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Posts Tagged ‘hope’

My soul waits for the Lord

More than watchmen for the morning

More than watchmen for the morning.

Psalm 130:6 (ESV)

For many years I felt I possessed an insight into this verse that a lot of people could not appreciate. Whenever I read this verse, invariably an image would come to mind of experiences I had in Vietnam. I remember being on guard in Vietnam, staring out into the darkness, praying that I would see nothing throughout a long and fearful night. Most of the time, the night would pass uneventfully, although it was not always to be so. But it’s that image of staring out into a darkness so black that it seems to envelop you that I most remember. Can you imagine the relief when daylight finally arrives and most of the danger is over? And that’s how it must have felt to watchmen on the city walls in the ancient world; fear turning to relief with the promise of one more day.

As I struggle to deal with a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer I feel some of that same anxiety. I see before me a darkness that threatens to swallow me up with no promise of daylight at the end. You see, I understand that life is too uncertain and our fears too real for them to be explained away simply by quoting an inspirational verse. You can quote this verse (and hundreds of others) to me, but the darkness is still there and the struggles ongoing.

So, what should we do with verses like this? First of all, be careful before you post an inspirational verse on social media. Can you understand that I now have two perspectives on this verse that many of you cannot identify with (Vietnam and cancer)? Posting a verse such as this provides little encouragement to me, unless it is put into a context that recognizes the full reality of my situation. I would even suggest that until you have experienced real hardship in life, perhaps you may not be the best one to provide encouragement. Better to leave that to those who have some battle scars and have experienced struggle firsthand.

So how can this and similar verses encourage us? Certainly not by some “health and wealth” platitude that everything is going to work out fine. From a material perspective, it may not. Yes, I can and do look forward in faith to a time when the darkness is over and an eternal morning dawns. I believe that, but I still have to deal everyday with pain and struggles that are so real I am reluctant to describe them. I have to watch my wife step in and do so many things that should be my responsibility. And although she does so magnificently and without a word of complaining, it is hard for me to accept.

So, just in case you missed it, here is the lesson with which I would leave you. Please recognize that life is real and struggle is part of it. For many of us the darkness is always there, ready to engulf us. Simply posting an inspirational verse or quotation by itself is not enough. Do something to acknowledge that you recognize the reality behind it. The last thing someone struggling with a serious problem needs is for someone to post something that just adds to their guilt, because they do not have a blind faith that takes away all of the fear. And as much as I long for the morning, today the darkness is still there. So, leave me with encouragement as I struggle with that darkness, rather than guilt because I am still struggling.

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Seriously, think about that for a moment. Actually, I would encourage you to write it down, so that you can really face what it would take to make you happy.

How do you think I would answer that question? Would it be for my cancer to go away? There are at least two problems with that. First of all, it’s not likely to happen. Also, the absence of something (even cancer) does not ensure happiness. So, does this doom me to live whatever time I have remaining without being happy? I don’t believe so. Let me tell you why.

I read a lot during the day, especially when I am weak from chemo and other medications. But it’s at night that I especially enjoy reading. We have an adjustable bed which is very helpful at minimizing both cough and shortness of breath, because it keeps pressure off my lungs.

A couple of weeks ago, I made two relatively small purchases that have already made a significant impact on my life. I spent $69 for a Kindle, and I purchased a floor lamp at Walmart for $35. It uses a fluorescent bulb, and can be directed so that I can read while in bed. So, you’re probably shaking your head in disbelief at the idea that a Kindle and a lamp have made me happy. But you have to understand me. I have always loved to read, and now both the limitations as well as the freedom that have come with my treatment have made that much easier to do. Every night, I go back at 8:30. I raise the head of the bed and read until 10:00 when I normally go to sleep. That time gives me immense pleasure, and I look forward to it. It also helps to relax me, so that when I do go to bed, I tend to be content and in a good mood.

So, what’s the point of my rambling? Just two things. You’re not likely to eliminate all of the stress, hurt, or disappointment from your life any more than I am likely to eliminate cancer from mine. And so you should not waste your time (waste your life actually) waiting for that to happen before you decide to be happy.

It may not be reading for you, but you need to recognize that happiness is not something someone gives you. It doesn’t come from a better marriage, a larger paycheck, a job promotion, or anything external. Happiness is a quality you decide to have. Now you may need a little help. For me it was a Kindle and a lamp. It will probably be something entirely different for you, but I suspect that it will not be whatever you wrote down at the beginning of this exercise.

The reality is that even with all of the trials that go with my treatment, as well as the doubtful outcome, for at least 2-3 hours a day, I can say that I am truly happy. Actually, it’s more than that, because I only mentioned one small thing that gives me pleasure. We didn’t even talk about friends, family, or being able to get out in this beautiful world, even if it’s only for a couple of hours each day. Believe me, I have no illusions that this is permanent. I am all too aware that difficult, probably painful times lie ahead. But for now, cancer and all, I am a happy person, primarily because I choose to be.

