Lessons from the ER

Sunday night I found myself at the hospital with Anna again. Her feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger have been uncontrollable. She was at the point where she did not trust herself to not hurt herself again and wanted to go to the hospital. I went with her. I was there with her until Monday evening. It took that long to find an open placement for her. But against the odds she got one.

What a way to spend Memorial day weekend right? But I learned a lot over that 21 hour wait:
Again I learned what a privilege it is to be with Anna and to advocate for her and stand with her when she is weak.
I learned that I can still do all-fighters and/or function on very little sleep.
I learned that being there with Anna meant everything to her.
I learned that when I am punch-drunk tired, I can be very funny.
I learned that you can be both amazingly strong and beautiful and extremely fragile and broken at the same time.
I learned that the prayers of friends and family are effective and necessary to keep me going.
I learned that Anna loves to play with hospital bed controls… especially if they are yours and not hers.
I learned that I do love being her dad. =)
And I learned that right now I can’t be in formal pastoral ministry. Family needs me too much. I can’t give the kind of time and energy to Anna and the rest of my family and also look after a congregation. I need to focus on them right now, and for the foreseeable future. So I have decided to switch gears and stay at Two Guys Smoke Shop and not consider fulltime ministry positions at this time. I will still take advantage of speaking and preaching opportunities, and I will still write and post on my blog here.

Ironically, twenty years ago today, I graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. I was set to go from there into a lifetime of pastoral ministry. Now it looks like I may never go back. When I decided to go to seminary, I went with the attitude that there was no downside to it. At best, I would have the necessary academic credentials to pursue my calling into pastoral ministry. At worst (if you an say worst) I would be well educated in my faith and that would set me up to excel in my own faith and in practice as a husband, father, and worker in Christ’s kingdom.

You see, there is no not being a worker in His kingdom. I don’t see myself as having been demoted or benched. In some ways I feel promoted! We sometimes are guilty of thinking that pastors and missionaries are the ultimate Christians. That, my friends, is not at all the case. In truth the most influential Christian leader, mentor, and spiritual father I have ever met was an insurance salesman! That man loved Jesus better than anyone I know… and that includes all the pastors I know. Never confuse a degree or a title or a position as necessary things to possess in order to do “real” work in the Father’s kingdom. Most kingdom work happens in the everyday, common, and normal places of life where none of those things really come into play… like spending 21 hours in an ER with your anxious and hurting daughter.


A four letter word can make all the difference… but its not the word you think!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach again at a local church. I have about half a dozen messages that I have ready to go when these opportunities arrive. Sometimes, when I am invited to speak a text or theme is picked out for me, but more often than not, that is left to me. I knew a month ago what I would be preaching yesterday. The sermon was Cornered for Grace based on Psalm 13. I have posted that sermon and the audio of one of the times I gave it here. While I was sure that God was moving me to preach it to this congregation, I did not know is how timely it was going to be for me.

It has been a rough week. I have a daughter in the hospital for depression and a spiritual daughter in for the same. We are in the middle of a kitchen remodel that was made necessary by water damage. We have had a devil of a time scheduling a plumber to come in and reconnect everything. You never think about how important a sink and stove are to the mood of the house until they are gone. It is amazing how much stress that can build up, especially in our girls. It has been forever it seems since I have worked on my PhD thesis. The fires keep listing up and the things that need done keep building up.

As usual I agree with Calvin who once quipped…

Calvin & Hobbes - "God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I'm so far behind I will never die.":

Yeah. I totally get that.

I know things are going to work out. The lesson here is to be learning that I am not capable and that Jesus is capable. I am not enough, but Jesus is enough; and because of Jesus I will always have enough. Unfortunately, the only way to be learning that is to be taken to people and places and to problems where it becomes painfully clear that you are not enough and if Jesus does not come to the rescue, you’re sunk! The truth is Jesus has always come through in the past. I have every reason to trust Him for today and tomorrow.

While that is a great truth to be learning, it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. Most people when they hear a person tell them the hard things they are going through as they are learning these things, say things like: I’m so sorry. I’ll pray for you. Everything happens for a reason. But I have been learning that sometimes the most helpful thing is to validate the crap.

