Devastating Disappointment, and the Continuing Story
As I mentioned in ending Part One, it is inevitably true for roller coaster aficionados that thrill rides are at their best when they give you surprises. With God being both the designer of life’s roller coaster and the one at the controls, we should expect to encounter rides replete with surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, occasionally devastatingly so. You can guess which type I experienced when my cancer diagnosis was reversed, right? You will likely assume what the nature of my disappointment was as well, but you won’t get that part right until you read this article. But it was for me a devasting experience that put me back in the pits. God knows that we can never appreciate the exhilarations of life without visiting the pits occasionally at least. After such a visit recently in my cancer saga, I deleted both the article and the Facebook post of February 8. The article is now republished along with this second one, which means God has continued to work on my mind, heart and soul (successfully).
The Most Basic Principle
In Part One, I mentioned a principle that might have been passed over too briefly. The principle begins with the premise that life on planet earth is not only brief but highly significant – a preparation ground for eternity with God. This being true, God is constantly attempting to mold us into his own character so that heaven might be, well, heaven, with like-minded beings totally connected. This development process centers around building faith in a God who is good and only good, and whose love for us is unfathomable. But how does that faith come and then become a growing process through all the days of our lives? It must be tested over and over and over. The testing is the fundamental method of developing and strengthening our faith. Hence the roller coaster ride analogy. I know of none better, at least to me as a lover of roller coasters.
I keep making one fundamental mistake in how I view this most basic principle. It provides a life lesson with many applications. I keep putting periods when God is using commas. That’s what we do in the midst of struggles. We see the struggle as the final result, and it ain’t good! All the while God is saying, “Patience, patience – we aren’t done yet; the solution is coming, and you will get through it.” In my present situation, I get past one challenge, the scary part of the ride, sometimes absolutely terrifying, and want to put a period on it. End of ride. Challenge met and challenge over. I keep making that mistake. Don’t you? But when we do that, we forget the principle – God builds faith precisely by testing it. And that principle demands a constant series of commas, not periods. Let’s just be happy to see the occasional semicolon when the challenges are spaced out with some needed pauses inserted to allow us time to process the challenges and get ready for the next one. God knows exactly what he is doing in your life. Chill out and try to enjoy the ride. You are strapped in with him as your safety belt. You will be jerked halfway out of your seat at times, but the safety belt will never break.
An Ice Storm? Really?
I didn’t forget one scary part of my earlier ride, but I did leave it out of Part One, due to space and the length of the article already. But since it was to me a significant part of the adventure God was determined to provide, I will include it now. After the exhilarating revelation that my very important test series was amazingly moved up from February 14 to February 3, I was relieved and elated. Peace had arrived, so I put in a period. Challenge over in one regard at least. But God then said, “Oh yeah? Watch this!” As the new date of testing approached, something else also approached – the worst weather day of the year, an ice storm. “Lord, you have got to be kidding! How can this be happening?” It quickly became obvious that driving from my house in North Dallas to the hospital near downtown Dallas was going to be literally impossible. It was predicted to start raining the evening before my test day and by midnight, the temperature would start dropping into the 20’s. Good grief, Charlie Brown! I thought roller coasters had some lower heights and gentler curves somewhere. Maybe so, but obviously not yet.
Being determined to take those tests, my mind started racing in looking for solutions. I thought of finding a hotel near the hospital, near enough so that I could walk to it if necessary. In looking at a map of the area, I discovered the closest hotel about a mile away and booked it for two nights. Not only was it nearby, it was cheap. Great! After I booked it, I decided to take a look at the reviews by former guests. Uh Oh! It was in a bad area and most reviews mentioned drug dealers and fearful nights full of loud talking by numerous people doing drug deals. Great location for my purposes, but a scary location in a bad part of town. Oh well, you can’t have everything go your way, right? It was a scary place, obviously built originally as an apartment complex with lots of separate buildings containing four one-bedroom suites apiece. When I walked into the lobby to check in, I encountered a younger man, a black one for those of you with racial presuppositions, dressed in street clothes with a glock in a holster strapped to his side. That didn’t alarm me, actually. It’s the hidden pistols that concern me. I asked him if he were an officer, and as expected, he answered in the affirmative. He explained that this was a rough part of town, and he did some patrolling here regularly. Those reviews weren’t wrong.
The weather report was also regrettably accurate. Ice covered the roads by morning. Fortunately, some sleet had also fallen, making driving slightly more plausible. I left the hotel early, dressed warmly, determined to leave my car and walk if I couldn’t drive all the way to the hospital. Having lived in Boston for sixteen years, I wasn’t a novice at driving on slick roads and I managed to make it all the way to the hospital without incident. My worst fears were of other drivers who didn’t have the same experiences of driving on frozen roads that I had. But only a few brave (or not-too-bright) souls had ventured out, and I managed to dodge those few.
I would like to say that God finally put a period or at least a semicolon on my day once I arrived at the hospital. No chance of that. I won’t go into the details, but nothing worked quite the way it should have. At one point, I ended up in the middle of a difference of opinion between my oncologist and the doctor in charge of my MRI regarding necessary preparations for the procedure. I will mention that the written instructions from the MRI department itself failed to include instructions for those preparations, which I pulled up on my phone and showed to the nurse. Oh, well… The nurses of the two doctors went back and forth to their respective doctors and me for some time until the MRI specialist finally asked to talk to me on the phone. It was a weird process which shouldn’t have happened, but I finally decided to go with the MRI guy since I was in his house at the time, his department.
I stayed calm but registered my concern that a medical facility with their reputation should never have such an issue arise in the first place. No one disagreed with me, and they assured me that it would be addressed and corrected for the future. The delays involved resulted in a long day, just under seven hours, to take one blood test and two scans. But by then, I was pretty much expecting the unexpected. My thrill ride continued. Back to the hotel, I was thankful that the weather kept most people holed up inside rather than engaging in their usual activities in that place. The main roads were clear enough by the next afternoon to drive home on mostly clear roads, although the news stations were repeatedly urging people not to drive unless absolutely necessary. For me, it was absolutely necessary. I had had enough – time to go home, and I did.
The Nature of My Disappointment
The secondary title of this present article includes the term, “devastating disappointment.” If you assumed that the disappointment was finding out I still had cancer after three tests saying otherwise, you would assume wrongly. Oddly, the diagnosis of cancer was not that big a deal to me. Quite a number of other diagnoses would have hit me emotionally a lot harder than a cancer diagnosis. I’m not quite sure why that is the case, but it has been from the beginning to the present. Maybe it’s because I know a number of cancer survivors, although my father and many other relatives and friends have died from cancer. Maybe it’s because I have lived my fourscore years already, counting my time in my mother’s womb. I’m old enough to die at what most would consider a “ripe old age.” So grateful for that fact. Really grateful. Really blessed.
In this present situation, my biggest disappointment was informing hundreds or thousands of people who had prayed for me that the “no cancer” diagnosis had proved to be premature and inaccurate. As I stated somewhere along the way, my oncologist requested the pathology slides from my former surgeon just to make sure. Once those were reexamined, the cancer was present as expected, but no margins were found. That being the case, I was referred to a surgeon to take a closer look and have another tissue sample tested. Once again, the cancer showed up, although it was seemingly confined to a small space and had not spread. Their concern was not only what was discovered, but what might have been present and not discovered – microscopic cancer cells in the surrounding area. Thus, the next step recommended was to have the area treated with both radiation and chemotherapy. That was the original recommendation before I went to UT Southwestern, so we hadn’t lost any ground. We had actually gained ground by discovering more about the cancer, since the chemo treatment is now going to be milder than the other medical oncology practice had prescribed.
But here was what disturbed me the most, by a wide margin. By announcing the “no cancer” test results, many people who had prayed for me were using the term “miraculous” in answer to their prayers. Honestly, we need to believe in the power of prayer to move God to answer them, at times answering miraculously. I didn’t want the reversal in diagnosis to hurt the faith of those dear to me, to put it bluntly. I pray that this “partial” reversal doesn’t discourage any who have prayed and will continue to pray for me. Personally, I am holding on to the principle mentioned earlier: building faith demands testing faith. I can handle that truth. I’ve had lots of practice through nearly eight decades of life, most of those decades spent walking with God. I understand the principle and the process – most of the time, at least in looking back at it. My hindsight is better than my foresight, to be sure, but somewhere in the processes, the light bulb comes back on and I see clearly once again. I greatly appreciate all of the prayers offered for my health challenge, pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. I believe they made a difference. The tests could have shown a much more aggressive form of cancer and one that had spread throughout my body. Although I am dreading the upcoming treatments with their potential side effects, the prognosis is good. I have faith that the cancer will be stopped. Keep praying for that result, please.
Looking for the Big Picture View
No human being has all of the answers to life, and death. I can explain why bad things happen to good people, at least reasonably well on an intellectual basis. But when you are the one to whom bad things happen unexplainably, the emotional understanding and acceptance is the real challenge. No pat answers will do in those moments, nor will any answers totally satisfy. Much in life remains a mystery, which is why we must live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Although we are inclined to ask, “Why me?” when tragedy strikes, the Christian would do better asking, “Why not me?” We are prepared, and thus we trust by faith these statements of Paul.
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
2 Corinthians 5:6-9
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Fairly recently, I watched a sad but very inspirational movie. One scene in the movie was especially helpful. The movie is “Greater,” and I would urge you strongly to see it. It is a spiritual movie based on a true story, quite inspiring. The scene to which I refer is when a mother and her oldest son are talking about the death of her youngest son and the kid brother of the older son. The son in the scene was struggling mightily with his faith in God and expressing his doubts angrily to his mother. She at one point simply said something to this effect: “Son, there are things we don’t understand and will never understand on this side because we cannot see the big picture that God sees.” That has helped me more than I would have imagined, including in my present health struggle. I don’t ask “Why?” much anymore, because I know I have but little slivers of the big picture. God has it all. But prior to playing the end game and reaching home, we as believers are equipped to handle whatever challenges come our way, simply because we see enough of God to know what life is about.
Understanding the Mystery of Miracles
In my Facebook post on February 8, giving a health update, here are a few comments from it (since it was later deleted as a result of the altered diagnosis). “Back to the call yesterday. None of the tests showed any cancer. The doctor is looking for answers, requesting the actual pathology slides to have her pathology department read them. She is also having me see a surgeon to examine me and make sure there is no suspicious tissue that could later develop into cancer. For them, it is understandably a mystery. Not for me. Your prayers moved God and he answered them. He doesn’t always answer with a yes and one day he will have to say no to other prayers to sustain my life, but not this time. I have been waiting to have more information before posting an update. I have it and now you have it. May God bless each of you in unexpected ways, as he has me.”
Since those conclusions turned out to not be entirely accurate, I removed both that FB post and the article (now called Part One and republished). I was perplexed and perturbed, but almost entirely about how to explain this unexpected phenomenon to my readers and friends who had prayed so much for me to be healed. I write and preach to build faith and encourage, not to do anything that might negatively affect those goals. My dilemma led to some wrestling with God, as such challenges usually do. It is a part of the faith tested, faith increased, process. I live on the roller coaster of life with its ups and downs. Sometimes the ride pauses long enough to allow for a wrestling match between me and God, to use mixed metaphors. He always wins but knowing that doesn’t stop the match. Thankfully, it usually shortens it. This one lasted for just under two weeks. I wish it had lasted less time, but I just couldn’t get there. I at times wished that the “no cancer” report had never come, setting up expectations that proved to be invalid. But God is always in the middle of the process. I just had to get okay with that once again and to trust him.
Miracles have more than one definition. Most think of them as instantaneous and otherwise impossible changes, like the healings we read about in the earthly ministry of Jesus. I call these direct miracles. Then we have what I call providential miracles. These can be identified as events that could not have occurred coincidentally but had to be orchestrated by God in his providential working together of the details. The old saying that the devil is in the details is an interesting concept, and can be true when humans make bad choices. But mark this down as an absolute certainty: God is in the details. I have always felt that providential miracles were the greatest type. Just doing a direct miracle instantaneously is impressive, and I do believe that God still does those at times. I have examples from personal observation and sometimes personal participation. But for me, I am more impressed with providential miracles, for they involve humans with freedom of choice and details too intricate to even grasp.
In my initial cancer free diagnosis, I wasn’t sure which category the apparent healing miracle fit. I had one possible explanation involving what would have been an inadvertent removal of the cancer by my first surgeon in collecting tissue for pathology. That would have fallen into the providential miracle category. And then, of course, the other possibility would have involved a direct miracle. I didn’t care which it was at the time. Hearing “no cancer” was enough for me. My first thought upon finding out that that diagnosis was replaced by “little cancer” was simply contemplating how others might be affected by hearing it after expectations had been raised through the initial diagnosis. For me, these back-and-forth diagnoses have been going on for months now. I’m used to them and probably will need to remain used to them. I just didn’t want others to be hurt or disappointed. That was my primary concern and still is. It accounted for my wrestling match and ultimately for this present article. I want us all to develop a bigger picture of life and death, mine and eventually yours.
