Excerpt from NEW Devotional Book — Going Forward in Love

[I’m finishing a new devotional book: “Heart Journey 2: Going Forward in Love.” I plan to publish in November. Here’s an excerpt!]

Day 14

Greet the Lord as one who is dependent upon His love today.

Settle down in the presence of the One whose essence is Love. And you are His most prized possession. You have been bought for a very high price and He wants to meet with you! As you address the Lord today, express your heart to Him. No matter if you are feeling awesome or defeated or neither. Share with Him how you feel.

Read and reflect on the truth of God’s message for you.

The Apostle John wrote this letter to all people who were following Jesus. In some ways, it his gleanings from spending so much time with Jesus and being at His side most of the time. John is sharing from his personal wealth, guided by the Holy Spirit to help us live in the complexities of life and relationships. You can see John’s tenderheartedness in the language he uses to talk about the Lord and us.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.  So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:7-21 ESV)

Read the passage one more time and write down a thought or two that particularly resonates with your heart.

You might want to reflect on just a few truths as you consider what this means for you.

You might want to focus your reading on a phrase at a time and read them a couple of times. Let’s do this together.

Two truths struck me. The first is “abide.” John tells us, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.  So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” If we abide in God, we are following and obeying Him. It has to do with respect and trust. There is a time aspect that shows up when abide is used as an adjective. God’s abiding love lasts for a very, very long time. So, we have this parallel in John’s letter that if we confess that we trust Jesus then God will stay with us forever. If we abide with Him, He will abide with us.

How does that make you feel toward God?

Do you feel pressure or anxiety? It’s possible you may feel both of those emotions. Take your feelings to God and see what He says.

The second truth that pushed me was the precept that it’s not about a hollow love or abiding. John is very clear that we can’t say, “Hey, I love God, but pretty much everybody else can take a hike!” If we say we love God and abide in Him, then we’re going to love our brothers and sisters. We’re going to take on the same love that God has for people. That’s how we show our “abiding” and “loving.”

This is a bit more difficult. I don’t naturally love everybody. How about you?

Let’s talk to God about that, too.   

Going forward in love

As you can see, this passage really brings the theme of these reflections home. “Going Forward in Love” is our mission. We don’t want to go forward pushing our own agenda and running over people. There’s no proof of our faith in Jesus in that style.

Let’s ask the Lord who needs our love today. We need His love, but who needs our love.

Lord, help us to abide and love as we go forward!

The Moment When You Think Your Life May Be Over

I don’t know if everyone has one of these moments, but I suspect that there are many more folks than we are aware of who have a moment when seemingly everything important passes before their mental eyes and there is this fear of their life on earth being over. Well, I believe I have had at least two of these moments and perhaps three.

The most recent moment for me occurred on October 2, 2015. I was ushering at Turner Field for the St. Louis Cardinals versus Atlanta Braves major league baseball game. It was a chilly evening and I was at my assigned section Aisle 206, which is in the terrace level near home plate. It was not a huge crowd, but I’m usually pretty busy helping guests find their seats even when other parts of the stadium may have light crowds. It was the second inning and I had just been chatting with my sister who was at the game with my Mom. They preferred sitting in the outfield terrace, but my sister had come by my section to say hello.

This was my first season working for the Braves and it was just about over. Only one more home series. I’m semi-retired, I guess. I’ve received partial disability payments from my private insurance for over a year and have not been able to work fulltime since suffering a major heart attack in January of 2013. That experience became the basis of the first book I published – Sacred Heart Attack – and was life changing in many ways. I do some other project and consulting work while writing manuscripts for additional books. However, that heart attack in Montreal was not one of the times I felt like I was going to die. Even though I learned from the cardiologist that unblocked my left descending artery that I was in serious danger, I was conscious – in pain, but conscious – and thought that everything was going to be fine.

My youngest son Jed had worked for the Braves for the 2014 season and I was his primary transportation to and from the approximately 70 out of 81 games that he worked as a guest relations representative. For the 2015 season he was set to be on the promotions team and I had been thinking about being an usher and had talked to some of the ushers about their jobs. Eventually, that’s what I did. It was a challenging assignment at the beginning, both physically and mentally. Long hours of standing posed the biggest challenge. But I enjoyed baseball and had been a Braves fan and follower for many, many years; and I enjoyed relating to new people from all around the country. So, I was in the right spot. I had developed a few friends from my fellow gameday staff, too.

Just as I was finishing my conversation with my sister I started having a familiar pain combination of pressure and burning in the center of my chest. I breathed a couple of deep cleansing breaths, but nothing changed. I wondered if it was gas and excused my self to go to the Men’s Restroom. That didn’t help and the pain had risen to a 7 on that 10-point scale. I left the restroom and walked by one of my fellow ushers and told him that I was going to First Aid at aisle 211 to get my blood pressure checked. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and that he should tell our supervisor.

