physical world and helps us comfort and testify to others.  Have we lost some or everything that matters to us?  Suffering demonstrates that God's provision will come through and reveals the wonderful dependence we have on Him.  And we could go on...every affliction we encounter is under the redeeming power of Christ.

Romans 8:28 (ESV)  And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Psalm 103

Bless the LORD, O My Soul

1Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
2Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
3who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

6The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
8The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
14For he knows our frame;a
he remembers that we are dust.

15As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
19The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.

20Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
21Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
22Bless the LORD, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!

3.  Our Suffering is Intended to Draw Us Near to God

Job 36:15 
But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction.   
                 (One of my most-loved and go to verses!)

2 Corinthians 1:5
For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

Psalm 34:18(ESV)
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Romans 5:  
1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoiced in hope of the glory of God. 3Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.


4.  You Cannot Become Christ-Like Apart from Suffering

One of the great dangers in our culture is the idea that Christian life moves from one easy, glorious event to another or should if we only have faith.  To follow Christ means we will and should encounter loss, persecution and suffering of various kinds.  You cannot faithfully look at the life of Christ, scripture and reality and escape this hard truth.  Scripture teaches and elaborates on this much better than I can:

Hebrews 2:9-10
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Luke 24:26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Isaiah 53

Philippians 3:10
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

5.  Suffering will Either Harden or Soften a Heart

       You do not need to think long to recall a person hardened by suffering.  We all know at least one.  When we were first married, Chris and I knew a Christian couple who had endured a great loss.  The wife was bitter and grieving deeply years afterwards.  No conversation passed without detailing her agony, pain or anger.  Her family suffered greatly due to the added grief of losing their wife and mother to her misery.  In the years that we knew them, we saw only hardening of her heart.  The poison spread to bitterness in other areas of her life until everyone knew to avoid contact with her if possible.  It was a sad and troubling situation.  In contrast, her family grew in patience, kindness, long-suffering, gentleness, joy and faith.  There is no neutral territory in suffering; we are drawing closer to Christ, being conformed to Him or being hardened in sinfulness and rebellion.  We cannot persist long in rebellion before damage is inflicted on our souls and others.

Here is a link to a great article and scripture on the topic:  https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-warning-against-hardness-heart-hebrews-37-11

6.  Suffering Well is Our Powerful Testimony 

Perhaps Western Christians, removed from proximity to martyrdom, struggle to understand or experience God's power through it.  Surely, few of us desire to be a martyr.  Eastern believers witness this more frequently and the church is growing exponentially where persecution and martyrdom are frequent occurrences.  What the enemy intends for evil, God intends for good.

Martyr
one who bears witness of the truth, and suffers death in the cause of Christ ( Acts 22:20 ; Revelation 2:13 ; 17:6 ). In this sense Stephen was the first New Testament martyr. The Greek word so rendered in all other cases is translated "witness."
In a court of justice ( Matthew 18:16 ; 26:65 ; Acts 6:13 ; 7:58 ; Hebrews 10:28 ; 1 Timothy 5:19 ).
As of one bearing testimony to the truth of what he has seen or known ( Luke 24:48 ; Acts 1:8 Acts 1:22 ; Romans 1:9 ; 1 Thessalonians 2:5 1 Thessalonians 2:10 ; 1 John 1:2 ).

1 Peter 2:19
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.

James 5:9-11  English Standard Version (ESV)
9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

If you have never read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, I encourage you to do so.  It is available here for free:  http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/foxs-book-of-martyrs/.  The testimony of Christian martyrs through the ages will encourage you with the power of God and the faithfulness of His saints.  Furthermore, you will see the great conversions and movements of God that follow the martyrdom of God’s people.  Precious indeed are the death of God’s saints to Him!  He will not waste or squander them.  As Tertullian famously said, “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.”  And Christ:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”  John 12:24-26

7.   Suffering is Temporary

Our lifetimes can seem long, but as scripture says, they are a vapor.  If we really glimpse eternity and its realities, suffering takes its proper place in our lives.  Often, our soul-sickness in suffering is traced directly to losing this perspective.  We long for heaven, but we are not there yet and our expectations have to bow to this truth.  We can encourage one another in suffering by sharing scripture that points to heaven, the future return of Christ and the work God is doing here through our pain.  Here are a couple:

Romans 8:18
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Hebrews 12:1-2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Part 3 will discuss practical applications for enduring suffering.  Thanks for reading and sharing any comments, additions or scriptures that enhance the discussion!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Suffering Part 1 