Let me give an example.

After the service yesterday, I talked with a woman who shared how much the message helped her. She had recently been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. “We all know where that ends up.” She said.

I looked her in the eyes and what came out of my mouth was, “That sucks.”

She blinked in surprise, then gave a deep sigh of relief, smiled and said, “Thank you. It does suck. thank you so much for saying that. That is what I needed to hear.”

I have been learning that sometimes the best way to help people get through the pain, is to validate the pain. We need to give people the grace and space to admit that while everything will be alright, right now it is not alright, and that it hurts. David did it in Psalm 13. Elijah told God he wanted to die. So did Moses at one point. Jeremiah had his share of bad days too. So did Job. Even Jesus asked for the cup of suffering to be taken away if it were possible. That should make it clear that it is okay to not be okay.

Love in the Dark

God in His sovereign wisdom has had me walking through dark, dank, and deep places of late. While I would not say that I myself am experiencing a dark night of the soul, I have family and friends who are; and in a real sense I am in those dark nights with them.

It is easy to say “I love you” and to believe that you mean it when things are pleasant and fun and there is a lot to look forward to. But what about when the green pastures and quiet waters of life are no longer in view; when life becomes arid and barren, or dark and foreboding, unsafe even, where those warm and happy feelings that we often equate with love seem so few and far between?

Ironically, it is not in the light but in the dark that we tend to see the pain and brokenness of heart and soul, both in ourselves and in the people we are walking with. It is in these seasons and circumstances where love is needed the most, that it is the hardest to give and is the most costly.

It is hard because when people are hurting or scared or hopeless they sometimes want to push you away; they will say they do not want or need you, that helping them is pointless, or that things will never change. It is hard to love people when they don’t want it, are unable to acknowledge or accept it, or cannot return it. But it is in these times—more than any other—when love is so hard, that we see just how important love is (even if those we are trying to love can’t), and how badly we need to be loved.

Loving into or out of these difficult places is not only hard but costly. It can be extremely exhausting. It can be heartbreaking. It often costs time that you would normally give to other things. It can cost financially too. It can be isolating because often other people do not understand why it is worth the effort. It may require putting dreams and aspirations on hold. And if you are not careful (and sometimes even when you are) the stress, exertion, and pain can drag you down too.

Love, if we are at all honest with ourselves is far more than just peasant feelings. It is more complicated than that. Just look at 1 Corinthians 13:7 (NIV), It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. The Greek word the NIV translates as “always” literally means “all.” I think the NLT catches the meaning best, Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. A love that lives up to such a description is more than fluffy feel good stuff. Love is fierce, tenacious, strong as steel, and hard as diamonds. Love certainly involves our lighter emotions, but it cannot be simply reduced to them either. For love to never give up, to never lose faith, to always hope, and to endure through every circumstance requires that love produce a loyalty and commitment that makes us want to act on behalf of the people we love. Love without action is nothing more than a shadow of love; it is an empty profession apart from the fruit of action and commitment that proves we truly possess it.

Certainly there is no clearer example of this than the cross, where Jesus was willing endure such extreme pain and humiliation at the hands of men and the omnipotent wrath of His Father for the sins of people who pushed Him away, who thought they did not want or need Him or knew they needed His help, who didn’t want it, were unable to acknowledge or accept it, and could not return it. His love did not shy away when it is hard or costly. I am so thankful that He is willing to love even when it is hard and costly. Where would I be without it? Surely nowhere good. That love breathed light and life into my cold and broken heart. And when His love is in us, our love will prove itself with like fruit.

Love is good in the daytime when life is bright and sunny, but it is no less needed at night when life is hard and painful…and perhaps even more so. I have been learning that this is one of the main reasons God brings us to dark places, so we see our need for the light of love and feel its strength, and so we can bring that same light and strength to those who need it most, especially to those who are walking in the dark, and into places where the strength of love is needed.