The Bigger Picture…
Only God has the big picture, but we must strive to enlarge our own picture, combining what God said in the Bible and what we allow our experiences to teach us. On January 1, in keeping with what my home church was doing in making out lists of impossible prayers, miracle prayers, I wrote my list. The first thing on my list was that I not have cancer, but that if I did, it could be cured. A later item on that list involved my thinking processes, described thusly: “To eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. If something ends up being negative, let it come as a surprise because I will be looking for best case scenarios.”
After my list of impossible prayers was another list with this subheading: “Miracle Sightings and Spiritual Insights.” Near the top of that list, on Sunday, January 2, as I was anxiously (too anxiously) awaiting the initial pathology reports, I wrote this: “I may need cancer to help me spiritually or to help others through my experience. I have seen both happen with friends and heard of both happening in the lives of others many times. If this is your will, Father, please increase my faith enough to help me handle it well.” This insight gave me the opportunity to put into practice the above concept of looking for best case scenarios rather than worst case ones. It took some work to get there, but by God’s grace, I have.
Many have prayed for my healing, and still are. They are asking for cancer to not have the final word in what ends my life. Good prayer. Thank you for it. I pray for that result too. But there are many more important aspects to the bigger picture. One may well be that I and others need spiritual healing far more than physical healing. My cancer journey thus far has taken me to places with God I have never been before. My prayer is that my example will affect others similarly in their journey with him too.
I don’t know all of what God has planned for this bigger picture. I know that some of it involves my relationship with him. I believe that some of it includes my preparation for my eventual death, whenever and however it may come. I’ll have more to say about that one in a moment. I believe that some of that bigger picture involves how my having cancer will affect others in various ways. Recently I received a call from a woman at the medical center to set up an appointment with my chemotherapy specialist. We talked for 30 minutes, not a normal conversation for her I am sure. I started a spiritual discussion that took on a life of its own. It ended up with me going to my appointment (of which she was a part) and my giving her two of my books, one of which she had requested. During the appointment about the technicalities of chemo treatment, she shared what she and I had talked about with the doctor, which pulled him into the discussion. Where will that all lead? I don’t know, but God knows.
Then a few days ago, I went in for my final scan, a mapping scan to help determine exactly where the radiation treatments will be aimed. This visit began with a nurse collecting my vitals. Then came the IV nurse to puncture my arm once more. Then another person to explain and have me sign permission documents. (Does anyone actually read those?) Then came the two scan specialists to put me in that big apparatus, explain the process and carry it out. Then came my oncologist’s PA and finally the oncologist herself. Maybe there were more. Starting spiritual conversations is second nature to me, and I did it repeatedly with everyone who had to deal with me, or nearly everyone. What will come of that? I don’t know, but God knows. How many people have I shared my faith with thus far as a result of developing cancer? How many will I yet share my faith with due to having this disease? Do you not think this is all a part of God’s bigger picture?
So how bad is it to still have cancer? Gee, I don’t know that it is bad at all. It has already accomplished some really good things in my life with God. I wouldn’t give them up to be rid of the cancer, that much I know for sure. I also know that many spiritual seeds are being sown with many different medical people. One of them may wake up one morning facing the biggest challenge of their life and think of the old crazy preacher guy that they just cared for recently and try to figure out how to get back in touch with me. With many of my books listed on Amazon and having two web sites, it wouldn’t take a lot of effort on their parts to find me. Plus, I give out cards with my web sites and phone numbers listed. God does work in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. I love that old hymn with those words in it, and I love having seen God do it in my life time and time again. There is a much bigger picture than we now see, but I have no doubt that God will keep revealing more of it to us, especially if we are looking for it. There is a God who sees, wants to be seen and most certainly can be seen. And finally, we have one more part of the bigger picture to consider.
The Final Road Home
I am a teacher. God gifted me to be a teacher and called me to use that gift. I have used it all over the world for many, many years. As I watch the news and the reports about the current Ukraine conflict, I weep. Theresa and I made many trips to Kiev to teach the Bible to the ministry staff, the shepherding students from all over the old Soviet Union countries and to the average members in the church. We poured our hearts out doing so and loved it immensely. It was a rare privilege. But it was only one example of that rare privilege being enjoyed in teaching about God and his plan for our lives. In Acts 20:27, Paul said that he had “not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” That is my calling as well.
I have spent the years trying to teach the whole counsel of God, focusing primarily on teaching others how to live. Before I pack it in, I have the responsibility and opportunity to also teach others how to die. Some might be thinking, “Gordon, that’s morbid!” The dictionary might agree, with this definition: “characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.” But I most certainly do not agree that these subjects are morbid. They are a part of life. Something will stop our heart and we will leave this realm and journey into the next. None of us are exempt. God is trying to prepare us for life and for death. I am a teacher and I want to be used by God to do my best to help you with both parts. That’s not morbid; that’s life, life with God.
My fellow teacher and friend, Douglas Jacoby, recently set up a phone conversation with me just to catch up and see how I was doing. I think he knew by then that I had cancer. He told me about a book that a man wrote about his life which was in the process of winding to a close through a terminal disease. Doug suggested that if the cancer was going to take me down that road, I could contribute to helping people by following a similar course. I appreciated his suggestion and awoke the next morning with a title in mind, which I wrote into a document designed as a book cover. “Cancer – From Diagnosis to Death” Unless I die suddenly, I will write that book in some form or another, even if death comes from something besides cancer. You are going to die too, and I want to do it well in order to help you do it well. I have been blessed to see some do it admirably and inspiringly. I want to follow their example so that you can follow mine.
We must come to peace with our mortality. It most often is going to be a process. If we are fortunate enough to live to an old age, aging itself should usher in the process. One of my great friends during our Phoenix years was Jerry Jones. We served as elders for some years after the initial appointment of elders in the church there. Jerry was a classic disciple of Jesus, although he was converted later in life. He had such a soft heart, but such a courageous heart. We faced some tough times during several years when the church was going through a firestorm. Jerry was a rare bird as a leader. I taught repeatedly and insistently that as leaders, we couldn’t let concerns about reactions and responses determine the decisions we made and the paths we chose, but only what was right and what was righteous before God. Jerry in response was all in, like few leaders are capable of being, conflict avoidance and sentimentality being what they are. I couldn’t have made it through those tough years without him. I was blessed to speak at his memorial last year on the one-year anniversary of his death.
His view of death was beautiful. Once when I was with him and his wonderful wife, Karen, on a trip to serve in an orphanage just over the Arizona border in Mexico, he asked me a question. He said something to this effect, “Given our ages, you and Theresa do talk about what to do when one of you croaks, don’t you?” I burst out laughing and when I later shared his question with Theresa, she just cackled. After that, she bought him birthday cards with pictures of frogs on the front and the inside captions saying in some form, “Glad you haven’t croaked yet!” But he did croak. He was in the hospital on dialysis when he decided it was his time. He came home to die and did within a few days. The last time I called to speak to him, Karen said that he was asleep and had only brief periods of being lucid when awake, but that if he had another such period, she would call. He did and she did. Jerry and I had such a wonderful talk and he encouraged me greatly. He died the next day. I was his teacher, but he taught me that day about dying well, a lesson that I want to pass on to others.
In a wonderful book entitled, “An Aging Grace,” edited by and written in by Jeanie Shaw and many others, I wrote two chapters. Although that was only about seven years ago, I was not in the best place to write about aging and death. Yet, those were the topics Jeanie assigned me. God has such a sense of humor, as does Jeanie. You should read the book, and I think you will enjoy my two chapters. I am nothing if not candid in them. My title for chapter two of the book was, “Aging Grace, How Sweet the Sound?” and my title for chapter thirty-four, the final chapter, was, “The Best Is Yet to Be.” I needed to write those chapters, for they were a part of my preparation for playing my own end game. What I wrote then I fully believed intellectually but hadn’t fully reached the point of accepting it emotionally. I’m there now, thanks to cancer – a part of the bigger picture. I close with a quote from the last section of that final chapter.
As it is with aging, death is all a matter of perspective—seeing the material world or seeing the spiritual world. Both are real, but the former one just barely so by comparison. It’s a nice place to hang out for a few decades, but it’s merely a launching pad to the really real world. I’m thankful to have lived on planet earth, but I was here for only one main reason: to get prepared for blastoff to the next. A baby in the womb is comfortable and peaceful, and when they start to make their entrance into a big new world, it is probably very scary. Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
The God Who Sees and Wants to be Seen
After I was diagnosed with cancer January 5, 2022, I posted a request for prayers on my Facebook page to my 5,000 FB friends. For years, I have prayed through a long prayer list kept on my computer, asking God to bless specific people with all kinds of needs, some of whom I didn’t know personally, along with their families and all who were impacted by their situation. I believe that simply the mention of their names and problems to God makes a difference. On the days when doing this seems a bit laborious, after having finished my personal prayer times, I always had this thought: one day I am going to be in a serious situation in which I am going to want my name brought before God’s throne by as many as possible. With that motivation, I always get past my selfishness and respond to the Golden Rule of Jesus and pray through my list.
That “one day” became Wednesday, January 5th. The response to my request has been overwhelming. I can’t stop crying right now as I write this. God has been kind beyond comprehension in giving me so many friends. At my age, most of them are as my spiritual children. They care deeply and want to help, just like my physical son and his family. Bryan and Joy asked us to move close to them, for two reasons. One, to enjoy their three sons as kids more, since they had lived in Hawaii for 25 years and the boys were fast approaching adulthood. When we moved to Dallas at the end of 2014, a mile from where they now live, Bryce (Bryce Gordon, by the way) was in high school, Blayze was in middle school and Ronan was in elementary school. Watching them grow into men has been indeed special.
Two, they wanted to help take care of us as age takes its toll on us, which it inevitably does. Bryan has the heart of a natural caretaker, as does Joy, who is also a nurse. Although we haven’t yet needed much help from them yet, they still look for opportunities to give it. We are ever so thankful that our son and daughter by marriage (daughter-in-law doesn’t work for us) wanted us close by. It has been very special. Right now, God has seen fit to bless us with many who share that same heart for us, and it is very humbling and wonderful beyond words. The scope of our blessings far surpasses anything we deserve, especially me, which speaks volumes about God and the impact of Jesus upon the lives of those whom he has brought into our lives.
Into a Writer’s Mind
I do a lot of prayer journaling. As a writer, I can express my feelings better through typing than through speaking or writing with pen and paper. On most days, I don’t save what I write. It is very personal and not something I would want others to read, for a number of reasons. You understand that I imagine. Because of the wild emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride that started on January 5th, with its unexpected twists and turns, I knew instinctively that I needed to save what I wrote. In this case, I wanted to keep a record of the events and my prayers in response to those events. I thought of titles for two different books in the process, in which to include what I was writing as a framework for them at some future point.
Some of what I wrote in this present long account will probably end up a part of at least one book, but that isn’t why I wrote it. I wrote it because I felt compelled to record what God was doing in my life, the insights I was gaining and the spiritual growth I was experiencing. I was unburdening my heart and having my heart filled by God at the very same time. It has been a life-changing journey thus far. On February 7th, which happened to fall on the 19th birthday of our fourth grandson, Cody, who lives in Arizona, I received the results of two scans and a key blood test. No cancer. (As you will later see, this diagnosis was soon revised to “not much cancer,” not a welcome development, but one in which I must trust that God has his reasons. The continuing story is found in Part Two of this article.)
As I mentioned in a FB post a day later, that report put me in shock. I did have the faith as I prayed beforehand that it was not only possible that God might heal me, but probable. Prayers offered by so many people all over the world simply had to make a difference. That said, it was still a shock. After sharing the details with Theresa about it all, putting her in shock with me, I went on a long prayer walk. At one point along the way, and I remember exactly where I was at the time, a thought hit me that caused me to burst into tears. It was not produced by a sense of relief that I didn’t have cancer, although I was understandably very, very relieved. It wasn’t caused by a heightened feeling of gratitude, although I was filled with gratitude.
That overwhelming thought was the realization of how much the past month had changed me spiritually. I told God that I would not eliminate a single thing in that wild and scary ride or change it in any way. I told him that I would rather have the cancer back than lose what I had gained spiritually. And I meant every word of it. I still mean it. Being in my 80th year of life means that I am nearing my end anyway. When that comes, I won’t feel any differently than I do now about life and death. The real me, the part made in God’s image, doesn’t age. Only the body ages and passes away. Plus, time goes by fast. I will be on death’s door soon enough. Staying alive on planet earth isn’t the big issue or anywhere close to it. Staying close to God and falling more and more in love with him is the big issue. Actually, it’s about the only issue.