These wounds were meant to purchase me. These drops of blood were shed to obtain me. I am not my own today. I belong to another. I have been bought with a price. And I will live every moment of this day so that the Great Purchaser of my soul will receive the full reward of His suffering.
– Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf –


The past three years have been a time where God has allowed significant suffering in our family's life.  We have tasted loss, grief, sickness, pain and various trials before but God's wisdom and providence have led us to a season where we have experienced these things simultaneously and relentlessly.  Our faith, endurance, and hope have been sorely tried.  Many times I have wept for the failures and weaknesses that have been revealed in my soul.  Other times I have cried because I am just so tired.  Repentance and confession are close friends in these days as are the renewed hope, joy and confidence in Christ that follow them.

Along the way, we have found some wonderful blessings to encourage and sustain us:  spiritual fruit in ourselves and children, friends who enter into our sufferings, laughter that triumphs over tears, faith overshadowing fear and peace transcending all the unknowns.  Chris and I would not exchange the past three years for anything now; though if God had told us all of what was coming, we would certainly have shrunken back.  And in that, is a great mercy and revelation of suffering; that the path I would not have willingly taken has yielded the greatest blessings I enjoy.   Obedient steps can take us down darker roads than we envision but the destination with Christ is brighter still.  

This summer, Melissa and I had the great joy and privilege of meeting with some women for discipleship.  We examined some core areas of Christian life over eight weeks, delving deeper into Biblical truths and practice.  The topic of suffering comprised a large portion of my study time; taking me deeper into scripture and prayer until I ran out of time to teach all that God was pressing on my soul.  As we all met and talked, it became clear that Christians are not speaking enough about this topic together nor encouraging one another in it.   So, I decided to share excerpts of our teaching on the topic here, hoping it might encourage others who have time to read it.   This is by no means comprehensive or complete.  I pray the Lord would use it to bless those needing to know that suffering is not without purpose, redemption, hope, end or the comfort of Jesus.


The Bible's Definition of Suffering:

Strong's Concordance:  paschó: to suffer, to be acted onOriginal Word: πάσχωPart of Speech: VerbTransliteration: paschóPhonetic Spelling: (pas'-kho)Short Definition: I am acted upon, sufferDefinition: I am acted upon in a certain way, either good or bad; I experience ill treatment, suffer.


Types of Suffering in the Bible

The scriptures depict suffering from many causes and experiences of suffering.  A sampling of some categories of suffering and supporting scriptures follows:

Suffering Due to Our Sin

Lamentations 1:18
“The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and see my suffering; my young women and my young men have gone into captivity.

2 Peter 2:12-14  English Standard Version (ESV)
12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions,[a] while they feast with you. 14 They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!

Nehemiah 9:26-28  English Standard Version (ESV)
26 “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. 27 Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. 28 But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies.

Suffering from Unseen Spiritual Battles

Book of Job

Suffering from Foolishness

Proverbs 1:32  
"For the waywardness of the naive will kill them, And the complacency of fools will destroy them.

Proverbs 5:23  
  “He will die for lack of instruction, And in the greatness of his folly he will go astray.”

1 Timothy 6:9  
“But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.”

Suffering from Evil Men

Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was. But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:8-13)

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. (1 Corinthians 4:10-14)

Suffering for the Sake of the Gospel

2 Timothy 1:8
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,

2 Timothy 2:3
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.

2 Timothy 4:5
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Suffering from Life in a Fallen World

Galatians 5:19–21
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry,
sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy,
drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those 
who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Romans 8:22
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Suffering for the Sake of Others

2 Corinthians 1:6-7
If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Ephesians 3:13
So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

Colossians 1:24
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,

Suffering can come from our own sin and folly or from circumstances outside of our control.  ALL of it is painful, all of it is rich with redemptive promise in our Savior's hands.  In part two, we will look at the things every Christian needs to know about suffering.  Thanks for reading and please share your testimonies with us too!


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Packing Light

Our husbands as they contemplate summiting the mountain.
We recently packed up the troops and headed to the Rocky Mountains for a little vacation with some family and dear friends. When life got too full and a little stressful here in the lowlands of humid Texas, we literally headed for the hills. I anticipated majestic views, relaxing vistas, cool mountain air to bathe my sore soul, and rest. What I did not count on was grueling hikes in thin air where my lungs screamed their protest in order to reach the aforementioned views, vistas, and rest. However, my six year old rocked the mountain. Somehow the altitude did not affect him in quite the same was as it affected my forty year old body.

