Tag Archives: Trials

Not Without Struggle

Not Without Struggle (CaD James 1) Wayfarer

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:4 (NIV)

Just yesterday I returned home from a seven day road trip. Part work, part personal, and part sabbatical, I logged more that fifty hours behind the wheel and just shy of 3,000 miles. It felt good to arrive home yesterday, like I’d reached a kind of finish line, a journey’s end.

Journey has always been the core metaphor of this blog. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and in these posts I write about my life journey, my spiritual journey, and this chapter-a-day journey.

On a journey, one moves and progresses towards a destination.

On both my life journey and my spiritual journey, my progress is measured, not by distance, but by maturity, wisdom, and the yield of love produced in my spirit, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions along with love’s by-products of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was in Richmond, Virginia. I took the opportunity to visit the U.S. Civil War Museum located there. As is a ritual for Wendy and me, I picked up a couple of magnets to mark and memorialize the visit on the fridge back home. One of the magnets is a quote:

“Without struggle, there is no progress.”

Frederick Douglass

When reading James’ letter, I’ve found it beneficial to consider the context in which he wrote it. It was a time of intense struggle. James was not written by James, the disciple of Jesus, but by James the half-brother of Jesus who became leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus are facing persecution and many have fled the persecution and are living in other places. James chooses to remain and continue the work of Jesus.

James leadership position as a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem puts him in direct conflict with the same religious aristocracy that put Jesus to death, put Stephen to death, and sent Saul hunting down Jesus’ followers. Not long after penning this letter, James will be killed by them, as well. He writes this letter to encourage Jesus’ followers scattered to the four winds and fleeing persecution. He is writing to encourage followers of Jesus to persevere amidst the difficult struggles they faced as wayfarers on journeys of exile.

In the first chapter, James reminds these struggling wayfarers of the goal.

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.

The goal is maturity and wholeness which are produced through persevering in the struggle of many kinds of trials and tests of faith.

Without struggle, there is no progress towards maturity and completeness.

It feels good to be sitting in the quiet of my office this morning. I find myself thinking about “trials of many kinds” through which I have persevered. My mind flashes back to people I met and spent time with on my journey last week. Each one is facing their own struggles and trials on their respective journeys. Each one is making progress. I was blessed by my time with each of them.

I’m reminded this morning as I begin a new work week. This is a journey. Today I progress toward my destination, but not without struggle.

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

“King of My Castle”

"King of My Castle" (CaD Ps 145) Wayfarer

I will exalt you, my God the King
Psalm 145:1 (NIV)

In my mind’s eye, I can vividly see my Grandpa Spec sitting at the head of his dining room table during a family meal, smoking his Dutch Masters cigar. There was a humor with which he approached life that always endeared me to him. I loved being his little shadow. It was only as an adult, as I learned his story, that I fully appreciated his humble and quiet joy.

On Spec’s 10th birthday he came home from school to find the remains of his father’s suicide. His mother sent him to be raised by his grandparents, while she kept his little brother and sister. He came of age during the Great Depression, got married nevertheless, almost lost his wife to childbirth, and scratched out a living in the tire business. He had so much to be bitter about. He had so many reasons to play the victim card, but he didn’t.

From the head of the table, cigar in hand, Grandpa would often smile, pound his fist on the table, and with a gleam in his eye insist, “I’m the king of this castle!” It was part of a never ending dance of teasing between he and Grandma Golly. They needled one another mercilessly whether they were competing at cards or betting on the World Series. In response to Grandpa’s claim to the throne, grandma hung a decorative plaque above the kitchen sink (Grandpa always did the dishes) which read, “I’m the boss of this house, and I have my wife’s permission to say so.”

As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 145, anew this morning, it was the first verse that leapt off the page at me. King David, the greatest King in Hebrew history, sings an exaltation to God whom he refers to as “my king.” The King has a King.

It’s hard for a modern reader to understand how this sentiment ran against the grain of the popular monarchy playbook of his times. Kings wanted the masses under control. Kings wanted an air of undisputed authority. Kings wanted people to fear them. To achieve these ends, Kings claimed to be gods. They might worship other deities for good measure, but they demanded that their people view them as a god themselves.

Not David.

David always saw himself as a servant of the One True King of heaven. Having read all of his lyrics in the Psalms about enemies within his own kingdom seeking to slander and supplant him, I begin to wonder how much easier his reign might have been had he followed the playbook. But that’s what made David different, and God saw it in him when David was a shepherd-boy, the runt of Jesse’s litter of sons. Samuel balked. God assured the prophet. “He’s a man after my own heart.” David is humble. He acknowledges his role in the Great Story. He fully embraces position and place as God’s partner in the Divine Dance.

