A Forced Rest and Contentment

“Forced rest” was a phrase a friend of mine used a few weeks ago during a prayer time. I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot since then. The phrase wasn’t directed at me but even so, it got my attention. The pain in my lower back is so intense that I am forced to seriously edit what activities I engage in. Typically, I’d be ultra-busy during my vacation; there are workouts to do, hikes to take, blogs to write, books to read, home improvement or other fixer upper stuff to do, and so on. Instead, I’m spending an inordinate amount of time on my rump simply reading or journaling.

Then yesterday my devotional was about contentment; another area that has recentlycontentment garnered my attention. Pain sometimes causes contentment to be elusive if not wholly absent. Still, Scripture states we are to learn contentment.

Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.

—Philippians 4:11

Paul is stating that he had to acquire the knowledge to be content in all circumstances. Such learning is an active pursuit of knowledge with the goal of applying that knowledge in everyday life. In other words, Paul is continuing to expand his understanding of contentment. Interestingly, contentment actually means “self-sufficient;” however, Paul doesn’t stop here. He goes onto say in verses 12 and 13 that he has learned to be content when life is going well and when life is not going well. But he is careful to note that this ability, this learning, is enabled “through Christ who strengthens me” (v. 13). No, this isn’t some sort of mystical strength allowing Paul to somehow change his circumstances through enhanced faith; it’s much more practical than that. It is the Holy Spirit enabling Paul to contentedly endure whatever circumstances he’s facing.

This is easier said than done, of course. One exercise that helps me in contentment is from a song in the movie White Christmas, “Count Your Blessings.” It is so simple to do and yet, for some reason, seems archaic; but it works. For instance, despite the pain, I have a family that loves me that includes a wonderful Bride that is cheerfully picking up chores I’m currently unable to do, two healthy sons that are loving and helpful, a beautiful home, great friends, a career I enjoy…you get the point. To my knowledge, Paul had none of these. In fact, many Bible scholars and historians suggest that Philippians was written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. Hello!? In prison and he’s still writing about contentment? That’s a sobering thought; so who am I to wallow in self-pity? Contentment is a much happier space to be in.

Another tool I’ve discovered on my journey toward contentment is to stop the “what-if-ing.” Though no specific event caused my current pain, I still am tempted to second-guess things I’ve done in my past that may have contributed to increased wear and tear. This is fruitless and only leads to self-shame.

I also strive to stop daydreaming about what I wish I was doing. We recently bought some snowshoes, but they’re still in their packaging in the garage. My bike is primed and ready to ride, plus the weather has been decent; but it, to, sits in the garage. And I’ve recently learned about some hiking trails close to home we’ve never ventured on. None of these activities are doable right now; so why focus on them in wishful bitterness?

I can still walk and do a few other little “exercise-y” things, so I’m choosing to embrace those with thankfulness. And, of course, I pray—often! I pray that my joy may be full (1 John 1:4, John 15:11 & 16:24), that my peace may be deep (Philippians 4:7), that my love is real (Matthew 5:44, John 13:35 & 15:12-13, Romans 12:9 and 1 Thessalonians 5:8), and, of course, for healing (Matthew 4:23, Acts 9:34 and 1 Peter 2:24).

Leaning into Christ will enable us to endure through any circumstance with contentment. And one day, all pain will cease (Revelation 21:4); but until that day, we can be thankful that the Lord is with us no matter what we are going through.

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Christmas Joy and Update

We’ve had a great week of music and fun excursions!

First off, Caleb’s school’s Christmas Concert was quite a treat. We got to see all the grades singing and playing musical instruments. And not only that, Caleb sang a solo on one song and debuted his cello playing during the prelude! One of the other treats is watching the parents. They’re waving while kids are singing or they’re crouching near the foot of the stage with iPhones poised to snap just the right pic of their singing child.

The next day they sang in the Capitol Building’s rotunda. Ah, that brought back

Capitol_sing_2017

Caleb is way up on the right in the second to last row.

memories, I was able to do that in high school! Nothing resounds vocal music so majestically as the harmonizing chords ringing up through the marbled rotunda dome! Listening carefully reveals the delicately fading notes with more piling up behind them.

Comfort_joy_marqueeA couple of days later we took a jaunt up to Portland, Oregon. Portland may be known for riots and roses or microbeer and artistic donuts; but it also has a vibrant music scene that includes the Oregon Symphony. Our end goal was to enjoy our second year in a row of the symphony’s Comfort and Joy classical Christmas concert. This year, though, we decided to spend the night rather than have a quick daytrip. Staying overnight opens opportunities for new and fun adventures.

