Monday, April 29, 2019

Look to the Lord and Find Your Help

“I look to the hills for my help, and from where does my help come. My help only comes from the maker of heaven and the maker of the earth.”
There is gold in the first verse of Psalm 121.
It sets up the remaining seven.
When we lift up our eyes to the hills, what are we doing? We are looking to where we expect our help to come.
Our faith is not focused on many extraneous sources.
We look because we have need. We search because we’re impelled to.
The psalmist looks to the hills because their eye is trained on 1) what they’ve come to learn as the only source of help, because 2) Yahweh is the only source of help.
The psalmist has learnt the most valuable lesson any of us can learn in our lives.
They have learned to look up because they came to a place when nothing else worked, and finally they decided it would cost them no more and may actually work to trust the Lord.
So, they didn’t look to the right or to the left, or head down or even straight ahead.
They chose to look up and to trust God for their help.
The most valuable lesson of life overall is the lesson of trust.
Where we place our trust says a lot about who we are and what we believe in. What and how we trust indicates whether we are wise or foolish. If we trust only the trustworthy, although it seems ridiculous to the worldly person, we ultimately trust what makes us wise, but we’re hardly ever vindicated straight away!
It’s why true wisdom is fully born in faith. It’s because the truth tarries — the Biblical principle of Matthew 11:19; in Jesus’ own words, “… wisdom is justified by what takes place as a consequence.”
This first verse in Psalm 121 sets up the remainder of the psalm. If we are wise enough to reject the overtures of the world, and in myriad form those temptations come, and instead look to the hills (which is code for: look up to God alone) we will find the help we desperately seek.
How or why? When we reconcile that God alone can help, we endure the moment of brokenness, accepting the pain of bearing a life we cannot control, of bearing with intrinsic discomfort, with annoyance and frustration, with catapulting sorrow, with feelings we do not like and with affections we cannot change.
And yet, out of this comes a place of peace and the source of hope and the position of destiny. God’s help is found right there!

Photo by Waranont (Joe) on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Don’t feel guilty for your recovery

When I was recovering from grief after my first marriage ended, I often wondered if I would ever be normal again. I pursued so much change in that season of life. I was open because I felt I had no choice. I desperately wanted my wife and life back. And I took multiple steps in the Australian Spring of 2003 to right my ship.
Little was I aware of it at the time, but that process continues today!
But the major point I want to impress upon you in this short piece is that, while the work of recovery can seem like such a waste of time, it is actually the cornerstone from which a new life is being built.
We ought not to despise the fact that we’ve been ‘sidelined’ for such a time as this!
But we so easily do,
and guilt plays a huge role in this.
We feel guilty for needing this time to rebuild, when life is happening right here, right now. We definitely feel we’re letting people down, even paradoxically amid change they will have to come to grips with. These changes are good, of course, but any change within us requires adjustment in others, and unless they can see the big picture, it feels like work for them. We feel guilty for the paroxysm of pain we bear within our own change; that roller coaster of emotions that others we care about must ride with us.
And there are myriad other varietals of guilt, that, for the purposes of this article, cannot be stated.
The work of recovery requires great faith.
This cannot be overstated. Constantly in recovery we’re an arm’s length from giving up and giving in to the temptation to quit and go an easier way that seems wiser, but isn’t. It’s never wise to put off the inevitable.
Every time we take up the cudgel of courage amid that screaming voice within us to give up or give in, we apply our faith, and as a muscle, our faith grows. Every time. Faithfulness means consistency.
We must take the hard and sacrificial choice to keep going on our recovery journey or we’ll never arrive. We need to say to the voice of guilt, “Back off, you’ve got no voice here!”
Guilt, if we listen to it, persuades us through a bizarre logic that always seems sensible at the time, only to be revealed as nonsensical in the cold light of day.
So, don’t feel guilty for taking the time, for getting the therapy, the support, the help, you need.
Don’t even enter into dialogue with guilt, because it’s straight from the enemy. Instead, replace the desire to feel better with doing something positive and proactive for your recovery.
You’re on a good path so long as the planned renovations are on track. Keep going. You can do this!
Think on these terms: everything of who you are becoming has its essence emergent from this season. Be gentle and patient with yourself. Give yourself more time not less. And keep the faith.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Being human is hard, and what makes it easier

