Friday, March 5, 2021

Surprised by Joy

This is the title of the touching book by renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis about his life, conversion from atheism and later to an American friend who would become his wife while dying of cancer. He describes his feeling of “joy.” This came from the recognition and acceptance that joy is in the person of Jesus Christ. In my own life, one very slow to find any joy, I have come to a place where I can say with Nehemiah, “The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

I have written often of my young life in an alcoholic and unstable home where I did not find joy, but anxiety instead. Everything was “fine-fine-fine.” Not until a Damascus Road-like experience in the depth of an Upper Michigan winter blizzard did the Holy Spirit enter my life and joyfully change me.  Then 42 years old, this conversion was dramatic as I accepted Jesus into my life as Savior and Lord, yet slow in my sanctification or becoming righteous. This process or transformation has continually worked in me to bring a love of Scripture and reveal to me my spiritual gifts from a holy God. Working 16 hours a day, with my wife and two teenage sons taking a back seat, I worked, exercised in excess and drank to find escape and not find joy.

My life began to change more quickly when trying to lead a men’s Bible study. My pastor suggested that perhaps God was calling me to a more serious walk, including   seminary. Indeed, my intense Bethel Seminary or “House of God” experience was illuminating. I was now falling in love with God’s Word and wanted to know it and Him more that I could also share the “good news” with others. There were for the first time connections with other men on a deeper level in Christ. For 40-plus years “how about them Packers” conversations had been my level of connection. Even though that is the typical man’s communications level, it is not pleasing to God or fulfilling.

My depth grew and my recognition of selfishness and brokenness was more and more obvious. I have been changed, and God was cleansing me continually. That is a very good thing. We can do our part, but we must seek and allow God to work, and do surgery on all of our body, mind and spirit. He has been stripping away life-style preferences that were keeping me from being fully submitted. John 15:5 says, “that if you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do (or are) nothing.” God is pruning off all branches that do not bear fruit. This process hurts and heals. Did you ever think that joy and suffering could co-exist?

Becoming “sold out” to God usually takes suffering. In my own case several such periods of intense crisis and suffering have been necessary. This intense process has included my own great moral failure while leading hospital turnarounds that brought my confession and conversion leading to intense counseling conversations. During these sessions, God spoke to me audibly saying, ‘“Whether you turn to the right or the left, you will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it”’ (Isaiah 30:21). My counselor confirmed that God was speaking, but the exact words that I did not know at the time were directly from Isaiah, an ancient prophet of God to teach me His desired path forward. This crisis brought me a better path, but still without joy.

A tick-born disease that almost took my life while serving on the faculty of the University of Virginia, led to crisis and crying out God’s word. While praying aloud Psalms 103, God brought instantaneous and complete healing to my pain and fever wracked body, mind and spirit again. This led me to turn to recognize God’s true calling on my life, healthcare Chaplaincy. I began this work in earnest with the offering from the CEO of the largest healthcare system in Wisconsin, whom I was serving at the time as a trouble-shooter. This allowed me to move from the “front-office to bedside” as a hospital chaplain. My book, Hospital Parables: “Front-office to Bedside,” delineates stories of this conversion like process again. The journey led me through two years of rigorous Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), while working as a chaplain full-time. The 80-hour per week schedule was frighteningly similar to my former lifestyle and needed to change. I was struggling to find any real joy in this. Unfortunately, my next move was into the fire again.

I was requested to join my church pastoral staff to direct congregational care, hopefully bringing a more joyful path.  This new adventure, however, quickly imploded into a crisis because of the arrogant and abusive behavior of the lead pastor. All clergy except me were fired, leaving me to right the ship.  However, it crushed me while I now led and cared for a traumatized and split congregation. The role of healer, teacher, counselor, preacher, arbitrator was too much for me in a rancorous and divided church.  But then God used it to miraculously heal my deepening depression and create in me a pure indwelling power in His joy in a dramatic healing on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit poured His hot anointing and embrace over me while leading worship as His word about the same infusion was being read from the book of Acts. Real joy and clarity coursed through my body, soul and spirit. I was again miraculously healed. I had stayed the course and He had used me through the pain. I was now free to pursue my calling in a new and grace filled way.

