Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.   Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it full and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing is serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we are not created with the ability to cope with death, so it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.

Feeble Attempts Past our Expiration Date

With the now warm weather and springtime growth comes a host of fresh vegetables and fruits.  While visiting our local fruit stand, our eyes go wide with the deliciousness that nature presents, yet often our eyes are bigger than our appetites, and we end up buying more than we need.  Now normally, that purchase isn’t a problem, but with all of what we are buying being local produce, the shelf life on a lot of these items isn’t very long.  The amount of purchases that must thrown out to the animals can be heartbreaking, but at least someone is enjoying them.

With spring produce and warm weather also comes spring cleaning, when we go through our pantry and refrigerator, looking for things that have found their way to the back and as such have become neglected and lost.  More often than most, these items are well past their expiration dates, and despite looking just fine, have gone bad on some level.  Moving on to our medicine cabinet in this cleaning frenzy, we traditionally find a multitude of no-longer used medicines that have also migrated past their expiration dates, and are now not as effective as they once were, or just aren’t healthy to consume.  The power of time takes its toll on all things, apparently.

Time seems to be the enemy of us all.  Most things of this world don’t age well and have a point where the rising tide of time overtakes what is best in all things.  Even wine, despite getting better with age, reaches a point where it turns to vinegar.  When I walk the hallways of high school and spot young couples in love, by measuring the flames of passion that radiate, I can usually judge with a decent amount of certainty how quickly those flame will extinguish and the relationship will expire.  And despite our best efforts, our bodies don’t escape the ravages of time.  Most scientists and physicians suggest that, given the proper diet and treatment, the human body can work perfectly for the first 40-50 years before it starts to break down on its own, and that’s if we treat it well.  Founding father William Penn said that, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  Time is a commodity, but we often don’t trade well with it.

Like our bodies and things of this world, each of us have an expiration date, too.  At some point, death will be the great expiration collector and will come for us.  What makes us different, though, is that often there is no telling as to when that expiration date is.  The Bible and other pieces of literature are filled with warnings about the fleeting nature of life, about how we must seize every moment of every day, or about how we don’t know how long we have.  Proverbs 90.12 give us this advice: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  If we realize that our time is limited, then we will most likely use our time wisely, and the biggest concern should be where we are headed after our expiration date.

A great deal of the population, when considering the afterlife, feels that it’s not something they need to think about at this point.  They’ve got time.  Yet if we live with this foolish notion, like rotted fruit, we will find ourselves out of time before we know it.  We need to live wisely while we still have time, and for many, that means committing our lives to Him as soon as possible.  With no knowledge of how much time is left, as even tomorrow may be our last day, we must firmly stand on the promises of His kingdom, and not the possible failing promises of a long life.  Assurance is found in what we know for sure, not in what we think may be.  If we live knowing that any day might be our last, then our decisions, especially those about the afterlife and what we are truly living for, will be handled with grace and wisdom, and our future will be secured.  Amen.

Fear of All the Wrong People and Things

Fear is a natural part of our humanity, often seen as a survival instinct, where we fear what can cause harm.  Take a mental tally of your own fears, and you will most likely find that your healthy fears are the ones that keep you out of trouble.

According to a recent Washington Post survey about what it is that most Americans fear, topping the list was “public speaking” (with “heights” following closely behind).  Given that a great deal of my graduating seniors need to give a TED Talk as their senior culminating project, I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear that enters when a person is told that he or she needs to present a grandiose idea to a large group of people.  They are frozen in place just thinking about it.  Their survival instinct of self-preservation and avoiding public judgement is normal, as they attempt to maintain their credibility amongst their peers.

The rest of the list of surveyed fears consisted of such expected categories as drowning, needles, zombies, and clowns.  Yet nowhere on the list is there evidence that we have a fear of God.  When suggested, most scoff at the idea of being afraid of God, yet in fact, we have a deeply serious lack of fear when it comes to God, and we are not nearly as afraid of Him as we should be.

