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3am

One of my favorite scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy is when Sam-wise explains the eating habits of hobbits. Not only do they eat their three square meals, but there are the in-between meals as well, like “second breakfast” and “elevensies.” Hobbits take their meals very seriously; it gives them the nutrition they need for their long journeys away from the Shire.

In the same way, I’ve always believed that a Christ-follower needs more than a single time with Jesus each day. Part of Whole Life Worship is what I call “Personal Worship Time.” Others call it “quiet time” or daily devotionals (my church calls it “chair time”). Whatever you call it, it is one-on-one time with Jesus spent in prayer, worship, Scripture reflection, silence, journaling and intimacy. (To read my blog on “Personal Worship Time” click here). And I find that while once a day is a bare-minimum requirement, having only one personal worship time each day leaves me wanting more.

But to be honest with you, that’s easier said than done. I’ve only had minimal success in carving out a second time during my day to spend with Jesus. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get into a rhythm of having that “second quiet time” into my day. I’ve tried lunch time prayer. I’ve tried evening prayer. It just doesn’t seem to work for me over the long term.

Until now.

I am in a unique season. My kidneys have failed and I require nine hours of dialysis each night. One of the draw-backs I’m experiencing with dialysis is that I get awakened every night around 3am. My dialysis goes through a new cycle of filling my peritoneal cavity with fluid around that time and it seems to always wake me up. And I can’t get back to sleep! As a result, it’s disrupted my normal sleep patterns. So basically, I’m up from 3-4:30am every night.

For the first few weeks, I saw this as a “cross” I needed to bear. I saw it as part of my “suffering” (add it to the nausea, feeling weak, fighting discouragement). And I spent those wee hours playing countless games of solitaire or reading the news. Mostly, I just would complain and feel sorry for myself. Then the Lord gave me a new way to look at this: a second quiet time!

So now when I get awakened at 3am, I get up and have some personal worship time with Jesus. I read through some prayers from the Psalms designed for the late night (called “the Compline” in Fixed Hour Prayer) and then I pray slowly – section by section – through the Lord’s Prayer. That often leads me into a time of intercession for those I know who are in need. Eventually, I’ll fall back asleep; usually a deep sleep until my dialysis is completed at 6am.

It’s not how I planned it to be. I would have preferred having a “second quiet time” during the waking hours of the day rather than during the fourth watch of the night. But, for right now, it works. Instead of squirming, tossing and turning, whining and complaining, and resigning myself to numbing my mind with video games, I’m entering into communion with my Jesus and I’m interceding for others. I’m meditating on Scripture and reflecting on the way Christ calls me to live. I’m pouring out my heart to the Lord and offering my body up to him. If I can’t sleep at 3am, the best thing I can do is be with Jesus.

How about you? When you can’t sleep in the wee hours, how about a second quiet time? Keep your Bible on your nightstand. Have a Book of prayer by your pillow. Turn to Jesus in the thick of the night and be a “night-watchman” for others in the Body of Christ.

It’s better than counting sheep.

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Have you ever gone through an experience where you were totally disoriented? For me, it happened a few months ago. It was about 2am when I awoke from a bad dream. I jumped out of bed in a panic. I noticed that I had a mask on (I have sleep apnea) and didn’t know what to do with the mask. I ripped it off. I thought, “Where am I?” Even though I was in my bedroom, I had no idea where I was. The next question was even more revealing, “WHO AM I?” I had no idea who I was and my anxiety shot through the roof. I felt totally lost.

But then something strange happened. I uttered out loud, “Jesus!”

Isn’t that interesting? I couldn’t remember own my name, but for some reason I could remember the name of Jesus! My wife, who is usually a very deep sleeper, woke up (I believe the Lord woke her up) and she attended to me. It turned out that I had very low blood sugar (below 50 – yikes!) So she got me some apple juice and within a few minutes I became oriented again. I remembered my name, where I was, the date, etc.

I share this with you as a way to illustrate one of the most important lessons I’m learning in the school of “suffering”:

Suffering helps us to experience the powerful presence of Jesus.

In my weakest, most vulnerable moment, Jesus is there. When I am totally lost, Jesus is there. When I am suffering, Jesus is totally there! He is there even when I cannot remember my own name.

