Monthly Archives: April 2016

Them Unicorns

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.         Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

Lately there has been a great deal of us and them rhetoric.  You hear it in the arguments over what restroom transgendered people should use; you also hear it in discussions about illegal immigrants, and sometimes even when we discuss immigrants in general.  Us and them distinctions show up when we talk about terrorists, even though the United States has suffered more from domestic terrorism than we have from foreign terrorism.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our friends from our enemies, our familiars from the strangers, and our own people from the outsiders.

Maybe I should refine that statement I just made.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our supposed friends from our supposed enemies, our assumed familiars from the supposed strangers, and the people we are told are our people from the people we are told are outsiders.

Let me give you an example.

I am a trauma therapist, and many of my clients are women who have been sexually abused by men.  Most of them were abused as children, and all of them were abused by family members.  I know that some people are abused by people outside their family and even by strangers, but I have been practicing since 2005 and I have yet to work with a client whose abuser was not a family member.  For many of these women, talking about the abuse is an act of betrayal against their family.  After all, they have spent years keeping silent to protect the public image of their family; others have spent years keeping silent because revealing the abuse to another family member led to repercussions and punishment instead of assistance and rescue from their abuser.  While I do all that I can to help my clients recover from their abuse so that they can live full, joyous lives, many of them find that they continue to have a deep distrust of men, whether those men are family members or not.  These are women whose male relatives—the men in their lives who were supposed to be their protectors while they were children—violated one of our society’s biggest taboos.  Their deep distrust of men can make it difficult for my straight clients to find life partners because they are not willing to expose themselves to the risk of dating.  Many have difficulty identifying men who are ‘safe’—men who will never commit acts of physical or sexual violence against a woman because it is not in their nature.  Some of my clients have trouble believing that there is any such thing as a ‘safe’ man, as if ‘safe’ men were something like unicorns, existing only in stories but not in real life.

Then I tell them about the unicorn that I met several years ago.

My unicorn shared with me about what it means to be a member of the ‘tribe’—the tribe of people who have been sexually abused as children. The tribe has certain ways of being, certain scars that are dead giveaways to the pain and loss they have suffered.  Whenever this unicorn recognizes other members of the tribe it reveals itself and speaks the magic words: “I understand.  I was sexually abused for years.”

Turns out that unicorns are for real.

You see, men get sexually abused as well, and those men…well…they understand what it is to be afraid.  They understand what it is to not be believed when you try to tell the horrible truth.  And they understand what it is to doubt that it is possible to be safe.   They understand that an entire gender can come to feel unsafe and remain that way no matter how much therapy you get.  And men who have been sexually abused know that the fear that the tribe has of their perpetrators is not unreasonable and not unrealistic because they know what it is like to be made into a victim.  They know what it is to fear half the world’s population, and what it is like to be unable to trust men.  Sadly, unicorns know all too well what it is like to be constantly afraid, and some of them fear…

Women.

For years the politics of sexual assault has told us that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims, and statistics will tell you that this is true most of the time.  But ‘most of the time’ is not the same as ‘all of the time’ and nothing is quite that cut and dried or that black and white.  In the end, it is not so easy to separate the world into us and them, to create two groups where one is good and the other bad and then create a worldview that supports that understanding of humanity.

I remember my own moment of us and them, when I found myself baffled because a woman was tried and convicted for her participation in the atrocities against prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison.  I did not want to comprehend that a woman would agree to sexually humiliate male prisoners, that she would agree to abuse them and violate them physically and sexually.  How could she possibly agree to such violence knowing the damage it has done to her sisters in the human race? How could she participate in something so degrading when things like that happen to women all over the world every day?  Most of all, how could she possibly consent to becoming one of THEM??!  I struggled to accept Lyndie Englund’s choices because I could not conceive of the reality that women can be abusers and men can be the victim.  I believed in the us and them dichotomy that makes it so easy to vilify the other side, to hate them with impunity and ease, and to treat them as less than human.

