Talking Bird Feathers

Yesterday I just had to see the ocean. It’s been so cold in Florida (no jokes, northern friends, it’s been down into the 30’s and 40’s!) that I just needed to be reminded that in a couple of months I’ll be photographing little people on the beach again.

As Benny and I strolled down the beach I started noticing bird feathers and realized I should collect some for a science project two of my grandchildren are doing. While homeschooling some of them for their moms over the past few weeks, I learned some stuff about bird feathers, like when a feather is lost on one wing, a feather on the other wing in just about the same spot is also lost to keep the bird balanced.

This process of feather molting is a fascinating one! Here are some cool facts provided by Cornell University researchers:

  • Birds mature through seasons of molting.
  • One of the reasons for molting is when feathers get damaged beyond repair.
  • Molting frequently occurs during less stressful seasons of a bird’s life, like before migrating or after nesting.
  • Feathers are lost and new ones grow in a progression that protects the bird’s ability to fly. That’s why when a feather is lost on one wing, a commensurate feather on the other wing is also lost.

As I walked on the beach yesterday I thought this familiar passage from Matthew chapter 30:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (vs 29-31).

Think about it: If God so exquisitely cares for birds by making sure their wings stay balanced to fly by causing feathers to fall off in perfect order; protects them from danger by insuring that damaged feathers fall at just the right time to allow healthy ones to grow; uses “down” times in their lives to grow new feathers because of the work their little bodies exert to grow new feathers; and uses loss to insure that they mature…well…then how much more does He meticulously take care of those who are created in His very image?

You and I are worth more than birds to God. But from them we see how tenderly He cares for us.

Are you experiencing loss right now? Loss of reputation. Grief through the death of someone you love. Job or income loss. Brokenness and conflict in a treasured friendship. Lost hopes and dreams. Death of a long held dream. Recognition of personal limitations and weaknesses that leave you wondering who you are?

Life is a series of losses and gains; soaring joys and crushing disappointments; hopes and struggles; laughter and tears; cherished memories and sinking reminders. As Christ-imitators we are called to follow the One who grieved over the death of a friend but then rejoiced at his resurrection into a life characterized by both ecstatic joy and piercing suffering.

The feathers I collected on the beach yesterday reminded me that He who governs their every loss governs mine, too, because I’m worth way more than they are to the Savior who took my place on the cross to earn me a place in heaven where there will be no more loss.

Spiritual molting is to mature and help me fly, not to ground and render me ineffective. Honestly, there have been times in my life when loss seems to far outweigh growth. Know what I mean? In fact, the recent months have been one of those seasons. How wonderful to see God at work molting and protecting and preparing and loving me through losses scattered with new growth that reminds me I can still fly.

It’s good to know He keeps us balanced…even when it seems our wings are awfully bare.

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They Prayed for Me

It started like any other Sunday morning. Well, except for having three Little People to get ready to get out the door, but that’s for another post.

During worship this week there was an opportunity for those who were feeling a special need for prayer to raise our hands so those around us could gather to pray. As I lifted my hand in response, I felt my pre-teen granddaughter’s arm slide around my waist. Then one by one little ones started gathering: Bekah, Lydia, Jimmy, Wyatt, JJ, Elsie, Annie, Brianna, Joey.

I love them.

A friend captured this pic.  I’m grateful.

The tears that had been brimming during the current song we were singing spilled over into stream after stream down my face. As one tear after another fell onto little Elsie’s hair I heard a couple of sniffles. The tears of some of Redeemer Church’s youngest reminded me that I was loved by 6 and 8 and 11-year-olds who felt compassion for Granma/Mrs Phillips because she needed prayer. I felt understood. Hopeful. Humbled. Snuggled. Noticed. Whether they actually prayed for me or just wanted to hug me, God’s love for me was on display in a way I hope to never forget.

I’ve learned to gently ask myself, “Why am I crying?” because the answer isn’t usually what I think. I thought I needed prayer because I’ve been feeling weary — but God knew I needed something else; something I didn’t even know would be so helpful.

I needed to know that the brokenness and struggles through which I have walked have a purpose beyond myself. Since before I had children I’ve longed to be one of those who would “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Ps 78:4). Aging is teaching me that telling younger generations “the glorious deeds of the LORD” isn’t just recounting the story of how God healed me from infertility; rehearsing the miracle of His provision to our former church that Sunday morning in the 80’s when a one-time offering of nearly $400K from a group of singles and young families found old and young dancing and singing for joy; or sharing about a high school revival that saw dozens of tail-end-of-the-hippie movement teens saved in a matter of months, including their now Dad, Papa, friend and/or pastor.

