Monday, July 31, 2017

The Sustaining Power of Hope in One Memory of Victory

JUST one taste of victory — one solitary experience — is enough to inspire hope that that hope can happen again. Even amid failure after defeat after relapse after disappointment. Amidst trials through despairs through trauma through calamity. If what occurs to us is juxtaposed with sight of possibilities, real events that have happened before, a future we can believe in exists.
Sums up the importance of revelatory experiences of resurrection. That time or those times where we were raised without first anticipating it. When somehow, we arose like the phoenix from the ashes.
Maybe it’s a vision of a time that hasn’t even happened yet. By definition, a vision.
It doesn’t matter what kind of reality it is, if it gives hope it fuels faith, and faith compels love to commit to the journey.
Christian faith is powered by a phenomenon of miracles; inexplicable encounters where it could only have been that God acted.
God can provide innovative, original solutions to age-old problems experienced by all. Only our Lord could do this, repetitively, according to His own will. Because in God’s economy, all things are possible.
Ask any Christian who has experienced some grace they could neither understand nor explain. That hope that indwells them is unshakable. Though they cannot put a finger on it, they cannot fail in believing it can happen again. And that faith means they endure the arduous passage of the journey. To keep stepping faithfully is all that matters.
Hope is that quality of life that sits in the memory; an unforgettable grace-gift of God that compels obedience.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Sanctity in the Relapse

QUITTING cold turkey is the most heroic of acts, and God grants us all opportunities to achieve such feats. But relapse is not uncommon. I quit smoking at least six times (for at least a few months up to a few years) before I finally gave it away fourteen years ago. It was the same with the drink, but I did need a programmed intervention for that.
A strength of the AA program is its approach to relapse, but it is also its weakness. Plenty of those who see themselves as alcoholics do so in order that they never relapse, because they never accord themselves the luxury (or buffoonery) of picking up even one more drink. One weakness is that AA’s may never transcend the label, and continue to consider themselves alcoholics, which also part of the mastery of AA to recover drunks into sobriety. Thankfully, AA teaches people the model of spiritual progress based on the revolutionary Twelve Step Program.
I’ve been around recovery programs enough to know that relapses are both feared and shunned. And this is sad. Sure, relapse is always disappointing.
But the fact is, relapse will be a reality for some, and everyone will experience relapse in some form or other during their lifetime.
There is a sanctity in the relapse, in that there is the redemptive nature of the second (even the sixty-second) chance. Recovery itself is a second chance.
It’s the same regarding evangelism and faith. We sow the seed of the gospel and it falls on various kinds of soil. Few get it first time. Some get it initially. Most will ‘relapse’ back into the world. Many will never return to God, but some of the most do reconvert in powerful ways.
It isn’t our prerogative nor even our business when others near us relapse. Other than to support them. We certainly have no business criticising or condemning them. It’s God’s mercy that forgives their relapse, just as it is God’s grace to bring them back.
It’s also none of our business who commit to God and who don’t. That’s God’s business. Ours is to simply remain faithful in presenting the message of God faithfully.
God’s love is so potent and so perfect that He allows every person their will every step of the way. Transformation happens only when a person’s will joins with God’s will. That’s the sanctity in the relapse — it is in every person’s sovereign power and choice to relapse or recover and be transformed.
There is sanctity in relapse because God never gives up seeking us for our recovery. It is for God’s redemptive purpose that we both relapse and recover. It is all about learning.
God love’s us too much to save us from our learning.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Spiritual Neediness That Annuls Human Neediness

Blessed are the needy of spirit, for the healing presence of God is within their grasp.
ALICE was there in our midst, another anonymous figure at a community kitchen event. I hadn’t even noticed her. Then I was called into a room with her and two other people to minister with and pray for her. Alice was experiencing something very familiar to many of us. She was despairingly fearful, bereft of hope, utterly broken of spirit, shaken by grief. Her mother had died recently, her rock, a son was being imprisoned, and her family was imploding around her. She bore these burdens alone it seemed, and though she faced suicidal ideations daily she sat awkwardly poised and unable to act, thankfully because of those very burdens of family she carried.
But, here is the point: she was remarkably receptive and spiritually amenable.
Nobody thanks God for the pain that incises the chest of the soul, leaving the heart bare, but ministers of the Word thank the Holy Spirit for His unction that manifests such eternality of opportunity. Many people are never this vulnerable, ever.
Alice was open. Situations like this create a sense of the fear of the Lord. Openness is vulnerability and vulnerable people are susceptible to exploitation, which is a failure no minister worth their calling wants to make. In that moment, we utter a prayer of protection for them as we breathe a prayer for guidance for ourselves. Courage and awareness is what we need. God supplies at our surrender to be present to serve.
As she shared, she wept. The moment, as we might imagine, was palpable. God is at work in moments where the emotions overflow between strangers. As she wept, I allowed my emotions to match hers. We listened and waited on her. It was obvious her surrender was perfectly anointed because she had nothing left of her own ego to fight. We prayed and counselled her, and when she had regained her poise we tended to her practical needs.
Then she left. For weeks following, as the Lord brought her to mind, I’d pray for Alice.
God showed me something through our interaction with Alice. It coalesces with the quote:
“The gospel is not simply about meeting people’s needs. The gospel is a critique of our needs, an attempt to give us needs worth having.”
— William Willimon
The needs worth having are those desires that are so purified of vision that they see just one source for fulfilment: Jesus. I believe Alice, as we encountered her, exemplified something of a craving that sought Jesus knowing only Jesus could satisfy. Her neediness was a pure kind, unlike the kind of human neediness that craves impure things or pure things through impure means or through poor self-control.
Where there is a genuine spiritual neediness, human neediness becomes redundant.
*Alice is not her real name.
*Some details in Alice’s story have been altered to protect her privacy, but there is no exaggeration. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Turning Difficulty Into Purpose

