You Are Free

“Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, New Living Translation)

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We think a lot about freedom when it comes to this time of year.  Freedom is wonderful, glorious, and a grand privilege.  With it, we enjoy life.  Without it, we long for un-ended days of immunity.  Yet, like the proverbial ladder on the wrong wall, our conceptions of freedom might actually be keeping us in self-slavery.  True freedom is there, ripe for the picking, hanging on the low branch of grace.  It is free, but not cheap; available, yet not readily seen.  Freedom, as a good God intended, is meant for everyone.  Taking a bite of this fruit will change your life forever.

When I was a kid, I thought of freedom as being free from the constraints of parental and adult expectations; of doing whatever the heck I wanted to do; spending money on stuff that I desired; and, having the ability to satisfy all my wants and pleasures.  Yes, it was a very selfish construct of freedom, but it sure worked for me as a kid fantasizing about the golden ticket to adulthood.

I discovered pretty quickly that adult stuff could be a whole lot more enslaving than the kid stuff.  In fact, there were times when I wanted to be a kid again, free from the constraints of bosses, social norms, and time demands.  There was still the continued lack of money, even though I was working my ever-living butt off.  If only there was freedom….

That’s a common understanding of freedom.  It is defined by being delivered from something you don’t like in order to do what you want.  And when we don’t get what we want, isn’t it funny how it’s always somebody else’s fault that we don’t have the freedom we desire?

I always thought the tiger represented my dream life.  When I first saw a tiger in the zoo, I was hooked.  This big ol’ guy gets to sleep all day, gets fed red meat to eat, and hangs out with lady tigers.  Dude, I thought he had it made.  But then one day I was at the zoo and there was a huge crack in the three inch thick Plexiglas wall.  One of the zookeepers said that the big ol’ male tiger ran full tilt and head-butted the wall trying to get out.

It was then that my thick-headed Plexiglas brain took a crack to it.  Mr. Tiger, having been satisfied with all the hedonistic pleasures of his little tiger kingdom, was behind bars.  He was not free.  He wanted out.  Mr. Tiger was never going to be free until he was out in the wild doing what tigers do: stalking and hunting prey and roaming the vast outdoors.  Having everything handed to him only made him crazy.

God understands freedom a different way than giving us all our personal desires.  He has created us in such a way as to find our ultimate satisfaction living into his design for us.  When we are truly free, we are actively experiencing the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

To be free is to have grace permeating your life.  It is to do what humans were meant to do: thrive and flourish together through working in the garden of this world by participating in the very life of God himself.  Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit exist together in fellowship and harmony, so, we as people created in his image, join the Trinitarian dance and discover that life is only meaningful if we serve, love, and be gracious for the benefit of the common good of all persons.  In other words, you are free to be the human being God wants you to be.  Don’t get tied up in knots trying to get to some state of being you think is going to make you happy.

There is an old southern gospel song that says:

“I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in
And then a little light from Heaven filled my soul
He bathed my heart in love and wrote my name above
And just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.” (Just a Little Talk)

To be lost is to be bound in the sin of being caged like a majestic tiger.  To be free is to live in the vast untamed wilderness of God’s expansive grace, unshackled from the bars of the law, and feeding off the wild fruit of God’s Spirit.

Fellowship with God always results in a concern for one’s fellow human being.  We are not whole by satiating our wants, but through letting God in Christ give us new desires – ones that have an abiding appetite to serve humanity, and to advance the cause of justice and peace for all.

May the celebration of our freedom be lived with the grace of Jesus as our flag, the love of God the Father as our backyard barbecue, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit as our fireworks.

The Need for Lament

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV)

Lament is painful and lonely, yet, necessary and the only true agent of healing.

Every single one of us face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, terminal diagnoses, missed expectations, bitter disappointments, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all cruel episodes we would rather not face.

What’s more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill, is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is, believe it or not, unbiblical to take such an attitude because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss: The Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long and extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  They persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.  The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of this once great city with its grand temple.  It’s only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.  Jeremiah (much like the biblical character of Job) lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that I would caution us to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and put grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope.