Yet, for the most part, I didn't mind the work involved in finding the restful pasture land at 12,000 feet elevation because I was often distracted from it by herding my youngest charge along the way, doling out snacks from my pack to weary travelers, or stopping for a great photo opportunity as we passed a lovely waterfall. A backpack is an amazing thing. Water, snacks, the absolutely amazing camera lenses I rented for the trip, hand sanitizer, a phone, gum, and a good book to read when I finally reached my destination. Sounds great, right?

Sort of. We ended up doing a lot of hiking in separate groups: the A group and the B group. I won't make you guess which group I was in. The A group consisted of the adventurous, determined husbands and the bold, brave sons they produced. Their energy was boundless, their lungs amazingly resilient, the heights they achieved were mind boggling. I believe they literally hiked circles around us one day. I was happy for them, truly, but their goals were different than mine. Hiking to the top of a mountain just to turn right back around is not my thing. I like to bask, marinate, savor.

Group B did some basking while we waited for our men to return. Those moments were sweet. The warm sun on my face, time to savor the views, a minute or two of quiet to read. Ahhhh.  But I missed my husband's company in those moments and the joyful smile of my eldest son, and I discovered that some of the stress, loneliness, and weariness followed me all the way from Houston. Maybe I had packed it. I couldn't figure it out. Here in this breathtakingly beautiful place, surrounded by people I love and who love me back, how was I still so tired? So full of care?

It wasn't until one of the last days when we went to a quiet reservoir nestled in the mountains that I discovered what plagued me. The kids packed their fishing rods, I grabbed my pack, and we drove up the mountain. I was relieved on this particular day to be driving to our destination. My body was worn out from hiking, so this time I expected just lovely views, time with my family, peaceful fishing and resting. Except that isn't what happened.

The mountains called. The distant sound of water called. My children dropped their fishing poles and scampered over rocks and boulders faster than the herd of mountain goats grazing above us. Not wanting to be left behind again, I followed. Friends, children, husband ahead of me. Our parents waiting on a rock behind me. That's when I hit a wall. Right there surrounded by beauty and love, I plunked myself down on a rock and cried. Everything that had followed me to the mountains flowed out. Weariness, the relentless striving, the expectations, the loneliness, the sadness, the cry of my heart to be held in the loving arms of my Savior. What in the world is wrong with me, Father?

As I shed my backpack and left it on the rocks to follow my family unencumbered, it hit me. All week I had hauled this ridiculously heavy pack around on my back to make sure my children and I had everything that might be wanted or needed for the trip. Some of it I never used. It set me off balance sometimes as I jumped over rocks. At times, I awkwardly shifted my camera and then my pack so that I could reach a handhold or pass something to my children. At night, my shoulders ached. I hardly thought about it at all, just accepted my burden as necessary.

My first step on the path without the backpack freed me. I was light on my feet, balanced, hands free, and my lungs didn't work quite as hard. I reached my destination with little hindrance and in must less time. While I didn't have any snacks to share when I got there or a camera to capture the moment, my soul felt lighter. And I was left asking myself, what am I carrying around that no one asked me to carry? More importantly, what am I carrying around that God did not intend for me to carry?

These are questions I am still wrestling with God. This kind of unpacking of our lives requires prayer, discernment, and wisdom. The things I've been carrying in my daily life took a while to accumulate. Some of these things God gave me to carry. Most of these things I grabbed for myself through fear, unbelief, worry, and unreasonable expectations. The weight of the world is ever so heavy and burdensome, but He promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. I have not been packing light.

What I need for the journey is far simpler than I make it. I tend to want to know exactly what is coming next and get bent out of shape when I am left wondering. God in His mercy usually doesn't tell me that just ahead the road is going to make a sharp turn into the mountain and cut straight up into the rocks. I would become afraid or weary or charge ahead before I was ready. He gives me His Presence to assure, guide, and comfort me along the way instead. My lack of faith in His sovereign care of me must be unpacked. Knowing the future is a burden He does not ask me to carry.