The experience of loss is the paradox of life; life that becomes death. Loss is suffering in one word; to have someone or something we value taken away. 
The experience of loss would be hard enough if it only happened once. But the fact is it happens several times, perhaps many times, and sometimes too many times to count, over one lifetime.
One thing I’ve often thought about is whether we have the potential to master loss.
It is only been recently that I’ve come to discover that loss, as a general and overall concept, cannot be mastered. We may master a certain kind of loss, accepting the grief as part and parcel of life. But that doesn’t mean we master every kind of loss. And I think God can teach us something in this; not least of which, this reality prevents us from becoming conceited (this aligns with what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10). He was given something painful that had to be endured to prevent him from becoming conceited.
What makes being human so hard is that none of us at any time can predict just when loss will occur. It comes like a thief in the night. And only when it arrives do we comprehend that it was ever present as a potential reality from our very beginning.
Loss is impossibly hard. Anyone who has been touched by this suffering of having had someone beloved or something valuable taken away from us knows that grief is a pain that never truly leaves during the entire season we experience it. And in most cases, closure for grief is a myth. It never happens that way. It just so happens that we learn to live a new normal, which on the surface of it is a sad and stark reality.
I have found personally that the greatest gift of loss is learning to die to self. It is never an easy lesson to learn, but it is always worth learning.
I call this the Revenant Blessing. It is a broad and general lesson; once loss has swept our hope away on a torrent to oblivion, loss may not blindside us to that degree again.
We are given some gift of resilience that I liken better to a hopeful resignation. Nothing unimportant wins our covetous hearts over again.
But this doesn’t mean we won’t experience grief again. Losses will continue to occur. The bigger and more complicated our families and lives are, for instance, the more susceptible we are to loss.
We may well have been broken by loss, and we may have learned the lessons of Christ in dying to self; this doesn’t mean that we are fortified against every form of loss, for different losses bring different costs and requirements of us.
There is a wisdom in life that helps us as losses come. This is not about imagining that being human can be made easy. On the contrary, as we accept that being human is hard, we are given to a deeper, more gifted, experience of life. We are matured as we come to accept there are many things we cannot change.
What makes being human so hard is that this life is so unpredictable, and we cannot exercise supreme control over our thoughts, our emotions, and others’ thoughts and emotions. If only we could! But then if we could we wouldn’t live a life capable of love.
Perhaps we have suffered many losses already. Maybe there are some losses yet to be experienced. What stands us in good stead is our acceptance of the day; to take each day as it comes, gratefully, as the mystery each day is. And whether the day involves trial or tribulation or a mix of both matters less than the fact that the universe spins the same way every day.
What makes being human easier is when we finally arrive in that place where we don’t need to control the day, other people, our circumstances, the weather, or anything else.
This is an ‘arrival’ to strive for, and that gives enduring loss meaning, which fuels hope.
I know this one thing for sure, however. I’m so glad of the person I’ve become because — in spite — of the grief I’ve endured. I would not be the person I am today had it not been for the things I’ve suffered.
Empathy and compassion are the gifts borne of great suffering.

Friday, April 19, 2019

They killed Jesus, Dead, they killed him, Good

Good Friday we call it. And the resurrection happened. But Saturday never rates a mention. Why is this?
Saturday, we may know for sure; Jesus was killed, dead.
And this was GOOD NEWS. It IS good news. Dead. Not alive anymore. Kaput. John 19:33 says it plainly:
“But when [the Roman soldiers] came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead…”
They killed Jesus, dead.
He wasn’t living any longer. The time of life had passed. He was gone.
Anyone who wants to discredit the Christian faith will  attempt to install doubt over the fact of Jesus’ death. 
If Jesus didn’t die, he didn’t die as payment for humankind’s sin. 
If Jesus didn’t die, he could not be resurrected. 
If Jesus didn’t die, he did not overcome death.
But Jesus DID die.
And Saturday was a day when he was DEAD. For the whole day. The most comprehensive victory of Creator over evil, of his creation over evil, had taken place. History. Done. Finished.
God’s eternal plan, his work of salvific art, accomplished. Nothing left to do. The enemy vanquished.
I don’t know about you, but in my case, that’s occurred on this earth, in an irrefutably physical way, about 1,936 years before I was even conceived. Done.
Nothing at all could I add to it before I was born. My existence changes nothing. That Easter Saturday, the proof.
How on earth do we wrap our heads and hearts around this GOD who would stoop to live as we live; to teach us what is kept for us in Scripture; to show us his character in what he did and who he healed, how and why; to experience all of the pain we might; the betrayal, the scourging, the mocking, the universal rejection?
They killed Jesus, dead.
They killed him, good.
It is GOOD. And what was GOOD remains so. It’s GOOD on Saturday; Sunday’s still coming.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Redemption Ready for the Required Time

