How to Find a Lifeguard in the Valley of Suck

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/life-guard-4-1315238

My summers as a lifeguard, lifeguard trainer, swim instructor and pool manager were far from the glamorous experiences portrayed on Baywatch.  Most days were boring and miserable hot.  Kids were cranky and hungry (and so were their parents).  Reports, schedules, and paychecks were all part of the deal.  There were those times when all the training kicked in and you did what you were paid to do: rescue.

Most of the stories I have forgotten now.  You came to realize you really hoped you never had to actually go in to rescue someone.  Yes, the adrenaline rush is something but it is not worth it compared the reality of a young child losing their life.  The training was always worth it and I loved training lifeguards.  It could be grueling at times and pushed us as students to the limits but when the time came and you had to go pull a kid or adult out, you were always glad you had done what you did.

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/lifesaving-1546335

Part of the training for being a lifeguard pushed you to the point of exhaustion.  You rehearsed scenarios where you literally were fighting to "rescue" another student whose goal was to push you under.  The training has evolved but I'm not sure who can forget those times being completely overwhelmed by the water.

Water just rushes into any opening where it cannot be repelled or displaced.  This makes drowning an easier occurrence than we care to consider.  One stat is that 1.2 million people around the world die by drowning every year, that is more than two persons per minute.  CNN has a great article on the complexities and factors that contribute to drowning. Drowning is, quite literally, overwhelming and it can happen in less than 2 inches of water.

For many of us, our lives become so overwhelming, we too, are drowning but in our case it is societal and cultural and quite honestly, most people don't have time to care.  Most everyone else is doing their best stay afloat too. There are not lifeguards watching out for us in our lives.  (Well, they are there but because lifeguards work where everything is "organized" many do not want to go so instead they head to the "swimming hole."  That is my loose analogy with the church so do what you want with it.)  Villages don't raise our kids or watch out for us because we live in silos and cul-de-sac subdivisions and rarely know our neighbors.  We are more like the zombies on the Walking Dead than anyone of us would care to admit and we pastors, well, we need to make our deadlines too.

My sister-in-law asked me today at my wife's bedside about our favorite book in the Bible. I said I have one in the NT and one in the OT.  The NT book right now is Luke.  The OT one is the Psalms.  I've never much cared for the Psalms until I started drowning myself and needed to figure out what talking with God was all about.  Psalms hits on both those ideas (and plenty more).  We take a cursory glance and think it is just flowery words about God but the Psalm writer(s) is far more detailed than that.  In fact, gory and grievous are two words you might consider.

We develop our opinions based on headlines and sound bites which means my point in a recent Twitter post is so important to keep in mind: "If your faith can't be silent with the suffering then learn to be still & shut up: "Be still, and know that I am God" Psalm 46:10."  This is not really advice for the "suffering" or their caregivers at all.  It is for the rest of us who think we have to SAY SOMETHING or repeat some platitude because it makes us feel better in the moment when instead, we just need to shut-up and listen to the real life of someone who is drowning be that a sufferer or their caregiver.

The Psalm writer of Psalms 18, likely David, describes in poetic power, how God hears and comes to his rescue when everything is coming apart.  Not only that, God allows the writer to turn the tables on his enemies and experience victory.  But it is easy to lose track of what the writer extols. Two points which seem to speak volumes to me in the midst of my journey "through the valley of suck."

1.  God rescues the writer "out of many waters." (v. 16)
2.  The writer lived according to "his ordinances...and his statutes I did not put away from me (v.22)."

Now, the first point I've already touched on at length here.  God desires to rescue.  God wants to and longs to save!  For these reasons I simply cannot be in agreement, even together with faithful followers of Jesus, that it is "God's will" for my wife to suffer like this and my children to lose their mom far too soon in their lives.  But this world is corrupted by the disease of sin and it has corrupted all of our lives.  If God were to destroy all sin, none of us could survive because the disease itself is present in us.

There does exist a hope for us, though.  There is a light in the valley of the shadow of suck.  It is just ahead of us, guiding our path if we choose to follow it.  There is a way according to God' ordinances - we are to obey God.  It seems rather braggadocious how the writer claims to be "righteous" (24) and then talk about being "humble" (27).  However, these words are not in a vacuum and it is troubling when I read into the Old Testament texts what is not there.

The writer clearer does not take credit for his rescue nor his victory.  What allows him the confidence to say he is "righteous" is God's actions on his behalf.  That he does so DOES NOT mean this is THE "measuring stick" to determine if someone is right with God.  The stories of the later kings of Israel and Judah treated the "righteous" horribly and brutally, yet they are credited as being righteous.  How so?  Maybe it was because of how they honored "the ordinances" of God.

The Ordinances tell us to beware of our enemy who parades about as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14) and "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20)!"   Those Ordinances tell us "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)."  None of these are mutually exclusive.

