Healing the Pain of the Past

More than 35 years have passed, but I still think about what happened that hot summer night. My brother, nudging me awake around 2:30 a.m., leaned over my bed and said, “Mom didn’t come home.” As I sat up in bed, fear instantly gripped my body and I felt my stomach sink. “It finally happened”, I thought.  I climbed out of bed, went down stairs, and slipped on my shoes. Still dressed in my pajamas, I opened the front door of the run-down apartment where we lived, and began running across the street and down the alley in the direction of where I knew my mother had gone many hours earlier that evening. It was the same place she went every night, the neighborhood bar.

I remember that summer as one of the darkest periods of my childhood. My mom was separated from my step-father at the time, who was an alcoholic and had left town. To try to ease her loneliness, Mom would leave my brother and me at home alone every night to go out to the bars. We lived in a small town and her favorite bar was only a couple of blocks away. Each night she would make us dinner, and then head out for the night. I would often cry and ask her not to go out again, pleading with her to just stay home for one night. I missed her, and I had a deep fear that she wouldn’t come back. Each time she would hug me and tell me not to worry, and promised that she would come home later. And each night she did, until that night.

As I reached the door of the bar that night, out of breath from running, my heart sank as I reached for the door handle and found it locked. Looking around, I noticed through the windows that the inside of the bar was totally dark. The sign on the outside of the building had been turned off. I realized that the bar was closed, and my mom was nowhere to be found. I began to sob and slowly walked back down the alley toward home, climbing into bed upon my arrival. I cried myself back to sleep, believing my mom was gone and that I was alone in the world, afraid of what might come tomorrow.

I woke up early the next morning and started to head downstairs. I passed my Mom’s bedroom on the way, but her bed was empty. I made it downstairs and walked into the living room…and there she was, sitting on the couch. My heart leapt for joy that she had come home, but the joy quickly faded into anger. I was mad at my mom for scaring me, so instead of hugging her I lashed out and began chastising her for staying out all night. Her response stung like a dagger piercing my heart. “Chad”, she said, slowly, “I had a wonderful time last night. Don’t ruin it for me.” It turned out that she had spent the night with a man she had previously met at the bar. A man, like many other men in her life, would use her in the moment and then be gone from her life as quickly as he came into it.

When I’ve thought about the many painful memories of my past, mostly from my childhood, I’ve often wondered how a loving God could allow a child to go through something like this and not intervene. It’s these kinds of memories that have often caused me to struggle with and doubt my faith. The little boy inside of me stayed angry all these years and wants justice. I’ve been angry at my mom for the poor decisions she made that affected me so deeply. I’ve stayed angry at my father for not wanting to be a part of my life. And perhaps most of all, I’ve been angry at God for putting me into such a dysfunctional situation, and for not protecting me from some of the bad things that happened.

For decades, the pain of those experiences has affected my life, and the lives of those that I love, especially my wife and children. My deep fear of abandonment and feelings of worthlessness and insecurity brought out of me behaviors and attitudes that were unhealthy and harmful to me and my family. Years of counseling have taught me that anger is a secondary emotion that stem from a deep, primary wound or fear. So I have been working on getting to the root of my anger in order to once and for all be healed of the pain that was caused all those years ago, so that it no longer has a hold on my life and my relationships. It’s hard, painful work that in some cases may not be fully completed in this life, but rather in the life to come. As the Scripture says when talking about the end of time:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:4-5)

There have been moments in my life when I have caught a glimpse of what these words mean, when I have gained a brief insight into the glorious future that is to come. One example relates to this very story of the night when my Mom didn’t come home.

I recently attended a conference called “Rewire” that was created and led by Bob and Polly Hamp, of Think Differently Counseling, Consulting, and Connecting in the Dallas, TX area. The overall theme of Rewire is to teach people how to renew our ways of thinking and remove obstacles that may have hindered our connections to our Creator. During a session called “The Rescue”, Bob instructed participants to think of a time in their past that caused them pain, when they were in need of someone to “rescue” them, but no one did. My mind went immediately to the time when I was 10, when my mom didn’t come home and I thought she had abandoned me.

Bob continued by asking who we most related to of the three members of the Trinity – the Father, the Son (Jesus), or the Holy Spirit. I chose Jesus, and then I silently began to listen for the still, quiet voice of God. As I sat there, surrounded by people but lost in my memories, all of those same feelings of anger and abandonment came flooding back, and the questions about why Jesus had allowed this to happen to me also came back, with a vengeance. I thought, “Why should I trust you to heal me or protect me now Jesus, when you were nowhere to be found on that hot summer night all those years ago?”

Around the time I was feeling the most intense emotions in recalling those memories, Bob introduced this question to the group, “Ask Jesus:  where were you, Jesus, when this was happening?” Of course, I had already been asking this question of him, but I was merely asking it rhetorically, as a way of judging him since I already had assumed he wasn’t there with me as that 10 year old boy. In the next few moments, I realized that I was wrong.

As I began walking through the events of that evening in my mind one more time, for the first time in my life I was able to see them from a new perspective. I saw myself as that little boy, slowly making his way home from the empty bar with tears in his eyes, but as I entered the dark alley, Jesus was waiting there for me. He took me by the hand and instead of leading me home, he took me somewhere on the outskirts of that small town, to a plateau high above and overlooking the town. I could see the whole town from there. It was the middle of the night, and the lights of the town looked like distant stars. No one could see or hear us there, and that made me feel safe.