I’m so glad that something challenged and made me abandon my us and them thinking before I met a real, living unicorn because if I hadn’t I might not have believed him when he told me his story.  I might not have been able to help him overcome his trauma so that he could live a sober, productive, joyous life…at least the best life that he can have in the face of all the abuse that he lived through.  Most of all, I would never have had the opportunity to let my other clients know that the world is not so neatly divided into us and them, women and men, victims and abusers.  In the end, the lines are far more blurred and our chances to redeem the entire situation far greater than we realize because unicorns are real and that means that some of them are our our team…and we aren’t alone in this struggle after all.

God never intended for the world to be separated into us and them.  God’s will has always been for unity and healing no matter what side a certain person fell on, and this is evident over and over in the Bible:

Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from famine

Elisha, who healed Naaman the Syrian

Jonah, who saved the people of Ninevah (Assyrians) from destruction

Jesus, who healed the son of a Roman centurion

Jesus, who healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman

Jesus, who healed a Samaritan leper

Peter, who preached to many Gentiles

Paul, who preached to many Gentiles

And then there is always Jesus, who died for the sins of an entire world.

There is no us and them.  There is only God’s children and God wants us all to come home, no matter who we are or where we are from or what group we claim allegiance to.

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”     Revelations 22:2b

The leaves of the tree are not for the healing of God’s chosen people, or the healing of the faithful, but for the healing of the nations.

That’s all of us.

All.

Amen.

Breaking It Down With the Shepherd (Part II)

Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Last week I started breaking down Psalm 23 one piece at a time, and I am continuing with verse 3.  We didn’t get too far last week because I…talk a lot?  Actually, there was the opening and then…I talk a lot.  So let’s get down to business.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for His name’s sake.”

I didn’t really understand the idea of God leading me for His name’s sake until I had my first experience of walking in “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In February 2007 my husband and I discovered that our oldest daughter was addicted to cocaine.  In November 2006 we had become aware of a program that helped troubled teens and their families through a family friend whose husband worked for the organization; in our desperation we turned to them for assistance. For the next eighteen months, God continued to be one step ahead of us, leading us to the next resource, counselor, or program we needed just before we discovered our need. We praised God loudly and to anyone who would listen for His guidance during that difficult period.  Literally God led us on the right paths for His name’s sake.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.

Walking the path of addiction and recovery with my daughter gave me my first experience of the dark valley we call “the valley of the shadow of death.”  I had never known despair that deep or fear that powerful until then. As my daughter went through treatment I would vacillate between peace and terror on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.  Only God seemed to be able to reel me in and hold me fixed on his path. And I have to be honest with you: I did have fear, every day. I feared the evil of drug addiction and the power it holds over people. I feared that my daughter would never forgive me for putting her in a long term rehab. I feared that my family would be stressed to the point of breaking.  I feared all those things, just not at the same time, and never for long.  I guess that I don’t really believe that we can be fully human and not feel fear.  It isn’t that I don’t love and trust God; it’s that I don’t believe that faith in God and love for God can eliminate fear entirely.  Why would God ever seek to eliminate an emotion that God Himself created?  That would seem to be unwise, since God created fear to tell us when to run away, or when to seek help.  Instead, I think that God’s presence chases away fear; we will still feel fear, just not for long.  We will still know fear, but we won’t get stuck there, unable to think of anything else.  For me, an honest version of this Psalm would say “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear evil only for a moment before I remember you are large and in charge. Of course, my fear will return again later, but as long as You are still large and in charge Lord, I’ll be fine.”

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.