Recounting God’s faithfulness and power also means seeing this old lady raise her hand on Sunday to ask for prayer because she’s been going through some tough times and has learned that God is faithful to help, comfort and bring hope to the struggling day after sometimes dark, exhausting day.

Sunday morning reminded me that help doesn’t always come in expected ways. Help came not from the articulate prayers of seasoned saints or a comforting word of encouragement from someone operating in the gift of prophecy. Rather, I was helped by the caring hands of children who noticed a lady they love silently saying, “I need help.” With childlike faith they came and with outstretched hands they touched and comforted me. Their compassion was a demonstration of the love of God and evidence that the next generation is also reaching to Him; the One whose might and power is gloriously made known to a crying lady on a Sunday morning in a little church meeting in a middle school in Orlando.

Actually, that day was like any other Sunday morning. God showed up and met with His people — including little ones who will someday take their place as pillars in His church here or elsewhere. Oh, I hope to be there to cry through worship they lead and take notes during messages they preach and snuggle with babies they’ve birthed…and likely have them surround a more wrinkled, littler old lady they look down to who raises her hand for prayer again. But if I’m not here I will be among the cloud of witnesses cheering them on and worshiping at the feet of the Savior they now serve.

Lord, please give me the strength to tell them about Your power and glory and might — both with testimonies of miraculous things You’ve done in the past and by showing them that I get scared and weary and need help just like them.

Redeemer Church was planted to bring hope. This pastor’s wife and grandmother and teacher of some awesome kids in children’s ministry sure is hopeful for a generation who is willing to put down their stuffed animals or stop whispering to their buddy to come and pray for a needy grandmother.

Thank you, Lord, for loving me through the least of these.

Who’s With You in the Mess?

Yesterday I talked about how much I hate being sad. Several women contacted me to say they were grateful that what is often the silent trial of sadness was brought into the light. They, too, are sad about unplanned singleness, relational challenges, distance from family, martial strife or ongoing struggles with weight.

It made me wonder why we’re sometimes afraid to admit we’re sad.

Is is because we will be perceived as ungrateful? Whiny? Discontent? Do we fear others will quickly point out all the things and people in our lives for which we should be thankful? Does being sad mean we are automatically ungrateful or discontent?

In short, is sadness always rooted in sin in our hearts? If not, why do we and others often rush to “fix” the sadness with reminders of God’s blessings?

I’ll be honest.  I often want to “fix” others sadness because I don’t want to face their sadness either!  Recently one of my grandchildren was crying because she had lost a treasured toy. Her sadness threw me into high gear to help her find it! When we couldn’t locate the toy I pulled her onto my lap and attempted to talk her through the disappointment and assure her it would turn up soon. No amount of words helped. She wanted that toy in her little hands…now. After a few minutes of sitting in Granma’s lap she settled down and ran off to play.

When we hurt, others don’t know what to do. They want to fix our hurt or disappointment or sense of loss by helping us to see our sin, seeking to align our thinking with biblical truth or ask us what they can do to make things better.  But sometimes we just need to be held and told that God is with us. Human “fixes” don’t really deal with the pain when what we really need is His comforting presence.

A friend and I were talking last week and I was expressing to her my craving for relief from the sadness in my life.

“What would bring you relief, Sheree?” she asked.

footage.shutterstock.com

footage.shutterstock.com

I paused. The thoughts running through my mind all surrounded a change in my circumstances: better communication between Benny and me; fewer interruptions during the day from my mother-in-law; appreciation and understanding from an in-law with whom I had a recent conflict; etc. When I shared these things with her she listened patiently but even as I talked my words seemed hallow. There was something missing. I knew comfort and hope wouldn’t really be found by God fixing my circumstances but by doing something wonderful in my heart.

My wise and caring friend empathized with my struggles but then lovingly reminded me that the relief I sought wouldn’t be genuinely found by God dealing with the stuff on the list I had just shared with her. While this would be wonderful on one hand, deeper peace would come in enjoying His help and strength in the midst of my challenging circumstances. Because the Christian life is one of various trails and difficulties  (which are, in fact, promised because of our fallen lives and world) I needed to know that the Bible also promises that Someone is with me all the way.

