Grace for the Days Ahead

20171228_191029510_iOSIt’s been a rough year. Like you, I’ve faced my fair share of challenges in 2017. And, as this year winds down, I’ve had a number of people say to me that hopefully, 2018 will be better. But, every time I hear that phrase I have this one nagging thought run through my mind. What if it’s not?

What if 2018 is no better at all? Or God forbid, it’s worse? Whatever lies ahead, my prayer is that the One who brought me through this past year will bring me through the next. I pray that His grace will abound in the coming days just as it has abounded in the last 365.

Please don’t hear arrogance or some sense of false bravado in this. My fears and anxieties are as real as yours. Like you, I spend far too much time worrying about things I can’t change and fretting about things I can. My point is that the only way I was able to move through and deal with 2017 is by the grace of God. I’d like to say I managed a perfectly executed plan or exhibited the triumph that comes through sheer willpower. I’d like to be able to tout how devoted I was by praying in deep faith and expecting God to move mountains. Oh, I had a plan. Several in fact. None of them worked. I had willpower. For an hour or two. I prayed, but not nearly like I probably should have. No, grace is what brought me through this past year. Grace kept me alive. Grace helped me move through grief. Grace helped me deal with a family in transition. Grace. Grace and more grace. Grace upon grace. And, I’m confident I’ll need that grace in the coming days too.

As you enter a new year, please don’t think that some change in attitude or a self-help article or two will give you the greatest year ever. A fresh set of resolutions won’t do it on their own. Attitude is important. So is growing in your ability to manage things. And, goals are great. But grace is what you need. Grace to handle what you know and grace to move you through what you don’t. Grace to forgive and to restore and to empower and to guide. Grace that only comes from a God who loves you and holds this world and all that transpires in it in His hands. Grace that is deep and unending. So, as you bid farewell to 2017 and look forward to 2018, may the grace of God touch your life in more ways than you can possibly imagine.

And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8, CSB

Difficult Seasons

Apparently, I’m middle-aged. At least that’s what the folks who categorize these things tell me. As I move deeper into middle-agedom, I’ve slowed down. I’ve lost hair. I talk about the good old days more and I have a growing desire to yell “get off my lawn” for no reason. In addition to all of these, I’m also learning to deal with aging parents.This past spring, my mom fell. And, while she didn’t seem to suffer any serious injuries at first, time has proven that the fall has indeed marked her life. Since June, she has been through two hospital stays, two rehab stints, and a couple of weeks in an assisted living facility. In addition, during the same period of time, my dad has also had two hospital stays, three surgical procedures, and a rehab stint of his own (sadly, my dad passed away right before I published this). It’s been quite a summer.

As I’ve walked through this journey with my parents over the last few months, I have been reminded of a few things.

Plans are great, until they blow apart. 

James writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15, CSB

More than once over the last several weeks, I’ve made the two-and-a-half-hour trek to my hometown to be with my parents. I came with my clothes, my iPad, and a plan. And, almost without fail, those plans never worked out. I’d get dad out of the hospital only to have to put mom back in. There were falls, insurance issues, and unforeseen events at every turn. And, while I continued to try to plan out the next week, something would always happen today to completely wreck everything. As a result, I’m trying to take each day as it comes. Yes, I still like to try and plan things out, but by God’s grace, I’m slowly learning to focus on today and not be anxious about tomorrow.

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks stars as Jim Lovell. In one scene, the crew is worried about the re-entry plan to come back to earth. As the stress and tensions mount, Lovell says, “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order, we are on number eight. You’re taking about number 692.” I’m trying to learn to deal with number eight before worrying about what’s down the road.

Friends are precious. Over recent weeks, I’ve received countless texts and calls. Friends (and family) have reached out to offer their prayers, help, and encouragement. I’ve had people offer to help transport my parents to appointments or to bring them meals. I’ve walked into gatherings and had people drop what they’re doing to come and pray with me and for me. My church family has been incredibly gracious in all of this to allow me the time to minister to my parents. All of this really makes a difference. I’ve been reminded that friends are really a blessing from the Lord.

