Saturday, August 5, 2017
NEVER BE ASHAMED OF A SCAR.
IT SIMPLY MEANS YOU WERE STRONGER
THAN WHATEVER TRIED
TO HURT YOU
C.S. Lewis called it a problem. Exercise enthusiasts call it gain. I’m just going to call it what it is. Pain.
The harsh truth of it is pain is painful. There’s no way around it. Pain hurts. I don’t believe that we are called, as Christians, to somehow fabricate or re-formulate the experiences of pain to some sort of metamorphosis or magical, super-optimistic thought-process that transforms the effects of pain into joy and bliss. I believe the Christian faith, historically, has been cultivated in a very harmful direction for our souls. This concept that I am attempting to flesh out in this book is written all through the book of Psalms. When we read the letters of Paul, we hear the same sentiment. These writers commission us to rejoice within the pain, somehow, and see the LORD in it, but also acknowledge the pain. I believe we’ve applied it wrongly. I believe there is a very significant aspect to this concept in these writings that we have somehow missed.
Let’s remind ourselves of the pain-list Paul gave. It was quite horrific. Paul writes to the Corinthian Church:
Since you admire the egomaniacs of the pulpit so much (remember, this is your old friend, the fool, talking), let me try my hand at it. Do they brag of being Hebrews, Israelites, the pure race of Abraham? I’m their match. Are they servants of Christ? I can go them one better. (I can’t believe I’m saying these things. It’s crazy to talk this way! But I started, and I’m going to finish.) I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus. The eternal and blessed God and Father of our Master Jesus knows I’m not lying. Remember the time I was in Damascus and the governor of King Aretas posted guards at the city gates to arrest me? I crawled through a window in the wall, was let down in a basket, and had to run for my life…Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.
2 Corinthians 11:21-33; 12:7-10 (MSG)
Notice how Paul comes to the end of himself and realises that it’s in his weaknesses where he can experience the LORD’s strength in his life. His circumstances don’t change, but his attitude does. Could it be the same with us? Could we literally stare pain in the face and say, ‘You won’t beat me…show me your worst…I’m ready…’ but still, willingly, walk through the pain, instead of denying it is present? Most of us would run from these statements simply because we don’t like pain. At all. None of us do. But what if I told you there’s another way? What if I told you there’s a secret to pain that, if we know it, we’d be far better off people and, even better, more Christ-like Christians? Would you believe it? What if I told you I believe we need to make a similar list to what Paul did? Note, he communicates to his readers, not that this exposing the struggles he had was crazy, but what was crazy was him bragging about who he was absent from Christ. It’s a subtle shift but an important one. But I think we need to recognise something first...
We have to walk through the shadow of death, as Psalms 23 speaks of, first. You and I can’t experience these miracles, in the face of pain, unless we walk through them. Note, we don’t sit down and revel in the pain, we’re walking through the shadow…but we still need to walk through it, instead of avoid it somehow with coy statements like, ‘Praise the LORD!’
So why this book? Well, to put it simply, I’ve experienced a lot of pain. I still do. Much is through circumstances I can’t control, but just as many are situations that I could control that I chose not to. So, be forewarned, the beginning of this book is not going to look very pretty – pain never does – but if we continue to walk through it together, I believe we receive a greater gift. I believe by writing out and lamenting over these painful aspects of my life, the LORD can meet us in a powerful way and we can utter the same sentiment as Paul does - Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.
And so, I dare you to walk through the pain with me. Carry the burden, if you like. Consider writing your own pain-list. Seek the face of our Saviour in it. He’s in the pain. He’s a man acquainted with sorrow, as Isaiah puts it. If He is acquainted with sorrow, then we should be as well, in order to ‘fill up what is lacking’ as Paul describes (Col. 1:24).
It’s always surprised me, when we read of how Jesus presented Himself after the resurrection – He appeared to the disciples with scars remaining. This is the essence of this book: appearing to others with scars, but being able to rejoice in what the LORD has brought us through. We don’t see Jesus apologizing to the disciples for the state that He was in, this seemingly broken, scarred state; it was a lesson that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, especially Thomas (see John 20:24ff). So how can we embrace our resurrected state, enveloping the truth of the resurrection of Jesus and live richer lives, and still have scars remain? This is a question that I will attempt to flesh out in this book.
What follows is a look at my past, the no-so-nice parts of my life that have basically made me who I am. I would encourage you to follow along with me as I recall these circumstances, and reflect, yourself, on the memories that the LORD was trying to get your attention in, but in your desire to flee from them, you will miss the lessons along the way from your Gracious Heavenly Father. I guarantee it. My objective is not to sit and revel in these times of great pain, but simply acknowledge them and desire to work through them in order for the LORD to teach me what is lacking in my maturity in following Him. Some of these stories may hit close to home for you, some may not – but my desire is simply to rest in a God that, even in my greatest time of pain, meets me, dare I say, even more, than in ‘less painful’ situations in my life.
For His Glory. For His Fame.
As the, now, old saying goes…I grew up in a Christian home, with loving parents, church every Sunday, etc. You’ve heard the same line at the beginning of every testimony I’m sure. Somehow it always feels like this statement is being used to hide something. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. But I know that if I were to start by making this statement, it would most-definitely be used to hide a lot of hurt that I experienced growing up as a kid – both emotional and physical – perhaps the same objective as when we hear others begin this way.
I remember (well not really, but I remember being told) that when I entered the world, I came into it with a scar. There were complications with my Mom’s pregnancy. I wanted to be in the world so bad that I thought it would be better to turn around and come into the world feet first, so I could walk quicker down the streets of my new world, I guess. But nature had another idea. The doctor’s assessment was that I could not have been delivered ‘naturally’ so it was decided to deliver me by c-section immediately. As this decision was made, my Dad was asked to leave the room and the cut began, to make sure I survived, on my Mom’s abdomen. I did survive, but not without a gift of my first scar. You see, the doctor’s scalpel cut too deep and he, regrettably, hit my head. So, very quickly, in my first moments of sucking in Earth-oxygen, they had to stitch up a scar that was on my head. Nice way to enter the world, huh? Then came the rest of my years until my mid to late teens.
I somehow decided that it would be a good idea to continue the pattern of scars. I had numerous cuts on the head, arms and hands, some that needed stitches, some that didn’t. To say that I was accident-prone would be putting it mildly. I remember a time where my brother and I were running around in the basement of the church (while my parents were doing the better thing of sitting through another church service upstairs). As I frantically tried to catch my brother, who I could never seem to catch, I had lost my footing on the carpet and banged my head on one of the square pillars and burst my head open. I can still feel how it felt. Something wasn’t right. So we raced up the stairs, together, with my hand holding a bloody paper-towel on my head. Thankfully, there was a doctor who was present in the evening service as well, who quickly assessed that I needed stitches. Again. I was used to hearing that word. Stitches. A little earlier in life, maybe at the age of 5 or 6, I decided it would be a good idea to slam my fingers into the thick, patio door out to the backyard. After a quick rush to the hospital, it was a good lesson, complete with stitches (again) on the tip of my ring and baby fingers on my right hand (I can still clearly see the scars almost 30 years later and have joked that I have little ‘caps’ on my fingers now, to keep them together). So this was normal life for me. My poor parents.
