Another unemployment lesson

In my last post, I shared some lessons that I learned through 7 months of uncertain unemployment. Of course, the truth is: I’m still learning. And the lessons continue. Here’s one more that I don’t want to slip through the cracks, unnoticed.

And this lesson starts with this simple idea: Be careful of pious phrases. We church people are really good at church lingo and spiritual slogans. Sometimes these phrases are true, and deeply so. But sometimes we speak words we want to be true, we hope are true, but they’re not — at least not in the way that we think.

So, sometimes we say things like: Don’t worry. Just trust God. Pray harder.

Are these words true? Of course. Nobody wants to worry. We all need to trust God more. And who among us thinks our prayer life is ever good enough?

Speaking phrases like this, while true, are usually not helpful. They can often have the opposite effect of what’s intended — instead of helping people connect more with God, they may in fact make them feel as if they are the reason for their struggles. If only I had more faith, or prayed more diligently, I wouldn’t be in this situation.

No. No. No. That’s not how life works. We don’t pray ourselves out of bad stuff, and into good stuff. Instead, we learn to trust God IN the difficult circumstances; oftentimes it’s the hard stretches of life that stretch us beyond pious platitudes, into surrender. A surrender that recognizes that, more than quick fixes and simplistic answers, we need to simply hold onto God right where are. And sometimes it’s a steel cable that seems to bind us to God; and other times, it feels like a thread.

In fact, maybe what God wants most for us during times of duress isn’t clear; maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that He wants us to cling to Him, to trust Him in the darkness, and just take the next step.

Which leads to a couple of other phrases I find of questionable help: God’s got a plan. It will all work out in the end.

Just the other day, I heard about a person in prison for his faith in a country known for its opposition to Christianity. Separated from his family, he has faced 361 days a year in solitary confinement. Now, imagine that on one of the 4 days a year he is given an opportunity to talk with people, you are one of the ones who gets to visit with him. What are you going to say? God’s got a plan? It will all work out in the end?

What if he never gets released from prison; never gets to see his family again? Is that God’s plan? Is that how it all works out in the end?

Now, on the one hand, we have faith that God is working through even the worst of circumstances. And we know that things will work out in the end — even if the end is the End of All Things. But lots of bad stuff happens in this life, and some of it doesn’t get fixed in this life. God will work out all things in the end; we have this promise. But it might be that, in this life, His plan is not to open all the doors we want opened; to make smooth all our paths; to make clear every step we take. In fact, as I heard John Ortberg say recently: sometimes God’s plan is that we use the freedom he has given us to make a choice. It might not be the best choice; it may not take us down the path we hoped it would. But, as Ortberg points out, God is more concerned with our character than our circumstances. And His plan might be less about walking through the “right door,” than it is about the kind of person we are becoming as we make the choices that take us through the doors we decide to walk through.

But overall, my concern isn’t so much with what well-meaning people say; it’s why. And often, I think we toss around pious phrases to people because we don’t know what else to say. In fact, I think that oftentimes we speak a spiritual cliche — like, at a funeral home: She’s in a better place — because we are trying to remind ourselves that this is true. Standing next to the casket with a mom who has to bury her child, we don’t know what to say because there is no way to explain this.

So I wonder if what we are doing when we offer a religious cliche is, in fact, speaking to ourselves. Running into a friend whose husband just walked out, we have no answers. So we give voice to what WE need to hear. It’ll be okay. God’s in control. All things work for good, after all. Speaking these words to our friend, we are in fact also seeking to console ourselves; to make sense of the senseless. To try to hold onto truth when the world is falling apart.

But when we stop trying to speak to ourselves, or come up with the perfect words to speak to our friend in need, we might find this deeper truth: what people need in times of need are not words, but someone to walk with them. Not pious phrases, but presence. Because, it’s easier to drop by and say something spiritual than it is to come alongside and do something practical. It’s easier to speak a cliche than it is to walk with them through the uncertainty.

As I think about the season of life I just went through, the people who were the most helpful were the ones who didn’t have all the answers — but were there for me, anyway. There were times they didn’t know what to say — but they stayed there for me, anyway. The reminded me of biblical truth, by words, yes; but even more by what they did. They showed me God is faithful by their faithfulness.