These very same Ordinances address the "light on the path" which has guided me through this valley of suck and the trials and struggles put before me.  How do you find the Lifeguard in the valley of the shadow of suck? It is prayer, Scripture and attending to Communion, these are the three means of grace the writer of Acts points to (Acts 2:42) and Wesley preached upon (Sermon #16 on "The Means of Grace").  I'm not saying these are easy, but like life guarding and from the Psalmist's lesson, waiting till your in the valley of suck is not when you need these.  You do them beforehand.

I do not have a clue about how bad your valley may suck (if you've read other writings from me, you know some of the valley I walk). I do know there is one who is available and willing to save and who gives you the grace; the power to call on Him.  God is not doing a new thing in this world.  God is doing the same thing he has always done - it is just new because it is you and me standing here.  God is willing and able to save if you are willing and humble to go God's way and that way is toward Jesus.


Walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Suck


Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of suck, I've found it really does suck.  I know people are worried about the election.  I know United Methodists are worried about the Book of Discipline.  Me? I am worried about what the next hour will be like.

Sitting here in the acute care hospice facility with my wife as she has suffered in pain the past day has been "a big bowl of sucky, Mr. McSuck-suck."  It took it all out of me.  We prayed together in the dark of the night, "Jesus, have mercy" as we struggled together with this evil which corrupts our flesh and bones.

I have fought it too and other disease and I have come to the conclusion this little secret: this is not God's plan.  This is not what God wanted for us.  I am sorry, but I just cannot go there.  Will God work it for good?  HE HAD BETTER! I am counting on it!  I am putting it here in black and white and if it means I am walking the path of Job, so be it.  I am counting on you God, to make something good of this because tonight, and in the nights past, I don't get it.

Neither did the Israelite who wrote the Psalms.  Was it more than one person? Yeah, more than likely and it just adds to the authenticity we are all going through some valley of suck.  Though the centuries separate us, I know there is one who got it "Do not forsake me, O Lord!O my God, be not far from me! (Psalm 38:21)"  It doesn't matter the circumstances, the valley of the shadow of suck...well...it just sucks no matter how you got here.

And that prayer, it isn't a prayer of doubt - it is a prayer of dependence.  The words of the Psalmist give shape and substance to the soul's suffering.  They ring true and pure in sufferer's soul - there has been another human being; a soul; like me; who has suffered - and they too, cried to God because they believed God would hear them.  God would not leave in the midst of the suckiest thing or things we could imagine.

If you do not want to believe in God because life sucks sometimes, it is your choice.  But as Luke said to Jabba the Hutt: "I warn you not to underestimate my power!"  It was not Luke's power and it is not my power.  It is the power in the presence of a God whose promise is not to leave or fore sake you or me (for Luke it was the "force" and a different conversation).  The Psalmist was not doubting God would leave - the Psalm writer was breathing out the promise God had given.  It is a promise God still gives to those who chose to cry out ESPECIALLY in the valley of suck.




An Unexpected Journey: Finding Jesus in Caregiving

http://www.freeimages.com/  Wilf Ratzburg

When we were dating, my wife, Heather, and I went on a day hike to Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky. What was supposed to be a few hours turned into all day on a neglected trail without much water and no food. Thankfully, I had my compass and sense enough to remember my Scout skills. That was nearly 25 years ago when we took our first unexpected journey. On that journey, we found we could trust each other when things did not go quite our way.

Since our first unexpected journey, we have had quite a few others along the way.  Some I have chronicled here in public and others have remained more private, shared in my journal and with friends.  None come close to the unexpected journey of facing my wife's cancer but all of them have prepared us.

A friend posted this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and martyr, killed near the end of WWII: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."  Bonhoeffer's life is one defined by profound writings in his life.  It is also defined by his unexpected journey to stand up to the Nazis of the Third Reich.

When I read the quote, I heard this question: what or who are you willing to die for this week?  It is an invitation to an unexpected journey.

Much of our journey I have shared with a group of cancer caregivers.  You cannot read the stories without having your heart broken.  All of them are unexpected journies, similar but different.   This is what all are doing who are caregivers: they are dying to self.   Most don't get it because they don't do it, most of us are not willing to "die" for another.

Trust me when I say this: I do not want to do this, I don't want to be a caregiver.  If we could give it up, we would.  It sucks.  But I met Jesus on this unexpected journey caring for my wife as she continues to fight colon cancer and hope for healing.  Where did Jesus show up?  Well, I used to think the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet had no corollary in our modern world but I was wrong.  I met Jesus, on my knees, while drying and putting lotion on my wife's feet.  

