Being Good Stewards of Our Pain

Well-known minister and writer Frederick Buechner shared with a small group a portion of a piece of fiction he had written. It became clear to his listeners that, though fictional, the story revealed something of the deep hurt Buechner himself had experienced being raised in a home with an alcoholic and abusive father. After the reading a man in the group came up to him, deeply moved, and told Buechner, “You have a good deal of pain in your life, and you have been a good steward of it.” (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner)

I wonder, are we good stewards of our pain? As a preacher for 40 years I often taught or preached on being good stewards of the time, talent, and treasure the Lord has given us. I now see I should have added a fourth “t” to the list: troubles.

What does that mean, that we can be a good steward of our troubles and pain? As a pastor of God’s people over these many years I’ve identified several ways I’ve seen how people have profited from their pain that we can apply to our own lives.

First, troubles can drive us to God. Looking back on my ministry I don’t recall a single person who started attending church and stated as the reason, “Life is going so well for me that I just had to better connect with God who has blessed me so.” On the other hand, countless were the people who showed up for the first time at church and shared with me, “Something terrible has happened in my life and I needed to reach out to God.”

Second, troubles can make us a better person instead of a bitter person; the choice is ours. I have known many people who have had multiple serious troubles in their lives and yet, in spite of all the pain, were beautiful, joyful, enthusiastic, and gracious.

Third, troubles that God has helped us cope and deal with give us the compassion and resources necessary to come alongside and help someone else going through similar troubles. Our troubled past can be of help to someone’s troubled present.

I know, when we’re in the midst of some troubling situation it’s hard to see how any good can come of it, but this is one place where faith has to come into play, believing God has a purpose in it all. Yes, it’s God’s will and His plan for us that we not only be good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure, but also of our troubles!

“Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.” (Psalm 71:20)

Miscalculating Life’s Mission

The owners of a large motor home had placed a sign on their dashboard. It was leaning against the windshield, facing outward for all to read, “If there’s anything left when we’re both gone, we miscalculated!”

Apparently the owners of the motor home realize they can’t take it with them when they die, so they’re determined to use it all up before they go. They win at the game of life if they can squeeze every pleasure and delight out of what they possess, leaving a balance near zero when they depart.

The motor home sign prompts some serious reflection on the mission and purpose of life. One could argue that the motor home owners’ goal makes sense if there is no God and no life beyond the grave; grab all the gusto you can while you can. But if there is a God and an after-life, then this philosophy might just be misdirected and short-sighted!

As a Christian who has read the Bible with some degree of intentionality and regularity, I can confidently state that living for one’s self is not the purpose for which God created us. Most of us, even those who don’t take God very seriously, realize this. In fact, we admire those who have sacrificed personal gain for the benefit of others.

Another way it’s been put is to leave this world a better place than you found it. It’s difficult to imagine how a person can do so if one lives only for the benefit of self.

Life is a gift from God. We are all given good things of one kind or another and an unknown number of days to use all we’ve been given for God’s good purposes. This means we’re to be wise stewards of our lives! For me, a good prayer to pray is, “Lord, guide me to the right use of the time, talent, and treasure You’ve given me. Amen.

Jesus stated, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Help from the Maker of Mountains

The living room of our house in Mexico where we live part of the year to be near our missionary daughter and her family faces Popocatepetl, an active volcano. Each day Popo (everyone’s nickname for the volcano) expresses a different personality. Sometimes Popo has a bit of steam, sometimes (though rarely) nothing is happening, sometimes ash puffs out and sometimes a LOT of ash billows forth.

The giant mountain is alive with heat, steam, ash, and lava, and no one can control it. We never forget that Popo is there, and the alive mountain is always to be respected. Mexican scientists monitor Popo’s activity, but no one can manage Popo’s activity.

When we built our house in Mexico I created two signs that hang above the dining area window and the living room window from which we view Popo. They both say the same thing, one in Spanish and the other in English, Psalm 121:1-2, I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

When the Psalmist looked at a massive mountain he thought of how great is God who made the mountains. He was reassured that there was real help for himself that could come from the Maker of those mountains. So should we be reassured! God created mountains, more easily than a child can make a small mound of sand at the seashore. When it comes to volcanoes like Popo, God does Himself one better; He makes the big mountain come alive with smoking and rumbling and sometimes with lava!

