Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pain Lingers

They beat me up.
I stand close to six feet tall, weigh right at two hundred fifty pounds (it isn’t all muscle, but don’t underestimate me) and part of me still cringes when I think of it.
Rick beat me up too. That was later, but it still hurts.
Suzanne beat me up – emotionally, but the pain is the same.
My first divorce hurt.
My second divorce almost killed me.

Some memories have pain in them, and I don’t really know how to exorcise that pain from my life. Maybe I can’t. Maybe you just learn to live with it.
When my wife’s mother died, I thought of my Mom’s death, a decade ago now. It still hurts. “It always hurts,” I told my wife, “but I guess you get used to it.”
Perhaps that’s the way it is with some pains in our lives. Not the stubbed toes, nor even the broken bones. I don’t feel pain when I think of my broken hand, for instance, though it does hurt when it rains.

I don’t even know how old I was, but probably between fifth and sixth grades, which would be Port Orchard, Washington and Brown City, Michigan. Dad was off to Viet Nam, so it must have been 1968 and I was eleven. We visited my Grandma Jen and Grandpa Mac in Saginaw. Grandpa didn’t want anything to do with us (that’s a little harsh and exaggerated) and especially didn’t want us touching the new remote control to his television set. The television sat in a huge console facing the couch. The screen was small, but you could tell from the slight hum in the box that the entire thing lived. The remote was the size of a small paperback and had a power button and just one toggle switch right in the middle. Press the toggle one way and you watched the round glowing dial on the television physically rotate in one direction, changing the channel. Press it the other way and it rotated the opposite direction. As the dial settled into the new channel there was an audible and physical sound that reverberated through the television, across the floor and shook the couch. We boys thought it was the greatest thing in the entire world to change those channels with the remote control.
Grandpa didn’t agree.
He sent us out to play, in the middle of Saginaw, months after the infamous race riots (we didn’t know that) in a bad neighborhood (we didn’t know that either). I took my three younger brothers, B (age 6), D (age 4) and T (age 3) to a small school park down the block from the duplex my grandparents lived in.
There was a sandbox there, and a few of those rocking animals on big springs, as well as some swings. I don’t know how long we were out there, but I do remember that we were all in the sandbox when they came.
These are not the boys on bikes
Kids. On bicycles. Maybe three or four hundred of them. Okay, there were probably only four or five kids, but it didn’t matter. As soon as they showed up and dropped their bicycles they stalked toward us. I herded my brothers together and headed for the gate, toward the safety of Grandma’s house. The boys surrounded us and pushed us. I tried to get their attention and tried to get B, D and T heading home. The strategy mostly worked, except for B, who wasn’t about to be pushed around by a half-dozen kids four times his size. He waded into them swinging, which delighted the entire crowd. The boys pushed him in the sand, and I followed right behind. There was a lot of yelling and pushing and punching going on, but D and T were on the sidewalk toward Grandma’s unmolested.
A big woman came out on her porch carrying a broom like a two-handed sword. She yelled at the boys to quit, that she called the cops, and she was coming down there. As she headed down the stairs the boys laughed, got on their bikes and rode off. B ran ahead of me to the house, and Dad met me at the door. He wanted to know why I didn’t fight back. When I started to cry he let me know that boys didn’t cry. That made me cry more.
That still hurts.

I was new to the school, in seventh grade and Rick was in eighth grade. For some reason Rick took a serious dislike to me. He’d sneak up behind me and thump me on my ear. We rode the same bus, and got off at the same stop. One day Rick thumped my ear in school and I turned on him and yelled at him to quit. He sneered at me and said we’d settle it when we got off the bus.
I was frightened for the entire bus ride.
We got off the bus and I didn’t have any idea what I was supposed to do. Rick pushed me and I brought my arm back to punch him. He just grabbed me and put me in a headlock and waited for me to say “uncle.” I never said it, but eventually he let me go, pushed me down and walked away. I walked three blocks home by myself. I didn’t cry until I was sure nobody saw me. I waited until I quit crying to go into the house. Mom took one look at me and knew I was crying. (I guess when you’re a kid you don’t realize that your eyes get puffy and red when you cry.)
That still hurts.