When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” he means it. When he says, “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age,” that’s an ironclad promise.

When things are going well, I find it a challenge to be aware of the Lord’s presence with me. There are some days where I am totally oblivious to Christ being with me. Sure, I have my personal worship time (quiet time) with Him in the morning; but the rest of the day? I’m off doing my own thing, unaware of God, until the end of that day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to confess to God in bed that I had not given him even a second thought!

But when I’m suffering, I’m calling on Jesus all the time. And he always shows up!

When I feel nauseous and sick, I cry out to Jesus. When I get disappointing news of another transplant delay, I cry out to Jesus. When I am awake at 3am because I am uncomfortable, bloated and agitated with dialysis solution, my suffering gives me an opportunity to cry out to Jesus, and he makes his presence known to me.

He shows up every time, without fail.

One of the most repeated prayers in the Psalms is: “In my distress, I called to the Lord, and he heard my cry and answered me.”

The gist of that prayer is found in Psalm 4:1, 18:6, 31:9, 55:17, 102:5, and 120:1, as well as 2 Sam 22:7 and Jonah 2:2. When God’s people suffered, they turned to him – without hesitation.

You would think that turning to Jesus when we suffer is a no-brainer. But how often do we choose not to turn to Jesus when we suffer or face hardships? How often do we try to work it out in our own strength? How often do we not pray or seek Christ’s face when we go through trials? How often do we choose to complain, whine and moan that “no one’s helping, nobody cares!” – and Jesus is there standing beside us waiting for us to call out His name?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 45 years of faith, it’s to turn always to the Lord when I can, as often as I can, all the time – because Jesus always answers us when we call.

If you are suffering or going through a trial, don’t “waste” it by trying to fend for yourself or wallow in your misery (which is different than “lament”). Instead, call on the Lord, cry out to him, turn and seek the face of Jesus, and see why he is called “the Savior.” Experience the power of his presence that gives you strength in the season of suffering.

suffering learning

I find myself in a very unique season. It is a season where I am experiencing some suffering. The fact that I call it a “unique season” reveals that much of my life has been comfortable and easy. I have not faced a lot of severe adversity. My seasons of trial and hardship have been pretty quick and painless. Part of this is simply the grace of God. But part of this is also my approach to trials, hardship and suffering.

Because when it comes to trials and suffering, I race to get through it. I brace myself, lower my head and blitz through it as fast as I can.

So when I found out that I would be going through dialysis for two more months than expected, it floored me. There was no quick solution. I would have to bear with this struggle for a season. It actually plunged me into despondency.

I called out to the Lord. I lamented my situation to him. And he answered me. He told me, “You are in a special season, Doug. I am inviting you into it. You will find blessing in your suffering.” I regained hope, but I was also confused. What did this mean?

A couple of days later, I was having a conversation with a very wise friend about my situation and the topic of suffering. She told me that whenever she is suffering or going through a trial, she immediately spends a lot of time to reflect and listen to the Lord. She said that God teaches you things in suffering that you can’t learn when things are going well. And once the trial or suffering is over, you’ve missed that opportunity to learn if you aren’t paying attention.

So while my other Christian friends comforted me with their well-wishes and prayers that I would be healed or get through my suffering quickly (and I so appreciated their encouragement), Tami took a different approach. She inspired me to “pay attention” to what God is teaching me through this unique season. Because for the Christ follower, suffering isn’t just a pain or inconvenience that you try to “get through.” Suffering is a gift that you “learn from.”

No one enjoys suffering. It’s hard in any shape or form. As a result, we tend to avoid suffering as much as possible. We prefer comfort and ease and life going as we expect. And if I go through suffering, I want to get through it – as fast as I can. If I can’t make it painless, at least lets make it quick!

But here’s the deal: the Bible looks at suffering differently than our instincts or how the world sees it. One of the most counterintuitive passages in Scripture is James 1:2, which says to “consider it pure joy when you encounter trials/suffering of all kinds.” In Romans 5:3, Paul says that we should “glory” in our sufferings, because it produces unique fruit in our lives (perseverance, character and hope).