I don’t care to mention the ski trip that gave me a gift of 6 stitches below my left eye, the burn just below my right elbow from a grass blower, the scar across the bridge of my nose from George Difalco, who decided to cross-check me into a cinderblock-block wall during indoor floor hockey in Grade 10 PhysEd Class, the scar on my left-pointer finger from a warehouse accident that involved me casually putting away new books just brought in from the truck under a mezzanine, the scar on my forehead from standing too close during an indoor baseball game complete with steel bat (I don’t recommend it), to numerous cuts and scrapes from my adventures with wood-power tools. You could argue that I may have even liked the attention – so I was more than accident-prone – maybe a better adjective would be to say I was an accident- magnet. Each of these memories have left literal scars. But I have other scars too.
As mentioned, I remember growing up in a Christian home. Faithful parents who consistently taught me that it was a good idea to go to Church, read your Bible and Pray. Each of these I have kept and continue to cultivate in my own life today. But, like any parent, they made mistakes.
I clearly remember, in my growing up years, that my family fought. A lot. We would consistently be told to sit around the kitchen table and be told (or yelled at) by my Dad of all the things that we did wrong that day. It was excruciatingly painful. My Dad didn’t know any better. He had a very abusive relationship with his parents, growing up as a twin in a very strict home. I don’t know a lot about his growing up years, but I did know they weren’t fun. And so, quite naturally, my Dad subconsciously passed on what he knew to us three kids. It wasn’t until my sister simply said, in a rage one evening, that he didn’t encourage us enough, that something snapped in his head. We never had the ‘family conferences’ again. What we received instead, for the next 20 or so years, were note after note after note of how proud he was of us and how much he loved us. I wish I could tell you that those notes erased the hurt, but they didn’t – they just masked the pain for a while.
Please understand that I do not mean to ‘slam’ my Dad. I dearly loved him. I just simply didn’t understand why he was so angry all the time for most of my childhood. And, as a small kid always does, I simply put it down to something that I had done that affected him so severely – I even remember thinking one time that it was because of all the accidents that I had or, worse, because he didn’t want me in his family as I was an ‘oops baby’ that they didn’t plan for. All these things were my fault somehow. I thought I could never please him – at least that’s the way it felt. But in the final years of his life, all of that changed (more on that story later). I now have more years of encouragement notes than memories of slammed doors and harsh words and for that I am very thankful. But it was still painful. These memories of mine occurred in what psychologists call the ‘formative years’. Yet other things happened in those years too, that I am still finding myself working through.
These memories of my childhood are still very fresh. But I somehow was able to bottle them up. I somehow fabricated in my mind that they were all ok – that everyone goes through this. I didn’t find out until much later that what I experienced as a child could actually be termed as sexual abuse. As I said, I’m still working through the implications of these experiences on my life as an adult today, but, as I said from the beginning, I needed (and still need) to acknowledge the pain and work through the shadows that I have tried desperately to push down. I have had counsel from a very, very gifted therapist. He has presented me with the Living God in Flesh, Who has scars that still remain, Who has invited me to the Table of the LORD. I see the blood-stained Table, with chairs hewn with thorn-removed rose vines. I see this Table before me and I am overwhelmed with His grace. So much grace. But I did need to walk through my history with someone. I desperately plead with you – if you haven’t spoken to someone about your pain, please do. It will be very, very painful, but there is joy in the pain. I knew I needed to dare to walk down these narrow, dark tunnels. The Bricks have been removed so light could be blasted into the dark recesses of these tunnels, but I needed to walk into these dark places. I needed to dare to.
So as best as I could, I learned to grow in it. As best I could, I learned to trust the LORD and not on my own understanding. And so, when I could, I left home, finally, at the age of 23, to start my career as a Youth Pastor as, previous to this, I had many experiences in my own youth group, as well as early 20’s, that convinced me that I could be good at youth ministry. And so I applied to my first, full-time ministry position – was accepted within a few months – and began, what I thought to be, a long-term commitment in youth ministry. All was going well, I thought. And then two months later, everything changed.
We all have stories of how we met our ‘significant other’. Some are simply stories of one person knowing a mutual friend, sparks flying, and the rest is history. Other stories are a little more in-depth. That’s our story.
‘The One’ for me, had just returned from Bible School. She began working for her Dad who owns a rock-climbing gym in Northern Ontario. She was given the task of expanding a program for Youth Groups. She picked up a phone book one day and started to call through the church names that appeared. And, as they say, the rest is history (but you get to hear more of the story).
She called the church that I was working at, at the time, and left a message for me. I distinctly remember putting the message, in the secretary’s writing, in the corner of my desk and forgetting about it – at least for the day. I arrived the next day with the overwhelming sense that I needed to call the number. I picked up the phone, asked to speak with the person who called, whom I hadn’t met before, and our journey began.
This first conversation was, by far, the most uplifting conversation I had had in awhile – maybe even ever. We both were hungry for fellowship – she just coming from Bible School and me, in a new ministry position, not knowing very many people. We talked for what seemed like hours. We both were working, so knew that being on the phone this length of time probably wasn’t the best use of work-time, but both extended pleasantries that we both meant. I distinctly remember saying, ‘Let’s stay in touch…’ hoping that we could. Well, she didn’t know how much I meant it…
The following Saturday morning, I woke up super-early. Showered, shaved, made sure my goatee and sideburns where straight, jumped in my car to arrive on the doorstep of the rock-climbing gym, unannounced, to meet my bride. I’m not joking - I was that sure. I had a backup plan in my pocket if I didn’t like what I saw (i.e. change of name and slight change in voice, if needed – seriously), but I didn’t need the fake name or accent. She walked down the corridor of the gym and I knew I had found ‘the one’. I distinctly remember thinking when I saw her walking towards me that she was going to be my bride. She, not knowing who I was (or what I was thinking), extended her hand, introduced herself and said, ‘How can I help you?’, to which I simply responded with, ‘Hi…I’m Peter’. At first I didn’t know how she would react, but by the bright red hue in her face that resulted after I introduced myself, I knew something was there from our initial conversation on the phone. We both knew it. It would just take some time to uncover it.
So, picture this: we both have extended our hand to the other person in a simple gesture, but neither really knowing anything at all of the other person, other than an almost 2-hour conversation earlier that week and a red-glow on each other’s faces. In shock, we must have held each other’s hands for close to a minute. In order to break the awkward silence, in the most-manliest way possible, I asked, ‘Umm….so…ah…is there somewhere where we can talk?’ And thus began a beautiful friendship. Yet, in steps pain.
That first ‘real conversation’, face to face, leaning up against the outside lockers of the back door of the gym, it just seemed to be so easy to talk to her. I remember saying, to frame the conversation, ‘I’d like to tell you who I am…’ This was the premise to me basically sharing my story of where I grew up, the ministry-calling that I had, and the vision I had for the youth that I had the privilege of ministering alongside. I remember how quietly, yet intently, she listened to my story. As I summed up, I had every intention on saying this final statement, ‘…and what about you?’ Without knowing it, this was the statement that, as she still explains it today, made her curious and attracted to me. ‘What kind of man is this that wants to hear what I have to say?’, she asked herself, ‘and how would I present myself in a way that would be honest and sincere?’.
