Sunday, February 26, 2017

The End of Things

You probably have heard that "All GOOD things must come to an end…
to make way for BETTER things to happen because the BEST is yet to come". The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with penning this proverb in 1374.  I am not sure that all would agree with this thought, particularly just after placing a loved one in the ground, unless perhaps escaping an abusive relationship. Yet, I believe that only God and His word are eternal. All else must come to an end: relationships; life; jobs or careers; and sadly today even safety and security. We have losses of life, investments, friendships, health and things of all kinds. The poet had truth to bring us in the positive perspective that the end of one thing brings the opportunity for the beginning of another. A friend and radio host of River West in Milwaukee recently spoke these words as we conversed on his show, “Just Talk’n.” The contents of the show are available on this link: https://soundcloud.com/user-409984402/17-00-00-just-talking-5.

Yes, the end of all things does come in life and in death. Are you ready? Or in “na├»ve innocence” are you not prepared for a particular loss?  Sadly today we live in a society where children need to grow up very fast to cultural issues that would never have affected us perhaps a generation of two ago. I’m thinking of coping with same-sex bathrooms and moral decay more than economics. I’m thinking of kids not having moral absolutes taught in a relativistic society. There is a right and wrong and not all ideas or beliefs are equal. They may be protected under 1st Amendment rights, but that does not make them good.  The Apostle Paul said of life for a Christian, “Everything is permissible-but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23). The end of safety and innocence comes in many forms. How about terrorism and increasing crime of all kinds?

When we lose something or particularly someone near and dear to us we will grieve. There is shock and anger; a process of mourning is set in place. It varies for us all, but there are steps to grief. Initially we may feel, loss of control, helplessness, heightened emotions, loneliness or abandonment, vulnerability, guilt, self-blame or even fear. Grief is a body, mind and spirit overwhelm. Our bodies may suffer physical as well as emotional and spiritual pain. We may have sleeplessness and tears. Appetite may go out the window while alcohol or drugs might look inviting. Indigestion, or high blood pressure from anxiety is common. Intensity of feelings can bring vomiting and diarrhea, while our immunities are lowered. It is not uncommon for people to seek professional medical and/or counseling help in times of loss. Having officiated at nearly 200 funerals I can attest to that.

I had the privilege of leading a program for the bereaved called Griefshare. We discussed the many overwhelming aspects of grief. The program motto was, ‘Turning mourning into joy.”  The intensity of grief caused some to angrily react to the thought that they would ever be joyful again. Yet over the weeks the loved one’s memories became reframed or redefined, bringing a sense of peace in the storm for most participants. This is a process that is not linear and bounces between stages of grief. These stages may include: shock, anger, recognition, withdrawal, bargaining, healing/turning point, reinvestment, renewal, redefinition of loss and work on grief. This process may be complicated by other and secondary losses or collective and community grief that is experienced more broadly. Loss in non-traditional relationships and/or suicide can bring further complications.

When facing death issues of reconciliation, purpose and legacy are important. Working through or acknowledging these can contribute to a better experience or “good death.” Letting go by the one dying and their family is important. The concept of “generativity” or leaving a worthwhile legacy is important for posterity and good grieving. Affirmation of the life of the loved one helps bring closure. As a chaplain I can play an important role here by helping bring such sacred things if possible.  Life review, reminiscing and story telling are important at time of death to bring conclusion to life in as orderly and thoughtful a way as possible. Families are complex and long-term issues are sadly not always resolved before death.

God allows death and loss and uses it for our good and His glory if we trust in Him. Scripture says, “Fear not” and “I will never leave or forsake you.” These promises help bring hope to our faith. Faith can be an anchor in a storm of difficult emotions. God allows suffering and you share in it. “You are dust, and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19). However, a strong faith in God through His Son Jesus Christ brings the assurance of eternal life and heaven for a believer. This brings hope to those who remain.

