Sunday, November 30, 2014

Holidays and "New Normals"

Since my 20s, I've put up my Christmas decorations immediately after Thanksgiving. And each year when I do it, I internally take stock of whether life is "normal" or "off kilter."

It wasn't until this year when I realized, however, that my definition of "normal" might be somebody else's definition of "spectacular." During the Christmas season of 2004, for example, I was still married. My husband at the time had exited the Army after three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was feeling particularly grateful that he was home in one piece. I had a beautiful 2-year-old boy, one which doctors said I was incapable of carrying to term and who had survived a horrific pregnancy. We had one of those brand new "McMansions" in suburban Augusta, GA, where the weather was perfect every day. We had a fabulous church and were heavily involved. My business was booming. My then-husband had found an extremely lucrative sales job, and money was no object to any need. Our child was in a gorgeous preschool, and we had good friends, and family members were flying in for Christmas Day. We'd even just returned from a week that October to Disney World. I still remember my child coming down the stairs to the tree to see what Santa had brought for him, his oohs and ahhs and the piles of toys. I remember playing music that sounded like something out of "It's a Wonderful Life." I remember rib-eye steak for dinner and other holiday meals like rigatoni with Italian sausage and peppers. I remember baking in a kitchen that looked like a photograph on Pinterest.


To me, at that time, that was "normal."

That was what my life was "supposed" to look like on Christmas.

I was heavily blessed, as you can see.

At the time, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me, and one decade later, I have had to survive a series of "new normals."

Ever hear the phrase, "This is my new normal?" Ever wonder what it means?

To those of us who say it, what we mean is that at one time, we had the picture perfect life ... one that to the outside world looked fabulous.

But then something tragic happens, and everything -- EVERYTHING -- is ripped away.

We have to learn to adjust to a life that is less than what we imagined our life should be. We have to recalibrate our expectations. We have to reassess how shallow we were and whether we were grateful enough at the time for the things we had when we had them. We have to take stock of the people around us and hug our kid a little tighter each time he goes out the door.

And to really give you a picture of this ... as we put up our Christmas decorations, we have to say to ourselves, "This is my new normal. This is me, putting up my Christmas decorations, in my life as I know it today, in the present. And I am grateful for it."

But are we? Are we grateful for our "new normal?"

It's taken me a very long time to get to a sense of peace about where I am today.

However, something happened this year that brought me full circle to where I finally achieved acceptance.

As I was unloading my Christmas boxes yesterday, I ran into a box that contained nothing but photographs. And these weren't just from my former marriage ... these dated back all the way into my early 20s. I realized as I thumbed through them, looking at the faces of family and friends over the years, that these past few years are just the most recent time I have had to adjust to a "new normal."

When I was 26, my father died the day after Thanksgiving. My "new normal" was a Christmas without him. I've had subsequent "new normals" where I've moved across country, where I've married and then had to adjust quickly to the war against terrorism, where I've had an infant at Christmas all by myself because of that war, where I've been divorced, where I've gone from great affluence to poverty, where I've discovered my child had autism, where I've been betrayed, where I've endured pain and sickness and where I've even faced fear of death.

But as I looked at these photographs, I didn't see tears and gloom.

All I saw was love, joy, laughter, peace. All I saw were treasures -- people who truly supported me, loved me and cared for me through each tragedy.

Most importantly, I realized that no matter what is endured, I have had blessed assurance that Jesus is mine. And that has been consistently true for me.

We sang that in church this morning.

"Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh what a foretaste of glory divine. Heir of salvation, purchase of God. Born of His spirit, washed in His blood. This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior, all the day long. ..."

My "new normal" has never really existed!

My "normal" has always been the presence in my life of the One who holds me and sustains me when life goes off the rails. The photographs of my past moments revealed that in my darkest days, I carried that assurance with me, boldly, courageously, without flinching, with certainty.

I don't say that to brag. I say that because for me, this revelation this weekend has been profoundly empowering: to know that God has carried me through each "new normal" and to also know that during each life transition, I've rested confidently in His arms.