So, as she intently listened to my life-story, I sat and listened to hers. Our stories were both similar and different, but the common denominator was that we were seeking to glorify the LORD in our lives. Yet this aspect was the conflict (you could say the turning point or conflict in the story – any good story needs a conflict). She had her mind and heart set on ministering full-time in Afghanistan. Before I came along, she was full-throttle to work as a single-missionary. But that was the conflict. When I had come along she sincerely asked the LORD if I was a distraction to that call on her life that the LORD so clearly was leading her to. Thankfully, she believed He said I wasn’t, but didn’t answer how our lives were to fit together.
You see, I had only had a Canadian youth ministry vision (more specifically, an Ontario-based youth ministry), but this person that was sitting in front of me, had a much broader vision – a vision for the world. I was intrigued but also annoyed because I had no idea how our two seemingly conflicting visions could work together (but more on that later). So, instead of trying to answer the ‘elephant in the room’, we just simply spent more and more time together. We most definitely enjoyed each other’s company and saw that the LORD was really blessing our times together. Yet there was this question that needed to be answered – youth ministry or Afghanistan?
We had well-meaning people who said that we could do both, either here or Afghanistan, together, as there were plenty of youth in both areas that could benefit from our giftings. But this sentiment never sat right with either one of us. So we continued to put it aside, hoping that it would just simply go away. She began an internship at the church where I was working, and, for the time being, it felt fine. But we both had this knot in our stomachs, knowing that something needed to change.
I remember very clearly, sitting at her dining room table, at the end of a meal and simply saying, ‘I believe we need to go to Afghanistan’. To be honest, I don’t think I really understood what I was saying, but knew that I needed to let go of my plans and open my heart to this new, foreign idea of working in another culture, another world, another people-group. Even as I breathed the words out, I remember wishing I had not said them, but they were out now and neither one of us could ever turn back. What ensued in the next few years was nothing short of an incredible journey. I proposed on April 14, 2003 and we were married on August 28, 2004. But in that in-between year were incredibly hard, heart-stretching and heart-breaking times. Those times I have thought very little of over the past 10 years or so, but, as the premise of this book is, I believe I need to walk through the shadow in order to find healing. Miraculously she said yes to my proposal (actually, never uttered the word, but nodded) but I don’t think either one of us really understood what that yes meant.
We began to pursue ministry together. This involved many hard questions, both with each other and mentors, and still, we left many unanswered questions. We were being asked to step out in faith – clearly. And neither really knew what to do, other than step out of the boat and fix our eyes on Jesus. I remember a particular training that we had in the States that was very thorough in its training for Muslim outreach, complete with obligatory ‘ministry time’ in the community park after each day of classes. That is where I met my match.
She seemed to be in her element. She loved people. She loved learning about their culture and loved sharing Jesus with them. Me, on the other hand, all I wanted was to get back to the church ministry that I knew, instead of stretching myself to see what the LORD wanted to teach me. Well, he taught me alright, but in a way that was extremely painful.
We went to a locals’ home one evening. As typical in their culture, women are in another part of the home and the men in the living room. This particular evening my fiancé was with two other women in the kitchen and I was alone with Khalid. He was very kind and patient at first, but began to say, what I found out later that week to be, a very common string of arguments against Christianity – namely the Bible has been changed. But he said something to me that really floored me. In fact, I remember describing it to someone, that it felt like he had figuratively chopped my head off and left me for dead. What he said was that when Jesus taught in John 13, 14 and 15 of ‘Someone’ that would come to take up where He left off in His ministry, and if He did not go, this Person would not come, Khalid described that this person, he believed, was actually Mohammed. He had a ‘back up text’ in Greek that proved, in his mind, that this name for the Holy Spirit that Jesus used, and if only two letters are switched around, it is the same name that appears in the Koran. Clever argument. But it sure didn’t feel like it at the time. This was the first time that my faith had been challenged. But there was no one else around. It was just me and Khalid. And I was defeated. We came back from that training with me sincerely doubting everything that I had been teaching these kids in the youth ministry in Ontario. My only hope was that, once we returned, I would be welcomed back to the church ministry with very needy kids who had missed me so much and the ministry falling apart because they needed me so desperately. But what I found instead was the exact opposite.
I remember walking into the sanctuary on a typical youth night, after being away, feeling that I needed to introduce myself because there were very few people that I knew that were attending the event. It was clear that in this month-long training away in the States, rather than the ministry falling apart, it was thriving. They simply didn’t need me anymore. I remember sharing this with a friend soon after that night, and with much wisdom, he turned to me and said, ‘You’ve done your job’. Everything in me screamed.
Why on earth couldn’t I just slip back into the ministry that I knew? All I knew of this ‘other ministry’ at the time was foreign, odd and even threatening. But as my friend also communicated, God had answered our prayers in a very clear way. God was clearly leading me out of this ministry and into a new one. It was going to take many more years for me to acknowledge that fact, but what I did know is that my friend was right.
So I resigned from the position the following June and we married in August – with a whole new world in front of us - that neither one of us really knew or could say what we were going to be up against.
To the Field
Not many understand, but to join an organisation to work overseas can take many years. Not only does support-raising take time, but also additional training and Bible School (which we both did before our overseas ministry began). We had planned a trip to Afghanistan in 2007. We were both, seemingly, on the same page. Plane-tickets in hand, we made the ‘foreign trek’ to Kabul and it was, without a doubt, the most incredible experience we both have ever had.
Our platform that we hoped to be a part of, was an intermingling of meeting felt-needs and discipling. There was a thriving ministry to the Hazara people. As a culture, the Hazara people have passed down from generation to generation, the trade of carpet weaving. Some of the most beautiful carpets ever hand-crafted are from this people group. Yet, the Hazara people are also the most persecuted in their country. Believed to be descendants of Genghis Khan’s men, their features are significantly different than what the Afghan’s generally believe their national face should look like, and, as such, they are often looked down upon, or worse. So in steps a Christian organisation to show them the Love of Christ in practical ways and we were instantly attracted.
We returned to Canada with a renewed vision and a passion to work with these people. We began to raise support and finish my Bible school training in Alberta, but while we were there, everything changed in a matter of months.
While we were in our first year in Alberta, we had heard that a woman was shot and killed in the streets of Kabul. She was a missionary, desiring to spread the news of Jesus Christ to all that came in her path. The Taliban took full responsibility for her death and publically announced that they didn’t want ‘her kind of people’ in Afghanistan. We heard this news through our missions’ organisation and they recommended we look at a ‘Plan B’. Does God have Plan B’s?
Our lives were shattered. What about the dream? What about all the training? What about these dear Hazara people? Who would be willing to go now that the Taliban had done such an awful thing? We were willing to give our lives, but now we had been stopped from even doing that. So, the premise of this book surfaces again…walking through the shadow…with the LORD.
One of the hardest lessons was for the LORD to reveal to us that we had created Afghanistan as an idol, without knowing it. My wife clearly had a vision of Afghanistan being put in her hands and the LORD, as her LORD and Saviour, was asking to take it out of her hands…and was asking if she would be willing to open her hands to Him. This revealed the idolatry. Thus began the first real lesson for us of surrender. And thus began the lesson of pain.
It took a long time for us to, at first, accept this lesson from His hands, rather than believing it was from someone or somewhere else. This, truly, is the first lesson in pain. I think we all need to take in the Biblical truth that the LORD is a part of every situation in our lives. To believe He is not a part of each and every one of our circumstances somehow disassociates Him from our lives and somehow creates a belief that He allows things that are outside of His control. Take it from someone who knows, these are dangerous waters. We must believe that God is Sovereign, even in the things that we cannot understand. This is the lesson we needed to learn. The LORD was a part of our grieving the loss of Afghanistan and we needed to believe that we could depend on Him to walk us through it. And He did.
