Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Don't Worry, Be. . . True?

I got some great news just in time for Christmas-- after radiation, all my tumors and nodes are smaller, even those outside the field of the radiation. The doctor believes that radiation has boosted the effectiveness of the current drug trial in which I'm participating and so He is hopeful we will see further shrinkage. I know it the grace of God that heals me and my hope is in Christ.

  It has been a really long time since I've gotten such good news. Probably not since my cancer came back in 2011. The first time I had a lump after I thought I had beaten cancer, it presented as a lump of fluid that was drained and sent away for biopsy. It came back as negative for cancer. Brian and I were elated. It was truly the grace of God, allowing Brian and I to enjoy a wonderful anniversary trip to Ireland the week of St. Patrick's Day. We were able to thoroughly celebrate without the big 'C' hanging over are head. Still something told me we weren't through. But maybe that was just fear talking? So I dismissed it.

When we returned, I had to have the lump drained again and, unbeknownst to me, the doctor sent the liquid away for biopsy. I returned the next week to have it drained once again. It happened to be Spring Break and I happened to have Abby, my eldest daughter, waiting for me out in the waiting room.  She was eight at the time. The doctor called me in to break the news that it was cancer and that he wanted me to get a double mastectomy.   I was devastated to the point that I couldn't even remember my husband's phone number to call him.  Looking back, I saw God's mercy in the initial negative diagnosis allowing the wonderful trip.

In my darker moments, I am tempted to compare that situation to my current positive diagnosis.  Here I am getting the good news right before a holiday again. It allowed me to enjoy myself over Christmas and New Years in a way less positive news would not have allowed. You can see why my mind would go there.

Still this isn't the same situation. First this is much more tentative-- it is indicating shrinking, not the total absence of cancer. Also I have my own evidence to support the report-- less pain and fewer protruding tumors. I am able to sleep on my side for the first time in months. I don't feel like passing out because of blood loss after my showers.

And even if it is the same, and I find out bad news later on, worrying is not going to help me prepare, it only ruins today. That holiday that God gave me three years ago was a blessing that I am thankful for. I wouldn't trade it for one covered by the black pall of worry. Worrying doesn't prepare us for tomorrow, but instead steal strength from today.

And worrying isn't true. Most of what we worry about never comes to be. Phil. 4:8 says
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things." Worry isn't true-- it is the imagination creating events that may never come to pass and even if they do, it is in the future, so it isn't true yet.

And worry certainly doesn't belong in any of the other categories-- it isn't noble, right, pure and it certainly isn't lovely.  Neither is it admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. So we shouldn't think of it, plain and simple.  Ah but it is not so easy.

This is where a passage from a little earlier in Philippines comes to play.  I'm not really great at memorizing scripture , but it comes naturally when you have repeated this scripture as much as I have.  Whenever I am tempted to worry I say the following verses over and over: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Philippians 4:6-7

But it doesn't have to be these verses. It could be any verses that give your comfort. If there is anything at all in this world that is true, praiseworthy, lovely, it is God's word. Do don't worry.... So think about such things.  ( I know how you started to complete that sentence :-)

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Anchor in the Storm

All of us have experienced storms in our lives.  We expect them.  It is just a fact of life.  Jesus even warned we would have them: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)

It is no wonder that many of the most memorable stories in the Bible involve storms.  There is the flood, of course.  Peter walking on water.  Paul’s shipwreck. 

One of my favorites is when a sudden storm arises as Jesus was in a boat with the disciples.  As the disciples are running around in a panic, screaming, “Lord, save us!”  What is Jesus doing?  Sleeping! 

Does it seem that Jesus is doing nothing to calm your storm despite you calling out “Lord, save me!”?  Maybe it is because he is sleeping, perfectly at peace, and maybe he wants you to do the same.  When Jesus awoke he chastised the disciples for having little faith.  Perhaps if they had had more faith they too could have slept calmly as the storm raged around them.  (Matt 8:23-27)

Often times when we are in the midst of a storm we just pray for it to pass.  Perhaps though there is something that the lord wants to teach us, a way he would like to grow our faith, which he cannot do with calm skies. Jesus can calm the storm or he can calm the storm in us so that we can rest in his loving arms despite what may be happening around us.  Which is the greater miracle? 

In the storms of life what we need is an anchor to hold us fast in the buffeting seas. That anchor is Jesus Christ.  If you hold fast to Him there is no storm that you cannot weather.  More than weather it—you can sleep!  

19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.
Hebrew 6:19-20

Friday, November 14, 2014

Shine Like the Gem You Are

I am going to break from my usual metaphor of gardening and go with another one this week—gemstones.