As a chaplain I have had the privilege of attending the deaths of hundreds of people. Although there may be physical pain, which medicine can help control, there may be emotional and spiritual issues. I have personally witnessed that those with faith tend to die peacefully and those without it do not generally. I don’t know if visions of the afterlife begin to appear that affect the emotions or not. I have witnessed spoken visions that are both beautiful and frightening depending on faith issues. I have also experienced the presence of spirits and angels with the dying. I believe these are real and not psychological as people are transitioning from this plane into the next. Scripture assures that we are absent from the body and present with the Lord immediately at death. Our eventual destination is a choice in the Christian faith.

Today many want to die naturally, without medical intervention such as ventilators or feeding tubes. The right to die or autonomy is ethically very important in western society. Writing an Advance Directive and naming a Power of Attorney for your health care decisions is vital in this. Choosing someone who clearly understands your desires on resuscitation and extraordinary care questions in advance will prevent pain, and unnecessary agony at time of dying and death.

For caregivers it is important to take care of yourself. Compassion fatigue is real. All caregivers can give spiritual support through prayer, compassion, encouragement and presence. Get rest and find support for yourself.

Trials in life help build resilience and strength for the journey. Scripture says in the book of James that they build perseverance, which must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. God is faithful and will give us what we need to stand up under any loss if we trust in Him. Failing that, we might be blown around like a wave in the wind. I chose to be grounded in Scripture and prayer and surround myself with other godly people to help in times of need.



Friday, February 24, 2017

Be Happy!



Do you remember Flip Wilson the comedian who said, the devil made me do it.”? He was making a cultural statement that seems to be more and more prevalent today. “It’s not my fault.” It was my upbringing. Nobody gets anywhere with this poverty or money or spirit. If only she/he would have loved me. Nobody cares about me, so I’m just going to cry or how about, rob this bank or break a covenant.

Well, the truth is that it is our fault even if we have had a bad time or circumstances. It is what we do with what we have, how we respond that matters. Today I want to talk about our disposition. We have a choice to be grumbly or cheerful, happy or sad. Yes, it is a choice. Come to think of it, God tells us this too.

“And do not grumble as some of them did-and were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10).  I will leave it at that even though the Bible mentions this problem very negatively some 25 times. Obversely, God uses laughter as a cathartic for sadness or grumbling.  Laughter too is a response to circumstances. Not all situations are funny, but laughter is a positive response or perspective on or in it.

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything under heaven, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).  Yes, God wants to turn our mourning into dancing. He wants us to have a cheerful heart.
“A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:30). Yes, medicine, something that makes you better. It is God’s prescription for sadness. “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart…a cheerful heart has a continual feast…a happy heart makes the face cheerful…a kind word cheers him up” (Proverbs 15:13,15,30; 17:30; 12:25).  Get the drift here? It is a heart level issue. Our heart is our center, where God dwells in His Holy Spirit or not. We should be joyful that He has come to live with and in us. Now that is something to be happy about, joyful even!

The Bible talks about the character of a noble wife in Proverbs 31. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, she can laugh at the days to come.” She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue. Why is she laughing, because she is prepared and knows that God has provided for her?  She has decided to be cheerful, happy and laugh. She gives and gives the proverb tells us. Paul tells us “But God loves a cheerful giver”  (2Corinthians 9:7).

The psalmists speak of laughter from beginning to end. “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One…The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2:4). I am so glad to hear that God does not tremble at the terrible state of humanity on earth. Once He flooded the earth to start over in Noah’s time, Then He had to send His Son (Anointed One) to earth to die for us that we might be saved and redeemed. Now we are awaiting His soon return to rule and reign. “But the Lord laughs at the wicked for he knows their day is coming” (Psalm 37:13). I love that.

In Psalm 126, a song of ascent, the Israelites are returning from captivity with joy. "We were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:1-2). This psalm tells us of how He sent them out weeping because of their disobedience and brought them back rejoicing. “Restore our fortunes, O God like streams in the Negev. Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy” (Ps 126:4-5).