Very soon after this time of grieving, we met with a worker within our company that was heading up a ministry to Iranian Refugees in Turkey. At first, because our hearts were so stirred with the work in Afghanistan and the Afghan people, to look anywhere else (or to any other people group for that matter) was a struggle. But after we finished Bible School we headed to Turkey to see the work with our own eyes. And the gift was waiting to be given.
After one of the services that we attended for the Iranians, I was sitting next to, what I thought to be, an Afghan young man, due to his facial features. To find that the previous Sunday, this young man, who had been a part of the Iranian community of believers for 3 years, had surrendered his life to the LORD (I call him the ‘wink of God’ for us). We were convinced this was the direction that the LORD had provided for us. We came back to Canada with a renewed vision and a direction to work with Iranian refugees in Turkey full-time. But we thought we had learned the lesson to hold our plans loosely...not knowing that there were many more experiences to shape us on the field as missionaries.
Our First Year
With full-support and 200+ daily prayer partners, we packed our things and headed to Ankara, Turkey. Having no idea what we would meet when we got there, with hopes high and prayers and best wishes from the shores of Canada, we trudged out into the unknown.
We began our ministry with learning Turkish – a necessity in any country is to learn their language. We coined our learning of Turkish ‘survival turkish’ as it wasn’t meant to be a learning strategy that gave us a broad look at the language but one that we would learn in a very short period of time so we could manage on our own with basic vocabulary to buy groceries, etc. But then life got…interesting…
We were out with our new-found friends for a Bible Study in a local home. As always, it was good to talk with others that were experiencing the same things as we were. We were building community. We were building a life. We came home from our time with our friends to be greeted by three separate phone messages.
All three were from my sister. The first, she explained that they had been away at the cottage and Dad was acting strangely and complaining of a headache. So they came home from their vacation early to take him to the hospital. The first message ended with, ‘…we don’t know what’s wrong with Dad, but we’ll keep you posted’. Still while we were out, we received a second message saying that they were now at the hospital, and the doctors are doing some tests. They still didn’t know what was wrong, but they think there’s something wrong…so we need to call as soon as possible. The third, still while we were away, was an increasingly more concerned voice from my sister. ‘The doctors are saying there’s something on Dad’s brain…some kind of tumour or something…Please call as soon as you get this. It doesn’t look good’.
Now imagine receiving three messages while living overseas, far from family. I had completely thought the third message would have been something like, ‘Dad’s in a coma, we don’t know when he’s going to wake up’, or worse. But once we finally got in touch with my family, it was clear that the news what not good. There was still much to be discussed and revealed, but the biggest question on everyone’s mind was what were we to do? We had just been overseas a very few months (we received the call from my sister in early September of 2012; we landed in Turkey February 21, 2012). So once we finally got in touch, I asked them to ask the doctor a very hard question – should we come home?
My brother and sister needed to describe, as best they could, what we were doing in Turkey and why we were there. Once the doctor heard we were in Turkey, he clearly said that we should come home. And so began the first of three trips to Canada. Our organisation graciously gave us a month’s leave. In that months’ time, we learned that Dad had Brain Cancer – the very worst, aggressive type. The doctors wanted to do a biopsy, originally, but we found out that instead of a biopsy, they removed as much of the cancer as they could without affecting my Dad’s brain due to how extensive it had spread. What followed was many medications, trips to the hospital for chemotherapy and radiation. But the LORD tarried on. We had the month off in Canada and then returned to Turkey. This was the hardest decision for us to make, but before we received this call in September, we had planned to make a trip to Canada for Christmas. Our tickets were bought for this trip far before we learned of my Dad’s illness. So the goodbyes would be short because we knew we would be back very soon. Little did we know, though, how different Dad would be on this trip.
Pop had lost a lot of hair, his speech was almost completely gone, and many of his faculties had turned into something similar to a toddler. Due to the treatment he was under, his face filled out and his cheeks became very red. He had transformed into someone that I could barely recognise. But Pop tarried on. We were in Canada for 2 weeks Christmas vacation and celebrated as honestly as we could as a family. But again, we had to make a hard decision to return to Turkey. But this time, we knew what it meant. If Pop tarried on, we would simply have to wait, in Turkey, for the phone call that he had passed away. Our company, again, graciously had offered us a 10-day leave once we heard that he passed away, but the waiting was excruciating. We returned to Turkey to wait. We waited but not for very long. January 26, 2013 Pop went to be with his Saviour for all of eternity and I look forward to seeing him again. But the final months of his life were filled with excruciating pain.
To see a loved-one deteriorate so quickly was agonizing to watch. We had somewhat of a disconnected viewpoint as we hadn’t walked as closely next to Pop through each day as we had made the decision to go back to Turkey after each trip (more on that in a moment), but the journey was horrific for us just the same. Our journey was unique because we were grieving so far away from home. Most of our communication was over email and phone, with the occasional Skype call. But it just wasn’t the same. We weren’t there in person to walk with Pop and the rest of my family. And it has stayed with me ever since. But I do have good news. Well, it’s not necessarily ‘good news’ but it is revealing news.
On the day that Pop heard he had cancer was the day he was going home after recouping from surgery. Up to this point, we had requested that the physicians not mention the word ‘cancer’ to Pop as we believed that it would really effect his demeanor. And so they complied, but had to reveal what he had when he was going home. Not knowing the journey ahead, but holding tight to the faith in his Saviour, Pop brought us into his room shortly after this ‘new cancer news’, sat us all down and began a speech that I will never forget.
Pop began to explain to us that the doctor on staff just told him that he had cancer – that he had had surgery to remove a tumor on his brain – but he also wanted to instill in each of us that it would all turn out ok. He believed he could beat it. He had beaten Prostate Cancer earlier so he believed he could do it again. But he was looking down a tunnel that he sincerely had no idea what would be there. With very little light to be seen, he sat up in his chair and then pointed at us. He began to become brighter in his face and he then pointed his finger at us and said, ‘…promise me that you will return to Turkey’. He knew that what we were doing in Turkey was sharing the message of Jesus with those who had never heard. He lamented in his weakened state that he hadn’t shared Christ with more people, but it was now our turn to take up where he left off. He was commissioning us to return. He made us promise to return and share his story with others. And so we did. Just like him, having no idea what was ahead, but trusting, even in suffering and pain, that the LORD would meet us. And so we left, with the blessing of my Pop, with his commissioning us back to Turkey, not knowing that a few months later we would be back in Canada to grieve his life on earth but celebrate the life that he now lives with his Saviour for all eternity.
And so we returned to Canada one final time to a packed out church to remember his life and celebrate the life to come. Many people were there – it was such a testimony of Pop’s life. So many people came up after the service to thank us for the service but to encourage us that Pop had made such an impact in their lives with his kind spirit and encouraging heart. It was hard to return to Turkey the third time, but with the blessing of my Pop and the memory of his faithful life and eternity in front of him, we returned with a renewed, yet scarred hope. Pain made its way through all of our hearts. Its thrust was sure and we all have remained scarred because of it. I don’t believe the scars will ever heal. But I don’t believe they need to. Just as Jesus’ scars remained in His resurrected state, so should ours for our loved-one who died a brutal death, but had hope of a resurrection and an eternity with his Heavenly Father awaiting him. My Pop has given these words new meaning:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NASB)
BEYOND THE FIRST YEAR
We returned to Turkey February 2013 (almost exactly a year after our first arrival to Turkey) with a renewed desire to ‘jump right back’ into ministry. We both had completed the requirements of our ‘survival turkish’ and we were to jump into full-time Persian study. And what a difference. Language aside, this was a whole new world – interacting with different people, many whom have come to know the LORD and were walking with him, yet many coming with painful, horrific stories of persecution and families who disowned them. Our first year was so immersed in Turkish study that we hadn’t been able to interact with these people. But all that changed. Immersion # 2 began, but I truly wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen.
