There’s Got To Be More!

I get it.Man with Head in Hands PIC.jpg

I read Twitter and ChristianPost and Thom Ranier and multiple articles from all sources about the pandemic of discouragement, disillusionment, depression, disunity and depletion of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual strength amongst American pastors – and I get it. I frequently weep as I pray for unknown (to me) leaders bleeding words of despair as they confess the unrelenting desire to just walk away from their churches, their petulant, demanding, absent people – and sometimes even from the effort to draw another breath and or take another step.

And I understand. Some of it, at least. Probably a lot of it.

I’m a senior saint now. Daughter of a long-gone Baptist minister, who grew up in the church of generations past. From the front pew, I experienced the previous six decades as the church, with the sincerest of motives, shed layers of tradition, liturgy, Bible teaching practices and expectations and embraced the world’s methods in attempts to “bring them in.” Programs abounded, music morphed into catchy praise songs no longer requiring organs or multi-generational choirs. “Seeker-friendly” and “attractional” became single-phrase outlines for entire church structures, goals and methods. Successfully. It looked good. It sounded good. It worked.

Didn’t it? God worked, certainly, because that’s what He does. He calls His people. He builds His Kingdom. He prepares His Bride. He is faithful and true; a Promise-Keeper and the Completer of all He has begun. Isn’t He?

Then I have one question. And it’s the same question that I threw at the Heavens 40-plus years ago when I battled my way through to full belief in and surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. It was both an accusation and a plea for understanding: “There has got to be more!”

I read about the early church. I read the epistles. I read the Gospels. I reveled in Revelation. I read about power and joy and perseverance in the midst of great suffering, and genuine conversions and changed lives and Kingdom expansion and exhortations and encouragements about how to live and what our lives should look like.

One problem. My life didn’t look like that. Other lives didn’t look like that. What were we missing? There has got to be more!

In His providential unique creation of me, and His spiritual gifting, God gave me a love for words – especially His Word. Long before I was able to spiritually discern much of anything in the Bible, I loved it, was drawn to it. I used to sleep with it. It was comforting, just to feel the weight of it in my arms, caress the smooth leather cover with my fingers, as I hugged it to my chest.

I was, and am, a natural student, teacher and writer. Also wired by my Creator to rise early, I’m at my desk every morning by 4. Coffee at my right hand, Bible open, current journal and a variety of colored pens and markers nearby, bookcase crammed with commentaries and hundreds of books at my back, I spend a minimum of two hours in the Word of God and in prayer. Abiding. It is a rare morning that it is less than that, and rarer still that the process is skipped altogether. This is my joy, this is the foundation of my day.

I believe the Word of God is exactly that: His Word. It is everything it claims to be; living, active, powerful, dividing, piercing, and revealing all that the God of glory has chosen to divulge to His highest and most beloved creation: those who bear His image. I have experienced countless times the illumination God’s Holy Spirit gives in a familiar word or passage, suddenly removing an onion layer to reveal another facet of meaning and application. Never contradictory, but deeper, richer, applicable to my circumstance or recent prayer or question or confusion.

Why do I say all that? Simply to factually state that I’m nobody special, but neither am I a (dare I say it?) stereotypical Christian who spends perhaps 10 minutes every other day reading a devotional thought in a well-meaning book that may quote one Bible verse and give a suggested 15-second prayer. I’m not a Biblical scholar, I don’t write books, no one outside of my small friends and family circle has any clue who I am. But I am perhaps a tad more knowledgeable about God’s Word than the average pew-sitter.

And I’m 73. Recitation of my personal life includes a litany of sinful behaviors – some of the so-called big ones – and tragedies and failures, the consequences of which still touch my life and that of others today. In other words, I’ve been around awhile. I’ve lived this Christian life for a few years. And loved it. Always wanting more of Jesus; to know Him, the power of His resurrection, and yes – the fellowship of His sufferings. (Philippians 3:10)

If you’re still reading (thank you) you’re wondering what all that has to do with where I started this essay. I’ve said all that because I’m asking a critical question, hoping for serious answers from serious people who will recognize that I do not want or need shallow, simplistic, Christian sayings that can be found beautifully framed in the home décor’ section of Hobby Lobby.

That heart cry I threw at God decades ago – There has got to be more! – came from studying and believing His Word – and not seeing it lived out. Not in my life. Not in the lives of those around me. That question has once again surfaced – and it frightens and discourages me.

I believed it when Jesus said, “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) and when he promised soul rest because “his yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I believed Paul when he taught that we would be “new creations in Christ” (1 Corinthians 5:17); that we were literally “crucified with Christ” and that He now lives His life through us (Galatians 2:20).