Enter the Big “C” Word
Cancer. That’s a really scary word to most people. I remember being with my dad when the doctor told him he had cancer. Hearing it almost took my breath away. Daddy and I were really close. He lived another six years, but that word always hung in the air when I was with him. It was a tough six years for him and for those who watched him endure treatments and surgeries. In June of last year, I had my third rectal surgery. The pathology reports began as indecisive but later progressed to a diagnosis of adenocarcinoma. At the initial indecisive stage, the surgeon said that she needed to go back in and get a deeper sample, and she would get the best margins she could in an attempt to get all of the cancer if it were cancer. Oddly perhaps, hearing that wasn’t scary to me at the time. I simply told the doctor that we all have a shelf life, and I was almost 79 at the time and had lived a very blessed life. I always think of the old version of Psalm 90:10, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” After that surgery ten days later, the pathology report came back clear.
She wanted to see me again every few months to remove tissue in her office for continuing tests. It was after the second of those on December 29th that led to the call on January 5th saying that I did have adenocarcinoma and would need to start treatment by oncologists. She was pretty positive about radiation being able to cure it and was going to have an oncology service contact me for an appointment. At that point, I was amazingly calm and at peace. Surrendered. I slept like a baby that night. A part of that peace was my “impossible” prayer list those in my church were encouraged to write in conjunction with reading Kit Cummings’ book, “Forty Days of Prayer.” The first item on my list was to not have cancer, but that if I did, that it would be God’s way of exposing it early so it could be treated successfully. The second item on that prayer list started with the words, “More importantly,” followed by a request that no matter what happened with the cancer, up to and including a terminal stage of it, that I would trust God and his timing implicitly and unquestionably. So, in any case, my prayers were being answered and I was at peace, a truly wonderful feeling, that peace that surpasses human understanding described in Philippians 4:7.
That peace lasted just over twenty-four hours and was beautiful while it lasted. However, that was soon to change and change radically. I decided to call Mark Mancini, a fellow minister and longtime friend, the next afternoon just to find out how the radiation affects you. He did cover that, for his surgery had failed to remove all of the margins of his cancer, thus necessitating the radiation treatment. His situation reminded me of my father’s surgery that ultimately led to his death, a result of the surgeon not removing all of the margins, leaving cancer where it shouldn’t have been. I couldn’t help wondering if that might be true in my own case as well, an unsettling thought. But back to the unexpected direction in my conversation with Mark. His main emphasis was his absolute insistence that I contact the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for a second opinion. To say that he was pushy would be to make an understatement. He wouldn’t let up on that one, which left me very disturbed at the end of the call. I felt like I got robbed of my surrendered sense of peace. I was very troubled and unsettled. I was actually ticked off at Mark, a dear friend.
The question that came to mind at this point is the one that has come up hundreds of times when circumstances seem difficult or impossible to interpret. Was this just another test of my surrender, since I was definitely surrendered prior to the call, or was this a circumstance designed by God to lead me in another direction? I believe God has sent both my way hundreds of times. I hate the feeling that my wisdom, human wisdom, is in the driver’s seat and it’s up to me to make the right choices in serious situations. I just despise the idea, a popular one with many people (especially the driven, successful types), that “If it is to be, it is up to me.” No, no, no – not that! I want it to be, “If it is to be, it must be up to Thee.” But there I was, caught between two choices in interpreting the talk with Mark – a test of surrender or a circumstance designed to lead me in another direction, a needed one. Oh no! Not again!
The Wrestling Match Continues
Like Jacob of old (Genesis 32), I was wrestling with God, but not fully realizing it yet. For the next several days, I was up and down and all around. Fortunately, those days were very busy ones, occupying my mind (mostly) with other things. Theresa had two doctor appointments the next day and I had to prepare to deliver a lesson on Zoom the next day, Saturday, for a conference in London. Thankfully, my lesson went well in spite of the disturbance in the force (a la Star Wars). Those events were helpful just as distractions if nothing else. I watched lots of football that weekend, an NFL playoff weekend, providing more distraction for which I was grateful. But underneath the surface, I remained filled with angst. On Tuesday morning, I had a virtual appointment with the oncology radiologist, which generally went well. The proposed treatment sounded about like I expected, and the doctor seemed nice enough and competent enough, answering all my questions well. There was just a hint of arrogance on his part that made me a bit nervous (God opposes the proud – James 4:6). Otherwise, it was good.
I think it may have been the next morning that I woke up with the memory of what a perky, petite redheaded doctor had said in reply to a question I asked her years ago after she had just performed a sigmoidoscopy on me. My curiosity about what would motivate a doctor to pursue a specialty in dealing with this part of the body led me to ask, “Why would a doctor go into this line of work?” A few years earlier, I had asked this same question to another doctor in a similar circumstance, also a female physician, and it flustered her. She just said, “That’s a good question” and left the room (and didn’t come back).
The little redhead, whose husband was the head of that department, wasn’t flustered in the least. “Easy answer,” said she. “If you catch this kind of cancer early, you get it every time!” Out of the clear blue that memory appeared. I thought of John 14:26 where Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would bring things to their remembrance. I know that this was a promise to them of the Spirit doing it in a miraculous inspired sense, but I have long believed that for all of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, there are non-miraculous counterparts. So, in my mind, I had such a blessing that early morning to ease my mind. It was a special beginning to the day, a needed one.
That Fateful Thursday
On Wednesday, one week after my talk with Mark, I called Mike Isenberg, my friend in church who is a PA (physician assistant). He listened carefully and said that continuity with my present doctors was important if I trusted them and that he thought either place could do the needed job. He did say that UT Southwestern was a great place, but that he didn’t think I could make a wrong decision either way. In other words, both would be competent to do the job well. That was reassuring, as Mike always is, and tilted me back toward feeling good about staying the original course. I even told my sister on the phone that I was almost certainly going to do that and quit being torn between the two. I felt much more settled out. The only question in the back of my mind was prompted by some underlying feelings about my surgeon. While I liked her and mostly trusted her, the confusion about the first pathology report and the failure to take out a little lump that I could feel myself and had told her about several times stayed in the back of my mind. However, I was pretty much settled out about my present fairly firm decision and still a little ticked off at Mark’s pushiness.
Since the next day was nice day outside and I hadn’t walked for a while due to the residual pain after my last tissue removal for pathology, I decided to take a walk. My wound was mostly healed by then, thankfully. As I walked out of the house, I saw my neighbors pull up and start getting out of their car. We have a little cottage in East Texas across the street from a lake and they live on the lake. Robin isn’t out in the front yard nearly as often as Harry and knowing that she had been through cancer treatment recently, I wanted to show her a calm, faithful reaction to having cancer to encourage her. So, we talked. I found out that she had radiation for her breast cancer that put it in remission or eliminated it. Then I had to ask, “Where did you get your treatment?” Of course it was UT Southwestern – of course it was! And like Mark, she gushed about doing research and UT SW being the cat’s meow. She wasn’t as pushy as Mark, but just as gushy. Okay, unsettledness again. Ugh! The big question popped into my mind once more: test of surrender or circumstantial guidance of the Holy Spirit? Aaaggghhh!!!
Then I continued my walk. Danny and Jynae, neighbors opposite our garage, were out in their yard talking over some construction plans they had for their house. I’ve probably not said ten words to Jynae before, and her being out in the front yard was rare. Those on the lake usually hang out in their back yards for obvious reasons, but there they both were. They asked how I was doing, and in my reply, I included the cancer diagnosis and upcoming radiation treatment. Danny said that they had a good friend who just finished with that type of treatment. Keep in mind that I’m talking to people out in the countryside nearly 100 miles from that medical center.
Where their friend lived, I had no idea. They could have lived anywhere in the world. But of course I had to ask the question, right? Of course. When I did, Jynae answered, since it was her female friend who had been treated. By now you can easily guess the answer. UT Southwestern, followed by more glowing reports of this place being the best of the best, with people coming from all over to go there for cancer treatment. Amazing, simply amazing! Where were the odds of this being mere circumstance – both women being out in their front yards on the same day at the same time – in the winter at that? I’d never seen it before. With both women having the same story about UT Southwestern too?
I See You Now, God
Okay, give-up time, God. I’ll seriously start looking into the option of getting a second opinion. I began calling that afternoon, but that wasn’t a good initial experience. I pushed my phone key #1 two different times, the option for new patients, and the woman who answered sounded muffled and not nearly on top of her game. Disappointing. Nothing like Mark and Robin had described. I was in a bad place emotionally, to put it mildly, although I didn’t show it to avoid unsettling my dear wife. I didn’t sleep well that night and felt drained when I woke up the next morning. Otherwise, the morning went okay. I had the virtual appointment with the medical oncologist, the chemo doctor. She was very pleasant and explained things well and answered my questions thoroughly. But the amount of chemo she described was disturbing. The one positive thing that the call did accomplish was that I was even more motivated to get a second opinion. I did not like the sound of the treatment described and wanted that second opinion.
That same morning as we started heading back to Dallas and Theresa’s two medical appointments, I called UT Southwestern once more, pushing the #1 button for new patients. The same woman answered and still sounded muffled, so I pulled off the road in an effort to try understanding what she was saying. It was frustrating and I got nowhere. Not good. I dropped Theresa off at the medical facility for her appointment and tried to take a nap in the car. I was too geared up to sleep. I called UT Southwestern again, either in the parking lot or right after arriving home, intending to apologize for being a pest but just wanting to see if I had done all I could to push the process forward. I simply could not get through. The woman or the system finally just hung up on me. Aaaggghhh! Again! But by then I was determined to try once more, and this time I pushed the button for “existing patients.” When a woman answered, whose name I found out to be Rosie, I explained that I wasn’t an existing patient but was trying hard to become one and was hitting roadblocks. She was the type person Mark and Robin described – precisely. She was super nice and super helpful. I had the thought that she might be an angel. Seriously. She was that good. From there we got the balls rolling in several directions.
She fairy quickly said that she knew exactly which doctor I should see and if everything fell into place, she might be able to schedule me on Wednesday (five days later). Timing meant a lot to me. If cancer metastasizes, it has to begin at a certain point in time, right? That seems logical. Ahh! Good news, finally. After finding out the referrals and reports they required, I started doing my part. It was Friday afternoon and their admitting department was about to close for a long weekend, since MLK Day was on Monday. But Rosie assured me that if I could get everything in by early Tuesday morning, she would make it happen for that Wednesday appointment. Getting in to see specialists just doesn’t happen that way, and I speak from experience. It was almost too good to be true and thus difficult to trust what I had been told.
However, I was set on doing my part as best I could. They wanted reports and referrals from both my surgeon and my primary care physician. I sent written messages through the internet portals of both. I made phone calls and left voicemails, including one to the nurse of my primary care doctor and another to their remote emergency nurse. Then I thought of pushing the button for contacts from doctors or hospitals. When a live person answered that line, I told her that I was calling on behalf of the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern (sorta true). I explained what was going on and she said she would send it over, hopefully that same afternoon (late Friday afternoon).
The pieces all seem to be falling into place, good places. So far so good, although gut-wrenching at times. Just about then, it hit me that the answer to the question of whether the situation was surrender being tested or the Spirit leading me in another direction was both/and, not either/or. I looked up and said, “Good one, Lord. I hope you are enjoying this. I’m starting to. You are doing your thing again, jumping out from behind bushes to scare the liver out of me. Okay. I’ve still got a sense of humor and an appreciation of yours. We’re good for now. More to come, I’m sure.” I often talk to God, not just pray to him. Friends do that, right? (John 15:15)
Where is the Peace?
I was at that point thinking about what was keeping me from being surrendered and at peace again. God knows how much I love being there when I do get there. It is the greatest feeling on his green earth – an at-oneness with him that has no superiors. But I hadn’t had it recently, although by that Saturday, I got back close to it. I think my problem was that until I got the UT SW appointment nailed down completely, I couldn’t relax enough to be totally at peace. That realization disturbed me. Complete trust in a God who works everything together for good (Romans 8:28) should have produced peace in me. I’m slow to learn, no questioning that, thus slow to trust.
When will I ever learn that God will take care of the details if I will simply just let go and let God? Ferguson, you wrote a book on this. Why in the name of common sense don’t you listen to your better self? Goodness gracious! Trust is the issue. The call to Mark set me on my ear. But then the sequence afterwards should have put me in a good place, right? I made out a list of what God had done since that fateful call to Mark, a list of what should have stopped me from being untrusting and stupid. What’s the matter with you anyway, Gordon? Why don’t you stop this faithless stuff and quit going down rabbit holes? (Do you talk to yourself too?)
Without the absolutely pushiness of Mark, I wouldn’t have followed through. I needed to hear from Robin and Jynae too, but I wouldn’t have reached out to them without Mark’s getting under my skin. To top it off, Joy informed me that our mutual friend, Bethany Smith, got her treatment at UT SW too, which was confirmed by her husband Adam. He said a cancer specialist friend in another city advised them to always go to a place connected with a medical school – there you will find the latest and greatest doctors and procedures. I didn’t know that Joy even knew Bethany, much less about her cancer treatment. I didn’t beforehand. That was just one more layer on the cake God was baking.
