Tag Archives: Difficulty

Dealt a Bad Hand

Dealt a Bad Hand (CaD Ruth 1) Wayfarer

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
Ruth 1:20-21 (NIV)

Along my journey, I’ve known many people who I would describe as having been dealt a bad hand in this life. I have experienced multipole stretches of the journey in which I felt I was dealt a bad hand. There are unexpected tragedies, unforeseen illnesses, and circumstances that come out of left field. As I ponder things, I feel as if the entire world got dealt a bad hand the past year-and-a-half. It’s one of the realities of this earthly journey. Despite all the wonderful promises of name-it-and-claim-it televangelists, the Sage of Ecclesiastes reminds us of a hard reality: in this life there are times and seasons when things like death, war, tearing, weeping, searching, relational distance, mourning, and hate are our experience. In every time and season, we have to play the hand we’re dealt.

Today we begin the short story of Ruth, one of only two books of Great Story named after women. Ruth is one of a select handful of women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus, so her story is a meaningful chapter in the Great Story. It is set in the dark period of time known as the time of the Judges. The story begins with a woman, Naomi, to whom God deals and incredibly bad hand.

There is a famine in the land, and Naomi’s husband leads her and her sons to the foreign land of Moab in a search to find food. At first, it appears that they’re playing their cards right. They settle in, have food, and even find Moabite wives for their sons. There was nothing illegal with Hebrew men marrying Moabite women, though it will certainly raise some orthodox, prejudicial eyebrows if and when they should return home to the little town of Bethlehem (yep, that Bethlehem).

Then there’s a change in seasons, just like the Sage reminds us. Naomi’s husband dies. Then both of her sons die. For a woman in the dark age of the Judges, this was the worst hand God could deal her. Widows had no status, no viable means of income, and there was no social structure to provide for their needs. Naomi’s situation is essentially hopeless.

Naomi recognizes that the situation for her daughters-in-law is not as dire. They are young, beautiful, and have child-bearing years ahead of them. She urges them to “fold” their hand, stay in Moab, and trust that their local Moabite god will deal them a new and better hand. One takes her up on the offer, but Ruth chooses to ante up, stick with Naomi, stick with Naomi’s God, and see this hand through. On the surface, this is a bad decision. Being a Moabite widow in Bethlehem and expecting a positive result is about the longest odds one could imagine in the context of the times.

Sure enough, widow Naomi’s return to Bethlehem with her foreign, widowed daughter-in-law, has the two buzzing with gossip. Naomi sums up her situation by asking people to call her by a different name:

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara (which means “bitter”), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

Bitter. What a great word for those times when I suddenly find myself playing a bad hand in life. Bitter at God. Bitter with the situation. Bitter that others seem to have it easier than me. Bitter that all the televangelist’s prophesies of my prosperity and the self-help guru’s promises of my success turn out to be null and void. Bitter that God dealt me this hand when He could have dealt me something different.

In the quiet this morning, I feel for Naomi, I mean Mara the Queen of bitter. I find myself recalling some of my top-ten bitter moments of this life journey even as I admit not one of them was nearly as dire or life-threatening as Naomi and Ruth. At the same time, I’m reminded that the Great Story is ultimately a redemption story that is layered with redemption stories. The way stories work, you can’t experience redemption without first experiencing the bitter. The bitter hand is the pre-requisite of redemption. I don’t experience the latter without the former.

It’s one of the lessons I’ve learned along this journey of following Jesus. When dealt a bad hand, never fold, because that assures perpetual bitterness. Playing out my hand is the only path to redemption, even against the longest of odds.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Rug-Pulling Moments

Rug-Pulling Moments (CaD Ps 89) Wayfarer

You have put an end to his splendor
    and cast his throne to the ground.

Psalm 89:44 (NIV)

This past week Wendy and I enjoyed hosting both of our daughters and their husbands, along with our grandson, Milo. It was a first in many ways. Madison and Garrett just celebrated their first wedding anniversary and it’s the first time that all seven of us were gathered under our roof. It was a really fun week together as a family.

Wendy and I particularly enjoyed three-year-old Milo climbing into our bed early in the morning to cuddle with Papa and Yaya. One morning Taylor joined us one the bed with her cup of morning coffee. A short time later Madison walked in and climbed on the bed, as well. We got to talk, laugh, share stories, and reminisce. What a joy.