I need God to grab me occasionally with that staff and yank me back onto the path, to get out that rod and poke me until He has my attention.  God’s leading isn’t always pleasant but it is always the thing I need.  The funny thing is that God doesn’t just keep me in line with his rod and his staff…half of the time God is just trying to get me to pay attention to whatever is in front of me.  I can get so overwhelmed in the details of things, thinking that I am the one that has to make it all work out.  And then God comes along and pokes me three or four times until I look around and see His hand at work in my life; God pokes me until I lift my head up from the problem that has me occupied and I see the good that is surrounding me and the provision He has put in front of me.  It’s hard to be afraid and overwhelmed for long when God is making sure that you see His handiwork.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Don’t you wish you didn’t have enemies? It would be great, but that’s not how life works.  We all have more enemies than we like to admit, really: frenemies; enemies within our family; enemies that compete with us at work; enemies that compete with us for work; enemies that oppose us politically and financially; enemies that oppose us so strongly they threaten war; enemies that oppose us so fervently they refuse to wait for war and simply attempt to annihilate us.  God’s work in all this is to richly bless us and provide for us, even while our enemies are watching and wishing evil on us.  It is important to remember, however, that this verse goes both ways. God will provide for us, but God will also provide for our enemies.  We may find ourselves watching as God prepares a table for them as well. It’s not as if God loves us but is going to let our enemy go hungry.  And what about this: what if God wants us to be the instruments of His provision?  If we really love God we may find helping set the table He provides for our enemy. The Lord is our shepherd, but He is also the shepherd of our enemy.  We are all merely sheep: simple, unwise, needing someone to care for us. The Islamic scriptures state that “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” If we want that table to be prepared for us, to be full and overflowing so that we have everything we need, we must also want it to be prepared to overflowing for our enemy.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Anointing the head was an ancient means of conveying honor, dignity, and respect.  Kings and prophets were anointed to their roles.  We call Jesus the messiah, which means the “Annointed One”.   When the Psalm says that God anoints our head with oil, it declares that God gives us honor, dignity, and respect. We are worthy in God’s eyes, beyond worthy—we are chosen. God has chosen us just as He chose the kings and prophets of the Old Testament: one at a time, with knowledge and forethought as to our exact purpose, and with a deep desire to work with us and for us to create the Kingdom of God.

I was in seminary for three years before I ran into someone who discriminated against women in ministry.  I was stunned: here was this professor—someone I respected, someone who had power over my grades—and he was disrespectful and dismissive of women in class.  No matter how many women raised their hand to speak in class, he wouldn’t call on us.  We were allowed to sit in the class, listen, and learn…but that was all.  It was a horrible situation and I didn’t know what to do about it.  On the way home from class one afternoon I ended up sitting in one of the prayer gardens pouring out my heart to God. I explained the situation and then complained to God that I felt disrespected…and then immediately felt foolish because really, with all the people in the world who were suffering, did I really need to complain to God that someone disrespected me?  God is dealing with genocide in Rwanda and I’m whining about my professor. I felt like an idiot and immediately apologized to God for whining about something so insignificant and undeserving of His attention.

And then I felt God nudging me.  Do I disrespect you?

“No Father, of course not.  You have never disrespected me.”

And then it hit me: if God Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth, did not ever disrespect me, who did this man think he was?  In fact, how dare any of us fail to respect another person, when God, who can do whatever He wants does not ever disrespect the people He created.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Shepherds cannot afford to leave their sheep.  Sheep like to wander…they tend to go where the food is and then wander all the way to where the food isn’t.  If no one is there to keep them safe, sheep will wander right into trouble.  God is our shepherd and that means we are never alone; God’s watchful eye is always on us.  But what does that have to do with goodness and mercy?

I have wandered, my friends.  I have seriously wandered.  And bringing me back was an act of goodness and mercy that exceeded anything I ever expected.

Right around the time my oldest daughter was born, I had no faith—or maybe I should say I have no interest in having faith.  I knew there was a God, but God and I were estranged. We didn’t talk and if God tried to talk I steadfastly refused to listen.  In my mind, God had pulled a fast and dirty one on me and I was not amused.

I could take a few pages to detail the whole deal but I’ll just sum it up this way: I had suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse that surfaced while I was pregnant.  I got some therapy and started dealing with the whole mess, but it takes a while to deal with anything that devastating.  Recovery from sexual abuse is not a quick thing, nor is it something that happens all at once.  My biggest problem is that I was angry with God: first I got to suffer through the abuse and its effect of my childhood and then I got to remember the abuse and suffer through all the emotional upheaval and pain it caused.  I couldn’t understand how God could be so cruel as to hide my memory from me all those years (preventing me from getting help when my parents could have and would have intervened) only to dump those same memories on me years later when I was supposed to be enjoying the birth of my first child.  I felt cheated and screwed.  I was furious with God for letting it happen and for making me remember.  I know NOW that my feelings were a bit ridiculous but that anger separated me from God for quite a while.

