I’ve grabbed for Kleenex this week. In the wake of the Ukrainian-Russian war, I’ve felt such a fumble-jumble deep in my soul. My gut has wrenched. My deeper thoughts and reflections have churned. With the constant barrage of breaking news, tears have streamed my cheeks. Those closest to me know; I don’t cry easily.
Why? Why so moved? Why now? Sadly, war is a regular occurrence in our sin-cursed, groaning world. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the nations rage way too often. Division, animosity, and violence are as old as earliest strokes of Holy Writ (Gen 3-4). I’ve been alive for Vietnam, Rwandan genocide, Desert Storm, the Iraqi War, and Afghanistan to name a few. Why so much of a stir in my soul in this unique hour?
Perhaps because it’s an escalation in Europe. The continent has not experienced such aggression or so many people fleeing for their lives since World War 2. I’m in tears again.
Perhaps because so many friends and family, near and dear, have connections to precious people in both Ukraine and Russia. Our family and church friends have meaningful relationships, historic involvement, and long-standing ties. We feel extra-deeply in such upheaval.
And perhaps my own bigger stirrings are born of a culmination of personal conundrum. As a Christ-follower, a citizen of his kingdom, I highly value peace. Yes, I am a pacifist. Though I’ve been a Christian since I heard his call and made my salvation decision at an early age, I would not have always identified myself as a lover of peace. My rich and meaningful Baptistic heritage did not always emphasize this value. Baptist friends and family said they were for peace, but we were quicker to join with aggressive armed forces.
Twenty plus years ago, I joined and began spiritual leadership in the Brethren in Christ. Here’s a wonderful group holding many of the thick theological threads of my Baptist background, but with a passionate Jesus-kingdom focus, understanding of personal responsibility in free will, wrapped in Sovereign calling, plus a call to non-violence with one’s enemies (Matt 5). Our priority on Christo-centric, missional interpretation means we take his kingdom teaching very seriously.
At least most of the time. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe.
I think right here is the crux of my soul-stirring and tears. As a Baptistic-Brethren-Wesleyan boy, I still read my whole Bible. We are people of the Book. Our Holy Book teaches us to value life from the cradle to the grave, from the womb to the tomb. So, that stirs questions. Is it right to fold my hands in prayer, sit idly, and let brothers and sisters in a place like Ukraine be obliterated? Yes, I pray for angel armies, but what if God desires for good people to angelically stand for what is right and true in the face of what’s diabolically evil, treacherous, and destructive?
My thoughts are spinning. My stomach churns. I do not want my sons and daughters or yours to mobilize for war. No, oh no. God forbid. And yet, I recognize what has sovereignly transpired at other pivotal moments in history, like the Great War and World War 2.
While Christ gave a clarion call to peace, his spiritual interaction with Roman military leaders during his life and ministry did not include an insistence on leaving their ranks or abandoning their role as protectors and defenders. He emphasized other vital points of discipleship with such officials.
Some of you quickly resonate with my tangle of values in the face of global atrocities. Some of you will quickly grab for your theological and philosophical swords. Amidst my tears, I’m simply reflecting my current gut stirrings. Across the years, behind closed doors, in whispered voices and honest theological reflection, I have found that most committed pacifist leaders still wrestle with such questions.
Fact. Few if any say they would just let an enemy attack their wife and children if their house was invaded. Few if any really believe we should have no police or soldiers to protect, to keep order, and to defend. I’ve never met an honest, present-day pacifist who really wants a defenseless community or nation. We just want someone else to do the dirty work.
And yet, if we take Jesus seriously, his kingdom call is for kingdom people who do not punch back. People who do not rush to take up arms and fire away. Jesus’ people do not play Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em. Instead, we work to resolve conflict via calm hearts and minds. We pray for angel armies. We aim to de-escalate, to talk peaceably, and pursue non-violent means of settling differences.
Yes, right here is the likely source of my jumbled feelings, the grand conundrum of my soul and streaming tears. Where does a Christ-follower go with such feelings? These days I am drawn into the Psalms as a place to reflect in my peace-loving, justice-seeking jumbled heart. Specifically, the Imprecatory Psalms. Yes, those really raw and ugly places in the Book. The emotive ones where the psalmist cries out in the face of evil and evil people. The ones where people praise and implore the Sovereign King to grind the evil ones’ teeth in the gravel or dash their babies on the rocks (Psalm 2:9; 3:7; 58:6). Such severe places really are part of the Book and at times involve the holy character of a loving, holy, righteous, and just God.
But notice who carries out such action when needed. The LORD God. The King. Vengeance is his (Deut 32; Rom 12). I’m very aware that God often uses humans, but he also employs his angels, those spiritual forces that wage war above the human fray.
As a Baptistic Brethren Wesleyan pacifist, I’m praying more Imprecatory Psalms. As I do, I am finding peace more moments now. I’m trusting the loving, mighty, strong Holy Son who is capable of fighting our battles—and the Ukrainian’s battles—far better than we can. And now I’m grabbing for another box of Kleenex.
Is it possible to grow stronger in the troubling times? Enjoy this excerpt from my book, JOY & THRIVING.
Our eyes flooded with tears as we drove away from the doctor’s office. We felt overwhelmed. It was a chilly, gray, and windy November morning. Nanc’ and I had just learned that we were having a miscarriage. As we returned home, a storm was hovering over our region. We were devastated. How could life possibly feel any worse?
Pulling into our drive, the wind grew more severe. As we approached the house, we discovered that chunks of our roof were lifting and blowing off. I remember sitting in our bedroom, bawling together, and listening to the shingles fly from the top of our townhouse. It was one of those days when you wonder if someone secretly taped a “KICK ME” sign on your back. The winds of trouble had rolled into our lives with gale-force strength. It was ugly and crushing to our souls.
James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds . . .” (1:2). Notice, it’s not if. From James’ perspective, troubles are not a college elective you opt to take because you might have some casual interest. Here’s the harsh reality. They happen whenever. Troubles and trials are a very normal part of life.