DIFFICULTY has no purpose in our lives until it becomes a purpose. Think about it. Difficulty will otherwise cause us to be frustrated and miserable if we don’t agree to be motivated by it.
The test comes when we’re next tempted to lose our cool. Not that turning difficulty into purpose is anything about perfection; it certainly can be about progress.
This is about the gospel power latent in our everyday lives. By latent I mean dormant. It remains latent as long as we go back to our habitual responses of frustration and resentment in response to difficulty. But this latent gospel power is unleashed with spectacular effectiveness when we face our difficulty and make it our purpose; to accept our life, especially the ugly bits.
This is centrally about accepting the lives we’ve been given. It’s about debunking the silent wishes to have another life, or another person’s life.
It’s about making the most of the life we have — making our purpose to live our lives for the quest of our purpose.
The moment we begin to truly accept the life we have, including what perplexes us, we enter chaos with a newfound peace. We no longer need to resolve anything unless we resolve to make situations better because we can.
This is a wisdom we can apply with great effect to any facet of our lives.
As we accept a thing we cannot change, suddenly there is gospel power in our lives to live with the conundrum. And often the next step is God’s healing grace, as the miracle of acceptance falls over us. All for a life that turned its difficulty into its very purpose.

Healing the Soul’s Inherited Wound

LONGING for perfection, we strive and struggle all our lives never understanding why we can’t reconcile a gnawing ache within. It’s a God-shaped hole we’re trying to fill our own way. And it never works. Fortunately, there is a way.
“None of us are the blessed virgin Mary. We, with the best of intentions, are all going to pass on some of our garbage to our children.”
— Richard Rohr
A better way of describing the concept of original sin is to rename it inherited sin.
It was passed down the line. Our fathers and mothers gave it to us unknowingly. We give it to our children. And it’s inevitable. It’s why we shouldn’t resent our fathers and mothers for any reason. It’s also why our children cannot blame us for the damage we inflicted on them, and why we should not feel guilty. We did our best, just as our parents did their best. All wounds are wounds. It’s all about what we do with it; the wound.
Our opportunity is to take our wound and make it a sacred wound, as would be the case if we went through some sort of indigenous initiation.
Healing the inherited wound is so simple it’s profound. But it means understanding something that may take some time accepting. We must forgive. All those who have hurt us. All those who hurt us today. All those who will hurt us. And especially forgiving those who believe we have something yet to do to receive their forgiveness.
Healing the inherited wound is about tackling our demons of bitterness and resentment. It’s about forgiveness. Nothing else matters. Forgiveness transforms our wound making it sacred. And nothing can overcome us when we’ve done that. This is Jesus’ abundant life. Jesus’ joy is ours.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Just When We Thought We Were In the Clear…