“I’m king of the Hebrews! And, I have God, my King’s, permission to say so.”

In my mind’s eye, I now distinctly see Grandpa Spec sitting on his glider rocker. He’s shirtless and wearing an old pair of shorts. (He might have central air-conditioning, but one doesn’t want to resort to that unless one has to. The Great Depression taught him many things. Frugality was at the top of the list). He is smoking his pipe now. It’s a summer afternoon and he is listening to the baseball game on the transistor radio. He survived many tragedies and trials on his life journey, but he humbly pressed on with simple faith and determination to do the right. He is king of his castle, and like David, eternally grateful to the King of Heaven for the blessing of his little three-bedroom, quarter-acre kingdom on the east side of Des Moines. He is the servant of his wife, and his family.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reviewing my own “place and position.” Over the past year, I’ve observed that it’s easy, even fashionable, to feel the heady satisfaction of pious self-rule, then proudly take to the no-man’s-land of social media to stake one’s claim of divine-rightness and lord one’s opinions and world-view upon others, demanding submission upon threat of being sentenced to relational exile.

I don’t want to do that.

I want to try and follow David’s example, and Grandpa Spec’s example. I want the last song in my life’s anthology to be like Psalm 145, ascribing anything I’ve gained and every blessing I’ve been afforded to my King. In fact, when it comes right down to being the person Jesus asks me to be I must accept that I am Lord of no one. I am a servant of all.

God, help me to fully embrace that role today in thought, word, and deed.

Cancelled (Not)

Cancelled! [Not] (CaD Ps 130) Wayfarer

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

Psalm 130:4 (NIV)

I’ll never forget the story of a woman I know who told me the story of being a teenager who made a foolish choice. Once it was discovered, she was brought before her church and publicly shamed for her mistake. They threatened her with expulsion and vowed to make her an outcast unless she repented. She told me this as an adult, but the spiritual and emotional scars of the experience were still very much present.

As a student of history, I can tell you that public shaming, scapegoating, and what today we call “cancelling” have been around as long as human civilization. It morphs into various forms, but it is a staple of fundamentalist systems no matter the flavor. When allowed to run amok, it leads to guilt by accusation, mob justice, and the kangaroo court of illogical and unreasonable group-think. It can be lethal, as the residents of Salem, Massachusetts found out when a group of silly girls leveraged the fundamentalist bent of their Puritan faith and began accusing people they didn’t like of being witches.

I find it fascinating to watch what is happening in our own current version of it. I observe that cancel culture has all the same quintessential ingredients that existed among the reviled Puritans of Salem. I have had more than one person tell me in the past year that if an enemy at their workplace chooses to go back and uncover the silly, foolish things they did and said in their youth and make them public, they’re screwed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 130, is an ancient Hebrew song that expresses the emotions of one crying out from “the depths.” The metaphor of the original Hebrew lyrics are that of deep waters. The songwriter is drowning in a sea of their own mistakes and foolish choices. In experiencing God’s forgiveness, mercy, grace, and redemption, the songwriter is moved to gratefully serve God.

As I read through the teachings of Jesus, I don’t find religious shaming and cancel culture. In fact, the most pointed condemnation Jesus dished out were to orthodox religious fundamentalists who were carrying out their own brand of cancel culture. Jesus actions and words were gracious, forgiving, and redemptive. Paul, one who was drowning in his own deep waters on a trip to Damascus, told Jesus’ followers in Rome that its God’s kindness that leads to repentance not shaming, condemnation, and threats of cancellation. He also wrote to the believers in Corinth that it was Christ’s love that compelled him to risk life and limb to share that love with others. In my experience, condemnation, hatred, public shaming, and threats don’t compel anything worthwhile.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling the “deep waters” of my own life journey. I find myself mindful of the many foolish thoughts, words and actions that dot my journey, and for which others would gladly cancel me. I find myself grateful for Jesus who, by His own words, claimed that he didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it through love, servant-heartedness, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, grace and redemption.

As He has not condemned, shamed, nor cancelled me, I find myself compelled not to condemn, shame nor cancel anyone else.

Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.

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.

