Steve’s Letter – March 2014
MARCH 2, 2014
I just got back from teaching at RTS in Washington, D.C. last night. It was so cold I didn’t dare bend over lest I break. I leave in a couple days for a pastors’conference at Bonclarken in the North Carolina mountains. I’m told there is a good deal of snow and ice there too.
Do you know those old ladies who try to drive in snow and ice, and get over on the side of the road and creep…causing accidents? That’s me. If I die in a car accident on the ice or freeze to death, think of me fondly and please keep the dirt you know about me to yourself, okay?
I wouldn’t do this stuff for anybody but Jesus. And sometimes he’s not enough.
An interesting thing happened in Washington. I was staying in the same hotel where I stayed last year at this time when I got the flu. No, I got the mother of all flu bugs. I don’t think I’ve ever been as sick as I was during that week. I taught my class only one day and after that I never left the hotel room…well…uh…I never left the bathroom of the hotel room. On that Friday, I had enough energy to get to the airport and fly home, only to promptly get sick again.
Do you know what happened when I walked into the hotel lobby in Washington last Sunday? I started feeling sick. In fact, I prayed a not-so-spiritual prayer: “Lord, you wouldn’t do this to me again, would you? If you really loved me, I wouldn’t get sick.”
I think he told me to cut it out and grow up.
Revisting the pain
But as I walked into the hotel lobby and winced, I thought about how often we don’t revisit places in our lives because they are so painful. Someone has said that a cat which sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again…and won’t sit on a cold one either. Let’s talk about revisiting the pain.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are in the city of Lystra. Their time there started successfully with the healing of a crippled man, but then everything turned south. The people thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods and tried to worship them. Not only that, Luke wrote, “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city…” (vv. 19-20).
That’s what Christians do. We go back to the city. Christians return to the place of pain, dark and fear, and “kiss the demons on the lips.” But it isn’t just “places” to which we return; it’s places of the heart to which we can now return.
Counselors talk about “repressed memories” and, while I’m not sure that I agree with a whole lot of that, there are places in our hearts we erase because they are so painful. Sometimes it’s abuse, or places of shame and sin, or the dark corners where somebody hurt us. Sometimes it’s a person, other times a place, and sometimes a memory.
I discovered once that I had childhood memories—painful and dark ones—I had erased. I didn’t even know I was doing that until I realized there were years in my early childhood for which I simply had no memories. It was only when Jesus said, “Let me go back with you and let’s look at the pain together” that I decided to “go back to the city.” Some of my childhood was painful and difficult, but when I went back to “kiss the demons,” they lost their power.
Isaiah 40-66 are chapters of great joy, hope and promise. If you’re reading Isaiah in your devotions, though, don’t read those earlier chapters at night…you won’t be able to sleep. Those are chapters of judgment, admonishment and condemnation. But at chapter 40, everything changes. God rolls back the veil on the future and one can hear the laughter of forgiveness, acceptance and promise. In Isaiah 65, God says, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy and her people to be a gladness” (vv. 17-18). That is a covenantal and national promise and hope…but it’s also the way of God. It’s a pattern of joy and release from the past.
Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So where am I going with this? Among some other good things that happened when Jesus found us, there is the surprising realization that our past shame has been erased. And not only that, we are free to revisit it without fear. We are new creatures and, because we are, we can walk toward the dark knowing that we are now bathed in the light of his love.
I have a dear friend I never met (we’re “pen pals”) in Australia, Noel Due. He is an executive (sort of a bishop) in the Lutheran Church there. His wife, Kirsten, writes the most delightful children’s stories I’ve ever read (Bearen Bear and the Bunbury Tales). In a statement on her webpage, Kirsten wrote, “A truly Good story is one which wraps you up in its Word and carries you out of yourself to a place of restoration and healing like you never thought possible.”
Of course, the story—the really good story—is the one Jesus gave us and it takes us to a place of restoration and healing so that the fearful places of the past are no longer fearful and the dark not nearly so dark.
I got an email from Noel this morning in which he told me about his recently diagnosed cancer. (If you think of it, do say a prayer for him.) It is particularly difficult for Noel because his first wife died of cancer a number of years ago and that was a very dark time. The email was surprisingly upbeat. He talked about God’s faithfulness and the hope the doctors had given him because his cancer had been discovered early and the prognosis was good. In his email, Noel talked about his cancer in the same way he talked about a new discovery in a theology book. What’s with that?
Let me tell you. Because of Christ, Noel had found that no matter how dark the past or the future, no matter how profound the pain, and no matter how deep the wounds, he could go there and make an “obscene gesture” at the demons. Those demons didn’t matter to a new creature in Christ.
As part of the requirement for the class I just taught, I ask students to write a biographical essay (“Points of Grace”) where they are forced to go back and examine the dark of their past and relate it to God’s grace. Over the years, I’ve read some difficult stories and, as they relate those, they reference a God who was always there even if they didn’t know his name. They came to realize the incredible love of Christ and as a result, can say with John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18).
You don’t have to run
Are there places in your life you don’t want to go because they are just too dark and too painful to even think about? Are there people you avoid because of how you have been demeaned and shamed by them? Are there situations that scare the spit out of you and that you avoid? Are there dreams at night that turn into nightmares when they reference the pain and trauma in your life? Do you know the nighttime panic? Me too!
Don’t run away. You don’t have to anymore.
I may have told you this, but when I went through some hard examination of places in my life in order to find out why I was so screwed up, I called my friend, Lea Clower, who had “been there and done that.” I told him that I planned to wake up some “sleeping dogs,” but I had a 38 so if they tried to bite me, I was going to “shoot those suckers.”
Later Lea said to me, “Steve, I was praying for you this morning and I have a message from the Lord. He said to go ahead and wake up the sleeping dogs, but to put your gun away. Those dogs don’t have any teeth.”
He was right.
Let me close with a principle in dealing with the dark and fearful places in your life: You take the first step; Jesus will take the second step; and by the time you get to the third step, you’ll know it was Jesus who took the first step and walked the whole way with you.
Go ahead! Those dogs don’t have any teeth.
He told me to tell you!
In His Grip,