Lessons from being let go

So a bit over a week ago, I got a call from my wife Mandi all in tears. She was let go by her employer. She loved what she was doing and the people she was working with. I don’t need to go into the details, but she is not being replaced, her position was cut. It was a real shock to her (and to me too to be honest). We are very much a two income family, and we knew that if she didn’t get work asap we would be in big trouble.

Like you would expect, she was wracking her brain trying to figure out what happened: Did she do something wrong? What could she have done differently? Why would God take away a job that she loved and that fulfilled her so much? Yet I could not help thinking that God had pulled her away from that work for something else that He needed her doing more.

That night, she called her parents to tell them what was going on. As the conversation progressed, they began batting around the idea of hiring her as a CNA for themselves. Her mom has advanced Parkinson’s and her dad is recovering from a mild stroke. They had been paying for 24/7 help through a home health aid service. By the end of the next day, it have been worked out that she would work full time for them. Now she is getting more time with her parents and getting to care for them when they need it most which she has wanted to do and is making the same money she was at her previous job. They feel much more comfortable with Mandi doing all the personal things that need done, she is qualified to do more as a CNA than the home health aids were able to do, and because she is private, they are saving a lot of money and helping us out at the same time which they have wanted to do. It is a big win-win.

We have been learning the importance of looking at events like Mandi losing her job, or water damage from a broken pipe, or not knowing how the bills are going to get paid this month through the lens of faith. I’m not talking a blind irrational kind of faith. I’m talking about faith that God will do what you cannot, that He will provide what you cannot, that He will get you to where He wants you to be when you have no way there. We have been learning that these lessons never get learned. They are not things we mater and move on from. Rather they are lessons that get taken to new and deeper levels throughout your life. At least, that is what I have been learning. Perhaps you have too.

This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland
(Isaiah 43:16-19, NIV).

And then this happened

As Pharaoh approached, the people of Israel looked up and panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them. They cried out to the LORD, and they said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!'” (Exodus 14:10-12, NLT).

I hate winter. I have made so secret about that. Bad things happen in winter. I mean just yesterday there were three accidents right outside the shop where I work. The third was more surprising. I got a call from a customer that had just left asking if I knew that a car had crashed into our building. I hadn’t heard anything (no one else had either) but I went to the front door to check anyway. I was not expecting what I saw.


Things that make you go “hmmm.”

How does that happen without making any noise?

Business was slow enough with the weather. Having a car in the entry way didn’t help that.

Sometimes life is like that isn’t it? Sometimes things come quietly crashing into our life. We may not even hear it happen. All the sudden we look up and realize things are a mess. Maybe you had something to do wit it, or maybe it just happened.

Times like these have a tendency to highlight our weakness don’t they? We get afraid, we doubt, we question ourselves, we wonder how things will ever get fixed. We wonder how we could have been so blind or stupid or careless or clueless or unlucky.

Please tell me I am not the only person who has felt that way? You know what I’m talking about right?

I have been learning that these are the times when God is working deep in our souls doing work that only He can do. He seems absent, quiet, and unconcerned. But the reality is that He is working where you can’t see. The frustrating thing is that we can’t see what He is doing, it certainly doesn’t feel good, and there are no clear explanations given. That makes these times hard. We want to know what God is doing, why He allows things, why He doesn’t remove things, and what He hopes to gain.

I’m sure that is what the Israelites were thinking in that passage. They though they were free, but now they seemed trapped with no way out. There was no where to run. They couldn’t fight their way out. What was the point of getting out of Egypt if they were just going to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army?

In these times our work is to let Him work. And that’s work! It takes work to trust, to wait, to sit still.

I am reminded of a time when my daughter Rachel needed stitches in her lip. She was jumping around the living room and slipped and fell into the coffee table. She was two at the time. She was hysterical. When we were in the emergency room getting her stitches, she needed to be held down on the table and her head held still. The doctor and nurses were great. They were very kind. She got some good drugs to numb the pain. But it did not look kind, or feel like she was being helped. To her, she was restrained on a table while a stranger suck her lip with a shot of Novocain and then took a needle and thread to her face. To her God was gone and her parents weren’t helping. To us, we were doing everything we needed to in order to heal her.