“Sheree, what we all need to understand is that true relief is found in God walking with us through the messes of our broken and flawed lives. That’s why Jesus came into this dark and needy world: to bring His presence here.” She went on to communicate that the temporary relief from Him fixing the current circumstances would tempt me to find my hope in man, not Him.

Over the past week her words have meandered through my thoughts, bringing me hope. I’m a fixer. I find peace in order. I don’t do well in the midst of a mess (unless it’s created by my adorable grandchildren!). My good friend helped me to see that I was looking for relief in all the wrong places.

The source of your and my relief is God Himself. Not God plus an attentive husband or obedient kids or understanding in-laws or more money or less weight or living near family or fewer interruptions in our full days. Those things may happen or they may not. But what is always true no matter what messes we find ourselves in which bring sadness or pain is this: God is with us. He is faithful, good and loving — even when hardships expose our anger, resentment, self-pity, distrust of Him or ungratefulness.

God is with us in the mess and that’s where relief can truly be found.

And here’s another comforting reminder: not only is He with us but He is patient with our wrestlings. He is at work, moving us toward hope that His past faithfulness to carry us through dark times in the past is a pledge of His present and future grace to bring us through yet again.

Cleaning up the mess might seem like the best thing that could happen in our lives right now. But another mess is just down the road because we live in a fallen world with fellow sinners; a world that is literally groaning for Jesus to return and make all things new (Romans 8:22). Our own groanings for relief can be turned to humble cries to God to help us see and experience Him in the mess.

My sadness is still coming and going. But gratefully I am more aware of God’s comforting presence in the midst of it. He is opening my eyes to see that fixing the mess is far less important than experiencing His strength, tender love and comforting guidance in the mess. He is using His word and a dear friend to counsel me and I am finding growing peace even though my circumstances aren’t changing.

There is hope.

Really Good News

The following is an adaptation of a message preached by Benny Phillips called “Hope for the Bruised and Exhausted”, preached from Isaiah 42:1-4. It was first printed on the Redeemer Church of Lake Nona blog. 

In the lands around Palestine reeds grow in abundance, particularly along the edges of the Jordan River. They have fragile, hollow stems and are easily knocked over by the wind, rough waters or animals that come to the water’s edge to drink. Once a reed is broken, it can’t be fixed. Whereas other plants may repair themselves, reeds cannot.

099Like reeds, people can become bruised, hurt, knocked over, easily. We can be knocked over by life, broken relationships, disease and sickness, by the thoughtlessness and carelessness of other people. There are many people that are bruised, broken, and hurting, all around us, living next door, shopping where we shop, playing where we play.

Jesus came to have an impact, not on reeds but on people. He did not come to break a person who was already bruised or knock down a person who was already bent low with the difficulties of life. Unlike a reed, which cannot be fixed, Jesusis able to bind up our broken lives. He gives us new strength, and applies healing salve to our damaged lives. He came softly and gently to mend the broken reeds of the world.

Jesus did this throughout his ministry. The leper of Matthew chapter 8 was a bruised reed. He was diseased, cast off by society, shunned by everyone, destined to a slow and terrible death. But Jesus came and touched him and his life was forever changed!

The demon-possessed man in that same chapter of Matthew 8 was also a bruised reed. He was living among the tombstones, naked, tormented, cast out by society. But Jesus came and touched him and his life was forever changed!

The woman caught in adultery was a bruised reed. She was about to be cast away by society, stoned for her sin, and they would have been justified in their stoning according to the laws of their day. But Jesus came and touched her and her life was forever changed!

The woman with the flow of blood was a bruised reed. She was in pain, weak, weary, an outcast from society. She thought she would touch Jesus, but instead, Jesus touched her in a way that she never dared hope. Like the others, her was forever changed!

I have been a bruised reed, angry and bitter, hurting and depressed until Jesus came and touched me and my life has been forever changed. Jesus is the answer for the bruised reeds in our world. He is the answer for those who are bruised, broken, hurting, cast aside by society.

Jesus changes lives. Has he healed you?

