Suffering

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July 16

Tuesday, July 16th, 2024

One last devotion…(I think). 🙂

The past week or so of devotions here at “Shadow” I have been writing and telling you about a book that had a profound impact on me-Out of the Blue by Greg Murtha. (Those dates are July 9, 10, 11, and 15). At the age of 46, Greg, a healthy runner and athlete, go-to leader, husband and father, was stricken with Agressive Stage III Colon Cancer. He endured 95 chemo treatments over 5 years, but on June 22, 2017 he “moved to the front of the line” to use his words. He completed his book on June 15th in room 8637 of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s CCU.

As I finished reading his book for the second time (the first I barely remember), I was overwhelmed with emotion. I shed some tears for a life well-lived, but also because it struck close to home. Not me. I just lost a friend to cancer and another has brain cancer. This book chronicling his thoughts and actions of the last 5 years of his life deeply and profoundly impacted me and caused me to stop and evaluate my own life.

I once read that Joni, the well-known Christ-follower who has been a quadriplegic for over 50 years, was once asked if she would change anything. She said, “No. I thank God for the accident and my wheelchair.” (edited by me). Several times Greg said virtually the same thing, i.e. he was thankful for the cancer that totally changed his life. It slowed him down. It woke him to the needs of others. It brought him to the point of listening to God. He would go for treatment, into a store, into a room and notice people most would miss-people who needed a hug, or who were hurting, had tears in their eyes, or simply needed a word of encouragement, or a prayer. And he was not ashamed to offer that.

He wrote the following:

“I’m learning that being present in the moment is what is important. Being the church wherever I am-that’s what matters. Listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit is paramount to living a life of adventure.” (p. 160)

I’ll close by simply saying that I want that. Healthy or not I want to be present in the moment. I want to be the church, a representative of Christ, where I am and to whomever I come across. Will you join me?

July 11

Thursday, July 11th, 2024

Jo and I are in Ohio today watching our grandson play the last two games of baseball we will get to watch this summer. We came yesterday to spend the night and some time with him and Janna (our daughter), watch two ball games today and then head home. The next trip to Ohio will be Labor Day weekend to watch him play high school football and take the weekend off (my first one since February).

I am continuing to read Out of the Blue by Greg Murtha. I blogged about it the past two days. Here is something to consider that I read: Greg, by his own admission, was good at wearing masks. Cancer ripped the mask off. Sitting in a chair with others getting the same type of cancer treatment/infusion/torture left him with a vulnerability he was not used to. He wrote: “When we admit that we’re fractured in one way or another, others will risk vulnerability too.” (p.49)

Everyone of us is broken-just in different ways and in different areas. Alcohol. Drugs. Porn. Sex. Mental issues. Selfishness. Volatile reactions, i.e. anger. They are many and varied. And we try to mask them. Cancer, Greg says, breaks down walls and builds bridges. You see suffering as an upside. It draws us to each other-and to God.

Someone somewhere must admit brokenness. When that takes place, vulnerability happens. There is nothing wrong with lowering the mask and admitting, “I’m struggling.” “I’m hurting.” I think His lack of judgmentalism is one of the qualities that drew people to Jesus. They found in Him a “safe” person. So can we. The psalmist speaks often of God being our refuge, our Mount Zion. We find that in our vulnerability with Him and ultimately with our fellow strugglers.

Let’s be real. Let’s rip off the masks. Let’s start a Realness Revolution!!

July 9

Tuesday, July 9th, 2024

“You have Aggressive Stage III cancer.”

So you are told. It soon develops into Stage IV. No, that is not me. Sorry if you panicked as you read that. Well over 3 years ago-I’m thinking pre-pandemic- I read a book called Out of the Blue by Greg Murtha. Greg was a 46 year old man in the peak of physical condition (so he thought) when after an 11 mile run through Crocket Hills Trail in Middle Tennessee his life changed. Afterward, sweating but pumped he headed for the bathroom at the YMCA. That’s when his life changed. It appeared as if someone had poured a container of bright-rid blood into the toilet. He realized instantly, This is not good.  And it wasn’t. The diagnosis was a gut punch to use his words.