When most people are asked to characterize God, they conjure an image of a loving mentor who passively died on a cross, adhering to the nurturing father that is portrayed in so many sermons and homilies. However, we quickly forget the side of God that characterizes Him as one of judgement and condemnation, a God who despises sin and actively fights against evil.  18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards knew that a healthy fear of God would keep his congregation from sin, as his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” pictured the Christian as one who “dangles precariously over Hell…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.”  If it is this image that is invoked, how is it that we lack fear when we purposefully offend His word?

Illustrating the point of how much we lack said fear, take a minute and Google the words “caught” and “scandal” together and see the multitude of news articles that come up.  When we commit sinful behaviors, we are more afraid of being caught in the eyes of men than in the eyes of God.  The Google search for “scandal” and “apology” also turns up a tremendous number of articles, as we only confess our wrongdoing when we are caught.  If we truly feared God, more articles about people openly admitting their wrongs would appear when we search “scandal” and “confess.”

Proverbs 3.7 give this advice: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.”  When we fear Him, His wrath, and His punishment, we reflexively reject evil.  If we lack that fear, we turn a blind eye to evil, allowing it to enter because we don’t fear the one who can bring consequences.

Many argue that this image of God is very Old Testament, where His consequences often included the outdated idea of wiping out whole tribes and nations, bringing grandiose punishment to those who opposed Him.  Yet consider the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife Christian couple who, when they sold land for donations to the church, held back money for themselves, and when asked about it, lied about how much they were giving.  Peter questioned the husband about his lying to the apostles: “’What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’  When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died” (Acts 5.4b-5), and when his unknowing wife similarly lied later in the story, she followed suit and died, as well.  They could hide their misdeeds from man, but not from God, and because they feared man and not God, they continued in their sinful misrepresentation, thinking that they were not being watched.

It has often been said that when speaking publicly, a good litmus test for appropriate speech is that you should never say anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear or that could be read allowed in court.  Perhaps this barometer should also include “or in front of God.”  God truly sees all things we do, yet we continue to sin, foolishly thinking that because we don’t see Him, He doesn’t see us.  By embracing a healthy fear of God, we are not as quick to embrace our sinful nature and embark on the wrong path.  Although we may not drop dead because of our actions, if we fear God, we are kept from that wrong path and are put back on a path towards Heaven, one that keeps us from sliding into an eternity without Him.  Amen.

Seeds of Violence, the Size of an Ant

I horridly stared at my bathroom floor as hundreds of ants marched their merry way back and forth across, creating a steady stream from one corner to the next.  In years past, I had some trouble with these small critters, as when the weather warms up, they tend to emerge.  However, nothing prepared me for what now lay before me.

I spent some time brainstorming a solution.  We have a basic rule in our house, where nothing is allowed to die.  We tend to remove mice and insects from our home and relocate them outside or down the street.  Yet, an infestation was another issue.  I thought about sweeping them all up, but I knew that they would either just return or that there were just more where these came from.  (Most likely, both scenarios were probable.)  So, I began to consider instant extermination, immediately killing hundreds of ants and betraying our household rule.

However, I reconsidered and decided on a different approach.  I spent time examining their traffic pattern and noticed that they were coming in and out of a small hole at the base of the bathtub.  I took some clay and filled the hole, as hundreds of confused ants ran roughshod.  When I returned a few hours later, they had all left on their own and haven’t returned since.  From a very small action of non-violence and patience came great change.

When faced with difficult and dire situations, as a society we don’t always stop and think of how to respond in a slow but non-violent way.  Governments tend to find a bigger bomb, bigger guns, or additional soldiers, attempting to overpower the enemy through swift violence and intimidation.  The Dalai Lama, the wise Buddhist leader of Tibet and a strong proponent of non-violence, when faced with intimidation from China to rejoin their republic, was threatened with violent means.  Faced with a moral dilemma of how to respond, many of his people desired him to rise up and fight off the militia, but the Dalai Lama knew that his people were outnumbered and would most likely be slaughtered.  Instead, he adopted a stance of patience, understanding, and non-violence, and has managed to maintain it for the past 60 years.  He has been quoted as saying, “Through violence, you may ‘solve’ one problem, but you sow the seeds for another.”  As such, he has been able to preserve his people, stand his ground on his beliefs, and avoid a mass genocide.