Some translations say “various” trials. The word can also be translated “many-colored.” Troubles come your way in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. And “come your way” has an even more picturesque idea. Literally, the ancient language says, “when you fall into troubles.” Think of your car sliding off the road into snow or your tractor getting stuck in a muddy hole. Most of us know all too well what it feels like to fall into troubles.
We’ve got Trouble, with a capital T!
Pandemics, market meltdowns, and black holes of anxiety carry angst way beyond Professor Hill’s fabricated crises in The Music Man. Our own genuine capital T troubles should not really surprise us. Unfortunately, in our quest for carefree, always-happy, healthy-wealthy, and rose-colored lives, we get shocked every time trouble hits. It might help our overall world-and-life view to realize that troubles are part of the normal fabric of life. It’s as if James is saying: get used to it!
That’s not ultra-pessimism, just a dose of reality. Some systems of theology and versions of church popularize the notion that God only ever wants to bless your life with smooth sailing, tranquil waters, and endless happiness. “You just have to be spiritual enough, faith-filled enough, positive enough. Then all your dreams can come true.” Hearing what James teaches us is essential to a better understanding of genuine life and true faith in King Jesus.
Sadly, COVID-19 devastated lives in our local nursing homes. A dear and godly man from our church—immensely loved by his wife, children, and grandchildren—was among those stricken with the dreadful illness. In those weeks before he stepped into Jesus’ presence, none of his family were able to visit him. Goodbyes had to be said over the phone. It was tragic. I stood at the graveside with his precious family, overwhelmed with them in the realization. He was gone. Treacherous illness descended on this man and his family. It felt so unfair. He had lived an upstanding, generous, devoted life.
Such a twisted, cursed outcome never seems to add up, no matter how much we tap the calculator keys. James knew it too, and so did those early Christ-followers, “the twelve tribes scattered abroad.” They were facing the distance, persecution, famine, and opposition. How could a good and loving Father let such things happen?
James realized a vital truth we need to realize. Trials and troubles do come; there’s no escaping them. We cannot stop them. We can’t catch lucky breaks by doing a bunch of righteous deeds. You might think that would be ideal, but life has never really worked that way. Ours is still a sin-cursed world. We are still awaiting Christ’s glorious return and the ultimate renewal someday in his wondrous new kingdom. James challenges us, whenever trials come—and it’s inevitable, they will blow your way—we are to “count it all joy.”
Count it all joy? Really?!
Really? I know what you’re thinking. “You’ve got to be kidding! Count it all joy? That’s outrageous. Who in their right mind can rejoice over COVID-19 or a miscarriage?” And to make matters worse, the attitude James is calling for is not some flighty joy, like “good feels” born of happy days and fun circumstances. Phillip Keller explains that
the joy which is a hallmark of God’s Kingdom is not a state of happiness dependent on changing circumstances or on what is happening around us. It is, rather, a serene, stable spirit known only to those who enjoy the presence of God’s person within their lives. They sense and know that the King is in residence. In this awareness, there lies enormous assurance and quiet joy . . . free from fear and joyous with the strength of God, no matter how tempestuous life may be.[i]
James is calling us to develop such deep-in-our-souls satisfaction and contentedness, no matter what blows our way. Do you sense the King is in residence? Are you enjoying his presence?
Jesus’ brother says, “Calculate troubles as fresh opportunities.” He was calling those early Jesus-followers—and us today—to take a very intentional outlook. A deliberate, chosen frame of mind. This is crucial, because we too often react instead of respond. We freak out in ugly anger or loopy worry or dismal depression. We think, “Woe is me! No one else has ever had it this bad.” Or “I’m a victim.” Or “It’s all over; this is the end; I will never recover.” It’s our knee-jerk reaction to say, “That’s it; I quit. I’m not going to even try anymore.” So, we give up in whatever arena we are experiencing troubling times.
It’s “giveupitus.” We give up on our family. We give up in school. We give up in the business. When you find it’s not easy being a committed follower of Jesus. When your choices are not wildly popular with your family. When people at work are bringing pressure on you to compromise your values. When you’ve been rejected by someone because you follow Jesus. When the winds of the COVID-crisis season are blowing even more shingles off your roof. It’s tempting to say, “I give up on passionately pursuing and following Jesus!”
Notice James’ aim with such intentional outlook: all joy! Here’s an opportunity for truly abundant, exuberant, overflowing joy. Again, real joy goes beyond our normal ideal feelings of situational happiness. Instead, this joy is deep in your soul satisfaction, no matter what your circumstances. It’s born out of resilient faith, a serious trust in God’s loving, good, and all-wise plans.
A million-dollar question
In verse three, James describes troubles as “the testing of your faith.” Such a test aims to prove something is genuine. Will the renowned expert on The Antiques Roadshow verify the dusty, ugly vase some dude bought at a yard sale is the real McCoy, worth thousands more than he paid for it? James claims that trials prove our faith is the real deal.
But what is faith? There’s a million-dollar question. Faith gets tossed around in mainstream media along with buzzwords like love, sex, and cheeseburgers. All sorts of feel-good-ism and self-help is often associated with today’s popular talk on faith. But what is it, really? Erwin Raphael McManus astutely explains: “To the best of my understanding, faith is trusting God enough to obey what He has said, and hope is having the confidence that God will do everything He has promised. One pushes you; the other pulls you.”[ii] I love such an explanation. Faith is grounded in serious substance. With substantive faith, we dare to take God at his word and trust his promises are really true. Then we choose to live all of life like he will do exactly what he said he will do.[iii]
What if our tough times are really the best times for growing stronger? James explains what such testing of your faith produces. Greater endurance! It’s stick-to-it perseverance. You remain patient in the midst of the suffering. Perseverance means you stand your ground in the trouble. Like Rocky being bludgeoned blow after blow by Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Though he’s exhausted from being pounded, Rocky stays on his feet. He keeps bobbing and taking more of the beating, just waiting for the right opportunity.