There’s probably thousands of people the world over presently writing about the Tiger Woods story of redemption. It’s so true. Redemption came crouching, stooping lowly, for a decade and more.
That’s what makes this redemption story even more special. It took the humility of showing up to years of ‘below-par’ performances, of failing to place, of being unimpressive, to prove the champion’s character.
I don’t know the first thing about Tiger Woods the man, but I do know what eleven years in the wilderness says. He was top of the world until the bottom fell out of it. It was the scandal of 2009. Perhaps it’s just that he could do nothing other than play the game he loves. Maybe the world just loves an underdog story.
One thing we can know, however, is faithfulness in any pursuit is tantamount to a borrowed success.
Whoever sets their mind to a thing, giving all of themselves to it, will without doubt move toward that thing. They do and they must.
Actions of faithfulness are a redemption being readied at the required time. It is a fait accompli.
If anyone has lost all of what they ever hoped for, their hope is utterly reliant on an against-all-odds redemption that will see the restoration of their fortunes. It may take ten years, like with Tiger Woods. It could take fifteen or twenty, but what would we do otherwise. We must forget what the past has cost us and forge forward, headlong, a day and one action and interaction at a time, into the future.
That is faithfulness; the negation of the present cost in the hope of redemption because faith refused to be swallowed by death. Such faith is the hope of resurrection, where redemption is ascension.

Photo: Sky News.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The weirdest, best Counselling session I ever attended

August 9, 2007. A date etched in my memory. For all the best reasons. I’d been in a clinical depression for at least two months. I’d been married three. I went into my second marriage clearly too idealistic. And I hadn’t foreseen the difficulties that we would be presented with. But, by August 9 I was ready for a revelation.
I can remember going into my manager’s office after coming back from the session and being clearly shocked by what I’d heard. But such a shock helped me turn a corner at just a time when I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I only ever went to this employee assistance program counsellor once. I can’t even recall his name. But his wise brusqueness was what my soul quietly needed. Normally, I find it quite hard to rationalise how someone so terse can think they’re loving.
But this counsellor listened to what I had to say, and he told me I wasn’t depressed. I was grieving. I was grieving the old life. I was grieving because I’d entered marriage, which is a drastically new way of living for a single man. My career was at a crossroad. And I was grieving in some part because I was getting to know who my wife really was. She was stronger than I thought she was — which I have later come to learn is such good news! But I struggled to cope early on.
On one level I was annoyed because he didn’t label me as I wished to be labelled. But at a deeper level, I craved to be in recovery. I craved to be understood, but what I craved even more was to be better.
I left that one-and-only session with a spring in my step, cured of my need to remain depressed. It was as if I’d been given license to live, for that time, without the shackles of mental illness.
As history would have it, I’d succumb to depression and anxiety again in 2011-2012, and again there were mini bouts in 2015-2016. And again, I can see the grief in those times too. Grief and depression can often be interchangeable, especially if we’re sensitive around our circumstances, which most of us are.
Sometimes we’re taken through things that seem absurd, yet it’s only at the end of it, with a reasonable mind, that we can see the benefit of it for the pain we bear.
Sometimes, just occasionally, you go to a counselling session ready to hear what you don’t expect to hear, and you don’t even know it beforehand. Somehow, this was one of those occasions for me.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What we Owe the Wounded Healer