When Only an Embrace Will Do

mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com

mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com

Have you seen the youtube videos of children greeting their camo-clad father or mother upon their return from oversees military service? I have watched several through tears. Watching little ones jittering as if they need to use the bathroom while waiting for Dad or Mom to come into view, then seeing them rush with outstretched arms to a parent who own arms have longed to hold their beloved child gets me every time.

I imagine that when Dad, for example, was gone for all that time Mom tried hard to offer their child a good explanation.

  • “Daddy is working hard far away to protect and serve our country.”
  • “I know you miss Daddy, sweetie.  He’s doing a really important job and he’ll be home as soon as he can.”
  • “What does Daddy do?  Well, he fixes big tanks and trucks so people can use them to help keep others safe.”
  • “You know Daddy is a pilot, right? Well, right now he’s flying things like food and medicine to people far away who wouldn’t have those things without Daddy.”

I don’t know a single child who would understand why their Daddy or Mommy needed to be the one to do these things. What child would say, “Oh, I get it. Now it makes perfect sense why I won’t see my Dad or Mom for a year.  Thanks!”

Explanations don’t satisfy kids who miss and want their parents when only an embrace will do. A child who misses Mommy or Daddy can’t fathom any reason good enough for not having them tuck them in bed at night month after month or missing their birthday party or not being there on Christmas morning. The only thing they want is to be with Dad or Mom…now.

And that’s what their parents want, too. Seeing the beaming faces of mothers and fathers on those videos clutching their kids, often with tears streaming, fills my own heart with joy.

I’ve been thinking about how this relates to my relationship with God. You see, sometimes I think knowledge will help, especially during difficult seasons. There have been numerous times when trials or suffering left me craving an explanation.

  • “If I just knew why this was happening, I’d feel better.”
  • “God, just explain how all this is going to ‘work together for good’ (Romans 8:28) and then I’ll feel better.”
  • “So, Lord, what’s the purpose in this awfulness? Help me understand and it’ll be easier to endure.”

During challenging times it helps me to realize that knowledge isn’t what I need; I need God Himself. The answer to difficulties isn’t explanation but relationship. You see, even knowing the future good that will come “someday” isn’t all that comforting in the midst of sorrow, loneliness or disorienting circumstances. Knowing that “down the road” fruit will come from a dry and painful season doesn’t take today’s sadness and weariness away.

The only thing that makes today’s hardships lighten is the Father’s embrace.

Are you going through a tough time? Do you believe that having God sit down and explain why this is happening and the good things that will come from your pain will really help you? Consider Job. If he knew that his dead children would be “replaced” by future children, would he have said, “Oh, I get it. That makes me feel better.” No. Knowledge just begs new questions, not fresh peace.

When we Christians are hurting and craving explanations for tough times, what we need is to tangibly experience the nearness, comfort and warmth of God’s embrace. Hearts that crave knowledge bow to arms that feel welcomed and loved.

I pray you’ll find the strength to let go of the demand for explanation and knowledge and just run into your Father’s eager arms. You’ve missed Him, not answers.

A Consignment Sale Reminder

Yesterday I went to a consignment sale held in a huge room full of toys, clothes and baby items. The only things that are accepted in this wonderful sale are clean, gently used items in good condition that have all the pieces. It was fun to shop with my daughter, Janelle, who is expecting her first baby — my twelfth grandchild. I found a beautiful high chair to add to my collection for visiting grandchildren for a fraction of the cost of new!

As I picked up each item I was mostly impressed with the condition and prices. But once I found the items I was mainly looking for, I found myself noticing little things that didn’t point to necessarily gentle use.  Toward the end of my shopping time I realized that I was unfairly evaluating some of the items. They were, in fact, used!

When I left I found myself thinking about being “gently used” and “in good condition.” I smiled to myself as I was driving home. I’m grateful that I don’t typically feel like I have to clean myself up to make a good impression on people. Most of the people in my life are more than gracious to overlook the smudges, wrinkles and dings about me. Or to recognize that they, too, are flawed. But sometimes I’ve felt that my good condition just hasn’t been good enough for some. Have you?

As a Christian, it’s wonderful to know that God’s evaluation of me is through the lens of His Son’s perfect obedience. When Jesus Christ died on the cross He absorbed every sin and flaw about me and then granted to me His righteous life. Yes, I still sin. And ask anyone who knows me: I’m flawed!

