When Church Hurts

I know most of my readers are church folks.  And anyone who’s been a part of a church for very long knows that eventually hurtful things happen in a place that is assumed safe and caring.  Why?  Because everyone in the church is flawed, broken and in need of the same transformation as you and me.

As a pastor’s wife of 40 years I have experienced what one man calls both “the beauty and the brokenness of the church.”  Sometimes the brokenness comes for the unexpected reason that we Christians too often and too quickly think we get things “right.”

You can read more of my story here.

It’s an honest story.  A sad story.  But a story where I hope you’ll see redemption and hope.

Because my story, like yours, includes God.

I would love to hear your feedback on this one.

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The Assignment

I was in my 20’s when I got my first pair of glasses. I didn’t think I needed them but my eyes had never been checked and someone talked me into going to the eye doctor for some problems I was having with nighttime glare. I left the office with a prescription that landed me with glasses. I can still remember walking outside that day and realizing trees had individual leaves on them!

Recently I was in a conversation with a longtime (and long distance) friend who suggested I needed a different kind of vision correction.

Expert pinned on noticeboard

“Sheree, I have an assignment that I think we really help you.” I had just admitted I was pretty discouraged about some things going on in my life and in the lives of some folks I love.

My ears perked up. I’ve always liked assignments, especially those with an attached goal. Like when my third grade teacher assigned a reading program that would result in completing a stack of books by years end with the promise of a shiny red ribbon. Reading was one of my favorite things to do so quickly made my list, devoured the books well before the deadline and couldn’t wait to get that ribbon.

My friend’s assignment is one I have also enjoyed working on. It’s taken some hard work at times. Other times, though, it’s felt nearly effortless. Some days the assignment has been on my mind all day, while other days I fall into bed at night only to realize I haven’t given it a single thought. But I can honestly say that after a couple of months I’m starting to experience the fruit of keeping this project in mind.

And here’s the assignment she gave me: Become an expert at seeing God at work. 

Her words have rolled around in my mind again and again.

  • When a friend expressed her battles with discouragement over a difficult relationship I was able to point to several clear evidences of God’s grace in her life and the life of her friend. As tears fell we both marveled at how easy it is to lose sight of Him when times are tough.
  • When my daughter recently shared some wearying encounters with one of her children I was able to empathize with her maternal frustrations but also remind her of some key areas in which God has been at work in my grandchild. She agreed and we realized how important it is to lift one another’s gaze to God’s activity, especially when it seems our labors are in vain.
  • As I recently poured out my heart and complaints to God (yes, we can do that…the Psalmists surely did!) about some common struggles married couples walk through, including Benny and me, I experienced a fresh awareness of the importance of thanking God for some specific things in my marriage that are clear examples of His work.
  • During a challenging week when a several weighty pressures were bearing down on me I felt hopeless for needed changes in my heart. Yet God gently reminded me of an area in my life that used to be a substantial weakness but that He has turned into a Christ-empowered strength. I was reminded that His work in the past is a pledge that He will keep strengthening me to become more like Him — even in the very area about which I was feeling hopeless.

The amazing thing about these experiences was that I didn’t have to stop and put my “God’s at work even and especially during hard times” glasses on. It was as if God had given me spiritual laser surgery and I didn’t even realize what was happening until the clarity had already come. How amazing!

Becoming an expert at seeing God at work doesn’t diminish the hardships or pretend everything is okay. It also doesn’t deny that I live in a broken, fallen world with fellow weak and needy and sinful people. Rather, it puts the darkness of hardship and weakness against a backdrop of the radiant work of God’s Spirit in our lives that says, “Yes, you are weak, tired and battling hopelessness. Things are hard. People around you are hurting and you realize your help is just not enough because they need Me. But I am near. I am good. And I am busy in ways you see and in other ways you cannot yet see. Trust Me. Allow Me to open your eyes to glimpse My power on display. I am working and My work always produces fruit.”

I’m still not an expert. But something precious is happening my heart…and with my eyesight. I still get weary. I still battle discouragement. I still wish I could be more helpful in the lives of those I know are struggling. I still squint to see more clearly at times because all I can see are areas that seem to lack any activity of the Spirit of God.  But my eyesight is improving and I’m seeing more clearly that God is busy doing His marvelous work of helping His children grow and change and become more like Him.

I’ve never been an expert at anything. Hmm…in fact, I’ve never really wanted to or had the time or money to.  But becoming an expert at God’s work in the lives of those in whom He has promised to be busy is something I’d love to accomplish. 

And today my friend and I will talk again to see how I’m doing.

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.

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.

When News Changes Your Life Forever

There are a handful of days in my life that changed me. Days I can tell you what I was wearing or where I was sitting when I heard the news. JFK’s assassination. Daddy’s heart attack. Mom’s cancer. 911.

imagesYesterday was one of those days, especially for a dear friend of mine who had something horrific happen to her and her family. When I heard the news I could only weep and shake my head in disbelief.

Anyone who lives long enough will have those days. Moments when you feel like you can’t breathe and disorienting chaos swirls through your heart and mind.

Those times when it feels like life is spinning out of control it’s good to know God is there. And not just there but good. Last night I visited my grieving friend. There were no words tender or wise enough to have helped her. No flowers bright enough. No hug warm enough. No prayer articulate enough.

Some years ago I was experiencing the trial of my life. It was one of “those” days. The news I heard that March day in 1998 rocked my world and started a series of life altering events. The sorrow and perplexity lingered for months, then came and went for years, as Benny and I sorted through the longterm effects of wrong choices made by someone we deeply love.

Friends called and tried to offer comfort, but it felt like someone was trying to put a bandaid onto an open chest wound. One of my friends told me she cried out to the Lord, asking “who is going to take care of Sheree?” You can expect what she heard back.

“I will.”

Oh, and He did. He took care of me through the loneliness. Heartache. Days when I couldn’t cook or do laundry or return phone calls. Sleepless nights. Fretful pacing in my bedroom when burying my face in a pillow was the only way to protect my kids from hearing Mommy’s sobs. Moments of begging God to help me understand why. And, yes, times when — for the first time in my life — I understood why people escaped to thoughts of death as a comforting option.

What should we do when someone we know or love is facing the trial of their life? The Holy Spirit will lead us. He will lead some to serve and others to organize service. A few to visit and many to understand why they weren’t asked to come. And all to pray. In my experience, the one thing that isn’t helpful is for well meaning friends to try to make sense of suffering by speculating what happened, why it happened or what might have been done to prevent it.  Such matters are between the sufferer and their Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace.

I’m resting today in this timeless truth from God’s holy word:

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18).

Are you suffering today? Is someone you love facing overwhelming circumstances?

Let’s remember that He is close and He still saves.
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