God, however, was not willing to be dismissed from my life by my anger.  After giving me a year or two to process my anger and get over myself, God began pursuing me.  Don’t get me wrong: God didn’t abandon me for those first two years, He just didn’t go all out trying to get me back.  He gave me my space, so to speak, and then He stopped giving me space, big time!  Every time I turned around someone was talking to me about God.  Every sermon in church seemed to be pointed directly at me.  Songs on the radio took on an unreasonable amount of religious meaning, especially when you consider that I listened to pop radio!  Most fascinating to me were the number of people who spoke identical words to me; people who I knew for certain had never met each other. People who had no reason to speak these words to me except that God was leading them.  The pastor at my church spoke the exact same sentence as my coworker in the IT department: “If you feel like your faith has died, it’s because God wants something else to grow in its place; something better than what you had before.”  It gets creepy when God starts speaking to you from every corner, out of every mouth, through every possible venue.  I swear that if I had been eating PopTarts for breakfast during that period of time, God would popped out of my toaster one morning in place of my PopTart in the hopes of getting my attention.  God’s pursuit of me was that pervasive and that intense.

Obviously, I quit running and allowed God to catch me. There came a point when I just couldn’t resist God’s full court press to get me to come home.  God wasn’t particularly interested in me repenting my anger as much as God was interested in me finally receiving all the comfort and rest that He’d been trying to send me all along.  My anger over the sexual abuse slowly died and I began to see how God was using my memories and the therapy for the abuse and the process of grieving to create new compassion within me.  I found God calling me out of my IT job and into new areas of service to the Kingdom…and here I am, clergy and mental health counselor.

I don’t believe that God causes terrible things to happen so that God can teach us stuff or grow us into stronger Christians.  That seems abusive and sick to me and I cannot imagine a loving God who would do such a terrible thing.  On the other hand, I have come to believe that when life backs up the dump truck of crap and filth and drops its load on your head, knocking you flat…that God looks down in compassion and says “I know what that is! It’s FERTILIZER!”  And then God gets busy, planting a garden in what seems to us to be the evidence that God doesn’t love us at all and that life is meant to destroy us.  Being human, we sit our mound of filth and rage and cry…and who would blame us after what just happened?  But God is at work and so new life starts growing up all around us…new life and beautiful things planted in the midst of the filth and destruction that life heaped onto our heads.  I believe in the God restoration and all things made new, of things done that were meant for evil but were used by God to create blessing (Genesis 50:20).  It took a while before I could sense God’s healing at work, and I will never minimize the pain of my journey, but I am telling you that the Good Shepherd not only brought me back to the flock but brought about amazing things in me and in my life that could never have existed otherwise.  This sheep wandered because she was in terrible pain and God not only set out to find me and bring me home, but He transformed my pain into the very seat of my counseling ministry, the home of my compassion for the abused…and even for their abusers.  If that isn’t goodness and mercy at work, then I don’t know what is!

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

I remember being in seminary and hearing my New Testament professor remind us that we could not possibly have a longer life.  His point was that we are eternal beings, our souls pre-existed our bodies and those same souls will return to the God who created them after the death of our body.  If this is what I believe, then there is never a time when I was outside of God’s loving watchful eye or separated from His presence…and I have always dwelled with Him and always will.  This is a great comfort to me now that I am old enough to have several friends who have already died and several more who are in the process of journeying to their death.  I know that many Christians do not believe that non-Christians will join us in God’s Heaven…and I am not here to argue that point today.  What I want to say is that life has taught me things are not as cut and dried, not as black and white as would like to believe them and that my experience of God tells me that we will all dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long… whether we choose to know or admit that is another thing entirely.  As for me and my house? We will choose to dwell in the house of the Lord!

 

Last week I began this post by talking about being encouraged as a child to memorize passages of Scripture.  I didn’t find much use for it then, and to be honest I still don’t.  I don’t really memorize Scripture as much as I burn it into the walls of my heart.  The passages of Scripture that I can recite from memory are there in my mind because I lean on them to live and breathe and find my way in a difficult world.  I use them to remind me of everything I have learned along the way, and most of those things have been learned the hard way.

Thank you for breaking it down with me.  Sometimes this is the only way I know how to burn the Scriptures into the walls of my heart, and I hope it works for you as well as it works for me.

And now may goodness and mercy follow you…under the pile of filth that life dumps onto you, and into the darkness of the Valley of the Shadow, and into the harsh light of truth you don’t want to hear…may goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life!