We don’t really perceive how we are changing or growing in these times. It isn’t until they are over that we begin to see the fruits of what was done. Are we willing to do the work of resting in God’s hands and trusting in His love and care for us?

No, I’m not fantastic….

Image result for not ok

Apparently my face is not exuding happiness. Several people over the weekend and at church asked what was wrong with me. One person even asked if I was getting divorced. Wow! Nothing could be further from the truth.

But I have had a lot on my mind lately. Major repairs that need done to the house from some water damage. Anna had cut again for the first time in over two years and ended up back in an in-patient therapy program for ten days. Then she broke her ankle. All three girls and Mandi have been sick. Money is tight. I am working to ramp up my pulpit supply calendar to deal with that. That’s just what I’m willing to share, and it doesn’t include friends of mine that I am helping walk through difficult times too.

A friend told me this weekend someone at church asked how he was, to which he responded, “I’m doing alright.”

“Just all right? You should be fantastic!”

“Well, I’m not. I’m just alright.”

Can I be honest? I don’t trust people who are fantastic all the time. That is doubly true of Christians. Problems, challenges, failings, disappointments, surprises, headaches, and heart-brakes are what life is made of. Yes, there is a lot of joy, happiness, successes, and breakthroughs in life too, but it is not all that—and certainly not all that all the time. Being a Christian does not make all your problems go away, nor does it make all your problems magically manageable. It is real work to love. It is painful and costly to be growing in humility, to give grace, and to lift people out of the muck and more of events that threaten to suck them under the riptides of mess.

I think the Church would be a much better place if it were a safe place to talk about our problems, messes, and disappointments openly. I think you would see God work in much more powerful ways, see His grace more clearly, and feel His love more deeply. Not only that, but you would soon see that you are not the only person with problems. And when you hear the problems that other people are dealing with, you may be very happy to have the ones you’ve got!


Do You See the Lions?

I’ve been feeling the spiritual battle again. The reality is, it never really stops. We are never out of it. But some events make us more aware lf it than others. I guess the last few weeks have made me very aware lf it again.

If you are a theologically conservative evangelical Christian (like myself) and you spend any time reading their blogs and scrolling through their social media feeds, you will discover a favorite pastime: talking about what is wrong, missing, or avoided in the Church at large. While I wonder about the effectiveness of such an approach, I will take my chances and throw my own hat into the ring.

I don’t think we pay enough attention to this:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:8-9, NIV).

The Bible clearly teaches that Satan is both defeated, and is still an enemy. This is crucial to understand, and something I think we conservative evangelicals and especially Reformed types (again, like myself) tend to gloss over. Sometimes we focus so much on the gravity of the fall and the depth of original sin that we don’t bother to look outside of ourselves for the cause of suffering and sin. But I have been learning that if you are going to advance very far in the Christian life, you have to live in light of that reality. That means accepting three things as true.

The first is understanding that Satan and demons are real. They are not fictional characters or metaphors or symbols, they are real beings, as real as you and me. Satan and demons are angelic beings who rebelled against God and have been cast out of heaven. Paul makes it very clear that Satan and demons are real, saying in Ephesians 6:12 (NIV), For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Not only are Satan and devils real, they are not in heaven or hell, but here on earth. Three times Jesus refers to Satan as the prince of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11). Paul refers to him as the god of this age in 2 Corinthians 4:4, and as the ruler of the kingdom of the air in Ephesians 2:2. Revelation 12:9 tells us that Satan was the serpent who lead Adam and Eve to sin. Satan accused Job in Job 1:9 and 2:4. He enticed David to sin in 1 Chronicles 21:1. He accused Joshua the High Priest before God in Zechariah 3:2. He tempted Christ in the wilderness. He was behind Peter’s insistence that Jesus would not need to go to the cross in Mark 8:33. John 13:27 says that Satan was behind Judas’ betrayal of Christ. Satan and demons are real, and they have been adversaries of God and accusers of His people from the beginning. In fact Satan means “Accuser,” or “Adversary.”