Raw gemstones are nothing special to look at.  They are grey and dull and lifeless.  It is not until they get into the hands of a master cutter that the beauty and value of a gemstone is revealed.

One of the values of a gemstone is in the cut.  The cut is what produces the facets on the surface of a stone and the facets are what reflect the light that makes the gem sparkle.  This is where the master cutter comes in.  The facets have to be just right—too steep or too shallow and there will be no reflection and so no sparkle.

Believers are like those gems.  Without God, we are nothing special—we are dull and lifeless.  In fact, we are dead!  God is the master cutter—grinding and polishing until we sparkle with his light.  That light doesn’t originate with us but instead comes from the Father and reflects off our character, a character that is produced by the many experiences that God has allowed in our lives.

Sound like a beautiful process, right?  It is but only if you focus on the end product-- the precious gemstone. The key words in the process are grinding and cutting, both painful processes.  Some of the most transforming of experiences in our lives are painful, but God orchestrated them in such a masterful and specific way as to produce groves and facets in our lives.  Those facets are what the light of God reflects off of to produce His glory.  Without God’s masterful hands, painful experiences would produce groves in our lives that are either too shallow or too deep to reflect God’s light and so do not glorify God, as they should. We would remain ugly, dull and lifeless.

Romans 5:3-5Not only so, but we[a] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Another aspect of value and beauty in gemstones is color.  Color is based on the atomic structure of a gem that either reflects or absorbs light.  Sometimes other elements are introduced into the atomic structure of a natural gemstone and so produce a unique and sometimes rare and thus valuable color.  These are considered ‘impurities’ and can actually be very minor manipulations in the atomic structure of the gem (as few as one in a million atoms) but can produce very dramatic results.

Our character is created by God and is intrinsic to us.  God introduces elements into our personalities that produce our uniqueness.  These may be considered impurities to some, but in God’s masterful hands they can produce our unique nature that can be used to add beauty to the world.  None of these elements are accidental.  We should accept are so called ‘impurities’ as gifts from God and use them to bring glory to God. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

My hope is that you recognize that you are God’s gem, his treasure and that by recognizing that you can allow God to work in your life so that His glory, shines.  

Ephesians 2:10
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Why it is O.K. to be angry at God

I have experienced a great deal of anger in life—betrayal by friends, domestic squabbles, uncooperative kids.  But recently I have experienced a type of anger I have never experienced before and hoped I never would.  As write this, it is with a great deal of guilt—

Hello my name is Ellen and I am angry at God.

In ten days I will have had cancer for five years.  Many of the people who were diagnosed at the same time are celebrating being free from cancer.  Five years with cancer is a milestone, something indeed to be celebrated.  I too am a survivor, but one that is still in the fight.  I too will be celebrating life but it will be tinged with sadness and weariness.  Weary communicates so much more than tired.  It is a tired felt in the body, mind and soul.  and yes, I am angry.

At the beginning of this week I got a stomach virus that had me throwing up.  There should be a rule that you shouldn’t have to suffer petty illnesses when you have cancer.  I know, though, that because of a weakened immune system that the opposite is true.   On the bright side I did lose ten pounds.  Frankly I am weary of looking at the bright side.  There is that word again.  Weary is the tired side of anger.

The illness came after the mountain top experience of attending a Christian Writer’s Bootcamp.  What an amazing three day.  I learned so much my head hurt.  God in his graciousness allowed me a three days of less pain and bleeding.  I am grateful for that.  Really I am, but then when I came back to apply what I learned, I slammed into the valley.  Again, anger reared its ugly head.

Everyone tells me I have a right to my anger. That I have been through a lot in the past five years. But part of me feels like I don’t, that He is the God almighty and He has given me so much.  I’ve felt God’s presence all through my ordeal and He has provided in wondrous ways.

I recognize all that, but there are times, in the midst of throwing up or bleeding through my clothes, I think “Why would he allow this to happen when I just want to serve Him?”  I had to cancel teaching the Bible.  I was crying with pain at church. I have reconciled the why of the cancer as a whole.  It is when the bad is so bad that I question those moments, that pain. I am weary of feeling the pain. 

Then I gain back some of my energy and I that weariness turns to anger.  Then I feel guilt.  But should I?

At least being angry means that I am acknowledging God’s hand in my life, even if I don’t like it; I am acknowledging his sovereignty in the situation and his power to stop it.  And He already knows what I am feeling anyway.