After a while, we turned around and looked behind us and I saw a cave. Jesus led me into the cave and though I expected it to be cold, dark, and musty, it wasn’t. Instead, it was brightly illuminated and it shined like gold. I looked over to one side and noticed a bed. Jesus then gently picked me up in his arms and carried me to the bed and tucked me in. Then he sat down in a rocking chair next to the bed and told me it was safe to go to sleep, because no matter what, he would not leave me.

At this point in the exercise, Bob told us to ask Jesus this question: “Jesus, who would you like to introduce us to, the Father or the Holy Spirit?” I asked, and the answer was immediate. At that point I saw Jesus escort the Father into the room. The Father was massive in size, and it took no effort for him to pick me up out of the bed. He held me close and stroked my hair. I again felt safe, protected, and most of all, loved.

Over the past several weeks I have been trying to process what that experience meant. At first, I felt a bit cynical, because though it was a moving, powerful experience it hadn’t actually changed anything I experienced in the past. But God has since been at work, filling in the gaps of my thinking and correcting my long-held false beliefs.

We live in a broken, fallen world. Suffering and death are everywhere, and yet these are ultimately the result of man’s sin. Sin entered the world as a result of the choices and actions of mankind, and it continues to devastate lives. Though all of us have sinned, God loves us, and when we hurt, he hurts. When we cry, he cries. I believe that the vision he showed me of Jesus rescuing me from that alley was a picture of what should have been had God, not sin, had his way that night. God showed me a picture of his heart for that little, lonesome boy, and he wanted me to know that what I experienced that night hurt him just as much as it hurt me.

God does not change our past, no matter how painful it may be. Instead, he redeems it. To redeem something means to make amends for it. The way God made amends for my experience that night and for every other wound I have ever experienced was to send his son to die on a cross 2,000 years ago. When Jesus died there, he redeemed my pain by taking on the blame and punishment for my sins as well as the sins of those who hurt me. In exchange for my pain, he gave me salvation – and freedom.  I failed to sufficiently understand this for many years. I thought salvation and freedom were largely reserved for the afterlife. I wanted to hold onto those past painful experiences as a way of feeling justified in my anger. But I’ve learned that the key to healing is to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ by letting go of the pain and placing the responsibility for the destiny and judgment of those who hurt me into his nail-scarred hands.

I can say that I understand anew the richness and inexhaustible depth and power of that precious verse found in Isaiah 53:5 that says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The past may not be changeable, but we can let it go and thereby rob it of its power to destroy us and prevent us from experiencing the life of freedom that Jesus promised to those who trust in him. The work is finished, we just have to decide whether we will hold on to pain and continue to suffer from it, or let it go and live in freedom.

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The Gate is Narrow, the Way is Hard

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)

My blog is titled “The Narrow Gate”, and the title is taken from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:13-14. I chose to use these verses as the inspiration for the title because it represents my life and faith experience. Jesus was teaching something profound here, but unfortunately his words can easily be misconstrued.

At first glance, some may interpret Jesus’ teaching here along these lines: to find “life” one must try harder through sheer human effort to be a good person and follow Jesus’ moral teachings, and that through a constant straining and struggling to do what is right, we will somehow merit enough favor with God for him to allow us into Heaven when we die. If anyone has ever tried to live like this, they know that consistently living up to the high moral bar that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount is impossible, and that trying only leads to frustration and a surrender to defeat. We end up switching sides and entering instead through the wide gate and by the easy way. After all, if one cannot live up to the standards of the narrow gate and the hard way, then one may as well party it up on this side of eternity, right?

If we interpret these verses as I just described, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. Jesus was not prodding us to live as legalistic, self-righteous, do-gooders who will always wonder if the good in their lives outweighs the bad enough in order to merit entry into Heaven. If that were true, he would be placing a heavy yoke upon our shoulders. But Jesus himself tells us later in this same gospel of Matthew that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). So what does he mean, then?

Bluntly stated, Jesus was telling those who were contemplating following him that life in the present world often sucks, and a life that is devoted to being a loyal follower of Jesus is even harder. What makes it harder is that a committed follower knows the truth of God’s Word, and life on this planet does not SEEM often to be consistent with that truth, and therefore in order for a person to live successfully as a follower of Christ – surrendered to his lordship, entering through the narrow gate and by the hard way – that person must be committed to live by faith in the Word and promises of God, no matter their circumstances and even if God often seems to be a million miles away.

This is the point where the sheep are separated from the goats, the true believers from the pretenders, the wide gate entrants from the narrow gate ones. When life gets hard – you lose a job, a loved one passes, a marriage ends, a body wears out – do you maintain your faith, choosing to believe the promises of God despite the fact that the walls around your life are crumbling, or do you lash out at God and choose to walk away, blaming him for allowing your suffering instead of preventing or at least relieving it?

Faith isn’t easy. Not the saving kind, anyway. It’s not for the faint-hearted or for those who give up easily. As someone once said, the definition of faith according to those who wrote the New Testament could be summed up as this: Commitment to Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life, even if it kills you. And for them, the prospect of dying for their faith was a very likely possibility.

Here in America I may not be under threat of physical harm on account of my faith (yet), but I have to say that sometimes it feels like trying to maintain my faith might kill me. The turmoil I have experienced over the course of my life, particularly in the past 3 years, has pushed me to the very brink of wanting to make a change of direction and hop over to that wide path. It is so tempting to give up and blame God for his silence in the midst of my suffering. So why haven’t I?