Though James originally struggled to believe, his encounter after Jesus’ resurrection awakened his own faith (1 Cor 15:7). Those early days for Jesus’ family and friends were fear-filled with the threat of persecution. It was here that James joined the fellowship (Acts 1:14). In such a crucible of controversy, as the early church was getting started, James’ own endurance began to grow. Eventually, he became a key leader and was recognized as a “pillar” in the growing movement (Acts 12:17, 15:1-29).[iv] Perseverance means you hold on and hold up under the pressure. It’s staying power! We all need such endurance, the grit to persevere, especially in times like these.
What’s typically required for us to thrive under pressure? You only build more muscle by adding weight and repeating more reps. You will likely add distance and improve your running time as you doggedly push up the same painful stretch of hills day after day. You resist your every urge to give up. Stronger character only grows in our lives through experiencing troubles, and continuing to climb.
Choose joy when you encounter suffering, and you will build the kind of memory muscle necessary for thriving. You’ll develop greater tenacity in your own soul as well as greater capacity to share joy and thriving with family, neighbors, coworkers, and other friends. Notice what James says next. “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (vs. 4).
One of God’s greater aims as we persevere in troubles is to hand-craft our genuine completion, a more thriving maturity in Christlike character. Here’s motivation to fully embrace the work God wants to do in your life through troubles and suffering. Why? The pay-off will be huge! You will become a different kind of person—complete, mature and developed—more like James’ big brother Jesus. You’ll have a deeper inner framework, primed and ready to graciously bless neighbors, coworkers, family, and others.
Serious question. Do you really believe your life can look more like Jesus? Ponder that. Too often, we stay stuck in the hole we fell into. We just wallow in the mud. When I take personal stock, I am afraid I’ve spent too many days making excuses, hiding behind my sorry circumstances, or collapsing again under the weight of my troubles. James urges us to buy into something richer and wiser. Living with more thriving, Christ-like tenacity can be a reality. But you have to choose joy in your various trials. And keep choosing joy. As you do, you’ll grow that stronger perseverance and be ready to live on mission for King Jesus in greater ways!
Reflections to help you grow stronger and thrive
What’s are the current troubles you’re facing? What’s your current trial feel like, and how are you handling it?
How might your situation and attitude look different if you choose real joy?
What will it take for you to see your troubles as opportunities for growth? Who could help you frame your situation with such perspective during this season?
Describe two or three tangible ways you can persevere right now. Paint a picture for yourself of what thriving endurance would look like.
Pray with an eager, teachable spirit. “Lord, show me more. Please grow me more.” Tap into deep determination based on Christ’s strength.
[i]W. Phillip Keller, A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1976, p. 71.
[ii]Erwin Raphael McManus, Seizing Your Divine Moment, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, p. 146.
[iii]I am forever indebted to Dr. James Lytle, long-time friend and professor. I first heard him share this understanding of grounded and active faith when I was an eighteen-year-old, sitting in his “Building a Biblical Lifestyle” class.
[iv]Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 68-9.
Consider your attitude at work toward others—especially with people who are suffering, experiencing pain, or dealing with special needs. A study in contrasts often serves us well.
The star-studded, big-screen story captured my imagination and proved wildly entertaining. I was entranced by Phineas and Charity Barnum. The flick was riveting and the songs so memorable. But I also recall lines from a biblical story whose theme supplies a stunning counterpoint.
The Greatest Showman
Barnum collects various shocking personages from the streets of New York. All of them have distinguishing physical attributes, abilities, disadvantages and yes, disabilities. His cast includes the likes of Lettie Lutz (the bearded lady), Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb), Lord of Leeds, the Albino Twins, the Strong Man, Woman in Gold, plus others. Many of these precious people were considered oddities and outcasts in society, as evidenced by the riotous protestors outside Barnum’s Circus. These featured characters attracted large crowds.
By movie’s end, Barnum has journeyed from rags to riches, and back to rags again. Following the disastrous fire, we are moved with emotion. His cast of “strange attractions” actually visit him in the saloon and implore him to come back, to restart again. They praise him as one who believed in them, accepted them—made them feel like family—so they urge him to not give up.
As movie goers, we are cheering for him as he comes home to Charity and his daughters. And to his cast of wonderful people, Barnum vows “from now on” he’ll rebuild. Barnum will be a better man. It’s a marvelous, feel-good tale, splendidly tailored for the big screen.
Alas, true history is seldom fully found on the big screen. With deeper research, P.T. Barnum’s own motives and shadow side can be seen in his glaring mistreatment of another human.
Something more to the story
In 1835, Barnum purchased Joice Heth, an elderly black woman, for one thousand dollars. She was an ancient, toothless, shriveled woman. The showman exhibited her as the supposed slave purchased by George Washington’s family back in 1727. Stunningly articulate, she could sing old hymns from the bygone era and tell tales of “little George.”
Barnum placed her on display in New York and purported her to be at least 161 years old. In local papers, Heth was publicized as “THE GREATEST NATURAL AND NATIONAL CURIOSITY IN THE WORLD.” It was an outrageous claim, but provided a captivating show attracting crowds and garnering Barnum a fortune. There was something even more outrageous, sad, and sinister about Barnum’s business.
Matthew Goodman explains the Showman’s motive: “Barnum, after all, wanted not youth but age, not vigor but feebleness, not strength but fragility. In Joice Heth he had found just what he was hoping for, a perfect combination of mental acuity and physical decrepitude. Though blind and paralyzed in nearly all of her limbs, the old woman had not lost her power of speech, and Barnum was struck—as were all who came to view her—by how sociable she was, how she kept up an almost constant conversation on a wide variety of topics.” Goodman’s full account reveals the stunning hoax and utterly self-absorbed nature of Phinehas Barnum’s public display of this woman with disabilities.
The true story is so sad. He fully exploited Joice Heth as an oddity. In retrospect, I find it personally appalling to cheer for Phineas and his show.