Are you facing a difficult holiday season? Are you looking over your shoulder at happier times? Do you think about intact families and remember when things were different? Have you had to endure enormous grief, betrayal, loneliness, despair and loss?

I do not doubt for one minute that you are in extreme pain. I've been through my own trials, and I don't know what's in the future for me. Will there be more to endure?

I'm here to tell you that yes, you may have a "new normal," but one thing will be consistent for you:

He will be.

If Jesus is yours, then nothing has changed. Yes, life circumstances and tragedies force us into paths that we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies. But if you are rooted in His love, you are still operating in the "normal" spiritual world of God's faithfulness and grace.

Lean on Him. Depend on Him. And when you start thinking about your "new normal," give it back to Him. He will give you the peace beyond your understanding and dwell with you.

This holiday season, I celebrate the only "new normal" that shook the world 2,000 years ago and changed everything for us forever:

"For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this." ~Isaiah 9:6-7

Embrace this "new normal." Celebrate it. Depend on it. Depend on Him. Call on Him, and He will answer you.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Recently, Google Maps did something that threw me off. When I log in with my location and destination, it will give me a list of steps. But after I got lost during a day trip this summer, I realized that as part of the list, Google gives you a general statement about what to do. Unless you click on the arrow to the right, you won't see the specific steps that dovetail into the general instruction.

For example, it might say, "Get on I-75 and follow it to the Georgia state line." But unless you click on the arrow, you'll miss the list underneath, which describes how to get to I-75 from your home and which highways will lead you around Tennessee before you jump back on to I-75 and hit the Georgia state line. If you don't click on that arrow, you might get to the Georgia state line -- but if you've never made the trip before, following the general instruction might actually get you lost.

I was thinking about this today, because I've been struggling with two Scripture verses -- Ephesians 4:26-27.

"'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold."

My dear friend Jason, who lives in Wales, sent that one in a tweet to me yesterday afternoon. It stopped me cold, and I replied to him that it was a great reminder. However, I said, I honestly didn't know the difference between "sinful anger" and "righteous anger."

What I meant by that was ... are there times when it's okay to be angry? The Bible verse doesn't address it. The verse also doesn't go into detail about HOW you're supposed to get PAST that all-consuming emotion. 

In short, this Bible verse is a "general instruction" on Google Maps.

This bothered me into the evening, and when I woke this morning, this was still on my mind. "How am I supposed to NOT sin when I am angry? Is anger sin?" 

I realized that to get to the answer, I have to do what I do with Google Maps -- click the arrow to get the specific instructions. And how do you go about that? By looking at verses in the Bible that pertain to anger.

Here's what I found, and if you also struggle with "sinning in your anger," I hope it helps:

1. Anger is not sin. If you dissect the verse, the verse does NOT say, "If you are angry, you are sinning." The verse says, "In your anger, do not sin." And how do we know that anger is not sin? Because God gets angry, too. God is holy and pure. There are countless instances in the Bible (heck, even atheists can cite them, and they do so vociferously) when God gets angry -- all the way back to the Garden of Eden, through Noah, through the 10 plagues in Egypt, through taking the Israelites to Babylon for 70 years ... you get the idea. Even Jesus got angry -- remember the scene where He overthrew the tables in the Temple with a whip? Check out that anger. Countless times. COUNTLESS TIMES that God gets angry. If God is holy and is without sin and He gets angry, then we know that anger is not sin.

2. Figure out why you are angry. In a moment of anger, stop and ask yourself the root cause for the anger. Sometimes anger is born out of something we ARE doing that is WRONG. I see this all the time with people who are very prideful. If you've ever called out a prideful person, watch them take vengeance swiftly. But then there are other times when our anger is justified. I get angry when I see people on Twitter deliberately misleading others with the "Prosperity Gospel" philosophy. (That's for another blog entry, but let's just leave it here that I get irate.) I get angry when someone runs a red light at top speed, and an old man was about to cross the street right before the car whizzed through. I get angry at political opponents when I sense that social justice is at stake. I get angry at situations like the case of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University. Make a list of what makes you angry. You will be able to see that there are times when you are angry for really good reasons. This is the anger to which the Bible verse is referring. You are angry for a good cause, but then, the verse says, do not sin in your anger.

