Monday, February 28, 2011

Whistling in the Dark

My dear mother-in-law will soon be 87 years of age. She has been greatly blessed with good physical health and a good mind. In recent months, however, she has battled geriatric depression. It is a common and often disabling malady of the elderly. It is also often misunderstood by well-meaning family and friends who keep insisting and encouraging the depressed person to "just snap out of it". As with any form of depression, it just isn't that simple and it certainly has not been that simple with my mother-in-law.

Much research has been done on the subject of depression and there is a fairly significant amount of information specifically on depression in the elderly. As with all depression, there may be physical as well as spiritual reasons. For a psychologist or psychiatrist to treat physical symptoms without acknowledging possible spiritual problems is a great error. It is also a great error for the Biblical counselor to assume there are no physical conditions causing or at least affecting the spiritual well-being of the counselee.

But, having acknowledged the possibility of physical conditions which may be affecting the depressed individual, I hasten to add that ministering to the soul-needs of a lover of Christ will always be of great value to that friend or loved one. It is something every believer can and must do. In a short blog it is impossible to speak of the details of how Christians can best respond to other Christians who are struggling with depression. It is a complex matter but it is not a matter beyond the ability of our Creator and Sustainer.

I say those things to dissuade those who might be prone to say "Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning". I also say those things to dissuade those who might argue that the only real answer to depression lies in some magic combination of mood-altering drugs which are now so readily available.

But, to keep this blog at a readable length, let me get back to the story of my mother-in-law. She has taken medicine; she has delved more deeply into Scripture than ever before; she has had a compassionate and helpful family. Even with those things, overcoming depression has not been easy. There has been much darkness of her mind and soul and there have been days when the old saying of "two steps forward and one step backward" seemed too optimistic.

My mother-in-law called my wife, Deborah, a few days ago. She rarely calls anymore but seems content to have Deborah call her several times daily. So, it seemed strange and a little unsettling when Deborah saw her mother's name on Caller ID. Deborah answered and her mother, with a real spark in her voice, immediately said "Deborah, I've learned to whistle!". In her 87 years she had never learned to whistle but, sitting there in the darkness of a depressed mind, the song "Amazing Grace" had come into her thoughts. She began whistling the tune! Deborah adjusted the telephone speaker to where I could hear and, sure enough, there came through the phone a clear and on-key whistling of that song.

That little story may not seem like much to you but it speaks volumes to us. It speaks volumes about the need to remain patient when our loved ones battle depression. It speaks volumes about how we must encourage them to get in the Word, stay in the Word, and contemplate the Word whether or not they feel like doing so. It speaks volumes about compassion. It speaks volumes about hope when all seems hopeless. Most of all, that little story speaks volumes about our good God who allows us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death without having fear of evil. What a glorious God He is; what a Savior; what a song in the night He becomes; what a light in the darkness He is. Through the dark nights of our lives we serve a God Who often uses those times to teach us to whistle in the darkness. Amazing Grace- a great song to whistle and a great song about a God Who yet brings His children through many dangers, toils and snares.

Keep whistling, mother-in-law. Keep whistling. It is worthy praise to your Redeemer.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Goals for the Grieving Christian

In the 1600's, Puritan Pastor John Flavel experienced many hardships and much grief. His parents died because of their faith; his first wife and child died during the birth of that child; his second and third wives also died. In 1674, two years after the death of his second wife, Flavel wrote a small book for his congregation entitled "A Token for Mourners". In that book, now republished as "Facing Grief - Counsel for Mourners", he meditates on Luke 7:13 which says "And as the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said to her, 'Weep not' ".

In the introductory portion of the book Flavel lists six goals for the grieving Christian. I have summarized those as follows:

1. Don't try to be delivered from grief too quickly. Grief is a God-given response to the loss of anything of value. The death of a dearly loved one is a grievous event. Grieve well in order that God's comfort will come in His timing and will thus remain.

2. Determine that, although you and grief have had a sad meeting, you will one day have a comfortable parting of ways. We must always keep in mind that the heartaches have not entered our lives unnoticed by God and that He will ultimately use even these things for good.