I have begun to reread the book. Not because I have cancer (at least not that I’m aware of) but because some people who are close to me do.  A friend. Friends of friends. People connected to the church. I needed, no wanted, some perspective. I remembered Greg’s book was uplifting and brought a whole new perspective to the cancer battle so as I was scanning through books for a future sermons series my eyes locked onto his book.  After reading the Introduction and first 21 pages I have already been reminded why reading it is a good idea. To quote Greg: “Don’t feel sorry for me. Strange as it sounds, I view cancer as a gift. I thank God for it because it means I’m not the man I used to be. Sure, this interruption to my well-planned life was jarring. And chemo is hell. But I’m thankful for cancer because it has given me the ability to focus on what matters.” (p.7)

That struck me. Being a typical male, I am sort of locked onto that “success syndrome” so many get attached to. It is not as bad as it used to be. At 71, while I want to continue being a part of advancing God’s kingdom, I also know my best days are probably behind me due to stamina and strength. But, to be honest, my heart burns more for Jesus than it did in my younger years. Maybe it is because of my age. I don’t know.  But a Bob Goff quote fits here: “God’s more interested in our hearts than our plans.” (p.7-8).  My dreams, goals and aspirations have never been realized, at least not to the scale I wanted them to. That is a good thing. But I wouldn’t trade my life for any amount of money or earthly applause. I realize now what is most important. (Took me long enough!) 🙂

I hope I don’t get cancer or any other life-threatening disease. Cancer runs in my family (mother and grandmother died of it. Two brothers have and had it). But if I do, I hope I can run that race with grace. I’ll write more tomorrow but let me leave you with this quote from Greg’s book:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘WOW!’ (Hunter S. Thompson quoted on page xviii)

‘Nuff said.  Oh…As always, I welcome your comments.

July 1

Monday, July 1st, 2024

“You take the high road and I’ll take the high road.” 

Of course, that is not how it goes. Frankly, only in a song does anyone want to take the low road.  That’s like saying, “You take the mountain and I’ll take the valley” says no on ever. Most people want to stay on the mountain top and not find themselves in the valley.

However, consider what Billy Graham is credited with saying: “Mountaintops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valleys.” Growth in our character and relationships, both with others and with God, often occur in the valley. It is nice to be on the mountaintop where inspiration and nearness can be fostered, but it is in the valley where we find our “true faith.” Maybe the better way to put it is in the valley we find out how real our faith is.

On the mountaintop it is easy to have the answers.  Things are good. Life is good. In many ways, life is also easy. We find a “big” God, One who says He can meet all our needs. It is easy to believe that when we are “in the clouds.” I would go away to camp or some youth conference and sense God’s presence as never before. But when I got back home and got back into the trenches is where I found out whether what I believed and experienced was true or not. I found out if the God I worshiped on the mountaintop was the same God in the valley.  Is God sufficient for all my needs? Is God’s strength able to sustain me when things aren’t looking so good or when life gets a tad bit rough?

We won’t find out the answers to those questions by staying on the mountaintop-no matter how much we like it there.  “Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can understand the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall into exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31 NLT)

The only way to learn the truth of those words is in the valley. Don’t fear the valley. 

June 18

Tuesday, June 18th, 2024

It has been a wild ride the past few weeks. The church family I pastor is small compared to many other churches (just under 200), but we have seen our share of deaths, sickness, cancer, hardship, testings, and all things “human.” Just because we are followers of Jesus does not make us exempt from any of that, in spite of the heretical ramblings of the health/wealth crowd.

