Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Faith’s deeper secrets acquired through grief

Photo by Matt Gross on Unsplash
There is much more to be experienced in the life of faith than any of us are prepared to expose ourselves to. But, as we know with grief, life exposes us to some things beyond our capacity to bear.
It wasn’t losing Nathanael that revealed to me what I’m about to share, but losing him reinforced this holy principle that is forever set apart from those who have never suffered. I learned this principle I’m going to share through the grief of having earlier had God say ‘No!’ to my prayers for healing — for my first marriage.
When God also said ‘No!’ to healing Nathanael as he grew in my wife’s womb toward that fateful day he was stillborn, we were granted entry into the deeper secret faith life that is available only for those whose prayers aren’t answered. It is sacred territory.
Yes, you read that right. In not answering our prayers for healing and comfort to be given to us the way we wanted it,
God gave us a comfort and a healing that
blew apart our superficial notions
of healing and comfort.
God blew those superficial notions away
so we could enter something eternally deeper.
God is taking us deeper into the journey of life by the circumstances of our testing. This is not about God ordaining pain for us, for that would be a wretched theology, but it is about God ordaining a purpose for the experience we can find no escape from. Jesus is redeeming it. Some things cannot come without suffering. True compassion, for one instance, for compassion, in the etymology of the word, emanates from pain. Compassion is costly. It must be paid for. And yet it’s those who have never suffered deeply who cannot believe this. It’s something Jesus must show us as we enter the furnace of grief with Him.
We never enter that cauldron of pain willingly, yet as we step each step through sheer dependence on Him, because we’re so weak, Jesus is there. There we experience a healing that is so profound it transforms us in the very compassion of Jesus. We meet it and it becomes us. And that compassion sanctifies us. Compassion literally becomes us.
If we have a Saviour who suffered, and Jesus didn’t just suffer at the cross, we can only truly know Him through suffering. Sorry, but this is true. And you know it if you read this through the lens of your experience that broke you.
As the cross broke Jesus,
our crosses must break us.
In our case,
God cannot remake what is still intact.
Central to the understanding of what I’m sharing is a principle outlined in Psalm 84, verse 6. As we enter the valley of our desolation and weeping — where day upon day, over the months, we travail — and this is not easy to write! — we must realise that God’s Presence is never closer. He is there with us, within the torment. We call out to Him and as our anguish floors us, Jesus is there. He shows us that He identifies with the brutality of our agony. And He gives us something our hearts have looked all our lives for; a spring of life wells up from within…
Have you ever thought of this? In having our prayers answered ‘Yes!’ for healing, we can miss what deeper faith God has for us, or we don’t receive it; we’re not granted access to the most glorious prize. Yet, it is enough to be saved from grief. Any of us would take that gift, and so we should.
Miracles of growth are possible when we stare deeply into God in grief. In the very fact that our prayers have not been answered the way we would have hoped, there, in that, is a series of miracles nestled. Because God brought us here for a reason. To reveal to us what we otherwise could or would not see.
The deeper secret that God wishes to share with us is also a deeper secret that will exponentially expand our mind and heart for Him. The more we trust Jesus, the more He will take us deeper into this secret of our knowledge of who He is. This deeper secret cannot come without much anguish.
Do you realise that that prayer that God answers with a ‘No’ is the very material of a fathoms deeper miracle that God wants us to experience — if we will go there with Him.
He reveals in this that
we really do not know what we want.
Jesus knows what we need,
and we need to trust Him.
Let us return in finishing to the place we started.
There is much more to be experienced in the life of faith than any of us are prepared to experience. We’re blissfully unaware of the common life experiences that we go decades without experiencing; grief for one.
For the place of grief, the Lord has situated a compensation that is its own gift.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The repetitive nature of trauma