Now. How do you do that? Anger is such a forceful emotion. In the hands of a human being, anger can become unmanageable, and the results can be disastrous (not God, whose anger is always carried out in pure ways).

This is where we have to "click on the arrow," i.e., look at other Bible verses and references, to understand how we can be angry and still not sin.

What I didn't know until this morning was that Ephesians 4:26 actually isn't an original thought. The phrase, "In your anger, do not sin," is a quote -- it's quoting Psalm 4:4!

"Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still." 

Wow -- now look at that. The Bible says, "Be angry." Be angry! It's instructing us to be angry if our anger has a righteous reason.

And the second part of the verse is what we just did -- we figured out why we were angry by meditating on the root cause of the anger. That was the first step to not sinning.

So now you know the root cause of why you're angry. But what next? Just knowing the cause may not be enough to stop you from sinning. Let's look at a few real-life examples to drill this down. I'll list the situation, the "sinful response," and the "righteous response."To make this easy, we'll look at some things that make me angry. I'm sure you have your own list, but maybe some of ours will match:

Real Life Anger #1: Someone bullies someone else on Facebook for a political reason.
Sinful Response: Jump into the middle of the debate and launch into personal attacks about the bully and why the bully doesn't understand the situation
Righteous Response: Hide the post from the Facebook timeline and reach out to the person who has been bullied on Facebook Private Messages to let them know you support them. Ask what you can do to help them have a better day. And if you feel you need to set the bully straight, reach out to THEM on Facebook PM and express that you muted the conversation because you felt it was not edifying. (Note, you can only do this last thing with other Christians. We are responsible to each other to build each other up, but when dealing with non-believers, we are to care for them as wayward lambs. That's for another blog post, though. :-P)

Real Life Anger #2: Abortion makes you see red.
Sinful Response: Judge the women who are having abortions. Picket abortion clinics with hateful signs. Tell people who are having abortions that they're committing murder and are going to Hell. Hand them a tract on Psalm 139 and condescendingly tell them that you'll pray for them. (That's what I call a passive-aggressive sinful response.)
Righteous Response: Pray for the teenage girls and women who are confused and are in a sea of difficulty, confusion, fear and hurt. Volunteer at a Pro Life clinic, where these women receive free medical care during their pregnancies. Collect baby supplies for indigent women. My church does a really cool thing once a year where we collect baby bottles for a few weeks and fill them with money and change, then deliver all of the bottles to a place like this as a fundraiser. Do you know how expensive formula is? Diapers? Do a good deed and set aside tithe money to donate these items to a local charity that serves women in need or to a homeless shelter.

Real Life Anger #3: A driver in a giant red pickup truck that's the size of a Transformer rides your bumper and flashes its beams at you on a two-lane winding road with no street lights at 10 p.m. And it's snowing. Oh gosh, now it just turned to sleet. And your kid is sleeping in the back seat.
Sinful Response:  Slam on your brakes to get the guy to back off. Give him the finger. Scream curses. Slow your speed to 15 miles per hour on the stretches with a double line so that he can't pass you and will be stuck going the pace of a turtle. (Yes, I have done all of these things, numerous times.)
Righteous Response: Flip your mirrors so that the headlights won't blind you and so that your peace will not be disturbed. Additionally, when a tailgater notices that you've flipped the mirror, he or she usually backs off. There's no point tailgating somebody who can't see you in the rear-view mirror, and you've just taken the fire out of what they're doing. Continue on as if the driver is not behind you and pray for God's protection until you get to your destination. Keep an eye out for police officers. In one situation, I had a tailgater on a Sunday morning who, for whatever reason, decided to bully me even when there were four lanes and he could easily pass me. I have no idea what started it. Then I saw two police cars parked on the shoulder. So I slowed down, put on my blinker, and pulled up behind the cruisers and got out of the car, while the driver gunned his accelerator and sped off. I walked up to the police officer in his car, who now was looking at me like I had just pulled HIM over, and explained that I'd been tailgated and bulled for about five miles by the driver who had just fled the scene. Unfortunately, the police had parked on the county line and told me that they would have to radio ahead for an officer from another county to pursue the driver. Although I didn't see justice that day, I was grateful that my cooler head prevailed. I got back in my car and drove to church -- stress-free and with a smile on my face.