Whatever our challenges and problems we can go to this great God, the creator of mountains and volcanoes. If He can make the massive mountains and can even make some of them come awesomely alive then He can easily help us with whatever we face!

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2)

The Mystery of Motives

motivesmallWhen our grandson Danny died at age 5 the other 17 children in our daughter’s family were, as you would expect, grief stricken at the loss of their little brother, except, it appeared, for Alejandro. Ale, as we call him, went outside and started to play with a homemade push-type wooden go-cart. The rest of us found it strange and inappropriate behavior; how could he be so insensitive? It was much later that Ale mentioned, “I used to push Danny around on the go-cart.”

Wow and ouch! We were so wrong in our judgment of Ale! We had no idea what his true motive was when he left the mourning family in the house to go play with the go-cart. Now we understood; it was his way of staying connected to Danny, his way of mourning.

This episode was, and is, a reminder to me that it’s nearly impossible to judge the motives of others. How can we know for a certainty the motive of why someone does something? We can’t. And yet we often react to the person’s action based on our best guess as to what’s motivated the person. It’s likely a bad guess!

When you think about it, we often have a difficult time untangling and identifying our own motives for what we say or do. In our more honest moments we have to admit that we rarely do anything out of a totally pure motive. Why, then, do we think we’re so good at judging some other person’s motives?

When it comes down to it, only God truly understands our motives, and those of others, completely. A good rule by which we should live is this: never judge the motives of others!

“All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.(Proverbs 16:2)

Resilience

resiliancesmallThe tree surprised me! A year before it had appeared dead, its bare branches forming an artistic silhouette against a blue sky. Then someone cut the branches off, presumably for firewood. I wrote about this tragic scene in a previous essay stating that “someone had amputated the artful branches of the dead tree. It stood there, a grotesque remnant of the picturesque tree it had been, a few large limbs remaining, but the smaller artistically curved branches were gone.”

I was wrong! The tree wasn’t dead but apparently in its dormant phase. It now is growing new clusters of leaves at the end of each stump that will become new branches. What a resilient tree!

The tree talked to me in silent words loudly spoken; resilience is a key to living well, not just for trees, but for people too! Setbacks come our way in many different forms. The question is, what will we do with those setbacks? Read the Bible stories of the men and women God used in great and wonderful ways, and in almost every instance they faced difficulties and setbacks. God was able to do great things with them because of how they responded with faith to their difficult circumstances.

We can choose how we respond to a setback; we can choose to bounce back from the setback! If we fail we can choose to fail forward, determining that failure does not have to be final!

That tree with new growth on the ends of its cut off branches was a reminder to me of the principle of resilience. The same God who built resilience into that tree has done the same with you and me! We just have to, in faith, act on that fact!

“Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.” (Psalm 71:20)

What’s Our Identity?

identity2smallI was a pastor of a church for nearly 40 years. People usually called me “Pastor Dave.” My role as a minister was, as you can probably imagine, a major part of my identity. I often wondered what it would be like to live life without being “Pastor Dave.” Now I know, having been retired for over two years.

For many of those years our daughter Julie was known as “the pastor’s daughter” and our son Dan was known as “the pastor’s son.” We now live half the time near our daughter and her family where I’m known as “Julie’s father.” The other half of the time we live near our son and his family where I’m known as “Dan’s father.” Things sure have changed!

We all have titles and roles that help define who we are, but to what extent should they? Who are we, really? Yes, we are known by the work or job we do and the roles we play as mate, parent, child, grandparent, friend, neighbor, avid fan of a certain sports team, etc, but is there something more to us than the sum of our titles and roles?

I’m coming to a deeper realization of who I am, or am supposed to be, at my core. It’s something I’ve known all along, and as a pastor I preached regularly. I also believe it’s a universal fact that should apply to every human being, because it’s a truth made clear in the Bible. Drum roll…. and here it is! We’re to be a child of God’s!

