“Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but… yes.”
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I have a friend, a brother deep in my heart who, in this year 2015 has endured devastating losses. Relationships… career… finances… physical health… professional esteem… sense of personal esteem… All that — devastating.
This is not to say that he has not participated in, made decisions that have led to, much of this loss. (Some would say “all” of it, but perhaps it is more fair to say “most”.) Some people, both in general and regarding him specifically, respond with, “Well… he’s made his bed…” or its more “Christian” counterpart, “Well… he’s sinned, so if/when he repents…”
News Flash: My friend, my brother, is a “sinner”.
Stop the Presses: So am I.
Random Conjecture: So is every reader here.
So… chalking suffering and pain up to the presence of “sin”, may be “theologically accurate”, but I’ve never found it particularly “helpful”. That is not what this discussion is about. The questions I find most meaningful in these days are no longer questions of “What?” or even of “Why?”… but rather, the question of “How?” In the midst of devastating, breathtaking pain, How do we go on? How do we “live”, when even breathing hurts? How?
This post is not being written to evoke darkness, despair, hopelessness or depression. (In fact, this isn’t even a technical consideration, or intended to have a primary focus on, depression. If pieces of this discussion address some of that, good. But that’s really not what this is about.) This post is being written to communicate the precise OPPOSITE… I seek to proclaim Hope, Purpose, Life, and Light. But here we are, right here, right now, in the trenches… in the nitty-gritty of darkness… WAY past the place of “preaching” or “platitudes”. These hurts, these fears, this despair can run so dark, so deep, so bloody… that “quoting verses” doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Seldom… thanks be to God it is ever so seldom… am I in a moment where reflecting this depth of darkness is appropriate in this place, this blog, before you, Gentle Reader. But this is one of those moments, and I am irresistibly moved to repeat to you what I’ve just shared with that brother on the phone in a second call this day.
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First, I will not share the sequence of events, decisions, or circumstances that have brought my brother to despair of life and its meaning. That would not be appropriate professionally, spiritually, or relationally both with God and with him. You do not need that information to hear truth in these words. Just imagine that you have lost your connection with everything in your life on earth that you hold dear, and you can find common ground with the heart of my friend/brother.
Second (last): “There but for the Grace of God…” Believe me when I say, *I* am by no means “superior” to this friend/brother in any dimension of Christianity. He is as “called and gifted” as I, most would say more so. He is as “highly trained and educated” as I, in fact… demonstrably more so. (I have one doctorate, he has two.) He is as “experienced in ministry” as I, as many years of service. He has counseled as many in pastoral counseling as I, perhaps more. He has as much “denominational stature” as I, in fact… demonstrably more. Believe me when I say to you, set the two of us side by side in columns on paper… pick ANY criterion of “evaluation and job performance” you choose… in ANY regard (Christian, community, professional, pastoral, financial, you name it…) and you’ll grade him as “superior” to me EVERY time. That’s just the truth.
And those are the only critical information you need to hear the truth I seek to speak in this post. There is not an ounce of “superiority” or finger-pointing in me towards this friend/brother… he is “better than I” in every measure for what we have dedicated our lives to, and I accept that as true, so you can as well. I am painfully aware that “there but for the grace of God go I” as I walk with him, and I walk in the holy “fear and trembling” of deep humility as I speak with him.
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Here’s What I Have Come to Say:
My friend/brother has experienced devastating, catastrophic, losses in every arena of his life this year. He spent considerable time, energy, and resources initially in denial of these losses, and then in trying to combat them and recover lost resource. Now, only now, is his grief reaching “acceptance”, and in that acceptance he is finding is pain so great and his life so empty… that he is considering relieving his pain by ending his life.
This is the call I got first thing this morning, that my friend/brother had come to this point in his walk, in his life. This was the call that contained the opening two lines of this post.
THIS, this “bottomless pit of unrelieved darkness”, THIS is the “reality” the “battlefield” of real “spiritual warfare”. (There are many others, of course… but this is certainly one of them.) And this one is life or death, right here right now.
I embraced my friend/brother on the phone. I “loved on” my friend/brother on the phone. But I love/loved him too much to “feed into his spiral”. I was not going to say all the “warm, soft, fuzzy words” that were going to roll off him like so much rainwater off a duck. You know what I mean… words like, “Just trust in God.”, “This too shall pass”, “People love you.”, “Time will heal this.” or quoting any of dozens of appropriate scriptures.