I tend to plan for every possible outcome and pack accordingly, especially in those times of my life when I am waiting. Like my over stuffed backpack, I can clutter my mind with metal preparations and fret over what has not yet happened. I justify this by placing a cloak of practicality on my worry, but ultimately, it is a distraction. Those are the times when God is actually calling me to seek first His kingdom and fix my eyes on Christ instead. This builds my faith and strengthens my understanding of His character. All my fretting over possibilities leaves me with little time to bask in His presence - the very thing that would give me the rest I so crave and prepare me for the next leg of the journey. There is a prayerful consideration of the future and preparation that is good, right, and Godly. However, my "managing" of the outcomes is really a version of striving that is rooted in unbelief. It must go.

And so, slowly, I am unpacking my burdens and submitting to His loving hand as He instructs me in the way to go. Whether in Houston, in the mountains, or in the farthest corners of the world, I can walk with Him unencumbered by my sin and my striving. In fact, I am called, commissioned, and instructed to do so in Hebrews 12 because that is what my Christian forefathers have done.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Packing light means laying aside the world and running hard after Christ. Simple, if not easy. What I love about this passage, though, is that I am not alone. Many have gone before me and have run well, honoring Christ and glorifying God. We are all called to this.

And, in His mercy, He gives us partners in the faith to walk with us. I had hiking partners in the mountains, too. When I couldn't walk anymore because there was no air in my lungs, my friend would wait with me as I recovered. When my son decided that he was too tired to take another step, I sat with him and sang until his spirits revived. My daughter's joy and perseverance kept me ever moving onward and upward. And so we made it to the top of the mountain and back down. The Bible speaks much about that principle in the New Testament, but that is a topic for another time. For now, be encouraged that part of packing light is carrying one another's burdens.

"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed."
Hebrews 12: 12-13

So, as I am learning about running well and unencumbered, I looked to see what Jesus said to His disciples before He left them in this broken world and sent them out. Jesus instructed His followers in John 16 that, "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." What were "these things" He told them? Here they are: several really important things they needed to pack in their bags before they faced the impossible task of watching Him be crucified and then having the resurrected Christ send them out with the Great Commission.

1.) You will have the Holy Spirit with you to guide and comfort you.
2.) Christ will turn your sorrow into joy.
3.) You are to ask of the Father and receive.
4.) Your joy will be complete.
5.) There is peace in Christ.
6.) Tribulation is part of the journey.
7.) Christ has overcome the world.

And then He prayed for them.

Oh the beauty and love and majesty of our Savior! The disciples didn't know what was coming, but we get to see the whole big picture. He lovingly equipped them for the most impossible, divine, eternal work of their lives. It would strip them of everything but Christ, eternally knit them with other believers, bear spiritual fruit, take them into dark places with broken people, introduce intense persecution into their lives, test their faith, and cause many of them physical harm and death. And they did it with joy. They did it faithfully.  They did it until He called them home to dwell with them for eternity.

My journey will be different than theirs, but this is the cry of my heart: To follow after Christ will all that I have until He calls me home. Whatever I must leave behind on the rocks of the path will not be missed. Whatever He puts into my hands will be joyfully received. Whoever He gives me as partners in the faith will be welcome and loved.

As I sat on the rocks that day and cried out to the Lord, He heard me as He has always heard the cries of His people. Are you burdened and heavy laden? Cry out to Him to put a new song in your mouth, to teach you about His yoke, to help you lose the burdens of sin and striving, and to help you fix your eyes on Christ.

"I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord."
Psalm 40:1-3







Saturday, July 23, 2016

Isolation In Special Needs Families Part 2



ISOLATION PART 2

The first part of this series focused on causes of isolation, whether emotional or physical. The feedback on the article strengthened my understanding of what our families are experiencing and I hope that we will continue to dialogue about this important facet of our lives. This second article addresses the remedies for some of the causes of isolation and offers comfort for the times that isolation is inevitable.

First, I would like to tackle the most difficult part of our discussion: ways that we contribute to our isolation and the remedies for it. You may wonder why I would address this in an article aimed to support you. My response is that we often contribute in some way to our own isolation. Rather than being hurt by that awareness, we can find hope for change because of our role in it. We will address other remedies outside of ourselves a little later.
How do we exacerbate or cause our isolation? I think we can do so in the following ways:

1.Deciding that because connectedness is so challenging we will stop working at it. How difficult it is to overcome the challenges of pursuing relationship, yet how much more we reap from true friends! Friendship is often elusive to us because we are daunted by the obstacles, fear of rejection or exhaustion. The remedy for this is to expend consistent effort that is reasonable for our situation and pray for our paths to cross with people that could develop into true friends. Not a quick solution, but the only one that works. We have to be willing to call people, get together, express interest in others and think beyond ourselves. There are many others looking for real relationship and if they recognize that in us, it might be a start to something wonderful. Truthfully, some of those promising starts will fizzle, but not all of them will. Even one true friend is an end to isolation.