3. Learn well that this great sorrow will make you more aware of the evil of sin, the vanity of life, and the fullness of Christ. Death is the great consequence of sin. Were there no sin there would be no death. But now, because of the evils of sin, there is death and life is full of struggles. For the Christian, all the deep pits of grief and the emptiness of life is ultimately conquered by the fullness of Christ.

4. Determine that the great love to and delight you had in your loved one will now be given to Christ. In so doing, the love of Christ will overflow the banks of your soul and nurture both your heart and the hearts of those around you.

5. Strive to allow the strength and peace of God to grow in your heart. Always recall that the soul grows both peaceful and wise by sitting still and quiet under the hand of God.

6. Learn to die daily to all worldly pleasures and joys and live with Christian joy as one who is prepared for the day of your own death. Every time a loved one dies it is surely a warning knock on the doors of our own hearts. The Scripture says it plainly: "For it is appointed unto man once to die, and after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Your hope of seeing your loved one again is based on the sufficiency of Christ to "save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him" (Hebrews 7:25).

Dear grieving Christian who reads this blog: Grieve well. God has given you this marvelous gift of grief. Use it wisely; use it for the good of your own soul; use it for the glory of our good God. He has not paced the streets of gold wringing His hands and wondering how He let this slip by Him unnoticed. No! He is yet on His throne; He yet rules in majesty and power; He is yet the friend of sinners; He yet does all things well. Even in this great sorrow and even in this time of heart-wrenching grief, He yet cares for you. Frank Graeff, the hymn writer, put it well:

Oh yes, He cares--I know He cares!
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares

May the Savior who truly cares give you much of Himself in these difficult days. If we can ever be of assistance to you, feel free to let us know.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Anger, Arrogance and Apathy

One of the most devastating tools of Satan is unresolved anger. By unresolved anger I mean anger that becomes sin and then is not dealt with. It occurs far too often in churches, at the workplace, and in marriages. An offense occurs; the offended party becomes angry; the offender makes no effort to make things right or may not even know an offense has occurred; the offended person stews and steams and, although they eventually calm down, the anger is still there and is not resolved.

What happens with a person who has unresolved anger inside them? Eventually, that unresolved anger will lead to an arrogance which says "I deserve better than that" or "That person owes me an apology" or "I'll forgive but I'm sure not gonna forget - he (she) better not do something like that to me again!"

And so the unresolved anger, let's call it by its other name "bitterness", causes the offended person to become arrogant. Arrogance is to bitterness what fertilizer is to a garden; it causes that root of bitterness to flourish and produce many sour fruits. The worst of those fruits is apathy.

Apathy says "I just don't care anymore". The offended person let anger or the root of bitterness grow; arrogance fertilized it; the poisonous fruit of apathy grew larger and larger; when fully ripe, it killed the very gardener who had nurtured it. How many churches are "dead' because of the poison fruit of apathy. How many marriages? How many families? How many souls?

Anger unresolved will always lead to arrogance unrestrained. Arrogance unrestrained will always lead to apathy unabated. Apathy unabated will always lead to death - death of a dream, death of a church, death of a marriage, death of a soul. It does not have to be so.

The solution to unresolved anger? The hymn writer William Walsham How said it well: "Bringing all my burdens, sorrow, sin, and care; at Thy feet I lay them, and I leave them there."

Are you struggling with unresolved anger? Has it led to the fuming thoughts of how you should be treated better or how that person should apologize? Have you reached the point of such apathy that you just don't even care any longer? It is not too late to lay those things at the feet of Christ and leave them there. May our good God give you grace to do so.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Do We Blame?

During the years I worked as a forester I always carried a pocket knife with me. Most of those years I carried it in my back pocket. Eventually, that knife would wear a hole in the pocket.

One day my wife, Deborah, asked "Why do you always wear a hole in the back pocket of your work pants?" I replied "Because that's where I carry my knife". "I never heard of anyone carrying a knife in the back pocket", she said. "Why do you do that?" Without a thought I replied "Because that's where daddy carried his knife".

It was years later, only after we had begun counseling and had heard many answers to the question "Why do or why did you do that?" that I recalled the conversation Deborah and I had about the knife. How quickly and easily we blame others!