When we embrace the amazing truth that we can be the recipient of the astonishing love of God, can give Him delight beyond our wildest dreams by loving Him back, and can partner with Him in carrying out His amazing plans, then we can begin to grasp something of who we were really meant to be!

Yes, we all have various titles and roles we live out. They partly define who we are, but there’s absolutely nothing better than to know we’re God’s person!

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)

Measuring Life Rightly

tapemeassureI frequently use a tape measure, sometimes clipping it to my belt so it’s handy to grab. Clipping it to my belt also makes me feel more like a carpenter (which I am NOT). I’ve also learned the truth of an old adage the hard way, “Measure twice, cut once.” More than a few times I’ve measured wrong and had to scrap a piece of wood because I cut it too short.

The thing about a tape measure is that it gives a standard of measurement that never changes. I may miss-measure, cutting something too long or too short, but it’s not because an inch has changed into something longer or shorter. An inch is an inch, always. No one can tell someone else, “For me, an inch is longer (or shorter) than your measure of an inch.”

We have all kinds of standard ways to measure things. Cooks use measuring spoons and cups, doctors and nurses use thermometers, and truck drivers measure their workday in miles traveled. These are all means of measuring that have standards with which we can’t argue; they are what they are, irrefutable and unchangeable.

So, what about the most important subject in all of the world, in all of the cosmos, for that matter? How do we size up God? The socially acceptable response is that God is whatever you consider Him to be for you. If you really give it some thought this makes no more sense than to say an inch can be whatever length you conceive it to be. No, it is not!

God can’t be whatever we personally conceive Him to be, because then we have created God in our own image, which is not God at all. God can’t be all the different things all the religions and all the personal opinions claim Him to be; such views are often contradictory and mutually exclusive of each other. For instance, as a follower of Jesus Christ (a Christian), I believe that God has revealed Himself as triune in nature when Jesus came into the world – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This view of God believes that Jesus is God in the flesh. Other religions do not believe this (and they have as much right to their belief as I do to mine). Yes, we should all love and respect one another in spite of our differing views! True love and respect, however, does not demand that we have to accept as equally truthful the other person’s belief but that we still love and respect each other in spite of our different beliefs!

The fact is, God can’t be both triune and not triune in His nature. Jesus is either God come in human flesh or He is not. Life after death either is a heaven and hell, reincarnation, or no life at all beyond the grave; all three views can’t be right.

God is the way God is, and it behooves us to determine what that is. “Dear God, show me who You are,” would be a good prayer to pray.

“He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth — the Lord God Almighty is his name.” (The prophet Amos as recorded in the Bible in Amos 4:13)

The Non-religious Praying Mantis

prayingmantissmallThe praying mantis appears to be a religious insect, its natural resting posture resembling a position of prayer. However, a bug’s life, as far as we know, doesn’t include prayer. The praying mantis is a bug that only appears to be religious. It seems to me that we humans can have this attribute in common with the praying mantis, appearing and acting religious when, in reality, we’re not relating to God in any significant way.

I’m a retired pastor having led a congregation in worship for nearly 40 years, and yet when I worship now as a member of the congregation I find my mind wandering to what I’ll have for lunch after church or what I’ll do Sunday afternoon. To others in the service I probably appear as if I’m fully engaged in singing praises to God or listening attentively to the pastor’s message. Appearances can be deceiving.

Later in the week I can put on a smile for a friend, an acquaintance, or a clerk in a store who is being a real jerk. I appear to be responding in a Christian way, but inside I’m going grrrrrrrrr! I may even be picturing the person being forcefully relocated to where there is fire and brimstone!

It’s easy to put on a facade of faith, explaining to people that we believe in God or acting kindly so that most might guess we’re probably a religious person. We may even go to church or, a step further, even be actively involved in some activities or ministry in a church.

The reality is that God, of course, sees beyond all of this. Maybe it would be better to say He sees down deep within us, underneath these layers of religious stuff.

The good news is that God is forgiving of our hypocrisy, if we see our need for forgiveness and want to receive His forgiveness. The good news is also that God is anxious to be real to us, if we really want Him to be real! We’re not going to be perfect at this, not this side of heaven, but we can make it our aim to be more authentic in our faith. After all, we don’t want to bug God by being like the praying mantis!