There was an episode of “CSI: New York” about 10 years ago where one of the detectives, Mac Taylor, befriends a neighborhood kid. The two are walking home from a community event when Mac notices a thief escaping the scene of a crime. He tells Ruben, the 10-year-old boy, to go straight home. The detective begins to chase the criminal, but doesn’t catch him.

Later, Mac is at the crime lab, and he sees Ruben’s dead body; he had been killed by the escaping thief. As he walks away, one of the female cops come up to Mac, looking for advice. What do I say?, she asks. I’m not good at this kind of thing. To which Mac Taylor responds, Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing.

Here’s the truth: None of us is good at that kind of thing. But not having the right words to say is, I believe, one of the first steps in acknowledging that words don’t change the reality that life can sometimes be downright crappy. Recognizing that doesn’t mean that our faith is weak or shallow; it doesn’t mean that God isn’t real and present. It simply grabs hold of the fact that maybe, when we stop talking, we give ourselves, and those walking through the Valley, an opportunity beyond hearing truth — to experiencing it.

For when we were in our deepest valley, when we as creation were in our greatest need, God Himself moved beyond words, to presence. God moved beyond giving Law, to showing Love. For when we had no answer, God answered most clearly, showed Himself most powerfully, by walking with us, becoming one of us — for the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.

Where has life fishhooked you?

 

Yesterday, I headed out through the garage, on my way to do some work for a friend. As I walked through the garage, I couldn’t miss it. Some kind of wire-y, point-y, fishhook-y kind of think sticking out of a tire on my wife’s van. I pulled on it a bit, but it wasn’t budging.

Dang it!, I thought. Now I’m going to have to deal with this.

So I took it the tire place, and as the guy looked at it, we both had a chuckle: How did that get there? My response: It’s my wife’s van. Must be her great driving!

Since she wasn’t there, and it IS her van, I could say that. But really, who knows how that fishhook thing go in the side wall of her tire?

That’s how life is. We shouldn’t be surprised when life hooks us, but so often we are. Sometimes, the fault is ours. But sometimes, it’s not. I mean, really, fishhooks happen.

What’s your fishhook right now? Maybe it’s cancer, or heart disease. Maybe it’s someone you love who is facing these things. Or maybe they’re facing dementia, or another condition for which there is no cure.

Maybe it’s work that has stuck a hook in you. Or school. Or a relationship. Or an addiction — yours, or someone you love. But somewhere, somehow, if you’re paying attention, there’s at least one thing in your life that has got you hooked.

A counselor recently shared with me a simple truth, but one we so often fail to accept. He said, simply: Life is hard.

Now, most of us get that. We realize life is challenging. Even so, there’s a part of us that keeps expecting it to get better, simpler, easier. But here’s the thing: when you expect life to be easy, and it turns out it’s not (which always ends up being the case), then you’re not sure what to do. You’re left staring at the fishhook, asking, Now what?

In these moments, if you expect life to be easy, you’ll look around for an quick escape hatch. Or someone to blame. Or you’ll just internalize it and blame the universe, or your upbringing, or your spouse — or, if you’re really heady, you might blame God.

But if you accept the premise that life is hard, then, not only are you not surprised when life sticks it to you, you’re also one step closer to dealing with challenges when they come. But let’s be clear: not all approaches to a difficult life have the same outcome.

It occurs to me that, once we accept the premise that life is hard, there are at least 4 ways to face life’s challenges. You can say:

  1. Life is hard … so you numb it.
  2. Life is hard … so you strive to overcome it.
  3. Life is hard … so you avoid it.
  4. Life is hard … but you face it.

The first response deals with life’s difficulties, and promptly looks around for something to deaden the pain. Alcohol, or another drug. TV. Food. Shopping. Mindless web surfing. Mindful web surfing, in an effort to find some one, or some image, to distract the mind. Or any number of other ways to drown out the pain of the world. And today’s sedative can all too easily become tomorrow’s addiction. As the writer Thomas Keating puts it: “Addictions are the ultimate way of distracting oneself from the emotional pain one is unwilling to face.”