Soon into my Persian study, I began to have dreams, more like nightmares. I would wake up in the middle of the night. I would shoot right up out of bed with screams and cold sweats. At first we all thought that it was just my body getting used to the grief, but it was clear there was something else; something much, much more serious. I still haven’t completely comprehended my dreams that I had then (now close to 6 years later) – the valley is too dark and too unknown. But it was clear that these dreams were not dreams but memories from my past. As they continued, it was clear that I needed to reach out for help. I had gone down a very crazy, mixed up, dangerous road of denial and tried to push the memories down even more by immersing myself in language study, in people's lives, in a fantasy world on the internet but none could salve the pain. It seemed the more I tried to push them away, the stronger they got until it was very clear that I needed help. I was scared of what might happen to my wife, to our ministry, to everything. I was scared of what might happen to me. But I knew I needed help. And I sought it out in my team leader.
He too recently had to grieve the loss of two of his family members – his Dad and brother – in the space of 6 months. He, too, had to grieve while overseas and so I had hoped that he could understand. I had to confess to him as well that I had tried to push the grief and trauma away by buying into the lies of internet pornography. But I was met with a harsh reality. He began to explain that his supervisor, before coming to the field, mentioned to him that if there was even a hint of immorality in the men’s lives that were gathered in the room, they would be kicked off the field the very next day. Harsh reality. Harsh words spoken to a broken spirit that resided in my body. I knew he was speaking truth, but didn’t feel the words were appropriate at the time. So in steps pain number I-don’t-know-because-I-lost-count.
My team leader was very instrumental in getting me help by trained counselors though. You could imagine how grateful I was for this help. I had never felt so hopeless in all my life. Never had I felt so weak. Those next months were some of the hardest months of my life as we, my counselor and I, had the brutal job of weeding through all the memories, doubts, fears and just plain muck of my past. It was more pain than I had ever experienced. I thought I knew what it was like to feel pain as a child – I thought I had enough scar-experiences to prepare me for this kind of pain, but these experiences could never have prepared me for what was to come in my adult-years. Yet, if this wasn’t enough, we had to experience more pain, by the providence of God. Also, through this time, it was mentioned that because of the trauma I had experienced, there would be a very good possibility we would be asked to leave the country. But the ‘powers that be’ needed to talk more. So while we waited, there was still more pain we needed to experience.
Right in the middle of deciding whether we were to remain in-country under the circumstances and grief that I was experiencing, we reached out for help from friends. They had invited us to their home for dinner. I distinctly remember my wife, our dog and I, getting out of a taxi and walking down a hill to get to our friend’s place. We were, shall we say, not on the best of terms with each other. We had said a few words to each other that we both regretted, and as I walked in front of my wife, I heard what I never want to hear again.
I heard a slight thud behind me, and then an ear-piercing scream. I looked around and saw my wife on the ground, holding her head and screaming in pain. I had no idea what was wrong as my back was turned when it happened. Once I knelt at her side, it was clear. She had a lump the size of a tennis-ball on the front of her left ankle. She somehow stepped off the curb in a very harmful way, and fractured her ankle in three places. To say this was painful doesn’t do it justice. To say I had never felt more helpless simply doesn’t begin to communicate what I felt. I put my hand on this lump in the front of her ankle to mask her from seeing what was wrong. She knew something was wrong, but had no idea what as she was in complete shock. What happened next was a bit of a blur, but we got help from people to call for an ambulance and was rushed to the hospital.
When we got there, they had assessed that her leg bone needed to be re-set. I was asked to leave the room and the deed was done. But then came the discussion about surgery. The doctor on staff strongly stated that my wife needed surgery, but we, still, at this point, did not know the extent of the injury. We were then taken to another hospital for an x-ray. This is where we learned a new word – she had a trimalleolar ankle fracture – basically meaning she broke her ankle in three places. And she needed surgery to put her ankle back together again – complete with a platinum rod and screws.
We had a long road of recovery ahead of us, but there were many, many times (too many to count) of how the LORD blessed us – from friends who brought over meals, to hospital staff, to healing – even in the shadow of this pain, there was joy. But what began in my heart with my emotional pain, surfaced in my wife’s life as physical pain that brought her to one of the darkest times of her life. She described it as a time where she did not experience the LORD – that it not only felt like He was absent, He was absent. As much as she prayed, there was no answer. It was clear that this was a time of great sorrow and lamenting – similar to what we read of in many of the psalms. And so, we needed to learn to walk again – both she and I.
Little by little, the healing began. It was slow, but we were seeing improvements. I can still remember the first time, with the help of a nurse and crutches, that my wife took her first steps on her ‘new ankle’ – it was amazing to watch. She had such courage. It was like watching a baby make their first steps. I’m sure you can see the parallel to us ‘trust-walking’ with our Saviour. Still uncovering all the lessons that the LORD had been faithful to teach us in this time, but it is still unbelievable when we think of how painful it all was and the ‘perfect timing’ of the fracture. Remember, we still didn’t know whether we were actually going to remain on the field, as it hadn’t been decided yet. That decision was made and we were given the opportunity of staying in-country, with the understanding that our language-learning hours needed to be dropped as we both began to meet with a counselor (who was in-country miraculously) to walk us through the pain. This was, by far, the best decision we had ever made. A dear friend of ours had stated that talking to a counselor is the best thing anyone could do. Take it from another source, if you like – I agree!
Yet, just right in the midst of our healing, we were also made aware that the team leader that I had confided in previously, had made an announcement that he and his wife were leaving the field to be in a different role within our company that necessitated him to travel far more. This travel would not give him the freedom to invest in the Persian Church that he and his wife had given so much of their time to. He announced this at our company conference in July and all of us were crushed – especially my wife and I. We felt personally attacked. How on earth could this have been a right choice given how needy we were, how needy we all were, not to mention how needy the Persian community was? But the decision was made and we were all left to pick up the pieces. The reins were given over to people that did not feel it was their gift to lead a team, let alone a Persian Fellowship. And so we all trudged on but in a helpless, weakened state.
Due to the stress that ensued with everyone scrambling for meaning, as is always the way, when in a stressful situation, we always seem to attack those who are closest to us; we tend to project our stress on others and it gets really, really messy. In our state of helplessness and desperately grasping for meaning in what we did instead of who we were in Christ, I started to hear comments from leadership that they didn’t think I should be in this kind of work – that it was clear to them that the stress was too great, that it was effecting my work-ethic and effecting how I was learning Persian (aka being effective in ministry).