The Greatest Sufferer
I recall another wildly successful business person in history. This man’s story goes from riches to rags to riches again. But his tale is long, arduous, and marked by personal lament during poignant suffering. Job is one of the most famous sufferers of all time. One day he had a full family, a flourishing household, land and wealth, but then in a sudden series of cataclysmic events, he lost it all.
Our biblical account of this amazing individual conveys much of his own wrestling through his suffering, via poetic lament. He pours out his complaint to his graciously listening God. In one such section, he presents his own case, his track record of work. It goes like this:
Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, 12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. 13 The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. 14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. 17 I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth. (Job 29:11-17)
So intriguing to realize this wholly unique attitude: Job passionately helped sufferers. Though he was now suffering himself, his posture at work had been one of helping those in need.
Job’s explanation of how he had personally worked on behalf of other sufferers supplies a powerful foretaste, an early anticipation of an even greater one to come, Jesus. The Greatest Sufferer was the ultimate worker of wonders for others who suffered. He brought sight to the blind, steps to the lame, bread for the hungry, and ultimate blessing to the dying. The One who took up the cross had already been bearing a cross on behalf of others in need.
Blessing other sufferers through your work
What if instead of Barnum’s outlook, we aim to conduct our business affairs like Job—and ultimately, Jesus? What if we very deliberately work to bless others in need?
In Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster notes the importance of self-denial:
Isn’t this exactly what the Lord requires of those who would be his followers? Self-denial for self-giving to others—that’s what we do through our jobs! “Take up your cross,” the Lord adds . . . Yes, the Bible takes full account of the wounds inflicted by working. And God instructs us that in suffering these to give our selves to the service of others, we follow the way set before his followers by the Lord Jesus himself.
I am challenged to lay down “greatest showman” attitudes this week. May I instead take up the attitude of the “Greatest Sufferer,” Jesus!
Will you join me? As we more clearly sense others’ needs, let’s make plans to shoulder their burdens. Let’s take up their causes, create more accessibility, level the playing field, right the wrongs, help them heal, and mobilize to deeply serve others in our work with the attitude of Christ Jesus.
THE SUN AND THE MOON: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-bats in Nineteenth-century New York, p. 115ff.
We are enveloped in collective grief. One of our dear friends, very close in our local faith community, suddenly and shockingly lost her husband in his sleep. What a stunning, sudden descent of sorrowful suffering. This wonderful wife and two heroic sons watched EMTs work for several hours in valiant attempts to revive him. Now, friends and family are rallying around them with great love. But everyone feels numb, shocked, and full of sorrow.
Life in our fallen world has once again dealt the cruel, crashing waves. We’ve come to know the crushing torrents with what feels like perpetual vengeance across 2020 and ’21. In so many ways, we are all castaways on our lonely islands of lament. Like never before—at least in our lifetime—we know the dreadful agony of collective complaint.
But do we really know how to lament well?
The now-classic film, Cast Away, stars Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, an obsessive executive for FedEx. His plane plunges during a violent storm over the Pacific. Chuck drifts ashore, the lone survivor of the disastrous crash. Against all odds, he learns to live all alone on the deserted island—accompanied only by his faithful volleyball, Wilson, and his fiancés picture inside her treasured locket. Chuck survives for many long and treacherous years on the island, constantly longing to sail home to his love, Kelly, other dear ones, and his all-consuming career.
Upon a remarkable rescue and return, Chuck discovers his previous existence is stunningly changed. Everything about the life he once knew is utterly upended. Ironically, he is still the castaway, even though he is back home.
There’s an especially poignant scene toward movie’s end when he sits in a dim room. Though talking with his friend, Chuck stares into the distance and shares a deeply revealing soliloquy. With towel around his neck and a cold glass in hand, he solemnly reflects:
Kelly added it all up and knew she had to let me go. I added it up, knew that I had lost her, ‘cause I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick or injured or something . . . I had power over nothing! That’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew that somehow, I had to stay alive . . . somehow. I had to keep breathing, even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass . . . And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?
That’s lament. So much more than furtive tears or a twinge of sorrow. Here is a deep, authentic, sustained heart cry over the sad and sorry conditions that have descended and thoroughly saturated his soul. It’s genuine, rugged, unfiltered, raw.
Biblical literature is replete with examples, including portions of Job’s account, the prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations, as well as the ancient Hebrew songbook of Psalms.
Expression of lament actually carries overwhelming weightiness, making up the preponderance of the Psalms. Praise psalms are next in volume, but lament looms larger across the lyrics. Walter Brueggemann aptly calls them complaint psalms, and he urges us to learn to pray them:
I suggest that most of the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts, the primitive passions, and the naïve elations that are at the bottom of our life. For most of us, liturgical or devotional entry into the Psalms requires a real change of pace. It asks us to depart from the closely managed world of public survival, to move into the open, frightening, healing world of speech with the Holy One.
In light of my friend and her family’s sudden loss, plus so many others this year being rudely ushered into sorrow and grief, I find myself asking: how might lament work something stronger, better, and growth-oriented for us castaways of 2021. Consider these ideas for working with lament, engaging in more productive complaint with the Holy One.
Sit with it. Don’t try to rush it.
It’s tempting to think we just need to cry for a few days, allow others to bring us some casseroles, then mop up and get on with life. Reality is, grieving is an arduous process. We should not rush our own souls or those of our fellow castaways. Give it time. Give it space. Let the sorrow and remembering do a fresh work of the Spirit’s grace. So we wait and trust his perfect timing.
Be as authentic in your description as possible.
When we hear Chuck Noland’s words and we read many of the biblical complaints, we find raw realism. It’s really rather stunning. Castaways courageously revisit the ugly scene, ask why and how long, and they pour out their frustration, both with their sorry circumstances and with God himself.