I still believe it. I believe the entire Word of God. I believe it describes, through the human authors, who we are in Christ and how we are to live on this earth, and by what means and power. I believe it teaches that we are indwelt by the very Spirit of the living God; that truly regenerated believers have new hearts that yearn after Him and long to please Him and ache with the desire to know Him and throb with anticipation of being with Him for eternity.

But. Why, then, are pastors by the hundreds apparently so soul-sick, so exhausted and wounded and angry that they are at least emotionally ready to go dig ditches, rather than continue the shepherd-teacher role they once felt called to? Why, then, do recent studies suggest that at least 20% of former faithful members will not return to their churches? Why has this unexpected COVID-19 crisis resulted in toxic levels of disunity, vitriolic speech, fear, isolation, an apparent falling away from God and each other?

But let me stop right there. I could easily answer my own questions. And my answers would probably mirror many of your own. And I could also rather easily give a list of remedies; again, a list that might sound like many others.

Here’s my problem and my question: why do those remedies depend upon me? Where is the power of God?

  • I need to stay in the Word
  • I need to pray more
  • I need to look for opportunities to serve others and stop concentrating on my own life
  • I need to have more faith
  • I need to recognize that this earth is not my home; my citizenship is in Heaven
  • I need to understand that believers were promised suffering
  • I need to understand that God is sovereign
  • I need to understand that God is, in fact, God – and while He has revealed much of Himself through His Word, His thoughts and ways are higher than ours – and always will be
  • I need to love others with an agape’ type love; self-sacrificial love
  • I need to extend grace and forgiveness to others, just as it has been extended to me
  • I need to try harder, believe more, love more – oh, and rest, take care of myself and my family, guard our health, be patient, be understanding…

I am willing to bet that every pastor who is struggling so mightily and hurting so deeply has repeated variations of those thoughts to himself until he is sick of thinking. He has beat himself up over why he can’t seem to pull himself up and out of the black hole he is in.

And he has asked the question: “Where is God? What is He doing? Where have I gone wrong? What have I missed? Is He real? Have I been fooling myself all this time?”  

What’s my point? I’ve asked those same questions. And I believe so have a lot of people. Genuine, born-again, regenerated believers. Those who have simply been cultural Christians have, I believe, gone one of two ways by now: begun or even completed the process of completely falling away from the faith or, ironically enough, become some of the loudest, harshest, most hateful accusatory voices of disunity.

So let me wind this up. It’s way too long to be of much use to anyone, but that’s okay. It’s stuff I needed to get out. I frequently think by writing (hence, the few dozen journals I’ve kept over the years.) And it’s helped me crystallize some of my questions because I really do need to talk to someone about them. Not just share for the sake of sharing – I need someone I trust to help me walk this out.

There are some people God has placed in my life that seem to think I may be able to help guide them in their Christian walk, and I’m honored and humbled by that. And I encourage them all to ask the tough questions. We all have to know what we believe and why we believe it. In our world today, people neither want nor need smoke and mirrors. They want Truth, delivered with honesty and passion. If you believe it, then live it. But right now, I need help myself.

Almost six years ago now, I was (to the surprise of my medical team) recovering from a multitude of post-surgical medical issues, including seven weeks on a ventilator and five months of hospitalizations and rehab centers. Still tethered to a trach, multiple IV lines, and an NG tube, I was gradually learning to walk again and slowly regaining mental acuity. But very slowly. I had been heavily sedated for two months, and the long-term effects of those drugs was substantial.

Between therapy sessions, I tried hard to reconnect with God. I tried to read my Bible. The words blurred into unintelligible lines. I tried to listen to my beloved pastor’s expository sermons. I couldn’t comprehend them. I tried to pray. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I just cried, which was an uncomfortable thing to do with an NG tube and a trach in my throat.

One afternoon, in absolute terror as I felt my grip on reality slipping, I mentally cried out to God. “I can’t hold onto You!”

His answer was immediate, life-changing and life-sustaining.  “You don’t have to hold onto me. I’m holding onto you. Rest.”

And I did. Fear left and never returned. Anxiousness left and never returned. True healing began that day. And continues to this day.

I believe Him. I believe His Word. I trust Him. But I don’t understand. Where is the power of the Holy Spirit Paul refers to in Galatians 3 when he challenges his readers with Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

What have we missed? What do believers in other countries seem to know and have that we don’t?

I’d welcome your comments. Just please don’t tell me something else that I’m supposed to do.