Prayer is vital. I know we all know this…or at least give lip service to it. But, I’ve been reminded anew about the importance of prayer through all of this. I like to think I can control most of the events in my life (I know, I know. Go back and read James 4 again). But, the events happening in my parents’ lives are well beyond my control. I can’t make bodies or brains heal. I can’t make bureaucracy work faster. I can’t open up beds in facilities where there are not or make resources magically appear. All of this has driven me more and more to the only One who can.

God is sovereign. The sovereignty of God is a great theological truth. We read of it in theology texts and expound on it in theological conversations. But, there are times in life when sovereignty has to become more than a concept in a book. It has to be a reality that pierces the circumstances of our lives. Romans eight tells us

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28, CSB

This verse is meaningless if God is not sovereign. If He’s not sovereign over the circumstances of life (both good and bad), then the best we can do is hope things work out for the best. But, if God is in control and He is working and His promise is true and meaningful, then we have the confidence that He is accomplishing something. We may not understand it or even agree with it, but we know that while things are hopelessly beyond our control, they are not beyond His.

I love these words from Tenth Avenue North:

“As I walk this great unknown
Questions come and questions go
Was there purpose for the pain
Did I cry these tears in vain
I don’t wanna live in fear
I wanna trust that You are near
Trust Your grace can be seen
In both triumph and tragedy
I have this hope
In the depth of my soul
In the flood or the fire
You’re with me and You won’t let go”

As I enter this new chapter with the people who molded me into who I am, I’m resting on this Sovereign Lord. I’m looking to Him more in prayer and drawing strength and encouragement from the people He brings into my life. I’m learning to adapt to His plan for today rather than trying to force my plan for tomorrow. It’s not always easy, but I’m trying. Like they say, getting old isn’t for wimps.

Maybe you too are in a season of struggle. Perhaps your season, like mine, involves helping the people you love navigate the difficulties of aging. Or, maybe your struggles fall into a completely different category. Whatever the context of your life right now, I imagine the lessons above still have relevance for you. Learn to focus on the step in front of you. Be encouraged by the people around you. Dive deep into the pool of prayer and trust confidently in a sovereign God. May He help each of us move manage the difficult seasons of our lives.

That’s Life

My iPhone has an app on it that measures how much I exercise. Some days, I do really well and the app plots a point near the top of a graph. Other days, I don’t do so well and the app plots a point near the bottom of the graph. Most weeks, my graph looks like a roller coaster ride with some really good days tossed in with some really poor ones. When I look back over any given week, I can see some great highs and some disappointing lows.

If my phone had an app to measure my life and ministry, I imagine it would look about the same way. There would be some ups and there would be some downs. Peaks and valleys. Highs and lows. We’ve all experienced them. We know what it’s like to be on top of the mountain on one day and plunged into the valley the next. Perhaps Sinatra said it best when he said, “That’s life, that’s what all the people say, you’re ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.” All of us can identify with this roller coaster ride.

Perhaps no one knew this like Paul. When we look at his life and ministry, we see a man who was a great missionary and church planter. He carried the gospel around the Mediterranean world planting churches, training leaders, and discipling believers. In addition, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, we read that he has this awesome experience where he is carried into the presence of Christ and given great visions. These are definitely some mountain top moments.

But Paul’s life wasn’t all tremendous victories. He had setbacks and challenges along the way. As he traveled the world carrying the gospel, he was rejected and ridiculed. He was threatened and beaten, arrested and tried. In this passage in 2 Corinthians, he tells us that God has given him a messenger of Satan…a thorn in the flesh to afflict him and keep him humble. We’re not sure exactly what that thorn was, but it was severe enough that Paul prayed more than once to remove it.