Over a year later we were graduating from eighth grade, the highest grade that St. Mary’s had. Suzanne had a party at her house and I was invited. Suzanne was blond, pretty and had breasts, all factors which caused me to go dizzy when I thought about her.
I even shaved the peach fuzz hair from my upper lip for this party. Mom and Dad thought that was hilarious.
Bases. Right...
At some point during the party Suzanne asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the woods. There were trees on their property, and a school behind the trees. Sure, I said, so off we go. When we got into the trees she asked me if I wanted to run the bases with her. I thought it was an odd thing to do, but she was pretty and I was willing to do almost anything to see her smile, so I headed to the small baseball diamond just at the edge of the trees. We ran around the bases and she was laughing. Then she kissed me, and her mouth was a little bit open, even though my lips were puckered like when I kissed my Mom on the cheek, so she made my upper lip a little bit wet, which I didn’t mind at all for some reason.
We went back to the house and for the rest of the evening people pointed at me and laughed. Suzanne went into the woods with another boy from school and I wandered down there to see what they were doing. She laughed at me and told me to go back to the house. I didn’t understand any of that until a few days later when a friend of mine explained that I totally misunderstood, and my ignorance made me the running joke of the evening.
That still hurts.

We didn’t get along any more. Married for over eight years, with a small three-year-old son, my wife wasn’t happy. She wasn’t happy in our marriage and she wasn’t happy with me. I was almost delighted when my company sent me to Ohio for six weeks to do a programming project. My wife talked to me on the phone, but the rest of the time was peaceful for me.
Amiga and Emerald Mines
Apparently it was also much better for her. During my last week in Ohio my wife informed me that she was getting me an apartment. I asked her to get me one that was only a block from our house, so I could see our son. When I got back I had an apartment in the middle of Pasadena, a dozen miles of heavy city traffic from her and my son. Shortly after that she moved to the other side of Houston. Divorce followed. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Sitting in the empty apartment with an air mattress, a small television and my Amiga computer filled me with pain and loneliness.
That still hurts.

Eight years into my second marriage and my wife wasn’t happy. We went to therapy together. Things seemed better. I went to California on a business trip and she left little notes in my luggage telling me she loved me. She was too busy to talk on the phone, though. My buddy and I drove back (a different story) and arrived a little earlier than we planned. She was on the phone.
A month later I was spreading dirt in my front yard and she came home with our two children. When she walked up to me I asked her if she still loved me, if there was someone else. She told me there wasn’t anyone else, but she didn’t love me anymore, and it wasn’t me – it was her. She should never have married.
At first I fought hard for that marriage. Then I fought hard for my two children. It’s a tragic story with twists of its own. The divorce was final over a year later. The pain of divorce from my wife lasted a long time. The pain of separation from my children, from part-time fatherhood, lasted years longer.
That still hurts.

Some hurts come and stay. They do fade, of course. The hurts from these few incidents in my life are really just the faded remembrance of pain, not pain itself. Other hurts left impressions on me, but not quite like these early ones. The pain of anonymous hatred focused toward me. The pain of specifically targeted dislike. The pain of the first emotional rejection and ridicule. The pain of betrayal, loss and futility. The pain of unexpected betrayal, battle and terrible loss. All these had a lasting effect on my psyche.
Still, pain is part of life. At the time, of course, it hurts and all you really want to do is escape the pain.
People think they can deal with pain. I’m not sure that’s true. You can accept it. You can get through it. You can move on.
Then you just have the memory of pain.
You can deal with memories, even memories of pain.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Prayer is complicated…