Far too many people in both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

I would like you to hear me loud and clear on this:  embracing lament is the only pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many if not most of the emotional problems in the church and the world today.

Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  Sittser tells of the time when he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on.  In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes:  his mother, his wife, and his daughter.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  And here is what he says:

“Catastrophic loss, by definition, precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones’ loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Yale philosophy professor.  In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident.  He has no explanations – just grief.  At one point he had a profound insight:

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live.  I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

We all accumulate an unwanted host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving every loss as they come to us.  As we lurch ahead we cling to these words of Jeremiah:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what Jeremiah did:

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love.  This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love for us – not only in-spite-of the suffering, but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering.  We must sit with our pain.  Do not sluff-off our loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is nothing.  Year after year many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments.  The result is a profound inability to face pain, and it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved.  His message predicted what Jesus faced in his Passion.  The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Okay everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people.  When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city, desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks.  On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!”  But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it.  Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells.  The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden.  But you need to be willing to wait, in some cases, years.  Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan.  Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot.  They have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They possess and ability to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to outrun the painful grief which resides within.  So, please, my friend, slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its deep and powerful work within you.

Abide with Us

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“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me….  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” –Jesus (John 15:4, 7)

Today, as I look out of my office window, there are the signs of life everywhere.  A gentle rain is falling; the earth is slowly drinking the water; the flora of elm, maple, and oak trees support an animated fauna of robins, finches, squirrels, and the occasional white-tailed deer.  Evidence of the night stalking of raccoons, skunks, and possums are left in the soft mud.  Beyond what my eye can see, I also realize there is a vast unseen world of organisms thriving within that small patch of nature.

The ecosystem outside my little world is connected to the much larger world of massive earthly movements of seasons, weather, and people.  They are all connected in this immense and vast place we call “Earth.”  When we live and move and have our being in alignment and connection with God and his big world, we are truly blessed, enjoying God’s stamp of approval.

Perhaps we all feel some connection to this world because we originally came from the humus of the earth’s dirt.  In an impressive display of creation, God breathed into the people he made and they came alive to their Creator and the creation which surrounded them.

We were born for connection.  Inherent to our very design and nature, God made us in his relational image and his communal likeness.  We exist to have meaningful and enjoyable connection with God, his creation, and his people.

Yet, the world, as we also see evidenced in innumerable ways, is fundamentally broken.  Separation and anxiety rule far too many people’s lives and infect all kinds of human systems of institutions, corporations, and governments, and even families.  The current separation of immigrant parents and children on the U.S. border is not only reprehensible and morally repugnant, but serves as an overarching metaphor for a world that experiences a profound disconnect with their Creator.

The work of Jesus on this earth was to reset the brokenness; restore the dignity of humanity; renew and revive body and soul; and, redeem lost persons from the bondage of misguided ways resulting in agonizing separation, division, and disunion.  In short, Jesus came to heal his treasured people through helping others to reconnect with God.

To abide with Jesus is to remain with him, to be present with him.  God took the initiative to foster healing by sending his Son to this earth.  Jesus, in close connection with his Father, enabled and established a vital re-connection with God.  The Father and the Son graciously sent the Holy Spirit to help us abide with Jesus and know the joy of genuine healing and spiritual health and vitality.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” (John 15:16)

Think about what you need most today, perhaps even this moment.  Give some feeling to what they world is in desperate need of.  Maybe you are in physical pain.  It could be that your heart is broken over a severed disconnected relationship.  Perhaps someone is abusing you verbally, or neglecting you.  You might be separated from a loved one through geography or death.  Or, you might just know in the depths of your soul that something isn’t right – that your banal mundane existence in the daily grind lacks any real meaning or connection to the earth and its people.

Peace in the world, if and when it ever gets any traction, is little more than two groups of people not verbally decapitating and/or killing one another for awhile.  The earth is sick with dirty water and soil erosion, mirroring humanity’s erosion of internal virtue.  Love is sought in all the wrong places and lands lonely people into spiritual brothels of pain and disappointment.