Do you see how you can be angry but not sin in your anger? 

If you hit a Bible verse that stumps you, just think about the Google Maps analogy. Pause and look for footnotes in your Bible that explain the context behind the verse. Sometimes it's easy, like this morning, when I saw a footnote that led me back to Psalm 4:4. Sometimes you'll have to do some digging. But the bottom line is, anytime spent in the Word is not wasted time. God will honor your efforts with His wisdom spoken to your heart ... and you will have the specific directions to answer your problem that you might not have had if you'd stuck with the "general advice" in one verse.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mean Storm Waves and A Creature on the Water

So you're discouraged. Something in your life is eating at you, gnawing at your soul, keeping you up at night. If you've dealt with me on Twitter, you're well aware of my penchant for insomnia, and once I get going in the middle of the night about a problem, all bets are off on when (or if ) I'm going to fall asleep again.

If this is you, too, then I have a story for you ... the story about mean storm waves and a creature on the water.

The solution to your problem -- to every problem -- boils down to one word.
But before I give you that word, let's go through the tale. You will know this story already, but stay with me:

Picture guys in a boat on an open sea, and a storm sweeps up unexpectedly. The waves are terrifying and enormous and are overtaking the vessel.

Just when they think all hope is lost and that they will sink to their deaths, a figure appears on the water. It is bright and white, and light emanates from it. It moves across the waves, not flinching despite the sea's tumult. But the men can't make it out.

Finally, as it gets closer, they see this light is actually a man.

And they cry out in fear, thinking it's a ghost.

The man says, "Don't be afraid! It's me."

One of the guys in the boat is brash and strong. He's usually not afraid of anything and charges ahead into things without thinking. So he says to this ghostly looking creature, "If it's you, tell me to come out to you on the water."

And the creature says, "Come on out."

While the waves still press on the tottering boat, this guy puts a foot over the edge and into the water.

He is surprised when the sole of his foot feels like it has just hit solid wood, just like a floor. So he puts the other foot out, and to his astonishment, he stands up straight and doesn't sink. He believes the "creature" is now his buddy, so he walks towards him while the waves continue to crash and churn.

But just as he gets to within an arm's grasp of his friend's hand, his peripheral vision catches the waves.

See, although his friend has made it possible to walk on the sea as if it's dry land, the waves are still coming. And they're tall. And they're mean. And they're evil. And they're ominous. And they're freakin' terrifying.

Suddenly, the man is no longer focused on his friend, but he's now focusing on the waves -- and his fear takes over. The water beneath him becomes water again, and he starts to sink.

He screams, "Lord, save me!"

And his friend, Jesus, reaches over and grabs him and says, "Oh you. You have so little faith. Why did you doubt?"

Now what does this story have to do with your situation?


The "waves" are your situation -- whatever it is that's keeping you up at night -- an unforgiving person, a divorce, a death, money problems -- what's your wave?

Sometimes you trust God and feel like you're walking on solid ground through the stormy sea. But then sometimes, like our guy in the story (by the way, his name if you don't know it was Peter), you start looking at those waves in spite of how God has helped you in the past.

Can waves be reasoned with? Can waves be controlled? Can waves be convinced to stop their attack?
You can't control the waves.

You can control your reaction to the waves.

The one word that will help you through all of this is:


Are you willing to call on His name to see you through this?

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Story of Job, Doubt, Unbelief and Faith

A crisp early morning breeze, unseasonal for June in Kentucky, jarred slumber, and a red Kentucky cardinal, his pre-sunrise song unabated, refused to let me return to my dreams.

It's one of those mornings where the doubts with which I have wrestled for the past four years nag me, much like the bird's ardent chirping.

And what is it that I can't get out of my mind?

The story of Job.

