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!

Meaningful Soul Work: It Takes Two . . . .

The question I ask every Client I meet for the first time is, “Do you have any questions you would like to know about me personally or professionally?”  I encourage their questions because I believe they have a right to know something about the person they are about to open their lives to.  We live in a world where we can no longer assume that “spiritual counseling” is Christian counseling; where terms such as “soul work” have more to do with the sovereignty-of-self than with God’s Sovereignty.   This was affirmed recently when I googled, “Soul work–What is it?”   What appeared on my laptop screen were ten articles on self-healing, self-exploration and “being fully immersed in MY truth and purpose.” (Emphasis mine.)

The question raised in my mind after perusing several of the articles was:

"Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden . . . and find rest for your souls."
“Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden . . . and find rest for your souls.”

Can truly meaningful soul work happen apart from Christ and the Scriptures ministering to the human heart?  

In thinking about this question of meaningful soul work, the teaching of Jesus helps to clarify this spiritual mystery:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word
and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged
but has crossed over from death to life.”
 

John 5:24

Soul work is a God-thing.  It is belief in God’s provision, His only Son, that brings us from death to life in Christ–body, mind and soul.  Thinking about this I realized that I do have a story to share that I pray will be helpful in sorting out this question of meaningful soul work:

I was seven years old when I first became aware of the soul.  Even now, I can remember feeling the lump forming in my throat as I contemplated reciting the words of the classic children’s prayer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”*

Contemplating the seriousness of facing my own mortality and God, l ignored the lump, swallowed hard and prayed the words as best as I could.  That simple prayer, along with the Twenty-Third Psalm, became my “go-to” prayer for many years, long before I entered into a relationship with Christ:

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . .
I will fear no evilfor You are with me;
If I should die before I wake, I pray dear Lord, my soul to take.”

When I entered my twenties I set thoughts about God aside.  More than anything I wanted a family of my own.  I fell in love with a wonderful man, married and we began our family.  Outwardly things looked good, I had everything I had ever wanted.  However, it was the seventies and as time passed, the words of Helen Reddy’s popular recording, “I Am Woman”, became “my truth”:

“You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul.”

I probably fooled a lot of people with my outwardly confident appearance.  Yet inwardly, there was a darkness encroaching that I had little control over– all was not well with my soul.  The challenges of marriage and having young children left me feeling constantly defeated by a fierce anger that seemed to well up out of nowhere.  I made vow after vow that I would control my temper.  Yet after being defeated continually, I got to the point where I realized that I deserved to go to hell.  “Now I lay me down to sleep” was no longer enough to quell the ever deepening darkness.  It was at that point that I prayed a small desperate prayer, “God, please help . . . .”

In the weeks that followed I was invited to a Bible study** where I found opportunity to take an honest look at the Scriptures.  During that study the words of Jesus called through my self-focused darkness:

“The time has come . . . the kingdom of God has come near.
Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark 1:15

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, 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.…”
Matthew 11:28-29

Only after surrendering my life to Christ did light and hope begin to dispel the darkness . . . finally, I found rest for my soul!

Six decades later, I continue to find comfort in the simplicity of leaning into the wisdom and assurance of Scripture, as God’s Spirit tends to whatever fear crops up:

“Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from Him.
Truly He is my rock and my salvation;
He is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
Trust in Him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to Him,
for God is our refuge.”
Psalm 62:1,2, 8

I am struck by the contrast between my life before and after surrendering all to Christ.  That is why I urge every Client I serve to do the same through the Journey Notes process–a simple means of starting (or jump starting) an honest dialogue with our Creator/Soul Maker.

So . . . can meaningful soul work take place apart from the influence of our Creator?
What do you think?

All to His Glory!

*The New England Primer, 18th century textbook.
**Community Bible Study– http://www.communitybiblestudy.org/get-connected/find-a-class/

The Value of Remembrance~

What is it about loss that opens our eyes to the value of what we no longer have?  Three days ago my brother and I helped our elderly father say goodbye to our mother, his bride of 65 years.  Surrounded by loving family and friends, it was a hard day but God was very, very good.   The thing that hit me immediately as I entered the chapel for Mom’s service, was the absence of her laughter.  I realized the loss of her humorous outlook and outspokenness was going to be huge for our family.  Thankfully, stories about funny things that Mom said or did are already being collected to help us remember her.  One of my favorites was actually an interview recorded in their Senior Center Newsletter several years ago:

QUESTION:  What is the best costume you ever wore on Halloween?

MOM’S ANSWER:  My birthday suit, because I was born on Halloween!

The lesson that stands out is that, while suffering the loss of a relationship we value can be devastating; remembering their memory becomes vital.  Whatever financial or material gain realized with the loss of a loved one, does not compare to the value of their being remembered.