Responding with violence is quick and easy, whereas non-violence takes great patience and time, as seen through the Dalai Lama’s example.  Similarly, Christ’s example leading up to and on the cross reflects that non-violent and patient approach.  When Christ was arrested, Simon Peter struck the high priest with his sword, cutting off the priest’s ear.  Christ quickly admonished him: “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.52).  Throughout His trial, Christ refused to fight back.  On the cross, Christ could have called down all manner of angels and struck down everyone, saving Himself, but he chose not to.  Through His patient and non-violent example, He conquered death, saving us all from condemnation.

In my classroom, I have found that when my students are loud and rowdy, if I respond by being louder than they are, it only adds to the chaos, with me shouting them into submission.  It becomes a power struggle.  However, if I am silent and wait patiently for them, they quiet themselves down and the wild spirit of chaos is eliminated from the room.  Struggle does not exist.  If we take time to respond to strife and chaos through choices that reflect patience, quiet, and peace, we achieve a far greater result than responding with our basest instincts, many of which are rooted in our sinful nature.  This week, when you find the desire to engage and fight back, choose disengagement and patience, and you will find that the fruit it produces will bring you, and those around you, peace.  Amen.

Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day.  Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers.  During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent.  I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them.  It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit.  Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well.  One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions.  Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak.  Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.

When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation.  So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk.  When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation.  We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested.  When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating.  Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying.  And finally, we get distracted easily.  Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone.  Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.

Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings.  We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda.  Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.”  If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.

We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him.  We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say.  So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us.  As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal.  Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.”  Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.

There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her.  At least I think that’s what she said.”  Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another.  This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking.  If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us.  Amen.

The Result of Stepping in It

Having a house with three dogs and a big backyard, the “waste” can build up pretty quickly if not attended to.  So, someone in our household is always picking up after them, attempting to keep our yard free and clear.  Yet, no matter how hard I try, for some reason, I have always managed to step directly into a pile of it.  It’s actually a running joke in our house, as no one else seems to have this problem.  Despite trying to keep a look out, I usually end up with it on the soles of my shoes.  The worst part is the discovery, as I don’t usually find out that I’ve stepped in something right away.

Sometimes, I manage to track it in the house, and am horrified to find it trailed behind me.  Sometimes it’s when I enter an enclosed space, and either myself or the people around me sense the odor.  And when I am alerted by others, the overall sensation (both mine and theirs) is disgust and revulsion.  The overwhelming smell is so strong, that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, or what level of fame or power you have in life: there’s nothing like a little poop on your shoes to bring you down several notches.

As Christians, our living example to others is one of our strongest tools in showing the world Christ.  Yet we have a tendency to “step in it” in life, thus destroying any ministry or power our example might have.  When we become involved with events or activities that clearly are not Godly, we have “stepped in it” and that act permeates any other good that we are trying to accomplish.  Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, suggested that “we put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited” (2 Corinthians 6.3).  He knew that one small stench can destroy an entire lifetime’s worth of work, so he warned us to watch our step.

So how are we “stepping in it,” exactly?  When I literally step in it, it’s usually because I am paying attention to the wrong things in life and not what is on the ground in front of me.  Thus, we “step in it” by having the wrong focus, drawing attention to ourselves through the wrong means.  Vala Afshar, a writer for The Huffington Post, recently tweeted that we should not be impressed by “money, power, looks, title, or network.”  When we focus on improving these very human areas in our own life, and often times blindly so, we tend to bring attention to our own person and what we have accomplished as individuals.  We have stepped into areas that take the focus off Christ and put it on ourselves and our achievements, establishing a stench of personal triumph.  Gandhi is often cited with the idea that he liked Christ but did not like Christians, and most likely because Christians step in it frequently, making our examples very un-Christ-like.  When we focus on bettering ourselves, the stench is staggering enough to illicit revulsion and rejection, no matter how great our words and examples are.

Then, Afshar tweeted that we should be impressed by “character, kindness, generosity, humility, and passion,” areas that take the spotlight off ourselves and place it on Christ’s example and teachings.  By building up these areas in our life, the stink is eliminated and our ministry of Christ’s love through us is manifested.  We no longer celebrate our personal success but instead rejoice in His love for us, and the smell of His embrace is much more attractive than what we may be tracking in on our shoes.