5PM on Friday July 18, 2014, I strolled through the door clutching flowers for my wife, and her parents’ demeanour said it all. The moment stood still. As I swung the door open it was as if the air changed. My father-in-law said, “Sarah needs you in the bedroom, Steve.” Immediately I knew something had gone horribly wrong. Seconds before I opened the front door I was mistakenly of the belief that no news was good news. Well, ‘news’ had now been received — the direst news — news you’re never prepared to receive.
You never forget moments like these. They linger, imprinted on the psyche, like the moment, the place, the situation we were in, when and where we all learned about the September 11 attacks.
We were already in worst-case-scenario land, but this diagnosis of our baby of 22-week’s gestation was as bad as it was certain. There was no escaping the reality we were plunged into. Sitting at the end of our bed, in shock, tears salting our cheeks, searching Google, hands shaking typing out searches and scrolling, trying to find out what this Pallister-Killian Syndrome was that our baby had. It was surreal. For the second time in eighteen days our world had been utterly highjacked, and those interceding days, as well as those that were to come, were an emotional and mental roller coaster ride.
We did our research even as we were rocked. We couldn’t just sit and do nothing. We were blessed at that time (within hours) to reach out to the Pallister-Killian Syndrome Foundation of Australia, and had received contact from them less than one day later. Seven days later we met the family of the Foundation’s president face-to-face. They lived in our capital city and only twenty minutes away! They treated us as family from moment one. We were in contact with the global PKS-Kids group and found the support of their community a blessing, too. We were being informed at light-speed. When all the hope you have is information you take it with gratitude! Suddenly there was a care that seemed perfectly at accord with our circumstance — parents who had experienced much of what we were facing.
But those minutes the news of our baby’s diagnosis came in we were shell-shocked. We had thought we were in the clear, which possibly made the news harder, but there isn’t a time when you’re prepared for such news; a diagnosis that renders hopeless the chances of your unborn child’s life being normal even if they were to survive.
What We Learned
Grief leaves its markers throughout the rest of our lives. Life never returns to what it was like nor should it — that is perhaps the greatest loss. What we lost meant too much to leave us unaffected. Important dates, as in this present situation, can become cherished anniversaries that form a healthy identity of oral tradition where God’s faithfulness can be tracked and therefore praised. But I acknowledge that markers can also continue to be incredibly painful.
We also learned something that Dr Rod Wilson recently put into words. That is, anguish is not so much an invitation to hopelessness, but to hopefulness — that pain necessitates the search for hope. Pain challenges where we place our hope. We have never seen anyone fail to restore their lives who kept faithfully searching their way through their grief process. There really is no other option if we wish to be restored to hope. The empowering thing is that we who grieve are at the centre of our own destiny with God who is always there.
Finally, we have learned about the inevitability of loss; that grief sweeps its way through our lives at some point or other. Nobody enjoys it. None are spared of it. All are surprised by the ferocity of it. God’s purpose in it? To call us beyond the source of our hopes and into Him who is hope’s very source.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Precise Reason We May Rejoice In Our Grief

My wifes photo, she calls Last Light

LET’S use a different word than suffering: grief — it’s the effect of loss, and suffering essentially is the condition of grief.
The reason we may rejoice in our grief is this. There is only one real way to come into the experience of God’s Presence. The contemplative moment. When eyes and ears and heart are opened, having been pried open by the circumstances of loss, a moment when with the denial, bargaining, anger and depression there is an openness to believe God is there, that He is good, though we can explain it not, His Presence is made known to us. It’s literally a single moment when God passes by as He did with Moses. It’s the empathy we feel that no human being can explain or replicate, but just is. And, suddenly, there, in the midst of an enigmatic anguish, we sit having encountered what many believers never do, because they’re never taken to, or they commonly resist, such depths.
Anguish facilitates faith through personal crisis, but only when we believe God will meet us in our grief.
God ought to be the answer when there is no answer. And He is.
We rejoice in our grief by the fact that our lives testify to the hope that lives in us despite our pain. We have experienced the risen King and we’ve been blessed by truest conversion in His way, because He works to resurrect us, not saving us from pain, but glorifying Himself in us as we endure it with a hope that we can neither understand nor explain.
The grief we find from such revelation, however, is so few attest to what we’ve experienced. That can cause us to doubt the very miracle that, and the God who, resurrected us.

Take this as confirmation. There are others who have experienced what you have; the joy at peace within you in spite of your pain. Many may misunderstand. We can appreciate their logic. But God defies logic, and it takes faith to believe and receive. Choose Him in your grief and He will choose to come close to you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What our Expectations, Boredom, Frustrations and Cravings are Saying About Us

INNER experiences of God are a long way away for the dualistic either/or thinker. Yet we all suffer such a dilemma of being. Continually. Over our entire lifespan. We’re fortunate to get even one glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, because we’re so restricted to the capacities of the mind. Yet if we don’t get there, we have no chance of the Kingdom settling in our hearts. But there is hope. Contemplative prayer is the hope.
Experiences of the raw Presence of God are rare, let’s be honest. And our dualist, competitive thinking, our constructs of cognition that become us, is the chief blocker. Our thoughts are the sum of our preoccupation with the past and our worries/hopes for the future. We don’t know how to be present.
Because being present is very uncomfortable and not very rewarding to stay in.
Our expectations grow amid dreams that will never be our reality. Shocking to read those words. Horrid. Boredom is the space we occupy when we’re not consumed by thought of the past and/or future. Frustrations emerge from many unconscious drives that continue to remain unmet. Cravings never cease, even if we abide in entertaining hope of perfect sanctification. But there is hope. Contemplative prayer is the hope.
What we need to do is recognise the truth. In our thinking we’re far from God’s Presence. Only in the deliberate and definite process of mental letting go is there the ability to admit our dependence on reducing life to expectations, attributions of boredom, falling into frustration, and the guilt-cycle for cravings. These are saying we’re weak mentally, and the only reparation is to engage in contemplation. That is the way to the unbeatable serenity that accepts what it cannot change.
A most productive prayer, therefore, is to pray without thinking, all throughout the day. To simply observe life without judgment, cognisant of God. Prayer at its root is communion with God. Without thought. Simply observing life without judgment, in awe of God.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What I Know But Can Never Explain