Oh heck, may goodness and mercy follow you into the bathroom if that’s what you really need!

Breaking It Down With The Shepherd

*** This post is a part 1 of a two part post.  The second half will be published next week.  I didn’t want you to be here half the night reading.

Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

When I was a child I was taught to memorize Scripture verses. It was considered some sort of virtue to be able to spew out words of Scripture at will or on command.  Memorizing the Bible was held in such high esteem that our church brought a guest to visit with our Sunday School classes; the gentleman had committed the entire Bible to memory.  We were invited to ask him to quote any verse of any book in the Bible. We kids took turns yelling out the most obscure verses we could think of while we readied our Bibles in the hopes of proving this gentlemen wrong.

One of us yelled out Timothy 4:13.

He responded “Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.”

Another yelled “Nehemiah 5:16!”

He responded “Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work.”

“Isaiah 59:4!”

“No one brings suit justly,
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.”

This went on, back and forth, for a good ten to fifteen minutes and I have to admit I was impressed with his ability to accurately memorize such a large book.  But even then, as a child, it disturbed me to think of someone memorizing the Bible mostly so they could regurgitate it verbatim for others.  What was the purpose of that?  I felt like our guest had reduced the Bible to a parlor trick. I kept wondering if he really knew the Bible, not just for recitation, but as something deeper than that, as a source of light and love and guidance.  I have to admit, however, that a certain part of me was jealous that he could manage to memorize any portion of the Word at all.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to expand my knowledge beyond John 3:16-17.

And then, as a young teen, I decided that I needed to memorize Psalm 23. I don’t know what brought me to such a decision, or why I specifically chose Psalm 23.  I just knew that it was time for me to begin knowing more of the Bible by heart and so I set out to memorize Psalm 23.  I spent several days working on committing the Psalm to memory, and I was very proud of myself when I could recite it without pausing or having to be prompted by my parents.  Psalm 23 is a beautiful Psalm and certain one of the best known passages of the Bible. Having it tucked away in my memory surely had to be a good thing…yes? But sadly, much like I had suspected when I was much smaller, simply memorizing Scripture did not do much to advance my knowledge of God.

In order for the Scriptures to gain much meaning for me, I had to grow up and become an adult.  I had to get to the point where I needed Scripture before having certain passages squirrelled away in my heart, committed to memory, became meaningful and even necessary.  I still don’t memorize Bible verses as a matter of habit…yet there are a number of verses or passages that I can recite from memory simply because of how desperately I have clung and continue to cling to them in times of trouble, sorrow, and confusion.  Psalm 23 is one such piece of Scripture.

I had a friend who taught me to meditate on Psalm 46:10 in the following way:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know.

Be still.

I tried reversing this technique with Psalm 23 and found myself meditating on wonderful things.

The Lord is my shepherd.”

I am led by a God who understands that I am rather much like a sheep: potentially productive but simple, unwise, needing to be taken care of, and incapable of doing that for myself. Despite my neediness, the Lord Himself has chosen to be my shepherd. Maybe I should let Him do that job without so much interference from me.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

My God is not unaware of all that I need, but somehow I am find myself anxious to make sure that I have enough.  It makes me buy more than I need, and hold onto things that I should let go of, and strive far harder than I really ought or need to.  Again: I am much like a sheep, incapable of fully taking care of myself.  I need to be led and fed and kept safe, and God is the One who will be doing that for me.   If I could do it for myself, I wouldn’t be so doggone anxious all the time.  Perhaps my anxiety is proof that I need God?

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down…

Too many times I don’t know when to stop working. I don’t know when to say no, enough, I have too much on my plate.  And so God makes me lie down.  I think this verse is a reflection of “Be still and know that I am God” because another translation of that verse is “Stop striving and know that I am God.”  I strive too much for my own good, and so my shepherd makes me lie down. Once or twice, the “makes” part of ‘He makes me lie down’ felt very real, when my health became the thing that made me have to slow down and start saying no to some of my tasks and commitments.  I have learned when this happens that it is very helpful to recognize how God uses our infirmities to lead us to rely on Him and listen to Him. I decided to try something crazy and I even praised God for my pain; I discovered that I found peace and joy that persisted despite the pain and disability that it brought me. I found that I could hate being in pain while loving all that the pain could teach me.  Weird, I know.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.

