There are no better lessons in grace than those in-the-valley moments in this life that all humans must face at one point or another. In those shadowed, veiled times, we might be tempted to turn away from a God we didn’t have such a great understanding of in the first place. Or, we might turn to Him for miracles that He sometimes grants and often provides in some out-of-nowhere way it may take years of living to figure out. We might just wallow, giving ourselves heaping mouthfuls of mud to go along with the bitter tastes in our mouths.
The first lesson to learn in the valley is that you are not alone. Even if you are having a rather one-sided argument with God at the moment, blocking out his ever-presence in your life, you don’t have to seek too far away in the valley to see the tell-tale signs of fellow sufferers. Being human, you’re likely to gravitate toward those who have chosen your same approach to hardship so that you might commiserate together.
I’ve been in the valley for the last several years. My husband’s family and my own have faced challenges with terminal illness of those we hold closest to us. My father-in-law and brother-in-law each lost his battle with cancer within weeks of each other during the holidays the year before last. My mother was diagnosed with ALS, and my parents daily struggle with the challenges of coping with this dreaded, dreadful disease.
So, as much as anybody out there, I think I have the right to ask the unanswerable questions, like why God lets bad things happen to good people, or why nature itself has to be as evil as any serial killer you can find on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
But, these really weren’t questions I had to find answers for as this long journey in the shadows continues for me because God has granted me so many spiritual mentors and fruitful lessons from my Bible studies. I know that God cares for all of us. I know that this life with all its troubles is not what He had originally planned when He plopped Adam and Eve in a garden paradise. I survive because I have faith that God will work to the good even the most horrific things that happen in this life for those, like me, who strive to walk by faith in our belief.
My spiritual mentors have been many. I have friends who hold God close to their hearts. They have introduced me to great Bible teachers like Ravi Zacharias, Andy Stanley, and Randy Harris, men who do a good job of putting Biblical concepts into modern-day language. These are men who value the love of Jesus and who know that grace is something we all need in equal measure. Instead of judging other people, these mentors have taught me to seek the good in others in order to spread Jesus’ most precious gift of forgiveness through grace.
As a writer, I admire what apologists such as Philip Yancey and Sarah Young and novelists like Charles Martin and Francine Rivers can do when they put pen to paper and allow God’s gift to flow through them. I have learned that it’s okay to ask questions about and of God, that staying in a mode of thankfulness draws me closer to God, that the strength of our relationships on earth can reflect the strength of our interactions with our Savior, that the kind of love that truly puts the other first will never fail.
My days have been dark and will be darker still, but I will continue to walk by faith. These are no longer bumper-sticker words to me, but the result of persevering. I study my Bible, I pray continually, I share my belief with others, I am open to learning from God and fellow believers. Some days, many days, I have to choose that today is a good day for a good day. I have had to learn to cut myself some breaks. I have learned that helping others even when my own world is crumbling helps me feel better. I lean on the understanding that this life is about becoming something for the next life. God, my potter, is molding the clay that is me into a masterpiece for His kingdom.
I am comforted by the idea that some day, when my perseverance is complete, the angels will dance.
I dream in colors, swatches of Kodachrome disguising the reality in black and white. In my dreams, she speaks and walks, even as I know these are impossible things. I wake to a heavy feeling in my chest, am weighted down by the acrobatics my mind undertakes to transition from this dreaminess to the hard, cold truth.
I have, thankfully, come late in life to this quasi-existence, this place where only when I dream can things approach anything like sameness, and yet the reality flitters in and out of my dream-state like the lightening bugs that drew me into the dark as a child, even when that darkness cloaked everything in a nebulous, nameless shroud.
This shift has come gradually, not like the nightmares when all this first began, standing in a hospital room filled with a world-renowned expert and his entourage of students and administrative assistants and sour-faced nurses desperate to provide a tissue this band of sickroom veterans reject like one more sign of weakness our bodies were not designed for. We have sat in such sterile rooms before, though this news is the most fatal we have ever heard. The words tumble out of the doctor’s mouth in a staccato of long syllables as if talking over our heads will somehow take the sting out.