On New Year’s Eve, Wendy and I will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. I couldn’t help but mentally juxtapose the week of being a family together in one house with this relational milestone. Fifteen years ago, the girls were young teenagers reeling from all the changes and turmoil that come when parents divorce and then remarry. It’s messy, and it’s hard when life doesn’t turn the way you planned, and the way you’d always trusted and believed that it would.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 89, is the final song in “Book III” of the compilation of ancient Hebrew song lyrics we know as the book of Psalms. It was likely written after the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Through the first half of the song the lyrics read like an emotional tour of the “glory days” of King David, of God’s blessing on David, God’s anointing of David, God’s covenant with David, and God’s assurances that the throne of David would be established forever.

Then, the songwriter does a 180-degree pivot. After building up the rosy picture of the Davidic monarchy in all its glory, he quickly yanks the rug out from under me as a reader: “But you have rejected, you have spurned”. It’s such a shocking change of tone that it felt unsettling as I read it in the quiet this morning. And, I couldn’t help but think that this was the songwriter’s intent, to have me feel the shock that he was feeling when life didn’t turn out the way he’d trusted and planned.

The psalmist foreshadows the misunderstanding that surrounded Jesus’ followers when the Messiah’s kingdom turned out to look nothing like what they’d envisioned, believed, and had been taught their whole lives. David’s throne was established forever, which is why the Christmas story we are currently celebrating took place in “the City of David” with a mother and earthly father who were descendants of David. God kept His covenant with David, it just didn’t happen the way everyone expected. As God tells us through the prophet Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

Isaiah 55:8 (NIV)

Today’s psalm reminds me of the very human reaction I tend to have whenever life doesn’t turn out the way I planned. Tragedy, unexpected death, life-threatening illness, divorce, job-loss, global pandemic and leave me reeling like having the rugged pulled out from under me. There is shock, there is anger, there is grief, and there are oh so many questions. Like the ancient songwriter, my prayers in these reeling moments on the road of life tend to sound bitter, blaming, and cynical.

I’ve found it to be part of the journey. Like I said in yesterday’s post, these are the stretches of life’s road that lead to digging deeper roots and growing spirit strength. It was hard for me to see it in the middle of the shame of a failed marriage and feeling the anger and disappointment of teenaged daughters. This was never the plan. This was not how it was supposed to work out. Oh, so many questions.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that as a follower of Jesus I need the rug pulled out from beneath me on occasion. Comfortably standing on my own illusions and expectations of what I think life should look like will never allow me to follow Jesus where He is leading me. And even though there are still times when it leaves me reeling for a time, I’ve learned that there are divine purpose in the rug-pulling experiences on this life journey. It usually makes no sense to me in the moment.

Then, down life’s road fifteen years or so, I find myself one morning on the bed together as a family. We’re cuddling the next generation, drinking coffee, swapping stories, and experiencing the joy of being together.

Road Trip

So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.
Exodus 13:18 (NRSVCE)

I find myself in the middle of an unexpected and impromptu road trip this morning. The past week has been ugly for me personally, and that is layered on top of the ugly that permeates our world on so many levels right now. I am broken. I am humbled. There are many moments in life’s journey when things don’t seem right with my world. At different waypoints of the journey I’ve experienced things not being right with my world of work, my world of relationships, my world of community, the world of my nation, the world of family, friends, faith, or finances. But usually when it happens it is an acute ugly with just one part of my world.

Right now, the ugly feels like it’s permeating every one of my worlds.

Even as I typed that last sentence, I know it’s not true. I’m a Enneagram Four, remember. If there was a profession in which pessimism and extreme emotional angst was a requisite, we’d dominate the field.

Nevertheless, the ugly has permeated several of my worlds in the last week. And so, I jumped at the chance for a road trip. Jesus went off to a mountainside by Himself to pray. I sequestered in the car driving down I-49. I meditated. I prayed. I talked a little. I tried to listen a lot.

In today’s chapter, God is leading His people out of slavery. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, children uprooting their lives and everything they’ve known and hitting the road to who knows where. Everything is changing. Nothing seems right with their worlds. There is fear of their oppressors coming after them. There is fear of what lies ahead. There is confusion about what is happening and what this all means.