For instance, we rode an actual streetcar! We wanted to get to the Tillikum Crossing bridge, the new pedestrian-friendly bridge (it’s the largest car-free bridge in the United States). It’s also known as the Bridge of the People (Tilikum is a Chinook word for people). It was a relatively long walk from our hotel, so I asked a friendly Portland police officer her recommendation for getting there. She suggested the streetcar which stopped only three blocks away. So off we trudged to 11th and Taylor.

It took a minute or two to figure out the ticket-buying kiosk; I am from the ‘burbs after all. And adding to the pressure was the streetcar lurching up the hill towards us two blocks away. Just in time, though, three receipts slid out of the kiosk and we boarded on our first trip on a bone fide streetcar!

We got off the streetcar on the northwest side of the bridge. Then we walked across the bridge back to the southwest side. From the bride we enjoyed the skyline of tall and diverse skyscrapers, the west hills, and the Willamette River rolling along its northward trek toward the Columbia.

Back in downtown we sauntered over to Pioneer Courthouse square. The square has thePioneer_tree_2017 biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen in person. We also had another first: real chestnuts roasted over an open fire! Well, it was actually a large wok sitting atop an open flame; but hey, we had roasted chestnuts. As the purveyor said, they tasted more like sweet potatoes than like nuts. And, frankly, they’re labor-intensive to peel and eat. But at least we briefly lived out a scene from a famous Christmas choral.

Inside_symphony_2017After some shopping, gawking at all the lights and dinner, it was off to the symphony! It was wonderful. We were in the fourth row on the aisle on the violin side of the orchestra. Oh, the music! Beautiful, lyrical, and layered with the sounds only a symphony orchestra can produce. There was also a sing-a-long and the director provided brief and often humorous commentary. It was definitely worth the price of admission and I’m already looking forward to next year!

What a fun few days in this festive season!

Now The Update

Following up on my last post, my doctor did order an MRI. I had that Wednesday and got the results yesterday afternoon. I won’t elaborate, but the news isn’t reassuring. It does, however, clearly explain the cause of the pain. The next step is consulting with a neurosurgeon. I am, of course, quite concerned about this. But a recent devotional reminded me of a record from Daniel:

“Our God will deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but if not, let it be known to you, O king, we do not serve your gods.”

—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego addressing King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:17-18.

I know I’m not facing a fiery furnace, still, I will face whatever is coming with faith and strength in God. Eventually healing will come, I’m just not sure what avenue it’ll come through. Until it does, though, I pray for protection from the worldly “gods” of discouragement and self-pity.

A Pastor’s Question

“Are you willing to trust God in anything He sends into your life whether you understandannunciation it or not?” That was the question posed by our Pastor this morning. It was posed in the context of what’s known as the Annunciation; where the arch angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary and says:

“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

—Luke 1:28

Mary is “very perplexed” (NASB v.29) or even “troubled” (NKJV) by this sudden visitation from the arch angel. Gabriel goes on to encourage her to “not be afraid” then drops the bombshell statement on her:

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest.”

—Luke 1:31-32

Though you likely know the account of this record, May was currently a virgin. It was impossible for her to conceive except then Gabriel states that God the Holy Spirit, will cover her and she will conceive and bring forth what Matthew refers to as Emmanuel (God with us, Matthew 1:23) and what John the Baptist declared as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, see last week’s post for more on the Lamb of God). In other words, May is going to bring forth God incarnate.

Astoundingly, Mary’s response is:

“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

—Luke 1:38

mary_josephShe was young; most theologians and biblical historians place her from 14 to 16 years old. And she may have lived a simple life, but she was not ignorant of her culture or ignorant of what she was saying “yes” to. She knew that saying “yes” in her culture would mean significant ridicule up to and including community banishment. Here she was, an unmarried teenage girl and pregnant. Yes, she was betrothed to be married, but she was not married yet, so her fiancée could easily tell her to take a hike; in fact, it is likely that that is what was expected of him—to send her away in shame. And on top of it all she was proclaiming she was still a virgin and carrying the Son of God.

Simply stated, she demonstrated great courage. But not only that; she also demonstrated equally great humility and trust. She trusted God even if she didn’t fully understand His logic or His approach.

This brings us back to the Pastor’s question. Do I have the same trust? Or courage? Or humility?

This question really hit me upside the head today for this reason: pain. I was not intending to blog about this, but I got to thinking about another blogger’s question from earlier in the week. It’s from A Fractured Faith Blog and the post was Why Do You Blog? I blog because I desire to be an encouragement to others and to help make Jesus real for people. So now back to pain.

