comfort

Theology Now

or, “When Faith Kicks in for Real”
by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I went on a 20 mile hike with my 9 year old son last weekend.  We took a couple of days, camped overnight, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Except the last four miles.

It started with two rumbles of thunder.  The rain turned on like a faucet. This was not wholly unexpected.  The forecast had predicted “scattered storms”.  We donned our ponchos and put away our lunches.  We, wisely or foolishly, chose to hike through it, since we were pretty close to the end.  I believed the storm would be over quickly.

I was wrong.  The rain persisted.  Thunder and lightning rolled, becoming if anything more frequent.  We hiked off the hilltop and were working our way down into the valley.  My son was nervous about the rain and the lightning, especially the close ones (I was too, but I tried to keep a brave face on for his sake).  Half an hour into the storm when the hail started falling, he became terrified.

We found a  fairly large bent tree trunk to hide behind.  It was enough to deflect most of the hail, but not all.  Both of us took a few hits. That had to have been the longest ten minutes of the whole trip, when dime-to-quarter sized chunks of ice were falling around and on us, lightning blasting overhead followed by deafening thunder and torrential rain. I seriously considered getting out our cooking gear and wearing the pots on our heads.

I knew that hail typically lasts only about 10 to 15 minutes, if that.  I did not know if we could expect larger hail than that which was currently pelting us. I didn’t know if there was a tornado in the vicinity.  My son was crying and starting to seriously freak out.  I was well on my to “Really Frightened” myself.  One of my most immediate thoughts was, “REALLY, God?  This couldn’t wait another hour or two?”  And then I thought, “What have I done to my son?”

I had been praying since the rain began.  Finally, faith kicked in.  I had a “Theology Now” moment.  I took my son’s face in my hands, looked into his eyes, and said (speaking as much to myself as to him), “As much as I love you, and would do everything I could to protect you and keep bad things from happening to you, God loves you more than I ever could.  He doesn’t always keep us from getting hurt, but he Always, Always loves and protects his children.  He is looking out for us right now, even though it might not seem like it.”

The hail stopped a few minutes later, as I knew it probably would.  The storm continued for another two and a half hours.  We survived, though we were thoroughly soaked and very, very tired of rain and lightning.

Theology Now is when the rubber meets the road in faith-land.  It is when what you say you believe meets up with what you really believe deep down.  It is the moment when the truth of doctrine pushes on and stretches our limitations and grows our capacity for real, honest-to-goodness trust.

The funny thing is that these moments don’t usually happen in the sunshine.  They usually happen right in the middle of an obnoxious storm.  We must be challenged, stretched, and tested painfully in order to grow our faith.  In this way, God often allows storms and painful times into our lives because he loves us. We must come to the end of our own strength in order to find and believe in His strength on our behalf.

–JH

Facing Plenty

By Jonathan Hart, LPC


Philippians 4:12-13 (ESV)
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.


The concept of “facing plenty” has bugged me for a long time.  We don’t often use the language of “facing…” when we are talking about a good thing.  “I was facing a time of wealth and comfort, but I made it through by the grace of God.”  But this is the language Paul uses: plenty and abundance are something to be faced, in a parallel way to facing lack and poverty.  There are unique challenges in having plenty and abundance, and they can be as difficult as having want and need.


Part of the challenge, I think, comes from our habit of thinking that plenty and abundance are “the norm” and that anything less is a burden to be borne and overcome as soon as possible.  I can’t imagine relating to abundance in this way.  “I have too much money.  I have to get rid of it somehow and get back to scraping by from check to check!”  How many people are dropping into horrific debt in order to “maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed”?  


When we are in pain, grief, loss, hurt, or distress, we do one thing uncommonly well: we complain.  We articulate our pain, we feel every inch of it and talk about it in the hopes of finding someone who can identify with it and tell us it’s OK to feel that way about it.  What if we “complained” about our abundance the same way?  What if we treated our abundance and surplus the same way we treated our challenges and loss?  We don’t often do this because of our misconception that plenty and abundance are the norm: we are entitled to them and therefore they are not noteworthy.

I encourage many people to “wallow” in their good times, to store them up in memory and savor them richly.  I encourage people to concentrate on being fully present in the joy of the moment and holding on to it so that when it passes (as it inevitably will), we can more fully recall it and taste it again in our mind.  Articulate and “complain” about how good things are, much as we articulate and complain about our pain, because joy and pain alike are part of living in a broken world.

I am not talking about disassociating from joy and pain, as much of Christianity is taught to do: “Times are bad, but the joy of the Lord is my strength!!  I don’t feel the pain because Jesus is so good!”  I am actually encouraging us to feel the joy – and the pain – more fully.