Like Paul, we too know that highs and lows of life and ministry. Our struggles may come in different shapes and sizes, have different names, and come for different reasons than the one that afflicted Paul, but they come nonetheless. And, like Paul, we often know what it is to cry out to God for the removal of these thorns only to be met with a silence we don’t understand or an answer we don’t want to hear. When that happens, we need to understand something. Like Paul, sometimes God leaves our contexts unchanged so that He can grow us and demonstrate His power in the midst of them.

Jesus did not leave Paul with a simply no. He assured him…as He assures us that “His grace is sufficient.” When we talk about grace, most of us understand what I’ll call “saving” grace. We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, we know too that we have “sustaining” grace. That is the grace that saves us keeps us saved. But along with these saving and sustaining aspects of grace, there is also grace for living. Grace doesn’t just usher us into the presence of God to leave us on our own. Grace strengthens us as we live our lives every day. It is in our weaknesses that Christ’s power is made perfect.

Don’t give up in the midst of your struggles and setbacks. Remember that His grace is sufficient. In our weakness, His power is made perfect. The challenges and difficulties are real, but Jesus is there in the midst of them all. Let us remained anchored in the grace He provides.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV)

Long Days

Science tells us that there are twenty-four hours in every day. Actually, I’ve read some articles that suggests a day is actually about four minutes shorter than that, but you get the drift. Every day is the same length of time. But you don’t have to live this life very long to realize that some days are longer than others. As a kid, I remember that there were some school days that just didn’t end and the days leading up to Christmas were way longer than normal. We all know Mondays are longer than Sundays, the last few days before payday are longer than the first few after it, and the days spent in a hospital waiting room are longer than the ones we spend on vacation. I don’t care what the clock says. Some days are longer than others.

When we glance at a calendar, we don’t always see those long days marked out in advance. Sure, sometimes we see them coming. We know they’re lurking out there and we’ve circled them in red in our minds. But other times, we get up and get going and then find ourselves in the middle of a day that just won’t end. And sometimes, the day that just won’t end becomes a week…or a month…or a season that just won’t end. How do we get through these days?

I was recently reading the book of Isaiah and this verse caught my attention:

“O LORD, be gracious to us; we wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble” (Isaiah 33:2 ESV).

To be honest, one phrase caught my attention. The prophet pleas for God to be “our arm every morning…” His cry reminds us that every day is a day where we need the strength and support of God. Every day brings a new set of challenges. Every morning declares anew our need for God.

We need to understand that only seeking out God in a crisis or on a Sunday here or there won’t cut it. Don’t misunderstand me. We should indeed turn to God in our times of crises and we should gather to worship Him on Sundays, but we need more than just a sporadic connection with Him. We need His power and grace to touch our lives daily. Thus, Isaiah cries out, “be our arm every morning.”

The contemporary singer/song-writer Matt Maher has put a new twist on a familiar hymn of the faith. He writes:

“Lord, I need You, oh, I need You
Every hour I need You
My one defense, my righteousness
Oh God, how I need You.”

His words echo the sentiment of Isaiah’s plea. There’s a desperation in these words. A realization that we can’t go on without God. We need Him. Every hour…every morning…every day. Don’t neglect to turn to Him today. Avail yourself of His presence. Rest in the grace and peace He offers. Be strengthened daily by the salvation He provides in times of trouble. Because some days are longer than others.

Through the Valley

Middleburg Heights, OH: Satuday In The Park- walking path at Lake Isaac Waterfowl SanctuaryMost evenings, my wife and I like to take a walk around our neighborhood. We have a variety of routes we take depending on how long we want our walk to last. Some nights our walks are quick ten minute jaunts around the block. Other nights they’re two or three mile excursions. Our route depends on any number of circumstances. Some nights we don’t have as much time as others. Some nights the weather impacts our choice. Some nights we may not feel particularly well or perhaps we ate too much for dinner that night. The circumstances may vary, but we keep walking. And, some walks are longer than others.

Life is the same way. Every season of our lives…every walk is touched by different circumstances. Some are short and over very quickly. Others drag on and on and seem without end. Some walks are longer than others.