"Why did you have an affair?"
"Because my spouse ..."

"Why do you abuse your wife?"
"Because my dad abused his wife."

"Why do you struggle with addictions?"
"Because my parents were alcoholics."

"Why this? Why that? Why the other?"
"Because of something someone else did. It's really not my fault."

From where do such silly answers and such quick disowning of our sins come? We only have to look at the Book of Genesis to find out. In Genesis 3 God asked Adam if he had disobeyed. Adam's response to God was "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate." In other words, "Yes, I sinned, God, but it was first of all the fault of my wife and ultimately it was Your fault!! If you hadn't given her to me I wouldn't have been tempted and had I not been tempted I would not have sinned." Man's shifting of blame started that day and continues even now.

Do the past hurts in our lives affect us? Absolutely. Do the patterns we saw in our parents influence us? Without a doubt. Do the sinful choices of other people tempt us? Over and over. Are any of these things so great that they overwhelm the power of the Holy Spirit to "keep you from stumbling" (Jude 24). No! It will never be.

I still carry a pocket knife but I carry it in my front pocket now. Why? Because I realized that I wasn't bound to do something which ruined my pant pocket just because that is what I had learned from my daddy. That is really a trite matter when compared to the hard struggles with sin which we are so prone to blame on someone else. Even so, the principle is the same. So, as you struggle with your own past or as you help others who do, the Word of God for the real Christian is that "we are made more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:37). Run hard to Him. Hide those sins, remove them forever, in the blood of Christ. Be bound to them no more.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Can These Things Be?

There has been a lot in the news recently about the separation of Al and Tipper Gore after over 40 years of marriage. As I reflected on that, I recalled one couple we knew who divorced after 53 years of marriage. The only comment I ever heard from the wife was "I just couldn't take it anymore". At the other extreme, we knew one couple who were married for only one week before divorce papers were filed.

How can these things be? I remember at one time the Gores claimed to be born-again Christians. The husband in the 53-year-marriage had been a deacon in a Baptist church. The couple whose marriage lasted only a week had a huge wedding in an evangelical church. It is not that any of the couples claimed to be godless. But, at least in the area of their marriages, you would have to call all these people "practical atheists". That is, they did not believe God was big enough, alive enough, or powerful enough for their marriage. They became overcome by their own desire to be god and control their own destinies. They had "a form of godliness but denied His power" for their situation.

Regrettably, we all have placed ourselves on the throne of our lives many times. We have wanted what we want, chosen to act as we wanted to act, and lived as we wanted to live time and again. Even though we have preached or sung or taught or attended church faithfully we have been as guilty of setting ourselves up as little gods as those couples mentioned above.

What are the root issues in a marriage break-up? in a failed ministry? in a financial crisis? in any other area which sends people to a pastor or counselor? There are always three root issues. First, there is pride which says " I deserve better" Maybe it's "I deserve a more responsive wife" or "a better job" or "to be appreciated more", etc. etc. etc. Pride always makes such claims. And such pride is always sin. Secondly, there is selfishness which says "Not only do I deserve this but I'm going to get it!" It takes such forms as "I deserve to have my sexual needs met and, if my wife doesn't do it, I'll go elsewhere". It may be "I deserve some new clothes and I know we can't afford that but I'm going to buy them anyway." Thirdly, there is unbelief which says "God alone is not enough for me. Yes, I want God but I also must have this (better sex, new clothes etc.) in order to be 'happy'."

There you have it. Are there marital problems? Addictions? Financial problems? Work related problems? Spiritual problems? Any other problems? We must always look past the symptoms and to the deeper issues of pride, selfishness, and unbelief if we are to find real solutions to the real problems of life. May God allow us to see ourselves and those with whom we counsel through His eyes.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

God, Please Wipe the Mud Off My Coat

We had been teaching our youngest daughter, Susan, the importance of prayer. We had also been emphasizing to her that our God is truly a prayer-answering God. On another front, we were also teaching her to take care of her clothes, particularly the new coat we had just purchased for her to wear to school.