A few years ago, in a moment of soul searching and contemplation, I realized that I had grown tired of what I’ll call “lukewarm faith”. I was living outwardly a faithful Christian life. I went to church, read my Bible and other Christian books and materials periodically, went to Bible studies with other men, served in my church, taught my kids about God, etc. But I wasn’t happy. My faith felt lacking; I just wasn’t fulfilled by it. I needed it to be more real in my life. So one night after Bible study I prayed in my car that God would take me deeper in my faith, and specifically, that he would make me more like his Son.

As I think about these past few years, I am beginning to realize that God answered that prayer, only not in the way I would have expected. To become more like Jesus, I had to walk this life in the way He did, that is, the way of suffering. How so? I’ll just hit the “high” notes. Over the past 3 years I lost 3 jobs, I’ve experienced somewhat serious mental and physical health issues, and my marriage began to disintegrate to the point where it was put in very real jeopardy. On top of that I faced the huge responsibility of raising and providing for 9 children and all the work, heartache, and struggle that entails. How’s that for a start?

Through it all I have wondered where God was. Did he not see what was happening to me? Did he not care? In my worst moments I became angry at God and would shake my first and curse at him. I argued that I had done my best to hold up my end of the bargain of this Christian walk of faith; hadn’t he promised to hold up his? Wave after wave of turmoil was crashing over my life, and I was sinking fast, and so was my faith.

I’d love to finish this blog entry by saying I’ve overcome all of this, but I’m really still working on it. But I’ve realized a couple of powerful truths that I can hold onto as I ride out the storm and hold on for dear life. First, God did answer my prayer. He cares enough about me to allow me to experience very difficult things so that I have the opportunity to become more like his Son. Why? Because he wants to use me and the experiences I’ve suffered and lessons I’ve learned to help others who are going through similar struggles. I can fill a role like this very effectively because I’ve been there, I’m authentic. I can share the truth of God’s word not out of rote memorization but rather out of the pain that resides in the depths of my soul. His Word has come alive within me- it now clicks. I get, for example, what David was saying in the Psalms. I now am acquainted firsthand with the kind of truth that has the power to change lives – the authentic, “been there, done that” kind. Perhaps by allowing me to sink to depths I thought I would never see nor survive, he has prepared me to soar to new heights I never dreamed. When I try to make sense of it all, this is where I land – for today, anyway.

One more thing: broken people make the best friends, and the best ministers. There is always hope. Just keep holding on.

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God Will

I remember hearing a country song many years ago called “God Will (But I Won’t)”. The song lyrics were about a wife who refuses to forgive her cheating, lying husband even though God might forgive him for his unfaithful ways.

As I approach my late forties, I sometimes resonate with the attitude of that spurned wife. A lifetime filled with people who have “done me wrong” has tempted me to become bitter toward people. Absent father, alcoholic stepfather, abusive older brother, bullying schoolmates, dismissive teachers, backstabbing coworkers, hard ass bosses, manipulative pastors, judgmental & self-righteous church members – I’ve had my fill of all of them and more.

Now I’m not claiming to be perfect – far from it. I’ve got many flaws and have made countless mistakes in my life. I can put up a good front, but trust me, I’m no angel. But that doesn’t change how I feel about those bastards I mentioned above. Sometimes I can be a no-good SOB, and there are a lot of folks who deserve credit for helping me become that way.

But just when I feel like completely giving in to bitterness, I’m reminded of something. As bad as I think I have it, there are many who’ve had it worse. In fact, despite the attempts of others (intentional or not) to make my life difficult, it turns out there are some really wonderful things about my life too. I have a great wife and nine beautiful kids. I have a good job, a nice home, and all of my needs are met. Those are things that can easily be taken for granted in this filthy rich, overindulged society I live in. I overlook them often, but thanks to my growing disillusionment with chasing the carrot of success and fortune, I am beginning to appreciate them more. At the end of the day, they’re all I have and all that is important anyway.

But in those moments when nothing – not even counting my blessings – brings me peace and satisfaction, and I just want to beat the piss out of someone (which, for the record, I’ve not done since grade school – so I’m overdue), there is one thing that keeps me from giving in to self-pity and a certainty that no one has it worse than me.

Which brings me back to that old country song that begrudgingly admits that even when I won’t forgive someone, God does. Frankly, I don’t understand that. How do you forgive someone, even love someone, who has hurt you and does not deserve love or forgiveness?

Some people today like to mock Jesus.  That has always been the case, ever since he walked the earth. He taught a message of love, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation. He left Heaven to take on a lowly position here in our world, with no home, no riches, no comforts, and no appreciation for all he did. He lifted up the weak and cared for the unloved. He challenged the self-righteous and told people if they wanted to find a better life, they had to lose the one they already had and follow him. And for all this and more he was arrested and then condemned in a mockery of a trial. He was tormented, spat upon, cursed, and ridiculed. His beard was pulled out, and he was flogged. Then he was made to carry a heavy wooden cross to his place of execution, where he was nailed to it and crucified. And yet, to the very end, as he hung there in agony, his dying concern was for those who had done this to him. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Ultimate love, incomprehensible grace.

I don’t think I could do that. If I were in Jesus’ place I’d have quit long before then and told my persecutors that I hoped they rot in hell. But just when I am ready to write everyone in this world off and retreat into isolation as a bitter, angry man, I am reminded of the example of Jesus and it inspires me to press on.