God is not content that we simply rest. My shepherd makes me lie down in the soft, green grass next to the still waters.  Why still water? Because still water is safe water. Remember Isaiah 43:2? “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”  Every time I read that passage I think of the many times in life that I was so overwhelmed that I thought I would drown!  I sometimes get to the point when life’s demands make me feel like I can’t keep up, can’t take a deep breath, and will never be able to get it all done.  God’s answer to that is to lead us to a soft place to fall, a safe place to fall apart. God is interested in more than granting us a good night’s sleep.  Green pastures and still waters are a safe place to play.  It isn’t enough to simply rest so that we can get back to work: God wants us to be able to let go of all our worries and simply be. With God in control we are safe.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides still waters. He restores my soul.

I remember leading the Junior High Convention for the local Methodist conference.  Tons of tweeners gathered for two days, all of them wanting to be entertained and led in an experience of God’s presence that would keep them on the right track in a culture that wanted to lead them all astray. Creating that shouldn’t be stressful, it should be a joy, right? NO!  I was so anxious that I was coming unglued!  Under the auspices of practicing my sermon for that night’s worship I slipped away for some time alone with God and found myself calmed to the core.  God filled me with His Spirit and I was renewed and restored.  The best part of it was that later that evening I got to share everything that God gave me with over a hundred youth who needed that same calming, restoring Spirit.  I went to the source and the Shepherd filled me to full and overflowing so that I could share what I had been given.

***  Join me next week for Part II of this post.  God bless!

I Was Blind And Apparently I Still Am Blind

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”         Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Lately I have been irritated with everything.  I have been irascible, difficult, quick to complain, and disdainful.  God only knows what my issue is…literally. God only knows, because I have no clue.  Lately I have been blaming it on menopause, and before that I blamed it on having too much on my plate, and before that on too many destabilized clients, and before that I was blaming menopause again. In the end, I have no idea why I am so unbelievably grumpy and unhappy, but that’s where I am and I am trying to be as accepting of myself as I can be, although I have to admit that I am getting tired of my bad mood.

Dear God, perhaps I am going through a second adolescence!

Okay…I got a giggle out of that idea, but in reality it is exactly how I feel.  To me, adolescence is a horrible time when children are forced to live in the strange in-between…that space where they want to be an adult but don’t really know how, where they want to have adult privileges but don’t want adult responsibilities, and where their body takes on the outside appearances of adulthood while their mind maintains the worldview of a child.  I remember it as a time when I felt entirely out of kilter, and I felt the same way when I watched my own children going through adolescence.  The funny thing is that we cannot move out of our own childhood and into adulthood without traveling the road of adolescence.  It isn’t just about our body’s need to mature; the entire process is a time of trying on new roles, new identities, new ways of thinking and behaving.  I think that is a part of why moodiness and negativity are such harbingers of adolescence: in order to take on new ways of being, first we must become unhappy with our current way of being.  In other words, everything has to suck before we are willing to let go of it and move onto something new.

Perhaps I am going through a second adolescence.

I am finding myself at that place in my life where I find myself asking “Why am I still doing this?”  I ask that about my habits, about my career, about my decisions, about almost everything except my husband.  Nothing seems to be as satisfying as it was five years ago.  I thought that it was just my own inner musings (and a heaping dose of hormones in flux) but then my massage therapist asked me how well I was sleeping.  I told her that I hadn’t been sleeping very well for a while, but assumed that it had to do with menopause (I blame it for everything these days) and then I asked her why she was asking.  She told me that I felt wrong to her, that there seemed to be something that I needed to let go of, something way down deep…perhaps soul deep.

Her statement gave me pause and I thought about what she said for the rest of my hour on the massage table.

I wonder if Saul wasn’t in the same position as he headed to Damascus.  Certainly he was doing what he thought was right, rooting out heretics (Christians) who continued to worship in the synagogues so that they could be brought condemned and executed for blasphemy.  And yet on the way to Damascus he found himself struck blind, confronted by the same Jesus whose followers he was bent on persecuting.

