True Love

Last October, I wrote an article upon the nature of grief after unexpectedly losing a beloved friend two months prior. Everything in my life was shaken and trembled as a result of many difficult challenges, trials, and circumstances that afflicted me throughout last year. I continue to find difficulty in labelling 2019 as a terrible, dreadful year, because there were so many incredible things that took place throughout the year, but those wonderful things are marred by the realities of the tragedies, struggles, and tribulations that were ever present. My life came to a halt in August, and the subsequent months continued to see my life tossed about by the storm of grief and despair. Life as I knew it continued on, but I was still nursing a wound that cleaved my heart in two. I hobbled forward with a limp through life toward new challenges that would bring new tribulations and deeper hurting. My life has never been the same, but, as I sit writing, something is different. Different about my life, different about my perspective, different about myself.

When I got up this morning, my heart was heavy (and remains heavy even now). A deep groaning that cannot be put to words bellowed from the depths of me. A yearning to go back to when things were different. A longing to draw near to that beloved friend. Grief had come to visit me today. I am not surprised by the timing as the days creep closer to that one year mark. This most unwelcome, unrelenting guest has become an occasional traveling partner. A year ago, I cried out to God from the depths of pain and suffering. Uttering my grievances, shaking my fist at God, and making my anger known to Him from the depths of my affliction. A pain that is incomprehensible. The brokenness and frailty of my human nature on full display as I wanted to hurt God as He had hurt me…

The ugliness of death permeates beyond the physical world. Death – grief – sin, tear at the very fabric of God’s design. We were not designed to die. We were not created with the capacity to understand grief. Sin’s corruption opened the door for our suffering, affliction, and our despair. The way our bodies and mind react to death are completely unnatural. When we are being subjected to the waves of emotions brought upon us by grief, we have difficulty explaining them to others who ask of us, “how are you doing” or “are you okay?” The words are never sufficient to describe the breadth and weight of grief. Even with the most refinement, I could not ever truly describe the excuriating pain that I was experiencing. Grief is one of those things you never fully understand until it comes to visit you…

The physical pain of grief has largely subsided, though this morning I could not hold back the tears that burned as they flowed as fire from my eyes.. I have found that it’s the quietest, stillest moments of my life that my mind settles upon my beloved friend. A longing for this person who is missing from my life. A fleeting desire, from the depths of my soul, for things to have been different. The thoughts come unexpectedly, without warning, and it has become bittersweet. I have a more difficult time with ‘happily ever after’ at the end of movies, books, and music now than I did a year ago. The realities of the Christian life tells us that ‘happily ever after’ is not found exclusively here on Earth, but in the presence with our Creator. My heart twists, somewhat selfishly, because I would much rather have my beloved friend here with me today… Yet, my heart and soul rejoice because I know that they are in the presence of God! My friend is made whole again, set free from the suffering of sin’s corruption! Those memories and thoughts bring about wonderful, joyous sentimentality of this wonderful person, and they bring a tinge of sorrow for their absence from this earth.

“Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment. Thought is never static; pain often is.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Although we were not designed to experience grief, I am a better man as a result. I am a better man because God deemed it necessary to bring my beloved friend into my life. I am better because God began to draw our hearts together. I am a better person because God has walked by my side every step of this long, agonizing path. Something within me is different, vastly different, and I can feel it. I am not the man I was, nor am I fully who God has intended me to be — yet. I recognize that that was a strange sentence to read, but by virtue, the fact that I am writing this now is evidence that God still has plans for me and my life. The transformative, sanctification process is not yet complete in my life. He continues to draw me toward greater repentance and Christlikeness.

