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What Can Be Gained from Pain

The late Fred Rogers, known as Mr. Rogers to millions of children, met a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Mr. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was shocked! People had offered to pray for him, but no one had ever asked him to pray for them. He said he would try; since Mr. Rogers was close to God he figured it would be okay.

Tom Junod, doing a profile on Mr. Rogers for Esquire magazine, complimented Mr. Rogers on seeking to build the boy’s self-esteem by requesting prayer. Mr. Rogers replied, “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.” (from an article in the Tampa Bay Times by David Brooks, July 8, 2018)

One of the possible positive ramifications of pain in our lives is that it can deepen our faith, drawing us closer to God, that is, if we choose to let it. I recall a woman named Jane in the church I served in Toledo, Ohio, who went through a lot of pain during her life. Her husband had suffered from a debilitating stroke for years until he died. Her adult son was fighting substance abuse and losing. Jane herself had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying. Yet, as I visited her, I found her to be full of peace and joy! I had come to encourage her, but she encouraged me! This was because she was close to God, not in spite of her pain, but in large measure because of her pain!

No one likes going through a painful experience, you’d be a masochist if you did. Most of us have to admit, however, that going through bad times does often teach us lessons we don’t easily learn during good times.

Painful experiences can make us a bitter person or a better person. One of the ways it can make us a better person is to let it draw us closer to God. We have a choice.

How we respond to God during a painful time is a choice. We can decide to be mad at God, disappointed in Him, or accept the notion that He doesn’t care. Or, we can choose to cry out to God, to reach out to Him, and to trust Him. The journey through problems and pain can take us, as Fred Rogers said, “very close to God.”

“But as for me, afflicted and in pain – may your salvation, God, protect me.” (Psalm 69:29)

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Limitations Don’t Have to Limit

While Diann and I were hiking a trail in a national park out west we met an older couple also hiking the trail. I can’t recall if I was catching my breath and told him and his wife to pass or how we ended up standing there in a short conversation with them. Turns out he was 81 years old. He walked with a cane, but it certainly didn’t slow him down. Said he had both knees replaced and a hip replacement. He’d had a leg brace for many years. A while later, at the end of the path, I saw him head toward the bathrooms. One was marked “Handicapped,” but he didn’t use it; he entered the regular bathroom.

What a guy, I thought! He had all these physical issues, used a leg brace, and a cane but didn’t see himself as being handicapped! I want to be like him when I grow up to be 81 years old! (Just a note here: Handicap restrooms are vital and necessary for many people who would have a difficult time using a regular facility. I suspect this gentleman, during his recovery from his different health issues also used handicap restrooms. It’s just that, by God’s grace, he apparently no longer needed the special facilities.)

This elderly hiker with the cane and leg brace reminded me of the great truth that limitations don’t have to limit us! We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can always control how we respond to what happens to us! The degree to which limitations impact us has far more to do with our attitude than with the circumstances themselves!

There’s story after story in the Bible of people hitting up against difficulties of one kind or another. Part of each of these stories is about how God had a plan through it all for each of these Biblical characters in spite of those difficulties. As long as they kept faith in Him they saw God work things out for the good. It didn’t always mean it worked out the way the person wanted, but it worked out for the best, God’s greater good. The good news is that God calls us to unfold His unlimited possibilities within that which limits us!

“I have learned that everything has limits; but Your ways have limitless possibilities.” (Psalm 119:96, my paraphrase)

Resume or Eulogy

As we go about living our lives one day at a time, are we striving to build a resume or providing material for our own eulogy? David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote, “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” The Moral Bucket List, NEW YORK TIMES web site, April 11, 2015.

I’ve conducted probably some 500 funerals, and the great funerals were those where family and friends reflected on how the person had impacted their lives, a real eulogy. The darker funerals were those where the best that could be said was where the person lived, worked, what sports they loved, and what they achieved, more like a resume.

Retiring in my 40th year of pastoring the Mayfair-Plymouth Church, the parishioners hosted a retirement/going away celebration for us. What was interesting in people’s personal reflections of our ministry together was the lack of focus on any achievements that were, at the time, so important to me. What the reflections focused on were the times we went through things together, often tough times, but many good times as well. They remembered words I said in an attempt to be comforting or encouraging, most of the conversations of which I had no recollection. It was very little of the resume type stuff and a lot of what might be said at my funeral, except I was present to enjoy it!