As I finish this trilogy of posts, let me sum up the last two.
Prayer is communicating with God. We must listen more carefully than we speak, because until we hear from God we can’t be sure how best to pray.
Being in the center of God’s will is exactly where God wants us to be. As one Pastor said, God is more concerned with your spiritual welfare than your physical (or mental/emotional) comfort.
Some things are clearly not in God’s will, and we should avoid praying for these. I recall one person saying once that God told them to get a divorce. Quite unlikely, because we measure what we think we hear from God against the Bible, which is the revelation of God’s character. Though God does not disallow divorce, He certainly hates it. Malachi 2:16 (NIV) says “I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.
This isn’t a treatise on divorce, though I’m sure that would make an interesting post, but the point is that if we search Scripture we can see the things God loves and those He hates. One of the most clear passages is Proverbs 6:16-19 (NIV): There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Clearly there are some things we should not pray for, because they violate the very essence of God and harm what He wants us to become. Prayers that go against God’s nature will never be honored by God. As it says in James 4:3 (KJV) - Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
The language is even stronger in the rest of James 4. James promotes correct thinking among the people of God. Clearly, praying outside God’s will is not wisdom. You can pray for these things, but at that point I’d suggest you search your heart, because God is probably not your primary focus.
So we don’t pray for things God considers evil. That seems simple enough.
We should pray for good things like world peace, warm puppies and gentle spring rain. Sure, but let’s not forget that we won’t see some things until this Heaven and Earth are wiped away and replaced.
Then there is the category of things we want to pray about and there is no clear indication of God’s will in the Bible. There are fewer of those than one might think, but they need to be addressed.
If I were one of the apostles and witnessed Jesus’ arrest, I’d pray for his release. After all, the apostles prayed for Peter’s release (and God miraculously released Peter). Praying for the release of Jesus wouldn’t work. God’s plan was different, from an entirely different perspective. Isaiah 55:9 states “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Thinking we can always know God’s will in everything is the ultimate hubris. We are not God.
I had a sick friend. I prayed for his healing, but he died anyway. Sometimes things in our lives happen and all we can do is cry.
Almost. We can pray for strength and stamina to get through the trials, and that God will somehow use the trials to bring glory and honor to His name. Roman fathers would send their sons out into the world and remind them “Remember whose name you bear.” This was a reminder for the son to act with honor in all things. Act without honor and you lose the name.
So it is complicated, all this prayer stuff.
I have to know my prayer is in God’s will.  If I don’t know, I can still ask. If it is specifically against His will or God has other plans I won’t get what I ask for. Then I bow my head to my King, my Lord, my Savior, my God and say “Thy will be done,” though tears may sting my eyes and my heart breaks.
Thy will be done.

“Let it rain, Let it rain. Open the floodgates of Heaven. Let it rain.” Michael W. Smith

Saturday, November 19, 2011

If It Be Thy Will…

Let's sum up where I left off.
Prayer is a conversation with God, and conversation is a two-way communication. I want to ensure I am hearing God clearly before I act. Asking God for stuff is easy. People do it all the time. The key for me is to ask for the right things, in the right way.
Pastor will preach about prayer sometimes. He’ll get all fire-and-brimstone and preach how wrong it is for people to add “if it be Your Will” to their prayers, as if  giving God an escape clause in case the prayer doesn’t get answered. You have to pray believing, he says, and don’t waver in that belief. Wavering is why the prayers don’t get answered.
I have a hard time with that. I almost always pray with the phrase “if it be Your Will.” Though I might not voice it, I certainly think it. I don’t pray that way because I doubt God’s ability to answer prayer. Far from it! If God didn’t have the ability to answer prayer, and infinite, unknowable, unfathomable abilities besides, then He wouldn’t be God of the Universe, and He is.
No, I add the phrase because I want to be in the center of God’s will, first and foremost. All the times in my life that I’ve tried to do my own will, direct my own life, forge my own destiny – these times have ended in disaster for me and for those around me. Life is a Hurricane, and we all know the center, the eye, of the Hurricane is peaceful. God is the Eye in the Center of Life, where we can always find peace and serenity – if we are dwelling in the Center of His will.
So I add the phrase to my prayers, just as Jesus added the phrase to His own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” Luke 22:42, King James Version (KJV).
See? Even Jesus did it. In many situations when I make fervent prayers and requests of God I wish that He would send an angel to strengthen me, as He did for Jesus. Many time he does.
The only time I don’t need to append “if it be your will” to the prayer is when I pray for wisdom, because I know that is God’s will. When I pray for something that I know is in the center of God’s will, the phrase is not needed.
As Father Cavanaugh said in the movie Rudy. “Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I'm not Him.” It probably took me that long also, but it wasn’t years of religious study. I wish it had been.