While I care about what others think and want to live with them in mind (like Jesus did), I am incapable of never hurting or disappointing others. When I do, I want to take responsibility for messing up and ask forgiveness when appropriate. But even in my most flawed state when anger or bitterness or jealousy or lust or selfishness is knocking on the door of my heart and mind — and even when I give in and outright sin — Jesus stands eager to remind me that nothing can separate me from His love and His favor is never withdrawn from me. He loves repentant sinners, before and after we sin. How amazing.

He knows I’m gently used and because of His sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the grave, I’m in good condition. What a thought!

If you, like me, struggle with craving the approval of others and wish people didn’t pick you up and notice your every flaw, consider Jesus. If you belong to Him your flaws and smudges are just reminders that you have the marks of being in a fallen world on your life.

But Jesus already paid the price to buy you for His very own. I would never have been clean enough to earn His love and favor.

Gently or not-so-gently used. In good or bad condition. Broken. Dented. Dirty. Tossed aside we come.

And He buys us anyway.

Last Night’s Surprise

Yesterday I mentioned three topics that I’ll be pursuing on this blog, which will start next week.

But today I want to share something really personal the Lord did for me last night…

Benny and I were at our weekly Community Group (our small group that is a part of Redeemer Church). Benny has been leading us through a season of learning what small group ministry at our church should look like. One of the things we are trying to do is learn how to create an atmosphere of warmth, care and compassion that invites folks to openly share the real-life things through which we are walking. Having the “same care one for another” (1 Corinthians 12:25) attitude can best happen when people are free to open up their lives to one another without concern that they’ll be lectured or that someone will try to help with a fix-it, try this, or this worked for me approach. (How often have I done that to people?!?!)

After some meaningful interaction about upcoming mission trips for two of our group members, Benny asked if there was anything anyone is walking through for which they could use help and perspective.  I waited to see if anyone else would quickly speak up. When no one did I welcomed the chance to get perspective on something that’s been churning in my heart and mind.

I talked about the recent decision to invite Benny’s mom to move to Florida to live with us. Jewel is a sweet and generous woman whose escalating health issues are requiring her to leave her quiet life and sizeable home out of state to move in with us. While I welcome the opportunity to love and care for this dear woman, my heart has been restless and I didn’t know why.

I assumed it was selfishness. Just when Benny’s and my home is nearly empty (something I both dread and welcome at the same time!), I find myself having to consider the substantial lifestyle changes that bringing a elderly and needy person into our lives will require. As I started opening up my heart to the group, tenderly probing questions came my way.

Before long, tears were falling. To be the recipient of such tender care touched me deeply. The questions moved from the potential of selfishness to areas I had not considered in my weeks of prayer and conversations with Benny.  I enjoyed the benefits of being a part of the body of Christ where “the eye can’t say to the hand, I have no need of you” (I Corinthians 12:21). We are designed by God to live in community and to reap the benefits of having people in our lives that can see in us what we can’t see in ourselves.

I learned some things about myself last night:

  • Considering living with and caring for my mother-in-law is reminding me of how much I miss my dear mom.  When two of the ladies mentioned that it seemed to them that I am grieving the loss of my mother all over again, I was surprised…but the unstoppable tears that came convinced me they were right.
  • While my heart is eager to welcome Jewel into our home, I’m fearful about this changing our family dynamic. On a regular basis My People (as I affectionately call them) are in our home for both scheduled and spontaneous times eating, messing, playing, cheering and being loud for any number of other reasons. Benny’s mom has lived a quiet, scheduled and immaculate life for decades.  I’m worried that in order to bless her I will spend family gathering reminding people big and small to be quiet, still and tidy.
  • I am selfish. As others were wisely helping me to see my grief, anxiety and misplaced pressure to change how our family does life together, God was confirming in my heart that selfishness is alive and well. I have lived decades serving and caring for others and, honestly, a part of me thinks I’ve paid my dues and deserve some time off. As we talked last night I voiced my flawed, broken and sinful heart: “It feels like God is requiring me to serve my whole life and keep serving until I die.”

Out of the abundance of the heart my mouth spoke (Luke 6:45). Hearing myself so easily say those words was both convicting and freeing. Do the words I uttered sound familiar to you? Remind you of anyone?