If our priorities and goals are misaligned, and we seek this first list of qualities, the overwhelming foulness permeates any other admirable goals we may be trying to attain, and people will be driven off.  Yet, if we center ourselves daily on Him through prayer and meditation, realigning our efforts on these Christ-like qualities, people will be drawn to Him through us, and will experience the much more inviting sweet scent of His love for the world and all its people.  Amen.

Withdrawal, Disengagement, and Peace

For better or worse, it’s’ very easy to get caught up in the moment.  When emotions are running high and all of the events around us start to swirl together, we tend to fall prey to our feelings as our mind becomes less of a priority, fading into the background of influences.  Oftentimes, once that moment passes, our senses start to come back to us, and we realize how rash we’ve acted.

A short time ago, a student was missing from my study hall.  I had seen him earlier, so I knew he was in the building, but for some reason, he was not where he was supposed to be.  I fumed as I quickly filled out a behavioral referral, emailing an administrator and his mother.  When he returned, I launched into a tirade about responsibility.  He innocently told me that he was in the cafeteria because he needed to eat something.  I blindly continued my rant, suggesting that it was irresponsible.

Later that day, his mother emailed me back, mentioning that she was surprised and asking if he had ever exhibited behaviors like this one before.  I sheepishly replied that he hadn’t, and meekly explained where he had been.  She replied that although she was sorry for his absence, perhaps I had been too ‘hasty’ in my discipline and that a firm word or two would have sufficed.  After some reflection, I realized she was right.  If I had just taken a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and put a lid on my emotions, I would have handled the situation very differently.  I acknowledged my clouded judgement to her and withdrew the referral.

There is great strength in withdrawing from our lives for a time to recollect our thoughts and get our heads straight.  For years, presidents have logged vacations and golf outings so that they could have time to themselves, recharge their proverbial batteries, and return with a refreshed attitude and mindset.  Marriage requires the same approach, especially where children are involved.  Similarly, I frequently warn my students away from emotional responses in social media, reminding them that although it feels great in the moment, that moment is the only reward: the rest is filled with regret and consequence.  If they just take a moment to withdraw from the screen and allow their minds to reengage above their hearts, they will quickly realize the negative impact their actions could have.  Time away helps us to get ourselves together so that we can avoid ourselves at our worst, thus being our best selves for others when we return.

Right after Christ had fed the five thousand with loaves and fishes, a tremendous miracle, He decided to escape the excitement and be alone.  “After He had dismissed (the disciples), He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray.  Later that night, He was there alone” (Matthew 14.23).  The feeding was more than likely incredibly emotional, moving, and taxing, taking a toll on Him as it simultaneously swept Him up in all the excitement and thrill of the moment.  So, Christ recognized the need to withdraw, get His emotions in check, and recharge Himself so that He could be at His best for His disciples.  A short time away from the thunderous hum of life allowed Him to get back into a more peaceful state, allowing for a closer walk with God, His father.

Withdrawing from the world when emotions run high not only prevents us from potential emotional mistakes, but also resets our priorities and brings us closer to Him through the peace that comes with a silencing of the world.  This week, take time to retreat from the world so that your mind is not clouded by your emotions, and allow God to refresh you in the peace of that retirement.  Amen.

Soldiering Onward with Faithful Assurance

When the entire world is suggesting one thing, but we know that God wants us to act differently, our beliefs get questioned and our faith tested.  Staying steadfast and resolute in what we believe is never easy, especially when the world questions our every word and action.  However, if we can hold tightly to our faith with assurance, God’s plan for us will be carried out and may lead to being an example to the world who rejected those beliefs in the first place.

During World War II, Desmond Doss felt a tremendous obligation to serve his country, so he entered the military intending to be a medic.  When he enlisted into combat infantry, he listed himself as a conscientious objector, meaning that according to his Christian beliefs, he felt that he did not have the right to kill another person.  So, he refused to train with, carry, or even touch a rifle.  Because of his beliefs, he experienced intense ridicule and scrutiny in response to his actions, but he refused to compromise them.  Even though he did not know how God would use him, it was the comfort of Doss’ faith that helped him through this difficult time.