The funny thing is that when Saul, later calling himself Paul, tells this story to King Agrippa in Acts 26, he says something we often miss.  Paul tells Agrippa that when Jesus spoke to him:

I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’  Acts 26:14b

“Kick against the goads” is a phrase we don’t use anymore, but it refers to an animal being goaded along by a sharp stick, like a cattle prod.  An animal kicking against the goads was refusing to accept the prompt it was being given, refusing to move…and sadly risking a great deal of pain, because kicking at something sharp is a really good way to get poked really hard and maybe even cut or stabbed.

Essentially, Paul was admitting that Jesus had been prodding at Paul for some time and that he had been refusing the prompts of the Lord to move along, to change, to accept what he was being shown.  Apparently Jesus had been poking at Paul for a while trying to get him to accept Jesus as Lord and stop persecuting the Christians, and when Paul didn’t listen, Jesus decided to go big and appear to Paul on the road to Damascus, striking Paul blind.

But wasn’t Paul blind the whole time?

After all, when something is prodding and poking at you, trying to get your attention, how blind do you have to be to miss it?  All of us have been there, where something was obvious to everyone but us, but we just didn’t manage to see it.  But then there comes to bigger blindness, when something keeps prodding and nudging us and we refuse to acknowledge it no matter how great the prompt.  As counselors we sometimes call that choosing to be blind.  Saul/Paul chose to be blind for so long that Jesus pulled out all the stops, simultaneously revealing himself to Paul and revealing Paul’s blindness.

Which brings me back to adolescence.

Adolescence is one long period of being goaded to change, to release childish self-focus and embrace accountability and responsibility for ourselves and others.  It is uncomfortable and only a child’s dissatisfaction with the restrictions of childhood can make them let go their old ways of being and embrace their emerging adult self.

Could it be that I am in a second adolescence?  Is God goading me to let go of my current ways of being, ways of being that are no longer useful or meaningful, ways of being that don’t reflect my advancing age, my changing role in my own family and in my community?  Is God letting me know that I’m not really attending to His will like I should? I don’t know.  But my lousy mood, my bad attitude, and my generalized dissatisfaction with my personal status quo just might be God trying to tell me to move on, to go where He is leading me.

“And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.”        Acts 9:18a

I am waiting Lord.  Help me before something big shows me just how blind I have become.

I Get It Now

The joy of the Lord is your strength.  Nehemiah 8:10f

I remember the first time I heard that scripture verse…and I remember how I struggled to understand it.  I was just a child and the verse seemed to make no sense to me at all. How am I supposed to know how joyful God is?  And even if God is very, very joyful, how is that supposed to make me stronger?  None of it seemed to make sense at that point, I think mostly because I didn’t need much strength from God to get by on a daily basis at that point in my life.

During my childhood, my family was blessed with relative stability.  My dad had a good job, so my mom was able to stay home and focus on caring for me and my brother.  My household was free of addiction and abusiveness.  I lived with two parents who loved each other and loved both my brother and I despite the fact that we were messy and sporadically obnoxious and rude.  Actually my brother was consistently obnoxious and rude, which made it relatively easy for me to seem angelic in comparison, meaning that I could get away with all sorts of stuff if I just stayed out of trouble in general and offered to help mom and dad with chores once or twice a week. My parents were deeply faithful and involved in our local church, and I grew up helping out in Sunday School and attending youth group.  I had few reasons to contemplate the joy of the Lord and I could not really imagine what circumstances would make me need to seek out that joy so that I could have the strength that supposedly came from it.

Fast forward to adulthood, marriage, and parenthood.

I have to admit that parenthood gave me a much deeper understanding of God. Having children was an epiphany for me; my deep love for my own children began to instruct me in how God must feel about me, and I had to admit that God’s love was bigger and more expansive than my own love, more all-encompassing than my own love, and far more endless than my own love.  Suddenly, I could look at my beautiful little girl and get a glimmer of how God must feel about me.  It became impossible to maintain the image of God I had developed in childhood—the one where God eternally wags his finger, shakes his head, and is overwhelmed with disappointment at my endless list of sins. Because of my daughter, I imagined God shaking his head at me…and laughing at my ridiculous antics, much like I did with my daughter.  Toddlers are a gift from God that helps you understand just how much God loves you.

And then God grants that your children become teenagers.