And then, God leads them “by the roundabout way of the wilderness.” He didn’t lead them on straight-and-narrow way to the Promised Land, even though there was one. God led them on a difficult path fraught with obstacles and difficulties. It’s on the roundabout path through the wilderness that I am humbled and actually learn what faith means. It’s on the roundabout path through the wilderness that I find that I can’t do things on our own and that I need God and others. It’s on the roundabout path through the wilderness that I learn to forget what lies behind, press on, and persevere. It’s on the roundabout path through the wilderness that I learn the power of praising God in all circumstances and the chain reaction that follows: activated faith, powerful prayers, overcoming evil, and learning what it means to be part of the divine dance.

In the car yesterday I found myself myself meditating on this:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

The straight path is found at the end of the roundabout way through the wilderness because the straight path can only be found via trust, loss of self-reliance, and faith.

Road trips are good for the soul (in more ways than one).

Detours and Déjà vu

But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
Haggai 2:4 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I’ve come to understand that there are many stops and starts along the way. As a child, I had this (mis)perception that life had a simple linear path. High School, college, career, marriage, children, house, grandchildren, retirement, death. And, in some respects, it may have followed that general direction. The road, however, has definitely never been as straight, flat, and easy as I thought it would be.

A friend of ours once said she personally polled her family and friends with the question: “Has life turned out like you thought it would?” She reported to me that the almost universal answer was “No.” Somehow, I still find myself occasionally falling back into the delusion that when it comes to life not turning out like I had planned I am the exception, not the rule.

Life is full of unexpected twists, turns, dead ends, and detours. Tragedy strikes, houses burn, businesses fail, marriages fail, loved ones walk away, people do terrible things, jobs go away, et cetera, et cetera, and et cetera.

One of the things I’m learning as I’m meditating on the theme of exile is that is also not the exception, but the rule. The Biblical perspective is that exile is the very nature of life on this earth. Adam and Eve were at home in the Garden. The consequence of their sin was to be sent away. They became exiles. All of humanity to follow were/are born into exile. Paul wrote that we are citizens of Heaven. This entire life journey can be viewed through the spiritual understanding that we are all exiles making our way home.

What I’ve found, however, is that despite the road of life not always being easy, I find myself back in situations and circumstances that are eerily familiar. I’ve been disappointed before. I’ve faced similar adversity before. Life has felt like a grind before. What did I learn in those stretches of life’s road? What resources did I draw upon to get me through? What did or didn’t work back then that informs what I should do or not do now?

In today’s chapter, work on the Temple has stalled. It’s not going according to plan or expectations. But that had happened before. David’s plans to build the first temple had stalled, and his expectations for starting construction had been dashed. So David charged his son, Solomon, with doing it saying:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.”

1 Chronicles 28:20

Now, the prophet Haggai addresses Zerubbabel and Joshua who are tasked with rebuilding the temple just as Solomon had been tasked with it before. And he says to them:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.”

Haggai 2:4

Sound familiar? Life’s road had circled back to a familiar place. God through Haggai draws upon the same encouragement, the same assurance of God’s presence and faithfulness, the same charge that had preceded Solomon’s successful building project.

In the quiet this morning I am standing on life’s road and looking back. I’ve had my share of tough stretches, but I like to think that I haven’t let it defeat me. Rather, I’ve let it instruct me, inform me, teach me, and strengthen me. As Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Rome:

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5:3-5 (MSG)

I’m saying a prayer for any who read this, no matter where they find themselves in their own journey. Press on, my friend.

The Spiritual Barometer of Comfort

“For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.”
2 Chronicles 16:9 (NIV)

A friend dropped by for coffee yesterday and we enjoyed a long discussion. One of the slivers of conversation was around a class that is being offered in our community in the near future. The premise of the class is that some of history’s most influential people had their most productive and years after the age of 70. The class is intended to encourage adults in the back stretch of life’s journey to consider shunning the traditional view of retirement. Instead of moving somewhere warm and sitting by a pool, the class encourages people to consider how their final stretch of life’s journey might be their most productive and influential.

I thought about that this morning as I read today’s chapter and contemplated the story of King Asa. In yesterday’s post, the prophet Azariah encouraged Asa to “be strong and not give up” but the stretch of life journey that Asa was entering was not one of struggle. Asa’s major challenge and climactic fight was behind him. He was entering a time of extended peace. Thirty-five years of peace and rest. And that’s when he blew it.

Thirty-five years of relatively easy sledding finds King Asa has changed, but not in a good way. He forgot the lesson he learned in his war with the Cushites. He forgot how his faith had led to good things. He forgot Azariah’s admonishment. Thirty-five years of peace and comfort turned Asa into a hard-hearted, self-centric old man. It was the good times and life of relative ease that revealed the true nature of Asa’s heart. A seer named Hanani confronts Asa, but it only confirms and seals Asa’s bitterness (and lands Hanani in the stocks).