In all kinds of ways, we each experience some sort of issue(s) that are askew, askance, and twisted.  We long for the ability to be a human Gumby who can bend back into some kind of normalcy.  We hunger to be noticed in a world of division that seems to notice nothing.

The good news of Holy Scripture is that the satisfaction of basic human needs will come through abiding with Christ.  Remaining with him enables one to ask and receive because God has conspired within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit to grant us deliverance from disconnection, and establish a loving kinship with those who have experienced the unlovely and ungracious elements of this world.  Jesus said:

“You are my friends….  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is laboring behind the scenes to make things right one human being at a time.  We look for miracles, yet the work of God is mostly to be found in the spiritual flora and fauna of the unseen ecosystem of the soul.  There, in the depths of our heart and our gut, the Lord does a wondrous work of connection which heals and restores to life.  In turn, we become Christ-like, being a mini-Jesus who points others to the re-alignment of body, soul, spirit, and all creation.

Based upon how Jesus interacted with others, and how he deals with you and me, we are to bless the individual who is right in front of our face in three simple ways:

Acknowledge the person through being fully present with them.

God blesses us, and we bless others when we affirm the sacredness of the people around us.  This enables us to provide focused and curious attention to the person God has before us.  We are to be “present” with them, giving our full devotion to listening, asking thoughtful questions, and being okay with hearing their musings on life.  As we abide with Christ, we learn to abide with one another.

Affirm the person’s inherent worth of humanity through validating their feelings.

Emotions are emotions.  Feelings are feelings.  You will not find an account in the New Testament Gospels of Jesus dismissing another’s feelings and telling them they shouldn’t have certain emotions.  To invalidate someone’s feelings is to shut them down and create an even wider disconnect and separation from the source of Christian healing and wholeness.  Instead, the human virtue of compassion sinks-into an abiding relationship when we affirm feelings as windows to the soul.

Act with the love and grace of Jesus toward the person through giving them the gift of fellowship and friendship.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, people just want to be heard.  They want to know that someone is listening.  They don’t want to feel forgotten, neglected, or dismissed.  They want a friend who will give them the time of day.  We all need friends.  We all need love.  The problem comes when too many persons have such a severe love deficit in their lives that they can’t give anything to anyone.  When we are all just trying to take, we are on survival mode and we end up hurting others instead of healing them.

One of the reasons we have burned-out people is because too often 20% of the people are doing 80% of the relational work.  Proper boundaries and a greater awareness of self and self’s needs is a much needed discipline today.  Spiritually healthy people bring hope and healing.  Spiritually sick people trying to do more is only a recipe for more separation, division, and disconnection because they’re running their engines with no oil of blessing on what they’re doing.

Abide with Christ.  That is our first and foremost task.  It isn’t our job to fix or save the world; that’s God’s job.  Our work is to remain in love and obedience, and simply point others to the vine of life through the blessing of respectful acknowledgement, emotional affirmation, and gracious action.  When our desires align with God’s desires, prayer becomes an organic response to basic human need, and those prayers will be honored.  The garden of the soul can hold and sustain life.  When it is shared with others it brings integrity and joy to all creation.

Intellectualizing Our Pain

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We live in a world full of pain.  I work with people in pain.  As a Pastor, I deal with a variety of people’s spiritual and emotional pain – every family, without exception, has some hidden underlying pain that no one sees by looking in from the outside.  There is dark secret pain which comes from a staggering variety of sources.  There is also the more obvious physical pain.  Just the other day, I responded to a call from a social worker to visit an incorrigible woman who usually calms down when the Chaplain is around.  The woman was in pain, and the kind that isn’t going away any time soon, if ever.  Of course, she was incorrigible.  I would be, too.

Our responses to pain are as varied as we are as individual people.  The kind of reaction to pain I want to highlight is one that I am personally most familiar with: intellectualization.  That is, coping with pain by cutting it off from the emotions and putting it squarely in the arena of the rational analytical mind.  If we can split off the painful feelings (so the shadow-self says) and lay them aside, then we can avoid the hurt.

