The Bitter With The Sweet . . . .

BITTERSWEET is a word is we grow into over time.  It speaks to the disappointments and heartache that are part of life, yet refuses to let go of the vestiges of sweetness remembered.  The dictionary defines bittersweet as:

  • Arousing pleasure tinged with sadness or pain
  • Being at once bitter and sweet; pleasant but including or marked by elements of suffering or regret

Such is the definition of a life lived out fully.
Bittersweetness acknowledges the harshness of things broken or lost,
as it retains the memory of sweeter images past.

 Christmas is one of those seasons where bittersweetness abounds:

The Light of Hope shines through.

The Light of Hope shines through the darkness . . . .

  • Childhood memories of hope and excitement as the Big Day approached and family gathered together.
  • The shadows of candlelight playing against the walls during Christmas Eve Services as “O Come All Ye Faithful” was sung.
  • The joy of giving sacrificially out of love for the Savior.

Christmas is also is a season of reflection and remembrance of things lost or broken: relationships . . . people . . . health . . . hopes . . . and, yes, dreams never realized.

This past year was especially hard for my family and friends . . . tears still come easy as we remember those who are no longer with us.  Many dread the approach of Christmas, unsure of how to get through the bitter pain of loss:

  1. Some may choose to ignore Christmas–with hearts bitter toward God..
  2. Others will go through the motions of Christmas–not wanting to disappoint others, but find themselves numb within.
  3. Still others will choose to lean into the Hope of the Christmas Story-realizing that it was written especially for them.

Is there a way to navigate the pain of loss at Christmas?

Through personal experience I know that the third option is by far the best.  To ignore Christmas altogether, or to numb ones-self to the Celebration, too often leads to an ever-spiraling, dark despair that tends to rub-off on those closest to us.

The wisest choice is that of entering into the Light of Christ’s coming,
while embracing the Hope of His return.

After ministering to people struggling with brokenness and loss of every sort and in every season, it is always those who entrust their brokenness to the One who saves, who realize the blessing of a deepened faith that moves them forward:

“The people living in darkness
have seen a great Light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a Light has dawned.”
Matthew 4:16

This past week my burden was lightened by the sweetness of a video put out by Southland Christian Church in Kentucky.  I offer it to you as we navigate this Season of Celebration, in the hope that leaning into this retelling of the Christmas Story will sweeten your perspective as it has mine:

 

All to His Glory!

 

True Thanksgiving . . . .

When Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day in 1863, he was not thinking about feasting or relationships between Pilgrims and Indians.  At the time Lincoln made his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, this nation was in the middle of a bloody Civil War that would last another year and a half.  The Battle at Gettysburg– the largest and most devastating of that war–with total casualties numbering over 50,000–had been fought. Three months later, when this Proclamation was declared, the process of reburying the thousands of bodies that had been shallowly interred on the battlefield had begun but was not yet complete.  Even so, Lincoln recognized the blessings bestowed on the United States while in peril. In a time filled with uncertainty, we can learn much from President Lincoln’s perspective as he recognized God’s hand of grace and mercy during the perilous times of a country at war with itself.  That Proclamation included the following:dsc03086

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added . . . (so) that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed . . . to invite and to provoke . . . aggression (from other nations), peace has been preserved . . . order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship . . . . Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-field . . . . No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union . . . .”*

There is much that can applied to our own times as we contemplate Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

  • True thanksgiving is not about what we are thankful for but WHO we are thankful to.
  • True thanksgiving remembers God’s grace and mercy extended in countless ways despite our sin or our circumstances.
  • True thanksgiving is meant to be a lifestyle rather than a yearly occasion.

While writing this post the hymn, Now Thank We All Our God, came to mind.  Written more than two centuries before Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, it captures the essence of what true thanksgiving is meant to be about to this day:

Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom His world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Words: Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), 1636
trans. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), 1858

As President Lincoln said, we have much to give thanks to God for.  We also have much to repent of–fear, selfishness, pride, arrogance, lack of mercy for the suffering of others.  As we observe Thanksgiving in repentant faith, we can look to the future with the same confidence and hope as the Apostle Paul:

“Now to Him who is able
to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,
according to His power that is at work within us,
to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” 

Ephesians 3:20-21

All to His Glory!

*To read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in full see:      http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm

Soul Work: Rx for the Weary Heart . . . .