Why did Jesus suffer so? I think, at least in part, it was so none of us could ever quit and tell God that the load we bear is just too much.  No matter my circumstances I can never claim that my suffering is anywhere near the level of Jesus’. He paid the ultimate price, in the most extreme way, in part so I would know two things for sure: I am not alone, and he understands my struggle and pain.

This fosters a deep loyalty within me to Jesus. I am a Christian because no one has ever moved my heart the way that Jesus has. Somehow, his love melts my icy heart and gives me a love and compassion for others that I know I could never muster within myself from my own effort. It is his supernatural power working within me that does this, and it is what assures my soul that Jesus is alive, that my faith is true, and that my salvation is assured.

That’s not to say that I don’t struggle. I do. It’s when I wander away from him that I struggle most. But he never leaves me, and when I come to my senses and stop wallowing in my self-pity, he is there to pick me up and set me straight again.

Oh, I want to dislike people. I want to wash my hands and be done with them. But I can’t, and I won’t. Because, and only because, of Jesus.

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Faith and Donald Trump

Faith is often a misunderstood and loosely used term. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the word “trust” is more suitable in helping me to one understand what faith really is. Lots of people have faith if it’s defined as simply believing in something. That definition of faith is what cheapens it and causes it to be made a mockery of in the lives of so many of the supposed “faithful”. Real faith – the kind that saves and transforms lives – is equivalent to trust. It is a total abandonment of our dependence on anything or anyone other than Christ to bring salvation and fulfillment to our lives. It is choosing to live according to what we say we believe. It requires one to yield their thoughts, actions, and choices to His will, even when everything inside of them wants to go a different way. It’s this type of faith that moves God.  Some may call it obedience, but I prefer to call it surrender.

 
When faith is understood and applied in this way, it permeates and transforms us. It molds us as people and guides our choices. It causes us to realize that we are not our own; we were bought with a price and we belong to someone else. We have no right to make decisions and choices that are selfish and ignore the expectations that come with being a child of God.

 

Transformation is a life-long process that is full of successes and failures, but through the process we realize and accept who we are, and more importantly whose we are, as we seek to base our lives on this realization in every corner of our lives – including our political preferences and choices. To that end, I feel compelled to share the following thoughts with respect to the current presidential campaign.

 
I consider myself a politically conservative-leaning evangelical Christian, but I have now come to believe that evangelical Christianity in America is far too wrapped up in nationalism and the politics of the political Right. The support amongst evangelicals for the candidacy of Donald Trump is the latest and one of the most egregious examples of this. In Trump, we have an egomaniacal candidate whose campaign success is the unholy offspring of the frustration, anger, and bitterness of various political interest groups (i.e. evangelicals, conservatives, white working class) who feel that their government has abandoned them and that their struggles and voices are being ignored. Trump has rightly sensed the mood of his supporters and has played directly into it with his campaign positions on immigration, trade, and so on. In many ways, Trump speaks to the worst of human nature by exploiting people’s fear and envy, and by emulating and encouraging suspicion and animosity toward our fellow human beings. A self-proclaimed Christian himself, many of the values and viewpoints that Trump represents actually reflect the exact opposite of what Christianity should represent and be the leading advocate in our world for, i.e. peace, compassion, empathy, healing, and love for one’s neighbor.

 
I believe Trump’s appeal to evangelicals lies mainly in what they see as the rapid moral decline of the American culture and an out of control government that no longer listens to its citizens. A broken immigration system, the continual squeezing of the middle class, last year’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage along with the perceived assaults of the government and social progressives on traditional values and on the Christian faith itself has many evangelicals searching for a “savior” to fight back against the tide of secularism that has swept through the nation. I agree that our country is headed in the wrong direction in many respects, but I strongly disagree that this justifies a Christian’s support for Trump.

 
In their desire to reverse the course of our culture evangelicals are embracing one who represents principles and values that are just as abhorrent to God as any of the things that evangelicals are concerned about. In a time when they should be looking to their Savior for hope and direction, they instead place their faith in an arrogant man who recently confessed that he couldn’t remember a time in his life when he asked for forgiveness. Not once, ever. Could a more astonishingly prideful statement be made?

 
One of the arguments for supporting Trump that I repeatedly hear evangelicals make is that if we do not support him, we hand victory to the other side, and that will lead to a continuation and perhaps an acceleration of the moral decline of our country. Even if they are right about this, so what. It does not excuse or justify a Christian’s support for someone whose life has represented so much that stands in opposition to what the Scriptures teach about character, morality, and what our attitude should be toward our neighbors, our enemies, and “the least of these”. And, at the end of the day, the differences between Trump and Hillary Clinton as they pertain to social issues that evangelicals care about are really not very distinguishable.

 
And as for that “moral decline”, we should understand that all the things evangelicals point out as evidence of such are by no means the only factors that are contributing to the overall decline of American culture and standing in the world. Tragically, the Church itself is to blame for being derelict in its duty to live as light before the culture. Many evangelicals have become wrapped up in the prosperity of our nation by desiring and trusting in the things of this world more than we trust in God. We have traded our mission and duty for comfort and convenience, and as a result I personally believe that the Church in America is about to undergo the judgment of God, not unlike Israel did in the time of Jeremiah the prophet. But that is a separate discussion for another time.

As an American, I am grateful for the freedom I have and I honor and respect the sacrifices made by so many so that I can remain free. That said, a Christian’s loyalty is to be first to his Lord, and that means he must be willing to forsake everything in order to follow what Christ expects of him. A Christian is never to surrender his values or compromise his faith for anything, even to save his country. That means while our country continues to march down its ever-accelerating path toward destruction we do not look to someone to save it who so audaciously exemplifies, preaches, and advocates for attitudes and behaviors that are the antithesis of those of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, our duty and obligation is to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, but instead to expose them – even if we lose our country, our freedom, and our lives.