With the warning, "Don't get your new coat dirty" we had left Susan, who was probably six or seven years old at the time, with her grandmother. As usual, they had a great time together but, when it was time for her to return home, Susan became unusually quiet. Watching in the rearview mirror, my mother could see Susan praying. She would pray and then look at her new coat. After repeating that several times, Susan finally said "Grandmama, God didn't answer my prayer". Still driving, but probably somewhat slower, grandmama wisely asked "What was your prayer, Susan?" "Well", she said, "I asked God to wipe the mud off my coat but it's still there." It certainly became a teachable moment as my mother explained to Susan that God expects us to do what we can do for ourselves.

In some ways, that is a sweet and funny little story. In other ways, it reminds me of stories we so often hear in counseling - stories of people who want life to be better, who want happiness, who want out of financial bondage, who want their marriages to be better, who want the dirt and filth wiped away from their lives - but do not want to take any action themselves. They expect God or their spouse or their church or someone else to "wipe the mud off their coats" while they go on making sinful choices and not forsaking the sins which only they can deal with. How sad it is to tell someone to "humble your self and pray and seek God's face and turn from your wicked ways" and then watch them walk away mad at God because He didn't "fix" their problem.

Do you know someone who is a Christian and yet is struggling and feels that God has not answered their prayer? Perhaps you could speak an encouraging word to them. Encourage them to be certain they have wiped the sin off their heart before accusing God of not caring. Teach them that God cares too much for His children to do for them those things He has commanded them to do for themselves. Show them how to examine themselves to make certain they are in the faith. For those who are perhaps good, churchy folks but not really lovers of Christ, the prayer to which God responds is "God be merciful to me, a sinner".

If we can ever help you or those you love, feel free to contact us.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Little Dreams - big God

I considered it to be the death of a dream. After 12 years of ministry, 12 years of prayer, tears, joy, and labor, it was all over - Gilead Retreat and Counseling Center was no more. We had sold the entire facility just the day before. No more mowing 15 acres; no more cleaning and maintaining 24 sinks, 18 commodes, 13 showers and four urinals; no more huge utility bills nor many thousands of dollars for insurance and property taxes each year; no more cooking meals for conference attendees nor washing load after load after load of dishes after each meal. Those were fleeting thoughts but the thought that truly seemed to be the dream killer kept returning - NO MORE MINISTRY, NO MORE CALL.

That’s how I felt some years ago as we hosted our last conference at the retreat facility we had poured our lives into for all those years. I sat quietly and listened as a great warrior for Christ, an itinerant evangelist who has been on the battlefield for over 60 years, began to speak. His audience was a group of about 70 men, most of whom were young and many who were called to become pastors. Suddenly it dawned on me - the dream had not died! In fact, it had been fulfilled in ways we could never have imagined. I could never have dreamed that 70 men at one time would be trained and encouraged to"Drop to the ground and die in order that your congregations might find Life." I could never have dreamed that so many young pastors at one time would be taught to pursue holiness, to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and fire, and to set their hearts toward longing and praying for true national revival. I could have never dreamed that our own souls would be so lovingly nurtured during those years nor that we would be given the privileges of walking alongside so many hurting people. I realized then that my dream wasn’t dead - it had just been far too small!

Our great Father, in wondrous kindness, gave Deborah and me much over which to rejoice in those days. Yes, Gilead was gone but the dream was not. The setting for ministry would be different but the call would be the same. The opportunities for ministry would be greater than ever as we became more and more directly involved in the lives of hurting people.

We look back now and see that, as always, God was orchestrating these things for our good and His glory. Now we are involved in the lives of many couples as we, as a couple, provide both pre-marital and marital counseling to other couples. Now we have more opportunity than ever, both individually and as a couple, to provide Biblical insight and help to those struggling with grief, depression, family struggles, addictions and other issues. Most of all, we now have new opportunities daily to point all who come our way to the absolute sufficiency of Christ.

I now realize that the ministry to which we are called isn’t really a dream anyway. It has been and continues to be a real call by our good God for His own glory. It was never about Gilead, never about us, nor even ever about those to whom we minister. It is about Him; it is through Him; it is for His glory. Glory to God in the highest!