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”

Matthew 5:6

We find ourselves weary and discouraged as what was once “unthinkable” has become common place.  Even so, I am grateful to report that God continues to impact the hearts and minds of those who hunger and thirst for His perspective on their lives. With every problem faced in the Counseling Room, I marvel at God’s faithfulness as He consistently brings forth meaningful Scriptures that:

Come to Me . . . find rest for your souls.

Come to Me . . . find rest for your souls.

  • Challenge and direct according to Client need,
  • Shine forth hope and light to encourage each one forward and, above all else,
  • Inspire heartfelt repentance and thanksgiving for His truth spoken in love.

Understandably, there are times when tears are spilled.  Yet anyone who passes by my office is more likely to hear peals of laughter break through the walls as God ministers as only He can do.  The best part for me?  Is listening and reflecting on what God has shown them since our previous session through their Journey Notes Praise Journaling.  (It is then that I take notes!)

Last week, Matthew 11: 28, 29 came to the forefront while working with several Clients; each one was uniquely touched by Christ’s tender call:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.”

It is an invitation that is also a command– “Come . . . COME TO ME . . . and I will give you REST.”  Jesus makes this appeal to our weariness as He:

  1. Acknowledges the burdens that go with living life on this earth,
  2. Calls us closer to Himself to help bear our spiritual and earthly burdens,
  3. Sets the example of gentleness and humility of heart we are called to emulate, and (finally)
  4. Speaks to our deeper need of soul work where we discover rest in Him.

SOUL WORK*. . . what is it and how is it accomplished?  I write this not as any sort of theological expert. I am a sinner saved by God’s mysterious and wondrous grace through faith in His Son.  After more than four decades of walking by faith, with the Scriptures and God’s Spirit shepherding me through many a trial–plus encouraging others in the Scriptures for twenty-five years–this is what I have learned:

SOUL WORK is:
That deeply mysterious work only God can do
as we open our hearts and minds to Him.

Scripture gives much instruction about our hearts and minds:

Proverbs 4:23 is one of those verses that warn us to guard our hearts:

“Watch over your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life.”
 

(NASB)

In Luke 6:43, Jesus taught that what we store in our hearts is reflected by our actions as well as our words:

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart,
and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.
For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

As culture teaches, “follow your heart”, Jeremiah 17 admonishes–

“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
according to what their deeds deserve.”
(Verses 9, 10)

While we are responsible for what we store in our hearts, Jesus calls us to go deeper in our relationship with Him. In Matthew 11 He urges: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” 

So what is this “yoke” Jesus urges His followers to take?  I appreciate the perspective of seventeenth century commentator, Matthew Henry** who wrote:  

It is a yoke that is lined with love.
So powerful are the assistances He gives us,
so suitable the encouragements,
and so strong the consolations to be found in the way of duty,
that we may truly say, it is a yoke of pleasantness.
The way of duty is the way of rest.”

To embrace the loving kindness of Christ’s invitation, though scary at first, is to discover the pleasantness of rest found only in Him.

SOUL WORK is not something we strive for;
it is worked out as we yield our hearts and minds
to God’s Sovereign Goodness.

So how is it begun?

  1. Prayer . . .
  2. Confession of fear, anger, pride, resentment, you name it . . .
  3. A willingness/determination to trust God no matter what your circumstances.

For me it required desperation.  As a new Christian I wanted to please God: but there were mountains of garbage stored deep in my heart that kept tripping me up.  Over time, I noticed that King David (said to be, “a man after God’s heart” in Scripture–despite his many failures) exposed his heart to God more than anyone else in the Bible.  I resolved to pray every portion of  the Psalms of David that mentioned the heart.  The day I got to the end of Psalm 139 was my “Day of Reckoning”.

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
(Verses 23 and 24)

I remember terror gripping me as I contemplated praying David’s words.  I vividly imagined myself, laid out on an operating room table and the scalpel God held poised to open my chest.  I wanted to run . . . yet remained transfixed.  As I contemplated the painful rawness of being totally exposed, I prayed the words anyway:

“Search me, God . . . open me up and do what only You can do to make me whole.  
Cleanse me . . . please . . . that I may find freedom in YOU.”  

I braced for the pain of my chest being opened and my sin ripped out of the crevices of my being–but there was only silence.  I continued to wait until finally . . . I realized that God is far gentler and kinder than I ever imagined.  Slowly, I relaxed my grip on my fears as relief flooded my mind and heart like never before.  That marked the beginning of what has continued for a lifetime: learning to trust Him only deep within my soul, in good times as well as in bad.

No matter where you are or what your circumstance, Christ’s invitation to enter His rest awaits your response.  He has a plan and purpose for your life that will likely include heartache and confusion.  Yet, as you learn to trust in His Sovereign Goodness . . . that elusive rest found only in Him will be yours.