What else could God possibly have done? Was it easy to get to a surrendered faith? No, but when is it ever with matters that really count? It shouldn’t be. It should be a journey of faith, and at times a challenging journey. God is a tester of faith because he is a builder of faith. Those two go together. They are actually inseparable. Thanks for persevering with me and revealing yourself to me, Lord. I wish I could see your hand faster with the eye of faith, but just so I end up seeing it, I’m good. And most appreciative. Hold on to me, Father. I’m a mess. But you are the God of unlimited patience who understands messes and loves us anyway. Thank you!
On Monday morning, I awoke on pins and needles once again. On my knees, I asked God’s forgiveness and strength to surrender again. After all that had fallen into place by God’s providence, why was I not at peace? I determined to call UT Southwestern at 9:30 just to make sure they hadn’t forgotten me and that the process hadn’t been somehow sidetracked. Rosie had promised to call me Tuesday morning. I at least decided to show minimal patience by waiting until 9:30 to call and tried to carry on with my normal morning routine. But I was not at peace. At 9:27, I needed to relieve my bladder, and as I was doing so to help three more minutes pass, the phone rang. The caller ID told the story. It was Rosie – my personal angel assigned me by God. She said she had been working on my case since 8 am and I was scheduled for the very next day.
That was an amazing morning. Surely it would all be downhill from there, right? Wrong! My roller coaster rides with God are never short and are always a combination or sheer terror and absolute exhilaration, as roller coaster rides should be. That’s why we buy the tickets in the first place, and whether we realized it or not at the time, confessing Jesus as Lord was our request for a ticket to ride and a guarantee that we would receive it. That being true, I (and you) need to stop complaining when it feels like we are coming off the tracks of this thing called life with God and just keep holding on for dear life. Periodic wild rides are part and parcel of what we signed up for in the first place.
A Surreal Doctor Visit (January 19th)
When I entered the examination room on that Wednesday, five days from my first contact with Rosie, the nurse came in first and did her thing. Then a resident doctor being trained in this specialty came in and we started talking. He was from Phoenix, where we had lived for nine years, and it turned out we had much in common. We had played many of the same golf courses in Phoenix, for one thing. I mentioned in our conversation that we had lived for sixteen years in Boston prior to moving to Phoenix. As he left the room, I told him it was really good to meet someone from where I had once lived, and he replied, “You will like the doctor then; she is from Boston.” Then entered that very impressive specialist from Boston, a Harvard Medical School graduate and a professor at the UT Southwestern Medical School, the largest medical school in Texas.
Her introductory question still gives me chills thinking back on it. How did you get here? I deduced from the question that new patients didn’t normally start with her. The right answer was God, of course, but working through lots of people and situations, not the least of which was Rosie. When I mentioned Rosie, the doctor laughed, realizing how I got there (from a human perspective). She knew Rosie well it seems. Just amazing, the whole sequence. God didn’t violate my free will – but almost. To say he influenced it or even strongly influenced it doesn’t do justice to what he actually did. Simply mind-boggling amazing!!! Wow, just wow! I knew it might not work out as well as I hoped. I also know that one day the other shoe must fall. It is appointed unto man once to die (Hebrews 9:27), and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because that fact of life (and death) is all wrapped up the greatest story ever told, the greatest story ever conceived, a story that man could not possibly invent nor even believe at the deepest level. It is too good to be true; too spectacular to be true. But by the eye of faith, we can know it is true anyway. The Creator dying for the created – (likely the most profound sentence you have ever read.)
So when the end does come, it will be okay. But as another good doctor said (my old friend, Mark Ottenweller), “I’m going to die – just not today!” Yea! Today I am alive and well and relieved and most grateful to the only One in the universe who deserves all the gratitude received and a googol more. Thank you, Abba! You outdid yourself on this one. Spectacular, and all of the other words that can try and fail to describe you and what you did that day. Praise your holy Name, the Name that is above every name, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. AMEN!
Prayer of January 20 – Wonderful Insights!
The thought hit me last night when Theresa came by my office door that she was the greatest miracle of all, that little angel God made especially for me and then made sure I got her. I began thinking about the millions upon millions of miracles that had to occur to make this most important of all human miracles occur, and it is totally mind-boggling. For God just to have put my mother and father together seems impossible – a church girl and a party boy and barroom brawler when they married. I hope to one day find out how they actually got together. I’m sure the details must be quite interesting. But anyway, the miracle of my little angel with whom I recently celebrated our 57th wedding anniversary is the greatest miracle of all on the human side of life. Thank you, thank you, thank you – beyond words again.
Another insight was about God me, and our relationship. 2021 was a tough year in some ways, but it was a great year for spiritual growth, needed growth, much needed growth, essential growth. God has given me so much evidence that he was guiding my life in all of its paths that it seems criminal to keep questioning whether he was going to do it “this” time (the current time at any point along life’s pathways). Then the thought that hit me is that my definition of surrender focuses on his Lordship in a way somewhat different from a Father/son relationship, a love relationship. My early religious background seriously damaged my view of God and it has taken a long time, too long, to dismantle it and replace it with a more biblical view. I just want to keep falling in love with my Abba more and more deeply. That is why I am on earth. Yes, I have other purposes to accomplish, serious ones, but those purposes are because he loves me and wants the best for me. He knows that when I am aligned the most closely with his purposes, the happier and more fulfilled I am, the more I feel loved and cared for by him and special to him.
A Meltdown – Off the Edge
I suppose everyone has to find their edge and go off it. I went off mine on Tuesday, January 25th after beginning to slide the night before. In checking on the MyChart portal, I saw a message from the doctor’s nurse that my scans were set on February 14, three more weeks away. That was four weeks after my first visit to UT SW and almost a month and a half from receiving my diagnosis. That left me with a scary, sickening feeling. The two biggest things in dealing with cancer are timing and expertise. I felt like I traded the former for the latter. I just didn’t know how to weigh all of this out. I hated the intrusion of Mark to begin with but ended up feeling certain that it was God’s doing to move me in the direction of the second opinion at UT Southwestern. I also ended up feeling that my lifelong dilemma of trying to discern between God testing my surrender level and taking necessary steps to move me in a different direction to a different decision or action was a both/and this time.
I felt a crisis that I thought was easy to discern – it was only a surrender test, and one that I failed and wept about in disappointment and fear. I decided to shut down my emotions and just resign myself to the inevitable, whatever that turned out to be. I know intellectually that I cannot see the big picture of what God is doing, but spiritual surrender was not in my deck of cards at that moment. Resignation was. I can do that one. That is how most human beings survive life anyway, especially in the challenging times. We just resign ourselves to the realities no matter how bleak or painful they are. I did have enough sense left to realize that I should not share my faithlessness with others for fear of hurting their faith.
I hoped to get to a better place and always do, but this time felt different. Although I wasn’t angry at God exactly, I was for sure very disappointed and hurt. But no matter what, I determined to do my best not to hurt the faith of others. That meant, like many, many other times, I would basically be faking it. I don’t feel hypocritical about doing that. I felt like the Psalm 73 guy.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. 15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply…
Unlike him, I did not keep my heart pure nor my hands innocent. I did feel like he did in verse 14 since receiving the news of the three week’s delayed scans. But my point from the Psalm was in verses 15-16. I couldn’t understand the three weeks delay, and like the Psalmist, it indeed troubled me deeply, very deeply – to the edge and off with no hope of surrender, only a grit-my-teeth-grin-and-bear-it resignation. But it was resignation to the point of trying to say what Jesus said in the Garden, “Nevertheless,” and like Daniel’s three friends said as they faced the fiery furnace, “Even if…” I wanted aloneness from everyone, whether they loved me or hated me. The day starting at Jewish time the prior evening and continuing to and through the next day was for me like a French movie. The French say that their movies start bad, get worse, and end! Viva la France!
On the evening of my very-bad-no-good-meltdown-day, I shared many of my thoughts with Theresa and was at least resigned to whatever was to come of the delayed scans and what they would eventually show. I wasn’t in a good place, but I didn’t think I was still in verses 21-22 of Psalm 73: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” Once again, as God often does, he exposed and embarrassed me that same evening. The protocol is for a medical person to call and inform you of any scheduled scans or changes in their schedule. I had received no such calls. But for some reason, I happened to look at the portal before going to bed. The tests had been moved up in spite of the fact that I had been told it was impossible unless a cancellation occurred. But two tests of different types cancelled, opening up two spots on the same day at just the right intervals? How many “coincidences” could come my way in such a short span of time?
Huge Benefits of a Meltdown
After seeing the change in the schedule, I was indeed exposed and embarrassed at my lack of faith, and convicted of my mistrust and accompanying sins. I stayed up for a long time, praying and journaling and reading Scripture and writing. It was a time of pain and joy uniquely mixed together in bringing my heart back to God. My lack of trust in that one twenty-four-hour period was deeply convicting and deeply saddening. Honestly, it still is as I write this. God had done nothing but bless me and show himself to me. I felt like Hagar in Genesis 16:13, “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” People complain that it is difficult to believe in a God that they cannot see, much less trust him. But you can see him. He wants to be seen. He has shown himself to me over and over, but I am too often blind or just not paying attention. You see that in this story thus far, don’t you? But in my meltdown, I didn’t. And that is not all that I had experienced during that time, just the main points.
I continued to pursue my repentance late into the night and early the next morning. It was a rich experience. I looked up familiar passages and saw lessons I had missed before. That is a part of seeing God. He shows up in his love letter revelation to us in ways we haven’t seen him previously. He keeps giving us new insights through both experiences and Scriptures. Romans 2:4 was one of the first verses I looked at. “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” The context of this verse is showing the sins of the Jews in judging the Gentiles. They thought they had been blessed because they deserved it, that they were better than all those outside the Israelite nation. But God had been good to them to induce repentance and appreciation in them, not to exalt them. Their own judgmental attitudes condemned them.
As I thought about that context, I suddenly realized that I took it to a much higher (actually far, far lower) place and judged God himself! Perfectly horrific. Through his word, the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), he cut into my messed-up heart and in the process, started his beautiful heart surgery on me. He is the Great Physician, after all. I know that God allows us to question him, just as any good parent does their children. The Psalmists prove that over and over. But the questioning can go too far, as did Job’s. I didn’t want to cross that line, but even if I had, God would still be right there. I realized that when I began looking at the ending of Psalm 73.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
What a beautiful ending to the Psalm! That’s God in plain view. He always holds us close and holds us tight – even at our worst when we are brute beasts. God is good and always good and cannot be otherwise. In addressing the Jews Romans 2, in spite of their sins of which they were totally unaware yet proud of and justifying, God was trying to lead them by their right hand out of the mess they were in. When we are out of our senses, God is still with us, holding us by our hands, leading us back into spiritual reality. I picture a parent with a three-year-old child who wants to go the opposite way than they are being led. They are kicking and screaming and throwing a tantrum. What does the parent do? They just keep gently pulling the child along with them in the direction they know they should go, knowing that the child will eventually give up the fight and follow, and either apologize or be taught by the parent to apologize after throwing a hissy fit. That’s what good parents do and that’s how children learn to trust parents. Where do parents learn how to do that? The writer of this Psalm would say, correctly, from God.
Satan’s work with us is the exact same as it was with Eve in the Garden, namely to cause us to mistrust God by believing that he is withholding something good from us; to believe that he really doesn’t want the very best for us. One of his tools is to convince us that God only loves us when we are doing well. When we are a mess in a mess, he turns aside and with arms crossed in frustration or anger, he waits until we straighten up and then he turns back toward us and if we have repented with enough guilt and sorrow, he is then willing to give us a hug. That is exactly the opposite of how God really works. Using the analogy of the parent holding on to their three-year-old child in rebellion, what does the parent do in this case? They hold on tighter to keep the child from hurting themselves. Now the child may step in mud puddles and skin their knees on the sidewalk in their self-inflicted escapades, but the parent holds on tighter. Were the child not fighting, the parent could pick them up and carry them over the mud puddles and the rough patches, but no matter what, the parent holds on – especially when the child insists on going the wrong way. That is like God, isn’t it? He doesn’t just hold on to us when we are gleefully following his lead. It is precisely when we are at our worst that he reaches for us. Read it.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Psalm 73 goes on to say that God keeps guiding us, teaching us and maturing us until such time as he takes us home with him to glory. Thus, as we do mature spiritually, what happens? Heaven becomes all about God and our relationship eternally with him. It’s not about streets of gold or anything we humans imagine as being heaven. It’s not about making 1000-yard drives on golf courses constructed from our wildest imaginations or catching ten-pound largemouth bass on every cast on the most beautiful lake imaginable. It is about being with our Abba, forever and ever, loving and being loved in unimaginable ways. More importantly in the here-and-now, life on earth becomes all about God and developing a relationship with him into deeper and deeper levels. Everything else in this life pales into insignificance when we get the lesson that our writer friend learned. I’m just using his words with a bit of editing. It’s all right there.
