Scripture Journal Challenge: Between A Rock And A Hard Place

If you’ve joined me here for very long, you know I have a particular dislike for what I call “Sunshine Christianity”.

It’s not because I’m opposed to smiling faces and feel-good Bible verses plastered across doors, hallways, t-shirts and social media.

It’s because it doesn’t tell the whole story and sets up hearts for disappointment (at best) and walking away from Jesus (at worst) when their personal experience falls short of this hap, hap, happy picture portrayed by so many.

This life is NOT all smiles and rainbows. It’s hard work, hard times and often devastating circumstances.

That’s the bad news.

But we don’t have to face them alone.

That’s the good news.

If you are struggling, I’m hoping that you are willing to wrestle. So many people seem to be seeking a bumper sticker God with whom life is clean, easy, and problem free and answers are clever, even punchy. But life is never clean. It’s far from easy. And it’s never problem free. That’s why I believe putting God into an easy-to-explain box is not only unwise but dangerous. To really know God, you have to wrestle through pain, struggle with honest doubts, and even live with unanswered questions.

So while I won’t promise you that God is your copilot or that the Bible says it and that settles it, I will promise you this: if you wrestle with him, seek him, cling to him, God will meet you in your pain.

Craig Groeschel, Hope in the Dark

From cover to cover the Bible is filled with God’s people facing problems and God’s promise to be with them when they did. Some of the problems were of their own making and some were circumstances visited on them by others.

Sometimes God miraculously intervened (the three Hebrew children in the fire) and sometimes He didn’t (every disciple but John was martyred).

Often I can’t make sense of the difference.

If I’m honest, what I want is a pain free life.

I want to walk this earth and not be subject to death, decay, disasters and doubt. But that’s not how it works this side of the Fall which ushered sin into the world and assured no one since our first parents would ever experience the pure joy of a painless existence.

Isaiah was tasked with delivering messages of judgement against rebellious Israel but he was also privileged deliver some of the most beautiful messages of hope in the Old Testament.

Today’s verses are a combination of both. The prophet doesn’t say, “if” you go through these things but “when”.

Trouble is coming. But God is still in control.

But now, God’s Message,

    the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,

    the One who got you started, Israel:

“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.

    I’ve called your name. You’re mine.

When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.

    When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.

When you’re between a rock and a hard place,

    it won’t be a dead end—

Because I am God, your personal God,

    The Holy of Israel, your Savior.

I paid a huge price for you:

    all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!

That’s how much you mean to me!

    That’s how much I love you!

I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,

    trade the creation just for you.

Isaiah 43:1-4 The Message

It can be hard to read these verses and both believe and doubt at the same time. God promised Israel that when they passed through the waters or were in the midst of the flames (more traditional rendering) they would not be overcome. Yet we know from history that many in the nation WERE overcome. In relatively recent memory, millions were rounded up and exterminated by anti-Semitic, power-hungry German nationalists and those who sympathized with them.

Where was God then?

One of the difficult tasks I’ve had in grief is arriving at a place where I can hold pain and promise in the same heart.

I’ve had to learn to live in that mysterious space where I trust that God HAS an answer even if He chooses not to share it with me this side of eternity.

Like Israel, I have been redeemed. I am bought with a price. Christ gave His life for my sins and therefore I have hope.

But also like Israel, that doesn’t mean my mortal flesh is spared. It doesn’t mean my family is exempt from death-even the death of my twenty-three-year-old son.

What it DOES mean is that God is with me.

And while I may be overwhelmed and undone for a season-perhaps for this entire earthly life-it won’t always be so. One day God will redeem, restore and resurrect everything the enemy has stolen.

In the meantime, I rest in His arms, on His promise and depend on His strength.

QUESTIONS:

  • How do you interpret these verses? What does it mean “to be spared”?
  • Is is difficult for your heart to accept that pain is part of our experience as believers? Why or why not?
  • Can you give a defense of the gospel and of verses like these to those who don’t yet know Jesus? What explanation can account for the fact of evil and pain in the world when God is sovereign yet doesn’t seem to intervene (in many instances)?
  • Do you wrestle with God or do you try to stuff your questions? If you do wrestle, when has God met you at your private Peniel (Genesis 32:30). If you don’t, do you think it impacts your faith in a negative way or not at all?
  • What pressing, uncomfortable, heartbreaking and/or faith shattering circumstances are you currently facing? Consider writing your own lament and pouring your feelings out on paper.