I pray that you will be encouraged by the Apostle Paul’s vision and prayer for all who trust in Christ Jesus:

“I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you
with power through His Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,
may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people,
to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . . .”
Ephesians 3:16-18

Do you hunger and thirst to go deeper in your walk with Jesus?  TODAY is the day to answer His call to trust Him more and yourself less!

All to His Glory!

*I found very little when I googled the term soul work except for this article (actually it’s only the first bit of the article–the rest is blocked from non-subscribers of Christianity Today): http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/may-web-only/real-transformation-happens-when.html
**To learn more about Matthew Henry I found this site helpful: http://www.truthfulwords.org/biography/henrytw.html

FOUND . . . .

Is it possible to be lost and not know it? After my husband retired early this year, we camped across the United States and back, traveling close to 15,000 miles.  Without a doubt, we made numerous wrong turns in our travels, sometimes driving for several miles before realizing we were lost.  One advantage we greatly appreciated on the road, was having a GPS to help us navigate.  Rather than getting panicky or upset when we missed a turn, we learned to rely on “Hilda” (our name for our GPS) to help us return to the route we were supposed to be following without having to “back-track” the entire distance.

"Is this all there is?"

“?????”

Other ways we can be lost without knowing it are:

  • When we seek fulfillment by setting goals, achieving them, and then find ourselves looking around and wondering, “Is this all there is to life?”
  • When we put our faith in people and they let us down.
  • When we doubt God’s Sovereign Goodness and think He has abandoned us.

More shocking in our times is the lostness being manifested in a wanton disregard for human life:

  •  Of people who appear outwardly dead as they inflict as much pain and suffering as they can on others, before taking their own lives;
  • Or the lostness of those who champion the “right” to slaughter our unborn children.

John Newton, author of the beloved hymn, Amazing Grace, understood the depths of such lostness.  Having been involved in the slave trade for many years and as a younger man led a life full of debauchery.  Newton also knew the joy of having been saved out of that lostness by the love his Savior, Jesus Christ:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am FOUND; was blind but now I see.”  

John Newton, 1725-1807

I too can relate to Newton’s joy of having been FOUND.  It has been 38 years since I understood the wretchedness of my sin and knew that, before a holy God, I deserved hell.  It was the worst day of my life . . . but it also was the absolute best day of my life after surrendering all to Jesus.

So what does it mean to be FOUND?

  • I normally think of it as an adjective: to come upon unexpectedly or after a search.

When I looked it up in my dictionary, however, I discovered that it means much, much more as a transitive verb:

  • FOUND–to take the first steps in building; to set or ground on something solid (a base); to establish (as an institution) often with provision for future maintenance.*

To be FOUND by God through faith in Christ,
is to be more than simply discovered and then set aside.  
To be FOUND by God through faith in Christ,
is to be established with design and purpose
in something (actually, SOMEONE)
outside of ourselves.

God has been kind in reminding me of these truths through two new Clients.  One has been established in her faith for many years, but struggles with the pain of a divorce and the challenge of raising her children on her own.  The other is very new in her faith and comes in every week excited to ask questions and to share what God has taught her as she has done her Journey Notes.  BOTH were encouraged and downright excited when we explored Colossians 3 this week.  Here’s what it says in part about being FOUND in Christ:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love,
which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Colossians 3:12-14

Feeling lost or deserted?  Are you overwhelmed by whatever challenges you are facing?  Or, are you bored with your life and question God’s purpose for ever putting you here?

The question we must to consider is: Where is Christ in your life right now?

  • Is He merely a distant idea that floats in and out of your consciousness?
  • Is He at the foundational core of all that you care about?
  • Or is He somewhere in-between?

I have found much encouragement and direction in this prayer written by the Apostle Paul, and pray that it will do the same for you:

“I pray that out of the riches of His glory, He may strengthen you
with power through His Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
may have power, together with all the saints,
to comprehend the length and width and height and depth of His love.”

Ephesians 3:16-18

All to His Glory!

*Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

A Fresh Perspective On Problems . . . .

When I began counseling, I saw myself as a sort of professional problem-solver.  In my naivety, I did not appreciate how broadly biblical counseling could impact the lives of others (as well as my own).  Reflecting back I can now see that for twenty-five years, God has directed the path of every conversation that has taken place in my office.  In those years, He has faithfully shepherded the heart of every Client (often despite my blunders) as He ministered to them through the Scriptures.  It has been a privilege (though humbling) to witness the courage of those who entrusted their lives to Him as they endured severe hardship and grew in their faith.  Many times I have felt like the proverbial “fly-on-the-wall” as I have watched God’s Spirit work out the impossible.  These are a few of the insights I have gained along the way:

Let light shine out of darkness . . . .