“My heart says of you, Seek his face! Your face, Lord, I will seek.” (Psalm 27:8)

The Temptation of Twinkies

twinkiessmallI like Twinkies a lot, the golden little cakes with the creamy filling. We divide our time between living near our son and family in Florida and our daughter and family in Mexico. Recently, when we were living at our place in Mexico, I had a real hankering for Twinkies. There are several little “in and out” markets, for lack of a better word, in the nearby village of Cuecuecuatitla. I drove up and down the hilly streets stopping at each little market. No Twinkies. I’ve tried the Bimbo brand of a similar product, but it lacks sufficient creamy white filling to satisfy; they just don’t measure up to Twinkies. Finally, I found a place near where I drive our granddaughter to her school that has Twinkies, though they spell it Tuinky.

I partly blame my fixation with Twinkies on early imprinting. I grew up watching the children’s program Howdy Doody which was sponsored by Twinkies. Uncle Bob, the host, would display a plate of Twinkies with one cut in half, and with a pencil-like pointer he would make sure we kids didn’t miss seeing the delectable creamy white center. I’ve been hooked ever since.

However, as much as I like Twinkies, I resist the temptation to eat them on a regular basis. I don’t like admitting it, but they’re NOT a health food!

Resisting the temptation to eat Twinkies is no earth-shattering struggle that will prompt an apocalyptic tragedy in the world, or even my life, if I fail. Yet, if I ate them daily, I’m sure it would have a negative effect on my health. This little struggle can be a reminder, maybe even a metaphor, of the struggles with temptations that, if not resisted, can result in serious negative ramifications for us and those within our sphere of influence.

I could list techniques, methods, and approaches for dealing with temptation, but that’s fodder for another article. Suffice it to say for this short reflection that there are boundaries we must continually set for ourselves.

The fact is, we have to do more than say “yes” to that which is good. We must also say “no” to those things that aren’t good. Resisting temptation should not be seen as a negative concept but a positive one. Saying “no” to something can mean saying “yes” to something better. When I pass the Tuinky or Twinkies on the shelf at the store I’m reminded of this!

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (The words of Jesus in Matthew 26:41)

Cow on a Leash

cowleashsmallThe cow at Refuge Ranch, where we live part time with our daughter and her family in Mexico, is on a long rope leash. It’s cheaper than putting a fence around the property. The cow doesn’t like the limitations of the leash, sometimes stretching the rope tight in search of greener grass just beyond the length of the rope. The leash gives the cow a fairly large circumference for roaming and grazing, but it apparently isn’t enough.

I think we’re probably more like the cow at Refuge Ranch than we’d like to admit. We, too, have to live with limitations. I’ve even heard someone say, “The Lord keeps me on a short leash,” meaning that wrong actions usually bring swift negative ramifications, discouraging such behavior in the future.

Perhaps a leash is not the first image a person thinks of when reflecting on a relationship with God, but I’m thinking it’s a good one. We certainly are familiar with the family dog being on a leash, and it’s a good image (when there’s a good master or mistress on the other end). Parents sometimes use a child leash where there’s the real danger of the child running into trouble.

If we think of our relationship with God as being connected by the leash of His will for us, then it’s a helpful image. Do we really want to move and act beyond the circumference of God’s will for us? No, but we do, and that’s when we get ourselves into trouble, sinning and distancing ourselves from God.

God has his ways of reigning us in. There’s the gentle tug of our own conscience, the strong tug of how our actions contradict God’s Word, and the harsh jerk of the reprimand from someone we’ve hurt or someone who sees the error of our ways before we do.

Cows aren’t the brightest animal in the barnyard, so they never see the advantage of the leash – that the farmer tugging at the other end is taking them to new and greener pasture – and so they balk. A pet dog, being a lot smarter, usually gets excited about being tied to the leash because it knows it’s time for a walk and adventure. A careful study of the Biblical concept of the relationship between God and His people reveals that His leash of a connection to us isn’t going to limit our life but expand it, because He’s a good, a VERY good, Master!

“I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.” (God speaking, in Hosea 11:4a)