Just so you know, I just described an unhealthy way to deal with troubles.  Bifurcation of our feelings and setting them aside, like using a cleaver to separate bone from meat, doesn’t actually deal with the agony – it simply removes it so as to not have to feel any terrible effects.  In other words:

Intellectualizing a problem is a defense mechanism ingeniously designed mostly in the subconscious to block out pain, ignore emotional stress, suppress spiritual trauma, and stuff down a host of ailments residing in our bodies and our souls.

Using the intellect as a substitute for emotional work goes something like this:  If I can just distance myself from anxiety, worry, and unpleasant feelings associated with a particular condition, then I can remove the pain.  If I can get away from the pain, then all we become well.  I will hide my feelings so they can’t come out to play and wreak havoc in my personal protected emotional playground.  For example, when my grandson was diagnosed with epilepsy, I became an expert on it… and medical marijuana… and treatment options… and various diagnoses and prognoses… and on and on and on, ad infintium, ad nauseum.  Intellectualizing his condition put off the hard emotional work of facing my own painful feelings.

There is not a thing wrong with educating yourself and learning all you can about a situation or problem.  Yet:

When the reading, discovery, and exploration of a particular problem, disease, or issue becomes a way to avoid feeling the pain, anger, and onslaught of other emotions that are evoked because of the situation, then it is high time to set aside the books and the interactions on the cerebral level long enough to engage some very needed emotional work.

For me, thinking about the situation with my grandson (or my wife, or a jillion other people, events, and problems in my life!) can far too easily become an exercise in rational and clinical analysis.  Talking about it only on the level of cold and detached ways of logic and reason keeps the unwanted emotional pain associated with it at bay.  Bottom line: I am afraid to feel, because if I feel all the emotions wrapped-up in a little boy who doesn’t deserve all the challenges and pain of epilepsy, I’d be completely undone (and we can’t have that, now, can we!?).

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So, I soldier on, encouraging the emotions of others, all the while ignoring my own inner crap.  You might be wondering at this point, “So, what, then, are we supposed to do??”

Glad you asked.  The more important question is: “So, what, then, are you supposed to feel??”  When God created us in his image, He made us in His emotional likeness.  God feels all kinds of emotions, and He feels them all deeply.  I think we sometimes forget that.

Let me remind you of an instance of divine emotion in a time of terrible trouble.  The people God formed to be like Him, decided to go their own way.  As a result, the world became horribly violent, with people embracing evil to the point “that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.”  God’s response was first and foremost, an emotional response: “The LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken” (Genesis 6:5-6).

God only made a cerebral and rational plan to deal with humanity after He felt deeply about the situation.  This makes me wonder:

How much more must we ourselves get in touch with all those unwanted emotions, before we decide to plod ahead in a rational course of action?

Will we choose to allow ourselves to feel deeply about what the heck is going on?

Will we even go there?

I want you to grab hold of this thought and not let go:

We cannot go any further with a rational course of action than we have first been willing to go just as far emotionally with identifying and feeling all the stuff that’s inside us.

Jesus, the perfect embodiment of God, felt an array of emotions:  from sheer astonishment over someone’s sincere faith, to intense grief over the people not getting what he was doing; from wondering joy while telling poignant parables, to fierce anger concerning his Father’s house being used irreverently; and, from playful banter with his disciples, to deep sorrow over the stubborn lack of faith in so many.  Our Lord expressed his feelings as the ideal will of God in all kinds of situations.  In short, Jesus didn’t set aside emotions; didn’t circumvent them; and, didn’t call them bad.  Christ freely engaged his emotions as both man and God.  Feelings were not just part of the human side of him; it was actually much more the divine side.

I understand that it gets dicey with emotions.  Every person on planet earth is a bundle of contradictions, and, so, emotions get expressed in both helpful ways as well as in damaging ways.  We all have been hurt, and we’ve all hurt others.  Welcome to life in this world.  Which means it is even more important for us to acknowledge and deal with all of our emotions, whether we ascribe to them “good” or “bad” labels.