Let light shine out of darkness . . . .

  1. Problems are a constant–this is NOT heaven and we ALL have a history.
  2. Tough times provide powerful opportunities for personal growth and character development.
  3. In helping others, a personal commitment to applying the Scriptures in our own lives (along with a good measure of humility) impacts the receptiveness of the receiver.
  4. To go deeper with God, our focus should not be on the problem but on God and the wisdom of the Scriptures:

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”
made His light shine in our hearts . . . .
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen,
but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary,
but what is unseen is eternal.”
II Corinthians 4:6,18

Whatever challenge you face (or are trying to help someone else with), I pray that you will be strengthened by this truth:

It is in the challenging times that God invites us
into a deeper conversation with Him

~~~~~~~~~~

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers,
whenever you face trials of many kinds,
for the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
And perseverance must finish it’s work,
so that you may be mature and complete,
not lacking anything.

But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God,
who gives generously to all without finding fault.”

James 1:2-5

This may be your ultimate opportunity . . . so go for it!

All to His Glory!

On Valleys and Avoiding The Pit . . . .

“How was your week?”  It’s a question I often ask a Client as we begin a Session.  Responses vary of course, but one Client recently got me thinking when she said: “It’s been ups and downs, peaks and valleys . . . today I’m in a valley.”

Wanting to clarify what she was struggling with I asked, “What’s happening in your valley?”

She looked at me with pain-filled eyes as she talked about her husband’s deteriorating health and other changes that have taken place the past year and a half.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me;"

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me . . . .”

My response surprised even me as I said softly:  “Valleys aren’t all bad.  In fact, there are good things to be found in valleys: meadows . . . wildflowers . . . and God.  Valleys provide a quiet place to reflect on the challenges we face as well as on God’s Goodness.”  

I waited a moment before adding, “Valleys provide opportunities for spiritual and emotional growth when God is part of the conversation.  We get into trouble though, when we talk only to ourselves rather than God.”

She looked at me quizzically before I added, “You know, those self-absorbed conversations we have within ourselves–‘I should have said this’, or ‘I wish I’d done that.’  When we are angry with someone else or beat ourselves up because of our failures: light and hope are overshadowed by bitterness, anger and regret.  It is then, when we begin to doubt God’s Goodness, that the pit of depression can seem to swallow us up.”

We opened to the first four verses of Psalm 23 to gain a biblical perspective on valleys:

The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,
for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me.”

Green pastures . . . still waters . . . soul restoration . . . clarity of mind and heart: ALL are ours when we stay close to the Shepherd of our hearts.  When shadows darken the terrain of our lives, He leads and enables us to walk (not run) through the scariest places as our Shield and Protector.

Isaiah says our problems multiply when we give way to fear.  It is then that we find ourselves in a pit of our own making:

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength.”
And you said, “No, we will flee on horses,”
Therefore you shall flee!
“And we will ride on swift horses,”
Therefore those who pursue you shall be swift.
One thousand will flee at the threat of one man;
You will flee at the threat of five,
Until you are left as a flag on a mountain top
And as a banner on a hill. 
(Verses 15-17)

Have you experienced that feeling of abandonment, when you look around and all you perceive is an impenetrable darkness?  Me too.  But don’t be fooled by your feelings; guard your heart against believing the worst of God.  Instead, consider the assuring words that follow the warning against being run by fear:

“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore He will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for Him!” 
(Verse 18)

“BLESSED . . . ALL who wait for Him,” in the valleys of our lives as well as on the highest peak.

But what about those pit times, when depression and anxiety darken your door and faith is all but forgotten?  I appreciate the grittiness at the end of the Isaiah passage that speaks truth and assurance:

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a Voice behind you, saying,
“This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”  
(Verses 21-22)

Jesus identified Himself as the Good Shepherd and gave further food for thought in John 10:14-16,

“I am the Good Shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me–
just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father–
and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen . . . .
They too will listen to my voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

As we determine to stay close to the Good Shepherd in thanksgiving and in faith–
refusing to give way to the destructive self-talk that spirals into a self-made pit–
He will provide the shelter needed to withstand any storm.

PRAISE HIM!

All to His Glory!