This is a blog entry I have wanted to write for at least three years. But until this morning, the ruminations haven't crystallized. Just as the soft sunlight broke through the nighttime shadows, the resolution to this silent, ongoing debate with myself finally illuminated my heart's recesses.

But let me rewind and give you the back story.

This whole thing first started when I was in my early 20s, with one of those late-night conversations that never leaves your consciousness and stays with you throughout the years.

I have a brilliant younger brother, four years my junior. Usually the older sibling is the one to whom the younger must aspire. In our case, I was the underachiever in the family, bringing home report cards filled with mostly B-grade averages (with a great deal of studying and effort). He was the child who could ace a test without barely cracking a book open and sailed through school at a 4.0. At age 13, he hacked into Syracuse University's IT system and changed students' grades -- and those were the days before we had an Internet.

While I was superficially focused on making the cheerleading squad or playing pranks on my college campus, he was a diligent, deep-thinking philosophy major. He studied ancient Greek, delved into the underpinnings of C.S. Lewis's complex works and successfully challenged the establishment everywhere he went.

Now I tell you all of this about my brother, because I need you to understand why and how this late-night conversation was so poignant, and continued to be poignant many years after the fact. A debate with my brother on any subject meant entering into a decision to challenge one's long-held beliefs and perceptions.

In short, nothing about these conversations was ever comfortable.

Basically, he vociferously made the argument that we really didn't know if certain stories in the Bible were about real living, breathing human beings ... or if they were Jewish folklore, cobbled together as metaphors and parables to help the ancients grasp the meaning of life.

At the time, I was aghast at the mere suggestion. Not take the Bible literally? How could any believer consider such a thing?

He drilled through the list of names, starting with Adam and Eve ("Really? We all came from these two people?"), moving to Noah ("A flood over the entire Earth?") ... and then he hit Job.

His reasons for Job being just a fable were rooted in the storytelling approach of the book of Job itself ... Satan presents himself to God in the middle of all of the angels, and he and God get into a debate about one guy that God thinks is doing great. Satan says, "If You strip him of all he has, he will curse You."

And you know the rest of the story ... God allows Satan to take everything from Job as a test of his faith, and when Job stays faithful to God, God restores everything to him again, except with more bounty than with which he started.

My brother's point of view was that the book read like a Greek myth -- good versus evil -- and that there was absolutely no proof that a guy like Job ever existed. The basis for the story, he said, was an attempt to help the ancients understand why bad things happen to good people. But it was not to be taken literally. There was no reason, in fact, to take it literally, he said.

Besides -- he asked me -- why was it so important to me to take it literally? Why did it have to be read literally? What was the reason, the drive within me, to insist that Job was a real person who lived and breathed on this earth? Why did I feel I had to cling to the idea that there really was a conversation between Satan and God and that this poor sap was targeted? Why couldn't I just be happy with the idea that Job was a great piece of Jewish literature but was nothing more than folklore?

I have to admit ... I was stumped. And I was bothered. And I didn't know why I was bothered. I couldn't get my head around my own strong desire to want this story to be true, to be literal, to be an actual event.

And for the next 26 years, this conversation ate at me.

Until this morning at 4 a.m.

All of it clicked together like a World War II code cracking tumbler, the mosaic pieces of my bewilderment suddenly falling together into a complete picture and making sense.

(Usually on this blog, I would break here and tell you to tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story ... but this has been pressing on me so hard for the past three-and-a-half hours that I'm just going to keep writing here ... and if you want to break off here and return to it later, you can. :-)

See, at the time that this conversation took place in my life, I had experienced no hardship. None. I had lacked for nothing in my childhood and had been raised by two God-fearing, loving parents. I hadn't been touched by any sickness or tragedy. The story of Job was just that -- a story -- to read with interest and curiosity.

And for a long time in my life, that was the case. I did have some hardships, don't get me wrong ... my father died when I was 26, which was devastating ... and I watched my former husband go to war in Iraq when I was three weeks out of a C-section with a colicky newborn, following one of the worst pregnancies known to women ... and during my marriage, I went through some horrible illnesses. And all of those life events tested me at various stages.

But even at that, I can honestly say that I didn't know hardship -- really know hardship.