This practice can give us much more resilience and strength to last through the difficult times.  We can soothe our hearts and minds on the fact that pain and shortfall are not all that has ever been, that resources come and go, that pain, like joy, is temporary in this life.  The seasons continue to turn, and life is more than this present moment;  the joy of last year still exists, even though this moment is hard, and the joy that I knew then will come again in time.

This practice helps us hold on more tenaciously to times of plenty as well.  We can practice the recognition that this joy is temporary and that it is a gift, rather than an entitlement. Nothing draws our attention to life more than a death in the family.  Nothing raises our awareness of the value of our spouse or children than to hear that a friend has lost those most precious to them.  If we can practice this mental discipline of savoring our joy and plenty because it is temporary, we will live and enjoy it much more fully.

Burn Notice and the 130 MPH Perspective

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
My wife and I were watching a recent episode of Burn Notice (#502: “Bloodlines”, if you’re interested), where the character of Fiona tries to keep a philandering scientist out of trouble.

**While I am trying not to give too much away, there may be spoilers in the next sentence.**
The two of them ended up in a fast car on the highway, with Fiona driving 130 mph with her eyes closed, while the panicking scientist shouted at her when she needed to turn.

I have, in my reckless youth, driven almost that fast, and I can tell you with all sincerity, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. When you’re driving 25 or 30 miles an hour, you can look around and enjoy the surroundings a bit. At 130 miles an hour, you must keep your eyes glued intently on the road in front of you, or you will die.  You don’t really even have time to check the next lane before you have to move into it because what is coming at you is coming hard and fast. (Did I mention it yet? Do NOT try this at home!)

I am realizing that in a lot of ways, the difficulties and challenges that arise in life are a lot like traveling at excessive speed on the highway.  Trouble is not an enjoyable thing.  It can be draining and often fearful to look at the road that life has you taking, and it seems like trouble loves to stomp on the gas.  The feeling and fear of losing control, spinning, and flipping end-over-end is *not* exhilarating when it comes in the form of a crashing relationship or the brick wall of a crushing diagnosis.

When our lives are relatively trouble-free, we can look around and enjoy the scenery.  We can get distracted by things that are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. How green (or brown) the lawn is, what critters are eating the veggies in the garden, that Tommy got a “C” in algebra, who said what and what did they mean by it, all become larger issues and demand more attention than they really deserve.

But trouble demands more of our resources in order to cope.  When the doctor says, “Cancer”, the lawn doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.  The word “Divorce” tends to reduce the importance of how many tomatoes we are going to have this year.  We need more of our energy to pay attention to the things that matter.  Communication, study, emotional and mental effort are put toward dealing with the crisis, and the less important things fall by the wayside in a blur.  Trouble has a way of re-setting our priorities, and this can be a good thing.

Another effect of trouble is to force us to realize that, no matter what we have come to believe, we are not in control of our lives. Oh, we can choose our socks and our favorite potato chips and a few other things, but circumstances change regardless of our precautions.  Losing a job or a home or a loved one to disease is not something we generally have a say in.  Our scientist friend in the story above was not driving, he was along for the ride, and the ride was terrifying.  He could shout directions all he wanted, but he was utterly dependent on the skills of the driver.

The wonderful part is that for the believer in Jesus, losing control (or recognizing that control was not ours to begin with) can actually be *comforting*. We can find comfort when we learn that Trouble is not driving, God is.  Paul writes in Philippians that he has learned that the secret to contentment lies in dependence on Jesus:   “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:12-13 (ESV)  


No matter what it feels like, God is not a reckless driver who closes his eyes and waits for us to shout directions. He is, and has been, in charge of our lives and direction from the beginning, and (to push the illustration to its breaking point) he is the best driver there is.

Nothing makes the grinding trouble of this life less terrifying for us, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: most often, you are perfectly normal when you are afraid of the unknown future.  Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow precisely because he knew we would be worried about it.  Knowing that God is driving and that he knows what he is doing gives us a place to go in our fear, a place to be afraid and most importantly, a place to find comfort.

Lest this entire post come off sounding fluffy and trite, please know that dealing with crises in life is not simple, straightforward or easy.  There is no one “answer” or belief that will “fix” the problem or make the hurt and fear go away for good.  This is one piece of what can often be a complex puzzle.  When life accelerates and you feel it in the seat of your pants, find a friend or a counselor who can come along side you, who can help you make sense of your fear, and who can walk with you into the arms of Jesus.  The fear will come and go.  When it comes, keep on taking it to Jesus.  He knows what to do with it.