And Jesus is our example. While we avoid suffering, Jesus stepped into suffering. He stepped into our suffering. He is known as the “Suffering Servant,” the “Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.” The writer of Hebrews goes as far as to say that, even though Jesus is the Son of God, he actually “learned obedience” from his suffering (Hebrews 5:8). Now that’s remarkable! Needless to say, there’s something about suffering that is holy and special and unique.

We all will suffer in this life. Maybe you are suffering today. It might be something huge or something small. It could be a health issue or a relationship struggle or a financial hardship or a tough decision that you’re facing. Suffering comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. But don’t look at your suffering as something you just have to get through. Also look at your trial as something you can learn from. . Whether you realize it or not, you’re in a special season where God wants to do something deeper and powerful in your life.

In the next several blogs I’ll be sharing more specifically some things that the Lord has been teaching me in the “school of suffering.”

Health update: Thanks for your prayers. I’ve felt less nauseous and have had more energy this past week! Yay! I just took some labs. Pray for my levels of phosphorus and potassium to go down, and for my hemoglobin to go up.

A slight interruption in our discussion on Suffering …

I experienced something amazing on Friday night. I was at our church’s worship service (we have “Friday Night Church”; one of the coolest things we have done for the past 30 years). This weekend our young people were leading the worship service. My son, Jonathan, was the worship leader and the worship team consisted of mostly high school students. They had worked hard to put together this service and as they started – the lights went out!

Actually, the electricity went out. Apparently there was a traffic accident down the street from the church – a car had knocked out a power pole.

So there they were – no lights, no mics, no video, no song slides, no amps. Nothing but a couple hundred people in the dark. What were they going to do? How would they respond?

What happened over the next hour was one of the most remarkable things I have seen in the history of our church:

They worshipped God.

The students put away their instruments, walked up forward and formed a line. Jon started playing the guitar (he was quickly joined by Tyler, our Worship Director). And they sang their hearts out to God: Loudly, boldly, without reservation, without hesitation.

(a clip from the service)

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And then something equally phenomenal happened: the congregation joined them in worship. Yeah, we didn’t know all the words to the songs, but we sang anyway. The kids inspired us with their worship of God; so much so that we had to join in.

People who normally don’t sing with a full-on worship band, were singing!

People who normally don’t clap their hands, were clapping!

People who don’t lift up their hands, were lifting up their hands! Some people were actually dancing!

This was not the typical “people on the stage vs. people in the audience” dynamic. We were worshiping God as …. the church, as a congregation, as God’s “called out ones.”

God had turned off the lights. God had turned off the sound. God had taken away all the props.

It was just God and just His people.

And it was one of the best corporate experiences of worship that I ever had. Better than a Hillsong Conferece with the best musicians in the world. Better than PromiseKeepers gathering with 70,000 men in the stadium. Just a bunch of teenagers and Friday night congregation, stumbling together in the dark and adoring their God and Savior – the precious jewel of worship.

The whole service was amazing! My friend, Brad (our Youth Pastor), preached his heart out. Pastor Rob (our Senior Pastor) gave a powerful challenge to support our Children and Youth programs. And during the very last song the lights popped on! It was as if God had scripted it (maybe He did). I turned to my friends in the congregation and we looked at each other and said, “Wasn’t that one of the most amazing things we’ve ever experienced!”

Earlier in the week, I had a discussion with Pastor Brad about worship, in anticipation for this service. One of the great temptations in corporate worship is to “worship the worship.” It’s so easy to get sucked into worshiping the song or the experience that we forget that we’re worshiping God. While we batted around a few ideas that might help correct this issue, we came to the conclusion that only way we can get back to authentic worship of God is for the people of God to stop seeing themselves as an “audience” or “consumers” and to start seeing themselves as a “congregation,” as a people who love and experience their awesome God together. To that, Brad said, “Well, we should pray for that to happen!”

And so God turned off the lights. He took away the props. Just God and his children. Literally.

When the music plays and all is stripped away and I simply come… I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about You, Jesus.

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So sorry for the long gap between blogs. Life happened. It’s taking me awhile to adjust to life on dialysis. Nausea, fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite, and mental confusion have been my constant companions these past few weeks. Pretty sucky stuff!