The importance of remembrance is not a new concept.  In fact, remembrance is a key element to growing a personal relationship with God.  As Moses prepared the Israelites to enter Egypt he gave specific instructions as to how they were to remember God as their Blessor and Provider:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.   Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. (REMEMBER!)  Impress them on your children. (REMEMBER!)  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (REMEMBER!)   Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. (REMEMBER!)  Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.  (REMEMBER!)

When the Lord your God brings you into the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build (REMEMBER!) ,  houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant (REMEMBER!)then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  (REMEMBER!) (Deuteronomy 5:4-12)

The words of Jesus, as He prepared His disciples for His death also gave pointed instructions on how they were to remember Him.  In Luke 22:14-20 we read,

When the hour came, Jesus and His apostles reclined at the table.   And He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

 After taking the cup, He gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you.   For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.

 In the same way, after the supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” 

In Old and New Testaments, God calls His people to REMEMBRANCE HIS FAITHFUL PROVISION IN GOOD TIMES AND IN DIFFICULTY.  It is in our remembrance of Him as the Shepherd of our hearts that we discover our resting place.  Such is the value of remembrance!

Yesterday I called Dad before getting on an airplane to fly to my home.  As he talked about how much he misses Mom I encouraged him to remember the 23rd Psalm:  “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . . .”  Later, as I wrote about our conversation in my Journey Notes, it struck me that whatever comfort to be found when we loose someone we love, is not so much in our remembering them but in holding on to God’s comforting love for us.  In Jeremiah 31, God promised a repentant Israel (then living in Babylonian exile because of their rebellion against Him) a future of restoration and hope as they remembered Him.  I was especially touched by verse 13B:

“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.”

It is in remembering God’s faithfulness throughout the ages as the Shepherd of our hearts, that we are comforted and discover joy in remembering those we have lost.  If you are going through a time of suffering loss or disappointment, join me in giving thanks to the One who is faithful no matter what!

All to His Glory!

Suffering Loss With The Comfort Of The Shepherd~

I received a phone call from my brother Norm earlier this week with the news that Mom did not wake up that morning.  The assisted living staff where my parents have lived for the past two years found her while Dad was still asleep.  Thankfully, Norm was able to be there when Dad woke up so that together, they were able to say tearful goodbyes to the wife and mother who we now sorely miss.  

What is it about death, even when we know it is coming, that is still so very shocking?  Mom was 87 and had been increasingly asleep since she had a stroke a week before Christmas.  During our visit a week and a half ago she slept almost the entire time.  Even so, the thought of not having her with us is difficult to comprehend.  The larger question that keeps running through my mind since that morning phone call is, “How does one suffer the loss of a parent?”  There is no way to practice for this and I cannot tell you that I have a definitive  answer to that question.  What I can share with you is the wisdom and comfort that has been shown me by the Shepherd, as I began to mourn the loss of my mom.  

The process began with my brother’s phone call.  As I sat in the den trying to take in the news, my mind went in a myriad of directions.  I realized I would miss her laugh and her very quirky, outspoken ways.  I worried about my dad.  When I talked to him on the phone he kept saying, “It’s too soon!” and “I don’t know if I can live another ten years without her!”  I told him what I was holding onto, “Today is a gift, Dad.  Let’s just trust God and take it one day at a time.”  As I reflected on my conversation with Dad, I realized that even though my parents were married almost 66 years, death would always come “too soon” from our very human perspective.

I remembered a song that was a favorite of mine when I first gave my heart to Christ Jesus.  I looked up the words to the song and found comfort in the wisdom of Jeremiah recorded in Lamentations 3:22-24,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in Him.”  (ESV)

When we suffer loss it is no small comfort to remember that we are not abandoned by God.  What a blessing to be reminded that in the midst of suffering loss, God’s love is “steadfast” and it “never ceases!”  As I reflected on Jeremiah’s words I thought about my relationship with my mom.  I would love to be able to tell you that it was all wonderful, but I can’t.  There were times when our relationship was very rocky; times when I knew that living three thousand miles apart was actually helpful.  But God used my mom to scale down the pride and unforgiveness I carried in my heart for many years.  In the end, God freed me to love her in ways that I never thought possible.  I have been grateful all these years for that gracious freedom.  As I reflected on the miracle of love granted me by such a faithful Shepherd, the wisdom of Jeremiah pulsed through my mind and heart . . . HOLD ON TO THE GOOD . . . HOLD ONTO THE COMFORT OF THE SHEPHERD OF OUR SOULS!  

This morning I am giving thanks to God as my faithful Shepherd.  The thought of the coming days without Mom is still difficult to think about, but I am grateful for His steadfast love that keeps me on the right path.  If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one or friend (or perhaps you are struggling with regrets that you can do nothing about) then join me in running to the Shepherd of our souls for the comfort and perspective only He can give.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.
  He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
 He restores my soul.
He guides 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.

 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
 Surely goodness and love will follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
   forever.

All to His Glory!