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:
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:
Some may choose to ignore Christmas–with hearts bitter toward God..
Others will go through the motions of Christmas–not wanting to disappoint others, but find themselves numb within.
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:
There is a small sampler hanging in the entryway of my home. Few people notice it (probably because it is surrounded by pictures of family) but I quite enjoy its depiction of a colonial home with a tree along with a beehive with bees framed by flowers and greenery typical of a colonial sampler. Yet, as lovely as it is to look at, for me, the best part is the message it proclaims: “Blessed is the life that finds joy in the journey.”
JOY. The Bible mentions joy frequently, but in ways that a world focused on itself cannot understand:
“Consider it PURE JOY, my brothers,
whenever you face trials of many kinds . . . .” James 1:2
“Do not be grieved, for the JOY of the LORD is your strength.”
“But REJOICE . . .
as you participate in the sufferings of Christ,
SO THAT YOU MAY BE OVERJOYED
when His glory is revealed.”*
I Peter 4:13
Holding onto joy in the journey can often elude us in our ever-changing, increasingly upside-down world. For more than twenty years I have been privileged to come alongside people fighting personal battles large and small in the Counseling Room. As we have looked to the Scriptures for wisdom and perspective, God has faithfully spoken to each hurting, hungry soul. Repeatedly, I have witnessed God’s faithfulness in shepherding the hearts of those faithful to do their Journey Notes—as the assurance of His Presence and Purpose being worked our in their lives, provide a quiet JOY that settles in their hearts.
So, how can we receive JOY when life hits hard?
By giving thanks to God IN the hard places.
An even better question to ponder is:
How can we retain JOY throughout our journey?
By give thanks to God FOR the hard places.
I met a young woman recently who, though shattered by infidelity in her marriage, told me about how God had softened her once angry and bitter heart. She confessed her own failures as she expressed her determination to be reconciled with her husband. She admitted that she almost canceled our appointment except for one remaining question: “Is there anything else I can do to encourage my husband to want to re-build our marriage?”
I responded with a question that burned brightly in my mind as soon as I heard her question, “Have you given thanks to God for your husband’s life and for your marriage?” I went on to explain, “You have testified to me about how God has brought about change and spiritual growth in your mind and heart. GIVE THANKS, for the blessing of God’s divine purposes being worked out in your heart and life–a maturing, humble faith.” She nodded with a thoughtful smile as the wisdom of what was said settled in.
What lesson can we learn from this? While the world touts “happiness”, God calls us to go deeper as we choose JOY as a reflection of our trust in Him.
The Apostle Paul wrote to encourage his friends about the basis of his JOY from a prison cell:
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,
whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
I can do all this through Him (Christ) who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:12, 13
If you are looking for a formula for Joy/contentment in your circumstances, this acronym for JOY will serve you well: put Jesus first, Others second and Yourself, last.
True Christ-centered JOY, chooses to trust more in His love for us, as we give thanks that we are never alone.**
Christ-centered JOY remembers the all-surpassing love of the One who came expressly to save us from ourselves . . . for Himself:
He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another. . . build each other up, just as in fact you are doing . . . . Rejoice always, pray continually, GIVE THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES*; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:10, 11, 16-18
Forty-five years ago, I married a man in love with flying. On our first date, he rented a small airplane to fly us over the Los Angeles Basin as we shared a pizza. When he asked me to marry him, that man made sure I knew that flying would an important part of our future when he asked, “How’d ya like to join the Air Force?” (All these years later, I still find myself smiling as I remember saying, “Yes!”–even though a small part of me wondered if he was an Air Force recruiter! I was quite relieved when (four days later) he handed me a brochure titled, The Air Force Wife!)
On those occasions when we fly together, I always marvel at how carefully he looks over every inch of the outside of the airplane, making sure nothing is loose or missing. He does the same thing once we get into the cockpit, handing me the checklist to read aloud as he confirms each section is in good order.
After watching him commit to memory so much about each airplane’s systems and procedures for so many decades, I asked him why a checklist was even really necessary? This was his answer:
“A checklist is a necessity because human memory is fallible.
We get into trouble when we forget parts,
add what isn’t there,
or do things in the wrong order.
To go through the checklist verbatim makes sure nothing is overlooked.”