I choose to be happy. Our U.S. Declaration of Independence states that 
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”  It is a pursuit and I don’t believe it is easy to achieve. However, having God in Jesus Christ as our center and His Word as our guide is the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  Be happy!



Friday, February 17, 2017

Compassion



Everyone envisions God a little differently. However, I love to look at the character or attributes of God from a theological perspective. I find that there are some incredible words to describe Him, even though God is not totally describable. He is:
Loving; merciful; giving; powerful; compassionate; mighty; magnificent; forgiving; reliable; omniscient; omnipresent; omnipotent; good; great; unchanging; inerrant; Creator; eternal; holy; righteous; transcendent; Infinite; immeasurable; immutable; just; faithful; beneficent; truthful; benevolent; persistent; immanent; unique; One.
You might use some other words that are descriptors of God, but I think the above list is awesome as God is, or I AM.

We don’t always experience these at once or maybe not at all. Sometimes a particular attribute of God seems absent, although, He is always consistent in them all. I think we may miss His compassion when we sin and we are being disciplined in falling short of the glory of God. Yet, He still is compassionate.

“Because of God’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  This is Jeremiah’s exaltation to God even in the persecution that he and Israel were experiencing.  It is worth noting that God’s Compassions never fail. In fact they are new every morning because He is faithful to us, even when we are not to Him.

Throughout the OT God is having compassion on His people, those that follow Him. I think the workings of God and His compassion are epitomized in Nehemiah.
But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the land of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time” (Nehemiah 9:28). What a story of God’s faithfulness and compassion.


When Jesus saw the crowds He had compassion on them in Matthew 9. Perhaps the most beautiful exhibition of God’s compassion is the story of the Lost or prodigal son in Luke 15. Here the father or God’s response to the son is, ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). I don’t need better examples. I have experienced this compassionate love from the Father that I did not receive from my own father. He has embraced me and lifted me off the floor to himself where I am forgiven and loved and redeemed.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Sanctification



“For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
What is this big word you might ask? I have received Christ into my heart as my Savior and Lord you might say. But Paul says, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Philippians 2:12). This verse seems to say that salvation is an ongoing process.  Yes and no. Salvation is a one time event sent from God to those who repent their sins and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  We are at that moment saved, “born from above” in Christ Jesus. We are then filled with the Holy Spirit. “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22). This is the beginning of our faith journey.

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). Paul tells us in Romans 12:1-2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. The you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Transformation is a process and not a simple event.  This is a spiritual transformation or transfiguration. He is talking about our being “living sacrifices holy and pleasing” to God.

The Holy Spirit, our Counselor, will convict us of sin and guide us in all righteousness. “The Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). There is only One who is perfect and holy and He is making us holy too, as we trust in Him, until we see Him face to face. We see darkly now, but then we will see clearly, fully.

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Paul tells us in Romans 15:16 that we are offerings, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. He prays for his disciples “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

“Be holy for I am holy, says the Lord” (1 Peter 1:15). That is what he wants through our obedience and submission to Him. He is making us holy. Author Jerry Bridges calls it The Pursuit if Holiness. We have a lifelong struggle to holiness. God does the work through His Holy Spirit as we obey and submit to Him. This is a personal discipline given through Christ.

I am on this journey of sanctification through Christ who loves me. Daily and truly by the moment I must seek Him to do His will, His good and perfect will. I am finding the peace I did not have in my life for over 40 years. This peace is beyond our understanding as Paul tells us in Philippians. Coupled with this increasing peace has been joy. Now my favorite life verse is “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may be filled with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).  God is saying, stop striving; I am doing it in you. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding and He will direct you heart” (Proverbs 3:5-6).


So, have you begun your journey to holiness, your sanctification? Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? Have you recognized your sinfulness and need to confess, repent and be saved and sanctified through Christ. Begin now by praying to receive Him into your heart to replace yourself as your center.  Now “being confident of this, that he who has begun a good work in you will complete it in the day of the Lord” (Philippians 1:6).