I walked in to the First Aid office and had about 14 eyes focused on me. I’m sure it was unusual to see a uniformed Braves employee walk into their office. I told a couple of the EMTs that I was having chest pain, that I’d had a heart attack before and that I’d like for them to take my blood pressure. They were happy to oblige and began asking me a few questions about the location and severity of my pain. My blood pressure was 170 over 105, which was extremely high for me since I took meds that generally kept my pressure down to 115 over 75. The EMT asked me to lay down on their examining table so that they could hook up the leads for an EKG. Before loading me into the ambulance, they wanted to see if the test could detect anything. They kept having trouble with one area. They couldn’t get a good signal, which can be a sign that there is a problem.

About this time, I told them that I had a small 200-doses can of Nitroglycerin Sublingual Spray that I always carried in my pocket. They said that I should go ahead and use it. I gladly complied with two short bursts in my mouth. I looked at my watch with the thought that in five minutes I would do it again if the pain continued.

This is when it happened.

There was not immediate relief, so, I started thinking this could be the end of things on earth. The EMTs began loading me on to a gurney and asked if I wanted to go to Grady’s ER or Emory Midtown Hospital. I said that Emory was my choice because that’s where my cardiologist practiced medicine and all of my records would be there. The two hospitals were equally close to Turner Field.

When I suffered 100% blockage of my LDA some 33 months ago, I didn’t really know how seriously my heart was being damaged by the cutoff of blood/oxygen flow. But now I knew the full ramifications of the pain I was experiencing. This was not heartburn, indigestion or acid reflux. And it wasn’t my gall bladder or pancreas. I no longer had a gall bladder and my pancreas pain would’ve been a little lower.

No, this was a coronary artery or two in major distress! And, suddenly, I didn’t want to die. Why was that surprising to me? You might ask, Doesn’t everyone feel that way?

Actually, no, everyone doesn’t feel opposed to dying all of the time. Over the past three years, I had grown accustomed to the idea that I might be passing on to heaven sooner rather than later. I even had a dream on February 28, 2014, while in the hospital suffering from pancreatitis, about going to heaven and what the first few hours might be like. And, of course, it was very pleasant!

As I’ve grown closer to God over the past few years, the experience of his presence was a powerful antidote to the difficulties and challenges of life. I wanted more of that experience and I think that is a good sentiment. And I realize the choice on when we pass on to glory is God’s decision and not ours. I had begun to get the idea that, for me, it might be sooner than one might expect.

My first thoughts were that I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t “put my affairs in order” as well as I would like. Jenny and Jed, Jameson and Justin would all be fine in figuring out where our will and life insurance information was and things like that. But I hadn’t prepared them for my being vacant from our family. In fact, I don’t know what all of that means. So, by writing this essay, I’m inviting that process for my family and for yours. Here’s one of my deep desires: we learn to befriend our death and celebrate the life that we have been given. Most of us would agree that life is a gift and most of you reading this essay have been given a life of privilege, wealth and all manner of life-enhancing blessings. Physical death is a result of the fallen nature of creation and all of us will experience death unless Jesus returns and completes the trifecta of his work with heaven on earth that followed his incarnation and death/resurrection/ascension.

So, let’s say that I wanted to celebrate a little more. Hang out a little more. Have “heaven on earth” fun a little more. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Jenny being able to rest after years of teaching and grad school and teaching. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Jed fully blossom into the man that God intends for him to be. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Justin on the biggest stage so that everyone could appreciate the wonderfulness of his presence in front of an audience or a camera. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Aberdeen reach her second birthday and then start working toward kindergarten. And I didn’t want to leave before seeing Bethany publish a book for the parents of medically complicated children and for Abby to be known as the General’s daughter.

Here’s the deal, though. I am ready to leave whenever God calls me to be in his physical presence. I’m ready because I haven’t let my dreams and desires die in me. I’m sharing them now and I’ll continue to celebrate life in the midst of heartache because there is a redeemer. The story we are in has an ending that is magical and wonderful and peaceful. Our world isn’t hurling through space with no destination.

The good news for me was that God showed mercy to me on October 2nd. The nitroglycerin proved to be the proper antidote for artery distress, which was probably a coronary artery spasm. Subsequent echocardiograms and heart catheterization showed that my arteries were in good shape with nothing close to a blockage. So that spasm served me well. It opened my eyes to the continued blessing of life and re-kindled my mission to encourage you to befriend your death and celebrate your life that is in the hands of a loving and merciful Creator and a Savior who has bought you for good.

A Personal and Heart Update: The interplay of physical and spiritual

{One of the tools I’ve learned from my experience with the Wellspring Group is a “State of Your Heart” update. This is sort of a personal inventory of how you’re living life in terms of your own heart and God’s Larger Story. It is a way to provide a status report for those in your small group, work team or family/community. This was my update from last week.} 

I’m still trying to figure out what just happened. For some three months, I’ve been feeling depressed with low energy. I had come to think that this was the new normal. And bouts with skin cancer and pseudo gout after pancreatitis and heart failure had me wondering if my body was just falling apart. I had lost interest in my writing, which was probably the most disappointing. At first, I had thought that I had just lost momentum from my illness in March, but as time went on that, too, seemed like just another body blow in a continuing string. My family and friends were aware that I didn’t seem to be myself in stressful situations or have the energy I once did. Some of you had probably noticed it, too.