My mother has no idea what amyotrophic lateral sclerosis even stands for, so she is spared the dread of realizing how much more of the little control of muscle she has left she will also lose. It’s almost six months before a physician’s assistant lets slip the inevitability of a feeding tube, but by then so much is lost, she takes the news like just another gut punch, absorbed until it settles in her mind as just one more thing somebody else will have to do for her.
This woman lying in the easy chair she will never rise from again under her own power is not the mother who sponsored home rooms, created treasure hunts around the house at Easter, lived by the motto that it was better to try something like a scary roller coaster ride than to miss out.
But she is also exactly the mother I have known for more than four decades. When her speech becomes guttural syllables only my father can decipher, I still can complete any sentence she begins. Her needs and her pleasures have funneled to a pinpoint. Robbed of the ability to provide her with anything except what might increase her comfort, I become an expert navigator in the world of online medical supply sales, flower delivery and complete DVD series.
On any given Monday, families like mine snake their way through the busy medical district in downtown Houston for their first day of several at this specialized clinic, one of only five in the country, where the handful of specialists required to successfully treat this degenerative disease gather to make at least one thing in the difficult life of an ALS patient that much simpler. Families come with a hard knot in their stomachs, hoping against hope that what they have long suspected as their loved one disintegrates in front of them will not be what the guy in the white coat and bow tie confirms in his matter-of-fact, clipped doctor’s voice.
I am numb the first few hours, taking in the barrage of instructions and specialists that become a sudden, permanent part of our family. Too quickly, the numbness gives way to fear. Not fear. Horror. I google the abominable three letters that would make even a hard-core Christian question God and feel the vomit rise in my throat. I dope myself at night to attempt sleep that is sporadic and filled with dark, amorphic images, waking to a pounding heart and pajamas drenched in sweat. In the course of three days, I lose more than ten pounds.
This reaction must be nothing compared to what my parents are feeling, except nobody gives voice to the emotion. My mother tells me she thinks she probably doesn’t want to know exactly what is wrong with her. My father takes the diagnosis onto shoulders hardened by a lifetime of blows such as this, with the optimistic resignation that we deal with what is and strive for ways to triumph.
Our triumphs have come in small victories that shine rays of hope upon us like the West Texas sun pushing violet and umber rays through mustard-green thunder clouds. A cat toy taped to reading glasses allows Mom to shine a laser light on the poster board across the room to spell out what she cannot communicate with the gestures of her eyes and head. Dad fashions a lever for the breathing machine so my mother’s otherwise useless hands can still ramp it down at night.
Their life has become a regimented routine, narrowed to the effort it takes to exist in an adult-sized body that must be cossetted as if she were a new born child. To eat, to evacuate, to wipe an eyelash from her cheek, all require somebody else’s hands and muscles. Besides control of her elimination organs, the only mercy left her with this illness is the ability to still chew and swallow many, but not all, of the foods she finds delicious. At some point, even that luxury will vanish.
I doubt the medical staff and doctors know what to make of us. My father moves her legs and arms, her hands and feet on a regular basis each day, as well as any physical therapist might do it. When Mom received her feeding tube this summer, it was my father showing the nursing staff how to operate the new-style Mic-key tube the doctor had implanted. I’m thankful the world-renowned neurologist is tolerant of my habit of disagreeing with him, despite the room full of white coats in audience to my stubborn rebellion. After a lifetime of dealing with people in situations like ours, he understands the woman lying in the bed is not his mother.
We have reached a point where the sameness of our days allows us to grasp at the special moments like gem-shaped treasures. My mother’s tears, which can come unbidden in an almost constant flow as a result of this disease, have given way to unleashed laughter. Her humor, always present, has bloomed to provide us with the highlights of our days. My description of my cat’s response to his first visit from my sister’s dog results in a bout of contagious laughter. My sister and I plot the conversations we know will make her smile, our daily dialogues with our dad over the speakerphone our only connection to her as we try to juggle our own lives with this need to spend as much time as possible with parents a day’s travel from home.
As tough as the journey has been, we breathe in and out in the knowledge that the worse is yet to come. Those who have taken similar journeys know the cliff that awaits us, the freefall into absence no sojourner survives. We thank God for laughter, for her breathing not deteriorating, for a pulmonary doctor who is the only one to trust our ability to make many of the medical decisions ourselves.