We would do well to focus less on resume building, on achieving and accomplishing things, and more on relating to people in positive and loving ways, seeking to make a difference in their lives so that they will have ample material for a eulogy at our funeral. Morbid? I don’t think so. It’s just that, as David Brooks wrote, it’s better to aim for eulogy virtues than resume virtues.

“…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2b-3

God’s Perfect Timing

My wife Diann was looking at greeting cards in a store. She saw one that was funny, but also had an encouraging message. Nevertheless, she walked on to look at other things in the store. She couldn’t get the card of her mind, however, thinking it would be a good card to send to our daughter Julie who lives in Mexico. She went back and purchased the card and mailed it to Julie on June 27.

We know it takes next to forever to send mail from the U.S. to Mexico. You do NOT want to send time sensitive material, only time insensitive material! We wondered how long it would take to reach our daughter. Diann prayed that it would come on the right day for Julie. It did!

The mailman on the motorcycle delivered the card up the hill to Refuge Ranch. The person at the Ranch who met the mailman put the card on the kitchen table, and it was a few hours before Julie noticed it. She opened and read the card, then called her Mom. She said it was PERFECT timing, even the reading of it hours after its tardy delivery on that difficult day. The date? August 15, seven weeks after it had been mailed!

God’s timing is not always our timing, but His timing is always perfect! This means His delays are not denials. It’s in waiting that His good will is often best carried out. Sometimes we, or someone else, needs to be in a different place for God’s actions to be most effective. Perhaps we have lessons to learn in the waiting. God uses time as a tool, and it seems to be one of His favorite tools!

Many times God’s timing is a mystery. You could say that He waits until His divine ducks are all lined up in a row, and the problem is that the divine ducks are invisible to us! Thankfully, once in a while, we see how God’s timing works things out for the best, as with the seven week delay on Julie receiving her card. Such instances can bolster our faith for all the times when God’s timing remains a mystery, that He is at work in His own mysterious ways! Part of a strong faith in God is accepting His timing, His perfect timing.

“But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”  Psalm 31:14-15a

The Maintenance of Relationships

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get caught up on all the home repairs and home improvements. I see so much that needs to be done; my wife sees even more! I dream of the day when the “Honey Do” list is no more. I imagine myself asking my wife, “Hon, is there anything that needs to be fixed, repaired, or updated around the house?” A look of concentration comes over her face, then, after pondering long and hard, she replies, “No, I can’t think of a single thing.” Okay, only in my dreams!

On my daily morning walk here in Florida I pass several empty houses that are in disrepair. They must be owned by somebody, but that somebody isn’t doing much, if any, maintenance on their property. It’s going to take a great deal of effort and a lot of money to get those homes in a habitable, let alone attractive, condition.

After many years of preaching and writing I’m conditioned to see a spiritual application to almost anything I experience or see. On walking past one of these decrepit houses I recall thinking that a lack of maintenance not only ruins a house but also a life. Our relationships, the most important part of life, need regular maintenance, like our homes.

If we don’t pay attention to our relationships, including our relationship with God, they’re going to deteriorate. The tyranny of the urgent, perplexing problems, the attraction of the attractive, and just the day to day grind of life can all result in our neglecting the nurturing of our relationships with people and with God.

I find that to keep my house and property in good shape I need to see what needs fixing or improving, and then I need to spend the time, effort, and money to make it happen. I’ve also discovered that when I do a little maintenance on a regular basis I don’t have as many big issues to deal with.

The same goes with maintaining and improving human relationships. It requires the work of spending time with the person, encouraging, being painfully honest, forgiving, and cutting some slack with the individual. A relationship with God isn’t all that different. We build a relationship with God by “practicing His presence” as Brother Lawrence wrote centuries ago which means thinking about Him a lot and believing He is very near. It also involves listening to Him by reading His Word and talking to Him, which we call prayer.

Our relationships with others and with God are like a house in that they will fall into disrepair if they aren’t maintained. Walking past that old decrepit house reminded me of this.