The Psalms are full of every emotion imaginable—including anger.  What I get from that is God is bigger than the vagaries of our emotion. That he can take what we throw up on Him.  He is God almighty and created us as emotional beings.  We are his children—full of love one moment, anger the next. Who among us hasn’t experienced a tantrum or two even from the best of kids? The key is that we remain children of God and we take our anger to Him. Honestly. Broken. Willing to have Him heal us, put us back together.

So go ahead.  Be angry.  God can take it.

Psalm 22[a]

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.[b]

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.[c]
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Root of Blooming

Here I am almost five years later and I am still dealing with cancer.  I certainly didn’t expect this to be the life I’d be living—dealing with multiple recurring tumors that give me intense pain some days. Locally advance cancer they call it.  I can’t even find anyone on the Internet with my same situation.  I pride myself on being unique but this is one situation where I would love to be boring. 

I often have people say that I have a wonderful attitude.  Part of it is that they don’t see in my dark time, alone, often late at night, sleepless, wondering about my future.  Or times when my emotions hit me out of nowhere.  I watched my daughter’s fifth grade graduation and suddenly burst into tears, crying out in my heart “Please, God, let me be alive to see her high school graduation!”

But I do think I have a good attitude.  It really isn’t me after all; God gives me the strength and courage to face tomorrow with hope and a bright outlook.  I truly believe that “ I can do all this through him who gives me strength. “ (Phil. 4:13).

But having that hope does take faith.  Faith, after all, is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Heb. 1:1) I don’t always see that hope, I don’t always feel Gods love.  But I know that it is there.

That is the root of blooming where you are planted.  The first step, the only essential step, is to believe, no matter what, that God still loves you.  We are told we are going to have trouble in this world.  It is just a reality, a by-product of having a heartbeat. But we have a life because God loves us.  Having problems, suffering, doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us.  Suffering is just an opportunity for us to grow and to feel God’s loving arms around us.  When life is going fine I have a tendency to chug along, not paying attention to God’s presence.  But in times of suffering I can feel him there and see evidence of him working.   That is a blessing, my friend. 

As long as you understand and believe that God loves you then you can have the strength to get through anything.  In your darkest moments just repeat “God loves me.”  Breathe it in, breathe it out.  Live it.  Hear it in your heartbeat.  Plant it in the ground and watch it bloom. 

1 John 4:8New International Version (NIV)
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Bible Verse not for the Faint of Heart

Romans 8:28
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

I believe next to John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believed in him would have eternal life.”)  Romans 8:28 is the most important verse in the Bible.  If you can get this verse then many of the struggles that this world gives you can be endured.  It is the key to blooming where you are planted and the key to understanding many of life’s mysteries.  It is not for the faint of heart, though.  You need to be a mature Christian to really ‘get’ this verse, but oh when you do . . .  it can bring the greatest of comfort to your weary soul.

Let’s break this verse down, shall we?

“and we. . .”

Who is the ‘we’ in this passage?  All believers really.  Paul refers to “children of God” “those that live according to the Spirit” and “those who are in Christ Jesus.”  But this particular passage begins with “I consider our present suffering (18).” So Paul is talking specifically to those of us who have suffered.  For some time I believed that this was reserved for those that suffered for Christ, the persecuted, but now I am not so sure.  This passage doesn’t mention being persecuted in Christ, but only the general groaning that all of us, including creation, suffer because we are eagerly awaiting our redemption.  When I imagine this passage I can hear my groans and the creaks of my bones every time I get up from sitting for a long time.  There is a certain amount of pain and suffering that comes with living.  Then there are the special times of intense emotional or physical suffering that comes at particular times in every one’s life.  It is these moments that turning to this passage can provide the most comfort.

“. . .know. . .” 

We don’t think it or wish it.  We know with the certainty that goes well beyond our circumstances. During times of suffering it is important to define our circumstances by our faith, not the other way around. This is the true meaning of hope.  It is like Paul says earlier, “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” 

“that God causes. . .”

It isn’t us, mere humans that do the work. We can’t make things work out by our own force of will.  We aren’t in control.  And isn’t this what suffering does?  It rips the thinly veiled façade of control right off of life until we are forced to admit that God is in control.  And who better to be in control than the creator and author of the universe, the one who knows all and can see how it can all work out for our good and His glory?

all things. . .”

Not some things, not good things, not the things we choose, but ALL things.  Even those things that we see as messy, confusing, even downright evil can be used for good.

“to work together. . .”

This reminds me of a huge jigsaw puzzle.  When you first start you have no idea on how things are going to work together to form anything resembling the picture on the box.  And in life, we don’t even have the picture on the box to go by either.  In fact, a lot of times I’m trying to fit the pieces of my life together to form this picture of what I think it should be.  The thing is God has something even more beautiful in mind, beyond anything we could even imagine.  It all just looks like unrelated pieces to my imperfect eyes.  I couldn’t even work it together if I wanted to.  Only God can because only he can see the final picture, the perfect picture of how we will appear when we finally meet him face to face.