Kindness comes in the prayers of acquaintances who have never met her, in the visits my cousin makes to keep her hair trimmed, in the flowers even relatives who have never called her on the phone have sent for her birthday. We hold these moments close to the hearts we are notorious for shielding, gathering courage for the unknown even as we know courage will fail us.
In the midst of a life where I have dwelled in the unattainable, throwing my energy at questions about my doing, desperately seeking the approval of a God who chooses to speak only through the veil of my own, cluttered thinking, this disease stalemates me. God draws me closer, and the devil pushes me to the cold, outer reaches where God, honoring my stubborn tantrum, vanishes. Yesterday, I wondered suddenly why I was seeking the approval of a God who, like an absent father, refuses to give me a straight answer. What does love look like when all talent, no matter how heavenly, has only that place of decay and dark-before-the-dawn to go?
These are dramatic turnings of a mind that knows better, of a body that was raised to face the hardships of living and smile in the face of adversity. God, who loves me unconditionally, does me the greatest honor by not laughing me off the page of this, my egotistic, narrow-minded existence.
For now, it is enough, this twilight time of routines designed to make my mother as comfortable and happy as a person paralyzed from head to toe but not in mind can be. We move forward knowing that this persevering is honing us for something bigger than ourselves. We settle into the not so comfortable position of listening for those instructions that will further push us outside our comfort zones, knowing all the while that if we manage somehow to accomplish God’s purpose for us here on this fallen planet, we will likely never know we’ve done it.
Our only comfort is the inkling, soft and clingy like a spider’s web, that the part of her that might suffer most from this deterioration of the body is already tucked away somewhere in the corner of her spirit, dormant and waiting for the day when the saints dance around the throne of God.
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:8)
When I was around 8, my 15-year-old uncle went around singing the lyrics to a song he really liked. I can still remember walking on the sidewalks of the open-air elementary school near my grandparents’ house that summer, feeling the dry, West Texas wind tickle across the back of my neck as my uncle belted out:
Only the good die young, bum, bum, bum. Yeah, only the good die yo-o-o-ung.
Being 8 and a hypochondriac, I took the lyrics at their literal level, and I wondered why my uncle would like a song that seemed to say that if I were good, I would certainly ensure my premature demise. I found the familiar swings on the playground and concentrated on the clear, blue sky, trying hard to forget about the tune floating somewhere in the air above us.
Only years later, hearing that song again, did it dawn on me that what the lyrics really meant was that being good was somehow like a living death. This concept of goodness is typical of a world view governed by the ruler of the dark. But God is the ruler of the Light, and everything about a life following the Light is far from the world’s concept of a living death.
Everything about the Christian life involves action. James reminds us that “. . . faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17). If you truly believe in Christ as your Savior, then your walk by faith is not just a statement of feeling but a way of being. You do things for others because of what Christ did for you.
Sometimes, your greatest action as a Christian is to keep yourself from acting. In Charles Martin’s book, Wrapped in Rain, one of the main characters symbolizes this kind of Christianity. Rather than taking the revenge that is human nature to desire, Miss Ella Rain instead chooses to hold onto the Light that is the Holy Spirit in us. She warns one of her charges:
“”Tucker, I want to tell you a secret.” Miss Ella curled my hand into a fist and showed it to me.”
“”Life is a battle, but you can’t fight it with your fists. You got to fight it with your heart.””
A heart actively in the heart of Christ truly practices forgiving what seems unforgivable, giving when your first instinct is to take, and using the gifts of the Spirit to show others the truth about our loving God.
When we make Christianity a verb in our lives, surely Christ will ensure that our efforts bear fruit for His Kingdom. A life lived in the Light of Christ is so active, how could anyone really think that the “good die young?”
I am overwhelmed with joy in the LORD my God! For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation and draped me in a robe of righteousness. I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit or a bride with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
Watching a video on early church history with my life group, I was struck by one of the biographies of early church leaders. I believe it was John Wesley who was so zealous for God that he had even been to America to mission there. On the return trip home, Wesley was caught in a great storm at sea and found himself falling way short in the faith department as he faced possible death.