He ended this marvelous chapter in this longest book in the Bible with complete satisfaction in being near God and in making him his refuge. That is all about relationship, simply and beautifully. This is why God made us and he works with us from the day of our birth until the day of our death, helping us see that and once we see it, helping us grow continually until we are at home with him. No wonder our dear writer says that he would tell the story of all of God’s deeds. How could he not? He had just been led out of a dark place to the brightest realizations known to mankind. He foreshadowed the words of my favorite Bible character, “We also believe and therefore speak” (2 Corinthians 4:13).
Seeing God Everywhere
Seeing God is a learned art. It is a matter of looking and focusing. Many years ago, I was staying in the home of a good minister friend and his wife whom I had helped train. His church was conducting an evangelistic campaign and I was the guest speaker. One afternoon, the brother and I were walking through a small grove of trees behind their house, and he commented about how the trees were just full of plums that season. I thought he was kidding me, because when I looked up into the trees I didn’t see one plum. But he insisted that he wasn’t joking and was surprised that I thought he was, since he assured me that the trees were indeed full of plums. I kept looking up for a while in search of plums and at a certain point, I suddenly saw them – tons of them. They were the same color as the leaves of the tree, not yet being in the ripened stage. I was shocked, pleasantly so. I just wasn’t focused and prepared to see what was abundantly obvious all the time. You get the point, I’m sure. Start looking. God is everywhere, omnipresent we say, and all loving, which means that he is in your life too – and observably so if you are prepared to see him.
One of my “impossible” prayers for this year is to eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. In other words, trust that every dark cloud has a silver lining if we will but look for it and be patient as we look. It often takes time to see it. Hindsight is much clearer than foresight. I think back to an unusual episode last November. I had just returned from attending and speaking on a beautiful memorial service for one of my heroes, Ron Brumley, in San Diego. On the following Saturday, I was spending time with Theresa and all was well with my world – until it wasn’t. I started having some odd little hallucinations, like I was dropping off to sleep and having a series of quick dreams. Yet I was wide awake and walking around inside the house and even outside once to check the mail. I talked to Theresa about it and we decided it was probably wise to visit the ER, although the episode only lasted five or ten minutes. Once there, they started doing tests of several types, primarily checking to see if I had suffered a stroke. I hadn’t. But the blood test showed a kidney problem, enough to be called an “acute kidney injury.”
They checked me into the hospital for the night and hooked me up to an IV. By morning, my kidney function was back in the normal range. I described every part of my activities for the past week to the doctors and nurses, including the trip to San Diego. Dehydration was a part of the issue, I’m sure, and I had a theory about what else might have contributed to the odd and scary episode. None of the medical folks had any better theories than I did, and the hospitalist discharged me just after noon the next day. That experience bothered me until I had my scans of last week explained. They injected me with Iodine-containing contrast medium in both types of scans. My specialist had my kidney function tested again before the scans, because the scan processes put a strain on the kidneys. Mine checked out fine. So what is the silver lining in that November cloud experience? I had done something that temporarily affected my kidney function and without the strange episode, what was called an injury might have progressed to damage. That was a heck of a way to find it out, but a part of an ongoing roller coaster ride with an adventuresome God. At least, that is the best I can make of it, and that is good enough for me.
A Final Story (just came to mind)
I could go on and on about my recent experiences and seeing God in them, but I will just include one more that I just thought of while writing this. It’s worth the read, trust me. Years ago, while living in Boston, we had a very close relationship with a couple originally from Australia, Graham and Suzanne Gumley. Graham was (and is) one of the foremost microsurgeons in the world. When they were in Boston, Graham was a professor in the medical schools of Harvard and Northeastern. They are back in Australia now, and prior to going back, Graham served as the chief surgeon in a hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a project of HOPE Worldwide. With all of the injuries still occurring from Pol Pot’s buried land mines, it would be interesting to hear Graham’s surgical stories from that decade of his life. He is still a professor in medical schools in his home country and at age 70, still conducting surgeries to reattach body parts severed through accidents. I know some of those stories but won’t take the time here to tell them, though they are beyond fascinating.
After years of not connecting with the Gumleys, I just “happened” to receive an email from Graham on December 30th of 2021, the day after the sample tissue was taken by my doctor that led to the cancer diagnosis. When I communicated back via email the next day, I described in some detail my health issues, including the fact that I was awaiting the results of that test from the day prior to his first email. His reply to mine arrived January 6th, the day after I got the cancer diagnosis. In it, he asked if we could share a Zoom call to catch up, which we did a few days later, and had a wonderful talk. Graham isn’t just a great surgeon; he is a great person and great disciple of Jesus. His wife is quite special as well.
Here’s the kicker. Graham was in his office when we were talking on Zoom. He said that literally right next door to where he was sitting was the best colorectal department in all of Australia and he could ask his friends there any question that I might have or get any advice I might want. As I said, I just thought of this story as I was trying to finish up this already too long article. It’s just one more of the incredible adventures in my recent spiritual roller coaster ride with God, who himself obviously loves adventures. He created us, didn’t he? After hearing about one 33-day adventure in my recent life experience, isn’t it pretty clear that God not only wants to be seen but can be seen – clearly? Of course, I could continue by mentioning that 33 is my all-time favorite number. My email addresses both start with gordonferguson33. Coincidence? Think what you want, but I knew before I started counting the days between January 5 and February 7 what the number was going to be. I’m not always blind or not looking. As my good friend, Steve Hiddleson, would say just about now (approvingly), I’m just getting plumb “wiggley.”
Join me, and start looking everywhere for God. He is there, anxious to be seen and be with you. The old spiritual song, “My God and I,” describes it well. And with it, I close.
My God and I go in the fields together
we walk and talk as good friends should and do
we clasp our hands our voices ring with laughter
my God and I walk through the meadow’s hew
He tells me of the years that went before me
when heavenly plans were laid for me to be
when all was but a dream of deep reflections
to come to life earth’s verdant glory see
My God and I would go for aye together
we’ll walk and talk as good friends always do
this earth will pass and with it common trifles
but God and I will go unendingly
Roller coaster rides are at their best when they give you surprises. Thus, being on life’s roller coaster with God as both designer and the one at the controls is destined to be chock full of surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, even devastatingly so. You might guess that I had such a shocking disappointment soon after I wrote the first part of the story, right? After experiencing it, I deleted both the Facebook post of February 8 and this article. I forgot to delete the FB post seven days later which introduced the article. Odd I didn’t think of that, but I didn’t until now. Roller coaster rides which expose you to a lot of G forces must affect your memory, at least temporarily! You will want to read Part Two of the article, “Devastating Disappointment and the Continuing Story.” You should also guess, God being God, that the continuing story finds me back at the top of the rails once again – howbeit not easily nor quickly!
All of us have relatives who become so special to us that they hold a unique place in our hearts and lives. When they die, they leave a big hole in our hearts and it takes a while for the grieving process to replace the pain with only precious memories. Ten years ago yesterday, I lost such a relative, a very special uncle. As I almost always do in times of loss, I wrote, as I mentioned two days ago in introducing another similar article. I just posted what I wrote on Halloween ten years ago. Hardly anyone who reads the brief article will have any idea of who my Uncle Pete was, but I would like to introduce a man to you who was an important part of my growing up years. Hopefully it will encourage you to write as you work through your own times of grief. Enjoy!
Today, Uncle Pete passed from this life. He was a half month shy of his 79th birthday (which would have been on November 16th). His name will be listed in the obituary as “Brider L. (Leroy) Ferguson” but the only name I ever heard him called by was Pete, or Uncle Pete by his nephews and nieces. I was blessed with five uncles and a number of great-uncles, and I loved all of my uncles in unique ways and thankfully, felt loved by all of them. But for me, Uncle Pete was in somewhat of a special class. For one thing, we were reasonably close in age. I made my entrance into the world when he hadn’t yet turned ten. And he married two years after I did. For all practical purposes, we were contemporaries or at least became that in a reasonably short period of years.
However, for a decade of my life, we shared something especially important to me as a youngster growing up. Prior to my teen years, my dad and I regularly enjoyed the Louisiana outdoors together with Pete and my other two Ferguson uncles, Stanley and Jack. We fished until hunting season opened, and then started back fishing again as soon as the hunting season closed. I could write quite a long article (maybe a book) about all the adventures of the Ferguson boys. As the oldest grandchild, I pretty much became the fifth Ferguson boy. My granddad died when he was relatively young, and in time, I sorta became one of Grandma’s five sons. It was not a coincidence that all five of us went to make her funeral arrangements together when she died at age 75.
But back to what made Pete so special in my life. About the time I became a teenager, he and Grandma moved to Gaars Mill, Louisiana in Winn Parish. They lived on a 65 acre farm with its own little fishing pond and all of the trappings of farm life. Although Pete kept laying brick for a living, he populated the farm with cows, chickens, a horse or two and a couple of dogs. God provided the rest of the population, primarily rats, snakes and other assorted pests. The first two on the list were actually fun pests, in that they provided excellent opportunities for target practice. I shot the snakes with my pellet gun as I made my way around the banks of the pond fishing. Pete, Daddy, Jack and I often shot the rats at night with our .22 pistols loaded with rat shot as they were running across the rafters of the various barns and sheds. Wearing headlights and yelling and hollering as we emptied our guns time and time again would have no doubt alarmed the neighbors – if there had been any! Grandma and Pete definitely lived in the country, but that’s what made it extra special.
Pete didn’t have many rules for me when I visited them, and I visited them often – from about age 13 until they moved back to Shreveport ten years later. He often did make me get up well before daylight to feed the cows and do various other farm chores, but most of the time I did exactly what I wanted and little else. And considering the breakfasts Grandma cooked, getting up early had its own rewards. Pete was not only a really fun uncle, he was an amazingly generous one. From the time he moved to the country, he started letting me drive his fairly new car. I would occasionally pick up a certain distant relative so early in the morning that he didn’t have time to get drunk yet, and the two of us would drive 50 miles to a good fishing hole. He didn’t have much about him to endear himself to the human race, but he endeared himself to me by knowing how to catch lots of fish. It was always a mystery to me why Pete would trust me with his car to drive, knowing that I was not only an underage driver for a few years, but I carried passengers of questionable character in his car when the need arose!
Those years visiting in Gaars Mill left me with some of my best memories of my growing-up years. I could write a fairly lengthy book filled with the memories of those years, replete with chapters that could only be viewed as Ferguson craziness. Right now, I couldn’t imagine life without those years, nor without the memories that made those years so memorable and enjoyable. And all of that means that I couldn’t imagine life without my Uncle Pete. After I heard that he had been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, I tried to make it back to my hometown as often as possible to see him, and was able to visit him on at least four different occasions between diagnosis and death. The last time was one week ago today in the hospital, and he was still lucid enough to recognize me. For that I am most grateful. I am also strangely grateful that he only lasted one more week, because being confined to bed wasn’t his thing and watching him suffer wasn’t mine.
Although I knew he couldn’t last long, and hoped that he wouldn’t since recovery wasn’t a possibility, hearing the news today hit hard. I’ve thought of little else since, and after talking to his sweet daughter, Melissa, I was able to let the tears flow and drain off some of the grief. Like all such occasions when losing someone you love, it will be a process in which the pain is gradually replaced by the special memories. The mental image of seeing him in his last stages will give way to the memories of a young uncle doing the things that he and I shared together. Even as I write out my feelings of pain now to hopefully help deal with the loss, I have a plethora of feelings of appreciation for having enjoyed an uncle named Pete for the 69 years and four days of my life. Tomorrow will be my first day to awake without an Uncle Pete to share planet earth with any longer. But that fact can never erase his residence in my heart. Good-bye Pete, and thanks for the memories. It was quite a ride.
The question posed by the title is one of the most important questions that any individual can entertain and it is one that you will answer with your life whether you realize it or not. No one can avoid answering it. We are all in the process of answering it right now. Let me explain.
Becoming a Christian means that we come into a saved relationship with God through Christ. Prior to that point, he is our Father by right of creation but when we are saved, he becomes our spiritual Father and we his spiritual child. At the same time, we become a part of his spiritual family, which the Bible describes with many different designations, but church is the most common one. Coming into that saved relationship with God means that we also come into a spiritual relationship with the rest of his children, and together we comprise the church. When we are baptized into Christ we are also baptized into his spiritual body, the church. They go together, as the following two verses show.
Galatians 3:27 (NASB)
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Of course, the church is used in two basic senses, the universal church which includes all of those who are saved, and the local church. The local church is our local family of believers with whom we fellowship. Years ago, I remember a popular saying, “Up with Christ and down with the Church.” Those voicing this concept were basically saying that you could have a satisfying relationship with Christ without being a part of a local church fellowship. It sounded good – if you knew nothing about what the New Testament actually says. You cannot have Christ without the church. Satan works tirelessly to get you to believe that, but it is a Satanic lie. The multitudes of verses that speak of how we function together as family make it clear that we are a family, not a DIY project.