“for good. . .”

This verse doesn’t say that everything that happens will be good, just that is will work together for good.  But how can the ugly painful, messy parts of our lives do that?  That is the beauty of God’s transformative power.  He took an ugly, shameful instrument of death, the cross, and transformed it into the greatest love letter of all time.  Don’t you think he can take whatever pain and suffering in our lives and transform it?  There is nothing that is beyond his power to use it for our good and His glory.

“for those that love God

It is so tempting to be bitter and angry when something bad happens in our lives.  But God is big enough to handle those feelings if we just hold on.  We are going to suffer any way, why waste it pushing God away?  He can give such comfort and joy to our hearts if we just let him. He loves us so much that he died for us.  He suffered for us and all he asks is that we allow Him to suffer with us, to comfort us.  After all We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).”

“to those that are called

A lot has been written about this simple work called.  Some believe they have been called to their ministry, their job, etc.  The word called reminds me to listen to God’s voice when making decisions, letting him guide me.  It reminds me of the verses that say that the sheep will know the sound of the master’s voice.  It is an intimate thing.  I only recognize the voices of those closest to me, the ones I’m used to hearing from and listening too.  I don’t ever want to go so long in not listening to God that I cease to recognize his voice, his leading.  In the toughest moments of my life I need to hear that voice even more.  In the storms of life, God’s voice still rings true; listen with your heart if your ears won’t.

“According to His purpose.”

Notice this doesn’t say for our purposes.  The things that happen in life aren’t to make us happy or content or peaceful.  They are to make us grow.  Grow to be more like Christ.  Grow to attract others to Christ and to give glory to Him.  Growth doesn’t happen if there isn’t any rain.  Strength doesn’t increase when there isn’t any wind.  The garden doesn’t bloom by us simply looking out the window.  We have to get our hands dirty. 

The greatest lessons of life are learned in the hardest moments of life.  This is where you learn how great God’s love is. This is where the dross is burned away to produce the most precious of metals.  This is where are all the pieces of life are brought together to form the “good,” the best really, that God wants to give us.  

Another part of the Bible puts it this way:  In Gen 50, Joseph says to his brothers

20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Joseph suffered greatly in his life, but he was able to see how all the pieces fit together so that his whole nation was saved from famine.

I am sure that many would say that cancer is evil, and for all intents and purposes it is.  But what Satan wanted to use for evil, God intends for good.  Yes, even cancer can be used for my good and His glory.  I am here to tell you that you can praise God through anything.  I choose to thank him in advance for all the good he is going to do through even the most horrible of circumstances.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Beauty in the Ashes

I was struck on how beautiful the sunsets were when forest fires were burning on Mt. Charleston.  The sun shone through and infused its light through the smoke.  The stark contrast between the dark smoke and the bright sunshine brought out subtle colors in both. 

While it is true that the fire burned 25,000 acres and destroyed six buildings, apparently forest fires have benefits too.  According to “How Stuff Works” websites, “Forest fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Even healthy forests contain dead trees and decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation.”  Like the beauty of the sun piercing through the smoke, the benefits of the fires break through from the destruction.

God’s love is like that.  There are events in our lives that seem destructive.  Maybe you are living in the dark days where God’s love does not seem to reach you.  The darkness that surrounds you seems to have no end and the fire of stress seems to be wreaking havoc in your life.

But it is the darkness of life that helps to set against the beauty of God’s love.  When focused on, it can light the air around you, bringing out the subtle beauty and depth of life.  What seems like destruction can remove what we think of as important so we can cultivate what is really important.

There is no doubt that this cancer has wreaked destruction in my life and on my body.  I carry the scars with me every day.  My chest looks like they took a big chunk with an ice cream scoop which essentially they did.  I’m not the wife, the mother, the teacher I would like to be whether that is because of exhaustion or side effects of chemo.

But if I focus on what God has taught me, on his love and provision, it colors all that with a subtle brightness that pierces the darkness. The darkness provides a depth to my life that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  Every day I am learning to focus on what is important—that my husband, my kids, know that I love them, that I continue to spread the message of praising God through all of my circumstances.  

In this life there will be fire, destruction, death.  But in the ashes there is beauty.  It doesn’t happen on its own. Only God has the power to pierce the darkness with His light, to clear the death and decay to produce life.  Only God has that power.  Will you let him work His glory?

2 Corinthians 1:8-9

New International Version (NIV)

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.