Every feeling is there for a reason, tapping you on the shoulder trying to get your attention.  To heap all those feelings together in a mental garbage dump so that you can get on to the business of living your life without pain is only going to exacerbate your trouble in the long run.

“How is your heart doing today?” and “Tell me about how that feels” are just as much viable and pertinent questions for health as a medical doctor asking you about your physical symptoms.  Keeping things solely in the physical/mental realm and diminishing the soul with its vast feeling universe might enable you to get through today, but it isn’t going to help you tomorrow.  The emotional pain will still be there, and unhealthy ways of coping with it will eventually catch up to you.

Instead, three practices can enable you to identify and express your emotions in a manner that is healthy, helpful, and downright holistic.  They are:

  1. Talking on the feeling level with a trusted friend, minister, or counselor;
  2. Writing in a journal all the details of how you are doing and feeling. In other words, create space to express what’s going on.  No one else has to see it, unless you want them to.  I personally would encourage you to write in your journal, and then simply read a portion of it to your trusted friend and talk about it.
  3. Praying to a big God with all your big emotions. You can say things to God that you would never say to another person, and that’s okay.  He’s big enough to handle all your feelings, your emotionally-charged questions, your drama, and any ostentatious displays of feeling.  God isn’t going anywhere; He is always there to listen and nothing will surprise Him, annoy Him, or befuddle Him.  The Lord operates on the currency of grace in his kingdom, so this ought to free you and me to be with Him in ways that are life-giving.

None of these practices operate solely in the world of ideas and thoughts.  Rather, they are designed to integrate the fragmented soul with the shattered mind so that true emotional wholeness, spiritual wellness, and just plain life enrichment can happen in new and healthy ways.

You are on a journey, and not a guilt trip.  Take advantage of the God who is available, and the humungous world of emotions he has provided you with.  Face each one squarely with His Spirit as your guide and His people as your support, and you will discover a kind of healing from pain that you never knew could exist.

What My Dementia Residents Teach Me

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It can be uncommonly hard to live in this day and age.  Bills to pay and mouths to feed; kids to shuttle; work stuff that never seems to end; sickness and disease to navigate; retirement to plan for; family junk to deal with; hobbies you want to do; and, seemingly, a thousand other things vie for your time and attention to the point of having difficulty sleeping or even sitting still.  The problem is that you and I can become so busy and so concerned about tomorrow that worry, anxiety, and fear can attach themselves to us like ticks on a dog.

I minister to a group of people living in a memory unit of a care facility.  They’re there because of a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had Bible study with 32 memory care residents in a healthcare facility.  It’s a trip, a hoot, and a challenge all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know if what you’re doing or saying has any meaning or significance.  But let’s flip this around.  Maybe it isn’t all about the “normal” (and I use the term very loosely) guy like me coming in and doing his mentally attuned thing for some folks who have problems with disconnection.  Perhaps the dementia men and women have something to teach me and you.  Methinks they do.  I’ll let you in on a few of the things I’m learning from my dear brothers and sisters in the memory unit wing….

They live in the moment.

Whereas you might think it is sad that Aunt Bessie or Uncle Frank doesn’t remember what you just said to them two minutes ago, or where you were together a few hours ago, I think there is something amazing such folks have to teach me.  You see, when they eat a strawberry, or watch I Love Lucy, or have a conversation with you as if they have eaten, watched a comedy, and engaged a relationship for the very first time, it can be astounding.  Some of these folks just don’t remember that they have always loved strawberries, sit-coms, and their family.  And when they partake – as if they have never done it before – their joy, laughter, and endearing qualities come through like the beautiful wonderment of a child.

Oh, my goodness, if I could only learn to live in the moment taking the example of my blessed memory residents!  Their worries are limited.  Yes, they have them – and they can revisit decades-old worries like they were yesterday – but their own reassurances from the past are still at the tip of their tongues.  When we say The Lord’s Prayer together, I believe God takes a break from maintaining His creation to sit-in on the beautiful voices lifting an ancient prayer to Him.  The Prayer is so firmly inside them that they don’t realize that what they are uttering is routine.  It has new meaning for them.  They look at it differently.  They ask questions and make comments, as if this Prayer is the most wonderful thing they have ever heard.  I’ve beheld more than one person who does not talk at all, but when prompted with The Lord’s Prayer, bellows it out like a professional orator.