In one sense, this was a ‘duh-moment’ to me. Of course what I was experiencing would affect my work-ethic. How could it not!? But I was surrounded by people that believed that the stress of releasing my Pop into my Saviour’s arms should have brought relief, not more pain – that the hope of eternity should wipe away the scars of grief that seemed to remain, and even fester. I remind us again, that the image of the eternal-hope that is painted for us in the Gospels of a Risen Saviour includes a scarred, resurrected Saviour. If His scars remain, mine needed to as well. As Henri Nouwen clearly communicates in his book Wounded Healer, the full-essence of ‘by his wounds we are healed’ had become a reality to me. In the wounds that remained, I could be a greater witness of the LORD’s goodness in my life. But instead of cultivating this and breathing hope into a dark situation, I received what I perceived to be very hurtful words: ‘You’re a square peg in a round hole’; ‘You don’t fit here’; ‘We don’t know what to do with you or how to help you…’; ‘…maybe you should look at other options somewhere else’.
How many more trips back and forth from Canada to Turkey did these people need in order for us to prove that we wanted to be here!? It was clear that there was a desperate need to reconcile, as the statements were getting worse and worse. We tried our best to wade through these waters for an additional month, but it was clear we, again, needed outside help. We had a much needed mediation session with trained life-coaches. Tears were shed, forgiveness was asked for and received. Yet even in this session, there was talk of us leaving for our furlough sooner than expected because, ‘…it would be easier on our leadership’. It was clear that even though there was grace given and forgiveness accepted, there needed to be a further step of deciding what we could do and where we would be. We were still being projected on as a burden to the leadership and a burden to the team. And so, even with forgiveness and healing in the air, we heard, ‘…would you consider leaving for your furlough earlier because it would be easier on us’. Even in healing, there are scars that remain.
A further few months of meetings ensued and it was decided not only that we needed to go to Canada for furlough early (we initially decided we would work in Turkey for a four-year term), but also that we would be, under the leadership of our supervisor in Turkey, better suited to join a team in Istanbul because the team in Ankara was clearly not a good fit for us. Light at the end of the tunnel? Yes. Hard journey to get there? Absolutely.
So, we took a much needed retreat away from the busyness of the city to pray and fast and reflect together on what would be done in the remaining months. It was a good time to get away, but hard to return with everything staying the same. We simply were not welcome and, though forgiveness was granted, needed to swallow the hard truth that we were a burden to others who didn’t see the value of pouring into us. And so began the ‘hurry up and wait’. From beginning of April to mid-November 2014, we had tried our very best to leave well, in every area of our lives in Turkey, with the hope that what God had begun in us, He would both continue and complete…both in our lives and in the lives of the people we were ministering amongst.
After all that has been written to this point, this is where our ministry in Turkey ends. With the forgiveness of others and forgiveness offered, we did not return to Turkey. Yet again, in steps a turn in the journey.
AFTER BEING OVERSEAS
Theology of Suffer-eignity
Even after I have re-read each of these things that I have just written so far, it is still a bit unbelievable. As I come to the end of myself I ask a (hopefully) rhetorical question: Is there anything else that we need to suffer through? To say that we were forced to reconcile in our own minds what our theology of suffering and God’s Sovereignty is (aka Theology of Suffer-eignity), goes without saying. What is suffering and why does God allow it? You will not find any answer to that question here as I mentioned at the beginning of the book that I am not here to give pat-answers to some of the most life-changing questions like, ‘Where is God when it hurts?’, but I can shine some light on something that I think we all need to remember:
God is God and we’re not.
Perhaps this poem might shine some light on what I’m attempting to describe:
"This is from Me," the Savior said,
As bending low He kissed my brow,
"For One who loves you thus has led.
Just rest in Me, be patient now,
Your Father knows you have need of this,
Though, why perhaps you cannot see--
Grieve not for things you've seemed to miss.
The thing I send is best for thee."
Then, looking through my tears, I plead,
"Dear Lord, forgive, I did not know,
It will not be hard since You do tread,
Each path before me here below."
And for my good this thing must be,
His grace sufficient for each test.
So still I'll sing, "Whatever be
God's way for me is always best."
(Taken from the devotional, Streams in the Desert - February 1)
What does this mean? It means that He’ll do things that don’t make sense to us. Over and over again in Scripture we see God doing things that, frankly, make us question Him; they make us wonder whether He actually is God, or good or crazy. Ever read through the Old Testament especially and wonder why God would call a group of people to kill a whole city of people, leaving nothing behind? Ever wonder why, when you read through the book of Job, why God had that conversation with Satan about ‘considering Job’ for a test? Ever wonder, when you peruse through the Gospels, why Jesus healed some but not all the people with the snap of a finger? Or why Paul had to experience all the sufferings that he did?
The truth is God doesn’t make sense (not sometimes, a lot of the time). Yet, though we walk through this dark shadow and are willing to ask these questions, something in me continues to rise to the surface. The truth is, I don’t think we’ll ever know. I find myself imagining standing at the foot of Jesus on the throne in Heaven but having nothing to say, having no questions like what I’ve written above – but in utter worship of Who He is. I have a mind that all the questions are going to disappear in the Light of His face. So if that’s the way I imagine it to be when I see Him face to face, what about now? What about the circumstances we face in our lives now – here? What can we (or can we) cultivate in our lives to get us to the point of not asking any questions, but just standing at foot of His throne room and worshipping Him? Well, for starters, I think we need to re-evaluate whether questioning is harmful, an unfaithful action, on our part, or is there something underneath that the LORD would want us to learn?
You may have been waiting for this portion, but as I (again) have re-read what I have written to this point, I sense a tension - the elephant in the room, you could call it. The question, that I think you would ask at this point, is, ‘Did we make it? Did we continue to walk, hand in hand, with the LORD and with each other?’ I am sorry to say that we have now begun our journeys with the LORD, separately.
The pain is real. Looking back, remembering all that went on before we entered into ‘full time ministry’ (a term, I think, we should never use, but that’s for another book perhaps), it is so glaringly obvious that we left our relationship behind somewhere. Though we commonly walked together to Afghanistan, to Bible School, to trainings, etc. and eventually to Turkey, very few times can I point to a place where we were working together, ministering together, loving together, out of a unifying heart to serve the LORD and each other.
Marriage needs to be cultivated, protected, and nourished. You could use each of these words to communicate devotion to ministry as well but that was our issue. Our issue was that we forgot that ministry is an outflow of a unifying marriage. Ministry should always be out of a worship of the LORD that says, ‘I forgive you! I love you…no matter what!’ We created a line in the sand and our marriage dissolved because of it. Ministry aside, we forgot how to forgive. Ministry aside, we forgot how to love. We forgot the LORD in our marriage.
Through the pain that we experienced, we jumped into ministry-life and left the other behind. We both did this. Rather than seeking out the other, comforting the other, nourishing ‘no matter what, we’re staying together’ we, this side of everything that we’ve experienced, didn’t have a relationship that had been cultivated by mutual love for each other. We loved each other, framed in partnership within ministry. It is abundantly clear to me now that we’re living life divorced from each other, that ministry was the glue of our relationship, not the LORD or our commitment to each other. The moment ‘our ministry’ dissolved, we didn’t have a relationship.
The truth is, somewhere along the way, we made ministry an idol and did not seek to have our marriage as a mirror of God’s grace and an outflow for ministry. We lived and served people, yes – but it was done independently – even though we lived and worked shoulder to shoulder, even hand in hand. Ministry aside, it was also abundantly clear that I needed help in dealing with stress. As mentioned before, getting therapy is the best thing in the world. I highly, highly recommend it!