I’ve also wrestled with discouragement and a bout of depression as we’ve been waiting to get back on the kidney transplant surgery list. My wife (who is my perfect match and is graciously willing to donate one of her kidneys to me) came down with laryngitis one week before our scheduled transplant surgery. The doctors cancelled the surgery and it took three weeks of labs, trying to coordinate communication between two health care providers and getting sign-offs by specialists to get us back on the schedule. And by the time we got all the “oks” to move ahead, the soonest date we could re-schedule a transplant was: June 18th!

Man, that sucks! I mean, yeah, I’m supposed to “embrace the suck” but I didn’t think I’d have to embrace that much suck!

I could totally relate to the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:2-3)

Don’t you love the Psalms? They give us “templates” on how to pray, how to praise, how to intercede, how to worship, and even how to approach God in our suckiness.

Over a third of the Psalms are called “lament” Psalms. These are Psalms that address God when life sucks. Until recently, I totally hated reading the lament Psalms. As an optimist, I felt they were total “downers.” I didn’t want to hear about David’s problems or Asaph’s issues. I just wanted to read “happy” Psalms. I want to hear how good and great God is, not about sad things or hard things or angry things.

But when life sucks, there’s nothing better than using a lament Psalm to help express what you’re feeling. They’re so authentic and real; no holds barred. The Lament Psalms express raw emotions, even graphic descriptions of what’s really on in the Psalmist’s minds as they suffer. When you’re going through suckiness, it’s hard to find words to describe what you’re feeling on the inside. The Lament Psalms give us a “vocabulary” or a “soup starter” to get what’s on the inside of us out in the open.

Even more important, the lament is the ONLY way to transform suckiness into something that can be redeemed. That’s because, in a lament, we’re not just complaining about our situations; we are pressing into God as we issue our complaint to him. Biblical lament is more than just a common complaint. Anyone (and everyone) can complain. Biblical lament is special because it is a complaint in the presence of our Loving God.

And that’s the key. God wants us to find powerful resolution and redemption to our sucky situations, but it involves us turning to him, leaning on him, pressing into him. When we suffer, we can do one of three things: 1) we can try to work it out on our own, 2) we can feel sorry for ourselves or 3) we can press into God. Only one of those options leads to life, love and transformation.

I believe lamenting in God’s presence is the first step through the season of suffering. I’ve been using the Psalms to help me press into God during this difficult season and it’s led me to some very honest and raw conversations with the Lover of my soul. Through them, the Lord has given me some powerful insight into the “value” of suffering. I’d like to share them with you in the weeks to come.

I’ll also give updates on my health progress. I know that many of you are praying for me, and I gladly receive those prayers!

I used to think that June 18th was so FAR away – so far, that it really discouraged me. But after lamenting to God, I see that I only have until June 18th to learn the unique and valuable lessons that the Lord wants to teach me as he walks with me through this journey.

How about you? In your suffering are you just complaining or are you lamenting? Turn to God, press into Jesus and get real with him.

What a friend we have in Jesus! All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

I hope I didn’t alienate you with this title. I know the word “suck” can be offensive to people. It’s one of those slang words that has evolved in its meaning over the course of time. But I think we can all agree that life gets pretty “suck-y”, right?

– when you don’t get the promotion that you’ve worked hard to deserve

– when you get blamed for something bad that you didn’t do

– when your expectations get dashed or when something good goes “south”

– when you’re stuck in a bad situation: sickness, financial set back, relationship difficulties

It all feels bad, looks bad, smells bad, tastes bad. In other words, life “sucks” sometimes. And sometimes it sucks really bad.

It was in a moment of great “suckiness” that it happened. It was 2:30am. I was lying in bed – wide-awake, in discomfort, felt extremely bloated from my dialysis treatment. I was itchy on every part of my body. My heart was downcast because our transplant surgery was cancelled. I was discouraged over the extreme weight gain that happened over two weeks of dialysis. And, yeah, I’m sort of a wimp and I have a low threshold of pain. But I was at the point of despairing in life and I wondered where God was?

And the words I heard in my soul were: “Doug, embrace the suck.”

I kid you not! (“God, did you just use the word ‘suck’? That’s not polite or even theologically appropriate!”)

But these words were not condemning or blaming in tone. Rather they were comforting and soothing. And at the same time, the words were strong and powerful. What I realized was that Jesus was giving me an invitation, actually a command, to move forward, to go toward Him. Because Jesus is there – Jesus is in the “suck” of life!