Today my heart is lightening because I’m seeing that God is giving me an opportunity to be like Christ, who served His whole life and kept serving till He died.  Because He paid the ultimate price and served ME as each drop of blood dripped onto the ground beneath the cross, I can serve my mother-in-law. I can make her food; take her to doctor appointments; answer questions I just did minutes ago; be the one to respond to calls for help from the bathtub so her son won’t have to; do some extra cleaning because it will bless her; and, if necessary, not choose the house I prefer when we move because it wouldn’t be the best floor plan for her.

And I can also warn her that the house is about to get loud because eleven adorable little people are coming with parents who can be just as loud as they are. Hopefully she will have a nice room where she can retreat and perhaps turn up the tv a little louder to drown out some of the noise of a family who will always be wonderfully and joyfully loud.

I can do this only because Jesus Christ sacrificed far more for me. He isn’t asking me to do anything He didn’t both do and provide the power for me to imitate.

Thinking of having a old lady in my house does reopen the wounds of losing Mom twelve years ago and, yes, I’m  afraid of what this change will mean. Yet because the church was being the church last night, I know and understand myself better.

Mostly, though, I’m reminded of who God is. Faithful. Comforting. Gracious. Good. And able to help me repent of selfishness and grow in love.

I’m freshly grateful today for Him and for His bride.

i.surrender.

When change comes yet again while my heart craves stability and the false security of things remaining the same, I surrender.

As the ground beneath me shifts and I can’t seem to get my footing, I surrender.

When life takes turns I didn’t plan; when I’m disoriented and perplexed and can’t find my bearings, I surrender.

Amid the swirling emotions that cause my heart to faint, my faith to waiver and my lean on Him to increase, I surrender.

When tears come without warning and I find myself longing to transport myself to a familiar past I cherish, I surrender.

As unbelief seeks to choke my heart and find treasonous rest in a bed of uncertainty about embracing God’s sovereignty, I surrender.

When storm clouds gather and I fear pelting rains will destroy embers of childlike faith in my heart, I surrender.

When disappointment looms, courage fails, fear erupts, pride charges, strength weakens and Satan accuses, I surrender.

A life of surrender beckons me to find hope in God’s unchanging character when changes come at every turn and I can’t find immediate relief. Surrendering is risky only when the one requiring it is not safe; trustworthy; wise; loving. Surrender is the response of the lesser to the one with greater strength and power; and the surrender that is required of me is to The One who also holds earth’s vast oceans in the palm of His hand.

Surrender brings peace when He is the object of my trust. And peace quiets my tempting quest to wrestle control from a benevolent Father who knows what is best.

The One who has tenderly led and cared for me thus far will see me through. Through storms and trials of various kinds He has been strong. Invincible. Tender. Faithful. Able. Near. Compassionate. Good.

And He has proven Himself as One to be trusted through it all.

I surrender again. And I will continue to surrender over and over because my life is not my own. I have been bought with a dear price. A price that warrants my full trust…trust that can only happen because the One who deserves it also empowers me to grant it.

He both requires and deserves my surrender. And He will help me once again. He always has and always will. In the end, I love His will because it has always proven His wisdom.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73: 25-26)

Scared of the Dread Cloud

Before I was even fully awake yesterday morning it was there. A feeling of dread. In the midst of a season full of God’s blessings there are some hard things going on in my life.

“Why are these things bothering me so much?” I regularly ask myself. “It’s not like I or anyone in my family has a brain tumor or doesn’t have a job or is destitute. What’s wrong with me?”

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The Dread Cloud isn’t unfamiliar to me. It’s been there before. It was there at sixteen when I learned my brother Randy broke his neck in a swimming accident and would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life, which ended up being just seven years. There when the principle called me to his office to say Dad had a heart attack and Mom was on her way to pick me up. There when both Dad and Randy died within an 8-month period. There when people I love made sinful choices that broke my heart. There when Mom was diagnosed with cancer days before we moved to Florida and remained for the 2-week period until she died. Then there for a really long time of grief and homesickness.

Dread is understandable with life hits you hard in the gut. When suffering comes from death, disease or life-altering sinful choices by those we love, dread is expected.

But what about when normal life stuff happens? Common patterns of sin in yourself and family members continue when you long for it all to stop? People don’t consistently express appreciation for your sacrifices and servanthood? A birthday makes you feel old and like life is whizzing by? A friend battling cancer is not improving as many hoped and prayed? A child is leaving for college? Ongoing health challenges leave you weary and battling discouragement? You’re facing a unexpected move that could include caring for an aging in-law? Another friend is going through weighty family issues and you’re too far away to do much to help? Concerns about the spiritual state of someone you love brings fretful temptations about what the future might hold? Changes in friendships leave you feeling lonely at times, wishing for the old days?