I wondered why someone who had enough belief to go out and share God’s word would be so quick to fall from faith (or at least blame himself for falling). Then, the documentary continued to explain the most important next step of Wesley’s faith story. The man who would go on to lay the foundations for the Methodist movement learned the difference between a salvation that is earned and one that is freely given. Wesley learned to embrace grace.
As Paul teaches in many of his letters, our salvation is not earned. We are saved from the damnation we deserve only because Jesus chose to die on the cross for our sins, make us right with God once and for all, and send the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and pull us toward the kind of living that reflects the kind of loving life Jesus lived.
When we have asked Jesus to be our Saviour and admitted our need for His offer of salvation, we are saved. Even in the face of our most immediate, physical dangers, we can take comfort in knowing that our souls are safe. We will join Jesus in heaven. We will see God. We will know that eternal place where there is no fear, no pain, no doubt.
When you release the need to earn salvation, you are free to embrace the humanness we all share. You are free to love the way that God intended us to love. You know that you cannot be proud since none of us are good enough because of anything we’ve done. We are only good enough because God made us all equally “good enough” by dying on the cross for us.
What a different experience John Wesley would have had on that scary boat ride if he already understood that his faith was enough to ensure his salvation through grace! He would not have feared his future thinking he had not yet sown enough fruit for God to be saved. Instead, he might have felt that “peace which surpasses understanding,” knowing that whatever happened, it would be God’s will.
None of us know for sure how we will react to life-and-death moments until we have actually experienced them. But all of us can practice living out our faith by doing what Jesus commanded: “‘AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ “The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”… (Mark 12:30-31).
When we truly have faith, we act out our faith through our deeds. We actively seek to shine the Light of God. We study His word. We seek relationship with Him in prayer. We seek fellowship with other believers. We do things for even strangers that we would appreciate being done to us.
I’m gonna walk by faith, an’ not by sight
‘Cause I can’t see straight in the broad daylight
I’m gonna walk by faith, an’ not by fear
‘Cause I believe in the one who brought me here
My Ryrie NASB study Bible has this note for the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
Here begins the ethical section of the letter. Paul’s appeal is simple: Become in experience what you already are by God’s grace. The Christian is risen with Christ; let him exhibit that new life. [emphasis added]
Whenever you are in your darkest hours, or even just the shadowy ones, I think it a great comfort to remember this truth, that we are here because God wants us to become through our experience what He freely gave us with His death on the cross.
Throughout Colossians 3, Paul lists qualities to have and not to have if you are truly going to become through experience what you already are as a Christian.
On the do NOT list: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed (idolatry), anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lies, bigotry. On the DO list: compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thankfulness, wisdom, praise.
Luckily for us, when Christ made His sacrifice, He also promised us a Helper to be sent so that we are not on this journey of experience alone. With a quick search on the web, I found this site about the Holy Spirit in the Bible: http://www.mycrandall.ca/courses/ntintro/spirit7.htm. The page is titled “The Holy Spirit in Pauline Theology.” Here is a succinct excerpt:
The Holy Spirit is central to Paul’s theology. Expressing himself in various ways, he asserts that the promise of the giving of the Spirit has been fulfilled. Different from the prophecy in the Hebrew prophets, however, he holds that the promise is fulfilled for the church, the new community of God, consisting of Jews and gentiles, and not for the nation of Israel. In Paul’s view, to be a Christian is not simply to accept certain propositions as true, such as Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, but rather to be indwellt by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s words make the most eloquent case for approaching life in its challenges and wonder as the experience of becoming what we already are:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
The action of becoming is complicated, messy, bitter, joyous, happy tears overflowing. God’s time is not the same way we think about time, but His is the timepiece that rules the rhythms of our experiences, of these lives to which we have died and risen again in Christ.
The next time you are feeling existential, dig your hands into the fertile dirt of God’s word and remember that your purpose in this life is to become the kind of person Christ’s sacrifice already made you in the eyes of God–a loving, patient, gentle, kind, growing child of Christ.
Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.