The second reality we need to accept is that Satan was defeated at the cross. When Satan made Adam and Eve sin in the Garden of Eden, he was sure he had found a way to permanently corrupt God’s creation, and doom humanity to God’s wrath, taking away the entire human race whom God had made in His image for Himself and for His glory. But he was wrong. The author of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 2:14 (NIV), Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil. Once our sin was punished in the death of Christ, Satan’s power over us was destroyed. So Paul says in Colossians 2:13-15 (NIV),

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Satan has been disarmed. There is now nothing he can accuse us of before God. Not only are we no longer condemned, but we are now free again to be totally loved by God. What Satan thought he had undone at the fall, God restored in an irrevocable way at the cross. So Paul is moved to say in Romans 8:37-39 (NIV),

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus totally defeated Satan at the cross.

The third reality is that Satan is still a dangerous enemy. Revelation 12:12 (NIV) says,

But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.

Satan is not locked up. He knows that he has been defeated, but he is still fighting. He is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10:20 that it is Satan and demons who are behind the idols of other nations. He warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:1 (NIV) The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. He was aware that Satan was scheming against him and the work of the Apostles so he needed to be careful that he was not outwitted (2 Corinthians 2:11). A few chapters later in 2 Corinthians 11:12-15 (NIV) he says,

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.

Satan and demons are real. He has been defeated. They are still fighting, full of fury over what happened at the cross, and all the more because they know their time is short.

Examples? Let me share a few…

When my wife Mandi was 32 weeks along in her pregnancy with Rachel she had severe complications that landed her in the hospital for a week and a half. After she came home she had a hard time sleeping. I had sleep apnea but was not diagnosed yet, meaning I snored—loud enough to wake the dead. So I was banished to the living room couch.

Late that night, she woke up to a heavy oppressive force on her chest, arms, legs, and unborn baby, that made her feel that the life was literally draining out of her body and out of our baby. No matter how much she tried, she could not move, nor could she make a sound. She was terrified.

Then Mandi prayed. She prayed with everything in her, “In the name of Jesus Christ, get off my back Satan! I am His, not yours. I am Jesus’s!” She prayed that over and over again. Finally, she was able to get up, and she ran sobbing to me. We prayed together for her protection and for the protection of Rachel claiming the hope of Psalm 22:9-10 (NLTse),

Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast. I was thrust into your arms at my birth. You have been my God from the moment I was born.

Then she was able to go back to sleep.

Sometimes spiritual attacks are overt. Overt attacks are obviously evil, like the attack that Mandi had when she was pregnant with Rachel.

More often however they are covert attacks; as Paul says Satan likes to appear as an angel of light. His specialty is deception, lies, and misdirection. The enemy is an expert at temptation, and at manipulating pride and fear. There have been times when Mandi and I have all the sudden lost it with each other and in the midst of arguing we start asking ourselves, “What are we fighting about?” And it occurs to us that we might be under attack. As soon as we started to pray not only did the fighting stop but the rage disappeared as well. Has that ever happened to you?

Let me give you another example of a covert attack. You decide that you are going to spend 30 minutes every night reading your Bible and praying. I am willing to bet that more often than not your experience follows this pattern….

  • The day you decide to start you do it and you feel great and you become even more committed to the idea.
  • The next night you get a long distance phone call from an old friend.
  • The next day you have to work late and get home late and go right to bed.
  • The next day the toilet needs a new balloon and you have to go out to Home Depot and because of the line you are out for more than an hour.
  • The next day you think about it, it’s a week later and you are amazed at how busy you are and wonder how you will ever make the time to read the Bible.

Do you really think all that was simply coincidence? That, my friends, is one of the favorite and most successful attacks of the Enemy! To the enemy you are not a civilian; you are a military target. It does not matter your age, your race, or your sex. You are a target.

Their attacks have one goal: to get you to take your eyes off Jesus, to stop talking to Him, so that you doubt His promises, remain trapped in guilt and shame, and focus on your sin instead of God’s grace.

We don’t have to worry about lions attacking us on our way to work or when we walk down to Starbucks for a coffee. But just because that threat isn’t real for most of us, we should not be unaware that there are more dangerous things than lions hunting for us. Remember 1 Peter 5:8-9,

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.