Four years ago, all of that changed, however.

I lost everything.

I won't go into detail, because many of my readers already know the story and it's too long for this blog entry's purposes, anyway.

But let's just use the Cliffs Notes version and say again:

I lost everything, including my health, to the extreme where at one point I thought I only had a few months left to live.

It was then that the first piece of my mosaic came into focus.

The reason I wanted the story of Job to be true -- even when I was at a point in life when nothing bad had happened to me yet -- was that I wanted to be able to know that someone else had lived and experienced the worst and still came through it with blessings for God on his lips and blessings from God after it was over. For me, it was crucial for this to be a true story, because I needed the assurance that if the worst ever came to my door, I had a real life person to look to as an example of how to handle it.

In short, I needed Job to be a real guy, for my own emotional coping strategy when the going got tough.

For a while, when I would think back to the conversation with my brother, I thought it was as simple as that ... my emotional needs being met by the truth of the story.

But this morning, I realized it was so much more.

Job's story also illustrates that God is involved in the lives of each and every person. When bad things happen to us, we're not on a limb alone. I needed the story to be true, because I needed to know that God knew about each plight. We are not isolated. He is with us. And because of the promise of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 (the birth of "Immanuel," which means "God with us") and the promise of John 14:16-17 (the coming of the Comforter), we are further assured that just as God was involved in the events of Job's life, so is He in ours.

As for my brother's argument that these stories could be fables ... I look to Hebrews 11, which we know as "The Faith Chapter." If you haven't read it, you should. It details the ancients whose stories of faith and trust are examples for us in our own walks. I don't think that the author would have listed each of these individuals if they hadn't lived. And in Matthew 1, we have the genealogy of Jesus, which provides the lineage that traces His origins ... to Adam and Eve and even Noah.

Is Job mentioned in either of these passages? No, he is not. That said, I think this establishes a Scriptural pattern of identifying these people in the stories of old as real individuals ... and if Job's story was important enough to be included among the writings of the Old Testament, I am confident he existed, too.

There are readers of this blog who may point out to me that I am a supporter of the theory of evolution and that I have made the argument that it is not mutually exclusive from the story of the Creation in Genesis. For more on that, we need another blog entry, but my reason in bringing it out is that you may argue with me, "You can't cherry pick which stories in the Bible are true and which aren't. You can't say you take one thing literally and another not so literally."

But I would say that you can't put God in a box, nor can you do that with the Bible. I think there are some instances in the Bible where you have to read with the understanding that these were ancient people communicating ancient happenings in the way they understood them. With something like creation, where they did not have the benefits of scientific knowledge, the story would be written in the way they would be able to communicate it best. With something like a story about an individual's life, however, that is pretty straight-forward. You wouldn't need the benefit of science to grasp it or understand it, which is why I think it can be taken literally. My point is that we would have to be very short-sighted to demand that all of the Bible be taken literally or all of the Bible be taken as fable or folklore. If the Bible is God-inspired, then it can be read with wisdom, inspired by God. And for that, we simply need faith to ask Him to reveal His mysteries to us as we read it.

Finally, there is one final (and most important) reason that I believe Job to be a literal story:

It is a story of hope.

It is a story of one man's destitution and loss following a life of great blessing. And it is a story of redemption, faith, courage, honor ... and blessing following his refusal to curse God in spite of all that had happened to him.

During the past four years of my arduous personal journey, I have repeatedly turned to the story of Job as a lifeline to get through. I have repeatedly relied on his example as my predecessor for how I should respond to hardship. I have repeatedly realized that if one person can go through what he did, then my sufferings can also be endured. And I have repeatedly realized that with his faith and trust, God smiled ... and God smiled on him and blessed him and more than repaid what had been lost because of Job's persistent love and hope in Him.

Hardship is a part of life, and life isn't fair.

But God is God.

God is on His throne, and He sees the evil that is done to His children.

And if we take the story of Job literally ... if we hold on to Job's example as one to which we can aspire ... if we grasp firmly the faith and love in God as Job did ... God will give us grace, peace, assurance, but most importantly, His love ... to carry us through.