We have not been immune from it personally either. Years ago in a time of seeking direction during a tough season, I ran across Jeremiah 1:17-19. A little background makes this poignant. Jeremiah’s ministry occurred during a hard time, days when Judah sank into chaos morally and politically. The kings were worthless and ungodly. Jerusalem fell and Jeremiah suffered. Like Jeremiah, we don’t get to pick our times or circumstances. Our job is to follow. It was during a tough time when God told Jeremiah the following words and then also led me to the following verses: “Get up and prepare for action. Go out and tell them everything I tell you to say. Do not be afraid of them, or I will make you look foolish in front of them. For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land-the king, officials, priests, and people of Judah. They will fight you, but they will fail. For I am with you, and I will take care of you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” (NLT)

Those words were like gold to me at the time I found them. They still are. Take a moment to read that Scripture again and then take note of what He tells Jeremiah and then ask how it applies to you. When I feel overwhelmed by life’s circumstances and battles, these words dig down deep into my soul. I hope they do the same for you today.

June 12

Wednesday, June 12th, 2024

My morning Encounter Time included reading Psalm 77.  As I read and highlighted a thought developed and as I pursued it, it became clearer. It is not profound but I share it with you this morning.  I’d like to ask you to open your Bible to Psalm 77 and read each section as I have delineated and then formulate your own thoughts.

The problem we face: Psalm 77:1-3

The questions that linger: Psalm 77:4-9

The scenario we replay: Psalm 77:10-12

The answer we remember: Psalm 77:13-15

Whether we are talking whatever B.C. (when this psalm was written) or 2024 A.D., times haven’t really changed. After listening to people say the Bible is outdated and not applicable to today’s world, I chuckle when I run across a passage like this and realize how contemporary it is. The problem, the questions, or the scenario hasn’t really changed. But most importantly, the ANSWER hasn’t changed. And that I can “take to the bank.”

 

 

May 8

Wednesday, May 8th, 2024

GOOD LOGS VS GOOD-LOOKING LOGS

You may be thinking: “Say what?” Please read on.

I read recently about a man who visited a logging sight and he saw a man down by the stream the logs floated by on. He had a long pole with a sharp hook and he occasionally would separate one of the logs from the others.

When the visitor asked what he was doing, the logger answered that to the untrained eye the logs may all look the same. But to him, he could tell the difference between the logs that were from protected trees vs those which were exposed to the elements. Those what were exposed to the elements and beaten by the weather had a finer grain and were used for choice work. They were good logs, not just good looking logs.

We might hear someone say, “What doesn’t strengthen you will kill you.” I honesty have trouble trusting someone who hasn’t been toughened by life. Someone once told me that 30 is the magic age for a pastor. When I questioned what he meant, he said something to the effect that “a pastor had very little credibility until he at least hits age 30 because people figure before that age he hasn’t been though enough ‘life’ to earn his chops.” That is not always true, of course, but the sentiment expressed is easy to see. Life toughens us. One would expect a 20 year old to know more about life than a 10 year old; a 30 year old to know more than a 20 year old, etc.

For the Christ-follower, our faith is tested by life. For the Christ-follower, whatever comes our way goes through God’s grid first. His plan and purpose for us will prevail. We may not like it, in fact, we may hate it, but its presence in our lives comes for a reason.  James wrote: “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:2-4  from New Living Translation). Simple translation: you will be a good log.

It is much better to be a good log-sturdy and strong and well-seasoned-than just be a good looking one with no staying power and strength.

April 30

Tuesday, April 30th, 2024

TROUBLE WILL VISIT ALL OF US!

What I just wrote is nothing new to anyone. To borrow a common phrase: “Stuff happens.” (I don’t talk the other way. 🙂 ) We ALL KNOW that sooner or later we are going to hit a rough patch.

Recently, while reading another book, I read about CURE Hospital, a series of hospitals established in places like Kenya and other hard hit areas.  Sort of like Doctors Without Borders and Mercy Ship, CURE was established for doctors to help “the least of these.” One such person was Michael Panther. Michael was an active boy who would soon be training for the Sudan army when his legs grew weaker, then quit working. The civil war in South Sudan displaced him, and to make a long story short, he ended up in a CURE hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine. To make another long story short, Michael spends his days in a wheelchair. But he has not allowed that to stop him following God’s direction, help and work. Michael now makes wheelchairs available to people in other countries who need them through his non-profit, Living With Hope. (You can read his fascinating and inspiring story in his book Living With Hope by Michael Panther).