Bottom line? Flying is serious and sometimes risky business. Whenever there is an accident, especially when there is loss of life, there is always a team sent to determine the cause of the crash. There can be many reasons cited when a plane comes down, the one that is most dreaded and hardest to bear is, “pilot error“, because it implies the accident could have somehow been avoided.
As I reflect on how essential reviewing a checklist is before every flight, I am convinced that Christians have a responsibility to rely on the Scriptures themselves, rather than memorization,
to navigate a world filled with danger.
I do not mean to say that Scripture memorization has no value–because it certainly does! However, there is always a danger of misapplication when it is taken out of context. In the Counseling Room, no matter how knowledgable a Client may be when it comes to familiarity with Scripture, there is always danger for “pilot error.” We are fallen, fallible beings who need the wisdom of the Scriptures–within its context–to keep us on track. Hebrews 4:12 affirms our need:
“For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,
it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow;
it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
The wonderful thing about investing ourselves in the Scriptures, is that they offer so much more than the basics of living. Through this “alive” and “active” entity, the Creator beckons us into a relationship with Him. This, my friend, is the call to risk everything we perceive as being “safe”, for something larger and far richer than anything we can humanly imagine. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul wrote:
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature;
the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” II Corinthians 5:17
If you have surrendered your heart to Christ, celebrate His provision of the Scriptures and His Spirit to help you stay on the path He has marked out for you. (Ephesians 2:10)
A faith that takes flight is alive and active.
Such a faith reflects the constant nurturing of the Scriptures
through the working of God’s Spirit. In difficulty and well as in times of ease, a faith intent on worshiping God is one that ultimately soars.
So . . . no matter where you are in your life, God calls you not to deal with the challenges and joys of life in your own strength–too much room for “pilot error”! Instead, remembering “the old has passed away . . . new things have come”, go to the Scriptures with intentionality to get to know Him better. The following are some passages that are some favorites of mine:
“Worship the LORD in the splendor of His holiness; tremble before Him all the earth.”
Psalm 104:2-4 makes me shiver with wonder:
“He wraps Himself with light as with a garment;
He stretches out the heavens as with a tent
and lays the beams of His upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds His chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds His messengers,
flames of fire His servants.”
I love the powerful images in Isaiah 4o:27-31:
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and His understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
Of course there are so many more . . . if you have the time, please share some of your favorites in the comments section.
Now for a little earthly honesty: When I met my husband I was full of fear when it came to flying. In fact, I hid my fears from him because I wanted to get to know the guy with the twinkly eyes better. Over time I admitted my struggle to him–did my best to support him in his career–but it was tough. A breakthrough for me came in early 2002,. I was preparing to fly 3,000 miles from my home, when I came upon a verse I had read many times. Somehow, it seemed to jump off the page with new meaning as it connected with my problem:
“All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
Ka-pow! God spoke to my heart at that moment with an assurance I had never fully appreciated. I realized that there is nothing that can rob me of one moment of the life God ordained from the beginning of time. The wonderful news is that it is the same for you! I urge you: fly to Him with whatever burden is weighing on your heart–NOW! Release it to Him with thanksgiving, as you enjoy the wonder of His faithfulness . . . All to His Glory!
There is a difference between “joy” as it is experienced in the world and Christian joy.
Joy in the world is much like that of happiness contained in a helium balloon. Such joy can appear to be almost wondrous as it floats high into the sky. However, the enjoyment is only temporary as it drifts out of sight and ultimately “pops” as circumstances change.
Christian joy is not tainted by adverse circumstances or the actions of others. Christian joy is instead filled with the hope and wisdom of faith in Christ Jesus.
If you are struggling with circumstances that are out of your control, or are trying to make sense of the hateful ugliness being reported in the news, then I encourage you to stop and consider the wisdom of James.* In his letter directed to, “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,”James sought to encourage and exhort God’s people living in uncertain times (times similar to our own) to persevere in their faith to discover the “pure joy” of an ever-deepening relationship with Christ. What is the essence of Christian joy? Here is what James says:
“Consider it PURE JOY my brethren, whenever you face TRIALS OF MANY KINDS . . . because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Let perseverance finish its work SO THAT YOU MAY BE MATURE AND COMPLETE, NOT LACKING ANYTHING.” James 1:2-4 (Emphasis mine.)
