Monday, August 19, 2013

Fighting Discouragement: "I'm Not Making Any Progress."

This summer I tuned in on the Discovery Channel to witness Nik Wallenda walk across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. He was 1500 feet above the Colorado River, and as he walked the quarter mile distance, his view looking down rarely altered. Watching his own journey across that wire shortly after the event, Nik commented repeatedly on his discouragement over the remarkable lack of progress he felt he was making.

Stepping out over the canyon at 48 seconds into the walk, Nik saw the river and rocks below him.

After 3 minutes, he said of this view, "It shows how slow my progress was. It looks like I haven't even moved. We keep showing the camera that goes straight down to the bottom of the canyon, and it doesn't look like I'm going anywhere."

He repeated after 4 minutes, "There it is again. I haven't gone anywhere. Looks like we're going back to the same clip over and over again. Maybe it was a treadmill wire. Doesn't look like I'm moving."

Finally, at almost 10 minutes, he confessed, "The whole time I was out there, I just felt like I wasn't making any progress. I felt like the camera that was looking down. I felt like I was walking in one place for about three-quarters of the walk. I was trying to count the pendulums, but I couldn't concentrate enough to count them. I wasn't sure - I lost count - I wasn't sure where I was at. I knew that I had 20 of them to cross, and I was hoping - to get - once I got to the middle, I wanted my dad to tell me, and he never did. And I was going to ask him, but then I was scared to ask him because I was scared I wasn't halfway across."

As I listened to Nik describe the difficulties of the wire whipping back and forth, the utter dryness of this mouth, and the sudden gusts of strong winds that seemed to come out of nowhere, it reminded me of how discouraged I have felt at times in my own journey. When I have a bad health day or become overwhelmed by the lack of change in my circumstances, it's easy to feel how Nik did up on that "treadmill wire." I want to know from God if I've made it halfway through specific trials or if I'm in for even more trouble, but I'm almost too scared to ask.

As Nik continued to watch his walk, he began to describe how things improved when he was able to refocus his eyes from the canyon bottom to his destination.

About four minutes before the end he said, "I was able to relax here because rather than looking down at the wire and looking at those rocks crossing back and forth in front of me, I actually was able to look up to the land. I had something more solid to focus on that I could work off of."

This refocusing of his eyes made me think of four ways I could apply his experience to my own perspective.

1) If I keep my eyes down, looking at my problems, gauging progress by all the days of struggle that seem to blend together, I will be disoriented and discouraged. But if I fix my eyes (2 Cor 4:17-18) on the finish line of heaven, I will have a solid, unchanging goal which makes all the world's happiness pale in comparison. In order to hold on to sure hope and maintain proper perspective, I must mentally focus on my eternal destination, not my earthly obstacles.

2) When the wind of adversity surges ups suddenly and slows my progress to a standstill, it can remind me of my own powerlessness. However, Jesus used his sovereign power to calm the wind (Mark 6:48-52) for his disciples who had been straining to row against it all night long. When I can't change a situation, I must trust that the winds which disrupt my plans and progress are under his total authority. He uses the adversity for my ultimate good and then calms it at the proper time.

3) And when the cable of stability whips out from under me, threatening to topple my confidence, I must listen for the voice of my Father who is guiding me from the other side. Just like Nik's dad who spoke direction in his ear during tense times, God can see and know things I can't possibly understand from my position. He is my supplier of wisdom (James 1:5) when my steps feel uncertain and shaky.

4) Finally, I learned that my progress in trial depends on whether I choose to keep taking those small, sometimes painfully hard steps of obedience in the right direction. Choosing to love when it hurts, choosing to forgive when I've been wronged, choosing to continue on after a setback rather than giving up - in all ways I must press on (Phil 3:12-14).

Though the pace seems painfully slow and the winds and upsets unrelenting at times, the struggle will be well worth it if we focus our minds on heaven, trust with our soul in the authority of Christ, listen with our hearts to God's wisdom, and choose with our will to press on in faith. In this way, we will share in the victory Jesus died to give us.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12:2-3

Thursday, August 15, 2013

For those who have cried in church

It was Saturday evening, and I had just had it. Up the night before till 6 AM with sleep disrupted, feeling frustrated, sick, trapped, irritable, and angry. I lost my patience. I yelled and exited with a punctuated slap of the garage door opener. It was another meltdown under the stress of the past 8 years of intense trial (15 years of losses, hardship, and illness). I haven't had a normal life for so long; I was physically and emotionally depleted, and it was too much that day. The pot boiled over.

Usually manageable at home, this presented a new challenge. I was on my way to church. Smiling strangers, social greetings, joyful songs - I was slightly nauseated at the thought of being in public with the knowledge that I couldn't contort my face to cover this heartache.

I had to make the choice to take that next step. And so I decided to just show up. Eyes down, sitting, closed off, but there nonetheless.

In the past, I've frequently encountered obstacles to going to church. Unless the issue was insurmountable, I knew it was worth pushing through. There was often reward on the other side. This time was no different. It's so strange how there can be a battle to get to a building 15 minutes away, but when that building can be a source of healing, can draw me closer to Jesus, and can help others, the struggle takes on a new, higher meaning.

So for those who have felt the sting of sorrowful tears in public, who couldn't put on a happy face, who have felt so alone in a pew while everyone else seemed to have it all together, this was part of my prayer two days later.

And just when I hit the bottom of myself, when tears are rolling down my cheeks in church and I hunch like I'm praying because I can't bear to sing - you surround me with your Spirit, and you know. You know I can't smile or sing because my world is in pieces and I have no mask left to play the church game. So it's you who steps in and covers me.

Everyone stands, and I am acutely aware their worlds aren't caving in, but they are singing for me, surrounding me with your Spirit when my own heart can't sing. I question if I'm just making that up to feel better, but the thought passes as I hear, "it's all about you; yes, it's all about you." And somewhere in between, "from my heart to the heavens" and "Jesus be the center," my soul chose to mouth the words "It's all about you," as if my jaw and tongue were rusted, old machinery, lurching and grinding without oil, but moving in the quietest praise, the most wrenching praise I can give.

I clutched the damp Kleenex tightly and thought of the victory of praising you in the pain, of the fact I could have turned around twice, of how I'd won just by getting there. I thought of how the Enemy must hate my giving and perseverance.

Then the pastor read in James 5 about patience in suffering. And you reminded me gently again that it's all about you (not me). He reminded us that Job had the chance to love you for you - and that we may only get one chance in this life to do the same - to love you for you, not just your gifts.

And although this test is evil and fierce, in your hands it is goodness for me - in my heart, for others, for my future, for eternity. In your hands, you can (and do) redeem evil. And you have made me capable of faith, of knowing you.

You've given me love and have helped me through illness to a better place. I have so much because you gave the gracious gift of your Son, and you forgive my complaining and self-pity. You love me, and though I struggle, by your strength I will rise, and my faith will be proven as gold through the fire.

Don't give up in the face of isolation, fear, worry, and pain - even pain that goes on for years or for decades - because God is in the business of redeeming pain when we trust him with it. He is worthy of our love even when we can't feel anything good. In those weak moments, remember that it's all about him.

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.
My enemies will retreat when I call to you for help.
    This I know: God is on my side!

Psalm 56:8-9 (NLT)