Tag Archives: Stress

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.

Bookends of Praise

Bookends of Praise (CaD Ps 149) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord.
Psalm 149:1a (NIV)
Praise the Lord.
Psalm 149:9c (NIV)

One of the thieves of my sleep is the never-ending task list. As my sleep ebbs and flows in the darkness from deep sleep to semi-consciousness, my brain tends to use the relative wakefulness of semi-consciousness (typically around 3:30 a.m.) to begin spinning on all the tasks I didn’t accomplish the day before along with the ones that I are on the list for the following day. There are mornings that I can’t shut my brain off and return to some restful log sawing. Hello insomnia, my old friend.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 149, I noticed one of the recurring thematic devices used by the lyricists of these ancient Hebrew songs we call psalms. I’d call it the “bookends of praise.” The song begins and ends with what is essentially a tag: “Praise the LORD.”

As I sat contemplating this device, I was reminded of a line from the lyrics of Psalm 113 (which is also bookended with praise):

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.

I can certainly interpret this familiar line as telling me that my day should be filled with perpetual praise, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I meditated on it this morning, I thought of it as the perpetuation of the metaphor of this device. As the song is bookended in praise, beginning and end, so my day should be bookended in praise, when I arise and when I lie down. I should begin my day by offering God praise, and end each day offering God praise.

And this is where I have a confession to make. As a morning person, I’ve developed a discipline of spending time with God in the quiet each morning. I’ve got the “rising of the sun” part of the praise bookends down pat. It’s the “place where it sets” part that I’m realizing falls woefully short. Wendy will tell you that it’s not uncommon for me to be in a deep sleep before she has a chance to finish her bedtime routine.

Somehow the childhood discipline my parents instilled in me of “saying my prayers” before bed got lost somewhere in my daily routine. I might do it once in a while, but its honestly few and far between. Have I unconsciously decided that my morning quiet time has got all the spiritual bases covered?

Then I thought about actual bookends. What happens when I’m missing one bookend on the shelf? The books spill out of that end. Is it possible that without bookending my day in the “place where it sets” with praise and a moment of conversation with God, that I’m allowing all of the tasks and pressures of my day to spill out into the night like thieves to rob me of my sleep? If I build a discipline of offering up praise for all the good things in my day, and I offer up my tasks and stresses to be entrusted to the God who cares for me, might it be a spiritual bookend that will help guard my heart and mind from being robbed of slumber?

I’m guessing I know the answer.

Some mornings, the action step from my time of quiet is crystal clear.

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

The “Why Me?” Blues

The "Why Me?" Blues (CaD Ps 7) Wayfarer

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
    if there is wrong in my hands…

Psalm 7:3 (NRSVCE)

David is on the run from his King, Saul. David is God’s anointed to ascend the throne, but Saul is still wearing the crown and he is hell-bent on killing David and keeping the throne to himself. To accomplish the task, Saul puts a price on David’s head. Bounty hunters are on the loose and they have David in their sites. The reward is not just the bounty, but the favor of the king and all that comes with it.

King Saul is from the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin, and in his tribe, there is a man named Cush who is after Saul’s favor and David’s demise. In those days, hunters often used a technique of digging a pit and arranging for your prey to fall into it. Cush is digging pits to trap David.

I tend to believe that David, after being anointed God’s choice for the throne by the prophet Samuel, probably thought the road to the throne would be a cakewalk. But Saul still has a tight grip on the crown and David finds himself wandering in the desert avoiding the pits that Cush has laid out for him like a modern-day minefield.

“Why me?”

That’s the refrain of David’s heart, and in that spirit he writes a song. Today’s psalm are the lyrics.

“Why me?”

I used to ask that question a lot as a child when things weren’t going my way. I confess, victim mentality comes naturally when you’re the youngest sibling (btw, David was the youngest of eight brothers). There are a lot of times in life, especially when I was young when my mind and heart assumed direct connections between my negative circumstances and divine wrath. If something bad happened in my world, then it must be God punishing me. If I couldn’t come up with any reason God would want to punish me for anything, then I would start singing the “Why me?” blues.

It’s helpful to put myself in David’s sandals as I read the lyrics of today’s psalm. David begins by reminding God of his faith in God’s protection and his acknowledgement that without it, he’s a dead man. David then pleads his innocence. David has done some soul searching and can’t come up with any reason why God would be ticked-off at him, so he sings “If I deserve it, then let Cush take me.”

Having established his innocence, David shifts from plea to prosecution, asking God to rain down justice on the wicked. He envisions Cush digging a bit to trap David only to fall into it himself with Shakespearean irony.

Having expressed his trust, lament, plea, and prosecution, David ends his song in gratitude and praise. He’s musically thought through his circumstances, poured out his heart of anxiety, fear, and uncertainly. He finds himself back in the refuge of God’s protection, trusting God to sustain him against the traps and attacks of his enemies.

Along my life journey, I matured from the childish notion that every negative thing that happens to me is some kind of divine retribution for my wrong-doing. At the same time, I’ve recognized that my mature adult brain can find itself reverting back to childish patterns of thought and behavior, especially when I’m reacting to unexpected tragedy or stress.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself realizing that I often have to do what David did in today’s psalm. I have to process my thoughts and emotions. I have to walk through them, get them out, express them on paper or in conversation with a trusted companion. Once they’re out in the open, in the light of day, I can usually see them with more context and clarity. Silly, childish, tragic, or toxic thoughts and emotions tend to thrive in the darkness of my soul. Bringing them into the light allows me to see them for what they really are. They lose their power and I am able to get my heart back in alignment, my head on straight.