Perhaps no other group of people live into Christ’s teaching about avoiding worry more than the person who truly lives in the moment and doesn’t think about tomorrow.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients can teach us to live like the believers in Jesus we were meant to be:

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

They keep short accounts with others.

Rivalries and animosities don’t really exist with my memory men and women.  If they had them at one time, they aren’t there anymore.  They are forgotten.  Yes, that can be a great consternation to the one who was at the other end of the old animosity.  But a new relationship can be forged.  One that is fresh and can start with a clean slate.

What’s more, my residents are quick to let me know what they think, where they are at the moment, and how they want something to go.  I, personally, find it refreshing to have someone say exactly what’s on their mind or heart.  The very first resident I met on the memory unit said her name to me, and then, with all seriousness, looked me in the eye and said, “If you mispronounce my name, I’ll punch you right in the face!”  I laughed out loud.  She laughed with me.  We laughed together.  She couldn’t even ball up her arthritic hand enough to punch, let alone raise her frail arm to do it.  So, there we sat laughing, with joy amidst the ravages of a disintegrating mind.

You know what?  In the days and weeks to come, I mispronounced her name.  She didn’t really care (at least, most of the time).  She forgot her own name sometimes.  And we would laugh about it.  At one point, I couldn’t help but note the juxtaposition between one woman in a former congregation who never forgot that I misspoke her daughter’s name and continually held it against me.  The woman never adopted the teaching of Jesus to “settle your differences quickly” (Matthew 6:25) and the instruction of Paul to “don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 5:26).  But here, in this time and at this moment, are two people in a non-descript nursing home experiencing a relationship free from the elephant-thinking that never forgets.

They have no inhibitions about expressing their emotions.

For a guy like me who tends to be emotionally constipated, it is good to be around a group of people that lets their feelings be known.  Just because a person’s mind begins to forget; and just because someone loses large swaths of memory (especially the short term stuff); doesn’t mean they have lost the ability to feel.  Sometimes all they have is their emotion.  Maybe some of them were stuffers of feelings back in the day, but now it comes out.  And you never know what it will be from hour to hour, sometimes even minute to minute.

I realize this is hard for family members or friends who have been close to the resident for years and years.  This isn’t the same person they knew in the past.  Yet, this is an opportunity to re-engage on a different level.  If expressing feelings and emotions were foreign to the relationship, now it can be engrafted into the friendship and become new and even healing.

Confessing your own emotions and feelings is on the table for you, as well.  After all, what are they really going to remember after you leave?  And even if they repeat it to someone, is that someone really going to believe what they’re saying?  Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, but you get what I’m saying.  You see, there is tremendous emotional freedom to be had, if you are willing to take it.  You might even realize that taking the risk to share your emotions and feelings with others is worth doing.  It would be a tragedy and a travesty if you moved through life always hiding how you really feel.  You have much to offer.

And that is the point I want to get across to you today, my friend.  Memory unit residents; dementia and Alzheimer’s patients; and, a host of other people we typically think always need us, it turns out that we really need them, too.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  To discover that God-likeness within is a journey worth taking.

Allowing Your Pain to Make a Difference

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There’s a reason I do what I do, and am what I am.  Through nearly 33 years of marriage my wife and I have been through a lot – more than I could ever share with you.  One of our big challenges came from the year 2014.  In the space of nine months, Mary had three spine surgeries.  I went from not only having the role of husband, but that of caregiver, as well.  It took months of daily physical and occupational therapy, not to mention the endless doctor visits, for my wife to learn to walk again and do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.

The good news is that Mary is upright and walking.  She can mostly get around and do things on her own.  The bad news is that she lives with chronic pain every single day.  Some days aren’t too bad, and Mary can accomplish a fair amount of what she wants to do.  But there are other days when she can’t get out of bed; days when taking a shower and getting dressed is all she can get done; and, days when the pain becomes so problematic that discouragement and depression sandwiches her like two evil slices of bread.