During his “expansion” period, when the dream was born in his heart, he met Joni Eareckson Tada, the “champion” for the disabled who was paralyzed as a teenager from a diving accident. He had the chance to not only meet Joni, but to work with her ministry, Joni and Friends. In his book, Michael wrote down some of Joni’s statements that day. Here are three:

“God permits what he hates, to accomplish that which He loves.”

“I realized that God does not take pleasure in my spinal cord injury, but He loves the way He is changing me in it and encouraging others through it.”

“God has not abandoned those with disabilities. No, He is working through them.”   (All quotes from pages 141-142)

All of us-no matter our lot in life-have a purpose. Healthy or whole. Mobile or in a chair. Unencumbered or disabled. We all matter and we all have a purpose. Find yours. Fulfill it.

April 29

Monday, April 29th, 2024

Peace…in spite of.

Have you ever wondered what makes some people be as “calm as a cucumber” while others are frazzled to the bone with the same situation?

How can some be relaxed while others can’t stop wringing their hands?

How come the first move of some is to run to the doctor for a med at the first sign of stress while for others the first response is to drop to their knees in prayer? (Please don’t take that as me saying I’m against meds that serve a purpose).

Much has been made of the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is dependent on circumstances; joy is in spite of the circumstances.

Peace is the same. There is a settledness, a peace that some people have in spite of their circumstances. There is a well-told story about a lawyer named Horatio Spafford. He, his wife, and four children had booked a passage to Europe for a much-needed vacation, but at the last minute something came up that required his immediate attention. He sent his family ahead with the intention of joining them as soon as possible. The ship collided with another and sunk and only his wife survived. She sent a wire to him: “Saved alone.” In his grief, he booked the next passage to meet up with his wife. When they came to the spot of the shipwreck, the captain pointed it out to him. Mr. Spafford penned these words: “When peace like a river attendeth my way/When sorrows like sea billows roll/Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say/’It is well. It is well with my soul.'”

What kind of peace could lead Mr. Spafford to pen those words when his heart is breaking? A peace that is not dependent on circumstances. That kind of peace comes from the ONE who is bigger than the circumstances. Jesus once said, “My peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.” That’s the kind of peace I want. How about you?

April 15

Monday, April 15th, 2024

Does the way things happen ever make sense?

That has been the question running through my mind the past week and on into the weekend.   Please give me a chance to tell you why I ask that.

My best male friend has been told he has 18-24 months to live. One of my other male friends was given 3-6 months to live and it has been close to two. Unless God intervenes time is running out. Then this past week one of our boys in the church (age 6.5 he has informed me) has been sick off and on since January/February. He goes from kinetic energy to crash is 5 seconds. Some things have been ruled out but what has not has been leukemia and lymphoma. He goes the 25th to Riley Hospital for a full work up. The family is still waiting to hear the prognosis.

As I shared with the church yesterday, I believe God has 3 answers to our prayers:

“Yes.” We like this one for obvious reasons. We like that we are in agreement with God…or is that He is in agreement with us? In either case, a good answer.  🙂

“No.” This is an answer but not quite the one we wanted. This simply means that God and I are not on the same page. Shocker! But at least its an answer!

“Wait awhile.” This is the toughest I believe. No one like to wait. From grocery store lines to prayer, waiting is not a strong suit. It’s like God is saying, “Hang on. I’m not going to answer right away.” The answer will come-perhaps a yes, perhaps a no-but just not yet. And it’s not because God is being mean or vengeful. Maybe there is a lesson I need to learn. Maybe there is a timing issue. In any case, I have to realize that what seemed like a bad idea actually worked out for my best.

Until God’s timing comes to fruition, I’ll live life to the fullest and realize God is good…no matter what. For reference take a moment to read Psalm 116:5-19.