My past is real. So is hers. Moving forward in a healthy way means living separate lives; discovering what the LORD would have for our futures, who He has for us to minister to, even who we are meant to be with in the future, but far, far, far more important, Who He wants to reveal Himself to be. We forgot our first love and, by default, forgot our second (marriage-partner). So quickly, once our first-love of Christ is lost, we turn around and, rather than seeking Him first and our spouses second, we create a ‘second love’ for ministry. I fear that our experience is not uncommon. I hope that our experience would shine a very bright light on a very, very important issue that everyone in ‘full time ministry’ needs to be aware of and guard. God is first. Marriage is second. Ministry to others is third. Don’t mix up the order. Believe me when I tell you, it’s not worth it.
…He is Good
A few years ago, I had systematically worked through the book of Psalms (not knowing that the pain that you have now read about would be soon after I finished). There is one fact of the Psalms that, frankly, makes us all uncomfortable. It’s these psalms where the psalmist seemingly screams out for answers – daring to ask God, the God of the universe, how long will the sufferings continue.
One of the premises of my life is working through my anger, my feelings of loss, is by not pushing them all down by saying things like, ‘It’ll work out – God’s on the throne – I don’t have to worry about it…’ but deep down, I am worried about it because I know, in my mind, how contradictory God can be (at least in my finite knowledge). I believe the essence of the Psalms is wrestling through the finiteness of our knowledge of an infinite God.
As C.S. Lewis puts it (paralleling Aslan to the LORD), He isn’t safe. If there’s any lesson that I’ve had to come back to again and again, it’s this sentiment: What do I do with a God that isn’t safe? How do I trust Him? Thankfully, Lewis didn’t leave the statement as just that He isn’t safe – he finished it with, ‘…but He’s good’. And so I wrestle with these seemingly contradictory statements in my walk with the LORD. But I willingly wrestle with them (and with Him) because He’s worth the struggle, because in those times of greatest pain, somehow, someway, He reveals Himself.
This side of experiencing all the pain that I’ve experienced, I can truly say that I’ve never been more face to face with the reality that the LORD is in all things in our lives. If we walk down the dangerous thought-road that He isn’t somehow in all of our circumstances, we instantly take Him off the throne in our minds, and that is a very, very dangerous place to be. I’d rather say that though I don’t like what He’s given in this circumstance, I’m going to trust Him in it. Though I’m gritting my teeth, I know He knows better. He’s allowed this suffering in my life because He wants to teach me something of His character and sees me worthy of this lesson.
So with a blind, scarred faith, I will walk through this shadow, as I know that He will not only meet me at the end with the Holiness of His Light guiding me through and an everlasting Love that fills me completely, but He will also walk with me every step of the way through the shadow – He’s God, He can do both at the same time! And that, my friends, is the most comforting thing that we could ever experience – believing He will never leave us is the best and most hopeful truth that we could ever have and the best truth that we could pass on to others as we walk with them through their pain and suffering!
I was challenged to consider this concept – God’s Claws – in my life. The analogy was described through the writing of C. S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace, the fumbly and downright annoying cousin, who, to many readers alike, deserved all the mean treatment he received, describes hope in the midst of pain. Lewis writes of a beautiful transformation of this little boy – from boy to dragon and back to boy again. But what intrigues me is the scene of the dragon skin-tearing. I see myself so much in this scene. But who I also see is my Heavenly Father.
You see, perhaps like you, I struggle with the things of life, the occurrences that don’t make sense, the supposed ‘happenstances’ that aren’t, in God’s perspective. Whether we want to admit it or not, God is in our picture of life (somewhere). We often can’t find Him or sense Him, but I must come to the conclusion that He has not lifted His hand from my life, but is intricately aware of my circumstances and, aside from popular belief-systems (Christian and non-) that choose to believe that God is not aware and has distanced Himself from the circumstances we find ourselves in, I must believe He not only is aware of the things of our lives, but is causing them.
I very cautiously am breaching this topic as I know that it may very well be misconstrued. It is not a popular thought or belief that our Heavenly Father causes pain, but I know He does. I believe He not only ‘orchestrates’ the interlude, postlude and everything in-between of the music of our lives, but has written the notes and rests with His own hand for a purpose that we, His creation, are not told about (yet). In my life, the crescendos and decrescendos He has planned continues to be the characteristic to His Majestic Opus for all of eternity.
What is this purpose? Why does the LORD cause pain? It’s for His glory. How better to shine His wonderful plan than through singing songs of hope in our most disagreeable and painful circumstances with the proclamation that not only is He present, but has been aware of what has happened because He has both caused and allowed these circumstances to take place in our lives, for His Name’s sake.
He has not left us!
This is the chasm that we bridge – what God causes and allows. Now, let me set up some very important parameters. First, is it very clear in Scripture that God is not the author of evil. It is also very clearly a distinction in Scripture Who God is and what Satan is. God is Light, Satan is darkness. What we need to determine is the ‘gray areas’ painted by the circumstances we find ourselves in. When we experience pain, heart-ache, financial problems, death of a loved one, etc. we begin to ask, either consciously or otherwise, where is God. And we either come to one of three belief-systems: one, He is intricately a part of our circumstances because He caused them to magnify His Name; two, He is unaware and out of control of the circumstance in a very direct and intentional sense, and has lifted His hand from us and the experiences we have; or three, we believe there are circumstances we experience where they could be either one or two, dependent on the severity, the person or the test that ‘needed to happen’ for reasons outside of our knowledge. Perhaps the best synopsis of this issue is asking, ‘Where is God when our life-circumstances are painful and out of control?’ I ask with trepidation, ‘Does God cause pain?’
I will not attempt to answer each of your questions (or mine for that matter) in these statements, but I sincerely see this is a question that I, personally, needed to answer, in order to discover more of the Heart of the Father in my life. I wade through these waters, with much trepidation, but I know I need to do more than what I’ve historically done – only dipping my toe in these waters. I believe God is present in all circumstances of my life. To believe otherwise, I believe, is insanity (literally). Though I may not understand, nor perhaps never will, why the circumstance has been allowed or caused by God in my life, I would far rather wrestle with these thoughts and be confronted with my Heavenly Father’s sure hand of care and discipline in my life, than have a life filled with unanswerable and confusing circumstances, and being left in utter despair and loneliness. The fact of the matter is I believe most people are lonely because they do not believe that the LORD is capable of giving pain or heartache in order to learn something more of His Gracious Character; far too many believe we walk alone through these dark tunnels of fear and misery. In short, this is too much of a leap for many – I know it is for me most days - but I still desire to wage the war. I believe the LORD wants to reveal something of His Character to all of us in all of our circumstances - every single one of them.
It gives me great hope to know that I can, with wobbly legs and unsure steps, walk with my Saviour – as He understands and truly is the Great High Priest. Though He too, in fact, was the recipient of God’s ‘causing of pain’ yet, as the author of Hebrews writes, endured because of joy:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1,2 (ESV)
A short synopsis of this book, and my life for that matter, is that I seek joy in my life. I seek the LORD Who amply supplies that joy especially in my times of greatest doubts and fears. I believe this is what He wants for our lives. I believe this is what He wants for my life. Yet He only extends it. He does not force us to believe it. It is an act of faith. It is an act of relationship. It is an act of trust. Yet, I believe as we trust and believe, especially in our times of greatest pain and tragedy, we will discover the LORD has been ever-present and desires us to meet Him in our times of pain. In short, we need to be broken and see the LORD in our brokenness. This transforms the reason of pain because, unlike many other things, God speaks over the pain He allows in our lives to impact us like no other experience we have.