PRAYER:

Lord, I so often demand answers, long for understanding and feel disappointed when I get neither. I’m not disappointed in Who You are, but I AM disappointed that I have to live my days wondering. I want You to explain Yourself. Yet I know I’m owed no explanation.

In my most faith-filled moments I can find a way to accept this. But not always.

Like Job, I’m jotting down the questions I’m going to lob at you when I finally DO see you.

And like Job, when my heart is tender and I’m looking full into Your Word and Your face, I cover my mouth. I have nothing to say.

Your majesty, grace, goodness, holiness, love and mercy overwhelm me more than my questions ever do. You ARE the God of the Universe, my Shepherd King, my Bread, my Living Water, my very Breath.

Help me to trust You in every circumstance. Help me to feel Your Presence every moment. Help me walk by faith and not demand you give me supernatural understanding of how you work in this world.

Amen

Scripture Journal Challenge: When My Heart Needs a Reminder

This time last year I was on the front end of a very lonely, very frightening three and a half weeks.

Each morning began with a sixty minute drive in Los Angeles rush hour traffic toward the downtown courthouse. My husband and I parked and then walked through metal detectors and past guards down a long, long hall to the courtroom.

Every day was one more eight hour shift listening to lawyers, witnesses and a judge as the events of several years were laid out first by one side and then the other. Questions aimed to elicit unflattering responses hit my husband hard.

The opposing counsel even printed out a couple of my blog posts trying to frame both my husband and his family as intolerant fundamentalist evangelicals who certainly didn’t understand how things were done in the progressive West.

Our fate was in the hands of total strangers and the whole time I couldn’t utter a single word.

I was not allowed to nod my head, smile or frown or even cry when I watched my husband recount our son’s death and the toll it took on him as he returned to the workplace and tried to do routine tasks while being challenged repeatedly by a surly , vindictive and manipulative employee.

Trust me, no television courtroom drama can prepare a heart for the kind of stress, uncertainty, mental anguish and overwhelming fear that a real encounter with the justice system evokes.

Sitting alone (my husband was sitting with his attorneys) I could only spend time writing out scripture, taking notes and trying to guess how all this was impacting the twelve jurors sitting mere feet away. Only nine were required by California law to agree in order to reach a verdict which just added to the uncertainty.

I felt oh, so weary, scared and forgotten.

One of the scripture passages I wrote over and over was today’s verses.

27 Why, then, do you, Jacob, inheritors of God’s promise,

    you, Israel, chosen of God—

Why do you say, “My troubled path is hidden from the Eternal;

    God has lost all interest in My cause”?

28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?

    The Eternal, the Everlasting God,

The Creator of the whole world, never gets tired or weary.

    His wisdom is beyond understanding.

29 God strengthens the weary

    and gives vitality to those worn down by age and care.

30 Young people will get tired;

    strapping young men will stumble and fall.

31 But those who trust in the Eternal One will regain their strength.

    They will soar on wings as eagles.

They will run—never winded, never weary.

    They will walk—never tired, never faint.

Isaiah 40: 27-31 VOICE

The nation of Israel was feeling lonely and all alone.

Had God forgotten? Had He abandoned them? Didn’t He care they were at their wit’s end and the limit of endurance?

So Jehovah sends Israel an encouraging Word through Isaiah.

He begins with questions: “Why are you questioning Jehovah’s interest in your cause? Do you think after all we’ve been through He’s forgotten you now? Can anything be hidden from His sight?”

As I sat day after day after day, I had to remind my heart that no matter how it FELT, God was very near. We were not abandoned. Whatever went on in that room with no windows was not hidden from our Shepherd King.

The very next set of questions Isaiah poses is one of my all time favorite verses: “Hey Israel! Do you really not know that God is eternal, everlasting, all-knowing and all-powerful? Haven’t you heard He made the earth and everything in it? Do you imagine He ever gets tired, worn out, too stretched to intervene in the affairs of men? “

This trial wasn’t the first time in my life I needed to be reminded that nothing is hidden from the Lord’s sight. It wasn’t the first time I needed reassurance that God is never too tired or too distracted or somehow limited by my understanding of who He is to reach down and give me a boost.

In the five years since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I’ve had days, weeks and even months when, in my despair and grief, I forgot the truth.

The whole passage comes to a dramatic conclusion that leaves Israel (and me!) with no room for doubt.

Hey-God breathed into Adam and made a living man from dust. Sure, you may be tired and worn out from circumstances or age, but He can breathe life and vigor back into you too. Young folks seem nearly invincible but even they have limits. You just wait (expectantly, in faith, certain that He will show up and keep His promises) on Him. The kind of energy Jehovah will give you won’t run out. You’ll be like an eagle soaring effortlessly on wind currents higher and higher and higher.”

