Tag Archives: Pain

Weeping and Joy in the Valley of Infertility

No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:13 (NIV)

For the past month, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been in a series entitled “Summer Stories.” Each week an individual has shared experiences from their own personal stories and the spiritual lessons they have learned from them.

Last Sunday, it was Wendy who chose to stand and share a piece of her personal story. When she and I married almost fourteen years ago, she was 33. She not only gained a husband but two teenage daughters. Nevertheless, having children together was something we wanted to do. We tried for many years.

Trekking together through the valley of infertility may be the most difficult stretch of life’s journey that I have experienced to date. I’ve heard experts say that tremendous stress either brings married couples closer together or it tears them apart. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate why many marriages don’t make it through the valley of infertility. It is a long, lonely and trying slog on multiple levels. We plumbed depths of grief and relational stress I didn’t think was possible during those years. Wendy’s message, however, was not about the pain as much as it was about her discovery of joy at the end of that journey.

I couldn’t help but think of her message as I read the chapter this morning. The exiles return home to Jerusalem and begin the arduous task of rebuilding God’s temple which lay in ruins after it had been destroyed decades before by the Babylonians. After laying the foundation for a new Temple, the people gathered to worship and praise God. Those who were old enough to remember the original temple wept while the others shouted their praise until “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.” 

Yeah. I get that. That description captures our journey through the valley of infertility pretty well.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of one of the points that Wendy made in her message: “One can’t simply ‘choose joy’ any more than you can simply choose to get up off the couch and run a marathon.” As Jeremiah observed in his lamentation (over the destruction of the same Temple the exiles are rebuilding in today’s chapter): “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” In the valley of infertility Wendy and I learned that you can’t always distinguish the sounds of weeping and the sounds of joy, because they are often the same thing.

For any interested, here is the audio and video of Wendy’s message, posted with her permission:

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

Refining and Revelation

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.
Daniel 10:2-3 (NIV)

This past Sunday I had the privilege of giving the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the things our team of teachers has been grappling with of late is a continued season in which we are experiencing an unusually high number of deaths. From young to old, from expected to unexpected, and from natural to painfully tragic, we have had almost two hundred families touched by death in two years. It has been a long season marked by grief that seems to continue. We are going through the very human experience of trying to process and find understanding within it.

The last half of the book of Daniel is a record of dreams and visions that he had. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the strange images inside. It all seems as confusing as an acid trip for even learned readers. I find that most people bail on it quickly and move on.

I have learned along the way, however, that some of the great lessons I’ve discovered in my perpetual journey through God’s Message are not in the details but in the macro perspective when I step back and get a handle on what’s happening on the landscape of the chapter. Today is a great example.

Daniel’s strange visions are not unique to him during this period of history. Ezra and Ezekiel were other Hebrews in the same exile experience having eerily similar visions and visitations of a fantastical nature. They were all experiencing a particularly painful time of being captives far from home. They were all in mourning for their people, their home, their culture, and their faith in uncertain times and circumstances. They had spent a lifetime in exile and were eager for a sign or promise that their people would return home from captivity, that their Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that restoration God promised through the prophets would actually happen (think 90-year-old Cubs fans prior to 2016). In today’s chapter, Daniel had been fasting, praying, and mourning for three weeks before the vision in today’s chapter was given to him.

My takeaway from this is that these dreams and visions were given to a specific group of mourning Hebrew exiles after a long period of suffering and in the midst of a time of intense personal struggle against doubt, despair, and grief.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to particularly stressful and painful stretches of my own journey. It was in these dark valleys of the journey that very specific and important spiritual lessons and personal revelations came to light. Is there a connection? I believe that there is.

In my message on Sunday, I quoted from Peter’s letters to the suffering believers scattered around the known world. He compares the trials they are experiencing to the way fire refines gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). I have come to believe through experience that it is in the midst of suffering and trial that the non-essential trivialities with which we daily concern ourselves are burned away. When our hearts are broken and our spirits laid bare with suffering we are particularly open to what God described to the prophet Jeremiah (33:3) as “great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

[Note: Speaking of messages, I realized in writing the post this morning that it’s been a while since I updated my Messages page, which I subsequently did for anyone interested.]