One of the more familiar passages of Scripture is the twenty-third Psalm. In it, the song-writer (Psalms are ancient songs) David talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We often connect this verse to the grief and pain associated with death, and that’s a fair application. Many commentators, however, suggest that the valley could describe any of life’s more difficult circumstances. So, it would be fair to say that some of the more difficult seasons of life could be described as such a valley. And, as we all can attest, many times these walks through the valley last much longer than we’d like.

As we reflect on this verse, notice that the we are not alone in this journey. The good shepherd guides us. He is with us. He comforts us. Despite the duration of the season and the depth of the valley, we don’t face it by ourselves. We don’t have to rely on our own strength to get through it.

Notice too that we are to keep walking. We don’t stop. We don’t quit. We keep moving forward. When the shadows are dark and the journey seems unending, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep trusting the One who guides and comforts us. Know that Jesus is with us and He will bring us through. Just take one more step.. Yes, some walks are longer than others, but with every step we take know that we’re one step closer to emerging from the shadows.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 ESV)

Crisis Management

We live in the era of the crisis. It seems like every day we’re told of some new cataclysmic event. We’re either facing a security crisis or a privacy crisis or an economic crisis. Every weather forecast predicts some new looming meteorological crisis. The word is so over used that we’ve almost become immune to it…except for the fact that we all have to deal with the reality of the crises that hit our lives.

The thing that makes a crisis so difficult is that it seems overwhelming and beyond our control It’s too big for us. We can handle a leaky faucet. We simply ignore the constant drip-drip coming from the kitchen or we replace a washer and solve the problem. No big deal. A burst pipe, on the other hand, is a different story. We lack the tools and the expertise to solve a problem of that size. One’s a problem…a nuisance. The other is a crisis. Too big and too complex for us to overcome on our own. So, what are we to do?

Whatever shape or form our crisis comes in, there are a few things we can do to get through them. For one, we can pray it through. When things are bigger than us, we’d do well to find someone bigger than them to help us. God is our refuge and our strength (Psalm 46:1). We can turn to him to vent, to cry, to plead, and to find solace and empowerment. In Him, we find the resources we need to deal with our crises. In the midst of your storm, take some time to talk to the one who can calm the waves. Be open and honest with Him. Be vulnerable. Read the Psalms and see how David cried out in difficult times. Look at Jesus in the Garden and see how He poured His heart out to the Father the night before His death. Don’t try to manage it on your own. Let God in and let Him help.

Second, we can press it through. In other words, we keep moving forward. I know this sounds crazy. Sometimes the problems we face seem so big they just paralyze us. We don’t know how to move on through the pain or the fear. The reality is we have no choice. We have to keep moving. Time doesn’t stand still and neither can we. God still desires to use us in the midst of whatever trials we may face. Quitting is not an option. In the midst of our crises, we may find new people to whom we can minister and share the love of Jesus. We may learn new ways to touch lives. We may encounter new and exciting ways that God reveals His glory and power.

Third, we can praise it through. Take some time each day to thank God for what He’s done in the midst of your crisis. Some days it may seem as if he’s done nothing. We may go to bed that night and say everything is exactly where it was this morning. But, that’s not true. Even if the crisis is still there, it’s one day closer to being over. God has brought us through one more day of difficulty. He’s met our needs one more day in the midst of our struggling finances. He’s given us one more day of peace in the midst of strained relationships. He’s given us one more opportunity to be with an ailing loved one. Sometimes one more day is a big deal and we can be thankful for it. So, stop and praise for what God has done today in the crises of your life.

So when the leaky faucets of life turn into burst pipes, pray to the One who is bigger than our problems. Keep pressing forward through those problems. And, as you do, pause and praise God for how He’s worked in them today. These steps may not solve our crises (although I wouldn’t underestimate the power of prayer), but they will definitely help us manage them.

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.” (Psalm 40:1-3 ESV)