I’m here to tell you that God keeps His promises. His Word is sure.

I look back on those three weeks and stand amazed that I didn’t fall over from exhaustion and stress about five or six days in because except for surviving my son’s death, it was the hardest thing I ever did.

It was absolutely, positively God’s strength and not my own.

QUESTIONS:

  • I know most of my readers are bereaved parents and probably share my testimony of days, weeks, months of utter exhaustion under the load of grief that child loss dumps on a heart. Can you identify a specific moment when you felt God’s strength poured into your spirit? Can you think of an event, holiday or date you just knew you couldn’t face but somehow managed to survive?
  • How can meditating on these verses help your heart hold onto hope?
  • What new insight does including verses 27-28 to this familiar passage give you?
  • Consider looking these verses up in at least three different translations/paraphrases and compare them. Does that help you understand them better? Why or why not?

PRAYER:

Father God, I want to always remember that You are so much more than I can ever imagine or comprehend. Too often I try to circumscribe You by my limited understanding of how you work in the world. But You are too big for any box I try to stuff You into.

When I forget, remind me. When I doubt, strengthen my faith. When I feel alone, make Your Presence undeniably real to me. When I am weary, breathe new life into my spirit.

Thank You for patiently, graciously, mercifully dealing with me. Thank You for your everlasting, faithful love. You are a good, good Father.

Amen

*If you want more details about what happened last year, you can find it here: https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2018/08/24/heres-the-post-ive-wanted-to-write-but-couldnt/

Scripture Journal Challenge: Life Everlasting

Today’s verses are ones often read at funerals and memorial services to remind those left behind that for believers in Christ, death does not have the last word.

What a comfort!

But it’s also a reminder that the world as it is right now, is NOT the world God intended. He made everything perfect and perfectly alive.

Sin brought death.

Death brought heartache.

And for those of us who have too soon been separated from the child of our heart, we know how very much a heart can ache.

I absolutely rest on God’s promise that there will be a Day when everything is redeemed and restored. Christ’s resurrection is proof that His sacrifice is sufficient.

But even Jesus does not yet (in time) possess the full reward for that sacrifice.

So it’s no wonder we often struggle walking in the here and now while waiting patiently for the perfect hereafter.

We are not the first to wonder just how long we might have to wait! Paul was writing to comfort the church at Corinth. He reminded them of truth. He encouraged them to take hold of it and hide it in their hearts as ammunition against the lies of the enemy of our souls.

 Stay close because I am going to tell you a mystery—something you may have trouble understanding: we will not all fall asleep in death, but we will all be transformed. 52 It will all happen so fast, in a blink, a mere flutter of the eye. The last trumpet will call, and the dead will be raised from their graves with a body that does not, cannot decay. All of us will be changed! 53 We’ll step out of our mortal clothes and slide into immortal bodies, replacing everything that is subject to death with eternal life. 54 And, when we are all redressed with bodies that do not, cannot decay, when we put immortality over our mortal frames, then it will be as Scripture says:

Life everlasting has victoriously swallowed death.[a]

55 Hey, Death! What happened to your big win?

 Hey, Death! What happened to your sting?[b

56 Sin came into this world, and death’s sting followed. Then sin took aim at the law and gained power over those who follow the law. 57 Thank God, then, for our Lord Jesus, the Anointed, the Liberating King, who brought us victory over the grave

I Corinthians 15: 51-59 VOICE

Look at that first verse, “I’m going to tell you a mystery…”

Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us!) that what he’s about to say doesn’t necessarily “make sense” in the way a math equation does. In order to lean into the truth to follow, I have to become comfortable with the space between what I can see, taste, touch and feel and what may very well be true but not accessible by my limited physical senses.

That can be hard and uncomfortable.

So often I want tangible proof.

But that’s not how God works.

He asks me to step out in faith and trust His heart even when I can’t trace His hand.

The good news is that the world is not being tossed about in a battle between equals.

There’s no doubt that the final victory belongs to Jesus, the Author and Perfector of my faith.

So how can I arm my spirit against the wiles of the evil one? By studying the Word, hiding it in my heart and choosing-as an act of willful obedience-to believe.

Questions to ponder:

  • Do you believe that Death is defeated? Why or why not?
  • Obviously people still experience physical death. How does that fact impact your understanding of how God works in the world today?
  • What about the mystery Paul reveals is hardest for you to accept or understand?
  • How does the promise that these bodies we inhabit aren’t the last word encourage your heart?
  • What does it look like to live confidently in the hope of redemption, restoration and resurrection?

