Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Finding a Way Through Pain and Fatigue

I have struggled with this week's blog. I have started over at least five times and even now can't seem to get my head and my heart to align on a single train of thought. I wish I could say that  this is an isolated, one of a kind thing, but anyone who read last week's blog knows that life for me these days is less than picture perfect (as if it ever was). And so I just keep plugging on.

I learned a lot about perseverance in 1975....yes, that 1975. I had decided to participate in a bike-a-thon to help raise money for the American Heart Association. I badgered all my friend's parents to pledge an amount of  money per mile that I rode. Whenever anyone asked me how far I planned to ride I told them that I was going to ride 100 miles. Most folks would look at me as if I was crazy (I was) and say something like "right..." I certainly inspired confidence.

So the day of the bike-a-thon came and I was there at the starting line at the starting time. The weather was nice and there were a lot of kids riding that day.There were lots of people to ride with ad to talk to. We started the bike-a-thon with a lot of excitement.  It was fun.

For a while.

The crowds began to thin out about three hours into the ride. As the day went on it became harder and harder to find people to ride with. I was committed to making my 100 mile goal and had even gone so far as to calculate how quickly I needed to make my way around the 10 mile course in order to make my goal in the time allowed. With people to ride with I had no problem keeping up with my time goals. But as the number of riders dwindled it became harder and harder.

So I changed my strategy. Instead of riding with someone all the time I decided to "hunt" other riders. I would spot another rider well ahead of me on the course and would push myself to catch them within a certain distance or time. But it worked. I pedaled and pedaled and pedaled until I would catch someone or I would set myself a time limit to ride from one checkpoint to another. In short, I just kept pedaling, plugging along, committed to achieving my goal

And I'm proud to say that I did. In fact, I finished my 100 miles with more than an hour to go in the bike-a-thon. I could have ridden more, but my rear end was really sore and so I went home. As I remember, I was the only person in our local race (and maybe in the whole state of Arkansas) who rode 100 miles that day. And all because I just kept pedaling.

Perhaps that's one of the most important lessons for me in the midst of all the turmoil of late. I need to keep plugging. Somehow Christians have come to believe that life should be a wide, easy path lined with shade trees and flowers. But that's a lie and couldn't be farther from the truth. Life in this fallen world is hard enough, and when you factor in the opposition that we as believers face from a world that doesn't love us it gets even harder. But ease is not and has never been a mark of blessing or favor. Jesus said that we should expect difficulty. Paul said that he struggled with himself to be faithful. John was exiled as an old man because of his faith. So why do I think I should get a pass?

If you would allow me to be so bold...we shouldn't desire ease and comfort. They don't make us fit for anything. The writer of Hebrews likened our  faith lives to a race, calling on us to strip off the things that would slow us down with following Jesus. Faith is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are few rest stops along the way. The path is narrow, steep, and difficult, but the lessons it imparts are more valuable than any treasure.

So don't get discouraged, don't grow weary, and most of all don't give up. Brace yourself for the struggle. Look to Jesus and find your rest and hope in him.

If I can do it, you can too.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I Will Praise You in This Storm

February started off on a great foot. Late last year I bought a car that was busy growing grass when I found it. We (my son, a good friend, and myself) spent the next three months fixing those things that kept the car from running properly and I was able to start using the car regularly the first of February. I have always wanted one of this particular brand of car, and the day I licensed the car I opened the sunroof and had a "thank you Jesus" party as I drove up and down the road.

Life was good.

Then Monday came, literally.

Our family was plunged into a deep, dark abyss. Many of you know that my wife and I lost our first two children. I do not hesitate to tell you that this crisis rivals those great losses, The rest of February was lost in a deep struggle that was all at once physical, emotional, and spiritual. All of our lives have been affected profoundly by this experience. Each of us has carried an enormous load that at times grew heavier but has not yet grown lighter.  And while we are beginning the see the light at the end of that tunnel (we hope), the journey to the final resolution is going to be a long and difficult one.

Added to the personal struggles have been some professional issues as well. I have heard the work of a pastor described as being something akin to "herding cats" or "pushing cooked spaghetti." Those amusing anecdotes carry a great deal of truth as they describe some of the unique challenges of being a pastor. Please understand, our church has been very gracious and generous towards my family during this time of crisis. But people are people and life continues for all of us, and that means that there were still misunderstandings and conflicts and decisions to be made. Like any family, the church is a work in progress, filled with differing opinions and desires and agendas. As a pastor, I'm trying to herd these cats in a unified direction while I deal with my own personal and family struggles.

Leading a church is a demanding thing, and I was not up to the task for most of the last six weeks.

All of this has left me weak and vulnerable and Satan has done his best in these past weeks to discourage me, to steal my joy. I wish I could tell you that I have weathered these storms with flying colors, that I never lost my joy or my confidence or had my faith tested...but that isn't true. There have been times in the last six weeks that I simply lost it. I have had my share of struggles and have voiced my frustrations with God more than once.

I'm not writing this from the position of someone who has emerged on the other side, but as someone who continues to struggle as we all do. Would you allow me share with you some of the things I am learning/relearning in all this?

1. God knows where I am. There have been times in the last few weeks that it seemed as if I was all alone. We made the decision not to make the public the nature of our family crisis. We told only a few trusted prayer partners and some church leaders. But for the most part no one knew/knows what was happening within our family. It was hard in those early days to not answer the texts and phone call and other questions that came. Sometimes we must walk a lonely path in human terms. But human loneliness is not spiritual aloneness. God was and is always with us. When I remember this I am better able to deal with the struggles because I know that  I am not alone and that I am not the only one who has struggled.

2. God never sleeps.  I have never slept much...but during that last few weeks I have slept even less. Some of my most intimate moments with God have come in the deepest hours of the night. I  have poured out my heart to God at 2:30am and found that he was there. When I couldn't share my heart with anyone else, when there was no one there, God was. In what little, fitful sleep that I've had He has watched over me. He has been there.

3. God cares. One of Satan's biggest lies is that God doesn't care about us. Another is that God is too busy to bother with us. If we believe either of those we will certainly succumb to despair. The truth is that God does care for each of his children. In the midst of our struggles God has proven again and again in a number of different ways throughout all of this that He cares.

4. God fights for His children. It's easy to lose sight of God in the midst of all the things that happen around us. There are some folks who think that God sits in heaven and doesn't bother himself with us. That couldn't be farther from the truth. I have a word for those who seek to advance their personal agendas at the expense of others...The Lord will fight for those who are his and you will not prevail.

5. God loves me. Some of you know of my childhood. The hardest struggle of my life has been accepting the fact that God loves me. The past few weeks have resurrected that old struggle. Satan has used these many struggles to whisper that God must not love me because if He did I wouldn't have such issues. That's a lie. The love of God doesn't mean that there won't be struggles, in fact the exact opposite, because God loves us we can expect Satan to do his best to cause us to struggle and doubt. As long as we live in this fallen world we can expect struggle. The presence of struggle is not evidence of the lack of God's love, but His work of deliverance is the greatest proof of his love for us.

There are so many other lessons that I am learning, but I think that this is enough for now. I ask that you continue to pray for my family and our church. May God be glorified in both.