Navigating grief is hardly an easy task. Grief is a violent storm. A raging war. Grief shakes at the foundations of our faith to reveal where we’ve placed our hope. The longer I’ve walked through this process, I have become more aware of how helplessly vulnerable my heart is to the afflictions of this life. However, in the same way, my heart is vulnerable to the work God is seeking to do in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a cynic. Everybody and everything is motivated by their own self-interest. Selfishness. This perspective toward life is highly pessimistic (and problematic). My outlook on life was rigidly negative because, by its nature, cynicism looks for the worst in people. The cynic expects people act on their own self-interest, and cynics are rarely caught of guard because of it. The trap of the cynic’s worldview is in their hardness of heart. A snare that sniffles and suffocates the heart from seeing things from God’s perspective of grace and mercy. Grief would be my undoing.

I have been on a path of unlearning since high school. My self-preservation, coping mechanisms, of cynicism, sarcasm, and skepticism were deeply rooted in the facets of my life as I began down the path toward sanctification. I am a deeply flawed man. I fail (frequently). My hard heart has been one of my greatest hinderances in growing toward Christlikeness… A friend asked me some months back in the (what as at that time) height of coronavirus quarantine what I thought God was trying to teach me through my experience with loss and grief. I’ve honestly given up trying to come up with some rational answer to that question because every conclusion I come to is contrary to the character of God. If God took my friend away to teach me a lesson, then their life was more about me than it was His and that can’t be right. If God took them away because I was not holy or righteous enough, then God’s is cruel which is not true in the slightest. Still my friend’s question has lingered with me as I’ve mulled over my life with introspection. Instead of rationalizing this time of my life, I’ve instead searched the scriptures. Seeking to understand the nature of grief, of death, of God, and of grace. How can I learn from this time, and help those who are experiencing grief? What can we learn about God through our grieving? Scripture speaks directly to our frail, broken hearts. God whispers into our sufferings, and bellows into our lives with hopeful expectation.

I am nowhere near the end of the grieving process (though admittedly, I do not believe that it ever truly has an end on this side of Heaven). The process has changed, and I can see God’s hand at work in my life through this process. I have become more compassionate toward things that I was once cynical about. My outlook on life and on others has begun to swing toward something more optimistic. My hard heart is softening as God stirs in my inequity and works through my brokenness. God is good! He is awesome, powerful, and mighty! He is good, gracious, and merciful! I dearly love my beloved friend. From that very first encounter with them, something was different. As I spent time with them, the more I was drawn to them, and from the very depths of my soul all I wanted was to see God’s best for their life. True love. Not infatuation marketed as ‘true love’ by Hollywood, but the genuine expression of love. God is at the center of the very essence of what we know as love. He is, after all, the one from which we begin to understand love. Thus, as I’ve come to realize through this undoing, I cannot love anyone truly if I am hard of heart. My cynical view toward life has been contrary to the very essence of God’s grace and mercy.

God speaks, even in our suffering. Our afflictions are not purposeless. God may teach us through these difficult and often painful experiences, but that does not inherently mean that God allowed them solely for that purpose. That purpose is beyond our ability to comprehend. However, I rest knowing that there is a ‘happily ever after’ for those who lay their faith in Jesus. There is hope! We, as believers, may hope expectantly for that happily ever after because God is at work! We may share that hope with others by striving to love those around us genuinely. Free of our self-interest and gain. Our hope is for the work God is doing, even now, in the midst of difficult seasons. We hope to see God’s best fulfilled in the lives of others. Even from our suffering, we may hope! Hope for deliverance. Hope for new perspective. For God’s transformative work to be done in our lives. Hope for our lives to be leveraged in such a way that we may serve others as examples of true love!

Teren

A Time for Everything

Yesterday, I got out of the house for a little while. I packed my bag and drove over to my favorite local coffee shop and ordered a chai tea before driving some ways away to sit in the shade of a tree on a bench with my Bible and journal in hand. I had no real purpose in being there and really had nothing to say to God before I feverishly began laying things out in my journal. Social distancing, quarantine, and isolation have only amplified the waves of my emotional ocean and the words began pouring out. “I feel adrift,” I wrote. “Aimless. Stuck in a cycle of repetition. Lost in the failings of my broken mind. Trapped by the circumstances You’ve allowed. What are You doing? What have You done? What purpose do these afflictions serve?” The novelty of COVID-19 is wearing off and prolonged emotional distress is beginning to manifest for many of us.

