Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Struggle is Real...and Good

Back in February I wrote about a particularly hard week and weekend I had, but unsure of my take on things and with my busy school schedules, I delayed posting and then just didn't. I reread it recently and I feel the same about what I wrote. And I've continued to experience it - brought to tears and the end of myself in the months since as God continues His work in me. So I left it as is from February 2017:

Ever have those times where life feels - heck, you feel - like a complete mess? Maybe there are external factors such as sickness, finances, or relationships involved, but with or without external factors, there is likely roller coaster emotions. You feel good one minute and then find yourself free falling toward sadness, despair, hurt and/or anger, maybe feeling helpless and hopeless. You find a pick me up or make some progress, but within days or a week later you've fallen off track again. Even if you like roller coasters, this one threatens to make you sick.

No? It's just me? Well, just in case someone else out there understands, know I've been there too. I'm there now, and I'll likely find myself here again in the future. Because only one thing in this life is consistent: change. Usually, if you're human, change brings with it struggle. Even though change is always around us, sometimes our lives hit seasons of greater or more change, and the struggle is more than a hashtag, the struggle IS real.

We know journeys and seasons of life change could they not? And isn't that the point on more than one level? But "knowing" and "knowing from experience" are two different things. My sister for example, who knows my birth stories well, right after having her first child recently, asked me, "Why did you do this three times?!" (She was still a little out of it at that point.) She'd heard all the gruesome details about birth, she'd read articles, watched videos, gone to Lamaze classes...but none of them could prepare her as fully as the actual experience of giving birth.

I find more and more that I'm faced with this difference between knowing change happens and experiencing change - I'm strangely aware of myself now as I haven't been before. We are taught to know that God is making us like Him, but what do we know from experience? God has newly opened my eyes to moments where my tone of voice is off, my words don't glorify him, my intentions are not right, my insecurities and fears are carrying me away, I am being prideful, etc. Realizing these moments - knowing they've been a part of me for awhile - I wonder how I still have a husband and friends?!

That mantra for the past month - the struggle is real - drove me to prayer and to seek support. After a particularly difficult week that moved into a harder weekend, where I felt like nothing but a mess, I found myself revealing the horrible feeling to my husband and a friend. Both encouraged me greatly with truth, that things are not what they seem (thank God for husbands and best friends). The enemy whispers lies, blows things out of proportion, creates despair, and robs us of what God gives; God gives abundant life (John 10:10). Keeping this in mind helps us determine from which source we are receiving in any given moment...I had been listening to the wrong side more often than not that week.

That Sunday, with the swells of "How Great Thou Art" reverberating around the sanctuary, I whispered a prayer of thanks to God for just being who He is. And without thought the next words slipped from my lips, "Thank you for the struggle." Somewhat surprised at my words, the explanation whispered into my mind - it is because of His sacrifice that we do not struggle in vain. With Him we have the ability to struggle and with struggle we have the ability to find Him. We cannot become like Jesus without drawing close to Him. Drawing close brings about a change of heart. And change of heart often brings struggle.

But take heart, there's a purpose. In John 15:1-5 Jesus states, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (NIV)

Cut off - ouch! And why prune what is already producing fruit? Is that really necessary? It makes one wonder, why prune fruit trees? Turns out, pruning fruit trees allows more sunlight and air to reach all parts of the tree, which focuses a tree's strength on the good branches that will bear and support even more fruit than it has already. Since fruit trees are all about the production of fruit, pruning is the successful means to that end.

Not always, but often our struggles hurt because they are evidence of God's pruning. If we are the branches remaining (or abiding) in Christ, He is not going to leave us as we are. He sees our potential, He knows what He has for us, and He is going to change us accordingly. He does so with precision, a step at a time, but it is up to us to remain in Him through the process. The struggle is real, but it is good.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Praying the Psalms, a Review

Source: NetGalley
Praying the Psalms: Growing Emotionally Closer to God and Those You Love, by Rick Stedman
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Publication date: October 1, 2016
Category: Christian, nonfiction, motivational
Source: I received this galley from NetGalley for consideration of a review.

Rick Stedman has written a series of books on prayer, the latest a teaching on how to pray the Psalms of the Bible. Early on in his book he gives a good description of what this entails and the benefits he sees in learning to pray the Psalms: "The Psalms are not church-lady approved, sanitized prayers. They are real, edgy, and authentic—even violent at times. In praying the Psalms, we learn to face our deepest hopes, hurts, and fears and to bring them to God in brutally honest prayer. We learn to identify and express a wide range of emotions, while at the same time keeping those emotions from ruling our lives. We learn how to handle hate and anger, overcome guilt and sorrow, and experience grace and mercy. After all, the only place to learn these skills is within real relationships, which is very clever of God. In the process, we find intimacy with God, deeper community with others, and—in what is perhaps the biggest surprise of all—we discover our very selves."

He provides a four step method for praying the Psalms, which consists of finding emotional words while reading a Psalm aloud, journaling the words in connection to personal experience, and formulating prayers from there. Stedman then spends a good portion of the book working through the first ten Psalms as examples of this practice. A number of word lists wrap up the book - emotional words found by certain categories to help you find Psalms that may be more relevant at a certain time.

For anyone looking for a new way to pray - and specifically to pray using the Bible - Rick Stedman's book is what you are looking for.