The first time I read James, I thought his call to “pure joy” was some sort of weird, masochistic invitation to delight in suffering. (You can bet I kept a wide berth between myself and James for quite some time!) However, after going through some personal trials of my own, I remembered James and went back to discover the blessing I did not appreciate before.That last bit, about needing to persevere in my faith (trusting in God’s goodness rather than allowing hurt or disappointment to darken my perceptions) hit me like a fresh shot of sunshine that suddenly burst through a massive bank of dark clouds. As I thought about God’s goal for my life–to work out a mature faith within me–all the defenses I had erected in the past to protect myself crumbled. I realized then, that the joy James described was what I wanted too.
But, how exactly is Christian joy to be worked out? Is it just a matter of “keeping a stiff upper lip” and trusting that everything will somehow work out? Thankfully, I kept reading James and found the answer to my question:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God,
who gives generously to all without finding fault . . . .
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt,
because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”
So, what is the essence of Christian joy and how is it even possible in the world we live in?
To rejoice in trial means that we refuse to doubt God’s Goodness as we seek His wisdom by faith.
Christian joy refuses to give way to fear but is strengthened as we resolve to stand in faith.
Christian joy is not naive but rests in knowing that the things of this world are only temporary, that our Hope (and therefore our joy in Christ) is eternal.
Christian joy is about going deeper in your faith to gain maturity. It stretches beyond mere ascent to belief in Christ,
as it determines to embrace the benefits of maturity God affords under trial.
No matter what you may be facing, James directs us to rejoice in the sure knowledge that this is not all there is. In essence, James is calling you and I to step out of ourselves (like Peter stepped out of the boat so long ago) to gain a maturity of faith that is out of this world. So-o-o-o-o, what are you waiting for? Give thanks to God for His Goodness as a mature faith is worked out in you . . . .
All to His Glory!
*An interesting side note: James was a half-brother to Jesus yet only refers to himself as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. (James 1:1)
“Perspective is everything.” I don’t know where I picked it up, but it is a phrase I find myself repeating a lot these days. Yesterday, as I prepared to make the half-hour drive to attend the funeral of my friend Pat, I remembered back to when she told me she had cancer, two and a half months ago. (Even then, that conversation was so remarkable that I decided to share Pat’s story with you in, A Healthy Death.) In that conversation, still shaken by the news of Pat’s battle that had been ongoing for three months, I found comfort and blessing as Jim (Pat’s husband) told me how they had decided to pray,
“This is what it boils down to, Kathie,
we are praying for HEALING or . . . for A HEALTHY DEATH!”
Since writing that post, I have thought often about writing its follow-up . . . hoping to write to you about Pat’s miraculous healing. Yet inwardly, I also wondered, “If You decide to take Pat Home, Lord, what would You have me write? What exactly does a healthy death look like?”
As I drove to the funeral home, all I could think about was the pain of separation being experienced by Pat’s family and friends. It was good to greet and feel the hugs of friends I had not seen for many years. It was also amazing to see the crowds of others, whom I had never met, but who also had been touched by Pat’s life. As I watched Pat’s family offer comfort and reassuring hugs to all who came, I was struck by how they reflected the love and strength of the One carrying them.This, I realized, was my first lesson on what a healthy death looks like–the Body of Christ ministering to one another.
The Service for Pat began with this simple story:
Around 125 A.D., a Greek by the name of Aristeides wrote to one of his friends,trying to explain the extraordinary success of the new religion, Christianity.In his letter he said, “If any righteous man among the Christians passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they accompany his body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.”
I was struck by how very much the Christian walk is about pilgrimage–then and now. The pain of death is nothing new. However for Christians, the sting of death has been taken away, because of the Hope we share from this life into the next. In fact, the second lesson on a healthy death, relates to it’s uniqueness to the Christian faith. There is no possibility of experiencing a healthy death apart from the saving work of Jesus in the heart, mind and soul of the individual.
During the Service, hearts were ministered to as some of Pat’s favorite songs and hymns were sung. I found the wisdom and perspective of the Scriptures shared to be strengthening and uplifting. Certainly tears were spilled and will continue for some time, as we remember Pat. However, as we rely on the Hope embedded in the Resurrection of Christ–promised to all who trust in Him–we are strengthened to persevere on this journey and into the next. What the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21 reflects our third lesson on a healthy death: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
This morning, I thought about Pat as I remembered the words from an old hymn:
” . . . and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on!