And for God’s sake – literally – don’t go to your pastor and tell him something that he’s supposed to do! Instead, prostrate yourself before the Lord and ask, first, if you might be part of your pastor’s problem. If so, repent immediately. Get up off your face and do something. Write a card of encouragement. Give he and his family a gift card to a nice restaurant. Offer to babysit the kids so they have an evening of rest. Encourage. Support. Be the one who stops or at least refuses to participate in whatever litany of discontent and disunity is swirling amongst the members of your church. Pray. And pray some more.

Okay. I’m done. I do know one thing. God is up to something in the American church. He may be completely dismantling the thing we’ve built it into in order to shape it for His glory and the expansion of His Kingdom. But He is at work.  If He is not, then we are, of all men, most miserable.

What Peter said to Jesus long ago is our only hope today: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

 

How Long, O LORD?

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
(Psalm 13:1,2 ESV)

 It was not the first time those words of Israel’s King David, penned over 3,000 years ago, voiced my own tearful prayers but they hit hard on a recent early morning,.

I’m tired. I’m very tired. Are you? And yes, I’m tearful. And discouraged. And depressed. And directionless. And even fearful.

Four times in this Psalm David cries out, How long? Don’t you feel that way? How long is this going to last? How long is this going to keep getting worse? How long before it all goes back to normal? How long before we get our lives back? How long am I going to feel this way?

 One line in David’s prayer captures my frequent despair: How long (will I have) sorrow in my heart all the day?

Decades ago I learned a pattern of reading through the Psalms and Proverbs. With 150 Psalms and 31 chapters in Proverbs, and an average of 30 days in a month, the basic plan calls for reading five Psalms and one chapter in Proverbs every day.

For today – the 13th – I read Psalm 13, 43, 73, 103, and 133, plus Proverbs 13. See the pattern? It’s the day’s date – 13 – plus 30, equals 43. Plus 30 equals 73; plus 30 equals 103; plus 30 equals 133. Tomorrow I will read Psalms 14, 44, 74, 104, and 134, plus Proverbs 14.

The numbering system in our Bibles was not developed until the 16th century. The original parchments were stories and letters and songs and prayers, written in essay fashion. However, the sovereign God Who spoke through men to reveal Himself over the centuries certainly oversaw the scribes who later organized their writings into chapters and verses. It is frequently amazing to see the thread of thought that God has woven through these widely spaced chapters in Psalms.

So, back to today. Allow me to share the progression of spiritual fatigue and questioning to promise and comfort and conviction the Lord encouraged me with this morning. Perhaps He meant it for you, also.

In my ESV Inductive Study Bible, I have titled Psalm 13 Vacillating Emotions – Bedrock Truth. The first two verses are David’s anguished cry: How long, O LORD? He continues his plea for answers in verses 3 and 4, reminding God that unless He intervenes, David’s enemies will believe they have triumphed.

I don’t know who David’s enemies were when he wrote. I do know my enemies – and yours: The world, our flesh, and the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3). Formidable, indeed.

David’s last two sentences counter his wild emotions and heartsick despair with bedrock truth – the character of God that can be trusted.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5,6)

Ah, but now, there’s a problem. I read this, I underline it, I believe it, I pray it, I hope in it. I just don’t feel it. I see the future truth in those two statements: my heart shall rejoice and my lips will sing and praise the LORD. I know that will happen because it has happened before. Emotions change and eventually fall into line with the Truth.

But this time, it feels different. This time the world seems to be slipping off its moorings, being shaken by a Holy God to determine what things will remain (Hebrews 12:26,27).

I need more. I keep reading. And I come to the next Psalm in the pattern, Psalm 43 – which I have also titled, Vacillating Emotions – Bedrock Truth. And here, once again, David gives voice to my angry emotions: Why, God?

 For you are the God in whom I take refuge;Why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? (Psalm 43:2)

 Do you ever feel like that? Even though you have believed God, have trusted in Him as your stronghold and refuge, the cleft in the Rock, now it feels like He shut the doors on you and is nowhere to be found. But the enemy is crouching at every one of those doors. Through circumstances, through pain and suffering, through financial loss, physical affliction, relationships gone sour, loneliness and isolation, and a culture that seems to be descending into anarchy, he prowls like a lion, seeking to destroy.

What do we do in the midst of such anguish, when we don’t feel like we have the mental, emotional or spiritual bandwidth to handle another thing? We do what David did, in the midst of his black emotional spiral: we pray to the God Who does not change.

 Send out your light and your truth, Let them lead me; Let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. (Psalm 43:3,4)

We, like David, pray this way because we, like David, have been here before, and God has proven His faithfulness. We depend on Him now; we trust Him now, even though our emotions are screaming otherwise. We have hope that we will “feel better,” but we also know that God is worthy of our praise and trust, regardless of our emotions.