Friday, February 3, 2017

Valley of Death

“It is appointed for man to die and then the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).  It is said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. David certainly understood this fact as he wrote the 23rd Psalm. This psalm is perhaps the best-known Scripture, perhaps because of the subject and how it is handled. It is otherwise known as the “Shepherd Psalm. ”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me ” (Psalm 23:4 NKJV). This is a familiar verse to most people, even if they are not believers. I have had the privilege to say these words at nearly 200 funerals or memorial services, usually at the request of the deceased or their loved ones. Why so prevalent?

This verse is very comforting in the face of “The End.” At least most people think of death as the last mountain.  To the Christian, this is just the beginning of life with God in heaven. For the Christian this should be a joyful time, except for the uncertainty of when and how.  How is it comforting? It says so.  God, the Good Shepherd is with us always. In Deuteronomy, “And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:6). In the Gospels, “ I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Hebrews 13:5 says “I will never leave you or forsake you…The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.” These and other similar promises are very encouraging.

One of my favorite funeral homilies or sermons talked about the shadow of death. The Pastor told of a little girl afraid of shadows. Her father took her for a car ride. At a stoplight they had to wait while an 18-wheeler stopped and left its hug shadow upon them. As it pulled forward the shadow move and left them uncovered in the sunlight. This is how death works for a Christian. “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord”  (2 Corinthians 5:7). The whole chapter talks of being clothed with Christ, a new body of light.

I like to talk of how we walk through the valley. We do not stop or have a penalty box time. We go right on through to heaven. One breathe in here and the breath out in heaven. Transformed from darkness into light. I also like the “darkness” translation because it describes life on earth. But “God is light and in Him there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5). Here there is death and in heaven there is not. Here there is pain and tears and fears, in heaven there is not. Light covers and transforms the darkness; it takes it away.

“Fear not” occurs some 365 times in Scripture, once for every day like a good vitamin. God would not have said it so much if we did not need this reassurance so much. What do we fear? We fear just about everything in some way or at some time in our lives. In fact some people live in fear all the time. This is called anxiety and causes depression or panic attacks. It seems that this state of mind and spirit is slowly pervading our society entirely. Psalm 23 says, “I shall fear no evil.”  Why? For You, God is with me. There is the key; God is with us, Immanuel.  And what does God say? Min rod and my staff they comfort you. The rod is a club used to destroy the enemy, whatever it is, animal, human or fear of anything.  David used one to take out the bear and the lion.  The staff is a crooked stick about six feet long used to guide the wayward sheep, or us back on the path when we stray. Oh, and by the way, the rod can be used on us when we disobey as a disciplinarian. God does discipline. He does not punish, He took that on the cross for all of us.

Comfort us? How can a rod and staff comfort? By protecting us and directing us God comforts us. In Isaiah, after 39 chapters of trial, exile and troubles, God says “Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” (Isaiah 40:1). He is a comforter through the storms and in the storms of life. 

Meanwhile, Back to death. I have had the privilege to be with many people as they have passed from this life into the next. I have experienced many emotions in the dying. However, I will say that those who trusted in the Lord always have died peacefully. Those that did not trust in the Lord, did not. I have experienced dying people seeing and feeling spiritual beings in their presence that brought great comfort. One man said he was seeing his relatives; another experienced Jesus Himself just as he took his last breath. I too experienced this blessing from heaven with them. I saw and felt them in my presence. We are body, mind and spirit and the spirit remains. A feeling of peace and warmth filled me and the dying in these times.  To the contrary, those dying without the Lord in my ministry saw and experienced pain, fear and visions that terrified them. They did not die in peace, but panic. Take these true stories, as you will.

I for one am glad, and grateful that the Lord is my Shepherd. I know that I have a “Valley Guide” to show me through this dark place where the rivers flow and the flowers grow. Thank you Jesus!