Hope

Sweet Sorrow

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Living in this world means living in the tension between good and evil, love and sorrow, joy and pain.  It is to experience the pleasant comfort of cuddling with your spouse on the couch and to ache with the beauty of the moment, while knowing that the moment must inevitably end.  It is to experience the trauma of loss and death and to know that growth and wisdom often come through pain.  Juliet loves the sweetness of Romeo’s affection as they say “good night” and yet must release him for a time to do without it.

To deny or diminish either of the parts is to live out of balance.  To pretend there is no pain is to smother and  invalidate your genuine and legitimate grief.  To live in the pessimism that says “good is always crushed” is to smother real and life-giving joy.  We can exist in either of these out-of-balance ways, but we cannot truly live.

To love is to risk loss, and the more we love, the more pain we experience in the loss.  Intimacy requires vulnerability, and the more open and emotionally naked we become with the other, the greater the closeness and experience of connection.  We live in a world of friction, and yet within the friction there is heat and light and life itself.

If you are protecting yourself from either of these elements, consider that a full, rich experience of life in this world is only possible when we acknowledge the truth of sorrow and loss while holding on to solid hope that there is good and light in the world at the same time.

Why can’t I handle it on my own?

By: Andy Gear

When I think about life before the Fall, I don’t think of people going around lonely. But that thought comforted me because I realized loneliness in my own life doesn’t mean I am a complete screwup, rather God made me this way. You always picture the perfect human being as somebody who doesn’t need anybody, like a guy on a horse in Colorado or whatever. But here is Adam, the only perfect guy in the world, and he is going around wanting to be with somebody else, needing another person to fulfill a certain emptiness in his life . . . I wondered at how beautiful it is that you and I were created to need each other. The romantic need is just the beginning, because we need our families and we need our friends. In this way, we are made in God’s image. Certainly God does not need people in the way you and I do, but He feels a joy at being loved, and He feels a joy at delivering love. It is a striking thought to realize that, in paradise, a human is incomplete without a host of other people. We are relational indeed
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
I often feel like I should be able to handle all my problems on my own. Images of John Wayne and Bruce Willis float through my mind as I suck up my pain and try unsuccessfully to pull myself back up by my bootstraps. If only I just relied on God more, all my loneliness would just melt away. But as I read the first chapters of Genesis, I begin to question this assumption. Adam walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with God, and even then God said that Adam needed other people. He didn’t create us to be lone wolves. He created us to need each other, and He doesn’t call this weakness. He calls it being made in the image of God. We are relational, like our Father.

Growth in maturity doesn’t mean learning to solve all our problems on our own. Seeking caring, empathetic, and authentic relationship is not a concession for the weak. It is the wisdom that comes from realizing who we were made to be. We were not made to ‘stick it out’ on our own. In the Old Testament God called a family and a nation. In the New Testament He called His church to do life as a community of brothers and sisters. He wanted us to understand our need for help in this journey. Why can’t I handle it on my own? It’s not because there is something wrong with me. I was never meant to do it alone.  

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

The Christmas Carol of My Heart: Darkness to Dawn

By: Courtney Hollingsworth, PLPC

I don’t know about you, but this season often feels like the least peaceful time of the year. Amid the swirl of the busyness the holidays bring, peace feels as far off as the little town of Bethlehem itself. Darkness crowds out the daylight hours on both ends of the day. To do lists expand exponentially; schedules overflow. And for many of us, the holiday season also brings with it turmoil amongst the emotional complexities of spending time with family, or without loved ones.

While beautiful, the twinkling of Christmas lights can seem more akin to the dim glow of hope for peace in this often dark life, too faint to adequately guide our path. Rather than out of adoration, we fall on our knees under the weight of all the sins and sorrows that grow, we know that there is no guarantee that next year all our troubles will be out of sight. We hear the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols playing, words repeating: “Peace on earth, good will to men.” In despair, we bow our heads and say, “There is no peace on earth or in me.”

But then dawn breaks on our darkness. In the dark corners of our lives and hearts, shines the Everlasting Light. Jesus, Lord, at his birth. He disperses the gloomy clouds of night and puts death’s dark shadows to flight. The dark night of our soul is transformed with the dawn of redeeming grace. All our hopes and fears are met in him tonight. Every hope we have harbored is met in Christ. Every fear that has plagued us is met in Christ. What could exist in our hearts outside of these two categories?