2. Allowing our woundedness to convince us that others will only
disappoint us.
Are you critical of others, finding faults and withdrawing from social
invitations? This is an indicator that your past pain is influencing your present relationships. As a special needs parent, it might be inevitable that others have hurt you and your child. I remember a field trip we attended where a friend loudly announced that my son was autistic to the group because he was having an anxiety attack. While well-intentioned, that stung, and drew a lot of negative attention to us in a group where we hoped to develop other friends. Other times, we have been shunned because behaviors were too challenging and invitations dried up. We’ve certainly had rough relationships and experiences and they cause a deep pain. However, living in isolation causes pain too, if we are honest with ourselves. Our hearts can become bitter and critical as a defense against our loneliness. If you recognize this in yourself, realize that your attitude is a contributor to your loneliness. You can ask the Lord for healing and forgiveness for those pains. While you are at it, ask for courage to continue being open to others and trust that He will provide the relationships your family needs.

3. Operating from a position of defensiveness at all times. In a world fraught with danger for our children, we can become hyper-vigilant. There are times when that hyper-vigilance is all that is keeping our children safe. If you are in one of those times, this is not addressed to you. You might however, have missed that your child has become more capable of handling situations and relationships than they were before and continue to operate out of old patterns. If our children are forbidden to test themselves and their limits, they will never develop what competencies they could. We can hinder the precious souls we are protecting, whether it is emotionally, spiritually or physically. Seek help from your spouse, trusted family, friends or professionals to keep perspective on what your child is able to do. Hyper-vigilance exhausts us and we see only threats, not opportunities.

4. Offering no forgiveness or help to those who want to engage with our families.
It is devastating when friends or family disappoint us with their responses to our children. Even the insensitivity of strangers can wound. Most of these people have a genuine desire for the well-being of our children and our family but they are ignorant or unskilled about interacting with special-needs families. If we are unwilling to forgive or help them, we have cut off relationship with them. Will it be difficult to talk with them about how their behaviors are impacting us or our children? Of course it will. Taking the risk to gain an ally is always a worthy and difficult endeavor. Truly destructive people should be marginalized, but many others are unaware that they are hurting you and could grow into great helps to your family with a little honesty, forgiveness and information.

5. Failing to practice self-care. You might be laughing or rolling your eyes here... It seems impossible to care for ourselves while caring for our children at times. However, self-care is important; especially for parents of children with special-needs. Often we believe that because the children’s needs are unending, we are not allowed to tend to our own. This is not a healthy or even biblical attitude. Self-care is not selfishness or luxury; it is stewarding and developing what God has given us to honor Him and be fit for the tasks He has given us. Exercise, healthy eating, recreation, spiritual discipline and healthy relationships comprise self-care for each of us. We need to model these things for our children, but also practice them to have the energy and margin in our lives for relationship. An exhausted, unhealthy person has little to expend or offer for relationship with the Lord or anyone else.
You might have other observations to share about the ways we can contribute to our isolation. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Now, let’s turn to the external factors in isolation we can address.

REMEDIES FOR EXTERNAL FACTORS OF ISOLATION

1. Geographical Challenges:
  • As you have already discovered, the internet can be of great help here. This online group and others can provide help and encouragement from afar; but the limitations are glaring. Often, online friendships lack the depth and rich quality of time spent in person. Overcome these limitations by finding people you enjoy interacting with online and seek to establish regular contact. Would they be willing to chat weekly to support one another? Try to develop friendships where you can to share real struggles and dreams and perhaps bible study and prayer. If it is feasible to do so, pursue meeting them after a time.
  • It might also help to shift your lifestyle to include long-distance friendships.
    Could you find one day a month that you could clear of school and therapy for relationship? You could travel to meet with friends for a field trip or host others in your home for a day. Some wonderful friendships blossom through visits over a day even if they are infrequent. You might be surprised how others will travel to accept an invitation into your home. Such invitations are less frequent in our time than they used to be and are greatly appreciated.