Prayer:

It’s not always easy to choose life, Lord

Because then we have to struggle with who we are

and why we are, and who you are,

And what to do with who we are,

and why we are, and who you are. 

We have to let you make us new,

and being made anything always hurts.

Father,

Let the morning come in our hearts,

So morning can come in our lives,

And the world that needs a word of hope can hear

‘Death has lost, and life has won.’

Verdell Davis, Riches Stored in Secret Places

Please join the conversation as we encourage one another, discuss Scripture and ask questions.

Just remember that THE BLOG site is PUBLIC. My own Facebook page post is set to PUBLIC. So any comments you post there will be visible to ANYONE.

All of the closed groups for bereaved parents are PRIVATE.

Only members can see your comments there.

I don’t want anyone to accidentally post something publicly they would rather remain private. ❤

August Scripture Journal Challenge: Verses on Grief

I don’t know about you but it’s been much harder for me to study Scripture since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.

Not because I don’t want to dive deep like I used to but because I don’t have the same ability to sit still and read like I did before.

So I’ve looked for easy ways to make Scripture study part of my morning routine.

One way I’ve done that is by using a themed “Monthly Scripture Writing” calendar.

There are several around and regardless of which month may be slapped across the top of the list, they can be used according to whatever topic is most helpful or appropriate for you at the time.

In an effort to encourage myself and anyone who wants to join in, I’m going to be writing blog posts using a calendar of verses on Grief.

Here’s the link: http://www.swtblessings.com/2017/03/april-scripture-writing-plan-grief.html (You can download and print your own copy.)

It will work like this:

Purchase or find a notebook you can designate as your Scripture journal. It can be a spiral notebook (easy to find and on sale now before school starts), a composition book (plain or fancy), a traditional journal (usually in a smaller format) or simply loose-leaf paper that you can pop in a three ring binder. It really doesn’t matter. Use what is easiest for you to keep track of and write in.

I personally prefer the cheap 70 sheet spiral notebooks because they lay flat when opened and make writing and drawing easier. It also means that if I want to or need to, I can use up to four pages per day and it will all still fit in one notebook. The covers are easy to decorate (if I want to) and pages are durable. I choose wide-ruled which leaves room for doodling around words for emphasis.

Round up some colored pens, pencils, crayons and/or markers. We will use these to highlight/emphasize words and to illustrate verses.

Purchase or locate a few regular pens that you prefer for writing. For just a couple dollars you can get roller ball or gel pens that really do make a huge difference when copying the longer verses. It’s no fun to write with a cranky instrument!

A Bible in the version you prefer. I have more than one in various versions but also use an online resource like Biblegateway.com or Biblehub.com which makes most English versions available at my fingertips. I really like that option because even though I will only copy out the verse in a single version, reading it in several versions sheds more light on the meaning than when I only read it in one. I’ve also found that familiar verses can become stale if I only read/copy them in the version I know best.

That’s really all you absolutely need for this challenge.

But if you are interested in making your journal more fun and expanding your knowledge a little more, here are a few other things I’d add to my Bible journal basket:

Sticky notes in several different colors. I love, love, love these! I will often copy out the verse in one Bible translation and then jot down significantly different language from another onto a sticky note and add it to the page. I also sometimes use these notes for my own insights or personal illustrations/examples. On occasion, when pressed for time, I’ll write out a question I want to look up later and pop it into the journal as a reminder.

A dictionary. I love to look up words. While it may well be that I technically understand the meaning of a word, when I look it up in the dictionary I’m always reminded of subtle distinctions I’d miss otherwise. Plus there is usually a list of antonyms and synonyms that refine my understanding.

Stickers. I confess I’ve never quite gotten over having these colorful, playful and pretty little additions in my stash to brighten pages here and there. Absolutely NOT necessary but awfully fun.

Topical concordance. If you’ve never learned to use one, now’s a great time to do so. Obviously our main topic will be grief for this month. But often as I’m reading a verse, I want to explore other topics mentioned and use the concordance for that. It’s true you can Google the topic but what you usually get in those results is someone else’s idea of which verses are most pertinent. A good concordance lists all the verses that contain that word in order for the whole Bible.

Magazines that I am comfortable ripping apart for illustrations. I comb through magazines and rip out pages that have interesting graphics or word bubbles or landscapes and keep them in a folder for when I want to add just a little something to a page.

This list could be endless. I hope that some folks will comment below and share what they enjoy adding to a journal.