The gift of Christmas is Hope. God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven. With the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel (which means God with us), a gap is closed, an intimate God establishes relationship with his people, the Hope of redemption comes to earth, the Grace that changes everything. He comes to make His blessings flow. Let our hearts prepare him room. Let us receive our King. He born in our hearts today; he abides with us. Darkness is cast out in the blinding light of hope.

Let nothing you dismay take the peace and rest in your soul this Christmas season. As you struggle with the darkness, remember, Christ, our Savior, was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray. Christ is the Hope of all hopes.


“Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”


Tidings of comfort and joy; the Light of the World has come!




(I sprinkled this post with Christmas Carol lyrics. Can you find them and name the songs from which they come?)

The Cubs Killed my Fandom

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I grew up in Chicago watching the Cubs play baseball.  As a kid, I remember hating the fact that baseball interrupted my afternoon cartoons all the time (this was before Wrigley had lights). I watched some of the games, and I remember sometimes getting excited when they would get ahead.  But inevitably, they blew it in the 8th or the 9th, and the disappointment was bitter.  In 1984 (Yes, I had to look that up: http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/), they came close to winning it all, but they blew that, too.  I haven’t “followed” them, or anyone else, since.

Because of recurring disappointment, I lost my enthusiasm for sports.  I do not consider myself a “fan” of any team.  There are few names and no stats that are readily recognizable to me.  The only reason I know Pujols plays first base is because I live in Saint Louis, and I went to a game once when my son won free tickets for us.  There are other factors that have influenced my lack of affiliation with the sporting world, but I credit the Cubs with most of it: one can only handle so much disappointment before shutting those feelings down.

The trouble is that I don’t experience the high of a close game, the joy of celebrating a victory pulled from the jaws of defeat.  When the Cards suddenly hit their hot streak this year and pulled out a win for the Wild Card slot (I confess that I don’t really know what that even means), I nodded and smiled.  When the Rays did the same (and I likewise confess that I didn’t know there was a major league baseball team named the Rays until earlier this year), I have friends in Tampa whose celebrations resounded on Facebook.  I nodded and smiled.

A basic principle that is demonstrated by this story is that risk and disappointment seem to be inseparable from joy.  We cannot shut down disappointment without likewise shutting down joy.  Joy and pain operate on the same switch. We tend to protect ourselves from hurt, which is natural and helpful in the short term.  When this shutting down becomes a way of life, however, it robs us of our joy in the long run.

People let us down.  People harm us.  Trusting others with our hearts and with our dreams often leads to pain.   We rightly withhold ourselves from those who recklessly and selfishly feed upon us.  When we generalize this distrust (“All men are predators.”, “All women are emasculating.”, “Trust no one.”, “Look out for number one because no one else will.”) we begin to lose our capacity to experience joy.   We lose out when we do not risk entrusting ourselves to anyone out of fear that they, too, will hurt us.

It seems like the greater risk, the longer wait, and the deeper disappointment all lead to a reciprocally greater joy. I think of the Red Sox when they finally broke the curse of the Bambino (and I don’t really know why he cursed them).  The fans spilled into the streets for hours and days.  Smiles, laughter, and an entire city’s communal joy resounded.  I can’t imagine what Chicago will look like if that ever happens for the Cubs.  It will be a madhouse.  I will likely smile and nod.

What parts of your heart are you withholding, and from whom?  Where is your joy deadened?  Is life kind of flat for you?  When was the last time a celebratory shout left your lips before you realized it?  When have you felt your pulse quicken, or realized that there was a goofy grin glued to your face? These are just some diagnostic questions to help you sort out the places you are hiding from risk and pain at the expense of your joy.

Will I ever be a fan again?  Maybe.  Honestly, it probably won’t be with the Cubs.  I might risk it for a team that won’t interrupt my cartoons, or one that wins more than once a century.  I do, however, envy those Die Hard Cubs fans if and when their curse is broken (or when the Illuminati finally decide to take pity and let them win, depending on your conspiracy theory subscription).  I envy them the exponential joy they will experience. They have been waiting and hoping faithfully for a long time.  The fans deserve it.  Some call them fools, but I laud them for their persistence and loyalty.  It will be a mind-bending ride.