Personally I think the teenage years might be God’s way of making us apologize to our own parents for all the crap we pulled when we were younger and thought we knew everything.  I know my mother looked forward to the day that I would have teenagers and would come to understand just how impossible I had been when I was in my teens.  By the time that both my daughters were teenagers, I had apologized to my mom so many times that she eventually began cutting me off before I could get very far into my apology.  After a while I gave up on apologizing and simply asked my mom “Did I do anything this dumb when I was her age?!”  She answered in the affirmative more than I want to admit to, but I was comforted by the realization that I was no longer that stupid, which meant that my daughters would eventually grow out of this behavior and sprout some brains.  Please understand that this entire argument is predicated on the idea that I actually have grown a set of functioning brains… something my parents, my husband, and my bosses still occasionally dispute.

And then we moved beyond simply “teenage rebellion” and I came to understand all sorts of things about God that I had not understood until then.

I won’t go into tons of details (unless you are a parent dealing with this, in which case you are free to contact me here and I’ll tell you everything I know) about what happened, but let it suffice to say that my oldest daughter became a 15 year-old drug addict.  I cannot begin to describe the mess our lives became while we tried to figure out what was going wrong. Her behaviors left us stunned and confused.  Short periods of good behavior would be followed by months of increasingly worse behaviors and no punishment seemed to be enough to stop the downhill slide.  My husband and I became full-time detectives, constantly trying to catch her in the act of sneaking out.  We became full-time lie detectors, forever looking for the tiny crack in her story that would reveal the lie.  We started paying attention to every item of clothing, every possession, convinced she was stealing.  We came to distrust everything and everyone except each other, and every day we became a little crazier trying to figure out what was happening to change our beautiful little girl into a sneaky, thieving liar.  Neither of us knew that we were watching our daughter become the monster that addiction creates in the place of the person you love.  I still remember standing in the office of the residential rehab where we placed our daughter, hearing the director explain that our daughter was addicted to multiple substances and needed long-term inpatient treatment.  I was incredulous.  How did we get here?  How could I possibly send my child away from me…and they told us that the average stay in order to achieve success in treatment was eighteen months.

I was devastated, but what choice did I have?  We had to save our daughter’s life!  We returned home from the visit to the rehab and began to buy the items she would need for an extended stay away from home.  Sheets. Blankets. Winter wear (we live in the desert and she was going to the high country where it snows). Every purchase brought me closer to the edge, to the brink of disintegration.

I was a mother and I was about to send my daughter away from me and refuse to let her come home until she was sober…entirely, totally sober—no matter how long it took.

I would see things in the store as I shopped and I’d think “Oh! Alex would love that!” only to realize that Alex wasn’t going to live with me for at least a year if not longer, and I would start crying.  I would be driving along and suddenly I’d realize what we were about to do and I’d become inconsolable.

My only consolation was in prayer, when I would remember that God already knew how this would all end.  God had my daughter in hand and would not let go of her, even when I had no other choice but to let go of her.  I had to trust that God had led my husband and I down the right path, to the right treatment facility, and to the right professionals and therapists.  We had done all the footwork and now it was time to trust in God and find my consolation there.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.

It made sense now.  As I drove down the road, sobbing and inconsolable, God was not disturbed.  God was not distraught, nor was God fearful of what would happen next.  Certainly God’s love for my husband and I caused His heart to ache when He watched us suffer over our little girl, but God was not worried about Alex.  God knew exactly what it would take to heal her of her addiction and God was already at work.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.

You see, nothing perturbs God the way that it perturbs us.  God isn’t worried, or fearful. God doesn’t get anxious and He doesn’t have anxiety attacks.  God is never inconsolable over what is happening here in His world, because God is in control.  Nothing can steal God’s joy because God has everything in hand. It is all in God’s control, and nothing escapes His notice, or overwhelms His power.  Just because things don’t end the way you and I want them to doesn’t mean that God is done with the situation.  God has the long view…God sees all the way into eternity, and that means that nothing is outside of His saving hand.  There is nothing in the world that can reduce God’s joy in His children and in His ability to bring His children home to Him.

Over time I found that trusting God was the greatest comfort I could find in all the chaos of addiction.

The joy of the Lord is my strength.

I get it now.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”   Nehemiah 8:10