Giving Thanks for Life, Even When It Stinks

Have you ever experienced what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul?” Or what the lead character, Pilgrim, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress identified as “the slough of despond”? Regardless of what you call it, most of us have reached a point when we feel as though everything good has been stripped away, and there’s no reason to go on. It’s real, it’s deep, and it’s incredibly dark. 

The prophet Jeremiah experienced such a period of misery. He was so consumed with grief he wished he had never been born. Listen to his words: “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, "A child is born to you-- a son!" (Jer. 20:14-15). 

Then he cried, “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jer. 20:18). In the midst of the Babylonian captivity and exile, with his beloved Jerusalem looted and burning behind him and the pagan skyline of Egypt before him, he plunged into deep despair. 

Twenty-five chapters later, Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, experienced a similar grief. “Woe to me!” he cried. “The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest” (Jer. 45:3). If you’ve been where Jeremiah and Baruch were, you know that when you’re in this dark place, it’s hard to see any good in life. You can’t imagine you’ll ever laugh again, let alone feel any emotion other than the aching void where your heart used to beat. 

Years ago I was in a black hole like Jeremiah and Baruch. I had high expectations for my life, and none of them seemed to be coming true. Surely God had a better plan for me than the one that was unfolding before my teary eyes. I’d served him faithfully, loved him deeply, and committed my family and my future into his hands. 

One sad morning, because I’d developed the discipline of Bible reading and prayer, autopilot dragged me out of bed and to my quiet time chair. I’d learned to begin my time with praise and thanksgiving, but that morning, I was struggling to find anything praiseworthy for which to thank God. All I could come up with was, “Well, I’m still alive, although I’m not sure it’s a blessing right now.” That was it. From my grieving perspective, it was all I could come up with to be thankful for - my miserable, sorrowful life. 

God, through the prophet, Jeremiah, spoke to me: “’Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. . . .’ declares the LORD, ‘but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life’” (Jer. 45:5). 

I must confess, I expected a life free of sorrow, pain, sickness, and death. I wanted money in my bank account, a host of friends, and a joy-filled marriage. The only tears I wanted to shed were tears of joy. 

But that’s not realistic. 

“In this world,” Jesus said, “you will have tribulation.” Because we live in a sin-sick world, life is going to be hard. And some days, all we’ll have to be thankful for is our lives. 

This week I’m mourning the loss of a dear friend, praying outside an abortion clinic where babies are scheduled to die, and sending a meal to a neighbor with cancer. 

As I mourn, pray, and cook, I realize that life to these people isn’t something to be minimized or ungrateful for. It's a gift. A precious, holy gift that others barely cling to and will never take for granted.  “. . . wherever you go I will let you escape with your life,” God said through Jeremiah to Baruch, and he says it to us, too. 

If you’ve been given the gift of life, even if it’s the only gift you feel you have to thank God for, thank him anyway. Thank him in faith. Thank him because while there is breath, there is hope. 

Thank you, Father, for the precious gift of life. Many around us are fighting for that which we hold so lightly. Teach us to value every day we’ve been given and never take them for granted. Remind us that we’re still alive because you have a plan and a purpose for us. Thank you for your grace and mercy. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

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What Satan Doesn't Know about Sutherland Springs

The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, made the international news recently when an armed gunman massacred 26 of its members, including a pregnant mother and her unborn baby. As the images of the small, wood frame church plastered my news feed, my heart sank. I, too, attend a small Baptist church. Our tiny sanctuary looks very much like Sutherland Springs’. Their tragedy could easily have been mine. 

A Facebook post from a survivor of another church shooting said what ministered most to her grieving church family were cards from fellow believers telling them they were praying for them. I Googled First Baptist Church Sutherland Texas to find the address and send a card of my own. My search produced this image:

Note the business hours in the red band: Temporarily Closed. 

Temporarily Closed. These two words speak volumes: 

Give us time to grieve, but rest assured, Satan and all your minions, we will reopen. And we will reopen stronger, wiser, and more passionate about sharing the truth for which others have died. 

This is what Satan doesn’t know – that no matter what you do to the church, you cannot make it go away. You can’t silence it. You can’t contain it. You can’t keep it from spreading, and growing, and thriving. 

For two thousand years governments have jailed members of “The Way.” Evil regimes have driven it underground. Violent dictators have “cleansed” its members. Wicked individuals have shot, bombed, torched, and slaughtered its people. Yet the church still survives. 

Better than that, it thrives

The apostles came away from their beating and imprisonment rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ. Believers throughout the ages have similarly triumphed. 

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” 2nd century church father Tertullian said as the carnage of Nero’s persecution dispersed believers to the uttermost parts of the world. 

"Never did the church so much prosper and so truly thrive as when she was baptized in the blood,” said 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon. “The ship of the church never sails so gloriously along as when the bloody spray of her martyrs falls on her deck. We must suffer and we must die, if we are ever to conquer this world for Christ." 

The Amish Brethren of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, broadcast Christ’s message of forgiveness to the world when they forgave Charles Roberts for killing or wounding 10 school children in 2006. 

My fellow South Carolinians, the men and women of Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, picked up Dillan Roof’s gauntlet challenge for a race war and threw it down instead as an opportunity to unite believers of all races and spark a revival such as the Holy City has never seen. 

