Paradise Falls

“I wonder what my Paradise Falls in my life will be”

A singular quote from a text message conversation I had with my best friend tonight. Up is a great movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is also an emotionally powerful movie, which plays off a reality most people tend to ignore; our dreams may never come true.

For the past few years, I have spoken at length to anyone who would listen about our cultural tie to the American Dream and how we must inevitably face its death. I think I have spoken so much on the topic that it has become old hat for me. It doesn’t tickle my fancy as much as it used to. But the conversation tonight lit a spark, and I wanted to capture it before it was lost.

We all have our own American Dream. That’s what is so tantalizing about it. It’s not just that we all have one, and it is personal and personalized to us, but because we have the wealth and opportunity to believe it could all happen. The American Dream has never seemed more real. It has never been more within our reach. And whatever our dream is, we have become slaves to it and the hope that it may one day come true.

We have been given a moral directive to pursue these dreams. We should pursue our dreams, otherwise we let ourselves down. We become “untrue” to ourselves. We must seize the moment! We cannot waste a minute of our lives. We must live to the fullest. It is the lie of the devil to convince us that heaven can be attained on earth so we will not need or want a Heavenly Father. Anything He can offer us then pales in comparison to the great dream we have built for ourselves here. At times, it can be astonishing, and downright embarrassing, how easily we are fooled and led astray from what is good to what we hope to be.

But the dream eventually fails us. The illusion will eventually become exposed. Whether it is now or 50 years from now determines the course of our life. Will we continue to be a slave to our dream? Or will we give it up willingly and pursue what we are being led to? Shall we continue to kick against the goads?

This is not my intended post on “Home,” but I find that this topic leads into it well. It may also be that I am too ambitious in the territory I want to cover with that post. I may have to break it up into pieces.

What will your Paradise Falls be? You may already be chasing it.


Embracing the chains for Christ

“One of our workers in the underground Church was a young girl. The Communist police discovered that she secretly spread Gospels and taught children about Christ. They decided to arrest her. But to make the arrest as agonizing and painful as they could, they decided to delay her arrest a few weeks, until the day she was to be married. On her wedding day, the girl was dressed as a bride – the most wonderful, joyous day in a girl’s life! Suddenly, the door burst open and the secret police rushed in.

When the bride saw the secret police, she held out her arms toward them to be handcuffed. They roughly put the manacles on her wrists. She looked toward her beloved, then kissed the chains and said, “I thank my heavenly Bridegroom for this jewel he has presented to me on my marriage day. I thank Him that I am worthy to suffer for Him.” She was dragged off, with weeping Christians and a weeping bridegroom left behind. They knew what happens to young Christian girls in the hands of Communist guards. Her bridegroom faithfully wait for her. After five years she was released – a destroyed, broken woman, looking thirty years older. She said it was the least she could do for her Christ. Such beautiful Christians are in the Underground Church.”
Passage from Tortured for Christ, by Richard Wurmbrand
When I read this on the plane, I started to weep. The little boy beside me looked up at me wondering why I was so emotional with what I was reading. I wish… I wish I had words to say at that moment. To share this gospel that we have…this Christ. But I was at a loss. I was grieved at the injustice and the atrocities for sure; the book is not shy about mentioning some of the horrors that happened under the Communist regime. But I think what struck me the most was the hope that was stolen from her that day (from my privileged Western perspective, the hope of marriage, love and purity) and the juxtaposition against the fact that her hope was, in fact, not stolen from her. She kissed her chains. She thanked her heavenly Father. She chose the cross, as her Saviour once did. And she received her cross with joy. Such bravery, such faith. It is a beautiful thing… and yet… how my heart grieved so.

Mourning with others well

The following is a paraphrase from the end of a sermon, which can be found here. It is but a small part of the sermon, and by no means summarizes it. I happened to catch on this point and wanted to respond to it.
We look for magic pill answers in dealing with our issues and our struggles. When our non-Christian friends come to us looking for an answer with their own struggles, looking for solace in religion, they see us as cheap and shallow in our responses. Our answers are no better than what they have already. How can we offer comfort to others in suffering when we do not know how to wrestle with suffering ourselves?
Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to start and lead a grief ministry at my church. Having done very little grief counseling, I researched in the area of grief and came away feeling overwhelmed. I was not surprised to see that our culture has no idea of how to respond or cope with grief. However, I was surprised at the journey of empathy God led me on as I dove into this. I found myself weeping with the sorrow and pain of others. I found myself constantly at a loss of words. I felt hugely inadequate. While I felt I could potentially grow into the role of grief counselor, there was no way I was ready to recruit and train a team of grief counselors.
Now, two years later, having pursued an entirely different avenue of ministry, I find that I have developed skills on parallel branches of the same tree. I have identified the following faults in the way people try to support their friends or loved ones in time of emotional duress. The following is a brief list of what not to do.
  1. Quoting scripture at the person in duress.
    1. This is a no brainer. How many people have quoted “God has plans to prosper you…” or “God is in control” after you shared a deep and personal struggle or loss? More often than not, this wasn’t what you needed at the time. More than likely, you needed a listening ear and a sympathizing friend.