FOR me, grief demands expression. And yet I can never fully comprehend nor succinctly communicate its mystery, which is so fitting. Still, there are myriads of caricatures of life made in the image of grief — showcased through articles, books, videos, testimonies, real lives, etc — both rousing and heartbreaking, not to mention countless shards of emotion evoked between which splinter off without recognition or acknowledgement.
Strangely, until now I have never recognised that there is a song that expresses how we experienced the ambiguous loss of losing Nathanael in 2014. The song by Roma Waterman, I Was Carried, communicates remarkably what we felt occurred to us. Not that we weren’t susceptible to the depths, to the stresses of an arduous season, nor the incomprehensibility of the lament we faced continually. I am amazed I never recognised it until now. But its lyrics are powerfully true to our experience of loss with Christ.
We were carried in the arms of a Stronger Man. Somehow in being carried over it all we experienced something majestically real and ultimately eternal even in the brokenness of it all. How can we possibly grasp such things?
God often grants the grieving their evocation of experience, commensurate with their trust; clarity comes with their preparedness to ‘go there’, which is the reward we get for having the pluck to go there. And at the very same time there’s the equal-though-opposite reality: we cannot digest the ugliness of grief. It is insoluble to life. Yet life cannot come without it.
When it comes to empathy for the grieving it’s okay to not know what to say. The courage of a simple acknowledgement to say it means a lot. Everyone ought to know that loss renders us all completely undone, no matter our part in the story. Honesty is power, because courage cuts through inauthenticity.
Grief is something I know a lot about — by experience, observation, and study — but it’s something I’m no closer to explaining. Because it doesn’t need explaining. Another thing I know, however, is that expressing our grief (and what we’re learning) helps. It heals us for the day and the time, knowing that such healing is relevant and palpable only for the moment, such as how faith works. It only works as we work it.
But I’m satisfied. (Too bad if I wasn’t!)
There’s peace in leaving a mystery as it is, whilst feeling free to give expression to it.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Day That Changed the Course of Our Lives

Reflecting in Busselton. Nathanael's First Heaven Day weekend, 2015.

JULY FIRST. Three years ago, today. A harmless enough scan, the results of which would propel a ripple of ambiguous grief through our lives for four months until the gravitas of loss finally broke our world late on October Thirty.
Heading into that ultrasound room held no fear for us. We were there to get pictures to show off with our family and friends. We had no idea what was about to beset us. Clueless.
The teary sheen in the doctor’s eyes together with his frank words made our dire situation all too clear. We left those rooms that day in utter shock, carried, I am sure, by God’s very Spirit.
Sitting at home later that day it dawned on me. No words of consolidation made any difference (except to interrupt the sanctity of despair we could not escape). The intent of family was good. But it made no impact. Shock is numbing. Suspended animation, with no shape of bliss. If only people would sit and say nothing. Allow the awkwardness of the moment its shallow victory. If only. You recognize how hard that is, of course, when you’re the one God has charged to help. But God’s help is always simpler than we think. Still, we sat and then thought of something that needed to be done, and we’d do it. There wasn’t much to say other than attempt to make meaning of disaster — an impossible task. Every loop of thought, within every feeling, lay a conundrum.
But today is special. Not a lot has gone right for us as far as our plans are concerned these past 1096 days. But have we learned some brutally deep lessons! About us, about others, about mystery and compassion, about the truer nature of life, and not least about the faithfulness of our Creator and Redeemer.
Life is not about what goes right or wrong according to our own comfort. Life is about accepting the stark realities we cannot change. It leads us into vistas we’d not otherwise see. Today I can visit the memory of that July First Twenty-Fourteen day and know God was there, saving us, thwarting the enemy who sought to destroy us. Today I can say, we got through. By the grace given us and through the prayers of you, the saints. Today, though much is left unreconciled, I can love my wife and family and friends with a better love than ever.
People have often asked me whether writing about Nathanael helps. You never truly let go of those you lose. We never truly ‘get over’ it. It will never ‘go away’. (Sorry if that makes you feel uncomfortable; me speaking about it.) So, writing memorials of our memories is a sacred way of keeping their memory alive. I no longer see such a thing as writing about our loss as indulgent. There is only beauty to behold.
So, together, your losses and ours. Let’s behold them together.