Posts Tagged hope

I Am Not a Cat

But you can see that, I suppose.

How are you doing? As of this past weekend, we are eleven months into operating under pandemic restrictions. A year ago today, what did you think mattered? What were you looking forward to and what were you dreading? Thinking about this reminds me of how bad we all are when it comes to our assumptions about the future.

But that works both ways, too. Whenever you find yourself thinking, “This problem will never get better,” I want you to remember that you don’t have a great track record of predicting your own future. Most of our assumptions about our own futures are based on way too little information. And we get lulled into a false sense of foreknowledge because just assuming that the future will be like the past does, in fact, work up to a point–but then when that point comes we are suddenly wildly off track and totally unprepared.

That’s how comedy works, by the way. It’s where the “rule of three” in humor writing comes from. A joke is something that intentionally sets up an expectation by drawing to points on a graph, daring us to assume we know where the third point on the line will go, only to smash our expectation with a punch line that shows the line wasn’t a line at all but a curve. Our momentary resorting of our expectations versus our results, and the tension and release that comes with that, is the core of comedy.

Where am I going with this? Well, on a serious note, I hope you are finding ways to laugh, to surprise yourself, to humbly acknowledge your ignorance, and to experience an occasional catharsis of endorphin-releasing light happiness. Because statistics say you could probably use it. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are sharply up over the past several months, and people are hitting the COVID wall.

We’re not out of this, yet, and it can feel like we’re swinging from one hoped-for turning point to another like a crazed trapeze artist sometimes. For awhile, people took solace by saying blaming the year, but going from 2020 to 2021 didn’t seem to make a big difference. Maybe a new President of the U.S. will make things better? Not instantly, at least. Yay, there’s a vaccine? But…not really sure when we will all actually get it.

Things are progressing. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. But sometimes looking forward to relief turns into a spiral of disappointment and impatience. Sometimes (often) the best thing to do is to let go of the future a little, and focus on the very immediate present. When the people cried out to the Lord because they had been forcibly relocated from their homes to the strange land of Babylon, they were told through the voice of the prophet, Jeremiah to settle in and make a life, and to stop yearning to go back to how things were:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:5-7

So look for what’s good right in front of you. And find ways to be a part of what’s good in the immediate lives of others around you, too. There are steps you can take to shore up your emotional resiliency. Prayer, meditation, laughter, humility, and useful service are all healthy parts of living purposefully in the present. I encourage you to pursue them.

And, like I said in a sermon two Sundays ago, read the Word. Not just as a form of instruction, but also as a means of connection with the Lord.

Speaking of reading the Word, I am planning a new online group that will be starting in a couple of weeks: “Let’s Read: The Easter Story According to Luke”. Starting a week from next Wednesday (February 24th), and for six Wednesdays leading up to Easter, I will facilitate an online group for reading and discussing the Gospel of Luke’s account of the Lord’s final week on earth. This group is open to interested people everywhere through the Grand Human Project. So mark your calendars. I’m looking forward to exploring this story with you all.

That’s it for now. Have a great week.

[Chekov’s Cat Reference]

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Despair

For some reason, I know quite a few people who have recently taken their own lives. I don’t know how much of it is because becoming a pastor a few years ago has circumstantially put me in closer contact with more personal tragedies than I would otherwise be aware of, or if it is because suicide is on the rise, or maybe if it is just bad luck. But what once was a rare horrible shock is starting to turn into more of a familiar, terrible, recurring pain.

I’ve read quite a bit on the natural and psychological causes of suicide. Suicide is usually linked to either mood disorders, personality disorders, or substance abuse. Also, along with the typical addiction, schizophrenia, depression, etc, there are often life circumstances that compound the situation. People who attempt to end their own lives often feel trapped, unable to escape, without hope, afraid. Often, they feel despair.

But despair can come from other causes, too. Not all despair is due to a chemical imbalance making it impossible for a person to have the right perspective to see that suicide is a permanent non-solution to a temporary problem. There is also spiritual despair.

Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change. Despair is often the final stage of the spiritual trials we call temptations. Spiritual despair causes you to feel like you’re drowning, like you’ve been punched in the gut, like you’re trapped under the ice, like you can’t draw a breath and soon will suffocate if you can’t manage to somehow escape the flood and suck in some air. In despair, things that once seemed certain–the existence of God, the love of friends, the value of life–fall to doubt and even rejection.