Family Equals Relationships
There are over 60 verses using the phrases “one another” and “each other,” and even more that speak to our close personal relationships with each other. If we understand what the term family means in a physical sense, we should be able to use that understanding to grasp some of the basics that also apply to our spiritual family. For starters, no family is perfect. No parent is perfect and no child in the family is perfect. That means that we had better figure out things like forgiveness, conflict resolution, teamwork, grace and the many other qualities necessary to enjoy happy family relationships. Did your physical family of origin have any dysfunctional aspects in it? Mine certainly did, enough in fact that I wrote a yet unpublished book about some of our dysfunction that I call “weird humor.” It was pretty weird, but we were still family and we still loved one another and we functioned reasonably well even in the midst of our dysfunction. You understand, right? You weren’t raised in a perfect family either, were you? If so, I would love to meet you and hear your story. You would be the first and only one on my list of perfect families.
But I Want a Perfect Church!
If you understand the basics of what I just said, then how could you expect the church to be perfect? Do you think the first century church was perfect? I know you can quote the last few verses of Acts 2 and say, “Yes, that was about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” But if you keep reading through Acts and the other writings describing the history of the early church, you are going to find out that the human element emerges. We wouldn’t have a New Testament if the early church had been perfect. Most of the epistles were written to correct wrong doctrines, wrong living and messed up relationships. Surprise, surprise – but what did you expect with human beings? My subheading for Romans 1-3 in my exposition of Romans is: “The Best of Us is a Mess!” And when you compare us to the standard of Jesus, only an idiot would argue with my wording. We are a mess.
So your church has problems that you would like to see fixed. I understand. I feel the same way. I imagine just about all of the members have a list mentally of what they would like to see done differently. But our lists don’t agree with each other on every point and maybe not even on most points. Through my ministry of over a half century, I’ve seen little groups with the same concerns, which could be called “gripes” if found in a not-too-spiritual group, but other little groups of folks have a different list. What bothers one doesn’t necessarily bother everyone else. But in our pride, we can come to think that we are zeroed in and if others are in the same ballpark of spiritual perspective we are, they will see it the same way. Are you starting to see the huge impact of our pride?
Perspectives Come From Focus
I am addressing much more than our perspectives here; I am addressing what gives us those perspectives in the first place. Our perspectives come from our focuses. Here’s my best illustration to make the point I am aiming at. I have been married for 56 years to Theresa. I am so much in love with her that I can’t keep from talking about her to others. One of my preacher buddies and his wife were once in the audience for one of my teaching days, and in one day, the wife counted how many times I mentioned Theresa. I think it was somewhere over 50 times. She then, with some edge to her voice, asked her husband why he didn’t mention her nearly as much in his preaching as I mentioned Theresa. I didn’t mean to get the dude in trouble. I just can’t help myself. I am married to a cutey pie, fun and funny little angel and I’m delightedly held captive by her. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it. I wrote a whole book about our marriage, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” (and mine did). One of the last books I wrote was “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.” It’s no surprise that one chapter was just about her.
BUT – there have been many times when I was so mad at her that I couldn’t see any of what I just said. She had become a little demon to me and not an angel. Have we had our so-called “bumps” in our relationship? Oh yes, in fact we have had our “mountains.” My perspective has in those times been so different than it is most of the time. Why? Because perspective is determined by focus! I had started focusing on her very few faults and stopped focusing on her multitude of positive qualities. If you are stupid enough to do that long enough, you may well end up in the divorce court. I usually come to my senses and repent pretty quickly, for she keeps being like Jesus even when I am being the opposite. It’s so humbling when she does that!
Now I don’t think you are stupid. I think you can make the connection and understand just how this illustration correlates to your view of the church. Your focus determines your perspective. If you are mainly negative toward the church, your focus is the reason. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and used the terms “rejoice” and “rejoicing” repeatedly. But who was rejoicing? Paul – not the church. Read Philippians and you will discover that the church had a number of problems which Paul was addressing. One of the ways that he was trying to help them was in using himself as an example. He was a prisoner in chains when he wrote the book and yet he was rejoicing. How in the world did he do that? Focus! Just listen to him.
Philippians 4:4-9 (NASB)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Did Paul know that the church had problems? Of course, that’s why he wrote the book, to help them start dealing with their problems and to make progress in being better children to God and better brothers and sisters to each other. Was he ready to give up on them and throw in the towel of being an apostle? Far from it. They were his family and he loved them. They were closer to him emotionally than his physical family members who were not in the church. Is that true with you? The answer you give is determined by your perspective and your perspective is determined by your focus.
How Can You Help With Change?
Thus far, I have addressed how we view and feel about the church. I can see a number of things about the church that I would like to see changed. I’ve never felt differently during my many decades in the church. I will never stop desiring to see every individual member, certainly including myself, become more and more like Christ. I will never stop desiring to see every church become more and more like Christ. After all, it is the church that is said to be the “fullness” of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). As individuals, we need to be full of Christ as his image bearers, but it is the church that is said here to be the flesh and blood demonstration of Christ to the world – his fullness.
That said, what are we to do with an imperfect church? You might ask yourself first what God does with it. What do you do with imperfect children or other imperfect family members? Cannot you see the connection? Can you make the connection personally? Better yet, will you make the connection? I see at least two ways we can deal with our imperfect church and I’ve tried them both. Hopefully, my example can help you with your decision about how to proceed.
Be a Constructive Critic
You can either be a constructive critic or a destructive critic. The former tries to help from within as a friend. The latter type ends up outside throwing stones and doing absolutely nothing to help anyone, least of all themselves. I became a part of what we now call the ICOC family of churches back in the summer of 1985 when we moved to San Diego to become a part of what we then called the “Discipling Movement.” Those two and a half years were the most beautiful ministry years of my life. The church had less flaws and more outstanding qualities than any I have ever been a part of. Theresa and I used to say that we thought we had died and gone to heaven. To all of those brothers and sisters there, some of whom are watching from above now, I praise and thank God for you.
But then we moved to Boston. The church in Boston was growing very fast and the growing pains were obvious. I saw things that I didn’t like or think right, and since it was the biggest church in our movement at the time with the greatest influence, it gave a pretty accurate picture of what our movement as a whole was like. I was one of the older leaders, and an implanted one from another family of churches. Most others like me who tried to become a part didn’t last long. They saw the flaws, focused on them and became such destructive critics that they left on their own or were asked to leave. Some of them were my good friends.
It was decision time for me. I unloaded my critical attitudes on people like Wyndham Shaw time and time again. I was mature enough to realize that I had one of two options. I could do like some of my friends did and end up throwing my rocks and flaming arrows of criticism from the outside, doing no one any good, or I could become a real insider and offer constructive critiques that might have a chance to yield some good influence for change. Of course, you know already that I chose the latter option.
Yes, a Critic Still
Was I a critic? Yes. Am I a critic? Yes. Wyndham and I wrote a book almost 20 years ago, “Golden Rule Leadership,” that called a number of our movement leadership practices into question. We got enough criticism from leaders that my wife suggested that we just get tee shirts made with a target on the back of them. Haha – but not too funny at the time. But that book made a difference. I later wrote “Dynamic Leadership,” and Wyndham wrote the Foreword to that one. I think it has made a difference too. I have spoken and written many, many things about us that could accurately be called constructive criticism. Some, usually better-known leaders with the most influence, have not appreciated my efforts. I think God has.
Here is what you cannot afford to miss – I am a constructive critic, registering my concerns as a trusted “insider” and not as an outside flame thrower. Isn’t that what the early apostles were in all of their corrections of wrongs within the church? They were a part of the family. I am a part of the family. If you are focused so much on the negative that your perspective is mainly negative, and you don’t have a mind change sooner than later, you will likely end up leaving. Although I would hate to see you leave, without a mind change, your negativity (which will come out of the pores of your skin if not your mouth) is going to hurt others, and those others are my brothers and sisters too. They have enough to deal with in this crazy COVID messed up world right now. They don’t need your negativity. Please, just take responsibility and repent instead of playing the victim card and blaming the church.
Who Gets the Blame?
Speaking of blaming the church for the things you don’t like, what does that even mean? You don’t blame the church; you blame the leaders. I know you do. They represent the church and are the ones guiding it and the only clear targets you have. Of course you blame the leaders. Leaders do carry much responsibility for the direction and condition of the church. That’s why they have qualifications and directions given to them in Scripture. I have personally fired or helped fire more leaders on staff than anyone I know. I have never subscribed to the “Old Boys Club” philosophy that staff members are untouchable. Quite the contrary. I have always quoted Spock from the old Star Trek series, when he said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Translated in spiritual terms, “The needs of the membership outweighs the needs of any ministry staff person.”
That said, having served on staff for about 50 years, I know the challenges. I know the burdens and the feeling that you can’t please everyone, and often don’t feel like you are pleasing anyone. I will not support unspiritual staff or unspiritual leaders in any role and my track record shows that clearly. But I will also absolutely refuse to focus on the faults of any leader or group of leaders and not note, and be thankful for, their hearts and efforts to serve. I’ve been a part of a number of different church ministry staffs. I may have had my reservations about some of the leaders, but not about most. I believe that most of them loved God and loved the church and were doing the best they could with the gifts that they had. No leader has all of the gifts. All of us wish we had more than we have and could do a better job of leading than we do. I also wish I could be a better husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. I wish I were more like Jesus. I’m trying very hard to become more like him and I will never stop trying.
We’ve been in Dallas for almost seven years. I was a part-time member of the ministry staff for the first year, but not since. I have been around many of our ministry staff members and I trust their hearts. I can’t speak with any certainty about what leaders in other places are all like. I suspect that the large majority of them are like the ones I know best. Their hearts are in the right places and they are trying to do their best for God. They are not ignorant of the fact that God expects more out of them than anyone else in the church. They know that they will one day stand in front of God to be judged. I trust that and I trust them. If I discover that they aren’t worthy of that trust, I will deal with it in the same way I always have and speak my mind. I will not be a gossip and slanderer and talk behind their backs. Doing that is the way to be the least like Jesus possible. He spoke up and he spoke out to the ones with whom he had issues. Are you imitating him or listening to Satan and being like Judas rather than Jesus?
The Most Important Focus of All
Let’s just assume that you are correct if you view the church of which you are a part as a really messed-up, broken church. What then, beyond what I’ve already addressed about focus and perspective? Christianity is much, much more about you and God than about you and the church, as important as the church is. Let me introduce you to a really messed-up, broken church – in fact one that God himself said was dead. Whoa? Yes, dead!
Revelation 3:1-5 (NASB)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
What did God do with this dead church? He called them to repent in no uncertain terms. But there were a few members who were worthy of the name of Jesus which they wore. What about them? What were they told to do? Start a new church, a small church and build it right? That sounds good, for if the good guys started it, it would be a perfect church or near perfect church, right? Our world is full of little church groups who have done exactly that – left their spiritual family, who certainly had their faults and probably plenty of them. But is that what God said to do?
What Jesus did say here is that one relationship is by far the biggest priority in Christianity – our relationship with him. All churches go through stages, ups and downs, better times and worse times. In the midst of that, I am responsible for my own personal relationship with God. The down times in churches and the down times in my own life have been historically the times when I have grown most in my personal relationship with God. On the Day of Judgment, God is not going to call us up by church group or by our physical family to give account. He is going to call us up one by one to give an account of how we have responded to him and his Son – and to the hard times in our lives.
Pulling out your victim card will not only do no good, it will make matters worse because you didn’t accept responsibility in how you handled this gift called life. There will be no one to blame besides yourself. We had better get a grip on these truths and respond accordingly. My religion and your religion are not about the church. They are bottom line about our relationship to God, but how you deal with your relationship to the church is going to be a fundamental part of how God views your relationship with him. The church is his family. It is called in Ephesians 5, “the bride of Christ.” I would suggest that you stop telling Jesus how ugly his wife is, and that begins with you ceasing to tell members who make up his collective wife the same. This is serious business. You and I are going to meet God, some of us much sooner than others.
How Did You Answer?
So how would you answer the question posed in the title of this article? Is your religion focused on Christ or the church? It had better be the former if you expect to please God and be right with him on the Day of Judgment. It is time to develop the right perspective by having the right focus. It is time to help the church change too, but through an approach that imitates Jesus. He came to minister to the sick, to effect change from within. Is your church in a bad place? Then why not be like Jesus and his apostles and try to help like they did (and still do)? Jesus was a critic for sure, but a constructive critic who identified with the sinners enough to become one of them and give his life for them. Does that describe you and me? It had better if we hope to spend eternity with him.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)
God is our Father and those of us in Christ are his specially adopted children – no truth in the Bible is more exciting! The cost of this adoption is the blood of Christ, which should humble us and fill us with a depth of gratitude that becomes our greatest motivation to serve. In fact, the fatherly love of God is what we are to imitate as we serve others in his name. Paul said it this way in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” As we imitate him and live a life of love, we surely must develop his heart for his children.
How does the love of God show up in his treatment of us? Keep in mind that this is the kind of love that we are to imitate as disciples and show to the world.
From his first contact with man until the present, God has shown himself to be a giver, not a taker. His concern is never what we can do for him, but only what he can do for us. He is absolutely selfless in his relationship to mankind. He gives and gives and gives some more. He is a Servant of servants, which explains how he can keep blessing us when we are unlovely, undeserving and unappreciative.