So let’s resist the urge to take matters in our own hands and instead hold to the values that we as evangelicals claim to hold. Things never go well when we get ahead of God, but His power is revealed when his people exercise faith in times of great uncertainty and trial. Let’s allow him that opportunity. Now is not the time to panic and abandon hope by turning to a false savior. Now is the time to TRUST in our God, to get our hearts and minds right before him, and to stop worrying so much about who is in control in Washington D.C.

 
As a footnote to these thoughts I suggest that perhaps this season of turmoil in our nation’s politics is a perfect time for us to re-think what we believe, and to re-calibrate it to what the Scriptures really teach about where we are to place our hope and trust. I believe that a great shaking is coming in the evangelical Church, and the sheep are finally going to be separated from the goats, in a purification process that is sorely needed and long overdue. That is something we should look forward to with both expectant joy and grave seriousness.

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Lay Your Burden Down – A Poem

Born with an innocent and forgiving heart,
My childhood was difficult, right from the start.
Wounded by those I loved, this taught me to believe,
Something deep inside must be wrong with me.

Willingly, I carried a burden no one should ever bear,
To show them I’m worthy, and try to make them care.
Seeking love and acceptance that never fully came,
I betrayed myself, and became trapped in my shame.

Days turned into years, and my thoughts became jaded,
Joy turned into fear, anger rose as love faded.
Lashing out at the world, I cut myself off,
From allowing anyone to see inside my broken, lonely heart.

“Protect, defend, don’t let anyone in.”
“That way”, I thought, “no one can hurt me again.”
But in my retreat, no freedom could I find,
And in time I’ve realized, love hasn’t left me behind.

There is a Man whose love is divine,
He’s full of compassion, ever gentle and kind.
When my sprit was crushed, and I felt like dying inside,
He embraced me, kissed my cheek, and together we cried.

“Those people who hurt you, someone hurt them too.”
So this Man explained, opening my eyes to the truth.
“I know how you feel child, please understand that I too,
Have suffered rejection like that experienced by you.”

“Denying you love, this was never part of my plan,
The truth is you are loved more than you’ll ever understand.
It is time that you trust me, allow yourself to believe,
Let go of the past, watch my love set you free.”

“I know it’s not easy, I know it still hurts,
Healing takes time, not forgiving makes the pain worse.
You fear what will happen if you let it all go,
But embracing old wounds hurts you more than you know.”

“So this promise, this guarantee, do I make to you today,
I will always love you, and I’ll never go away.
My words are trustworthy, but in case you still doubt,
Let my Cross serve as proof that you can lay your burden down.”

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Lost at the Beach

My wife Barb and I loaded up our six kids and a gigantic pile of luggage in our large SUV and headed out for a week-long vacation in Florida. After spending two days in a vehicle overwhelmed by food wrappers, crumbs, whining, screaming, and the occasional unpleasant smell, I looked forward to doing a significant amount of absolutely nothing once we arrived at our rented vacation house. Barb, on the other hand, lobbied for one of our vacation days to be spent at an area beach. Being of fair complexion, the beach is not necessarily one of my favorite destinations. But in the interest of marital peace I agreed to rub on exorbitant amounts of sunscreen and we headed over to Clearwater for a day of beach fun.

The day was gloriously warm and cloud free. Once we arrived at the white sanded beach I immediately made a bee line for one of the overpriced beach umbrellas to make sure I had proper shade to sit under. Then we sat down and unpacked our stuff. Barb had made a picnic lunch with enough PB & J sandwiches to feed a small army. After we ate I rallied the troops and gave them my typical lecture about staying near us and having a buddy with them at all times. Then I plopped down in the reclining chair under my umbrella and settled in for the day, feet propped and another sandwich in hand.
Even though I am a hyper-protective father, it only took a few moments for me to become lost in the peaceful ambiance of my surroundings. The salty air, the noisy call of the seagulls, and the rushing of the foamy waves overwhelmed my senses. This tranquility lasted a few minutes until suddenly my paternal instincts kicked in and I snapped back to reality. I immediately began taking a “kid inventory” to make sure all were present and accounted for.

“One, two, three…four, five…”. But there was no six. The peacefulness of the prior moments vanished in an instant as I realized that my two-year-old daughter Mira had disappeared.

I jumped out of my seat and looked around once more, then turned to Barb and yelled, “Where’s Mira?” Barb was busy feeding the baby and hadn’t noticed Mira had slipped away either. I felt my stomach sink and images of my daughter accompanied by thoughts of things unmentionable sprung up in my mind. Quickly we gathered the rest of the children together and devised a plan. Barb, with tears welling up in her eyes, took off in one direction with some of our kids, and I ran the opposite way down the beach with the rest in search of Mira.

As we were running, I alternated between asking people if they had seen a little girl in a purple swimsuit and begging God to protect Mira and bring her back safely. As we worked our way down the beach I became more discouraged and frightened as person after person stated that they had not seen her.

Finally, a woman stepped up to us and said that she saw a little girl pass by just a few minutes before. She and her family joined us in our search and as we worked our way even farther down the beach, another person pointed us to the lifeguard chair. I looked up and there stood the lifeguard, holding Mira in his arms. As I ran up to them I could see that Mira was not upset, and even had a sassy look on her face that seemed to indicate that she enjoyed her little excursion down the beach, blissfully ignorant of the trauma she put her parents through.