Go back to whatever you wrote down that you said would make you happy. I suggest you cross it out and replace it with your equivalent of my Kindle and lamp. Decide what can give you enough pleasure that you will have periods of real happiness in your life. It really is your decision.

 

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This post will be longer than usual, but it deals with a subject that is so important to me right now that I ask your indulgence.

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay entitled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without An Answer.” He described how the New Testament gives what appear to be contradictory instructions regarding petitionary prayer (prayer in which we are asking God for something). Interestingly enough, James gives examples of both. In James 1:6 we read, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” At the same time James 4:13-15 reads, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” Other examples could be given such as Matthew 17:20 which talks about having the faith of a mustard seed and Luke 22:42 in which our Lord asks the Father to take away the cross, but ultimately submits himself to God’s will. So, how should we pray? Do we pray with the assurance that God will grant what we ask, or should we limit our prayer to praying according to God’s will?

If I understand Lewis’s essay, he ultimately gave up and admitted that he could not adequately reconcile the two views. While it may appear the epitome of arrogance to suggest that I can resolve anything C. S. Lewis could not, perhaps my current situation (stage 4 lung cancer) has given me plenty of time for reflection, as I have pondered in my life just what I should pray for. Do I pray for healing when my oncologist has said categorically that ultimately my condition is terminal, or should I pray according to God’s will? And if I do the latter, does that very prayer indicate a lack of faith?

When I was growing up, it seems that almost invariably petitionary prayers used the second model, especially if the condition was critical. I do not wish to judge peoples’ hearts, but it appeared to me even then, that these were not prayers of faith. Rather, the ones praying felt the need to “hedge their bets,” so that if the prayer was not granted, they could fall back on the  explanation that God’s will was that it not be granted. We did that, so that our faith would not be threatened by the petition not being granted.

So, how do I reconcile these two models for petitionary prayer? Here are my rather simplistic explanations.

The model that simply asks God to grant what we ask, because we have faith in him is valid, because it recognizes the nature of the relationship God wants to have with his children. I often fall back on the family relationship as an illustration. When our children come to us with requests, loving parents delight to give them what they seek. We want them to come to us, and it makes us happy to see the pleasure they receive from granting those requests.

At the same time, children do not always get what they ask for a variety of reasons. It may be that the parents do not have the ability to give what is asked, and in that instance the analogy to God breaks down. Sometimes, however, the parents do not give what is asked for either because they recognize that in the long run it would not be good or wise, or there are other issues that the child may not be able to understand.

So, how does this relate to our own petitionary prayers? The prayer which simply asks God to grant the request is a prayer of faith, because it recognizes both God’s power as well as his loving nature that cares for us.

But I am coming to believe that the prayer that subjects my desire to God’s will, when properly invoked, is an even greater expression of faith. It recognizes both God’s power and his love, just as the first model does, but it goes further. When I pray this second model, it tells God that I have enough faith to leave the outcome to him. It is also an admission that I cannot see the whole picture.

I believe that God has the power to remove my cancer completely, even when the physical laws of this universe say it is impossible. Of course, God could have just as easily prevented the cancer from developing in the first place. The fact that he did not causes my faith to ask a more difficult question. Is it possible that God wants to use this situation in some way that I cannot comprehend? As painful as it may be to contemplate, perhaps I should recognize that God did not cause my cancer. The physical laws of the universe did that. At the same time, he can use my circumstances just as he has promised to use every circumstance of my life (consider Romans 8:28). What if God is challenging me to allow him to walk with me through this circumstance, even if the end is my death? Am I willing to do that? Can I recognize that perhaps there are others struggling with their own doubts and their own demons who might read my words and be strengthened in their own faith? And if that happens, am I ready to acknowledge that my death might be worth that kind of transformation?

In conclusion, the first model is a prayer of faith; however, I have come to feel that the second model is an even greater prayer of faith. It reflects a trust that goes beyond my asking God for what I want. Instead, it says to God, “I trust you with this situation, recognizing both your power and your wisdom, and I willingly submit myself to your working in my life — no matter what the end result might be.” This kind of prayer is not “hedging my bets.” Rather, it is the response of a mature faith, that says to God, “I feel that the safest place to be is in your hands.”

Today, do you have the faith to place your situation in God’s hands and allow him to do whatever he wills with you? But I caution you (from personal experience), do not pray that, unless you really mean it.

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On April 15, 2014, I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Some final tests are being done to determine treatment options, but the oncologist was clear that the goal is not to cure the cancer, but to prolong my life. Obviously, this news will impact the future of this blog in ways that cannot be predicted at this time. However, in whatever time I have remaining, perhaps I can use this experience to encourage my readers.

Most people know the story of actress Valerie Harper, perhaps best known for playing Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in January 2013, Valerie encouraged her supporters with the haunting admonition, “Don’t go to the funeral until the day of the funeral — live this day.”

While that may sound very courageous, it is so obviously true. Why should I want to prolong my life, if I don’t intend to live that life fully? There is no way of knowing how long I will live. It may be months; it may be years. But, you know what, that’s true for you also.