So, go ahead. Let your tears flow and your rugged questions gush. Can’t find the words? That’s okay. Pray some Psalms. Psalm 13 and Psalm 88 are especially good ones. Make them your own. When your own words do come, write out the torrent of your deepest dismay, fears, and frustrations. Let it all out.
Know that God can handle your complaint.
One of the most refreshing insights about our lament is just that. He can handle it. He’s not shocked by our horror, our heart cries, and our questions. Our loving Father does more than tolerate our complaints and gushing words. He joins us there.
Jesus joined his friends, Martha and Mary, in Bethany right after the death of their brother. Jesus was really good friends with Lazarus. We’re told Jesus expressed his own anguish with weeping and redoubled expressions of frustration. He was deeply moved and troubled (John 11:33, 35, and 38). As Jesus cried aloud, the story makes a big point of telling us that Jesus knew his Father heard him (vs. 41-42).
Upon his own crucifixion, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question hollered heavenward was echoing the bold lament of Psalm 22. In those moments, Jesus was the Holy One, now feeling like a tragic castaway on Mount Calvary.
Watch for what’s next. Be open to the good God has in store.
Don’t rush your complaint. Good lament takes time. Take that first idea very seriously. But don’t wallow endlessly in despair, grow bitter, and live forever as the exiled castaway.
So many of the complaint Psalms, as well as Job’s story and Jeremiah’s heart cries are full of the eventual, wondrous turn upward. Eventually, the complainer starts to shift her or his vision in a new direction. Amidst the groaning, faithful complainers eventually churn again with holy anticipation because they’ve talked to the Holy One.
There’s hope for brighter days. Recall how our crucified castaway would not stay in the grave. Sunday would come, and he knew it. Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross . . .” We can fix our eyes on him, persevere, and not grow weary or lose heart. We can join Chuck Noland and say:
“I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”
Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, p. 8.
Streaming tears. Yes, I will own them. Each time I’ve watched Wonder—the movie based on R.J. Palacio’s award-winning novel—I’ve been ambushed by this oh-so-moving story.
Born with a genetic disorder, Auggie’s little body required multiple surgeries. He wears his astronaut helmet because his face is distorted, even after plastic surgery. Auggie and his loving family live in Brooklyn. Originally taught at home, he’s finally sent to school in fifth grade. With helmet off, Auggie faces the full range of staring, pity, mockery, and bullying by kids. This amazing story traces Auggie’s school year, along with his parents, his sister Via, and his struggling friend Jack Will. We encounter stunning twists and turns revealing how people see Auggie and how Auggie sees everyone else.
The bulk of my daily work involves seeing and serving suffering people, deeply in need of help. If you ponder your own projects and tasks, you’ll likely conclude that’s true for most of us. From financial planners to nurses and doctors, school teachers to store clerks, automotive technicians, physical therapists and pastors, we major in helping all sorts of people. Precious people with very special needs, capabilities, disabilities, heartaches, hang-ups, hopes, and dreams.
Many days, our most pressing question becomes:
How will I see the person or group of people in my path? Will I see people more deeply, beyond my face-value, knee-jerk reaction?
The local church where I serve as lead pastor aims to love others with Christ-style love. Our aim is based on Jesus’ holistic call to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). That means our planning and behind-the-scenes efforts often involve strategizing endeavors for people who are experiencing physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and mental suffering. Then our very public, weekly events, gatherings, and services include active interface with those precious people.
Every Sunday, a host of people greet me, including multiple individuals with special needs, pressing health crises, and emotional distress. They long for encouragement, a listening ear, affirmation, prayer, a dose of genuine good news, directional wisdom, and practical help. I am regularly challenged with this foundational attitude choice: Will I see them as too different, unique, other and awkward? Will I glance their way, feel uncomfortable, and say to myself, “Yikes! Let’s move along now. Look away. Let’s shift focus to the ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ people!” OR will I truly and deeply see the precious people in my path?
During Auggie’s wonder story, especially poignant are the moments in Mr. Browne’s homeroom. This oh-so-wise teacher places a monthly precept on the board. September’s is:
“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”
In Palacio’s book, Mr. Browne’s May precept is from John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”
Masterfully and subtly, Wonder’s screenplay writers wove the issue of how characters truly see one another all throughout the film. Auggie’s potential new friend, Jack Will, struggles with peer pressure from other boys who don’t want to hang out with Auggie. Jack vacillates between befriending him and bullying him like the other kids do. Eventually, Jack reveals his own true feelings about Auggie: “You get used to his face . . . He’s really good at science, and I really do want to be his friend.”
Mr. Tushman, the seasoned school principal, says something so stunning during his office confrontation with the bully Julian and his haughty parents. He challenges them: “Auggie can’t change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see.”
A wrap-up concept near the movie’s end nails it:
“If you really want to see who people are, all you have to do is look.”
How do you see people with whom you work? Your clients, coworkers, and employees, especially those who are suffering or just different in light of their disabilities and special needs? I am moved by the divine work of seeing people, really seeing them. At the biblical culmination of creation, right after God crafts humans, we read:
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a).
Scene after scene during Jesus’ ministry here on earth, we read:
“When Jesus saw __________ . . .” (Matthew 5:1, 8:14, 9:22, 14:14 plus numerous others).
When Jesus saw all sorts of people with all sorts of needs, the result was always some deliberate action, instruction, or other form of loving service in response. All because of seeing people via deeper outlook.
Let’s slow our steps, fix our gaze, and savor conversation. Let’s ask better questions, hear people’s stories, and gush kind affirmation. Folks are full of hopes, hurts, special needs, and yes, setbacks, missteps, mistakes, struggles, and heartache. But they also possess such powerful potential to display wondrous love and real joy. As we really see people, we’ll recognize more of God’s image and what a wonder people truly are.
O how I need greater doses of divine sight for all my interaction with others. Let’s see each person we encounter with fresh wonder this week!
“No coffee for me for the next forty days!” (I’m shaking at the very thought of such asceticism, and so are my coworkers who fear the agony of being around me when I lack sufficient caffeine. Bring me the bed of nails or hot coals to walk on before you mess with my java.)