But what about…
People, especially Pastors, often quote from James 1:6-8:
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.
It seems obvious that I must be a wavering man, tossed and double-minded, since I express the wish for God’s will in my prayers. Pastors and laymen alike toss this one at me (pun intended) whenever I try to explain my prayer life, which isn’t very often. I’ll grant that this verse seems to express the thought that whenever we pray for something we have to BELIEVE and it will HAPPEN. Sound suspiciously like NAME IT AND CLAIM IT to me, something I cannot abide in people’s thoughts and actions.
We must believe, but we must believe rightly. Take a closer look. There was more to the verse BEFORE that quote. Read the entire thing!
James 1:5-8
 “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”
James is specifically talking about asking for wisdom! Of course you shouldn't doubt when you ask for wisdom! God’s perfect will for all His children is that we should have wisdom. From God’s perspective, it is even more important that we seek wisdom from Him, not from the world.
The Bible clearly states that wisdom is worth more than anything else you could possess, as evidenced in Proverbs 4:6-7. "Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding."
The entire second half of Proverbs 1 (20-33) is devoted to wisdom, specifically stating how desirable it is. God honored Solomon's request for wisdom because it pleased Him, because the request for wisdom was entirely in God's will.
“Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets: She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying, How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD: They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices. For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them. But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.”
My point is obscured, since I’m talking about prayer and God answering prayer. Asking God for something is certainly a reasonable and human thing to do. We have to remember that God isn’t ignorant of our needs, nor does He need to be reminded what we need or want.
So how can I properly pray for things I want? That's another tough question, and we'll deal with that in the next post. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Did I Just Hear That?

Prayer is hard to understand.
Like Cocoa
When I was a boy I prayed for a pony. This thought came to mind the other day when I saw Immortals. Stavros, the thief says he quit believing in the gods because he prayed for a horse and didn’t get one. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT: At one point in the movie he dismounts from a god-provided horse and looks in awe, saying something like “It’s the horse I asked for.”)
I didn’t stop believing in God because I didn’t get a pony. In fact, I did get one, except it was a horse. We named him Cocoa and owned him for a few months before Dad figured out he was more work than a dog or cat. Perhaps it was Mom that figured that out. Seems like Mom was the one in the stable mucking it out.
Getting a horse didn’t make me believe in God more either. Even as a child, I knew He was the God of the Universe and he was sitting somewhere in Heaven on a throne and He could do whatever He wanted. If God wanted me to have a horse, I was good with that.
Choose wisely
I was in High School, a Catholic kid in a Baptist Bible study, when I learned that God the Almighty, who is exactly the same person as Jesus the Christ, loved me so much He died for me. (John 3:16, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.) For a Catholic kid, who was taught that we earned a place in Heaven, that somehow our goodness had to outweigh our badness, this was revolutionary news.
It took a few months to sink in, but I finally figured out this meant God loved me, individually, the real, entire me, forever and ever. Realizing that was so much better than getting a horse. I fell on my knees and swore loyalty to God the Almighty as my King, my Lord, and my God. Many people can tell you the day and time. I can tell you the place (the back yard of our house in Michigan), the weather (a beautiful spring day, but there were leaves on the ground), and that my friend Pete Okhuysen was with me as a witness (thank you forever, Pete).
One thing remained the same in my mind and remains the same to this very day: God is King, enthroned in Heaven, and whatever He wills, so be it.
So I have a hard time with some prayer. Not the normal type of prayer that happens with me all day long, most days. Those prayers come unbidden to my mind. I’ll think of someone, that they have a need, and I’ll ask the Lord God to give them strength, courage and wisdom and grant them a closeness to Him.
Those prayers are easy.
The prayers where you are trying to decide to do something, where you articulate what you want (usually expressed as a need). Those are hard.
I still question God. Anyone who knows me knows I do this, but they might misinterpret why I do the questioning.
The best example is when I thought I heard God tell me to go to Africa. Pastor Don mentioned the Africa trip and something tugged on my heart. “No,” I said to what I thought might be God, but might also be that bit of undigested bran I had for breakfast, “you can’t mean for me to go to Africa. For two weeks. Not to Rwanda. Maybe you mean the orphanage in Kenya. That might be all right.”