I’ve been there. I have been certain that life has no meaning. I’ve been convinced there’s no hope for my soul. I’ve never been suicidal. But I most certainly have despaired.

I’m not saying most suicides are connected to spiritual temptation alone. As I said earlier, suicide is heavily linked with mental illness. Usually it involves someone whose brain is not allowing them to see the full spectrum of possibilities in their lives. Depression is a natural ailment, but it imitates a spiritual one, and hell will use any tool it can get its hands on to destroy a person. So there is a spiritual component to suicide. Just not the one most traditionally expounded by western religions. The Christian idea of suicide as a special kind of sin comes from medieval theologians, not the Bible. Yes, suicide is horribly hurtful to all the people left behind; it is evil. But committing suicide doesn’t have any special go-directly-to-hell-do-not-pass-go rules associated with it. It is one more short-sighted, hurtful mistake among the thousands we humans often commit.

But despair is evil. It is not evil to despair, but to cause it. We are spiritual beings, surrounded by an unseen world that influences us nonetheless. There is a heaven and there is a hell, and hell doesn’t like you very much. Despair is a powerful tool for hell.

Despair can cause you not only to kill yourself physically, but to attempt spiritual suicide as well. To decide, “Well, I’m not the sort of person that belongs in a church.” To say to yourself, “What difference does it make what decision I make. It’s not like I’m ever going to heaven, anyway.” To declare, “There is no God, so it doesn’t matter which decision I make.” Despair sets you up for the next temptation, shatters your resolve so that you backslide into behaviors you had been trying to break free from. Like going on an eating binge just because you slipped once in your diet, despair can trigger a series of decisions that themselves lead to even more despair.

Don’t let despair get you. Spiritual despair tells you that you are no good. It’s a nasty trick, because it takes the very true idea that all goodness comes from the Lord, and turns it on its ear. The Lord said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me you can do nothing.” Despair says there is no God, so there is no good. Or if there is a God, he wouldn’t help you, because you are no good.”

That’s a lie. The Lord is forever flowing into ever person’s heart, inspiring in every person a desire to do good. You just have to accept it. You have to give it a place in your heart to land. True, you cannot overcome your spiritual temptations, but if you let Him, the Lord can.

When someone is drowning, they will instinctively act in ways that make it hard to save them. A drowning person is a dangerous thing. Ask a lifeguard. When you are in spiritual despair, your instincts are all wrong. Stop flailing. Surrender. Ask the Lord to save you from your despair, and then wait. He will save you, if you give Him permission. And He promises that after despair comes comfort. That after struggle comes rest. After combat, victory. Read the Psalms.

Moreover, when you are in despair, you are on the threshold of something good! Read Seth Godin’s The Dip. We often quit the wrong things at the wrong times. The great things in life only come after struggle.

Read through Secrets of Heaven. Over and over you will see references to spiritual rebirth as a result of spiritual struggle. And know that hell wouldn’t need to attack so fiercely if heaven wasn’t just around the corner.

My friend Jason killed himself a few days ago. I’m angry. Sad. Guilty. Irrational. Heartbroken. Full of “what if”. None of what I write here changes anything for him. It doesn’t give his family what they most want. It doesn’t undo the pain his friends are in.

But maybe some day you will be in despair, too. And maybe some tiny spark hidden deep within you will latch on to some small part of what I’ve said today. And it will give you the strength to get your head above the flood one more time, for one more breath. And you will be able to hold out, to buy time, to do whatever you need to do to get through your spiritual struggle so you can return to a place where hope again shines.

God Himself has felt it. He knows what we go through. He’s been there. And He’s defeated it. And if you let Him, He’ll defeat it for you, too. In Secrets of Heaven it says this:

All temptation is attended with some appearance of despair; otherwise it is not temptation… They who are being tempted are brought into anxieties, which induce a state of despair concerning the end: the very combat of temptation is nothing else… As the Lord endured the most direful and cruel of temptations of all, He, also, could not but be driven into despairs, which He dispelled and overcame by His Own Power.

Faith saves. But faith isn’t saying a certain prayer, or making a certain statement. Faith is living as if you trust that the Lord will save you. And to be able to honestly have that trust, you need to make an effort. Fight on a little longer. Do something for someone else no matter how you feel about yourself. Take another breath. Trust in the Lord, and He will keep His promises.

I could say, “Don’t despair.” But despair happens without our choosing. Rather, when you despair, hope anyway.

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