“This year, I’m keeping my wine and chocolate, but giving up all social media. Goodbye, Facebook friends! See you after Easter.”
“No thick, juicy steaks on my plate for six weeks.”
With the start of Lent, I have heard such predictable declarations of devotion and also a number of unique, extra-creative statements of intentionality. I must confess that my own spiritual heritage did not include practicing Lent or Ash Wednesday. My religious tutelage also held no celebration of Fasnacht Day. Now, I must shout “Yea!” for the donuts’ great holiday. I have come to highly revere the sweet holiness of this fine tradition, especially when accompanied by a latte. Seriously, in recent years, my own appreciation for the potential benefits of Lenten observance has increased as I have witnessed people’s personal denial of self-consumption. I have seen meaningful, challenging levels of personal progress through such deliberate actions.
In 2021, I cannot help but wonder, “What might it look like to dig several feet deeper, to apply Lenten disciplines in the workplace?”
Instead of giving up something that represents primarily a sensory, consumer appetite, what if my zone of self-denial dared to include a core choice of the soul? How about contemplating what might be one or more of my deep-down personal ruts, a deficiency in my character relating with my coworkers, or even some often overlooked, warped, or misguided workplace values?
What about giving up water-cooler gossip and competitive character assassination?
Could I dare to begin each of the next forty days by prayerfully laying down my arrogance?
How might your productivity increase if you gave up your patterns of procrastination, to passionately attack your to-do list—especially your most dreaded tasks—even daring to do the worst first?
What healthier habits might take root in your heart if you laid aside the workplace lust you’ve flirted with way too frequently in recent months?
Might I sense a deeper connectedness with Christ, with family, and friends, if I choose to give up workaholic tendencies, to practice the sacred rhythms of Sabbath?
R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung supply a convicting list of nine workplace struggles, dubbing them “deadly work sins.” Pride. Greed. Lust. Gluttony. Anger. Sloth. Envy. Restlessness. Boredom. Their powerfully persuasive call to surrender these vices takes the conversation beyond the predictable “stop that” or “cut it out!” Ung and Stevens winsomely analyze the fresh fruit of the Spirit as life-giving antidotes. Joy. Goodness. Love. Self-control. Gentleness. Faithfulness. Kindness. Patience. Peace.
One of my friends reminded me yesterday that as we enter Lent, a truly Christ-focused approach should be something vibrantly different than gloomy, grey, boring, and dismal—an outlook consumed with only short-term self-denial. Instead, Lent actually comes to us like the beautiful harbinger of springtime—potentially leading us toward brighter outcomes—resulting in a more Spirit-led life. Who knows? Perhaps such enriched Lenten practices in the workplace might stretch beyond forty days, changing us at the core of who we are, transforming how we work, and even multiplying our Christ-like impact on others.
Let’s dare to embrace Lent in our workplaces this year, in a fashion that addresses those much-needed places in our souls. I sense that will be far more wonderful, life giving, and joy-producing than my giving up coffee—both for me as well as all my coworkers.
R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung. Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace. (Eerdmans, 2010).
From the impeachment trial in Washington to the scandal in New York State, we continue to struggle to find solid examples of upstanding, intentional leadership. These are desperate days. We need leaders marked by thoughtful integrity, thorough goodness, and hearts deliberately set on genuinely serving others.
With so much bad news lately, I have forced myself to reflect, to search and ponder some potential good news this Presidents Day. I find myself aiming to recall more positive lessons from past leaders.
Let’s revisit two lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, insights that emerge even amidst desperately negative circumstances.
Lincoln leveraged solid self-awareness of his own dark side.
His contemporaries—those people around him during early political days as well as those surrounding his presidency—all knew his capacity to convey a glum, weighted down demeanor. He would often retreat on his own with a furrowed brow in order to puzzle over problems or brood on dilemmas. He was known for projecting heaviness and a somber tone, so much that some historians have labeled Lincoln’s malaise as depression. However, Doris Kearns Goodwin has aptly deduced his outlook as melancholy instead.
And here’s what’s remarkable: Lincoln knew this dismal personal penchant. He also knew how to leverage his melancholy for the greater good. Lincoln did two things in light of such self-awareness. First, he told stories, often humorous, witty ones. In such story crafting, he was typically successful at lifting his own spirit as well as the tone and overall outlook of those whom he was leading.
Second, he allowed his melancholy outlook to fuel deeper empathy. Historians recognize that much of Lincoln’s political success came via his uncanny ability to identify with the hurts and needs of his constituents. Having deeply pondered and felt their pain, he could then plan and plot a stronger platform of service.
Lincoln was also skillful at leveraging his melancholy in order to anticipate his political opponent’s next move. Sometimes he would do this well in advance of the other party’s action and the resulting public news. Such self-awareness and skillful ability to leverage his melancholy mood for the greater good proved marvelously helpful. Lincoln actually strengthened his leadership influence with intentional use of his known tendency.
Lincoln built his cabinet largely from a list of rivals.
So many present-day leaders are prone to assembling their teams and boards only from individuals with whom they fully agree. Leaders tend to gather those who are readily “yes people,” others who are not likely to give them push-back or express alternate views. It’s remarkable to realize, President-elect Lincoln very intentionally assembled his team out of those who had already expressed differences of opinion, run against him, and even some who had openly expressed opposition to his key platforms and agenda. Lincoln saw such diversity as essential, healthy, and empowering toward genuine progress and productive outcomes during those difficult days.
I am deeply grateful for these two Lincoln insights. I long to see them employed by more of our current leaders in Washington as well as influencers in vital business arenas. And I am also stirred and equally eager to utilize them myself in my own realms of church and community leadership in the days ahead.
Let’s learn from Lincoln! Happy Presidents Day!
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2005.
You know how agonizing it feels to wait for the train.