But. This time is different. This time is serious. This time is frightening and lonely and appears to have the potential of bringing down our culture and our lifestyle as we know it. So we turn to the next Psalm in the pattern, only to find that the writer apparently felt the same way.

I’ve titled Psalm 73 Spiritual Fatigue, Envy of the World – and The Answer to Both. This is a much longer Psalm and begins with raw thoughts that we all can share. The writer seems to say, “Yes, God has been good in the past– but I am about ready to give up because the wicked are winning the world. What good does it do for me to follow God?”

Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. (Psalm 73:12,13)

 Television screens, internet feeds and smart phones flood our minds with garish images of riots, lootings, burnings, strangers screaming at each other in store aisles,

But when I sought to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went to the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. (Psalm 73:16,17)

 There’s an important truth here. “When I sought to understand this.” How often do I do that? I look at circumstances and news reports and Twitter feeds and discuss with friends and read articles and even listen to sermons. I study a situation or a cultural trend, and I mull it over and even lose sleep over it, trying to make sense of it, and to determine when and how it will all end and what it will look like when it does.

There can be some value in all that; but, as David says, it is a wearisome task. When does it all begin to fall into place? When can I begin to process everything correctly and gain some peace in that process? When I enter the sanctuary of God. When I get alone with Him. When I do what Jesus commanded and modeled: I go to my room, close the door, and pray over, through and with the Word of God.

And I find there what David found. Not necessarily a change in my emotions – but Truth.

Nevertheless, I am continually with you; You hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, And afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:23,24)

 And I have these verses underlined and highlighted:

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever… But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge that I may tell of your works. (Psalm 73:26,28)

 Notice the final purpose of all this: not to keep it to myself, or just to feel better – but to tell; to testify; to glorify God by sharing His truths with everyone I can.

The next Psalm in today’s pattern reinforces God’s goodness and His provision for these times of emotional distress. Psalm 103 is titled Bless The Lord – Remember!

 Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, Bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. (Psalm 103:1,2)

David’s song of praise is full of the grace God bestows on His people. God forgives, God heals, God redeems, God abounds in steadfast love, God satisfies, God works righteousness and justice, God makes Himself known, God is merciful and gracious, God is compassionate, and God rules all of His creation.

One of Scriptures’ most comforting passages is in Psalm: 103: 10-14):

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. 

But notice: four times David identifies those to whom God directs His beneficial care – to those who fear him (vs.11,13,17) and who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments (vs. 18). While the Creator bestows common grace on all His works, making the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45), God’s Father-care, compassion and forgiveness of sins is only to His children – to those who fear him.

Psalm 133 is the last in the day’s reading, and in a few short words, combines all the elements of God’s encouragement to me in the midst of my emotional turmoil.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is When brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

God’s electing grace has placed me in a faith family. That’s a fact that is wholly dependent upon Him, not upon how I happen to feel at any point in time. And that family is united in Jesus Christ. When we recognize and remember that fact, it is indeed “good and pleasant.”

Isn’t that one of the most difficult aspects of our lives in these times of upheaval and isolation – our separation from our brothers, our faith family? The unity in Christ is a fact, but the experience of that unity has been interrupted, and we are feeling the very real and very deep effects of that separation. This Psalm reminds us that we are still brothers; and that the day is coming when we will live out that unity for eternity.

God had a final exhortation and encouragement for me in the Proverbs chapter for the day; another reminder of the cost and the reward of following Christ; of denying myself and my raging emotions and instead presenting myself as a living sacrifice and renewing my mind every morning (Matthew 16:24; Romans 12:1,2). Proverbs 13:13 warns:

Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, But he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded.

It does not get any clearer than that. When we neglect the Word of God, we bring destruction on ourselves.

One last word. A recent article in the online Christian Post  details the results of a Pew Research Center study on what Americans are doing to keep themselves occupied during the coronavirus pandemic. Over 10,000 adults were surveyed.

“Nine-in-ten U.S. adults say they watch TV or movies at least weekly to cope with the outbreak, including roughly three-quarters (73%) who say they do this daily,” Pew reported.

The most disturbing finding? Just 29% of Americans said that they read Scripture on a weekly or daily basis. Among Christians, less than half (42%) said they read the Bible regularly to help cope with the outbreak.

Listen to wise King Solomon one more time: Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself.

These are difficult, troubling days and I, like many of you, have frequently navigated through them while coping with depression and discouragement. But I am here to testify to God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. I don’t have to fight to hold onto Him; He’s holding onto me. But He does so through His Spirit and His Word.

We are pilgrims – and we are making progress. Stay the course, Christian, for he who reveres the commandments will be rewarded.

 #Heisworthy  #Heisenough