If you are a person who prays, as I do, how often do you begin each day by praying something like, “Thank you, God, for another day”? I have done that for years, but it gets to the point that it becomes a ritual. It’s not for me anymore. At least once a day, I stop and look around me at this beautiful world and marvel that I have taken it for granted so often. The next time you pray something like that, stop right in the middle of the prayer. God won’t mind. Take a moment to look at the world. Go outside and marvel at blue sky or even rain and wind. Take a moment to appreciate your family and friends, the miracle of relationships that add beauty and meaning to our lives.

Mainly, I encourage you to live each day. The best way to express your gratitude for this life is to live it in a positive manner. That’s what I intend to do. I have no illusions. Undoubtedly, there will be days of pain, depression, perhaps even doubt and self-pity; I’m human after all. But I am making a conscious resolve to live the rest of my life as a happy person. I have so much to be thankful for, not the least of which are all the friends and family who continue to support me. And if any of you can learn from my experience, so much the better.

“Don’t go to the funeral until the day of the funeral — live this day.”

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Hope can be an elusive virtue. Depending on one’s belief system, it may not even be perceived as a virtue. From a Christian perspective, just what should hope be? Some non-Christians view the hope Christians profess as a pie-in-the-sky belief that if I am a Christian, nothing really bad can happen to me. Unfortunately, there are enough Christians who profess that view to provide evidence for the skeptics, and one does not have to look further than some of the TV evangelists to find it presented, along with its destructive sibling, the “health and wealth” gospel. But this concept of hope does not come from the Bible. Indeed, the New Testament itself, as well as the experience of countless Christians throughout the centuries, should convince us that this Pollyanna definition of hope simply will not hold up to the realities of life. One need only take a moment to envision the thousands of Christians in the past who have given their lives rather than abandon their faith.  Obviously they did not subscribe to the idea that if one is a Christian, nothing bad will happen. It is time to consider a mature view of hope.

A few weeks ago the teacher in our Sunday morning class asked us to spend some time thinking about the question, “Why do I have hope in Christ?” For some reason the question caused me to seek an answer to a question I had never consciously considered. Today I am presenting my response to you. I have rewritten portions of it to reflect the differences in audience, but it is essentially what I originally wrote. It will become obvious that this is a very personal view. Your response would likely be vastly different. Here is how I have come to view hope.

For me hope is not a longing for some unfulfilled reward, nor does it reflect a vague desire for some kind of miraculous intervention that will make my life worry free. Rather hope is a confidence in the future grounded in what I have experienced in the past.

As I was growing up hope was essentially a reflection of what I had been taught both at home and in Sunday School. It centered around a powerful God and how He would or not respond to me. I hoped God would save me, but I was never very sure about it. Heavy subject for an adult, much less a child.

By the time I reached my later teens, I had already abandoned this view of God, but I was struggling to find something to replace it with. During this period, I’m not sure I had anything concrete that could be described by the word “hope.”

One constant I have found in my life is that growth only seems to occur during trials, and so it was early on. One of the first trials I remember was being sent to Vietnam. The experience perhaps generated more questions than answers, but one irrefutable fact became clear. The view of God I had inherited from childhood was not adequate. I needed to believe that God would be more directly involved in the daily struggles of my life. At that time, hope became very specific, as it often does during times of uncertainty.

Other struggles have come over the years, and hope has been essential to our getting through them. Perhaps the most trying expression of that hope has been attempting to raise a family under difficult circumstances for which my wife and I have never felt adequate. This challenge began when we were informed that our child (at that time our only child) would be mentally retarded. And in one moment, all our hopes and dreams for that child vanished to be replaced by a devastating present and an unknown and fearful future. So where is hope in that? It did not come overnight. Rather it developed over the years. Hope for us was not just a mental or emotional belief. Over the years we were to experience numerous challenges, only to find that resources presented themselves just at the moment they were most needed. We saw God at work, helping us not only survive the trials that came, but actually grow through the experience.

Last year my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and hope once again took on a definite form. I still remember about a week after her diagnosis wondering where we would be in a year. Once again, the Lord got us through that struggle, due in no small part to the willingness of the members of our church family to be His hands and feet in literally hundreds of ways. Right now my wife is cancer free. We can look back at the struggle that came out of those dark days with the assurance that we were not alone.

As I have grown older, I have seen evidences of God working in my life, and there can be no doubt that it was God’s hand that guided me through many circumstances. Now those experiences with God provide a basis for hope for tomorrow. Recently my wife has been in Georgia, caring for her 91-year-old father during his failing health. The time will come when I will likely face similar challenges myself, and at 66 those challenges may come sooner than I like to consider. But just as God has gotten me to this point in my life, my hope for his continued grace is just as comforting.

My hope is not a vague grasping at straws, nor is it a product of wishful thinking. Even less is it a naive belief that my life will be without struggle or tragedy. Instead hope is the assurance that the future is as secure as the past, because it is in the hands of the One who has promised to be with me “even to the end of the age,” and has proven Himself faithful for almost 67 years.

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