As some of you know, there’s been ongoing hardships in and around my life. Most of these have been minor stressors, while others have been major rifts in life. The disruption of the coronavirus is only the latest addition to college deadlines, increased productions at work, and the depths of my soul during this season of unrest. Isolation has been the vice in which I’ve been bound. Weighty deadlines pressing down upon me as I try to hold the overflowing plate steady. These factors darkened by the shadow of depression that looms just overhead. What does one do when the walls start closing in and the world begins to fall away? Desperation sets in and despair cries out from the depths of our souls. The mental toll of coronavirus is just beginning to set in for many of us.

I sat there on a bench in the warm spring breeze, and had no purpose in being there. After letting my thoughts flow from my hand, I set my journal down. There is so much that I do not know. When I try and wrap my mind around the things God has allowed in my life, the blessings He’s provided, the joys taken away, the fulfillment of desires withheld. I’m left going, ‘I have no idea what’s going on. Why have You done this? Why me? What’s next?’ I picked up my Bible and thumbed through the pages mindlessly. I had no intention of really getting into the Word, but I held my Bible. The weight of it’s truth hung around my neck. The shifting winds seized the pages of my Bible and opened to Ecclesiastes 3. I glanced down at my hands and was met with the subheading: A Time for Everything.

I very selfishly did not want to get into it. I’m weary. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. Drained by the circumstances around all of us in the moment. Yet, before me, reality became abundantly clear. Everything that you and I experience in life has its place. If thing have their place then they must have order, and if they have order they must also have purpose. Purpose, then, suggests that things have reason and meaning. I do not believe I or any of us truly understand purpose and the subsequent meaning in the moment, but only in reflection upon that which has happened. Still, our sinful nature has limited our understanding, I have given up the attempt to rationalize the event of my life and their relationship to God’s sovereignty. I am given glimpses at the larger plan God has, and must trust that there is more than the pieces that I hold from my vision. I will not never know the full extent while I am on this side of Heaven. As I try to rationalize the afflictions I’ve been given over to, I have found that my answers are unsatisfactory. My conclusions differ from the truth of who I know God to be. Therefore, my understanding of the circumstances at hand must be incomplete. There’s got to be more…

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-9

Many of us are hurting under the weight of the sudden changes to our daily lives. We miss our friends. We miss what was. We long for the days when life was less complicated and far easier to navigate. I have yearned to be near my closest friends. To hear their sweet voices once again. To see their faces and embrace once more. Yet, today is not yet that time. We shall have to wait a little while longer. However, there is a God who reigns sovereign over creation. I would be remised if I did not tell you that God is in control and that He has not been caught off guard by COVID-19. We may find comfort in Solomon’s recognition of God’s control over creation, as nothing that has happened to you or I has been beyond the knowledge of our precious God. He has allowed this affliction to seize the world, just as He has allowed tremendous blessings to be poured out to all people. He is here and He is working through this time for a greater glory than we may fathom.

The words of Solomon were not words that I was looking for, nor did they sufficiently explain the every why of the events of my life. However, I received an answer that is far more fragrant and potent than anything this world has to offer. There is more and it has a place in both space and time with specific purposes that may not be revealed to me immediately or ever for that matter. This conclusion is not the waving of a wand and the dismissal of the suffering I’ve experienced of my afflictions. Nor is this a sleight of hand technique to distract you from the realities of pain, suffering, grief, or despair. The truth of the matter is that you’re going to hurt. Things will weigh upon your soul. Your heart will be broken. Situation will unravel before you. Circumstances will be beyond your control. You will have breakdowns. You will be squeezed and pressed, but you will not be overcome. God is above all of these things and is actively present with you through them.