Why? Why would I not say those words? Because in that moment, he would not “hear” them. He was trapped in a “death spiral”, a place nearly dead to hearing and vision, trapped in thrall to an image of himself in a mirror… the image of his miserable self, against a backdrop of a life he did not have and could not re-acquire… a mirror image filled with the “sorrow that leads to death”. He was trapped in what Eric Berne would call the “Yes, but… Game” (Games People Play). He wanted me to float “warm fuzzy balloons” that he could dart and destroy in his misery, justifying his resolve to quit, to give up, to die.
I floated no such balloons. Instead, I said a couple very blunt things, couched and cushioned in many “gentling words”. I’m going to put the “bald statements and questions” out here before you now, but please understand they were not expressed this starkly… but rather nested in softening words that he could hear. OK?
Statement of Observation: “My brother, you have found that when stripped of your ‘stuff’, your money, prestige, resources, and your own plans… you have lost your will to live.”
Statement Two: “Good! You and I share the same background and know the same things. I don’t have to… I CANNOT… ‘preach’ to you and I refuse to try. You’re better than this! You know better than this! You know as well as I that OUR lives, at least… CANNOT be grounded in our ‘stuff’. If you had forgotten this, and are being reminded of this, I grieve for your pain, but I am grateful for the insight.”
“WE, at least, CANNOT ground our lives, our purpose, our meaning… in our STUFF. This is what we try to communicate with others, that’s a false foundation and it will not, it cannot, sustain us. I cannot tell you this, you know it as deeply as I.”
Challenging Question: “You consider ending your life because so much has been lost. Well, then I ask you this… ‘Why are you ALIVE in the first place? Why do we have life? Why are WE here?'”
And I shut up… for a long time to silence on the other end of the phone…
His Response: “I’m not comfortable with this conversation any more, so I don’t want to talk to you. I’m going to let you go now, so God Bless!” And he hung up.
For the next hour I pondered whether I had just killed my friend and brother. I prayed, I pondered, I studied, I listened, I realized…
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An hour after that realization, I phone back… and he answered (the first of my calls he’s answered directly for weeks). I said…
“Please hear me out and don’t hang up. I’m not going to yell at you, preach at you, and I’m not mad at you or disappointed. OK? I just want to ask you a question…”
“OK, so ask…”
“OK. How much money, how much would it be worth, how much of your resources would you spend, if I could put one human soul in front of you… just ONE… who was destined to go to hell for eternity, but you could write a check and buy him/her out and head them to heaven, instead? What would that be ‘worth’ to you, of your holdings and accounts, or your reputation, or whatever?”
…. long silence… then a weary sounding, “I don’t know… I can’t answer that…”
“Well, *I* know… because I know you, I know your heart and its generosity and what you give, and have given, all your adult life to rescue souls from hell. And here’s why that’s important…
“You, at this moment, are buried in pain so terrible that you despair of life and hope all together. I understand that. I’m not denying it, or minimizing it, or any of that. Life, right now, is walking across glass shards into blazing coals. I agree…
“But here’s the thing… we, you and I, are here for a very specific purpose. A purpose of rescue. ALL Christians are, actually, but most aren’t aware of that. We ARE aware of that. If you die today… your timeline, your road, comes to an end in this world. Your pain would end, true.
“BUT… so would your encounters. You and I are not here for the ‘pretty cobblestones’. We are here because we carry Him in us, and we love, and we encounter people in their darkness with hurts as deep as any we’ve ever known, and we can offer them Light, and Love, and Hope, and Life. Not only in the here and now, but in eternity.
“If your life were to end today, there are people God has stationed along your future road, encounters He has planned to happen, people He has intended for you to love and lift up Christ to and for… who will never encounter you. They will never hear you. They will never be loved by you, and perhaps they will never hear and see the Christ you would show them, to embrace Him.
“You are here, you live, dedicated to rescue of the lost. You’ve done it your whole life. You know what I’m talking about. You can remember those you have personally loved into the embrace of Jesus. Well, my brother, they are not the ‘only’ ones you are destined to meet.