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

Something I’ve experienced much of in the past ten years helps informs my counselling significantly.
It is trauma. Not that I have post-traumatic stress disorder, but I have suffered post-traumatic stress.
It’s a real thing. It’s a sign of abuse that was done, but those who perpetrated the abuse may never see it as abuse. They would just see me as weak, as flawed, as inappropriately equipped to handle situations.
The mere fact that there was a flight response in certain situations is indicative, however, that harm was done. And it is only gaslighting for the perpetrator to say that the abused caused it to occur to themselves, negating anything in themselves as actors of causation. Perpetrators legitimise what they do by turning what we say about them back onto ourselves, which only confuses and overwhelms us more.
This is the flight response:
The presence of someone in the room. Their presence approaching. The mere thought that they are on their way. And worst when we don’t know where they are, for they could appear any time and we could be unprepared in how to cope in the situation of their turning up. The flight response is in being consumed about the power the person holds over us; their existence dominating our thoughts.
Once the trauma has happened once, extra sensitivity is acquired. For me it was three situations in a row over five years. This, after seventeen clear years of none of it. There was an anti-relational component to each person’s demeanour, each person had a role of some kind of power over me, and each time I felt powerless to influence the situation, although looking back, in each case I would now do something differently if I had my time over. But at the time I had no answer and no way through. Historically, we responded in the only way we knew how.
It has taken a situation where the stimulus has abated for years for me to recover enough to truly believe that the common denominator was not in fact myself; that the common denominator is the propensity for people in certain situations to misuse their power. And we’re all capable of it. But not everyone executes that misuse of power. Some do and are completely unaware. Others do and they feel they have a right to it.
There’s one thing for sure:
That feeling of anxiousness
when we feel out of control
needs to be trusted.
When we don’t feel safe. When we feel we need to fight or run. When we feel we have no choice. All these reveal situations where trauma is actually occurring or recurring. Our body is saying to our mind, ‘resolve this now.’

Toxic situations need to change
or trauma only gets worse.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

God doesn’t fail to speak

Apt are we to think ‘how on earth does God speak; does He ever?’ On the contrary, never is there a time when God doesn’t speak.
I’ll use some of my own contemporary life experience and see if you can’t see your own life in these words. See if you can’t also say, ‘I think that also happens to me.’
In struggling for income six months ago, still not recovering from loss of fulltime work two years ago now, we felt led by God to start a funeral celebrancy ministry. The thinking was that an occasional funeral would not only ply my pastoral care gift but could also earn us a little income. ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers work in vain,’ (Psalm 127:1a) has been my growing thought, until I received a message from a past-parishioner who had had a relative suicide; years ago, I had counselled the deceased; we had rapport, but the work had to finish when Nathanael was on his way; and, would I conduct the funeral service? God has spoken. The first opportunity in six months. And yet, this one. It isn’t lost on me how significant this one is. Not that other deaths or funerals aren’t, but this one is for a huge range of reasons, and not that my first in this new venture needs to be ‘significant’. God has spoken, that’s all. One in six months, by world standards, is not successful. But to do this one as the only one, I’m sure you understand, is significant from a Kingdom viewpoint, because God is the God of one. And I mean significant within the Kingdom that is God’s admonishment of myself. (In my relationship with God I’m constantly being loved through correction.) He has shown me so much about death and despair and destiny and direction in a two-week period. My first one in six months could not have taken me deeper into His Presence for such a time as this. In this, He has shown me new experience and evoked fresh emotions.
Earlier in the year I was invited to join a group of people to learn how to train people in peacemaking principles. It was national level, invite-only training. It was a privilege to be asked. And because it is ministry, we were all being asked to fund our own way there, though the training itself was free. I felt called to it, but we couldn’t afford for me to go. When I communicated honestly with the PeaceWise leadership that we could really only afford half the investment, a few days later they came back and said someone had ‘gifted’ us half the cost so I could come! The love of generosity. They didn’t need to do that. But they did it. Then someone in our church gave us the rest of the money, not knowing that we needed it! And then my employer gave me the time off I needed, and paid for the leave I had to take, calling the training professional development. God has spoken. He wants me to be a peacemaker who trains others to be peacemakers, to advance a movement of peacemaking in world that hates reconciliation. But not only that. I’ve been included and embraced within a family of loving, likeminded ministers. But not only that… On the return leg of the trip, this happened. It is no irony that even on a trip for peacemaking, God was making me endure, with a dozen others, a 75-minute journey through a little living hell to experience a taste of toxic masculinity — the scariest hour-and-a-quarter of my life — to reinforce the need for a peacemaking response in this world. To show me just how dangerous our world is. To show me an aspect of humanity I’m so rarely exposed to. To show me the presence of tyranny and the need of God.
Then, in a season of following the revival preachers of the Twentieth Century, I came across someone from the 1960s who I thought was a relative unknown; Paris Reidhead. His message Ten Shekels and a Shirt is not only ageless, but a personal word for me from God. No doubt God has used this message to gain many a person’s attention. This message has shattered a little deception that I was harbouring. And it is no coincidence that a little and not-so-insignificant ministry is growing silently behind the scenes, well away from what would’ve been the pomp of my preferred style. I’ve served the house of Micah and I’ve been tempted to run off to serve the tribe of Dan. Yet, that has not been possible. God has closed those doors, even those doors of the house of Micah. And yet God has moved in ways within my service to Him to compel my understanding that I’m a pastor-at-large now; His instrument through no less than a half dozen and more causes for Christ (not that the number is important); and it’s been that way for years, yet I hadn’t seen it. Not that my service is even important in and of itself. What is important is God has spoken; ‘I won’t have you serve Me to the ends of idolatry!’ ‘Do it for ME!’ ‘Yes, Lord… I will.’
God has spoken, that’s all.
See if He doesn’t already speak in your life.
See if in your own life God doesn’t orchestrate your life in such a way as to command a hearing, and this is done in some ways you’d prefer not to occur, or that were so unpredictable to have to be God-incidence and not coincidence, or so bizarre as to be explained best as the action of God, and to be done in ways that remind you of your mere humanity, and your utter reliance on Himself.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Conflict is never wrong when done for the right reasons