I had a check up with my cardiologist on Thursday, September 25th. He did an EKG, checked my numbers from recent blood work, and other tests and all looked good. I had told him about the low energy and then he asked the magic question, “How is your depression?” I said that it comes and goes and I wasn’t really sure why. He said that I was less upbeat now than right after my heart attack when he first met me in January of 2013. I almost started to cry as I talked about my frustration. He said that depression is pretty common with heart attack survivors and that he looked for it. Since my internist had retired in August and I’m between personal physicians, he offered to write me a prescription for an anti-depressant medication. He also suggested that I reduce one of my heart medications by 1/4. I filled the prescription, but was hesitant to take it. I did, however, begin the reduced heart medication regime on Saturday the 27th. In a word, the change in my energy and attitude was like re-birth. Instead of dragging myself out of the house to go for a walk, I was running again. And I’ve run every other day since in increasing distance and reduced times. I’m writing again and have energy to do more of everything. Primarily, I feel better and am more hopeful.

Thinking: Did reducing that little bit of chemical compound make that much difference in my attitude and energy? Are my feelings of depression gone? Should I still consider taking the anti-depressant meds? Where is God in the midst of this?

Feeling: Freed from the fog of uncertainty. I’m patient to sit before God and listen for his direction. On Monday the 29th, as I read the Word and prayed, the Holy Spirit said, “Good to have you back.” Feeling loved, accepted, grateful.

Desiring: To do all that the Father tells me to do.

Commitment: To re-vision my personal future. To get back on track with the calling the Lord has given me to write and to help others write their stories.

Emotions and Our Spiritual Life

jpegSome of our most common questions are about emotions. As we share in small groups or one-to-one, on some of the daily struggles we face as we live “in the Spirit” or attempt to “walk in the Spirit,” we often struggle with feeling up or down or sideways! We start our days well, but a word or a glance or smirk can turn us around or throw us into chaos and essentially, “ruin my day.” What is that? Why does that happen? I’m not a psychologist or professional counselor. And I’m not pretending to be here. I do know that we often, in the words of the title of Dr. John Townsend’s book: “Hiding From Love – How to change the withdrawal patterns that isolate and imprison you”, cover up what we are feeling and how we are responding to the people and situations in our domains or life settings. Instead of engaging, we often withdraw and in so doing we ignore or repress things that are true about ourselves and how God made us. And we cover up some of the ways sin and fallenness have broken and short-circuited us.

This has come up in a couple of conversations that I’ve had recently and it’s been on my mind. So, I was struck this morning when I read this from my friend, priest and psychologist Henri Nouwen (this is from “Bread for the Journey” from Henri Nouwen Society):

The Dynamics of the Spiritual Life

“Our emotional lives and our spiritual lives have different dynamics. The ups and downs of our emotional life depend a great deal on our past or present surroundings. We are happy, sad, angry, bored, excited, depressed, loving, caring, hateful, or vengeful because of what happened long ago or what is happening now.

The ups and downs of our spiritual lives depend on our obedience – that is, our attentive listening – to the movements of the Spirit of God within us. Without this listening our spiritual life eventually becomes subject to the windswept waves of our emotions.”

Of course, this is not the complete answer to my question above, but it does give us a key. We can not expect to be be stable and balanced (in our brokenness; while still on earth) if we are not “listening” to the Spirit’s voice. A.W. Tozer says that we must go to scripture as a story, not as an encyclopedia. And to God as a person not as an abstract entity. That all becomes a part of our listening.

Hiding from Separateness

Both Nouwen and Townsend talk a lot about how we look to others to be something that is impossible –> being God for us. This shows up in a number of ways. Townsend wrote, “Our second major developmental need is to become a person with will, boundaries, and an accurate sense of responsibility. This is our need for separateness. Our need for separateness can be damaged by relational experiences where either we say no to taking biblical responsibility for ourselves or we say yes to taking unbiblical responsibility for another person.” Townsend goes on to say that the fear we have in separateness deficits is that being separate will cause abandonment and isolation. The prospect of setting boundaries strikes terror that we will be forever alone. And it is that fear that Jesus wants us to bring to him. He can and will be God for us. He can be our home and protection.

In the title track of her latest album “Desire Like Dynamite”, Sandra McCracken sings: “Sweeping it all inside with dynamite…” Our desires, our emotions are very powerful. They can control us. As we understand and take ownership of the person God is making us into, we learn to live in community with our identities from the creative hand and voice of God. We receive the voices of those with whom we journey as what they are: fellow travelers. No more and no less. Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Yet, there is one voice that we listen for above all the rest. It is the voice of the Spirit who stirs within us a life of freedom and joy in the midst of whatever challenge life might bring us.

So, I remind us to cultivate a listening ear and a listening heart that receives God’s words that he has “crowned us with honor and glory.” He is the only one who can give us all that we need.