The 2020-2021 edition of the waiting game is getting old for everyone. We all feel it on multiple fronts. There are still rampant COVID diagnoses and grieving. So many people are awaiting vaccination. Hosts of friends and family are hoping to return to the workplace, struggling to help kids with school at home, praying for a new job, and a host of other issues. Lots of precious folks are struggling to cope and find themselves swept into old addictions.
So many of us are struggling as we approach the one-year mark. I chuckle when I recall how we all thought that everything would surely be back-to-normal by Easter—last year.
The Apostle Paul expressed similar frustration in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8. The oft-quoted, oh-so-famous, standout is verse 28:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
You’re probably saying, “Yea, okay, I saw that at Hobby Lobby on bric-a-brac. So? Big deal!”
It’s comforting indeed, reassuring for sure, that God is working in all things. Even in our agonizing and waiting. That brings us renewed confidence. But because biblical context is vital for greater clarity of understanding and accurately creative application, we do well to look at what’s around these beloved lines. Right before this, Paul employs dismal words like:
He utilizes these terms in both micro and macro ways, descriptive of both our personal attitudes and in the larger cosmos, all of creation.
But he also shares bright words like:
And Christ’s Spirit intercedes for us.
Paul’s upside verbiage feels intentionally stronger. We can sense it! He is hopeful and anticipatory. But it’s not mere sentiments of sunshine or some short-term, rosy change of circumstances. For Paul, reflection runs much deeper and far-reaching. With vs. 29-30, Paul actually describes the good work.
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
There’s some serious upside, seriously divine work! Note, God’s impressive foreknowledge and predestination. These are rich concepts reinforcing vital truth that he powerfully knows and plans. He is sovereign; he’s seriously in control. In Romans, Paul is emphasizing the gracious good news, the Gospel of God’s salvation, his righteousness for us in Christ Jesus. We can assuredly trust him. Even with all the evil happenings and sinful people, his good purpose will not be thwarted. Take that to the bank. He is sovereign. We can trust him.
But what is his good purpose? That we will be conformed to the image of his Son and there will be more brothers and sisters. More family!
What’s that about? It’s our re-creation. Recall how in Genesis 1, we saw the very good creation of humans “in God’s image.” But in Genesis 3, the fall into sin happens—the insurrection against the loving King—and so the image of God was marred, mangled, fallen because of sin. The creation was subjected to frustration, starting right here.
But God, in his love and grace commenced his salvation and redemption plans, to bring King Jesus, our Savior, our Redeemer. He is the firstborn (an old way of saying “first in rank, supreme, the preeminent one”). And notice: “among many brothers and sisters!”
Here’s the amazing deal. By the Father’s good plans and gracious purposes, we get conformed to Jesus’ image, re-made in the image of our Creator. Paul was also declaring that this redemptive work positively affects all creation. And the overflow of God’s good work is that more and more people in turn become his children. It’s stunning good work that he accomplishes. Jesus’ life, love, and work flow through our lives, love, and work, and even more brothers and sisters are conformed to the image of Christ!
It’s really moving to realize the real scope of Romans 8. Just like that original good and blessed intention back at Creation (Genesis 1), our salvation and gracious recreation into Jesus’ image leads to us doing good. Really. We do good works. Others are blessed and join his family!
What train are you waiting for right now? Are you weary? Frustrated? You are not alone!
Think on Paul’s bigger view of how God is working, why he’s working, and what he is bringing to fruition. Even amidst all the waiting and weariness, you can take heart. Be encouraged. He is working so much good, so that each of us looks more like Jesus, so that more people join his family!
Nothing is wasted in God’s workshop. He’s working in our waiting, even when it feels so frustrating.
Even when we can’t see it, he is still working. Especially amidst ugly pandemics, nasty politics, struggling economies, so much groaning and grieving. We can trust him. Think anew! Because of Jesus, you are called. You are justified. And based on his precious promises, he is working his plans for greater glory.
We are all still waiting, still weary, but full of hopeful expectation!
Wind and the wintry mix were pounding our roof as I awoke. (‘Must confess, the little kid deep inside me said, “Ah, the storm did indeed deliver.”) After a foray outside with Musti, our Bernese-shepherd mutt, I began the joyous task of shoveling the driveway. I am well aware in light of the forecast, that is just round one.
Of course, I am contemplating when I’ll build the fire. This will require carefully stripping newspaper, strategically clumping kindling, and then lighting the flame. Snowy days like today certainly call for a fire. There is other work to do today, but a snowy day like this requires making a fire.
I’m struck with the integral connection between holy interruptions in our regular schedules—these God-appointed disturbances, like snowstorms—and the opportunity to make something. We learn of the God who oh-so-creatively makes things in Genesis 1. Many years later, Jesus reminded his critics that his Father is always working (John 5:16-18). So I’m challenged today with the opportunity.
I can make the most of the space, the sweet grace of extra time. I sense the Lord’s promptings today. “John, whatever you do during this storm, you must make something.” Just perhaps, we might each hear his whisper carried on the winds and driving flakes of snow. Perhaps we’ll dare to embrace our Father’s sacred dance of playful creation and a change of pace.
Build the fire and keep it burning all day. If you have a woodworking shop, use the time to build that table or refinish an antique chair that’s been gathering dust. Make french toast—and bacon, and eggs, and waffles. Go all out. Throw on your warmest snow clothes and go make memories—even just thirty minutes worth—with your kids. If you’re married, home alone, just the two of you, make the most of your time together. Wink-wink. (Need I really encourage this? It’s likely there will be a significant spike in hospital maternity traffic approximately nine months from this wintry blast.)
So, why not make something extra-special? You get the idea.
It’s an extra-crucial concept right now during this pandemic season. So many of us have become accustomed to working our normal jobs from home. No doubt you will need to do some of that normal work during the snowstorm. Just don’t miss the sacred chance to blow the whistle at least a few times along the way today.
Perhaps such gracious time carved out by snowstorms might, after all, be more like what God intends for our normal Sabbath rhythms (Genesis 2:1-3). I too often forget that intentional holy disruptions are commanded and encouraged, integral to practicing God’s intentions for truly abundant, good life.