Yet, even on the worst of days Mary is an amazing wife.  She is tough and resilient, as well as compassionate and caring.  I’ve learned most of what I know about caring ministry from her.  I don’t talk a lot about her on this website.  Yet, Mary is behind each word I craft and every phrase I smith.  She is always on my mind and in my heart.  Mary has taught me how to care through the example of her own life, and given me the opportunity to show how much I care for her.

Mary maintains a Facebook page about her journey with pain called “Joy in the Mourning.”  Because she lives with chronic pain, her posts come neither regularly nor easily.  It is a labor of love, some days being a whole lot more labor than love.  Recently, Mary was able to return to a job.  By no means able to hold a full-time job, she has found meaningful work doing what she does best: caring for people as a companion to folks with dementia.

The following is her most recent post.  I hope you are encouraged in your own journey of faith.  Whether you face chronic physical or emotional pain, care for someone who does, or just want to live-out your faith in ways that make sense, I trust you find some joy in your life through whatever circumstances you may face today:

Friends, I’ve got great news!  I have completed the first 90 days at my job!  It’s been a long time since I have been able to say that.  I’m sore today from working. Usually, I say that I hurt today due to getting dressed or showering, walking the dog, or getting out of bed.  It has taken over 3 years, post-surgeries, to be able commit to a regular schedule of working.  

In my healing journey, I had to commit /submit myself to physical therapy, yoga stretching, strength training, biofeedback, acupuncture, massage therapy, weekly counseling with a pain psychologist, daily prayer, journaling, meditation, and even sought out healing through the laying on of hands from godly healers, as well as nutrition, essential oils and music therapy.  All very helpful, but…

I have to admit a foundational piece to getting to where I am today: I mourned. 

I gave myself permission to mourn my loss.  I admitted my anger… no, I wrestled with my anger is a better phrase; and, I embraced my sadness, and let myself feel the loneliness of disability. I asked the hard questions: WHY!? How long? I cried… a lot. In my darkest times a little spark of light invaded my space.  A gentle and soft comfort hugged my heart. A warm sprinkle of hope powdered my soul.  I began to discover a new kind of joy.

No matter what your specific suffering is, I believe that mourning your loss, and allowing yourself to walk through the valley of the shadow will lead you to a path where you can experience comfort, hope and even joy.  For me, this part of the journey has been life-giving. Christ understands suffering. He will walk with us through this experience.  

I never told you what I’m doing now. I am a companion for those who suffer – mostly Alzheimer’s patients, and those who are suffering life-altering afflictions.  I’m working 2-6 hours each day, sharing some of the comfort I received, and being real and open while allowing my pain to make a difference.  May you be blessed, my friends.

Learning to Grieve Well

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One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation.  The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester.  Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry.  Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.

Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts.  These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind.  Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief.  The first reality is this:

Grief is personal.  No two people grieve in exactly the same way.

Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it.  In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago.  Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death.  So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.

The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal.  Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.

A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving.  I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session.  Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve.  As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session.  This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….

You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.

Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through.  He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you.  Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare.  If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself.  This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank.  But that’s what makes grief so complicated.  Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives.  If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.

When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving.  Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better.  My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.

Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings.  They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore.  The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race.  Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.

When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him.  In the meantime, Lazarus died.  Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place.  But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda.  Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44).  And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief.  “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.

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What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances.  Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen.  Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.

So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens?  I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….

You need to sit with your emotions.

When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief.  Feeling hard stuff hurts.  No one likes pain.  But feel we must.  Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away.  Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people.  No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma.  It forever changes you.  Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart.  Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.

Also, let others feel them, as well.  It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief.  You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.

Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.

Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost.  Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair.  Nope.  Not even close.  The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat.  It’s okay.  Go ahead and feel them again.  Don’t short-circuit the emotions.  Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with.  That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.

I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble.  I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply.  Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.

Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us.  We can never go back to the way things were.  But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.