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Monday, May 14, 2007

Where is Your Focus?

What a week... Have you ever had a breakthrough, or an “aha” moment, or made a decision you felt really good about, only to then be tested, challenged, or thrown a curve ball that takes you off track from where you thought you were going? A couple of weeks ago I was feeling really good about the direction I was going, the goals I set for my life, and I felt confident I was moving in the right direction. Then, almost immediately thereafter, along comes the test. It’s as if my resolve, my strength, and my inward joy are being called into question. I feel in my heart the questions are being asked, “Did I really mean what I said in my April 23 blog? Do I actually thank God for my trials?”

First, we had a really tough interview with a Case Manager for my son. This person was condescending, judgmental, and even disparaging toward my son, my husband and I. She questioned my husband’s motives for leaving the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad. She expressed her distaste for our decision to homeschool our son. And she basically tore down my son to the point he stopped talking to her. I have never been through an experience as demeaning and hurtful as this one. I do praise God we should never have to deal with her again.

This has also been a tough week in terms of getting enough sleep. Between late-night meetings at work, getting my youngest to school in the morning, baseball tournaments that start at the crack of dawn on weekends, and lesson planning for homeschooling, my energy is waning. And my time with God has been the first to go, which then compounds my feeling of being drained.

Sorrowfully, we’ve learned that my mother-in-law has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it seems to be progressing quickly. My grandmother also had Alzheimer’s, and it truly is a devastating disease. Once a vibrant, witty, full-of-life woman, my grandma became disoriented, confused, forgetful (to the point of not knowing her family), and eventually lost her speech. My husband’s sister is the only child living in the same town as their mom, and she is feeling overwhelmed and frightened. She has three children of her own, and starts a new job in June. Finances are tight, and while we can help somewhat with that, I know from experience how important emotional support (and a break / escape from the situation) can be. She is in my prayers daily.

And now, there are mounting problems at my place of employment. The team of people I am responsible for are starting to develop unhealthy “cliques”. A key member of the team unexpectedly resigned in the midst of a critical project he was responsible for. There is an accountability issue with yet another team member. I am feeling discouraged with the recent backward progress. (Those two terms don’t belong together, do they? It’s pretty much an oxymoron to have “backward progress”.)

Of course, we are still walking a long road facing the realities of my oldest son’s troubles. Between court dates, meetings with investigators, case managers, counselors, attorney’s fees, and restitution to be paid (not to mention missed days of work, my husband dropping out of school to homeschool him, the loss of friends my son has experienced, and all the other things I’ve already relayed in the past), it can be daunting to think of what all the future holds.

So, I have to ponder, am I allowing others to steal my joy? Who am I expecting to fill my emotional needs? I am again reminded that it is through the difficult situations in our lives that we grow the most, learn the most-lasting lessons, and become the most reliant upon the Lord. In all of my 39 years, I have never identified more with the saying, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle; I just wish He didn’t have so much confidence in me.” However, I’ve realized it is when I take my eyes off Him that doubts, fear and frustration rise up in me. It turns out I am not only dodging the curve balls, but have actually started throwing them in my own life. By not keeping my eyes, heart and mind focused on the Prince of Peace, Mighty Counselor, and Savior, they become focused on the muck and mire of the world.

How do we do this practically? I mean, it’s nice to say and all, but how do we stay focused on the Lord rather than our circumstances? Trust me, I’m not an expert, or I wouldn’t need to keep coming back to this place. But when I recognize I’m getting off track, there are some things that help redirect my path. The Bible makes no secret of these things; all we have to do is follow them. And thankfully they are not hard, but they do require dedication, time, and effort. Once you’re in the habit, however, you’ll find the effort and emphasis you placed on lamenting over your troubles were actually harder.

1. I said it my last post, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 NKJV). And, I really mean “without ceasing”. Keep the music off in the car, and pray as you drive. Post sticky notes around your house if necessary to remind you to pray, or to remind you of scripture verses so you can focus your mind on them and pray by reciting scripture. Pick up a book by Stormie Martin, who has written numerous books with practical prayers for you as a mom, woman, wife, etc. Start your day in prayer, before you get out bed (i.e., between the times you’re pushing the snooze button), and end your day in prayer. Spend time journaling your prayers (and then be sure to record the answers!). Before having a conversation with another, before picking up a ringing phone, and before walking in the door after a hard day’s work (or before your husband does), pray that your words would be a blessing, uplifting, truth spoken in love, or whatever the situation may call for. Train yourself to pray continually, and you will find yourself doing it even without prompting.

2. Probably the most common exhortation you receive from your pastor, from Christian writers, and from many other sources is to stay in the Word of God. The Reverend Billy Graham says that he leaves his Bible open somewhere in his home or office (or wherever he is traveling), so that he will come across it during the day. He then takes the opportunity to read a verse, or a chapter (or more) as he comes across the Bible. What a great idea! And, how many of us have more than one Bible, so we can leave them open in different areas of the house?! (Thanks to Jerry B. Jenkins for this tidbit about Rev. Billy Graham.)
The Bible is such a terrific “instruction book” for life. As it says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105 NIV). So often I will come across scripture that ministers to my soul in a way that speaks directly to my current situation. I know that this is one of those ways that God “speaks to me”. And, the more I am in the Word, the more I learn and the more encouraged I become. So, while you’ve heard it before, it bears repeating: Study the scriptures!
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing in the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” (Psalm 19:7-8)