We are too typically too busy. Snowstorms and accompanying Sabbath are made by our all-wise Father, for our good. When Jesus and his disciples walked through the fields and plucked grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees’ critique and Christ’s teaching proved unique and mildly puzzling (check out Mark 2:23-28). At least one of Christ’s intentions was to help us embrace the empowering tension of Sabbath. Yes, it’s commanded. Yes, we’re to be spontaneous. Yes, it’s God-like. And yes, it’s VERY good for us.
Stephen Cottrell, describing more sensitive Sabbath principles, urges us: “So never speak of wasting time or spending time. Rather, say you are enjoying it or giving it away freely. Never say you have an hour to kill. Rather, say you have an hour to revive, to bring to life, to ravish.”
Let’s ravish our way through the upcoming snowy hours. Now go make something!
Special note: this post has been adapted and refreshed from another post on a snow-stormy day back in 2017. It seems I needed reminded again.
Stephen Cottrell. Do Nothing to Change Your Life: Discovering What Happens When You Stop. (New York: Seabury Books), 2008, p. 69.
The Abominable Snowman is stomping our way! Yes, a big snowstorm is predicted. Our region of PA has a forecast for an apocalyptic snow event starting sometime Sunday. And I can read your mind. You’re seriously contemplating just skipping the church service tomorrow, whether in-person or live-streaming.
Backstage secret. Here’s an underbelly-of-the-beast truth: Every Sunday on the calendar is tough work, but pastors dread such a wintertime collision of nature and scheduled worship gatherings.
Whether you live in our region under the threat of a storm or somewhere else across the U.S. there’s a really good chance you are contemplating skipping church tomorrow. Pre-COVID, church attendance was already trending downward. People had good reasons galore. Sunday kids’ sports, golf with buddies, sleeping in, better TV preachers, fabulous breakfast buffets, or more open treadmills at the gym. “Easy like Sunday morning” is a smooth, catchy song lyric, indeed. And it seems so delightful to roll with such easiness.
The pandemic has produced a host of additional complexities, fears, disruptions for everyone. In that whirlwind, faithful church involvement has become more optional than ever. Good excuses abound and are multiplied.
Icing on the cake for this weekend, there’s a snowstorm coming, and you’re thinking, “I don’t really need to connect via live-stream, and I certainly don’t need to get in the car and go attend in-person. After all, the flakes might start falling at 10:13 a.m. Yikes! That’s risky. And then they want me to wear a mask, stay six feet apart—certainly no hugs or handshakes—and the café menu is so scaled back. It just doesn’t feel like church like I liked it back in 2019.”
Are you really contemplating skipping church again? Really?
Don’t do it. Really. Just determine right now you’ll be made of stronger stuff. Decide you’re still going to attend—or even go back for the first time—either in-person or online for live-streaming.
Here are three bigger reasons you should gather in-person or online this week. Hear me out.
Reason #1: Your local leaders have been uniquely planning, creating, studying, and crafting something really good for you.
Really. Trust me, no matter who your leaders are, their unique gift mix, passions, weaknesses, and expertise, they’ve got something very meaningful planned. If you skip tomorrow, you’ll miss the encouragement, the challenge, the conviction, the hope, and the good gracious help that’s being served up. You’ll miss the songs, the teaching, and the opportunity to fellowship with others. Every Sunday, these elements stir together so you can be inspired to be good and do good in the coming week. For fresh perspective, see Hebrews 10:19-25. Determine you’ll gather. It’s good for your heart. It’s good for others. You don’t want to miss out!
Reason #2: Your local leaders are uniquely available and accessible. After all, well, they’re local.
This should be so obvious, but in the YouTube and TV celebrity status of so many national and international ministries, it’s quickly forgotten.
Andy Stanley, his great dad Charles, Rick Warren, and Francis Chan. They’re awesome dudes, and they are indeed fantastic communicators. Out of sight. I’ve been blessed and learned from all of them. But stop and think about it. They’re not going to chat with you after the message regarding your questions, pray with you in the lobby, call you in the hospital, do your child’s wedding, or send you an encouragement card. They’re hundreds of miles away.
So why not jump into the mix this week with your local congregation? Tap into what’s been creatively crafted by your local leaders in your unique context.
Go to church this weekend. Really. You’re warmly welcome! And welcome back if you’ve been away for a while. Go online or in-person with an open heart, a level-head, with non-judgmental expectations about the music and preaching. Bring a serious others-orientation. Aim to be a blessing yourself, not just be blessed, fed-to-the-full, and encouraged yourself. Go to encourage others!
Reason #3: Jesus went to church faithfully. You should too.
There’s a little phrase that jumps at me in Luke 4, verse 16. We’re told Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. (Yes, it’s not precisely our present-day Sunday gatherings, but it’s a very similar, Jewish, first-century approximate of our twenty-first century worship gatherings.)
Now here’s the intriguing little phrase about Jesus. He went to the synagogue “as was his custom.”
What’s that mean? He went to synagogue every Sabbath. Jesus was a regular. He was faithful, whether it was going to snow or not.
You say, “Well of course he did, he’s JESUS.” Okay, but think about it; he already knew all the truth there is to know. By nature of his divine position before coming to earth, he was intimately familiar with the best worship and the most sublime teaching. Andy and Rick don’t hold a candle to what Jesus already heard and knew by heart. But he still “went to church,” and because he did, others were abundantly blessed.
You say you want to be like Jesus. You really want to grow to be more like him in 2021, in spite of the horrific pandemic, a sagging economy, and raucous political turmoil? Wonderful.
You say you’re aiming to be like Jesus? Fantastic. Start by gathering for church, either online or in-person. You won’t regret it!
And after all, the really heavy snow isn’t supposed to start until afternoon.
Go to church. You’ll be blessed, and you’ll be a blessing in the mix with others. Really!