God does not take our sins against him personally, get his feelings hurt and pull his heart back. He keeps on giving in the hope that his kindness will once again lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When Jesus said that the first prerequisite for following him was sacrificial self-denial (Luke 9:23), he was only calling us to do what God has always done. Sacrifice is what God’s heart is all about – it is not something that he does, but something that he is. As you serve others, we must imitate that.
God shows us respect by treating us as individuals and by expecting us to be the individuals we have been designed to be. He does not expect us to be like everyone else, but to be the best that we can be. The command to “train a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) implies the need to understand who each person is and then help them to blossom into the plan of God for their life. Similarly, God does not try to force us into any mold that we were not made for, but patiently develops us into the mold for which we were originally designed – to be like Christ.
In essence, God shows us respect in order to help us become respectable. His approach is never to make us earn his favor by our performance, but rather, he treats us with love in order to help us grow and mature. As we work with others, we must give them what they need as an impetus to move them in the direction God has planned for them.
God uses any and every means available to help us grow into becoming like him. He has a multiplicity of circumstances and people he can call into play for our guidance, and he works everything out for our good. And our ultimate good is “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:28–29).
The greatest miracles, in my mind, are not the obvious ones in the Bible, but rather the everyday variety that are produced by God’s orchestration of so many behind-the-scenes details. To make the application to us as people helpers, we need to be getting as much (behind-the-scenes) input and help from others as possible. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We must continually be learners if we are to be effective teachers. Don’t be lazy and don’t be prideful; get help to be your best, and get the help from all available sources.
God’s love is positive in its expression to us. Positive reinforcement is one obvious demonstration of his kindness and gentleness. He knows exactly how to call us higher by encouraging us. It is easy to think that we help others improve by focusing on their weak points, believing that if they can just eliminate them, then they will really be great. The problem is that the other person’s self-esteem can take a beating in the process. God is full of encouragement as he generously expresses his love and commitment to us. With this approach, we can face critiques with confidence.
God is protective of us, choosing to expose our weaknesses in embarrassing ways only when we are stubborn and prideful. He works gently as he leads us to see ourselves and to resolve to change. Many of us can remember times in our childhood when we were embarrassed by teachers or parents in front of our peers. Such deep hurts are not easily forgotten. Thankfully, God is not that kind of parent. He deals with us gently and sensitively (Isaiah 42:3).
God never gives up trying to mold our characters and hearts into his own image. Gentle he may be, but sentimental he is not! The definition of discipling as “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied” finds its highest application in God’s approach with us. He never gives up and he never gives in. His attention to discipling is constant, for he always wants the best for his children. He perseveres with us far beyond what we can imagine. Just think of the story of the runaway son in Luke 15. No matter how long the rebellious son had been gone, the father in the story (representing God) never ceased to gaze at the horizon for any sign of his son’s return. When he caught a glimpse of him at a great distance, he literally ran to his son, eagerly accepted his repentance, and then quickly arranged a celebration party of grand proportions. God is determined to save us and determined to help us become the best we can be. How quickly and easily we can be tempted to give up on others. How unlike God we are when we do.
As we look at these amazing qualities of God as our Father, let’s determine to imitate them as fully as possible. He wants to express his love to others through us. Pray that others will feel his love through your love for them. Love like God loves, and both you and those around you will be filled with inexpressible joy. The love of God is the love of a perfect Parent. Embrace it for yourself, and then share it with others.
Handling Injustices and Ill Treatment Spiritually
Life is nearly always somewhat messy, right? Sometimes it is so messy that we generalize and just say it’s a mess. I’ve been at that point many times, one recently that I will mention before closing the article. But for whatever reason, I’ve been getting a number of phone calls from people who are either in the middle of a mess or have friends who are. In all cases, other church members are involved in the mess, most often leaders in one role or another.
That’s not surprising, for at least two reasons. One, leaders are humans and thus imperfect and sinners. Two, we interface more with them in situations that are likely to be challenging because their roles put them with us in those situations. Do I have issues with some leaders? Since I authored one of my longer books on the topic of leadership and co-authored another, you can no doubt answer my question pretty easily. Do I have issues with all leaders? No, because I refuse to generalize about leaders, churches and members of those churches. But the point is well taken that we humans who claim Christ will have challenges with other humans who share the claim of being his followers. Most often those challenges will involve leaders. No surprises there, for reasons noted.
With those observations as a backdrop, the biggest issue by far is how we respond to those challenges. The application of common sense is a good place to start. Humans are still humans even in God’s family. Further, Satan is alive and well on planet earth to the point that John the beloved apostle wrote that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Next, only a small minority of humankind is traveling the narrow road that leads to heaven (Matthew 7:13-15). Finally, in our quest for common sense on the matter, we need to realize that without a plethora of problems in the first century church, we wouldn’t have a New Testament (or if we did, it would be pretty short). With all of that in mind, let’s proceed with expectations that are at least within shouting distance of reality.
One of the mistakes I have made through the years is not always opening the Bible and looking at God’s words in print when giving spiritual counsel. I know the Bible well enough to work its principles into normal conversation and also to quote relevant passages from memory. In much of my spiritual counseling, I have used that knowledge in the way described. Although I believe I have been effective in most cases, I would have been more effective if the Book of books was open and we were reading it together. However, to avoid making this article overly long, I will do some paraphrasing along with some direct quoting. But I urge you to read the article with Bible open and read each verse as we discuss the passage.
God’s Directions Are Clear
When I say that his directions are clear, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to follow. Far from it. But if we truly want solutions, we can’t improve on what the Creator said about how his creatures should function. Many biblical passages could be listed here which would be quite applicable, but I will only mention the main three that I have been using lately. The first two apply to dealing with problems between individuals and the third applies to responding to broader church problems. In all three cases, I am going to offer my insights about the passages. Otherwise, if we but read them quickly, we might only catch the surface meanings and not the deeper, most important principles.
The Way of the Cross – 1 Peter 2:11-3:9
This is a long passage, but it is all about what might well be called the way of the cross. It begins under a heading in my Bible entitled, “Living Godly Lives in a Pagan Society.” Chapter 2:11-12 urges us to avoid sin because we are in a spiritual war and our lives should stand in stark contrast to any charges that others might make against us. Good introduction. Verses 13-17 admonish us to live a life of submission, beginning with submission to governmental rulers, and once again emphasizes the need to live in a way that that quietens the critics. In other words, be the real deal – walk the walk and not just talk the talk. He ends this section by saying that we should live as free people in showing respect to everyone and loving God’s family. But that lifestyle is described as living as God’s slaves.
Verse 18 introduces the final section of the chapter in addressing literal slaves and their behavior in response to their owners, regardless of whether they are kind or harsh masters. The way of the cross is about to go uphill fast with rocks strewn abundantly in the path. The word “slavery” catches in our throats in any combination of a discussion about Christianity. I understand. Slavery has been aptly labeled as the original sin of the United States. Yet in both the Old Testament and New Testament, slavery was regulated but not forbidden. Not only were there slaves in the first church, but slave owners. Because of this, many moderns have rejected the Bible and Christianity. Was slavery in the first century as bad as that in American history? I hope not, but I’m not sure we can be sure. Slavery would have to be viewed negatively in any setting in any century. Yet, Peter talks about it and uses Christ and the way of the cross as the solution in their setting.
1 Peter 2:18-23 (NIV2011)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
From the Sermon on the Mount forward, those who follow Christ are directed to respond to all kinds of ill treatment and injustices differently than those in the world respond. The concept of “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is repeated many times in many ways throughout the NT. Christians must live as examples of this principle if we are to follow Christ. It goes against everything in us to do it, and few have done it well, even among those who call themselves Christians. Seeking revenge is natural; refusing to seek revenge is unnatural.
Back to our passage. Slaves submit to even harsh masters because their first priority is pleasing their heavenly Master, and he is pleased when we imitate Christ. He says, “To this you were called” (verse 21), referring to imitating Christ’s example of enduring unjust, harsh treatment. Not only did he refuse to sin generally, but he refused to respond with retaliation to insults or threats when suffering. How did he manage such unnatural responses? He entrusted himself to God.
After all, did not God promise to work all things (good and bad) together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28)? Did he do it for Jesus? Does he now do it for us? Jesus died a gruesome death as a common criminal as people spat upon him and cursed his very name. Did that work out for good? Jesus thought so. We who follow him think so. If God managed that outcome in the midst of the most extreme circumstances, can he not manage it in your circumstances, as challenging as they may seem? Is God not still God? We all say yes intellectually, but saying it emotionally is quite often a different matter. At least that’s true for me.
Broadening the Principle – to Wives
In 1 Peter 3, God applies the same principle, the way of the cross, to three other situations. First, Peter addresses wives with knotheads for husbands, i.e., those who “do not believe the word,” whether as non-Christians or Christians who aren’t obeying what they profess to believe. Either way, they are knotheads. So what does the Christian wife do in such situations to follow the way of the cross? Note that this is still the principle being discussed, for he begins the passage with “in the same way.”
1 Peter 3:1-4 (NIV2011)
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Thus, wives are to be submissive to their husbands, with behavior that includes purity, reverence, a gentle and quiet spirit. They don’t react unspiritually to unspiritual treatment, but rather they go the way of the cross in following the example of Jesus. In verse 6, they are told that such responses can only occur when they don’t give in to their fears. What might those fears be? Probably that if they don’t fight back, they will become worse then doormats for their husbands to wipe their feet on. Did Jesus become a doormat for not fighting fire with fire? That certainly wasn’t his expectation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Does the way of the cross work? Will it work for you and me? Only if we do it consistently, not simply try it occasionally. As I said earlier, the way of the cross is a steep one full of obstacles (mostly ourselves).
Broadening the Principle – to Husbands
Next, Peter addresses husbands, but for only one verse. That is puzzling to me. Most of the problems in my marriage are my fault as the husband. Most of the problems in marriages I have counseled (hundreds) have been similar, with more of the fault on the husband’s side than on the wife’s side. Of course, there have been some notable exceptions, but not a great many. But no matter my puzzlement, Peter begins with “in the same way” again as he continues to elaborate on the way of the cross and what it looks like when applied to marriage for the husband.
1 Peter 3:7 (NIV2011) — Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
Thus, husbands are to be considerate, which carries the idea of considering or studying the wife in order to know her well enough to meet her needs (figure out her love languages and provide for them). Treating them with respect is what all people need, and given the patriarchy views held in the first century toward women and wives, that was unnatural. Unless we understand how wives in that era were viewed and treated by their husbands, we will likely underestimate the counter-cultural nature of what Peter wrote here. The way of the cross is unnatural, although with lots of practice and prayer it becomes more natural (thankfully).
Broadening the Principle – to the Church
I started to entitle this section, “Proceed With Caution – Hazardous Road Ahead!” You will see why in a moment.
1 Peter 3:8-9 (NIV2011)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
We know that Peter is making this application to the church, suggested by “Finally, all of you” and “to this you were called” (pointing back to verse 21 of chapter 2). How does the principle of the way of the cross fit the church and all of our relationships within the church? Just like the example of Christ, it applies in two ways: live righteously and refuse to respond unrighteously to unjust treatment. Peter begins with the ideal, the righteous part, which includes being unified, sympathetic, loving, compassion and humble. Amen – that is what the church ought to be like! Why isn’t my church like that (some are thinking)? Undoubtedly that is the goal and one worth striving for mightily.
But he is still addressing church relationships when he wrote verse 9. If we are not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult, that clearly implies that we are going to encounter such in the church. And right there lies the ultimate challenge. We expect to be treated badly by those in the world. We expect to find a safe haven in the family of God. When that expectation is dashed by a harsh dose of reality, it hurts and hurts badly. I recall the Proverb which explains why this is so true. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel” (Proverbs 18:19). When deeply wounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, how must we respond? “Repay evil with blessing.” Why? “To this you were called” – to the way of the cross, to imitate the example of Jesus suffering the greatest indignities possible.
Best Communication Principle in Scripture
The Bible is chock-full of teaching about communication with those outside the family of God as well as in it and within our own physical family relationships. All of these passages are jewels and golden nuggets. In my opinion, based on observation and personal experience, one rises to the top of the heap when dealing with challenging people in challenging situations. Here it is.
2 Timothy 2:23-26 (NIV2011)
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
We teach our kids not to use the word “stupid.” Overall, that’s a good idea, but Paul didn’t get the memo or at least the translators of this version thought that this word was the best translation of the Greek term, apaideutos. It is the only time the word is used in the NT. I like the word as it is translated here. Any married couple can tell you that the bulk of their arguments are actually pretty stupid and petty, focused on irritants and not real issues. If we don’t stop such arguments, they lead to longer lasting problems which are here termed quarrels, becoming something like an ongoing feud. But how do we avoid such disturbances in relationships and keep them from getting out of hand, and hopefully, end up with both parties in harmony?