Like many his age, BMX is a pastime my son has taken to. When we recently visited the bike tracks in our area a strange thing occurred.
There were a group of seven young youth headed our way and they were clearly in conflict. It wasn’t anything aggressive, but there was a clear difference of opinion. I was interested for two reasons. First, these were locals, and as a kind of community chaplain, I’m looking for points of connection everywhere, especially with vulnerable people, and that’s youth. Second, I wondered if I might be called upon to help.
So, as they approached close I asked, ‘What’s up?’ ‘Ah’ said one of them, a female who I mistook as a male, ‘We’ve stolen this bike because they said so’ (pointing to two who had broken off by that point). The others simply didn’t know what to say, visibly perplexed, though after a brief pause, the female said to another male, ‘I told you it was a dumb idea.’ ‘Yes, I know,’ said the one who had folded to peer pressure.
At this point I was astonished at the level of conscience that was going on. They knew what they’d done was wrong. They lamented their decision. Then I said, ‘You’re doing a good thing by feeling bad about taking the bike. What can you do to make it right?’ ‘We could take it back I suppose,’ said one of them. I immediately thought that this is a particularly vulnerable position to be in, for what if they got caught, and were punished for doing the right thing! — even though they had actually stolen something. I considered giving them my phone number as a validation should another adult challenge them, but then I thought that would only rescue them from the situation, so I remained silent. I just said, ‘It sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?’ They agreed and then left.
They had benefited from my intervention, but I could tell they were holding court without it. They didn’t need to be told, just helped in imagining the natural consequences of their actions.
Conflict is not always bad. Indeed, it’s a breath of fresh air when injustice has been done. It can facilitate thought to the juncture of reconciliation, as it puts pressure on the conscience to convert dissonance to peace.
What I saw in thirteen and fourteen-year-olds was weakness of the age and circumstance, but then leadership and the ability to reflect. They knew it was the wrong thing, and even though they’d done the wrong thing, they weren’t beyond doing the hard thing to put it right.
When conflict features protagonists who can stay with the issue at hand, who resist the temptation to criticise the person, logical correctives can be suggested, agreed and implemented.
It’s better to fight for the right reasons than to pretend nothing’s wrong.
It’s better for a relationship to enter the arena of conflict when both want it resolved than to avoid it.
And it’s wonderful to watch on and see the process of conflict resolution take place when protagonists need little help.
And here is this:
what point is there to insist on winning
when you can only ultimately lose?
Those who enter the arena of conflict for the right reasons risk personal defeat but, virtuously, they seek relational victory:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
— Theodore Roosevelt (from the speech
‘Citizen in a Republic’ delivered in France, 1910)
There is more to life than the issues. That more-to-life pivots around people and the peace they seek.
It is no coincidence that righteousness coalesces with peace. We cannot have peace unless we do right.
Peace is worth fighting for when conflict
endeavours to reconcile what is right.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Empowering and enabling functional forgiveness

Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash

Imagine fellow human beings not being the real enemy, but the force of disconnection they avow; forgiveness is a power we employ when it functions for us to reconnect us to what is good.
Unforgiveness is a force of disconnection.
Unforgiveness is a vacuum
where goodness seems non-existent.
Unforgiveness stifles us because it’s a taking away without replacement. It’s a void. It causes us to stumble because our thoughts and heart are dominated by that which takes energy without giving back.
Evil always takes away,
whereas goodness always adds.
We know these things in the simple act of attempting to engage in a social gathering, especially when someone is there that we have a patchy history with. If our thoughts are dominated by the fear in unforgiveness, we’re disconnected with others in a way that we let those thoughts govern our behaviour. We shrink or are moody. Yet, if our thoughts see the fear, and ameliorate it courageously with the knowledge that connection adds power and purpose, even in those moments of engaging with the person we have history with, we have the words and the poise for it. We present the goodness of God on those occasions, because God gives us the power to be straight up when we’re honestly focused on goodness instead of evil. The force of evil cannot get close. The light voids the darkness.
Suddenly there is something beyond
the hopelessness of unforgiveness.
Most people desiring peace in their heart desire a way to functionally forgive the perpetrator for the hurt they bear. They just struggle to attain the way of it. Some want that peace, but they insist on retaining their anger toward the perpetrator.
We can’t have it both ways. We will either surrender the negative energy that saps our heart at the level of our thinking or we will retain it and get nowhere.
Forgiveness literally means to let go,
yet we quickly learn that in the letting go,
we must grasp something afresh —
that is the light that Christ alone
offers us via the Holy Spirit.
Forgiveness is about seeking connection
to that which brings goodness and life,
whilst binding and breaking those bonds
of disconnection that bring only death.
Forgiveness, for it to be what it is, and that is a process of letting go, needs to be functional — something we can do, and actually do.
Do not simply disconnect from the person who hurt you,
but find ways to reconnect to the goodness in life.
None of us ought to imagine that any of this process of letting go is easy. It can be the hardest thing we ever do, but there is a way that works, and that is what I term ‘functional forgiveness’, in that it is something you do and not simply think about.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Finding poise in the overthrowing moment

Photo by Jose A.Thompson on Unsplash

The stories that run through our unconscious minds are captivating and powerful, and they always involve some graphic form of deliverance, like the moment and way God will redeem for us some promise He’s nestled in our heart.
We plan for those moments with incessant regularity.
And the hard truth about this is that those stories built upon the promises pregnant within us will probably never materialise — certainly not in the time and the way we imagine them coming to fruition.
Largely, they’re myths.
But some moments we don’t plan for do come.
I recall a few of these moments in one twenty-four-hour period when our son was stillborn.
The first of these moments lasted about two hours, and truly the emotional experience of wondering whether I had what it took was poignant in and of itself. The moment Nathanael was declared as passed away, by the nurse, then later the doctor. Their reactions. Attempting to console an inconsolable wife. Sitting there as minute-by-minute she went downhill spiking a fever. Being told there would need to be an emergency delivery. Feeling angry that our son hadn’t been monitored; that we hadn’t been granted a C-section in the first place. Wanting to protect one of the midwives who seemed to be really struggling with what had happened. Waiting there in the room before we were wheeled into theatre tracing the bodily outline of our son on my wife’s abdomen. Wondering at this point whether we had what it would take to encounter our deceased son. The music of Bethel’s ‘It Is Well’ playing as he was delivered. Experiencing with shock the elements of his delivery. Not being ready for his facial expression. Not fainting. Being present there with him and everyone else. Bathing him. Weighing him. Then later, having those bare and raw moments when all was quiet, when distractions could no longer rescue us from the full emotional response that needed to be let out. The commencement of that grief. Having to insist a social worker come back at a more appropriate time. Having to stand our ground when others should have known better.
A day full of moments like this; a week of them. And months beforehand and months afterward. And yet we survived.
Life is a tricky juxtaposition of moments we think will occur at some point, but that never do with the moments of paroxysm that leave us confounded, unable to find sense for what has happened.
Finding poise in the moments I’ve described above was a matter of acknowledging how bizarre the reality really was; with a faith that is willing to stay in the moment; with a trust that shows up.
We always wonder if we have what it takes in an overwhelming moment. And in such a moment we prove we can simply in the act of keeping on going. We don’t stop. We don’t reflect amid the pressure to perform. We do that later. We go through the motions the best we possibly can, and God gets us through them.
There is always plenty of opportunity for reflection.