The paragraph you just read is what fills my Dread Cloud. But then I battle guilt that these things affect me the way they do because there’s nothing really hard going on and I have so much for which to be grateful!

The fact is life happens. As a friend told me once, “Whether our hard thing is a tumor or toddler temper tantrums, we both need God’s help.” While it’s helpful to look around and see that my trials are small compared to those of others, what isn’t helpful is to brush them off as trivial.

An author once taught me that in the heart there can be both joy and sorrow; faith and unbelief; love and bitterness…at the same time! So I can be both excited and full of gratitude that God has provided for my son to go to law school and deeply sad that he’s leaving. I can experience both intense love and gratitude for my husband and battle discouragement at things he still does that hurt me. And I can genuinely thank God for my relative health and resent that an aching foot is now added to my list of ailments.

Where our difficulties fall on a scale of bad to worse isn’t the issue. Suffering does come in degrees but every sufferer has something in common: we all need God’s help.  When He says he is “near to be broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18) He doesn’t define what causes those things. He simply says He is near and He saves.

What helped me yesterday morning was listening over and over to the timeless hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness. Being reminded that new mercies are available every single morning and rehearsing the truth of God’s endless care lifted the dread.

Then the Lord brought to mind these words, quoted by A.W. Pink in a book I love:

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace,
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread,
Are rich with mercy, and shall break in blessing o’er your head.”

How kind of God to use the Dread Cloud to take me back to these faith-filled words written by someone long gone.

Has the Dread Cloud visited you, too? Are there circumstances and relationships in your life that are tempting you to wake up anxious, sad, discouraged, or uncertain about the future?

Let’s trust God that the smiling face of God, though hidden for now, will produce showers of hope and blessing in our lives because of the dreadful clouds that now loom. Without the clouds there would be no coming rain.

Wow. That means we can actually thank Him for the clouds. Even though they’re dark and scary.

I live in Florida where dark clouds gather in the late afternoon on most summer days. I’ve learned to welcome those clouds because a beautiful lightning show is about to come and needed rain is about to fall. Without the afternoon storms the fire alerts climb and our yard looks pretty sad.

We, too, need the rain. We often just don’t like the clouds. Unless God changes our perspective on the clouds. When we see them bringing refreshing blessings we’re good. But we can only have that perspective with His help.

Lord, help us to view the Dread Clouds from Your perspective. Because of the cross, we are dearly loved by a benevolent, faithful God who grants the courage to trust that the clouds over us bring good and not harm.

Let the rains of blessing come, Lord.  Until then, thank you for patiently enduring and convicting me of my unbelief. How kind You are.

P.S. You can read an article by A.W. Pink that encouraged my heart yesterday on the faithfulness of God here.

Kristin’s Story

On Friday I mentioned I had a story for you. It’s a story about what “speaking [gospel] truth in love” (Eph 4:15-16) can look like in real life.

Last Thursday we had Community Group (our church’s small group ministry) in our home. This is not the group we typically attend. In fact, it was our first time with them since our new church started them two months ago. Benny opened the meeting by reviewing the purpose of our groups: to grow in biblical fellowship by learning how to incarnate the love and hope of Christ to one another. After some brief comments he asked if anyone in the group had anything happening in their lives for which they wanted help.

After a brief pause, Kristin (not her real name) spoke up. Because she is new to both Christianity and to the group, I was impressed by her humility and the obvious grace she had witnessed in the group the prior time she had attended. Who would so easily open up their life to a group of people she doesn’t know well — unless she had witnessed the compassionate care she now desired to personally experience?

Kristin humbly shared concerns and disappointments about her marriage to Scott (who wasn’t present) but did so without putting him in a bad light. She started by communicating her eagerness to focus on her own weaknesses because she understands the only person she has any control over changing is herself. I didn’t know this young woman, but I was already inspired.

As she described weaknesses in how she and Scott communicate, my heart was warmed when Benny and other men in the room identified with Scott. This prevented Scott from being “the bad guy” as several husbands empathized with his responses and thinking, and wives admitted they struggled similarly to Kristin. What grace.