First, just don’t allow that sinful part of your nature to take control of your emotions. Second, be kind to everyone, which in this context is applied to those who oppose you. Third, continue calmly trying to reason with those who do oppose you. Being “able to teach” means here controlling your emotions while continuing to reason. Refusing to talk is not the option given. Many people just shut down when they are mad or hurt. Most in this category justify their actions by explaining that silence is preferable to saying something that they will regret later. That sounds reasonable, of course, but it is not what the text says to do. Keep teaching, calmly. Difficult to do, yes, but as an emotionally based person, I assure you it can be learned and practiced.
Fourth, don’t take what is said to you personally. Otherwise, you will become resentful, angry and bitter (the normal progression of unchecked emotions in conflict). How can we do these things when what is said is hurting us, perhaps very deeply? How can we continue to gently instruct those who keep dishing out the pain? It’s actually a matter of recognizing the deeper issues of what is taking place. Your opponent in an emotional quarrel has been captured by Satan, who is now using the person to hurt and hopefully destroy you. The issues are really never about you and another human; they are about you, God and Satan; and them, God and Satan. It’s a spiritual battle taking place. God is always begging us to go the way of the cross and Satan is always begging us to do the opposite in taking the human way.
Since the captive is under Satan’s control, they are out of their senses. That’s why we must remain in ours, calmly and gently continuing to reason with them while we are praying that God will bring them to repentance. We cannot force anyone to repent, even ourselves. God is the one who grants repentance to all of us. Yes, we must at some point reach a desire to repent, or be willing to be made willing to repent, but God through his Holy Spirit must bring it about. If you believe this and pray as though you believe it, God will do it if it can be done in a given situation. Even if all of the right principles of dealing with difficult people don’t work on a given occasion, there’s always another day. God doesn’t give up on us; we must not give up on each other.
This passage, in combination with 1 Peter 2 & 3, provides us with powerful principles of allowing God to work his miracles in the middle of our messes. I have seen him do it time and time again in my life and in the lives of countless others. It is not as if these principles have been tried and found ineffective; they are just not often tried and employed consistently. The way of the cross in Peter’s writing is applied as the way of the godly communicator in Paul’s. Both employ the same two foundational elements: be righteous in your own life and refuse to be pulled into Satan’s world by those who are behaving righteously. Peter says to return blessings for evil treatment and Paul shows how to do it in the communication process. A beautiful combination of the same principle illustrated in two ways.
Handling a Bad Church Situation
Peter ends up his emphasis on the way of the cross as it applies to disciples with what we have already covered in 1 Peter 3:8-9. But the question of how to respond to a broader situation involving a church that is, or seems to be, going in a bad direction is another issue. The two are related, but different in some ways. One of the recent calls that I received came from friends who were members of a church that was doing well, but who had friends in another church that was doing badly from their perspective. Some members of that church had already left and others were contemplating leaving. My friends admitted that their discouraged and angry friends in the other church were responding poorly but had a lot of truth in what they were saying. I tried to help them help their friends using two approaches.
One was going through the same two passages we have just gone through. We may be a part of a fellowship, but we as individuals have declared Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. If he is our Lord, we cannot fail to listen to what he says and follow it to the best of our ability. What he says in our two passages is that receiving bad and unrighteous treatment is no justification for unrighteous responses to those inside or outside the church. Period. No excuses and no exceptions. The way of the cross is the narrow way of Matthew 7 and thus the way of salvation. Both righteous living and righteous responses are salvation matters. Satan will try to convince us otherwise, but don’t listen to all of his justifications and rationalizations. They lead to hell.
The passage I find very helpful in these situations provides us with an example of a church gone bad.
Revelation 3:1-5 (NIV2011)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
The church in Sardis was dead. The members thought otherwise. Other sister churches probably thought otherwise too. God told the truth and told it bluntly. He called the church to repent and if they didn’t wake up, he guaranteed disastrous consequences. His word is full of commands, not suggestions. He is not fooled, and he is not fooling around. I find myself wondering how many of our churches today are evaluated by him in exactly the same way. The Christianity of America is a watered-down, polluted version of what Christ established and still expects. Scary stuff, that.
The helpful verses in the plight we are describing about a church gone bad are verses 4-5. In spite of the deadness of the church as a whole, there were a few who were still walking the walk. What were they told to do? Leave the church? No, they were told to keep walking the walk, for their consequences were promises of walking with Jesus in white, that their names would never be blotted out of the book of the saved, and they would be acknowledged by Christ himself before all heaven.
Would I ever consider leaving one congregation to be a part of a better one? Perhaps, but I would not leave in the midst of a storm on bad terms with those whom I left behind. In that case, I would be taking my sins with me that violated the passages we have studied. Therefore, I would also be taking God’s judgment of those sins along with me. I’ve never seen an angry, bitter person change their hearts by a change of location without repentance. Satan will fill your ears and hearts with justifications and human reasoning to make you think otherwise, but nothing less than true spirituality is going to work in old or new locations. You may move, but your problem is that you are going to take yourself with you, and without repentance you are still going to be you. After the honeymoon of a new location wears off, your sins will catch up with you. They always do. The church at Sardis and all individuals who are caught up in sin are always given one solution and one solution only: repentance. Whether anyone else repents or not, you must.
So Where is God in My Mess?
The title of the article suggests that I am going to talk about my own personal mess at some point. What I am about to write delves into another aspect of handling injustice and ill treatment. The other segments of the article dealt with how to respond to hurtful issues at the hands of other people. What has not been addressed is for me a bigger issue than these others, by a wide margin. What do you do when this perceived bad treatment is coming, in one way or another, at the hands of God himself? My belief is that all that happens to me or you is either caused or allowed by him. He is somehow involved in all that I experience.
I have another article on this website which affirms that I have lost my faith in coincidences. I think God is somewhere in the mix of all that I experience, always has been and always will be. That’s a wonderful thought when my life is going according to my plan but can be extremely painful when it is going according to God’s plan which differs from mine. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t get super-spiritual here and pretend that you don’t. You have been upset at God too. The Psalmists certainly were at times and expressed it in print for future generations to read. I’m grateful for their gut-level honesty.
Up until now in the article, I have talked generally about the messes that we all find ourselves in as disciples and what God tells us to do to get out of them. Actually, he has to get us out of them, but we have to cooperate with him by listening to his directions and doing our best to put them into practice. In all three cases, we don’t have control with what is happening to us but we can have control over our responses. These responses can then have an effect, sometimes a very big effect, on those who are causing us grief. What may seem impossible can become possible by the power of God. We just have to cooperate with him by taking what he said seriously enough to follow through by obeying him. He is in the middle of our messes with us and has solutions. We just have to trust them and put them into action.
But what happens when you have done everything you know to do and prayed about all that you can think of and you are ready to just give up? All of your spiritual approaches to spiritual problems for spiritual solutions no longer work. What then? Where indeed is God in my mess? Ever been there? If you are human, I imagine that you have. I know I have and will again. As my dear departed brother Wyndham Shaw often said, “I’ve been up and I’ve been down and I will be both again.”
A Hell of a Year – and Beyond!
God is right in the middle of it with you, regardless of what the mess is and how bad it is. He is always working to get us out of it spiritually, if not physically. So here’s my most recent story about my current mess, an ongoing story at least in one aspect. 2020 was a very hard year for me, one of the worst in memory. As the old saying goes among older people, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” I think I did pretty well emotionally, spiritually and physically until about age 70. Moses did not write Psalm 90 without reason. Here’s the verse most applicable to this present discussion. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (verse 10). This was Moses’ only Psalm, and interestingly it was written during a period when life spans were typically longer. It was a type of predictive prophecy evidently.
I won’t list all of my life challenges of 2020, but the pandemic on top of it made for a really hard year. I was excited about the calendar hitting 2021 because life had to get easier, right? I’ve thought that many times at the end of a year and have most often been wrong. I most certainly was wrong this time. For just one example of my challenges, health issues were involved. I had one surgery at age four (tonsillectomy) and one in my early 60s. Since hitting 70, I’ve had five, the last of which was just over a week ago. Ten days earlier, I had a similar surgery and was called back into the doctor’s office for a consultation. I was told that the pathology report about the tissue removed for testing might be cancer and might not be. The test was inclusive in the opinion of three separate pathologists. So, ten days later I had a more invasive surgery to obtain a deeper tissue sample. I’m still awaiting the results to be relayed to me by my surgeon as of this writing.
But this issue was just one on top of a number of others that had raised my anxiety level to bad places. Yes, I did write a book about the topic of spiritual surrender. I have been fighting to surrender and stay surrendered pretty much all of my Christian life. It is not an easy war. I win individual battles from time to time when I am out of whack spiritually, and I have written a lot about my relationship to God and all that I have done to try maintaining a growth track. But keeping it real, this last year and a half has been the hardest period of a similar length in my entire life (and that’s saying a lot, by the way).
God – Brace Yourself!
A few days ago, my frustrations and anxieties caught up with me and I poured them out in print to God as a prayer. As I wrote, I came to realize that underneath it all I was angry with him. My conviction that all that happens in life is either caused or allowed by him left me feeling that he had pushed the edge and I was about to go over it. ALL OF THIS WASN’T RIGHT AND IT WASN’T FAIR! Where was God in my mess anyway? In reading the Psalms, I am sure that God can handle our emotions, even when we are at our worst and dumping all of our pain and sins on him. We have to do that with our own kids, don’t we? Why wouldn’t we think he is willing to do the same with us? He had Paul write that passage in 2 Timothy 2, which must mean that he practices it with us.
I told him in this wacko prayer that I knew my view of him, him and me, and life in general was messed up and it was my fault. In fact, everything was my fault – always! I further explained that I felt as if the old humanistic saying were correct: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Thus, I needed to change my perspective on everything I was thinking and feeling. But I simply could not do it. And he would not, or so it seemed to me. I said all of that ridiculous stuff, and a good deal more. I told him I would just settle for being like a teenager saying, “Whatever!” when I couldn’t get my way. I would just keep going but with clenched teeth and rolling eyes. Thus ended my prayer. I could not change myself and God refused to do it for me. I felt like the writer of Psalm 88 as he ended the Psalm by saying, “Darkness is my closest friend.”
Gordon, you actually said all of that stuff to God? Yes, because if we think it he already knows it and we might as well say it. I had hit rock bottom – hard. Like Job, I was wishing October 27, 1942 had never occurred. That was the day I was born. Nothing happened in the next few hours to change my thinking. I didn’t get a phone call or a card of encouragement. Nothing happened out of the ordinary. Doom and gloom prevailed. My normally encouraging wife understood me well enough to just stay out of my way and let me fight my own battle with God. I described that morning to myself and later to others as having wrestled with God until he pinned me to the ground by my neck and forced me to cry, “Uncle!” through clenched teeth. He won, decisively. I was beaten and as disheartened as I could remember. It was, using the phrase from a very old movie, a “bad day at Black Rock!”
Out of the Clear Blue, a Miracle
Then a few hours later, a miracle occurred. All of a sudden, without warning, I was clothed and back in my right mind. Not one thing changed except my heart, and that without any human explanation – none. Amazing! I was simply staggered for a moment, and then began laughing and joking with God about the battle as I marveled at what he had obviously done. I have reached the point of absolute surrender many times through the years. I know when I am there, because in the words of Philippians 4:7, I find a peace from him that transcends all understanding. In that unexpected moment, I had it once again.
Most of my full surrender times in the past came when I was genuinely trying to surrender, using all of the spiritual approaches that seemed to aid in the process (and I have many). Not this time. I was doing nothing, for I had completely given up. I had hit rock bottom and was looking down, not up. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all changed. God was making his point loud and clear. He wanted me to know beyond doubt that it wasn’t up to me. It was beyond me. But nothing was beyond him, even dealing with a totally defeated and hopeless idiot.
The frustrations on my list, including not hearing back from the doctor about my test results for what seems an inordinate amount of time (well over a week after the surgery I still haven’t heard), no longer mattered. God is in control. He can do what he wants to do when he wants to do it in any way he wants to do it. That’s all in his realm, not mine. I belong to him. He promised to take care of me and that’s all I need to know. I’m sitting on the back of this bus called life and he is the driver. My world is back on its axis and whatever comes down the pike of life will be just fine, up to and including death.
We would do well to read Psalm 139 regularly and meditate on its grandeur. I especially find comfort in this verse: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (verse 16). Let’s just relax and enjoy the ride. It’s pretty much a roller coaster ride, but those are my favorite rides at amusement parks anyway. I’m not at all surprised that God fashioned my life to fit such a ride spiritually and emotionally. It’s been quite a ride, Father, and although we are nearing the end of it, I still love the thrill of it, especially in those days when you do the unexpected and inexplicable – a “God thing.” You are indeed in the big fat middle of my mess, the mess that is me, still loved and cared for by you. End of story (or this current chapter at least). Thank you, Lord, for still being in there with me. When I get it all on straight with you, fully surrendered, other issues in life are just not that significant. Pretty cool, or as my grandsons would say, pretty dope!