“Consider it pure joy when you come into trials of diverse kinds, because the testing of your faith develops perseverance, which must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). That’s the pattern and process by which God works joy into us if we will stay in or overcome the temptation or trouble. For He overcame the world by humbling Himself and serving even unto the cross. As Paul said to the Philippians, and Jesus admonished His disciples, “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  This is how we must live.

I tried to retire at this juncture, but after a few weeks my wife announced that I had “failed retirement.” Although initially angry and confused, this realization has become a blessing. In fact I have since taught on the subject of God’s view of retirement in several settings. God admonishes us never to retire, but to work at serving with all of our mind, heart and spiritual gifts until He calls us home. This does not mean that we don’t rest.

God has now led me to a new more bountiful, yet trying chaplaincy in hospitals. As of this writing I realize that I have been working in hospitals for more than 46 years, albeit dramatically diverse years. I am now working part-time for a major teaching hospital system, where I am seeing patients and families in crisis caused by physical and mental illness, accident or addiction. I have found that my own learning style, which is beyond the usual male visual one, utilizes all senses. I have studied Neuro-linguistic programming, which teaches the use of learning styles and senses to optimize life knowledge development. For me, smell and taste have always been strong learning and memory senses. The gustatory and olfactory perceptive learning are strong along with the visual and auditory. This relatively rare perspective style has given me a gift for helping people access important memories through multi-sensual guided imagery. I utilize this technique to bring peace over fear and calm over anxiety in diverse situations. Just recently I helped a cancer patient who was experiencing extreme pain while about to undergo more invasive procedures that day to access a special and peaceful place in his mind’s eye. This guided imagery took this once active outdoorsman to a bowhunting tree stand deep in ancestral woods. An obvious relaxation came over him to help face the day with new tools. God is using my complex gifts to serve others as I obey. This brings a new sense of joy in the Lord.

Thirteen years ago I had hip replacement surgery, while working as a psychiatric hospital chaplain. A chaplain associate, while visiting me in my six-week convalescence asked, “why don’t you do something useful with your time and write a book for the spiritual care of the patients?” This challenge began a writing career in earnest. I wrote a devotional book based on the psalms to help our hospital ministry. Four years ago I took this loose-leaf resource to a Christian publisher, Caritas, eventually producing my first book. A devotional based on the Psalms, Great is God’s Faithfulness, was published and is now used by my former psychiatric multi-hospital employer for spiritual care groups, as well as in other settings.

 Allowing me to pursue this broader calling that God has given and gifted me as teacher and writer has been wonderful and joyful beyond expectation. Although I have taught at the university level in two settings, I never imagined that God would use this training to call me to teach and write in a new way.  I must admit that I had come to actually detest writing when completing my Master’s thesis in healthcare administration. It had been a painful challenge in every way. However, one bright light in it was my having sought the consultation of a professional writer as editor and guide. Although this cost me dearly, the language professor was engaging and brought me to my first real understanding of critical writing skills. Later I would write pamphlets and books for a nationally renowned healthcare consulting group. Now God is utilizing all this in guiding me to write multi-media Christian books and  blog (www.greatisgodsfaithfulness.com) for teaching and preaching, and reaching the whole world for Christ. The more than 20,000 readers are from around the world with Ukraine, Russian, and Indian readers among the dozens of countries reading and listening. I don’t know who is translating, but God. What a joy.

I began this essay referencing C.S. Lewis on Joy. I will end with his book A Grief Observed, telling the story of his friendship and eventual love story and marriage to Joy Davidman, a then Jewish American. This woman contracted a fatal cancer that took them through a very deep journey of suffering together. He more than anyone I have read writes about joy and suffering coexisting in love. When Joy died, he expressed that, “grief felt like fear.” He described feeling a blanket like sensation like fear, irreversible and irrevocable, irrecoverable and irretrievable, even unimaginable.  He felt forsaken by God. He talked about God hurting, only to heal. Bereavement is an integral part of love, and sorrow is not a state but a process with recurrences. “But by praising I can still, in some degree enjoy her, and in some degree, enjoy Him.” He spoke of the mystical reunion and the fruition of God. Lewis came to a place of God’s love where he could enjoy Him.

I have come to a place through trials and triumph, suffering and surprise to where I can now claim joy. I have left sadness and even happiness in the circumstances of my life. I now know that joy is a person too. Joy is Christ in me, the hope of glory. I am coming with Lewis and Nehemiah and James to a place where I can claim, “The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).




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