“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22:37-39

The Games of LIfe

Some of the games in our home

My wife is rather frugal, for which I’m very grateful, except on my birthday. But one area where she can go crazy spending money is on games for the grandchildren. We already have a large collection of all kinds of games, but that’s not enough. There’s always a new game to buy and play. I’ve never been big on games, but I’m being converted! I have to admit that we have lots of fun playing games with our grandchildren.

It really doesn’t matter what the game is (okay, not Candy Land, Candy Land puts me to sleep). What does matter is that I’m playing the game with my grandchildren and grandma. What also matters is that the kids aren’t fighting over the game and that Grandma and I aren’t fighting over the game. While we shuffle the cards, roll the dice, or spin the dial Grandma and I are hoping the kids are having a good time, are learning lessons about fair play and how to both win and lose graciously, and are creating fond memories.

Eventually the game is over and goes back in the box. It’s good to keep the game in perspective, that it’s just a game and that what is important are the relationships with those with whom we play the game.

It occurred to me that God has us, His children, playing all sorts of games. He participates with us to the degree we let Him, and we play these games with others. There’s the game of our job or career, the game of unemployment and the game of retirement. There’s the game of being a parent, a mate, or being single. There’s the game of illness and the game of accident. There’s the game of extended family and the game of friends. Most of us are playing a number of these games at the same time.

Here’s what I’ve come to realize. It doesn’t matter so much to God what games we’re playing or if we’re doing better or worse than someone else. What matters most to God is that we’re enjoying being close to God while we’re playing the games of life, that we’re playing well with others, and that, winning or losing, we do so graciously.

Author John Ortberg wrote a book with the title, When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box. What doesn’t go back in the box are the relationships between the participants. Hopefully those relationships are closer and better after having played the game.

All that we accumulate, work at, and deal with in life eventually goes back in the box. In the end what we will have are the relationships, with God and God’s people. In the middle of playing the games of life it seems advisable to remember this!

“‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” (Jesus in conversation with Martha and Mary, Luke 10:41-42)

Like a Child Asking for Candy

Photo by Silvia Trigo on Pexels.com

It’s just before mealtime, the day after Halloween. The child asks, “Can I have some of my Halloween candy?” The parent says, “No, it’ll ruin your appetite. We have to eat our meal first.” The child wants the candy NOW! The idea of a ruined appetite doesn’t register. Anyway, isn’t consuming candy considered eating? There will likely be tears if not a temper tantrum. The child can’t understand how the parent can be so mean as to withhold something so sweet tasting and delicious as candy.

God, who wants people who are in relationship with Him to call Him Heavenly Father, has the same problem with us! Some of our requests we make of Him are turned down because He knows what is best and we do not, though we most certainly think we do!

Just as a parent is far wiser than the child, so God is infinitely wiser than we are. Sometimes, in hindsight, I see God’s wisdom in not answering my prayers the way I wanted them answered. Most of the time I don’t. It’s often, to be honest about it, mystifying.

Our family prayed earnestly for a long time for our young grandson to be healed of his severe heart condition. It seemed as though our prayers were being answered when the best pediatric heart surgeon in all of Mexico was able to do the surgery. Danny had the surgery but never recovered. I could list a host of other prayers that weren’t answered the way I wanted them to be answered, and I suspect you could too!

It’s often said that we should ask God for things with great faith. The truth is that it takes even greater faith to accept God’s “No” or “Wait” as His answer. What will we do in such situations? Will we express a spiritual version of a temper tantrum or stomp off, distancing ourselves from Him? Or will we stubbornly determine to still love God and seek to be His person?

A careful study of the Bible shows us that God doesn’t always go along with our requests. Such a careful study also shows us, however, that God goes along with us through whatever He has us go through!

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” Isaiah 55:8-9

Three Trips to the Hardware Store

The utility sink in the garage leaked. My wife spotted it first. Why in the world does she look under the sink in the first place? Lying on my back I pushed myself inch by inch until I was under the sink. Mmm, it looks like the u-shaped thingamajig was rusted through (sorry if this is getting too technical for you).

I face plumbing jobs with fear and trepidation, imagining breaking one part after another until I’m working at replacing stuff inside the wall, then outside the house, and on to the main line at the street. Launching forth where angels fear to tread, I removed the u-shaped thingamajig, then another part, and still another part.