I evidently haven’t properly healed from this summer’s hernia surgery. My left side has significant muscle and nerve pain. I am now also experiencing pretty serious lower back pain as well. The back pain can at times be so intense that I lose my balance and well up in tears. Just rolling over in bed at night causes intense pain shooting through my back like a thousand hot needles burrowing into me. I pray for healing, but the pain remains relentless. I’ve tried alternative methods of treatments only to have increasing pain by the day. I will go and see my medical doctor later this week. I fear seeing her because I fear what she may find. Actually, she probably won’t find anything but will instead recommend yet another MRI (if so, it’ll be my ninth). I like to fancy myself in robust and indestructible health. I’d like to be able to workout as insanely as I used to. Maybe someday I will; or maybe the insane workouts of my past have contributed to my painful present.

But the question from my Pastor, inspired by a 14-year-old girl from over 2,000 years ago, rings loudly in my brain. Do I still trust God even though I desperately want the pain to go away? And even though I really don’t understand why I must endure this will I still pursue after the Lord?

Honestly, the overall answer is yes, I will still trust God and pursue after Him. But I admit it’s a lot harder to when my eyesight is blurred by pain and I have to be careful with every single move I make, whether making dinner or simply sitting down.

But I also know that, unlike Mary, I’m not alone because many others around me suffer from chronic pain as well. No one has gone through, or will ever go through, what Mary bravely and humbly went through. Perhaps, then, this is where my humility gets a little bit of a test in that I am challenged and humbled by a 14-year-old girl. And, frankly, I’ve never really found inspiration in Mary—that is, until today. Oh sure, like so many I admire her and am definitely grateful for her decision; but this is the first time I’ve found her to be an inspiration to keep-on keepin’ on. Who, except God, knew that it would take me over 50 years to be inspired by one of the greatest persons that ever walked the earth. Yes, we still call Mary blessed (see Luke 1:28, 42 & 45)!

Raindrops and Angus Dei

Rain dropsLooking out the window this morning I saw lingering drops of rain drooping off of tree limbs in my backyard. I was praying at the time and was suddenly moved by such a common sight. I thought how fleeting such a sight is. Granted, the rain is likely to return in the afternoon, but for the time being, the sun was coming out and the drop would soon fall to the dirt below or evaporate into thin air.

Such a short life-span, yet it was beautiful as the slanting morning sun sparkled through its prism-like features, glinting and winking its way through the crisp morning air. And in a way, it would finish its short life by either helping to nourish the earth or the atmosphere. So, it had beauty and practicality.

But was it pure coincidence that at that moment I saw this drop? Or was it some sort of God-ordained natural metaphor? Typically, I don’t have my morning prayer time in that room, our living room with the gas fireplace and the large picture window. I typically have it in the den where there are books, lower light levels and a tiny window that peaks upon the roofline of our neighbor’s house.

Fast forward and I’m at church and one of the worship songs we sing in Angus Dei. The phrase Angus Dei is taken from John the Baptist’s bold and startling declaration about Jesus:

“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
—John 1:29

Angus Dei is Latin for The Lamb of God. Jesus is referred to as the Lamb many times. In Revelation 5:12 heavenly beings are singing:

“Worthy is the Lamb who is slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”

Revelation 12:10-11 speaks to the “accuser of our brethren” being overcome “by the blood of the Lamb.” And there are many other deeply rich and theologically significant references to Jesus being the Lamb of God .

But for me on this morning, it reminded me that, as the drop of rain, my life is also short:

All flesh is a grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away. But the word of the Lord endures forever.”
1 Peter 1:24-25 (quoting from Isaiah 40:6-8)

And yet the word of the Lord states that I have eternal life through faith in Christ (see John 3:16, 10:28 & 17:2-3; Romans 10:9-10; 1 John 2:25). This means that my earthly life is short compared to my eternal life. The question is what am I doing with my time here? Does my life nourish others as the little raindrop brought nourishment to earth and sky?

Perhaps the metaphor is a gentle reminder that my life is more than just grinding through every day. It’s more than traffic jams, nice dinners, prayer and work. My life is to be a light to others; hopefully drawing them closer to the Lamb of God, the Lamb of God that takes away sin and offers us eternal life. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the eternal things of life. Yes, living in the present is important, but it’s a real art to learn how to live in the present while still retaining an eternal perspective. The present is not the end-all, be-all of existence; it’s really just the starting point, the warm-up band before the Big Act. And the Big Act is to be forever with Jesus where there is no more pain, suffering, tears or death (see Revelation 21:1-4). It’s living life as God truly intended it to be: whole, healed and forever with Him.

How has God spoken to you in brief moments of life? How has He inspired you to ponder the eternal nature of life through the natural elements around you? If so inclined, feel free to share some of your thoughts; it’s always valuable to hear how God works in other people’s lives.