When Private 1st Class Doss eventually shipped off to fight in Okinawa, his platoon was trapped under fire in a seemingly unwinnable tactical situation, and several men were left wounded on the battlefield after a retreat.  Instead of retreating with the rest of his group, Doss decided to stay behind and help as many of the wounded as he could find.  Still refusing to fight, Doss single-handedly located seventy-five wounded soldiers, treated them for their injuries, and lowered them down a high cliff to the retreated platoon.  During that time, Doss glimpsed God’s plan for him, how He was using Doss as an example of pacifism, humanity, and sacrifice to the fallen, giving them hope where there was none.  The following day, right before the next assault, the platoon refused to deploy without Doss, and only after he was finished praying.  During that assault (the army’s 8th attempt), the platoon successfully took the hill.

Since we are trapped by the confides of time, we are unable to peer into the future and see how all of the threads of God’s massive patchwork quilt come together, revealing the significance and length of each strand.  If we were able to, how easily we would be able to choose our next set of actions.  However, faith indicates trust in something over which we have no control, giving up control to someone who knows more than we do.  The author of Hebrews 11.1 spells out exactly what faith is for Christians: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” With faith, we can be positive that despite what the world says and how it tells us to act, God’s way is the right way, even if it isn’t always the easy way.

In Hacksaw Ridge, the film which carefully details Doss’ story, after seemingly endless derision and much intense pressure to leave combat infantry, one of his commanding officers asks him, “What do you do when everything you value in this world is under attack?”  With Doss knowing that he was doing the right thing but not knowing why or to what end, he responds with, “I don’t know sir.  I ain’t got answers to questions that big.”  Faith is just that: we don’t always know what God’s ultimate plan is for us or how to verbalize the steps, but we know how to keep ourselves open to it and be a vessel for His will.  We may not have the answers and may face difficulty throughout, but we know to look to Him for guidance.  This week, even though you may not know for sure the outcome, find the assurance of faith by placing your confidence in Him through prayer and His promises.  In our travels, we may not know the destination, but we have the directions.  Amen.

A Haunting in Our Forgiven Lives

As I reached down to grab what I thought was clearly my vibrating phone in my pocket, my hand came up empty, and I rolled my eyes to discover that, once again, I had been tricked by my own body: my phone wasn’t even with me.  Apparently, I am not alone in experiencing this phenomenon (as many will be relieved to hear).  The idea of “phantom ringing” started to appear years ago with the proliferation of pagers, and once we all turned to owning smart phones, the feeling went widespread.  A singularity that afflicts most at one point or another, many will admit to swearing that they feel the vibrations of their phone against their leg, only to find no such vibrating occurring.  Chalk it up to how tied we are to our phones, I suppose.

However, a similar situation also occurs with 60-80% of amputee patients.  Dubbed “Phantom Limb Syndrome,” this condition arises when patients who have lost a limb or other significant body part feel varying amounts of pain, discomfort, or itching in a part of the body that no longer exists.  Patients absentmindedly reach down to rub or scratch the missing part, only to be painfully reminded that the part is no longer there.  They have become so used to the limb being a part of them, that their body is having trouble adjusting to a time without said body part.  Like the phone, it is as if the specter of the limb haunts the person missing it, leaving them with nothing but empty air to grasp at.

I mention these two ghostly examples as they are like the way in which we allow past sin to hang over us, where even though we have been forgiven and the sin is no longer with us, it negatively affects our actions and mindset, discouraging us from being the forgiven person we are.  We sometimes have a hard time grasping Christ’s forgiveness, as He takes our wrongs and, once forgiven, places them as far away from us as possible.  Psalm 103.12 states that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103.12).  Our sin can be no further away from us than where Christ has placed it.  We are completely dissociated from it.