This morning I’m thinking about my current waypoint on this life journey. I often think that it’s the tough stretches of pain, tragedy, and difficulty that reveal the true nature of our hearts. Perhaps it is the stretches of comfort and ease that are a better barometer of my spirit.

Don’t Walk Out in the Middle of the Movie

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch….”
Jeremiah 23:5 (NIV)

I have a vivid memory from about the age of 13. My mother sat me down at our family’s dining room table and explained to me that, financially, things were not looking good for our family. My father was in a business  that was not doing well and my father had decided to walk away from the partnership in order for it to survive. There was a possibility, my mother explained, that we would lose our house and have to move. She wanted me to understand that things were tight and there would be no money for extras. We all had to “tighten our belts.”

As is typical with children, I’d never given much consideration to our family’s socio-economic status. Our needs were met. We had a loving family. My parents were hard workers and things were always status quo. This message of doom was a shock for me.

I do remember a few lean years as my dad switched to a couple of different jobs and ended up commuting an hour each day to work. My folks plugged away to make ends meet. It was the years of the farm crisis of the late 70s and early 80s and, while we weren’t farmers, there were plenty of people struggling. As a teenager, I learned some important life lessons in those years about perseverance, hard work and simple faith. In fact it was during those years that I found my faith in Christ.

It is common, I have found, for casual readers to wade into the ancient messages of the prophets and find only doom and gloom. And, to be honest, there’s plenty to be had. There is a lot of violence from a very violent period of history. It’s easy to get weighed down by the negativity. But, if you’re not careful you’ll miss the larger story.

In today’s chapter, amidst a terrible siege and Jeremiah’s prophecies of destruction, death and exile, the message takes an abrupt u-turn. From the royal line of David, Jeremiah predicts, God is going to raise up a “Righteous Branch” to shepherd His people. From a macro-view, it appears that God is pruning back the royal line which has been bearing bad fruit for a long time. There will be lean years. Things look pretty gloomy. That’s what happens when you prune things back. But from that royal line a new Branch will spring which  will become the Vine from which the fruit of the Spirit and new wine will be produced. Matthew and Luke were careful to record Jesus’ family tree in their respective Gospels. They wanted everyone to know that Jesus’ sprung from David’s tree. The “Righteous Branch” had bloomed.

This morning  the chapter has me thinking about the doom and gloom of the prophets. Every great story includes conflict and a period of time in which everything looks bleak. The hero is a “goner” and it’s all going to fall apart. Then comes the eucatastrophy and the climactic moment when it all comes together and works out.

I’ve discovered that giving up on the prophets in the middle of the doom and gloom is like giving up all hope because dad’s job changed and things are going to be tight financially. It’s like walking out of the movie when the hero is tied up next to a bomb and the countdown timer is at two minutes. Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” reminds me today to “wait for it.” There is hope, light, and redemption at the end of the tunnel, but I have to press on and persevere.

Consider it Joy

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy….”
James 1:2

Sometimes a verse becomes more than a verse. You take it in. You ingest it as a morsel to one who is starving. It is not about sweetness or delectability. It is about survival. The words are broken down within you. The truth of their meaning courses through your veins and brings essential spiritual nourishment to unseen corners within. The experience is not a random, unexpected inspirational event. Rather, it is the practical choosing of life. As Jesus said to our enemy in a moment of battle between flesh and spirit: “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word the proceeds from the mouth of God.”

James 1:2 is one of these verses for Wendy and me. It is a waypoint of our journey, when in the depths of the valley of death we ingested the truth of it. It was not an inspired mountaintop moment, but a desperate hanging on. We learned in that valley that joy is not the by-product of affluent blessing, but a choice amidst suffering.

Consider it…”

Consideration is a choice. It is a willful task. It requires time and mental effort. Joy comes out of our deliberate consideration amidst difficult circumstances, when hope and faith are on life support. We consider, again and again…

If God is good, and we believe He is.
If God knows what is best for us, and we believe He does.
Then we can be joyful, even as the tears stream down our cheeks.
Out of our consideration, again and again, we choose into joy.

Eventually there follows endurance, maturity, and a whole-ness we had not known before.

The internal lesson was important enough for Wendy to indelibly print a reminder on her forearm.