When I heard the trip mentioned again, weeks later, I felt that tug again, but now I was a bit confused. “No,” I replied, a bit more sternly (so I thought). “You can’t mean this trip to Africa. It’s two weeks long. I don’t have the money, not money that is solely mine. I don’t have the vacation time, not for two weeks. I don’t have any reason to go. It’s not like the orphanage, where I actually have an interest.” On the way home I casually mentioned that I might need to go to Africa, but I say things like this often enough that Darling didn’t notice.
Still, I felt I needed to check my vacation time. I was about four hours short of having the full two weeks. “No problem,” my boss said, “you can make it up when you get back.” That wasn’t quite what I wanted to hear.
Now the next part is spooky strange, and if I put it in one of my stories people would give me grief for deus ex machina in the plot. The weekend was cold and as I went upstairs I noticed my twenty-year-old Ugs sitting on the floor. My feet were chilly, so I put the boots on. The bottom of the left boot had something in it. When I pulled it out I saw it was an envelope – with my name on it in large printed letters. Not my handwriting, not Cella’s, not her mother’s. In that envelope was enough cash for me to go on the trip to Africa. Money in an envelope, addressed specifically to me. I still have the envelope.
I did have one reason for going to Africa: obedience. God’s will. That’s key.
The next day, when Pastor Don mentioned the trip after the church service I turned to Darling and said “I have to go to Africa.”
When people hear this story they immediately think I am arguing with God. Nothing could be further from the truth. My problem is that I’m not sure (in most instances) when God speaks to me and when it is simply me speaking my own desires, imitating God. So I have to be very, very careful it isn’t me.
Another good example is one time when I was told I had to say something to someone in church. I had the message in my mind, but it meant nothing to me and I wasn’t sure it was God. Then the Pastor mentioned the young woman during the service and when the time for prayer came, I knew she would be overwhelmed with the good people from church praying over her. So my prayer at that time was not rebellious, but it was a similar thing to the Africa trip decision. “God, if this is what you want me to say to her, then I’ll do it, but only if she’s not crowded by people praying over her at prayer time.” Prayer time came and people went to the altar to pray, but nobody went to pray over this young woman. So I went to her. It’s a little tough, and embarrassing, but I told her I didn’t know what the message meant, and told her the message, then prayed with her briefly. Now, I barely knew her, her husband, or her little girl, and they surely didn’t know me. So they might think I’m crazy, or the message inane, but I was obedient, and I’m certain it wasn’t just me thinking it all up.
So hearing from God is a tricky thing for me. Talking to God, praying, is hard also. Like I said, not the normal every day, all-the-time prayers, but the really hard ones. The ones where I want to ask for something but I’m not sure what I want is within God’s will, and (from personal experience) I certainly want to stay in God’s will.
But there’s more to prayer and praying. That comes in the next post.