Doesn’t always apply, but so often it does. Those who, per Michael J Fox, live with the condition are the experts.
It was a topic of discussion on my lunch duty one day recently, “Why is it that counsellors and psychologists always seem to have had the most messed up of lives?” Well, I do know counsellors, psychologists, pastors, social workers, etc, who have not had messed up lives. Some of them are brilliant at what they do. But the majority of those who serve in the helping professions have had traumatic pasts from which they launch their ministry of service.
It reminds me of a trainee when I did my counselling studies who we’d gotten to know, who up and left at one point because it had dawned on her that she wasn’t ‘there’ yet. She couldn’t proceed and she knew it. So many of my compatriots in that year group had stuff they’d reconciled or were reconciling. I myself had a pivotal revelation that year; crucial for my actual ability to do pastoral work.
It’s like my two AA sponsors, one who guided me through The Steps, the other who took an interest in me, and pastored me back to the church and to Jesus; both from damaged hoods. And the pastor who had the vision to quickly put me into leadership so I could be around wiser men and women more often. And our marriage counsellor, who bore her own soul when it counted. Countless others who wore their brokenness and chose never again to deny it. What’s most transformational about the ministry of reconciliation is the honesty indwelt of a shared humanity.
I know I could not help those with depression without having had four bouts myself — two induced by grief.
I wouldn’t comprehend what helping someone with panic attacks would require if I’d not had at least seven salient experiences of having my momentary world implode.
I wouldn’t have any idea how to help someone whose identity has been ripped and torn in two by divorce if I hadn’t been divorced.
I couldn’t recoil with sympathy for a parent with a child with special needs had I not had my own.
Had I not been dashed against the rocks of my own rock bottom, I would not truly understand what it costs another to be smashed against their own.
Had I not experienced the guilt and shame of marital failure, I’d have no idea of the courage that’s forged for the simple fact that authenticity we gain as healing is God’s redeeming compensation. Incredibly, God glorifies us even as we glorify him.
And yet there are many experiences I haven’t had. But I’ve had enough gut-wrenching life experiences to serve me well in the area of care.
Oh, I praise the experience that wounded healers have. They can take another person into their healing having endured their own healing. They know it can be done. They know how it worked for them.
I’m not sure the wounded healer thinks we owe them anything — I’m sure they don’t. But how good is it that God actually uses this abysmal material for his glory. That is hope for the suffering, that they too will lead others through theirs, by the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Given time, God will use the pain you’re going through to help you lead others through theirs by the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and care. That’s not the purpose of you going through what you’re going through, but it’s a powerfully meaningful byproduct.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Trust and Joy amid Aloneness and Trial

It’s in the darkest measure of pain that we look up in a cry for help or to shake our fist. Sure, there are other responses, but by far and away the commonest response is to be livid at God that such a thing has been done against us. It is a rarer response to look up and seek help. It is rarer still to look up and praise the Lord in a season where hope is laid waste, where joy has been vanquished, where peace may be a distant memory.
Then we might open our Bible to the majestically decisive ending of Habakkuk:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights.”
— Habakkuk 3:17-20 (NRSV)
We read that passage and we’re struck by ‘though’, a symphony of three, and that ‘yet’ that follows.
Those of us who have been there, in unfathomable seasons of loss, where all vision of a normal life was swept away on a torrent that left nothing in its wake, know the certainty of the situation in focus.
Those who have never experienced such life-ending loss possibly don’t read this as a significant passage. But those who have are struck by the hope in such truth. They come back to passages like this. They make out of these passages life words — words they carry with them, that inspire hope during especially harried times; and indeed, these are words they carry in their hearts, gratefully, for the rest of their lives. Mine was Galatians 6:9 — “Do not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time you will reap a harvest if you do not give up.”
This Habakkuk passage reminds us that though the world would give up on us if we were unfruitful, God does not; indeed, that God is especially present with those who experience a vacuum of favour who also trust him implicitly. Those who call upon their Lord in pain, acknowledging their reliance on him who will eventually vindicate them, will experience the joy of the Lord.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Thursday, April 4, 2019