I place all these in a basket I keep by my rocking chair so I never have to go searching for one or more of the things I need to complete each day’s assignment.

That’s really all there is to it.

Each day you will write that day’s verse(s) on one page. You can add in-text notes or save your observations and notes for after the Scripture. Use a second page to record thoughts and observations, cross-referenced scriptures, an illustration or two, quotes, pictures or prayers.

At the end of the month you will have your very own personalized topical Bible reference notebook and prayer journal.

I’ll be posting something about each day’s selection here and on Facebook in both our closed bereaved parents’ group and on the public Heartache and Hope page if you’re looking for companionship and encouragement.

I hope you’ll join me and add your own voice to the discussion.

Give Sorrow Words

The morning Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, after I made the awful phone calls I reached for my journal.  

I knew if I didn’t start spilling the grief onto paper my heart would explode with sorrow.  

Since I learned to hold a pencil I’ve been writing. 

It’s how I sort my thoughts, figure out my feelings and express my heart. 

i-write-because-i-dont-know

A few months after and I found several online support groups. 

There I learned a whole other  Language of Grief and Loss.  The more I read what others shared, the better I understood my own experience and understood how to communicate that truth to others.

You might not keep a journal or write poetry or craft lengthy essays about your pain and that’s just fine.  There’s no magic in written words.

Find a safe space or person and speak it aloud.  

Sorrow unspoken swells. 

It can’t be contained.  

It will absolutely consume you.  

Give-sorrow-words shakespeare

 

Grief Journaling Prompts

Journaling has been and continues to be a very important part of my grief journey.

Putting thoughts on paper gets them out of my head.

Writing them down helps me understand them.

i-write-because-i-dont-know

Reading them back is an excellent reflective exercise. It’s a way to track progress, recognize repeating patterns and see where I need to do more grief work.

Sometimes I use Scripture, quotes or other prompts to get me started.  Often I may look up words in the dictionary and jot down the definition or synonyms or examples.  I may draw my way around a concept or cut out pictures from magazines or the newspaper to add to my creation.  There have been days I’ve spent hours and several sheets of paper moving my feelings from my heart to the page.

So if you want to try your hand at journaling, here is a list I find useful.  

Don’t set any parameters or have any expectations.  

Just write, color, draw or whatever flows naturally.

And if the tears fall, let them.

grief journaling exercise

Doubt Is Not Denial: Journaling My Way Home

When I was asked several months ago to speak to a group of hospice care workers, I titled the presentation “Lifting the Veil on Grief”.

One of the topics I covered was how experiencing the death of a loved one-especially out-of-order or untimely death- can cause even the staunchest believer to doubt.

And the first thing I said was, “Doubt in the face of overwhelming sorrow and hard circumstances is absolutely normal.  But doubt is NOT disbelief.”

So often friends, family, clergy, social workers and others want to steer hearts away from doubt because they are afraid that entertaining questions or expressing disappointment in God will always lead to someone losing faith.

That is untrue.

When my son ran ahead to Heaven, I reexamined everything I believed.

But I did not “lose” my faith.

I never once doubted that God was still working, was still loving and was still in control.

But I most certainly had to drag out every single thing I thought I knew about how He worked, loved and superintended the world and examine it in light of my experience of burying my son.  It took a long time to work through all the pat answers I had been offered and myself doled out to others for years that didn’t fit with my new reality.

One of the ways I did that was to journal my questions, complaints, anger and disappointment.  I wrote it out.

Many of the Psalms are precisely that-David and others crying out to God, begging Him for understanding and for a sliver of hope.  As the Psalmist breathed out his doubts and fears, the Spirit of God breathed fresh life into his soul.

i wait for the lord

My journals are filled with strong words and strong feelings.  They are also filled with, what I believe, God spoke to my heart in response.  Sometimes it was in the form of a Bible verse, sometimes a memory, sometimes song lyrics or a prayer.  And sometimes the pages are simply a record of how my Shepherd gently led me through a particular hard moment or day or week.

So if you are struggling with doubt-let yourself off the hook. 

You can’t deny it. 

And you don’t have to. 

You’re in good company.

Grab a notebook and pen and start writing.  Just begin.  Don’t edit yourself in fear someone may read it one day.  God knows anyway.

When you’re done spilling, sit quietly in the Presence of your Shepherd.  Listen to what He may be speaking to your broken heart.

I have done this for decades through many hard things- child loss being the hardest.

The Lord is faithful to meet me right where I am and fill me with His Spirit.

He’s never leaves me without hope when I turn my heart toward Him.

but the lord stood with me and gave me strength