So instead of being angry at the suck or being afraid of the suck or denying the suck or medicating the suck (I already used two tubes of itching cream) or distracting the suck (how many games of Solitaire or Candy Crush can you play on your phone when you’re in pain? Apparently, not enough), Jesus invited me to “embrace the suck.” Why? Because that’s where He was: Jesus was present in the very center of my pain, my discomfort, and my frustration.

So I embraced the suck. More importantly, I embraced Jesus in the suck. And when I did, he wept with me. He lamented with me. After a long silence, he gave me some specific directions (I’ll cover that in my next blog). Then, finally, came a very powerful peace. Although I had not moved from my bed, I was in totally a different “place.”

Biblical writers have long espoused the unique power and perspective that comes with suffering and trials. Paul, James, Peter, and especially Jesus talked about the new reality, even exceeding joy, that comes when we embrace God in the “suck.” It’s not a sick, masochistic thing – there’s no pleasure in pain whatsoever. But it is a deep pathway to a greater reality.

Christian theologian, Richard Rohr, puts it this way: “Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance… Great religion shows you what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. (Because) if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” (taken from Hidden Things: Scripture and Spirituality)

Among other things, Jesus is the great Transformer. And he transforms by locating himself precisely in the center of our pain, our suffering and, frankly, our “suckiness.” And we find freedom when we follow him into those places. There we find new reserves of strength and resilience. There we find new perspective and wisdom. There we overcome fear and can face darkness head on – together with him! And there is where we find the power of true love: we discover the depth of God’s amazing love for us and we uncover a new ability to love others in their suffering and pain (instead of running away from them or pretending they don’t exist).

Are you going through difficulty, hardship, pain … suckiness? Embrace the suck. Find Jesus in it and hold onto him. And see if that doesn’t open up doors into a greater reality.

Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-ladened (Matthew 11:28)

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain (Isaiah 53:3)

The Notebook

Before I get into the great “epiphany” that took place in the midst of my huge disappointment, there’s some very important background information that you need to know about.

I mentioned in my previous blog that I was scheduled for a kidney transplant. There is an amazing story behind that; in fact, it’s an amazing love story!

You see, the donor of my kidney transplant is my lovely wife, Letty.

She was the first in line to donate her kidney in order to save my life. And as it turned out, she was a perfect match! Which is pretty rare and very cool: A total God-thing! Furthermore, the date of our transplant surgeries (3/19/2018) would have been just two days after the 40th anniversary of our first date (3/17/1978)!

So think about it: Forty years ago, I was having the best conversation of my life with this pretty, Christian girl named Letty. We fell in love. Four years later, we got married. We had kids and grandkids; we shared a lot of love and lived a lot of life together. And now, forty years later, she is giving me one of her kidneys: to save my life.

And it wasn’t the first time she saved my life, either. This woman has saved my life countless times! Her love has pulled me out of the depths of despair, hopelessness, lost-ness, dullness (and sheer stupidity) so many times in our 40-year relationship, that it makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

It’s so poetic that the love of my life became the one who would eventually save my life. It’s even better than a Nicholas Sparks romance novel/movie! (Can’t you see the next big best seller? “The Giving Kidney” – LOL!)

And yet, isn’t that the story of us all?

Behind the scenes of our daily struggles, our day-in and day-out trials and drudgery is an all-encompassing Love story. It’s about your One True Love who has worked tirelessly, through the gamut of history, circumstances and predicaments to save your life. Not only did He save your life and mine on Calvary’s tree on that Good Friday many years ago, but He continues to rescue us in our despair, in our hopelessness, in our lost-ness, in our dullness and, sometimes, in our sheer stupidity.

He is the Lover of our souls and the Savior of our lives.

So as I deal with the disappointment of a postponed surgery and prolonged dialysis, I have hope knowing there will be a transplant – because I have a Lover who is sacrificing herself for love’s sake to save me. There is an amazing Love story, working on my behalf, behind it all.

And no matter what you are facing in terms of disappointment, dashed expectations, delays, or heart-breaks, there is an amazing Love story working relentlessly on your behalf that will make you new!

Jesus Christ so loves you!

Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:3-5)