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on!”*
The thought of Pat presently experiencing such freedom brought fresh delight to my soul. This rendition of Fernando Ortega’s, “What Wondrous Love Is This” is a favorite of mine. I offer it to those of you who may be suffering loss or who are facing uncertainty in your life right now. What does a healthy death look like? Take a moment to reflect on this question as you marvel in His Wondrous Grace. Truly . . . PERSPECTIVE IS EVERYTHING!
“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Psalm 139:16b
All to His Glory!
*What Wondrous Love Is This, Author: Unknown, first published 1811.
It was one of those rare moments when all the pieces fell into place in one full swoop. We were in the Counseling Room talking about faith. My Client, having grown up in a loving, Christian home, expressed her longing to regain the “warm fuzzies” of the faith she enjoyed in her youth. Presently in her early thirties, and having made choices in her young adulthood she deeply regrets, I could see that she was at a spiritual crossroads . . . unsure of the direction she needed to go.
Suddenly, this question wafted out of my mouth and across the room before I even had time to think about it, “Lisa, tell me everything you know about eagles . . . how do they learn to fly?” Looking at me quizzically, it took her a moment to begin processing the question that appeared to come out of nowhere. Rephrasing it slightly, I again asked, “What do you know about how eaglets learn to fly?”
Obviously wrestling with the relevancy of my question to our discussion on faith, Lisa replied, “Well . . . I don’t know . . . I . . . .”
I leaned forward, sensing a growing excitement that the Lord was about to reveal something really special to us. As I did, I remembered the words of Isaiah that describe God in all of His majesty as He surveys His Creation:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.” Isaiah 40: 22-23
As I thought about God observing us from on high, I measured my words carefully, “Lisa, an eagle’s nest is very large, comfortable and safe for the newborn eaglets. But as they grow, their parents remove the comfortable stuff to get them to begin to exercise their wings and learn to fly. In fact, they also limit their food by holding it high above them so they have to reach for it. Lisa, eaglets that do not learn to fly cannot survive.“
Thoughtful, as she reflected on our previous conversation about faith, Lisa responded, “Are you telling me, that to continue to long for those warm, fuzzy feelings I enjoyed for so long is somehow wrong?”
I looked at her and felt a smile working outwardly across my face as I said, “Lisa, faith is so much more than a feeling! God wants MORE for you and I when it comes to growing a mature faith. God wants you and I to implicitly invest ourselves into knowing the Scriptures and rely on His Holy Spirit– whether the feelings are there or not!”
As I spoke those words, they came at me in a new and fresh way. For so many years I have listened to Clients struggle with what they call, a “disconnect” in their faith. Many yearn to go back to those “warm fuzzy” days in their walk with Christ. They mourn their loss of the feelings that had accompanied their faith before the ravages of “life” assailed them. In all the years I have sought to walk by faith, it never occurred to me what a detriment to faith our feelings can be. In no way do I mean to assert that feelings are bad. However, I do believe that to measure the strength of our faith by our feelings is a grave error. The litmus test of a mature faith that pleases God, boils down to Jesus’ declaration recorded in John 14:15,
“If you love Me you will obey My commandments.”
As Lisa and I continued to talk, the concluding verses of Isaiah 40 opened yet another door in my mind, shedding light on the kind of faith every servant of Christ should ascribe to:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Isaiah 40: 28-31
A faith that soars cannot rely solely on feelings– such a faith
comes dangerously close to becoming self-centered rather than focused on Christ.
Just as eaglets must trust their parents to learn to fly, a faith that soars must also learn from the loving obedience of our Savior.
In those final moments in the Counseling Room, the walls fell away as Lisa and I considered the limitless possibilities of a soaring faith . . . . No matter where you are right now in your faith, be encouraged–God has a plan and purpose for your life. No matter what you have said or done in the past, resolve to look to Christ rather than to your feelings as you make choices based on loving obedience to Him. You may not realize it immediately but I guarantee, your faith lived out in obedience will enable you to soar beyond your feelings, to a glorious eternity with Him.