― Mother Teresa
Prayer is a sacred act we have a tendency to take for granted in a multitude of ways. Many of us have a bad habit of not turning to prayer unless we are in some kind of trouble. Others of us fail to appreciate the great gift it is to approach the Maker of Heaven and Earth in conversation just as we might speak to a respected friend. Because Christ serves as our High Priest, we always have access to the inner sanctuary of the temple, so to speak. All we have to do is believe, ask, and, as Mother Teresa so eloquently reminds us, to listen.
Unfortunately, our ability to listen is daily challenged by a bombardment of messages and information that is greater than at any other time in human history. From television and internet to cell phones and radios, we are almost never in silence. Unless, we make a concerted effort to find time to be quiet.
The first step to silence is to pick a time in each day when you plan to spend time with just yourself and God. Enter a room or your closet, close the door, turn off the cell. Begin by finding a comfortable position. Take three deep, breaths. Spend the first few moments with God concentrating on clearing your mind. Don’t let thoughts about your To-Do list or the confrontation at work that day get in the way of this moment when you are preparing to speak to the Most Holy of Holies.
The ability to clear one’s mind and be comfortable in our own silence takes practice. Don’t expect to get it right at first. But having with you your two strongest weapons–your faith and your Bible–will certainly help you focus your mind on the things of God and not the things of this world. Ask Him to help you listen. Admit your fears and your hope to Him.
Eventually, you will be able to expand the time you spend in your sacred space. In fact, you will grow to covet the quiet time. You will find there is always something or someone to pray about. You will also find that even just sitting and concentrating on your own breath once you have invited God in can be a holy experience.
But, be ready to check the answers you think you hear from God against what you know He says in His word. Ask your spiritual advisors for confirmation of what you think you have heard. Remember that our human hearts are known as “the great deceivers” for a reason. Often, the truth God needs us to see is initially painful, but it always leads to a better us, to the healing that is the promise of Christ’s love for us.
Finally, remember that, as your ability to find the sacred places in your own heart and day increase, you are duty-bound to share what you have learned with others. Sacred spaces are even more sacred when we learn together to be still and listen for God:
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them, Christ tells us in Matthew 18:20.
The family that prays together stays together, isn’t just an old wives’ tale. It is the profound truth of the power of God when we truly let Him into our lives.
So, the next time you prepare to pray, take a moment or two to remember the value of the privilege it is that we Christians can speak, speak, to the One and Only in full knowledge that He is listening to us and that the One who died for us is sitting at His right hand to intervene on our behalf. Now, that is a sacred truth worth feeling from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes.
Be on the lookout for the sacred this week. Make time in your day for it. All you need do is ask.
One of the first concepts you have to “get” when you are a beginning cultural anthropology student is the idea of how many non-Western cultures view time.
For most of us, time is a linear thing, lines of days in a week or month that we can cross off or circle as we wait in anticipation for their arrival. We divide our days into morning, afternoon, and evening. We distinguish between past, present and future.
For some of us, the past is a living thing we carry each day, a burden of mistakes or victimizations we haven’t forgiven ourselves or others for. Each present moment gets lost in the miasma of not letting go of what has been. Instead of learning from the past and moving on, we stay in a cycle of non-growth.
For others, the future is our challenge. We are so busy worrying about what might happen, we don’t enjoy the moment in hand. We also fail to remember all the times in the past when our worries were proven unfounded.
In Native American cultures, the concept of linear time is quite foreign. Instead, the circular is the more favored concept. Circles represent how connected people are to each other and to the natural world around them.
The perpetual now embraces the circle in that past, present and future are considered to be always with us in each moment. We are never without what has come before, but we are also not without the promise of what is to be.
Living in the perpetual now means understanding the kind of wholeness in time that makes enjoying each moment truly possible. My best present is in full knowledge of where I have come from and where I intend to go.
For the Christian, embracing a perpetual now attitude means tapping into the awesome power that is Christ’s love for us. It is living in each moment knowing that we are forgiven. It is living like we truly believe the promise of our salvation.
In her book, Battlefield of the Mind, Joyce Meyers explains:
Think and speak about your future in a positive way, according to what God has placed on your heart, and not according to what you have seen in the past or are seeing even now in the present.
Reading and knowing God’s Word, spending regular time in quiet contemplation with Him, and believing God “will work to the good all things for those who believe in Him”–these are ways to grasp the kind of now that is backed by the full power of God (Romans 8:28).