    2. Medical Challenges:
    You are probably experts at working around your children’s needs already. Get creative and find activities you can participate in with your children. Groups for children and parents with specific medical conditions can help with ideas and social activities. If home is the only safe place for you to be, open it to others. Your home does not have to be spotless or even particularly organized to make others welcome.
    Keep eyes and ears open at doctor appointments. Chances are, you will encounter others who are understanding of or share your situation. When you do, be bold and see if you can schedule more time to know one another. You might arrange coffee or park time after appointments, walk together or just sit and talk somewhere nearby.

    Try to really know the people who are in your life because of the special needs in your family. Therapists, doctors and nurses are people with needs too. Some of them are open to relationship with your family. This is sometimes easier after your professional relationship has ended due to ethical concerns in their fields, but not impossible. Recently, we had a celebration for my son’s 13th birthday and invited people from his past and present to surprise him. Among the guests were several of his therapists and teachers that have become friends of ours. It was such a blessing to see how relationships formed around challenges and heartbreak had become a rich source of blessing in our lives.
3. Financial limitations:
  • This is a daunting challenge in areas where lots of activities abound. People in such places rely on them for social involvement. If you cannot participate in them due to finances, you will have to rely on old-fashioned fun. Make homemade ice cream and share it, host a game day in your yard, rent a movie and make popcorn, go to the park with snacks and a stopwatch, meet friends at trails for walking and biking. Fun does not have to be costly and people often enjoy one another more through simple activities than organized, costly ones.
  • Swap date nights or child sitting with another couple. You and your spouse can have some time together and your children get a playdate too. This is a wonderful way to deepen bonds with another family while meeting important needs on a budget.
  • Research coupon and bargain night deals at restaurants and activities. Some friends I know only eat out this way and invite others to share their bargain meals. It’s become a challenge for them to eat out as inexpensively as possible and it’s a lot of fun.
    These are only a few ideas to help jumpstart your thinking about how you can work with your circumstances to combat isolation’s effects. I hope you are already thinking creatively about what you can do. Still, despite our best efforts, we sometimes find ourselves in the grip of isolation. Even here, there is hope and comfort. In the Lord’s economy, nothing is wasted. All seasons of our lives have purpose, even ones of loneliness and pain. When we find ourselves in such times, we can seek to find God and His purpose in the darkness. Here are a few things I have learned from the Lord in those times that have helped me.

    1. Seasons of isolation give me time to remember who I am apart from anyone else and to appreciate how the Lord has made me. Psalm 139:14: I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. Loneliness affords extra time to develop personal interests and catch up on projects or dreams that have been neglected. When my life is full of people, it is next to impossible to learn a skill, grow in my abilities or even reflect on who I am and what God is doing in my life.

    2. In the quiet, I can hear Him speak more clearly. People are loud; their needs and requests are constant, crowding out the quiet voice of God. Sometimes the Lord shuts down my outside relationships so that I can or will listen to him. It is ironic how much I struggle with the quiet when it first comes; I desire more quiet in my life but when God gives it to me through loneliness, I often resist it. Yet, if I embrace the lonely times, they bring spiritual renewal. Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” Luke 5:16 “But he (meaning Christ) would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

3. Isolation is temporary. There will be an end to our isolation, no matter its depth and breadth. Remembering that truth can help us to mine the treasures of those times rather than dread and waste them. We can both pray and work to overcome our loneliness and find contentment in waiting. When you have that mastered, please write your own article for us to read! None of this is natural for us, but it is possible for us to grow through each season and learn in them.

4. I am not meant to understand all of the reasons I suffer. This is a hard truth. No platitudes or pep talks suffice in the face of suffering without explanation. However, understanding is not required to have peace. Looking to God and trusting Him is a practice that deepens with time and trial. He is worthy of the effort and is capable of bearing all our burdens. Ecclesiastes 1:11: He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 1 Peter 6-7: In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. When my suffering seems futile, I cast it on Him and ask for more comfort and faith. He has always answered yes to that prayer. He has also shown me that often, our suffering is not just about us, but is a tool used in other’s lives for good. When we endure and find peace in suffering, it is a powerful testimony to others and a source of joy to us.
I hope some of the ideas and encouragement in this article will be helpful to you. One of my prayers for our group is that when our inevitable fatigue and loneliness come, that we will find our rest and peace in the source of life. Praying for you and your families today; that you will grow in peace, relationship with Him and one another and be refreshed. Please comment and share below any thoughts you have that might help others struggling with isolation!