The Prayer from the Darkest Hour

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

God.
    I’m not really sure you’re even listening right now.  It certainly doesn’t seem like it.  I’m done.  I can’t do this any more.  If you want it done, you have to do it.  Whatever you are doing with me, get it over with because this hurts too much.
    I’m angry, and I’m pretty sure I’m angry with you.  I don’t understand.  I feel like you’ve turned your head and you don’t see me anymore, you’re not listening, and you don’t care.  Everything I’ve ever learned about you says you are kind and loving and you want the best for me, and I’d like to believe that, but I can’t seem to bring myself to risk it.  If I believe that, then it means that the hell I am living through right now is somehow for my good.  I want something else.  Not this.
    So if you are who and what you say you are, and if you really do care about me and you really do hear me, then … I don’t know … do something.  Show up.  Give me something to work with.  I’m tired of hurting, and I am utterly helpless.  You’re all I really have, and I’m scared you’re not there.  Amen.

I know a lot of people who would be scared to pray a prayer like this.  It doesn’t feel respectful.  It feels like asking for a lightning strike.  “I can’t be angry with God!  I can’t tell him I’m hopeless… Faith is always trusting him, and this isn’t trusting at all!”  Yet I think there is more faith in a prayer like this than in many that are said on Sunday morning.
    The thing that makes a prayer like this a prayer of faith is the fact that it is a prayer: it is addressed to God.  It may be said through clenched teeth, but it is a prayer, and prayer is an act of faith, especially when it expresses doubt, fear, and pain.
    God is big enough and real enough to handle our doubts.  He can handle our anger and fearful lashing out.  He is the kind father who absorbs the tearful, angry pummeling of his small child, lovingly contains the flailing fists, and soaks up the tears with his shirt. He is still present, he is still mindful, and he still loves his child.
    So when you feel your darkest hours upon you, turn to him.  Shout at the heavens if need be.  He loves you  as you are, especially when you are angry and doubtful.  He desires relationship with you: he wants to hear your heart in whatever state it happens to be at the moment.  

Do not be afraid.

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.

Gardening and Grief

By: Katy Martin, LPC
I was robbed.
When someone takes something from you, it is a horrible feeling, no? It’s a feeling of violation. Someone came too close to you and took something valuable, without taking your feelings or needs into consideration. Or without considering the time and energy you spent to take care of whatever was taken.
For me, it was tomatoes. I walked out to water my garden on Tuesday morning and my tomatoes were GONE. My garden has produced two pea pods and one jalapeno pepper, so my hopes and dreams were hinging on these green, but growing, six whole tomatoes. And now they are gone. A furry creature has taken the fruit of my labor.
So where does grief come in?
In my disappointment about the missing tomatoes, I began to think about a loss of greater impact: loss felt when a loved one dies. (Really, I did.) The loss of a loved one absolutely does not compare in magnitude to my six tomatoes but I think it compares in that we often feel robbed when we lose someone close to us. And this feeling of being robbed is something we don’t acknowledge or talk about. We acknowledge the sadness, anger, and so many other feelings of loss. But feeling robbed of this person’s presence isn’t often something we can anticipate.
We are robbed of our future with this person. We are robbed of that person’s role in our life: mother, grandfather, sibling, etc. We are robbed of someone knowing us. We are robbed of what should have been with that person. It’s remembered with birthdays, holidays, and life changes. Who was there is now gone, and who they were in our lives has changed to memories. Our own roles change, as well.
And it’s easy to feel violated. Angry. Frustrated. And this is often directed towards the person, the circumstances, or towards God. It can result in complicated grief. Grief becomes complicated grief when symptoms of sadness, depression, and hopelessness extend for over a six month period or become more intense or even debilitating over time.
Can you relate? God is not a stranger to these feelings of loss. As He gave His Son on the cross, He experienced the death of a loved one, His child. God experiences loss every day when we choose to not turn towards Him. We can turn to Him. We can share our feelings and memories with those around us. We can turn our sadness into honoring the one we lost. We can pursue counseling to sort out the hurt left behind.
You may feel left behind, robbed, but you are not alone.
My garden may have been robbed, and may appear barren, but a perfect, green, ripe cucumber emerged a few days later. In the midst of sadness and grief, life is still happening even though it may not be what we wanted or what we thought it would look like. Don’t give up hope. We can find comfort in Lamentations 3:22-24: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The LORD is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”