Chorus to a Tale of Pain & Purpose

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah…
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Daniel 1:1a, 21 (NIV) 

In the history of theatre, Greece was the first great age. The Greeks developed several theatrical conventions that are still widely used today including the use of what was called a Chorus to prepare the audience for what they are about to watch and to narrate the events. Shakespeare used the same convention widely in his plays, as do many modern productions.

The first chapter of Daniel is the literary equivalent of a Chorus. The author, traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, uses the opening of the book to provide a quick lay of the land with regard to the background of the story and introduces us to the major players. The fact that the chapter describes Daniel and his companions as being learned young men who were then given a thorough course in Babylonian literature and culture, is ironic. It seems to me that the chapter itself gives evidence to this in its structure and content.

In the next year, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers will be studying the theme of exile. I’ve written in previous posts about the theme of wilderness throughout the Great Story. The exile of God’s people in Babylon is one of the major examples and many casual readers don’t realize just how many characters, psalms, and books come out of this period. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah are all books that chronicle parts of the Babylonian exile and return.

In today’s chapter, Daniel provides bookend dates of the story he’s about to pen. It starts in the “third year of Jehoiakim king of Judah” and ends the first year of King Cyrus. A little study shows this to be 605-539 B.C. In other words, Daniel was an educated young man from nobility in Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. His hometown is destroyed in a long Babylonian siege in which Daniel watched people starve to death and, according to the prophet Jeremiah, reduced to cannibalism to survive.

Out of this horrific event, Daniel is taken captive by his enemy. He is torn from his family, his people, and his hometown which has been reduced to rubble. He ends up in the capital city of his enemy, Babylon, and finds himself subject to indentured servitude to his people’s enemy number one: King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s own name is taken from him and he is given a new name. He is forced for three years to learn everything about the history, culture, and literature of his enemy.

A young man of God forced to live in captivity and exile and to serve his enemies for about 65 years. Welcome to the story of Daniel, whom many people only know from brightly illustrated children’s books in the dusty Sunday School memory bins of their brains.

But the real story is far deeper and more complex than that, as Daniel tries to tell me as a reader in his opening Chorus. It is the story of a young man who finds a way to survive. He courageously maintains and lives out his faith in the midst of the unbelievably difficult circumstances that make up nearly his entire life.

In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the common misperception I observe followers of Jesus often have, and that I confess I find myself unconsciously falling into from time to time. It’s partially driven, I believe, by the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic. If we believe, work hard, and live good lives then life should be a breeze of material blessing and pain-free existence. But as I journey through God’s Message I find that this has never been the message. Daniel fires an explosive shot across the bow of that notion from the very beginning of his story.

Trauma, suffering, starving, captivity, bondage, indentured servitude, and life-long exile in the land of his enemies serving a mad king.

I find God’s purpose in my pain. That’s the message Daniel foreshadows in the Chorus of his book, and the one I’ve been reminded of over and over again on my life journey.

 

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.

The Unexpected Prophecy

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV)

During the 2008 presidential election, both John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed at a leadership conference. Both men, in turn, were asked a fascinating question. The candidates were asked to speak about their greatest failure. True to his masterful ability, I recall that Obama spoke for a few minutes in response. His answer articulately wove a beautiful tapestry of words in that graceful, assuring baritone voice. And, I have no recollection whatsoever of his answer.

Asked the same question, John McCain’s answer was immediate and simple: “The failure of my first marriage.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with a wise counselor as I was navigating the failure of my first marriage. My life was strewn in shattered pieces around me. It was the lowest point of my life, and I had been scheduled to speak with this spiritual sage. To be honest, I expected to hear more of the condemnation I felt like I was receiving on all sides. I expected a message of judgment. I expected a righteous tongue lashing and words of dire warning. What I didn’t expect was a prophecy.

Someday,” the counselor said, “you are going to be called upon to walk along side someone who is going through exactly what you are experiencing in this moment, to guide them, and comfort them, and see them through their pain.” That is all that I remember from my hour with him.

It was an Easter Sunday morning several years later that I was walking out of the annual celebration service and spied a man who I had desired to befriend for some time. Seizing the moment, I pulled the acquaintance aside from the crowd and expressed that I would enjoy getting together with him and get to know him better. I’ll never forget the puzzled way he looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear a direct answer with the succinct clarity of John McCain: “Tom, my wife left me. Nobody knows it.”