You see, I don’t know if you know it, but God has placed a calling upon your life. A calling that is completely unique to you and you alone for the purpose of bringing glory and honor and recognition to God! Levi Lusko put it this way, “There is a calling on your life. A great, big, God-sized calling. God has plans for you and has been dreaming about them since before you were even born. You are destined for impact... As long as there is breath in your lungs, you have a microphone in your hands. There are things God intends for you to accomplish that no one else has been chosen for. Words he wants you to speak. Actions that speak louder than words. And through it all, he wants you to leave a mark, to put a dent in the universe (Through the Eyes of a Lion).” As a follower of Christ, I will tell you that being called also means that you will be pressed.

Life is difficult. There is no way around that reality. Sin’s corruption of God’s design means that things will not be fair. There will be injustice. There will be things that happen in your life that you cannot explain. Your hope, joy, and peace will all be challenged. You will be beaten down, seized by suffering, and faced with a relentlessly broken world. Things will not always be very pleasant and, in fact, life can be very ugly. So where do we begin? The deck seems stacked against us. The task too daunting to fathom. I tell you, you’re not alone in the fight. You have an ally who has tread the realities of life before you, and who will walk with you through them once again. His name is Jesus.

You may feel as though you are alone in your journey through life. That nobody knows what you’re feeling or aware of the battles that are waging around you, but you are not alone! I want you to hear me: you are not alone! The weight of your afflictions are a burden that Jesus has held. The suffering that you are experiencing is the very reason Jesus came to earth, so that He may lift that burden from you. Jesus knows your pain, because He’s faced the same pains that you are experiencing. Jesus was betrayed, rejected, beaten, mocked, cursed at, and murdered. Jesus experienced the most despicable, revolting cruelty that humanity has to offer, and yet, in the midst of it all, Jesus cried out to the Father, “forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” Jesus was put to death for a crime that He did not commit.

Christ understood the purpose in which He was sent to fulfill. Do you understand the purpose God is calling you to? If you’re like me, there are aspects of your calling that you know without a shadow of a doubt, while there are other areas that remain unclear. Questions may remain, but one thing is certain: God has you placed in this specific time with a specific reason for a particular calling. You are here, not by accident or coincidence, because God is using you to carry forth a mission. You, if you have laid your faith in Christ, are a messenger! Moreover, you understand the burden that comes with this mission. You know the weight Christ endured to bring about reconciliation between God and Mankind. Christ was fully aware from the beginning that the vile, ugly, torturous cross was the reason He came to earth in flesh and bone. Even still, being aware of the death that awaited Him, Christ wholeheartedly pursued the will of God. Death did not frighten Jesus. Rejection did not deter Jesus. Persecution did not dissuade Jesus. Every affliction that Jesus faced only strengthened His reliance upon the Father. Jesus came to die on the cross for you, so that you may be redeemed from the wages of sin. In Jesus, you may come to know God as Lord. Jesus understood the purpose the Father had given Him, and He pursued that purpose with steadfastness.

Just before He was betrayed, Jesus took the disciples to a placed called Gethsemane. He instructed His disciples to wait while He went further ahead to pray. Jesus asked Peter and two sons of Zebedee to accompany Him to where He was to pray. Matthew 26:38 says that Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” The weight of Christ’s calling pressed upon Him… The weight of reality pressing upon His humanness, Jesus turned to Peter and the sons of Zebedee saying, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” Knowing what was about to occur, Jesus felt the emotional toll of His calling. You and I may be dismissive of Jesus’ emotional disposition as He is fully God, but we ought to take notice that Jesus was also fully Man. If Jesus did not feel every human emotion, He certainly had the capacity to. We may readily affirm that Jesus felt joy, anticipation, expectation, friendship, and beyond. To what extent did Jesus felt like you and me, I couldn’t answer. Yet, my understanding of this stems from Jesus’ own words throughout the Gospels and in how the disciples describe Jesus’ ability to understand our human condition. The author of Hebrews states, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:15-16). While Jesus may not have experienced every human emotion as you or I have, He is certainly capable of feeling those very things. In my understanding of Jesus’ character, according to the quoted scripture above, He most certainly sympathizes with us throughout our experiences. He celebrates with us in our victories, and He mourns with us in our grief. He lifts us up through difficulties, and He wipes our tears away in the trenches. While He may not have felt hopeless or despair, He knows the pain and suffering they bring. He felt the physical burden of pain and suffering, and He endured them to see the death of sin defeated. Jesus was pressed, twisted, and wrung through as He pursued the calling the Father had given Him. So too, will you be pressed in following God’s calling upon your life.