The “Why me?” blues can be good for the soul.

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

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 are both the audio and video of Wendy’s message, posted with her permission:

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.

A Million Choices

“…all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God….”
Deuteronomy 28:2 (NRSV)

When I was a young man I made an observation as I hung out with my friends. I watched as my friends made snarky retorts to their parents and the argumentative escalation that inevitably occurred and usually ended with some sort of punishment. I would see the willful choices others would make to do what they knew was wrong, and the trouble that it eventually afforded them. I was not a perfect kid, and I did my share of stupid things, but more often than not I realized that there was a peace in life that came with simply doing the right thing.

As I read the chapter this morning I was struck by the list of blessings that were promised to God’s people if they would obey His commands. While some of these blessings are divine in nature, there are many blessings on that list which are simply the natural consequences of consistently choosing to do what you know is right in life and relationship.

Life is both crazy and stressful. The journey is hard. I can make it more difficult with poor choices in the way I live, act, think, speak, and relate to others. I can also assure myself a certain level of peace by choosing daily to live, act, think, speak, and relate to others in a way that is good and right.

The day lies before me with a million choices to be made of thought, word, and action. How I choose in each moment will make a huge difference in how this day ends, in stress or peace.

chapter a day banner 2015

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.

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.

Simple Pleasures

Eat, Drink, Enjoy.
Eat, Drink, Enjoy.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God…. Ecclesiastes 2:24 (NIV)

Wendy and I are decluttering our house in preparation to sell. With it we are going through a decade of stuff. I’ve found it fascinating to go through my drawers and discover the old cell phone covers, web cams, computer software and other sundry technology do-dads that have accumulated over a decade of living here. Things that were cutting edge technology necessities just a few years ago are woefully obsolete and seem almost silly today.

I’m struck by the pace with which technology amps up the world around us. Always connected to our network, we have things pushed, tweeted, shared, linked, texted, e-mailed, and messaged to us non-stop. Personally, I love all the good things that technology affords us. Last night we had a 42 minute video chat with Taylor from her dorm room at the University of Edinburg. She’s in SCOTLAND and we got to see her sweet face, read her expressions, and take a tour of her dorm room. How cool is that?

At the same time, I wonder what effect this is all having on us as humans. In a world that is always pushing the envelope for greater highs, faster speeds, the latest, the greatest, the newest, the coolest, I increasingly believe that there is something to be said for finding contentment in simple pleasures. I think wise King Solomon’s ancient words may be more relevant today than ever.

Simple pleasures I enjoy:

  • A good food, good wine, and dinner conversation that goes on for hours.
  • Sitting on the deck at the lake with Wendy (and family/friends!) as the sun goes down (even better if sipping a cold pint and smoking a Davidoff cigar).
  • Scoring a baseball game as I listen to it on the radio.
  • Playing a guitar and terrorizing the neighbors with my singing on the back porch.
  • Reading a good spy novel in bed before I turn out the lights.
  • Hot coffee, pondering a chapter, and quiet heart conversation with God in the early morning.
  • Watching a sunrise, a sunset, or a big harvest moon rise.
  • Reading an actual newspaper in the morning with Wendy, and solving the world’s problems together (If the world leaders would only stop by and listen to our wisdom, what a better world we’d live in!) 🙂
  • Discussions with Wendy like the one we had in the car the other day in which we considered traitors as an archetype. If a seemingly good character betrays a good cause he or she is a traitor/villain and is guilty of treason. If an evil character betrays evil, is it always an act of redemption? What a great conversation.

What simple pleasures motivate you to unplug and enjoy?

What Really Matters

Crazy Family LR

For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return.
Philippians 1:10 (NLT)

This Fourth of July holiday weekend was spent with a good number of our family members at the lake. As children grow and spread out on their own path, it becomes more and more rare for many of us to gather together. Even during high holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas our gatherings become more and more limited. We share a meal. We have an hour or two together before various members begin to scatter to their own personal schedules and priorities. Such is life.

So, Wendy and I headed to the lake last Wednesday recognizing the rare opportunity for family members to have three full days and four nights cloistered together. My parents, my sister, her husband and two of her three kids, our two daughters, our son-in-law, along with Wendy’s youngest sister enjoyed eating, playing, talking, resting, and laughing together. We celebrated Taylor’s 23rd birthday on the Fourth. We celebrated Scott and Jody’s 25th wedding anniversary. We celebrated life together.

On Saturday night the entire crew gathered around the dining room table to play a game of Quelf. It’s a little known game with no real objective other than to inspire and motivate corporate silliness. I have a great photograph of Wendy with tears of laughter streaking down her face as she attempted to quell her laughter long enough to read one of the game cards. Someone at the table remarked that what we were experiencing together that night would become family legend. Twenty years from now when we gather together for a meal with children and grandchildren out will come the stories of the Fourth of July weekend at the lake when Taylor and Clayton made masks out of paper plates, when Grandpa acted like a woman, and when Grandma introduced us to Wendy the sock puppet. Long forgotten will be the work deadlines that stressed me out so much over the past few weeks.

The further I progress in my life journey, the more capably I believe that I am able to discern and refine my understanding of what really matters. So much of that with which we concern our daily time and energy does not really matter in any significant, eternal sense. We rather become entangled and distracted. We pour time, energy and resources into those things which drain our lives without providing any worthwhile return on the investment.

Today, I am thinking about what matters, and what does not. God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference between the two and the grace to concern myself with the former as I increasingly divest myself of the latter.