What you’ll only see when you’re suffering

The Presence of God reframes everything in suffering when we insist our Lord hear us.
I don’t glorify things I know nothing about. I discovered these truths in loss that gained me what no ‘success’ in life could ever give me. Those who have borne witness to these life-transforming truths also attest.
The abundant life Jesus speaks of
is not a life full of worldly favour and prestige,
but a life that is full of the spiritual blessing
of the knowledge of the Presence of God.
This is a vexing matter for many Christians. They would sorely like to taste this. But without suffering greatly they cannot. There’s the paradox.
It’s only when we lose what we would never let go of,
that we may gain what our hearts have always craved.
Unpack that. It’s only when we’re suffering that we cry out to God alone to be shown a sign. Even in feeling utter forlorn and forsaken we experience the polar opposite. God is right there! Amid the turmoil, whispering perseverance into our dejection, and compelling resilience into our despair. Not within the moment, but within the season, and certainly as we look back upon the season in review.
What we can only see when we’re suffering is the Presence of God in our pain. As we endure what tempts us to reject ourselves. We hear God’s whisper, “Don’t!” We feel God’s care, “Gently!” We see God’s Spirit move, even as we witness things occur in such weird ways it could only be God.
In our suffering suddenly God arrives,
and we discover God is real.
And when we make such a discovery,
suffering is the burden we’re willing to bear,
just in knowing that God is real in our midst.
The transformation we’ve all desired from our beginning only takes place as a compensation for something that costs us just as much: suffering.
But we must seek God in it and insist
that God notice us in our lament.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Can Suffering be a Gift?

Philippians is a mysteriously joyous book of the Bible. Mysterious, because its author, as he writes, is enshrouded in suffering. Suffering AND joy! The two go together, you see?
Perhaps not. It’s hard for people of our culture to see it. Hard for people of any culture. And it’s impossible for us to see how suffering coalesces with joy, unless through Christ, we’re brought to a place of loss, and from such a place to continually ask why?
Do you see? It is our engagement with God when most of life would have us ignore him that takes us through to his cherished presence to a place where with Christ is gain and all the world is loss.
These are such difficult concepts to write about, because nested within these truths are the inscrutable mysteries of God.
When Paul opens his letter to the Philippians, he greets them and then explains his own perilous and pleasing situation. For Paul, “living is Christ and dying is gain.” He is in a completely paradoxical position. Whatever happens to him is okay. If he lives it is for Christ, all of it. If he dies, it’s all gain, for he passes into the actual Presence of Christ.
Now at the risk of losing you, this is the position that we are blessed to find ourselves in, when, through Christ in our loss, we connect to a joy that surpasses despair because of suffering.
I am not glorifying suffering here.
I hope and pray I’m able to communication that.
If not for the suffering, there would be no extravagance of joy for what only Christ may do in us.
Paul does not come from a place of having lost nothing. He has lost much for the Gospel.
In chapter three of Philippians, Paul convinces us that he knows the privileges of high Judaism. He knows all the delicacies of this life. He has intelligence; the best of education. He has wanted for nothing. Yet, he considers them all “rubbish” compared with one thing: Jesus Christ.
Only having lost all of what
mattered most to us can we see this.
Before we experience such loss, we think such a thought is abhorrent. Truly we do. We cannot understand what to us is purely illogical. Not until we’re backwashed into a grief we cannot escape from, however, do we run into the arms of a waiting God — the only one who can help us in such unparalleled distress.
When we arrive in that place of being, a place that we had no prior concept of, a place where being alive feels like death, we do what finally we were created to do.
We look up, and in cries of despair,
helpless and forlorn, we implore God,
“Help me, Lord!”
And the paradox then comes into play.
In such a ‘gift’ of grief we stay,
for an extended time,
so we can learn how to fully rely on God.
As we endeavour to make sense of the nonsensical journey of a suffering beyond anything we ever thought we’d experience, we also make a discovery that was saved for such a place, bereft of spirit and vanquished of soul.
This discovery is a gift. It is a gift because it has been given to us. Not the suffering so much, but the inordinate Presence of God as we, so poor of spirit, no longer have the resources to live life without him. It sounds pathetic to a worldly person. But out of such weakness comes the knowledge of God that is the gift that transcends all gifts.
I’m not sure if I would say that suffering is a gift, but I can say that suffering is the only way through to a gift that God has for us.
What I can say is that suffering is the gateway to something that proves to be a gift: as we come to know God amid tormenting grief, we come to realise we can live without everything else but him.
That’s the gift.

Photo by Rob Bates on Unsplash