Gethsemane, a garden that resided at the base of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, has an important name. In Hebrew Gethsemane (גת שמנים) translates to oil press, which is rather fitting for the topic that we are discussing today. The process of extracting oil from olives is an intensive task. Olives, when harvested, are not soft as we often think of them being, but rather hard. In the first century, olives would be pulverized by a giant stone turning them and their pits into a paste. This paste would then be gathering into baskets and transported to the olive press. Ten to fifteen baskets of olive paste would be put into a vice to be squeezed as oil is collected. Take a look at this video demonstrating the first century technique of extracting olive oil:

As we know from scripture, oil is a precious commodity. It’s worth derived from the process of extracting such small quantities from immeasurable amounts of olives. The process requires not one grueling crushing, but two. As we observe Jesus as He enters the garden with His disciples the immense pressure that enclosed Him in those final hours. He knew exactly what was awaiting Him. The betrayal. The rejection. The torment. The physical pain. The suffering. The ugliest, most vile treatment of fallen man, but He also knew what would come after. The reconciliation of a fallen creation being brought back into relationship with its Creator. Salvation. For this, to see the Father’s will fulfilled, Jesus endured the pressing. He sought out the will of the Father to bring Him through to the end, even as it meant facing death. Jesus paid the debt sin amounted, and He brought forth liberation. Freedom for those who lay their faith in Him, and are born again.

As you follow God in faith, you will find yourself being pressed. That calling that God has bestowed upon you has an incredibly precious value that comes with it. You and you alone have been given your specific calling. Some may have a similar calling with a similar purpose, but only you have the one given to you by God. That calling is going to crush you over and over again… God allows this for one singular purpose above all others: so that our lives may reflect more and more of Christ. We read in Romans 8, “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain freedom of glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole of creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience…” Our suffering. Our affliction is not meaningless or vain. They are purposeful for the necessity of God’s people to become more like Christ! To love unconditionally. To extend compassion to the lowly. To know both the goodness of God and the pains beyond words. Our experiences amplify the testimony we carry upon our hearts as we wrap with those who mourn, we rejoice with those who celebrate, as we reflect the sacrifice Christ made upon that ugly cross.

Your calling will crush you, but God has not placed you here alone. No, He’s surrounded you with others who also have unique callings placed upon them. Where one olive may not yield much oil, from many olives oil flows. You and I have been surrounded by others who carry unique callings. Together, God is allowing us to be tested and tried so that our oil may flow. You’re calling, your oil, is not cheap. You are precious to God who seeks His will brought to fruition in your life! If you’re hurting in the season, grieved with the pains of affliction, know that God is not unaware of your circumstances. We may trust that God is working through our sufferings and He sympathizes with us as He’s walked this path before. Jesus, crying out in the garden of Gethsemane, asks of the Father, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Beseech God in your crushing. Lean into Him in your suffering. Seek out His will for your life as you are crushed for your calling. In this, may we echo Jesus’ words to the Father, “if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.

There is a time for everything and in everything there is purpose. No matter where you find yourself today in your walk with Christ, whether you’re on the mountain peaks or the deepest trenches, God is working to see His will fulfilled in your life. Are you willing to answer to that call? Are you willing to endure the crushing to see that calling fulfilled to the glory of God? Within the last month, I’ve written a statement in the front of my Bible to remind me of these various season that says, “for this, I have Him.” For my grief, I have God. For when I praise, I have Him. For my weakness, I have Him. For hope, love, joy, peace, I have God. For my despair, I have God. For my failures, I have God. Whatever the ‘this’ is in your life, my friends, turn to God.

For my calling, I have Him.