Managing Life’s Little Storms

All your fortresses are like fig trees 
with their first ripe fruit; 
when they are shaken, 
the figs fall into the mouth of the eater.
Nahum 3:12 (NIV)
Wendy and I got to the lake late Tuesday. A storm blew in and the worst of it came right over us. Lightning, thunder, heavy rain and straight line winds that wreaked havoc in the area. This included a blackout that had Wendy and me scrambling in the dark for candles as well as where we put the flashlights. An equally blustery storm of circumstance followed me yesterday as I attempted to fly to Texas for work and ended up stranded all day in Minneapolis. I had to scuttle my trip and pray myself on a flight back to KC so I could get back to the lake.
Life sometimes shakes us. Storms rage, whether it is of the natural or metaphorical variety. The real question is how we build our faith and lives to handle the maelstrom. In today’s chapter, the prophet Nahum describes the Assyrian’s preparedness as metaphorical fig trees. When shaken, they lose all their fruit.
Today, I am still admittedly tired from the storms of the past couple of days. I need another good night’s sleep and the travel stress has me still feeling a bit frazzled on the emotional end. But, I’m no worse for wear. Shaken, but feeling no less fruitful in the larger sense. In the grand scheme of things, these little life storms are blips on the radar that will come and go. A healthy perspective with an eye to the larger story, and a wee bit of faith are strong walls against life’s little tempests.

Hope and Reality

What we hope life's road looks like (top) and what we sometimes find to be the reality (bottom).
What we hope life’s road looks like (top) and what we sometimes find to be the reality (bottom).

And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.
Acts 20:22-23 (NRSV)

One of the things that Wendy and I found fascinating about our time in Edinburgh a few weeks ago was that there’s hardly a straight, level street in the entire city. There are steep inclines, winding roads, angled streets, narrow alleys, and stairs upon stairs. We felt like we were constantly going up a steep hill or down a sharp incline. Our calves were killing us.

That came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. I’m reminded that life’s path is not always easy, and the way does not always meander through pleasant, level places. The theme of Dr. Luke’s account of the first generation of Jesus followers if filled with difficulties, persecutions, executions, imprisonments, riots, shipwrecks, and floggings. And, time and time again Luke says that the Message flourished and daily the number of believers grew.

I found it interesting to bullet out Paul’s conversation with his fellow believers from Ephesus in today’s chapter:

  • I was a living example in my time with you. Follow it.
  • I’m going to Jerusalem and expect to be persecuted and imprisoned.
  • You’ll never see me again (I’m going to die before I can return)
  • Be on guard! Wolves are going to infiltrate your flock.
  • Give, and don’t expect anything in return.

The message was followed by weeping and grief.

It’s not exactly a Thomas Kinkade scene come to life. And, so it is with life’s journey. Sometimes the path leads through difficult terrain, but there is purpose in our pains and in the places God leads us. Paul wasn’t complaining about the road ahead. He may have felt fear and grief as he set out, but courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to press on in spite of fear.

Today, I’m thinking about the balance of hoping for the best while knowing that “the best” does not always look the way I want it to look.

He Went On

source: Keith Chastain via Flickr
source: Keith Chastain via Flickr

But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. Acts 14:19-20 (NRSV)

I had breakfast with a friend the other day. He is one of my inner circle of friends with whom I share the most intimate parts of my life journey. In the midst of our conversation he asked some very direct questions about life. He is keenly aware of some difficulties I have been facing over the past year and he was doing a spiritual check in. I needed it, and I left our time together re-freshed.

Life gets difficult. Our path sometimes leads through dark places. We face obstacles of many kinds. This shouldn’t surprise us, though I’ve observed that our natural human reaction is almost always to react with incredulity and shake our fists at God while asking, “Why me?”

The truth is that Jesus told His followers to expect difficulties. Time and time again God’s message tells us that the path of spiritual progress leads directly through painful places. It’s how it works. We are called to find joy in the midst, bring good companions for the sojourn, and to persevere.

I was amazed at Paul’s example in today’s chapter. He was stoned until incapacitated, his seemingly lifeless body drug outside the city, and he was left for dead. Talk about a bad day. Then his friends surrounded him, he picked himself up, and he went on.

Today, I’m reminded of this simple fact: He went on. Paul faced obstacles and difficulties that make my momentary stresses pale in comparison. And, he went on. So shall I.

Have a great day.