The second approach goes the opposite direction. It seeks to overcome the difficulties through personal strength and smarts. It sees the pain and hardship, and says, I got this. It is confident in my ability to overcome through all kinds of methods, both secular and spiritual. Maybe it’s the latest meditation technique or self-help guru. Maybe if I save enough money or work harder. Or maybe if I just believe enough and pray hard enough, my cancer will go away or my relationship will be restored. But all of these approaches have one thing in common: they are about me — trusting that if I just work or pray hard enough, things will get better.

Or how about approach #3? It’s the method that lives out this mantra: When the going gets tough, just go. Leave. Whatever you have to do, get away from the pain and the heartbreak. Don’t climb the mountain; run from it!

This happens when we have a literal pain in the neck, and instead of going to doctor, we just ignore it. But it also happens when we have a relational pain in the neck, and we avoid that, too. Instead of talking with that person, dealing with the issue, we avoid them — and it. I remember a minister of a very influential church telling me once that when he began his ministry, he avoided conflict. He hoped that if he ignored it, it would go away. He pretty quickly learned that avoidance is a pretty lousy approach.

So, if life is hard, and numbing it, or overcoming it, or avoiding it aren’t the answers, what is?

Facing it. Recognizing the challenges of life, this approach chooses not to back down, run away, or self-medicate. Instead, we face the hardships. But not alone, and certainly not in our strength. No, the healthiest life is the one who recognizes life’s challenges and difficulties, and looks them square in the face — and does so, trusting that God is faithful. Shalom (true peace and wholeness) is where we can recognize all the ways that life “fishhooks” us, and then bring those before a God who meets us in the midst of those challenges. Shalom, you see, isn’t the absense of conflict or brokenness; it is the active and deliberate decision to bring those to the God of all grace and mercy.

For we have a God who faced down the reality that life is difficult; that sin is real; that hurt and hate are too often the human condition. And Jesus saw all of that, and he did not avoid it, nor did he numb himself to its reality. Instead, at the cross, he faced it and he overcame it. And because he faced down sin and death, we don’t have to avoid them. And we don’t face them alone. And we certainly don’t have to overcome them ourselves. Instead, in Jesus, we become more then overcomers (Romans 8.37). All because we have a God who overcame, for us.

And recognizing that doesn’t diminish the reality of our challenges. It simply brings hope where we need it most. Right where life is hardest.

 

What Do You Do When Life Gets Bad?

Mandy loved music. She was a standout vocalist at her high school, and began attending Colorado State University to study music education. She loved music, she was good at it, and she was pursuing a career doing what she loved. Who could ask for more?

But then things took a turn. She began noticing that she couldn’t hear the teachers in her classes. Then she realized she was losing her ability to hear most of the piano notes. At her year-end freshmen recital, she had to watch the lips of others to keep in time with the song. After that recital, it was over. In the span of one school year, Mandy had gone deaf. She was subsequently dropped from the program, and she left school, figuring she would never sing again.

Mandy was angry. But her dad told her, You still have a gift; you still need to use it.

Her dad’s words sunk in, and Mandy found a way to get back into music. Using a phone app, she learned she can visually start at middle C, and then from there find her starting note — and learn a song  She returned to vocal music — but sings barefoot, so that she can feel the vibrations through the floor to stay in tempo.

Music isn’t as easy for Mandy as it once was. But I guarantee you — it’s more meaningful.

Your story isn’t the same as Mandy’s, and probably isn’t nearly as dramatic — but the reality is that all of us suffer. All of us struggle. We all have to face dashed dreams, and hurt we can’t help.

The question is not “if,” but how. Not “if” you will struggle, but when you struggle — how will you respond?

The question is also not “why,” either. We often can’t answer the “why” question. Instead, the question is: what will you do with the stuff life hands you that you don’t want? Do you learn from it? Do you face it head on? Do you wrestle with it?

A 19th century writer once asked a perennial question: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend?” His response? The art of living, he said, “is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering” (Henri-Frederic Amiel).

Learning to live, in part, is learning to face the challenges we cannot control, we do not want, and are hard to overcome. Suffering isn’t something we seek, but it finds us. And the question that it leaves us with: will we just suffer through it, or will we learn from it?

One thing is sure: life won’t be as easy on the other side of suffering. But, if we let it — if we learn from it; if we grow through it; if we let God’s grace sustain us every step of the way — life will be more meaningful.