I, on the other hand, nearly collapsed from relief and the adrenaline rush that was pumping through my veins. I took Mira in my arms, kissed and hugged her, and told her to never leave us like that again. She clung tight to me and we made the long trip back to our little plot, where I handed her over to her equally elated mother.
At the time, the experience of temporarily losing Mira felt like it had lasted for an eternity, but in reality it all happened within a matter of a couple of minutes. Nonetheless, it deflated our enthusiasm for the beach, and we decided to call it a day early and head back home.

That night as I climbed into bed, the day’s events were still on my mind. Despite feeling worn out, I had trouble sleeping. I kept replaying the whole situation in my mind over and over, until eventually I began to pray. As I did, I felt the urge to be still and allow God to speak to me.

During those few moments of stillness, God brought to my mind the parable of the lost sheep. In that story, if the Good Shepherd loses just one sheep out of a flock of a hundred, he is heartbroken and will relentlessly pursue that one sheep until he finds it and brings it back into the fold to safety. (See Matthew 18:12-14)
After refreshing that story in my mind, God began to impress his truth into my heart. The words went something like this:

“Chad, do you remember how you felt today when Mira was lost?”

“Yes, I responded, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

God continued, “I want you to know that the way you felt today when Mira disappeared– that overwhelming sense of loss and desperation – that is exactly the way I feel about every lost soul on earth.”

As those words sunk in, for the first time I began to relate to God not only as his child, but also as a father. I sympathized with God as I realized the great pining in his heart for his fallen creation and his lost children. I understood more completely his willingness to do whatever it takes, including sending his Son to the Cross, to reclaim what was lost.

Never before had I understood his great love at so profound a level. It occurred to me that this insight into God’s relentless love for his children could have revolutionary consequences for the Church and for our world today if God’s people would also understand, embrace, and put into practice the Father’s desperate love for the lost.
Our relief at being reunited with Mira is just a small taste of the joy the Father experiences when one of his lost children comes home to him. No wonder the angels rejoice over just one sinner who repents. One of God’s beloved children has been rescued and brought safely home in the loving arms of the Father.

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The Lion Outside My Door

The sun shone brightly through the windows as my kids played together all throughout our home. As I walked into the living room, I noticed the front door had been left open, presumably by one of the kids. With a tinge of frustration I walked over to the door to close it, calling out to the kids to make sure to leave the front door shut.
As I closed the door, I looked out the window and noticed the chilling sight of a lion crouched underneath it. Its teeth were bared and it had long front fangs drenched in saliva that glimmered in the bright morning sun. Shocked and frightened, I locked the front door and then ran to the other doors and windows in the house to make sure that they too were closed and securely locked.

I called out to the kids to warn them of the danger looming just outside, and to make sure they knew that all the doors and windows had to remain locked. Blissfully ignorant of the impending danger, they went right on with their playing, unfazed by my warnings.

Dreams are interesting. They take bits and pieces of the people, places, and events of our lives and splice them together to create random and often bizarre stories that play out on the backsides of our eyelids. Some of the more beautiful ones leave us wanting more, while our nightmares can never end too quickly.

I have never been one to put much stock into trying to discover the meaning of my dreams. I generally dismiss them as the result of stress or perhaps too much late night snacking. However, this dream left me with the clear impression that it was not merely the random result of a few too many Fritos, but instead an intentional message meant to awaken me to my own lackadaisical and naïve attitude toward the spiritual aspects of my role as a father.

In my dream, I continued to walk around the house, looking outside to see if the lion was still hanging around. Here and there I caught glimpses of it, and noticed upon seeing it more fully that the outline of its ribcage protruded through its skin, indicating starvation. It’s cold, dark eyes restlessly searched our home for an entryway. I realized in that moment that the lion was after my children, and that it intended to devour as many of them as it possibly could. I became soberly aware that only I could protect my children from the lion, by preventing its entry into our home.
In the same instant, I glanced at the front door and noticed it open again. The lion noticed it too, and made a dash to get in. I shot over to the door and reached it just as the lion leaped for it, and I managed to close and lock it just as the thud of its impact hit the other side. Relieved, I again called out to my children to make sure the door was closed and locked, but my pleadings seemed to fall on deaf ears once more as they continued on with their playing.

I found the front door open again and again, only to go through the same routine of rushing over to close it and then to warn my children about keeping it closed. Despite my diligent efforts, the door was left open one time too many, and the lion finally forced his head through the opening and into our living room, with his sights set on my beloved, helpless little children.

At that moment, I shot up in bed. The transition from sleep to consciousness seemed blurred and delayed as I sat still engrossed in the nightmare. As I slowly came around, this Scripture clearly came to mind: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Immediately I realized that this dream had a purpose of supernatural origins, and that it was meant to warn me about becoming a complacent father. Since then, I have thought about the full meaning of the dream and its ramifications for my life and for my family, and for other fathers also.