The Bewitchment of “Group Think”

 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”
Numbers 13:31 (NIV)

In today’s chapter Moses sends out twelve men, one from each tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, come back with a report that the Hebrew tribes should press forward and conquer the land. The other ten spies reported exaggerated claims of giants living in the land whom the Hebrews could not defeat. Their report stoked fear in the hearts of the people.

It’s fascinating how susceptible the majority can be to “group think.” It happens to be the morning of All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, as I write this. Perhaps that’s why the ten spies swaying the nation of Hebrews with their exaggerated claims reminds me of a handful of schoolgirls convincing the people of their village that they saw upstanding members of the community in cahoots with the devil. Nineteen people were eventually hanged as a result of the Salem witch trials. It’s amazing how bewitching “group think” can be (pun absolutely intended).

The social psychologist Gustave Le Bon theorized that there were three stages of crowd think. A group of people submerge themselves in the collective whole, losing a sense of individual thought and responsibility. Individuals are then susceptible accept, without question, the contagion of popular thought within the group, opening themselves up to suggestion of different kinds. Even in a nation and culture that celebrates freedom of thought and speech we are prone to follow the crowd in all sorts of ways.

As an enneagram Type 4 I tend to be a fierce individualist. Nevertheless, this morning I’m reflecting back along my journey. It’s funny to think about fads, social trends, and popular thoughts I’ve observed and even found myself a part. The further I get in my journey the more desirous I am to think and act independently, rather than allow myself to be submerged in the bewitching trends of the group think of the moment. It’s hard to do. The unconscious draw of group think is often subtle and subconscious as it was for the ancient Hebrews, the puritans of Salem and still is today.

I’m preparing to deliver a message on Sunday morning and one of the key verses on which I’ve been meditating is this: “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

God, grant me open eyes, open ears, perceptive spirit, and a mind increasingly renewed by Divine Truth and Lady Wisdom.

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.

On a Roll

 So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.
Joshua 11:23 (NRSV)

Joshua was on a roll. After the unexpected defeat against Ai a few chapters back, Josh and the Israelites were racking up the victories left and right. Five kings of the Amorites: defeated. Libnah and Lachis: defeated. Horam king of Gezer: defeated. Elon: defeated. It goes on an on: Hebron, Debir, Negev, Kadesh Barnea, Gaza, Goshen, Gibeon. Seemingly everything is going Joshua’s way.

Along life’s journey I’ve been blessed to experience particular stretches in which I was on a roll. Things fell into place. Good things just seemed to happen. What I attempted I succeeded. I have felt what it’s like to be on a roll. It’s a good feeling if and when it happens.  But, there are a few important lessons I’ve learned through these periods of time:

It never lasts. Solomon reminds us that there’s a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for victory and a time for defeat. Here on this terrestrial ball in the land east of Eden, there is no one who stays on a roll all the time. We are fallen people living in a fallen world. Shit happens. Enjoy the moment, Villanova fans. It’s sweet when your team rolls through March Madness and wins on a buzzer beater. No feeling quite like it, I imagine (Iowans have not experienced this). Trust me. Enjoy this moment.

It leads to distorted thinking. When you’re on a roll and everything seems to be going your way, there are all sorts of silly notions that begin to creep into your soul. “I deserve this,” for example. You may have planned well and worked hard, but life is full of examples of those who planned well and worked hard and things still didn’t work out. “I can’t lose,” is another tempting lie. Yes, you can. You will. Read the previous paragraph again. Being on a roll does not typically teach or produce humility in us.

It’s neither the purpose,  nor the goal. As tempting as it is to place all our eggs in that basket, perpetual victory was never God’s prescription for those of us on this life journey. Read through God’s Message and you will not find God telling us “win at all costs,” “make your aim to succeed at everything,” “reach for the American dream,” or “be rich and successful in the eyes of the world.” You will, however, find: “Consider it joy when you encounter various trials,” “Rejoice in your suffering,” and “godliness with contentment is the means of great gain.”

Today, I’m thinking about the times in life when things seemed to be on a roll. It was a good feeling. But, I can’t say that it made me a better human being. In fact, the opposite might be more apt. It is the times of struggle that are the most fruitful from a character perspective.

Last night before retiring for the night Wendy and I stood in our garage with the door open and watched the lightning and the thunderous spring storm. We discussed the storms of life in which we find ourselves in this moment. Things are definitely NOT on a roll right now, but that’s par for the course. I’ve found being on a roll is an elusive experience in this journey. This morning I am, once again, “Considering it joy” amidst life’s little tempests.

 

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featured image: marleahjoy via flickr