  1. Gently accusing the person of having insufficient faith or not having prayed enough.
    1. This really is a parallel of number one. But I wanted to set this apart because while scripture can sometimes feel deceivingly safe to do, telling someone that they don’t have enough faith is simply ignorant and insulting. Just don’t do it.

  1. Trying to push the feelings of hurt or sadness aside and opting for the happy feelings. This is usually done through jokes, movies, songs, games, and other tools of diversion.
    1. There is a time to set aside feelings of hurt and sadness, but this should not always be the first response to a person in need. Use discernment. Listen to the person. Are they venting? Are they getting something off their chest that needs to unburdened? Or are they dwelling and reliving past memories for the 10th time? If it is the former, let them vent. To take that away from them will make you an unsafe friend and cause a loss of trust.

  1. Unable to handle silence.
    1. There have been countless times I have had a friend request that I sit with them. They didn’t ask for advice. They didn’t have anything to share. They just wanted the company of a friend who will be present with him or her. Having a friend there is sometimes an anchor to reality. It is also a ward against loneliness and thoughts of despair. But more importantly than that, it is a sign of love of one friend for the other. It is silently saying to a person “I am here for you” without going through the act of saying “I am here for you” and then walking away.
    1. Conversely, don’t feel pressure to break the silence. I know it’s uncomfortable. I know it is awkward. But deal with it. And here’s how: You don’t have to be a savior. You don’t have to say the right words to make things right or better. You’re not there to take away the pain; You are there to share it. If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable, you’re doing something right. And don’t try to be a hero and think of smart things to say. If that’s the case, you’re not doing it for your friend anymore, you’re doing it for you. Don’t take advantage of a friend’s grief as an opportunity to boost your ego or feel like a great hero. Nothing is worse than having a blabber mouth companion blindly trying to make you feel better when all you wanted was a companion to sit with in silence. Anything you say now, even if it has a positive effect, will be momentary and fleeting anyways. But allowing a person to grieve in silence with your company will last far longer than your words ever will.

So those were a few don’t dos (with a couple of dos thrown in) when comforting a friend. Here are a few dos to help your efforts in supporting your friend.

  1. Mourn with those mourn
    1. This is scriptural, but it has not always been clear what this means. It means to shoulder the burden with those who are mourning and suffering. It means to feel their pain and to empathize with them. It means to feel grieved, or hurt, or a sense of loss. It means to cry with them if you have the tears. It means to sit in silence with them if they are silent. It means to talk and process together the thoughts and feelings. This is an opportunity to stand side by side with your friend and see things from his or her perspective.
    2. This does not mean you have to agree with everything they say or believe. If a person says out loud, “I think so-and-so is a rotten jerk and I hope he gets what he deserves,” you are not required to say “Yes! He is! And I hope he gets what he deserves ten fold!” This is especially true if you know that so-and-so is not a rotten jerk and probably doesn’t deserve anything on the order of what your hurting friend is imagining. However, you may gracefully agree that what was said or done was hurtful, and that you wish it didn’t happen that way. You can tell your friend that you are sorry or sad that your friend is in the situation he or she is in. There are many ways to express sympathy and empathy without having to agree with angry and over the top remarks, especially if they are not true. As a side note, if they are not true, don’t feel the need to correct him or her right away. Wait for him to calm down a little. Speaking up for the truth will eventually happen. It just doesn’t have to happen right then and there in the heat of the moment.

  1. Be Christ to the person who is in grief
    1. In lieu of telling this person that God loves them, be the living image of God. Be Christ to the person. Don’t just talk about Christ love, show Christ love. Look down inside and recall that Christ lives in you. You simply need to bring him out. Let the love of Christ guide your actions, your deeds, your words and thoughts. Let His love flow through you and into the person you are ministering to. Remember that this isn’t about you or what you can do. It is about allowing yourself to be an instrument in the hands of God at a very appropriate time. I easily could have listed this as the first item, but I chose to put it second for special emphasis. You can mourn with others well if you have practiced it and done it often. But if you haven’t, then asking Christ to reveal himself in you to your friend will allow you to reach a level of compassion and mercy that you couldn’t have done otherwise. Let it pervade your thoughts and actions. Let your every move be motivated by Christ love. In doing so, I can assure you that you will support your friend well. And all of the following steps will be accomplished with compassion.