I made a trip to the hardware store for new parts. I went back a second time to take back these wrong parts and get the right parts. I went back a third time and, thankfully, the third time was the charm. The gal at the cash register reassured me on my third visit that a lot of people make three visits to the hardware store to fix something. Misery loves company so I felt comforted.

I eventually got the sink to stop leaking. I know, I’m as amazed as you are!

My three trips to the hardware store were an exercise in moving forward in spite of one mistake after another. I think there’s an application here to life beyond the utility sink. Making mistakes is part of the human condition. Some of the mistakes are even more than mistakes, they’re sin.

The good news is that God is revealed in the Bible as the God of a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, etc. Every great Biblical character was flawed, sinful, yet they did great things, by the grace of God. Their stories are told so that we might be encouraged.

I’ve learned that the way to overcoming a mistake, failure, or sin is getting up and taking the first step forward. This first forward step may mean asking God, and maybe someone else, for forgiveness. It might mean asking God for help in getting up and getting going when we are down and out.

God is the God of possibilities, which means He always has a way we can respond in a positive way when the current situation looks anything but positive. We just need to, with His help, persevere. It’s probably going to take more than one trip to the hardware store!

“You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” Hebrews 10:36

Honest to God Praying

One of the most wonderful things we can do on a daily basis is talk to God. We call it praying, but I like to refer to it as simply “talking to God” because sometimes the idea of “praying” can psyche us out – it sounds so religious, so spiritual, so theological. In reality praying, talking to God, is not all that different from talking to a friend or loved one. The difference is that it’s vertical communication instead of horizontal, and we’re taking advantage of the privilege of talking to the most important One in the whole universe.

I know, praying often seems hard to do. One problem is that our mind can tend to wander. Ever wonder why our mind wanders? I’ve learned over the years to see my wandering mind as a positive in praying instead of a negative.

C. S. Lewis, a great Christian thinker and writer, wrote in his book, The Screwtape Letters, that it was better to accept “the distraction as [our] present problem and [lay] that before [God] and make it the main theme of [our] prayers.” (Quote from Our Daily Bread devotional, “Being Real with God” September 8, 2018)

Obviously what my mind wanders to while I’m trying to sound so religious before God in my praying is what’s really on my mind; worry, troubles, an exciting opportunity, or even a tempting or sinful thought. Yes, I’ll admit that sometimes my worst thoughts come to me while I’m trying to pray! My wandering mind takes me to the place where I really am!

What makes talking to God more real and relevant is to go with the flow and talk with God about what is really on our mind. God knows everything, including what we’re really thinking about so we might as well be honest with Him. Once we deal with the wandering thoughts we just might be in a better place to talk to Him about some other subjects that should be brought before Him.

Praying, talking to God, doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t be boring or a drudgery. It can be a delight, a natural and meaningful part of our day or night, as long as we make it honest to God praying!

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it completely.” Psalm 139:1-4

The Unknown Future

The scrawled note was from Jacqueline Kennedy to her personal assistant. The date on the note was November 22. It gave the schedule for the day…

8:45 Breakfast

10:45 leave for airport

11:35 arrive Dallas

Motorcade

Lunch

2:00 Leave Lunch

The luncheon and the leaving of the luncheon never happened. Jackie’s plans and those of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, were tragically changed by the assassination of the president that day.

One of the simple but all-important truths we need to accept of life is that it’s unpredictable. As the famous line from Robert Burns’ poem of 1786, To a Mouse, states, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

Someone was once asked that if he could have one wish what would it be. He replied, “To know the place where I’m going to die.” He was asked why. He said, “So I can stay away from there.” His wish will never be granted. The future is not ours to plan, at least not definitively, that’s God’s domain.

The great theologian Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” My mother would often conclude her description of any plans she had with the line, “The Lord willing.” I find myself doing the same.

The future, including our efforts to plan for it, is just another facet of life where we’re to have faith and trust in God, exhibiting a willingness to yield to His will and purposes, however different they might be from our own. There is one aspect of the future that we do have control over and that is the guarantee of having God with us and for us in our future, if we so decide. I’ve always taken comfort in the old saying, “We can’t know what the future holds, but we can know the One who holds the future.”

Certainly God wants us to plan ahead, we’d be irresponsible not to do so. It’s just that we should do so by adding the footnote “subject to change.”

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)