I had the privilege of becoming a friend of that acquaintance, and walking alongside him as he traversed the same agonizing path of marital failure. I got to guide him, comfort him, and see him through that valley. I was privileged to witness, over time, God’s redemption in his story.

Along life’s journey I’ve experienced that suffering produces a common, repetitive question: “Why?”

Sometimes there  is no answer to that question, and I won’t pretend that there always is. Yet, I’ve also experienced in my own suffering that there is often purpose in my pain, just as I’ve read time-and-time again in my chapter-a-day journey. Consider these three similar messages from three different authors writing to three different audiences:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-3

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7

In the midst of my greatest failure, and in the deepest valley I have thus far traversed in my journey, I unexpectedly learned a valuable lesson through the words of a prophet. Sometimes my suffering, and the spiritual comfort I come to find, in Christ, amidst the agony, prepares me to someday comfort another who is making their way through the same dark valley.

Destined for Tough Terrain

We sent Timothy,who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them.
1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 (NIV)

This past week was a bit of a whirlwind for Wendy and me. It began with the unexpected death of a friend. She and her husband had been in a small group with us during a particularly turbulent time of our lives, and her death rocked our world a bit. The morning of the funeral we received news that another friend had suffered a heart attack in the night and had been flown to Des Moines for a hastily performed cardiac procedure.

We visited our friend in the hospital and were encouraged to find him alive and well. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that we knew he’d just been through a life-threatening trauma earlier that day, I’d have told you everything was perfectly normal.

As we spoke with our friend and his wife there in the CCU she shared about their life journey and the fact that the two of them had just entered a particularly enjoyable stretch. Retirement, time together, and the opportunity to enjoy large parts of each day in conversation and shared activity had been brining them both tremendous joy. She told us of her emotions and prayers the previous night as she faced the potential reality that it might be coming to a tragic end.

I thought about these two experiences, with two very different outcomes, as I read today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to believers in Thessalonica. Paul fled the city when his life was threatened. He knew that the fledgling believers he left behind continued to face opposition and persecution. Paul was worried about them, which was why he sent his protege, Timothy, to check on them, and why he was writing them this letter after Timothy’s return and report. Addressing the trials they were facing, Paul states quite bluntly: “You know quite well we are destined for them.”

Along my faith journey I’ve observed many who seem to have approached their life and/or faith journey with the expectation that it should always be a cake walk. In the quiet this morning I’m pondering the various reasons we might come to that conclusion. Is it somehow that the “prosperity gospel” that falsely teaches God wants us all to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” has permeated our culture more than we care to admit? Is it somehow, for those of us living in America, some kind of bleeding over of the American Dream into our faith? Why is it that I am shocked and feel somehow cheated when life’s road unexpectedly becomes rough terrain?

My journey through God’s Message has taught me that I should expect rough terrain on life’s road. All of the early father’s of the faith said so. Here’s just a small sample of reminders:

Jesus:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Mt 10:16)

Paul:
We glory in our sufferings.” (Rom 3:5)

James:
Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials….” (Jam 1:2)

Peter:
“…rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Pet 1:6)

I find myself looking back this morning at Wendy’s and my journey over the past 13 years. Like our friend we visited in the hospital we’ve recently been experiencing a sense that we’re coming out of a valley and into a stretch of smoother terrain. It’s a good feeling, and we’re enjoying the lift. Nevertheless, this past week has been a reminder that I can never know what’s waiting for us up ahead.

As I start this week I’m reminded that with each warning of trouble, suffering, trials, and grief, Jesus and the early followers connected the inevitable hard stretches of life’s journey to heart, overcoming, glory, joy, and rejoicing. This journey will include both good times and unexpected bad times. It’s a natural part of the journey. Paul told the Thessalonians believers “we’re destined for them.” I shouldn’t be thrown for a loop when they happen as though I hadn’t been warned that they will come, or like I hadn’t observed that everyone I know experiences tough stretches along the way. There’s always purpose in the pain.

It’s the trials and the overcoming that make our favorite stories “epic.”

Have a great week my friend.