Group members also asked helpful, compassionate questions about her struggles. She responded to each with gut-level honesty. As a young woman expecting her second child in less than two years, it became apparent that she is in a tough season. Martial strife and anger, pregnancy nausea, fatigue, and financial stress are taking their toll on this new Christian.

“Sometimes I get so upset I just have to leave. So I go outside, sit in my car and read my Bible. And God leads me to something that helps me to know what needs to be fixed in me. I can’t fix my husband but I know God can fix me.”

How inspiring that such a young Christian facing weighty challenges could be so open and have such a healthy dose of self-suspicion! She is also running to God, rather than becoming bitter that becoming a Christian didn’t solve all her problems. Amazing. Individuals in the room communicated how inspired they were by her humility. Even her honesty wasn’t without an understanding disposition toward a husband toward whom she regularly struggles with disappointment and anger.

Then someone asked Kristin if she felt God’s biggest priority was to “fix” her.

You see, Kristin grew up in a religious system where doing or praying the “right” thing was a focus. That night she wanted to know what she needed to do to change. Her desire to focus on herself rather than her husband is impressive, but the fact is their marriage is hard. They are both suffering from patterns of sin in themselves and their spouse. They’re weary. Frustrated. Angry. Disappointed. Financially strapped. Young and inexperienced. And another baby is coming soon.

When someone asked Kristen what one thing she most wanted to see change in her marriage she said, “Our communication. Even when we’re sitting together on the couch watching TV I feel alone. I just want him to listen to me. To care about what I’m saying. To understand what I’m going through. But my overreactions and anger aren’t helping. I understand why he doesn’t want to talk to me sometimes because our conversations start with me being angry.”

A woman in the room went back to Kristin saying she needed to be “fixed” by God.

“Kristin,” she began, “You obviously see that your angry outbursts and over reactions to situations are hurting yourself and your marriage. And you’re right. But God is helping you to see this and it’s an evidence of His grace that you have eyes to see the affects your sin patterns are having. Yet I’m not sure God’s priority right now is to fix you. I think what might be most important to Him is for you to know He loves you.”

Kristin needed to hear that what she is looking for — attention, affection, a listening ear, comfort, companionship — will never ultimately come from Scott. Yes, Scott needs to grow. By God’s grace, he will learn how to more tenderly care for his wife. But chances are that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Two of the ladies (representing me, too!) were able to share how common her and Scott’s struggles are by admitting similar temptations to anger and criticalness.

And even if Scott changes, God is the only One who will always love her; always be available to listen to her; always care about what she says; always accept her. Because of His death on the cross, she is forever loved and cherished, even though she gets angry and has become bitter toward her husband.

As these thoughts were shared, Kristin began to cry.

“I came tonight hoping I could get help. I thought that people would tell me I need to stop nagging and being so angry at Scott, which is true. But God is saying He loves me even though I’m sinning so much? That just makes me love Him more.”

Oh, the hope that gospel truth brings.

Speaking the truth in love to Kristin means telling her the whole truth. The gospel truth. It’s true that her pattern of sinful anger and bitterness is eating away at her love for Scott (like his sins are equally hurting their marriage). It’s true that she needs to change. But it’s also true that God loves her. He looks on her with favor, acceptance and tender care. He is never angry or frustrated or wearied by her talking or impatient or selfish. And His power is at work in her to help her to go from seeing her sin to experiencing real and lasting change.

Scott will never be God to her. There is only One who is capable of loving her endlessly and perfectly.

As peace settled onto Kristin, one of the guys spoke up. He shared that unlike Scott (and other husbands in the room…smile) God always wants to hear her talk and that she didn’t need special prayers to communicate with Him. “Just talk to Him like you did to us. Pour out your heart to Him and He will always listen. Don’t feel you have to say it the ‘right’ way.”

“How did you know what I was thinking?!?!?” she exclaimed. “I was just going to ask for prayers I can pray to have this kind of relationship with God.”

Oh, how I love the active presence of the Spirit of God when His people gather.

I know this post has been long. Thank you for your patience. But it’s not enough to read about “speaking the truth in love.” Kristin’s story shows us what speaking gospel truth to one another can look like in a real person’s real life circumstances.

As Tim Keller says, “The gospel is that you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, yet more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope.”

Yes. That’s the gospel. And I saw it in action last Thursday night.

Is Kristin’s story your story?