Here is what I’ve learned: The lion (Satan) truly exists, and so do his demons – not existentially or metaphorically, but actively and purposefully. The devil is on a search-and-destroy mission, stealthily spurred on by his total and unabashed hatred for God’s creation, especially people. He hates me, he hates you, he hates our wives and he hates our children. In fact, he particularly targets our children for destruction. Like the ravenous lion in my dream, he will relentlessly seek a foothold into our homes in order to inflict destruction on our kids. Ironically, it is often fathers, not mothers or children, who leave the door open for him to enter in.
In my dream, I repeatedly reprimanded my children for leaving the front door open. I now realize that the door actually represents the areas of unrepentant sin in my own life that I have failed to close. Those sins have painful ramifications not only for my life, but also impact my family in harmful ways. Satan effectively strives to convince us that what is done in private has no impact on anyone else, but the sinister reality is that this perspective is a lie. Sin affects my attitude and behavior toward God, toward my family, and toward a host of other things in my life.
I cannot be an effective spiritual leader to my family when sin abides unchecked in my life. And worst of all, my sin is an avenue through which Satan gains entry not only to destroy my life, but also to destroy my family as well. In short, fathers deceive themselves by thinking that we can effectively guard the spiritual well-being of our children while at the same time welcoming the enemy into our homes through our pet sins.

A father who is serious about the spiritual protection of his children must take an account of where his life stands before God. Has he surrendered completely to Christ’s lordship in his life, or does he harbor unresolved sin that serves as a portal for the devil to access his family? Further, is he focused and aware of the devil’s wicked schemes or is he preoccupied with other personal interests and activities that prevent him from devoting the time and attention necessary to ensure his children’s spiritual well being?

Sadly, statistics show that many Christian fathers who ought to know better are actually no different in how they choose to spend their leisure time than non-Christians. For example, according to the Barna Group, the average church congregant spends more time watching television in one day than he spends in all spiritual pursuits combined for an entire week.1 Christians also spend roughly the same amount of time each week watching television and movies and going online as do non-Christians, and that they spend about as much money on entertainment and technology as do non-Christians.2 Given this data, it is clear that active fathering may very well mean turning off the TV or giving up fantasy football or a host of other activities that compete for our time and attention. Hobbies and personal interests are necessary to help us to relax and recharge, but must be balanced with the biblical mandate to “be self-controlled and alert.” This is difficult to do when we’re too wrapped up in our own trivial pursuits to deeply engage in our kids’ lives. We cannot afford to neglect our children for the sake of other things that are, at the end of the day, completely irrelevant to our lives and to our families.

Children grow up quickly, and our window of influence in their lives shrinks every day. Satan and the world want nothing more than to sink their teeth into our kids. Fathers must remain diligent at all times in protecting their children, and the reality of the devil’s schemes should serve as motivation for us to ensure that the door to sin in our lives is closed.

Further, we must not be afraid to make rules and decisions that are in our children’s best interest, even if our kids get upset with us for doing so. God holds fathers accountable for how we handle our role as spiritual protectors, and beyond merely warning our kids of danger, we must insert ourselves in between our children and any source of potential harm, even if they hate us for doing so. Their hate is temporary, but the consequences of failing to get involved often last a lifetime, maybe even an eternity.

Wake up, fathers! The lion is at the door!

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Heroes

Movie blockbusters have become as much of an American summertime tradition as barbecues,baseball, and fireworks. This year is no different, as a wealth of big budget flicks have hit theaters, with a particular preponderance of super hero-themed films snatching many of the headlines and ticket sales.

American’s fascination with super heroes is intriguing. It would be simple to dismiss this fascination simply on the basis of entertainment value, or to relegate it to a child or adolescent preoccupation. However, box office receipts, video sales & rentals, and merchandising have proven that the appeal of the super hero is no particular respecter of demographics. Rather, super heroes maintain their
long-held, wide appeal in our society, as the continuing trend in Hollywood affirms. Why? The answer provides insight into the state of our human condition.

Super heroes are symbols. Beyond their costumes, super powers, and even their flaws, super heroes represent in tangible form the answer to the greatest of evils that exist in our world. They inspire, they deliver justice on behalf of the oppressed, and they provide hope for a better future. They stand up for the little guy and overcome the bullies of the world. They are super in light of their special powers, and heroes in their ability to rescue those who are powerless to save themselves. They are
what mankind longs for – a Savior.

The trouble with super heroes, of course, is that they don’t really exist. The fleeting thrill we get from watching Batman triumph over the Joker, for example, leaves us feeling hollow and does nothing to actually help set the world right. Evil abounds everywhere, and a quick review of the daily headlines or a watch of the evening news reinforces this reality all too clearly in our consciousness (see, for example, what ISIS is doing to minorities in Iraq). Reality relegates super heroes to nothing more than wishful thinking, an escapist’s existential solution to life’s most difficult problems.

If only super heroes were real…..

The deep longings of the human heart remain unchanged, century after century. We desire solutions to age-old issues such as hunger, genocide, tyranny, sickness & disease, and most of all, death. In super hero terminology, Death is mankind’s ultimate arch-enemy, and the rest of the world’s many ills are Death’s minions. No comic book super heroes have solved any of these problems, even in their imaginary worlds. Yet when all seems lost, hope for mankind remains and is described in the pages
of the Bible.

In Luke’s gospel, chapter 4 v. 18-19 Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He then summarized in v. 21 by stating that “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” With this declaration, Jesus conveyed that the old order of the way things work in the world was passing away, and with his arrival a new order had broken in. The Kingdom of God was beginning to dawn, and God’s reign was being re-established in the world. Jesus’ miracles provided the evidence that the old rules no longer held any authority. The power that sin and evil held over mankind was fully defeated by Jesus’ death on the cross, and his resurrection provided the evidence that death did not have the final say over life, after all. This is why the apostle Paul called Jesus the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” in other words, the first to experience the ultimate victory God has in store for all those who call him Lord. In Jesus’ resurrection, God reaffirmed his good creation and gave believers a glimpse of what to expect in the future when he will make all things new.