The truth is, God’s claws are in our lives. He is seeking to tear away the skin that we can’t tear away ourselves. As Lewis writes, the ‘knobbly-looking’ skin needs to be torn away to reveal who we really are. As Eustace explained to Edmund, it will hurt like ‘billy-oh’, but oh the joy that is found when we are under the Claw of God! We then can swim in the pool of water that the LORD throws us into (again, note He is actively involved) and finally be clean and rid of the skin of our lives. The truth hurts. But it’s for our good. That is where I begin. I may not like it, but this truth is what gives me great joy and great hope. It is also what thrusts me into a new world and a new hope, with a smile on my face for the immense opportunities that are in front of me.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED SO FAR…
Death and Suffering
As you have now read, I’ve experienced both in quite a number of ways. I can’t name one area of my life where God has not chosen to press with His strong hand of discipline. But there have been lessons that I believe I’ve learned in order to pass along to others. I sincerely hope my life can be a faith-testimony, even in the midst of great pain!
First, though I mentioned to you about my Dad dying while I was overseas, I thought it would be helpful (to you and to me) to remind myself of two other experiences that started me down this journey of learning what the LORD needed me to learn about death.
After dating this one girl (who I thought was ‘the one’) off and on through most of my teen years, we broke up just before she was to travel to Africa to visit her sister who was serving as a missionary at the time. While she was there visiting her sister with her father, mother and aunt, they were all in a car accident that tragically killed three of the five people in the car because of a cow that ran across the road. A cow. My ex-girlfriend, along with her father and aunt, were killed instantly. She was 19 years old.
The second experience happened while I was in Northern Alberta so I could finish up a Bible Degree before travelling overseas to become a full-time missionary (again, a term that I wish wasn’t in our vocabulary). I flew back home to Ontario that summer for my birthday. I then travelled back to Alberta and my wife at the time stayed for another week in Ontario. While we were apart, my Dad called me in Alberta to say that my dear friend, who was slotted to have knee surgery, tragically died a day after the surgery because of complications with his heart. Knee surgery. Who dies of knee surgery?
So to say I’ve been forced to work through what death is, is an understatement. I’ve experienced all sorts of ‘deaths’ in my life, but it has thrust me into a new realm. I can honestly say that it has given me hope. All of these loved-ones of mine know the LORD. I grieve that I can’t sit and have a coffee with my ex-girlfriend (though, admittedly, it would be a bit awkward) or walk through the park with my dear friend who died of knee surgery, or have just one more conversation with my Dad on the phone, but I have hope that I will see them all again. They are all basking in the relationship that I have with Jesus, though I am seeing Him through a mirror dimly (as Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthian Church; see 1 Cor. 13:12, 13). Frankly, most days I’m jealous that they got to see Him first. But my time will come. And I wait for that day with great anticipation and expectation!
Learning and Re-Learning
I’ve learned that things that we don’t understand are windows into the heart of God.
I’ve learned that faith, which is small and not growing, is not faith at all. The sufferings that we experience in our lives is the water and sunlight that gives nutrients to the plant to grow into a strong, towering tree of life and faith in Jesus. Faith that is not stretched, prodded and poked is not faith at all. The Potter who pokes and prods and shapes us in order for us to be a vessel of great use for His Kingdom, deserves our trust, even though it is often uncomfortable.
I’ve learned that God causes all things to work together for good (see Rom. 8:28). So to say that God caused all my pain that I have now written down is not a heresy. I believe that to say that He didn’t cause these things means He is not Sovereign. I’ve been there and done that. It is not a place of hope. Though I can’t wrap my mind around it completely, I can freely say that God causes suffering – but it’s because He wants to reveal something of Who He is in it. Suffering is not bad. I believe we’ve misunderstood what pain is. With less faith, we look at pain and say unabashedly, that God couldn’t cause that. But He has allowed, planned and caused from the beginning of time, for His only Son to die a brutal death in order for you and I to have a saving knowledge and wonderfully renewing and invigorating hope and home with our Saviour here and now. Eternity is not some cloud in the sky but what we can experience now! And through pain, we can literally glow with the joy of the Lord. So to say that God wasn’t a part of that pain? That is heresy. He caused it. But in that causing of pain, we have been given the best gift ever! His Son. So, in light of Jesus, I can say, unabashedly, God causes Pain.
I’ve learned that people can be a part of our growing or a part of our struggle. But both are valuable. We can’t say that one is valuable and the other is not. Both are needed in our lives. We cannot, nor should we, isolate ourselves from going deeper and deeper in our walk with each other. There will be scars. There will be hurts. There will be bumps and bruises along the way, but we need to walk together. I can guarantee that if we willingly vulnerably walk with each other, and show our scars and show our pains, we can actually be ‘wounded healers’ to each other and to those who haven’t found this amazing truth of Jesus’ scars in His resurrected state. To walk away from each other, we miss the very thing that the LORD wants to show us. He wants to show us His heart. We all have pasts that we would rather not expose to our spouses, loved ones, etc. for fear that they will not be able to handle it. But the truth is, if they can’t, they haven’t reconciled with a God who says, ‘I love you and have grace for you…even while you are sinning in my presence’. That, my friends, is the love that we need to give each other. Though it’s a text I really, truly do not like, Jesus clearly teaches that if we do not forgive (walk alongside and be vulnerable with) each other, He will not forgive us (see Matthew 6:14). Dare to walk together in vulnerability. Dare to share your scars. Dare to love without boundaries. This is the Love we are called to give to others as Christ gave to us. He was the most vulnerable but that was His greatest strength. I promise you that you will be scarred in offering it, but it is a Love that He offered first to us that He commands us to give to others, for His Namesake.
I’ve learned that though you may think you have it all figured out, God takes pleasure in revealing things, especially in suffering, that help us bask all the more in how wonderful a Saviour He is. I would even go as far as to say that He enjoys walking us through suffering because He sees the value of what will be revealed. He sees the value of taking us by the hand and showing us what is lacking in our walk with Him. If we are willing to walk through the shadows, we will see such bright lights on the other side that we won’t have any choice but to laugh with complete joy in the face of all the suffering, because it has all been worth it. I pray that you will be confronted with this joy, today, as I have. It is like nothing I have ever experienced! It truly is life-giving. I have found my smile, not in spite of the pain, but because of it.
So, you may not agree with all that I’ve written, and that’s ok. I’m on The Journey. I’m seeking to learn, every day, what it means to trust the LORD when I can’t hear Him, to believe in Him when I can’t see Him, to trust Him when He breaks out that dreaded claw for me to be free of the skin of my life (again). I am glad that He takes me where I am and how I am, but loves me enough to teach me and correct the things that are off. But we are all on this journey of discovery. He’s not finished with any one of us, even if we’ve walked away from Him.
Thus far, even after all the pain that I’ve shared, I can honestly say that it’s been worth it. Not because I experience hope every day, or joy every day, or even peace every day, but because I know He will meet me in it and has met me in it.
If He meets me in my greatest place of weakness, my lowest state of depression, or my deepest place of suffering, I am convinced that there is nowhere that He wouldn’t go, to meet with me. His presence is all I need.
For His Glory. For His Fame.