Yet, we tend to ruminate and reflect on what we’ve done despite the forgiveness we’ve received.  Yes, we’ve all done some pretty bad things where we’ve hurt others, cursed God, and destroyed ourselves both literally and physically.  Despite the forgiveness we’ve sought and received, we allow our past actions to hang over us like a dark cloud.  Like the man who walks through a spider web and for the next few hours swears that spiders are crawling on him, the guilt of our sin hangs lifelessly over us, haunting our every move regardless of the forgiveness received.  Despite our feelings, that sin is not there, so why do we allow the guilt to hang over us?  It is because we’ve lived with our actions and the guilt of them for a great deal of our life, so we “phantomly” perceive them to be there.  Like the non-existent phone or ghostly limb, we erroneously think it’s with us always, yet the reality is that those sins have been forgiven, and we need to adjust to this new reality.  Christ desires us to not only be forgiven but to feel forgiven, as that is when His grace shines most brightly.  So perhaps we need to rebuke the specters of our past sins and their associated guilt and begin to live as the forgiven, saved people we are.  This week, don’t allow forgiven sin and phantom guilt to haunt you.  Refuse to let it dampen the joy that comes with grace.  Don’t let Christ’s mercy be dulled by the perceived grime of our past actions, but instead reject that phantom guilt and live as saved individuals.  Amen.

Paving the Path with Calloused Understanding

In my part of the world, usually around this time of the year, the same scenario occurs regarding the safety of our children and their relationship to the environment.  Temperatures end up dipping drastically, stay well below freezing, resulting in soft, mushy snowballs becoming deadly rock-solid weapons in the hands of most.  This snow usually arrives around December, falling lightly and leaving a soft, pillowy covering on our lawns.  Sled grooves are created, snowmen are constructed, and forts abound.  Yet, by mid-January, those grooves become walking hazards, snowmen become grotesque in their features, and forts are now highly fortified bunkers.  Through repeated exposure to the cold temperatures, our once enjoyable snow becomes impenetrable, and anyone who didn’t clear off a surface back then has no chance of doing so now.

Repeated exposure to a harsh environment can harden even the softest of surfaces.  Musicians, through repeated use of their hands on their instruments, develop callouses that build up over time, hardening their skin until the they have little to no feeling in that area.  Hardened steel, a process where metal is exposed to extreme heat and then resists bending and warping, can be used in the creation of machinery.  Individuals can also become hardened through repeated exposure to harshness from others.  With the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, tell a person something enough times and they will eventually believe it and become that way.  Tell a child he or she is stupid and will never achieve anything academically, and sure enough, that child will be failing classes shortly thereafter.  People who reside in poor living conditions surrounded by poverty and crime quickly lose the hope they once had for getting themselves out of their situation, and even the best become hardened themselves, often times succumbing to committing the crimes that once plagued them as victims.

And a hardened heart is just the beginning. The result of a hardened heart frequently leads to further complications, heading the individual down a continuously wrong path.  The author of Proverbs 28.14 writes about these complications with, “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”  According to the verse, not only does a hardened heart lead one towards further destructive issues, it also denies that person God’s plan and blessings.  A hardened heart can block what God’s love intends for you.  However, the verse also provides a way out for the hardened individual, a means for that person to receive His gifts:  humility.  If we are able to come before God and acknowledge His sovereignty, the result can be nothing other than a thawed and softened heart.  Recognize Him, and your path will be corrected.

In a month or so, the spring sun will begin to melt the hardened winter snow, and what was once impenetrable will become soft and accessible.  Much like the penetrating rays of the warm spring sun, God’s sovereignty can penetrate even the hardest hearts, a fact that gives hope to us all, whether on a personal or global level.  For ourselves, we can seek Him in prayer at the foot of the cross, humbling ourselves and accepting His love, allowing it to wash over us, resulting in a thawed heart filled with understanding and kindness.  However, we are also living in a time where entitled, proud world leaders unwittingly criticize everyone who seemingly goes against them, and then with hardened hearts, move forward with their plans, regardless of how it affects others, barely taking into consideration the human ramifications beyond themselves.  For them, much prayer is needed, that they too would see God not as a tool for achieving an end, but as the Heavenly ruler over all of us.  Now, more than ever, we must be praying for them and their paths, that their decisions be guided not by hardened hearts but by the humility that comes through knowing and worshiping Him.  Amen.