God’s kingdom continues to advance today, edging closer and closer to the moment when its consummation will be complete. On that day Jesus will return to Earth to establish his eternal throne, the dead in Christ will be raised to glorified everlasting life, heaven and earth will be renewed and rejoined, sin, suffering, and death will be no more, and God’s dwelling will once again be with man, forever.

In the meantime, we need not waste our time hoping for a super hero to come and save the day. Believers are equipped by the Spirit with everything they need to partake with God in his ongoing work of renewal, and we are charged with a mission to do exactly that. The ultimate answer to all of the great issues of our time is Christ, who is the long-awaited and hoped for Savior of the world. Our mission as his Body is to proclaim that message and to put it into action. Therefore, we are called to
contend for justice, mercy, healing and restoration wherever the need for such things is found. When we feed the poor, clothe the naked, advocate for the oppressed, love the unloved, or stand up to the tyrant, we build for God’s kingdom and become the heroes our world is searching for.

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Partnering with God

Every now and then my oldest son Clayton gets bogged down with his geometry homework. In his stress and frustration he sometimes approaches me and asks, half-jokingly, if I will do his homework for him. He knows what my answer is before he even asks, but still can’t resist the urge to try one more time. I guess he hopes (in vain) that I will one day surprise him by saying “Sure buddy, I’d love to do more geometry. I couldn’t get enough of it in school.”
When we face challenges, the easy thing to do is to ask God to change our circumstances. Like Clay and his homework, we want him to make our problems go away; to waive his mighty hand and produce a miracle in our lives with no involvement from us. And when change fails to occur and it seems our prayers go unanswered, we lash out and wonder if he really cares about us.

Perhaps we fail to understand that God operates differently than we expect. That’s part of what makes him God, after all – his ways are not our ways. God is also all-powerful and has the capacity to perform miracles. According to his sovereign will, he moves unilaterally to directly affect particular situations according to his plan and purpose. But the larger point we should observe and understand is that when God moves, he usually moves in and through his people to accomplish his purposes.

This truth reveals something amazing about God. The Creator of the universe has the power to do anything he wants, and he doesn’t need man’s permission or involvement to do it. Yet in his infinite love and grace toward us, he chooses to use us, his Church, to carry out his mission in the world.
Why does God do this? Simply put, it is a loving thing to do. If I did Clayton’s homework for him, I would stunt his growth. Clay would lose out on an opportunity to learn and develop the ability to overcome adversity in his life. I would be limiting his potential and failing to do my part in preparing him for life, and that would be a short-sighted and unloving thing for his father to do.
Likewise, God allows us to participate in his work and to experience the ups and downs of life because his desire is to see our character grow into mature Christ-likeness, with a foundation built on faith and the experience of overcoming adversity, through his strength. If we are to be effective at carrying out God’s mission, we must, as James said, be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4 NIV).
When we partner with God as his servants, carrying out his mission to the world, God transforms us. By giving us the privilege of ministering to someone else in need, God meets the needs of both the one served as well as the servant. Jesus said that “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16:25 NIV). Service is sacrifice, and when we serve, we experience the fulfillment that can only come from tapping into the purpose for which we were made – to serve God by loving and serving others.

The benefits of partnering with God in his mission affect our entire being. Through our own acts of sacrificial service, God touches our hearts and grows our compassion for our fellow man. The empathy that results then begins to extend to all of our relationships, including our families. In a very real sense, God’s heart for the world is birthed in our own heart, and it shows us how to love in ways we never realized we were capable of before.

In addition, service emboldens us and grows within us a deeper level of confidence and self-esteem. As they serve, those who struggle with self-worth issues begin to comprehend the value that God places on them and this in turn causes them to shed thoughts and habits that have tied them down, and it sets them free to achieve even greater things for the kingdom of God, while healing them from their brokenness and personal misconceptions.

It is no accident that Jesus came into our world humbly at birth, and then lived out his time here as a suffering servant. He did not do this because we were worthy of his service. Nor did he do so because he wanted to set a divine example for us to admire from afar. Rather, Jesus lived the life of a servant purposefully, so that those who witnessed his example and sought to follow him could understand that God’s plan for man is to be a steward and a servant. It is how he designed it to be in the Garden, and it carries forward to this day. The abundant life that Jesus spoke of and that we all desire to have can only be attained by taking up our own cross and following the way of Christ.

The very ills of our world, and even those within the Church, can largely be traced to fact that man has abdicated his God-given responsibilities. Instead of prioritizing service to God and our fellow man as the foundation of our lives, we have demanded that we be the ones who are served. The broken, narcissistic culture we live in is the unholy by-product of our darkened hearts. When we turn our backs on the designer and scoff at our assigned place within creation, chaos is the only possible result.

It need not be this way. While cultural change often seems impossible and decline seems inevitable, God remains in charge of his creation. Change always begins in tiny, seemingly insignificant ways. It is birthed in the hearts of individuals who listen for the still, small voice that calls out from the noisy abyss of our lives. And while we may feel alone, that same voice is speaking to the hearts of others like us. It waits for us to take the next step, to initiate a conversation, to share an opinion, to take a stand.

Listen. God is speaking. He awaits your response. In his love and grace, he wants to use you to accomplish great things. This is his way. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. It is a loving thing to do.

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