A number of Bible verses came to my mind which fit the situation but the one I heard most clearly was one I rarely consider:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of the father?"  They said, "the first." (Matthew 21:28-31)

Jesus, in this parable, gives hope to all the reluctant sons and daughters.  We are full of mixed motivations and we live like spoiled brats most of the time.  God KNOWS I do.  I am NOT saying I am even close to being like Jesus.  What I am saying is in the life of caregivers: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, cousins, friends, I have been living life among "dying" people. Some are Christians, some are Jews, some are Muslim, and some don't even believe in God but I can tell you these are the reluctant sons/daughters who live more like Jesus than others know. 

There are many ways to die to self; to the false self.  I think most of the spiritual greats we have never met or read precisely for this reason - they did not care to be known; they cared for another, even when they did not want to do it.


May I Ask: Are you willing to die for something or someone that brings you no glory or attention?  What is it? Who is it?  What are you waiting on?

May I Suggest: Who am I kidding here?  Just do what Jesus said: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, wash the feet of the sick.  Get over yourself and look for Jesus in the places you DON'T want to go.  You will meet Jesu on the unexpected journey.



How Wesley's 3 Means of Grace Can Help You "Wait On The Lord"


For a while now, people have asked about how I have maintained my faith in God through the trials our family has been through.  And, for the longest time I really did not have a response.  Typically, I have said God's grace.  While it was accurate, it was not a fair response.

So I've taken to reflection, research, and writing.  I think the Psalmists encouragement sums up THE FIRST THING which has sustained me and our family.  It has been "waiting on the Lord." This is not just shrugging shoulders and saying, "it is what it is" though.  It is an active involvement of waiting in the sense that I am putting my whole hope on God in His timing.  So, it is far from being passive but is instead focusing with one's heart, tuning it toward God.

THE SECOND THING has been to look at how to keep my heart tuned to God.  As a radio geek, I love being in my car listening to AM radio late at night or early in the morning.  Many mornings I have picked up the signal from KMOX out of St. Louis where we lived for two years and where our son was born.

What I have seen in reflection and research is my life has confirmed the primacy of the three practices John Wesley mentioned in his sermon on the "Means of Grace:"
1. Prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation;
2. Searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and
3. Receiving the Lord's Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of him.

The first two can be done on our own or in a faith community.  The third, the Lord's Supper, keeps us in connection with the larger body.  This, I think, is what is so often ignored in talking about staying in connection with God and why I think "personal communion" ought to be discouraged.  It is also disturbing to see the Table used as a form of protest.  Without community (communion); without others to share the journey, I could not make it where I am and see our family still in one piece.

Regardless what means you use, hear Mr. Wesley plea, "...seek God alone. In and through every outward thing, look singly to the power of his Spirit, and the merits of his Son."


May I Ask?  What "Means" are you using to tune into God?

May I Suggest?  The Upper Room Daily Devotional and App is free or consider
  Soul Tending: Life Forming Practices





1 Minute Meditation #3

Size Matters Not: A Lesson from Death and Forgiving


"Forgive me Lord, so I can live; forgiving."  It is my breath prayer this week.

Our days are running out. 

I mean this practically and figuratively.

Of course, our days on this earth are always running out.  But practically, my wife and I only have days left together.  How many we do not know.  The doctors cannot get so detailed and this is good I think.  It means everyday, we have to live it as though it is the end.  

I think, looking back, we did forgiveness pretty good.  We did have those rough patches here and there but we found our way back to each other, through the emotions because we could not handle being separate.  I have tried to apply these lessons to all my relationships.  Sadly, I have not succeeded in this as much as I would like.

But then, it seems important to remember or at least consider, forgiveness has a divine origin.  It does not begin with us but it begins with God.  As one who believes the Bible is revelation, it is my conviction God is the One initiating our interactions, offering at times, a divine tap on the shoulder, whispering, "remember me?" when God knows darn well I do not.

I can point toward the west, to Portland, where delegates from around the world are gathering representing the many voices and convictions of people in the United Methodist Church.  There is much to be decided.  There is also many who are angry and hurt, and there are those at peace and seeking understanding.  We struggle to make important connections and one of those points of contention, I think, lies here: we do not forgive.  We do not want to forgive.  We do not forgive because, for some, we do not recognize our own need for forgiveness.  These were Jesus' words on the cross after all, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)."

This is not someone else's problem either and THAT is a problem.  It is my problem when I do not consider what role I played.  It becomes a problem for us all when we refuse to even think for a moment "me, myself or I" played a part.  What is the real difference between the speck or the log (Luke 6:42)?

Yoda said it first: "Size matters not."

I do not want to lose my wife to this disease of cancer but the days are quickly disappearing.  Each day, I take inventory, considering what it is I may have done wrong and asking forgiveness.  Will it stop the cancer?  No.  What it is doing is reminding me I share this world with other people, people God loves and people God willingly forgives.

I want to live.  To live, truly, I must learn to live forgiving others.

Jesus taught it and did it.

My wife has lived it.  

So please, forgive me Lord, so I can live; forgiving.






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