  1. Cry, if you have the tears
    1. Don’t be afraid of crying. And especially don’t be afraid if your friend is crying. Crying is a cathartic experience. And cutting it off mid-weeping is just as awful as forcing someone to stop mid-laughing. Or mid-sneeze. If a person is willing to trust you with their tears, don’t lose their trust by trying to get them to stop. Sit with them. You don’t need to say anything. If appropriate, you can put a hand on a shoulder. Find tissues. And don’t stop yourself from crying either if you feel them welling up inside of you. Let them out. Cry together. It is a heavenly experience.

  1. Honor the good
    1. Ask questions if and when it is appropriate. Acknowledge what was lost. Laugh about what was good. Ask about what was lost. Ask about what is worth celebrating and remembering. Do your best to see the whole picture. And in doing so, you will give the person an opportunity to see the whole picture as well.

  1. Be ok with saying “I don’t know.”
    1. At some point in time, someone will ask a tough question. At some point in time, you will feel pressured to give a really, really good answer. Either an answer that will make them feel better, or an answer that is theologically true. They are not always mutually exclusive. It probably depends more on the person receiving the answer than it does on the answer itself. Regardless, don’t feel the pressure to provide an answer. They usually don’t help anyways. It is more than likely better to say “I don’t know” and respond at later time, after having a chance to think about the question and possibly even asking someone else for their thoughts. Tough times bring out tough questions. Questions that you may never have pondered deeply or found adequate answers to. Remember, just because you think you heard a “good” Christian response to a question before, it doesn’t mean that it will be good in the context you are being asked. It is better to back off and provide no information than to provide information that will hurt more in the moment.

That is all I have for now. But I believe that following these basic principles will take you a long way in helping a friend get through a tough time. Showing a loving attitude towards someone goes a lot farther than having a smart, book answer. Shedding tears with someone as they weep goes much farther than telling a joke and trying to change the subject. Honor the trust that you have been given by your friend. If they are willing to divulge their pain with you, be trustworthy enough to share it with them.

Three thoughts in response to a reading

“As in the book of Daniel when the three young men who were put in the furnace did not smell like fire upon being delivered from it, so the Christians who have been in Communist prisons don’t smell like bitterness against the communists.

A flower, if you bruise it under your feet, rewards you by giving you its perfume. Likewise Christians, tortured by Communists, rewarded their jailors by love. We brought many of our jailors to Christ. And we are dominated by one desire: to give Communists who have made us suffer the best we have, the salvation that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.”
–Richard Wurmbrand, founder of Voice of the Martyrs
from Tortured for Christ
I take three things away from this passage. The first is for me right now. The second is for me and for others; an analogy to be shared. The third I have known all along, and yet fail to practice with consistency and integrity.
1) Do not become what you are immersed in. I can not be tainted or covered by something I am even intensely affected by. I must wear the coat of Christ love to repel such things, so that they do not become stuck to me. I must fan into flame the fire of Christ inside, that I may stay the same. Do not become corrupted. Be set apart. be holy.
2) When we are crushed, what does it reveal inside of us? Is it anger? is it bitterness? Is it love? Is it grace? With what do we color the foot that stomps on us? Am I the flower that perfumes the foot that stomps me? Or am I the bitter root that leaves the stink of anger and resentment?
3) Do I respond in love to the people who hurt me? Even worse, the people who intentionally hurt me? We excuse ourselves when we offend someone by saying “it was not my intent,” but this is wrong on two levels.
Firstly, intentional or not, we must own our wrongs and the offenses we give. We must make reconciliation and if applicable, recompense. A man who runs over his neighbor’s dog does not excuse himself by telling the boy it was unintentional. Is that much better than if it were? What consolation does this offer the boy who has lost a cherished pet and friend? The man must acknowledge the wrong he had committed and the grief he has caused.
Secondly, the person affected by a wrong must not be hung up on whether something is forgivable based on intent. Ultimately, we are called to forgive. To hold on to anger and unforgiveness hurts everyone: Christ, the offender, and the offended. I once heard that unforgiveness is like swallowing poison and waiting for the offender to die. Unforgiveness may affect the offender, but it will never harm him as much as the one who withholds forgiveness.
All of this is an aside. All offenders, intentional or not, are our enemies at the moment the offense is given. How we respond to our momentary enemy reveals our heart. Do we love this enemy? Do we see him as Christ sees him? Do we see in him the imago dei (image of God)? Do we see Christ in him, whom Christ himself suggested we should provide a drink of water? Or do we see him as an enemy. An offender. An invader of our boundaries and a destroyer of our peace? Is he an adversary whom we must steel ourselves against? Do we raise up the walls of defense? Or worse yet, are the words of the counter-assault already on our lips before we know what we are saying?
How do we react to our enemy-in-the-moment? Do we love him or hate him? Do we give him the best we have?