“There are more, there are others, but they are stationed on the other side of this pain you have now. How much pain would you endure, what would you suffer, what would you pass through… how much glass, how much flame would you walk across… if I stood at the end of that track with a group of broken, suffering, lost and damned souls that it was your destiny to love, heal, and let Jesus rescue… through you and your presence in their lives?
“How much pain would you bear? How much resource would you spend?”
… long pause… hoarse whisper of response… “Everything, anything… I’d give anything…”
“Good. THAT is all I called to say. Your pain is horrible and real. I don’t deny that. I just deny its relevance to our lives. We are here to carry what dwells within us to people who desperately need to see, feel, be touched by that… through us, and embrace… Him. And when everything, and I mean EVERYTHING else is stripped away… even our “gracious feelings” and our piety, and our devotion, and our sense of His presence…. When we are left naked and whimpering in a darkness so thick we can’t even BREATHE for its choking us… when religion fails… intelligence fails… sentiment fails…
“Sometimes all we have left is sheer ‘stubborn’. You NEVER quit. You never EVER quit. If not out of obedience, or devotion, or even ‘love’… You are a competitive man, I know that. You are as stubborn as I, I know that. You simply cannot quit, because underneath all of that, ‘faith’ will energize the ‘good form’ of your pride… if you quit, the enemy wins. Ministry stops. Grace and love through you and your present life here, stop. And he, the enemy, wins.
“I am going to let you go now. I don’t know if you’re comfortable or not, but I have faith that you are too competitive, too stubborn, too proud… to quit this contest and walk off the field, losing by forfeit. If you cannot continue to rescue people out of obedience, or duty… then do it out of love. But if even THAT cannot be felt in this moment… ask yourself if you really want to throw up your hands, forfeit this battle, and concede… letting the enemy win.
“I know you. You can’t let that happen. There’s just too much to be done yet, and too many out there to love that you haven’t met yet.”
…. and we blessed one another and hung up.
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Gentle Reader, I don’t know if you personally have ever been in that dark place. I have. I pray I never need to return, but I know that place. We can be stripped, just like Job, of every sense and sentiment of grace and blessing we’ve ever known. When all the trappings, all the ‘stuff’ of our Christianity, all the percs and comforts, are removed from us and all we feel is abandonment, despair or hopelessness…
Within us, there is yet a Flame. Within us, there is yet a Servant. Within us, there is yet Love that Gives Life. He can resuscitate life within ourselves, but only when we acknowledge and embrace that our Purpose is to share Life with Others through Love.
I hope this has not come off as a “depressing” post, or even a “depression” post, because that is far from my heart…
My heart proclaims a wondrous Truth…
The God of Hope dwells in every Christian, seeking and saving that which is lost, lonely, hurting. He does this, amazingly, through our frail and fragile selves as vessels of love. When we lose sight of this, when we become distracted by mirrors or the barns of our stuff, we can find ourselves dizzy, disoriented and confused. But when we embrace the Light within us, when we cherish Him and rejoice in His embrace, then our feet find our right road and we encounter wondrous adventures of rescue all the time.
This is not the “Minister’s Job”, or the “Pastor’s Job”, or the “Preacher’s Job”, or the “Counselor’s Job”, or the “Deacon’s Job”, or even the “Churchgoer’s Job”… This is not a “job” at all…
This is a “definition” of our very Selves. This is Who we are, What we are, called and anointed, commanded, simply… to love.
Every one of us, when we love another and connect heart to heart, provide the conduit of Light necessary for Him to reach across and spark Life in the other. For some, for those also dwelling with that Light inside their spirit, such touch offers comfort, encouragement, endorsement, affirmation of Life. For others, for those who have never trusted to or embraced that Light and Truth, this touch brings Life Himself. We offer love, that the other may receive, embrace, reflect and refract love, and thus live..
Why are we here? To love and carry Light, Life, Love in our steps. There is Purpose in that. There is Meaning in that. There is Life in that. There is Love in that. And there is Joy in that. This, to me, is the deepest meaning of “Grace”.
Why are we here? To bring Life through Love. Why? Because we can, and we are privileged to do what Our Father does… always. Little else is worth worrying about. And, oddly enough, when we remain focused on our purpose, other worries seem to fade into insignificance.
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Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.