3. By serving and ministering to others, you keep your focus off yourself and on others. It truly is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This doesn’t have to be elaborate…you can make a difference even by emailing a quick note to a hurting or concerned friend, penning a letter to let someone know you are thinking of them or praying for them, or sending a greeting card that contains a poignant verse. In return, I have been so uplifted by responses to emails I’ve sent (or comments I’ve made on blogs). Sometimes I wonder if the responses I receive have more impact on me than the original recipient of my writings. Serving and ministering can also be done very practically through volunteerism (whether at your church, local food pantry or at a homeless shelter). One thing I would caution here is to ensure you are serving within your gifts. For example, don’t sign up to help with the children’s ministry unless you love being around kids and are blessed with a good dose of patience. Also, charities have many different needs for which you can volunteer your time. If you don’t feel working directly with people is one of your gifts, find out if your local soup kitchen needs administrative / office work done, or if they could use your help with fundraising (if those are your gifts instead).
Bottom line is that it always helps me to put into perspective my situation when I read and/or respond to the struggles of others. As it says in Proverbs 16:3 (NKJV), “Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established.” Plus, what a joy it is to serve God in ways that he himself served (a kind word to someone hurting, feeding the hungry, etc.).

4. Finally, I encourage you to consciously remember your blessings. Do this is a very real way, such as writing them down in a praise journal or verbally thanking God for them during your prayer time. If you have trouble, read through the Psalms, and you will see the many different ways and times David praised the Lord, in spite of his troubles and persecution by Saul. By focusing on your blessings, the Lord has an opportunity to give you peace and joy that surpasses all understanding. “Light is shed upon the righteous and joy on the upright in heart” (Psalm 97:11).

It seems fitting here to list just some of the blessings I have experienced in the midst of my turmoil recounted above.

  • At the end of a tumultuous meeting, my son’s Case Manager referred him into a juvenile program that will eventually clear his name and record, assuming he completes it successfully. (And, you can imagine we will be praying hard for that.)

  • In the midst of a lack of sleep, I have spent some quality (and quantity) time with my family. Also, the late-night meetings at work produced a well-received presentation that provided a source of pride and accomplishment for my team.

  • My mother-in-law’s diagnosis gives us a very really opportunity to serve, both her and her daughter. It also seems to have drawn my husband much closer to his mom than he has been for many years.

  • I am supported by those I report to in how I address the challenges with my team at work. I work directly for a terrific Christian woman who is compassionate and encouraging, and who can always be counted on to provide wise counsel.

  • My husband’s and my relationship with our oldest son is stronger now than it has been at any time in the past year. Our homeschooling has brought us closer to him, and provides more one-on-one time with him than we have ever experienced before. Also, we now live life with eyes wide open to the challenges and dangers of his adolescence. We truly do feel everything that has happened is a blessing in disguise, as we are more aware of what our son is experiencing, how he is living his life, and who his friends are.

If you have actually read through this entire blog (what a marathon!), I would love to hear about the methods that work for you in keeping focused on God, especially when faced with pain, anguish or confusion. Thanks, and may God pour His richest blessings out on your life, regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Beauty from Ashes

It is never too late, and there is no one beyond hope. Have you ever had a friend or family member who you thought would be “the last one” to ever receive Christ as their Savior? My sister is one of those people. She is 11 years my senior, and has lived quite a life. As a rebellious youth, she brought much grief and strife into our household. She lived a promiscuous life, and developed a devastating drug and alcohol addiction. She had a baby at 16, later became a biker (taking off on her Harley even with three young kids at home), spent several months in a woman’s prison, and at one point ended up in a mental institution, where she was finally diagnosed as bipolar in her mid-40s. The doctors believe she has been self-medicating for years through the drugs and alcohol.

In the midst of her tumultuous life, my sister decided at some point there was no God…and even if there was a possibility He existed, He certainly did not care about her. Much of that stemmed from an abusive relative and a pastor who recommended an abortion when she ended up pregnant at 14. Sadly, that advice was followed, and my sister lived with the guilt, shame and grief over that decision for many, many years.
I prayed for my sister, sent her cards, bought her a Bible a time or two, and then, when she was almost 50 years old, had the glorious honor of leading her to Christ one night over the phone a couple of years ago. Tonight, I just got off the phone with her, and had to weep over the radical transformation in her life. Oh, she has had her ups and downs and her slips and falls in the last couple of years. Decades of substance abuse have taken a severe toll on her body, and she is in very poor health. At times, she has slipped back into old patterns, particularly when she runs out of her medication or neglects to take it. But today was a good day. To hear the peace in her voice and her love for the Lord is overwhelming. Tonight she talked about her passion for gardening and how it brings her closer to the Lord. To hear her say, “Jesus is my best friend…He spends time with me in my garden and is all I need” brought me to tears. It is remarkable how God can take such a broken life, one filled with heartache, disappointment, cynicism and despair, and make it beautiful, full of hope, and brimming with joy. I praise God for His faithfulness to my sister. He never gave up on her, in spite of her giving up on Him so many years ago. He continued to seek after her, and she has now found in Him new life. Her body remains broken, but her heart is whole.

As I think about my sister’s life, and I compare that with those whose bodies are whole but whose hearts have a hole only God can fill, I realize that she is truly the one who is blessed. While I wish she wouldn’t have gone through such pain to come to where she is today, it really does show just how great God is. He gives up on no one, and He will leave the 99 to rescue the one who has strayed (Luke 15:3-7). I do not have the words to express how in awe I am of the grace of the Lord. And it gives me great hope for those in my family who have yet to experience the saving, and freeing, love of Jesus Christ. I regularly pray for them, and write their names in my prayer journal with the expectation that on a future page I will be listing them under “answers to prayer”.

I urge you to never stop praying for your family and friends. The Lord who can be born of a virgin, walk on water, and raise the dead (including Himself), can most certainly find the most lost of sheep. As the apostle Paul exhorted the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17 NKJV).

Please let me know if I can join you in prayer for one of your family members.