And now Sutherland Springs, a tiny dot in the vast state of Texas, is proclaiming to the world that their faith, though shaken, is holding firm. 

The church's pastor, Frank Pomeroy, whose daughter, Annabelle, was one of the victims, led the Sunday service the day before his daughter’s funeral. 

"I say we choose light," Pomeroy told the mourners. "Not the darkness that the gunman did." Pomeroy said that those who died were "dancing with Jesus today," and that the attack was only a temporary setback. 

“We as Christians, will be victorious if we continue to worship our God.” 

No one witnessing their faith is untouched. "It is truly remarkable," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters after the service. "What I said when I spoke is that most of this defies our powers of comprehension, but not Pastor Pomeroy. He realized that there is a higher power that is in charge." 

"It has become a settled principle that nothing which is good and true can be destroyed by persecution,” American theologian Albert Barnes said, “but that the effect ultimately is to establish more firmly, and to spread more widely, that which it was designed to overthrow.” 

John Foxe, author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, said, "But, though persecuting malice raged, yet the Gospel shone with resplendent brightness; and, firm as an impregnable rock, withstood the attacks of its boisterous enemies with success." 

News outlets around the globe, including USA Today, are broadcasting Pastor Pomeroy’s message of faith. “He knows that despite the grief, loss, anger and emptiness that scarred the Sutherland Springs landscape in the hours after the attack, evil has not conquered the community he has pastored for 15 years. 

 “Holding a Bible inside a giant tent where about 1,000 people of a variety of faiths came to show support, Pomeroy said no doubt has crept into his mind that in the end, human goodness will triumph.
“’I know this,’ he said, holding the Bible high with his left hand, ‘because I've read to the end of the book.’"  

Pomeroy concluded his message with these words, and they are a message for us as well: 

“Do not allow the lives that have been lost or changed to be in vain. . . . Keep on fighting. Keep on fighting.” 

Take that, Satan. We will not be silenced. Our faith will not fail. We will continue to worship the true and living God or die trying. We'll never stop telling the world Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

This is what Satan doesn't know.

I know you’ll be encouraged by this video clip of Pastor Pomeroy’s message. If you’re reading by email and can’t see the video, click HERE to watch.

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Do You Have a Bradford Pear Tree Marriage?

If your marriage survives its first few years, when do you think the next greatest threat will come? Year seven? Ten? Fifteen? Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted, tells us the second highest rate of divorce occurs not in the challenging years of early parenting, or even during the time when you’re raising teens. The second highest rate of divorce happens in the empty nest years. 

Today, as I walked my neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours, I saw a powerful illustration of why. In the ‘80s, a “new” tree came on the scene – the Bradford pear. Cultivated for its beautiful, flame-shaped branches and rapid growth, it quickly became the landscapers’ favorite. Developers lined entrances to subdivisions with long rows of them, and every yard had at least one. When they flowered in early spring, their white blooms were breathtaking. 

Unfortunately, after about 20 years, the trees began showing signs of serious structural problems. The long branches that created such a beautiful shape grew too heavy for the truck to support them. Wind, rain, or simply the weight of its leaves caused the trees to split in half, destroying the tree. 

Something similar often happens in our marriages. 

Like the Bradford Pear trees that so charmed the landscapers, our marriages start out beautiful. Their branches begin to grow and bear fruit. We mature. But in some marriages, the longer we’re together, the further we grow from each other. Before long, we begin to separate. Each year brings us futher and further from each other. By the time the empty nest years roll around, we’re so far apart we have nothing in common. A storm, a crisis, or the weight of day-to-day life takes its toll, and the marriage splits. 

If you don’t want to have a Bradford Pear marriage, here are ten steps you can take now to ensure you and your spouse grow together, not apart. 

1. Cultivate at least one shared experience without the kids. Even if it’s only once a month, do something fun you both enjoy. 

2. Attend church together. Studies still show committed Christians have a lower than average divorce rate. 

3. Put your marriage ahead of your kids. Studies also show the best thing you can do to help your children grow up happy, healthy, and well-adjusted is to stay married. 

4. Invest in your marriage. We don’t think twice about paying for summer camps, music lessons, and a myriad of other “necessities” for our children, but we balk at the cost of a weekend marriage retreat or getaway. When your child is 25, he’s not going to thank you for the archery lessons in fifth grade. He’s going to thank you for staying married when all his friends’ parents divorced. 

5. Be the first to say “I’m sorry.” No disagreement is all one person’s fault. Be the bigger person. Apologize for your part, and tell your spouse you love them. 

6. Participate in a marriage Bible study. Another way to invest in your marriage, learning from wise teachers alongside other people committed to growing their marriages will help you not be lazy in your most important human relationship. 

7. Say please and thank you. Treat your spouse with the same respect you’d treat a stranger. Don’t forget the common courtesies. 

8. Tell him what you like about him. When you were dating, you told him all the time how handsome, smart, and funny he was. Why stop now that you’re married? We all enjoy a sincere compliment every now and then. 

9. Pray together. When you and your spouse pray together, you don’t just join hands, or even hearts. When you pray, your souls touch. There’s not a stronger bond for cementing your marriage than inviting God into the center of it. 

10. Recognize what Emerson Eggerichs calls “The 80/20 Ratio.” His book, Love and Respect, explains it this way. “According to this concept, around 80 percent of the time, your marriage can be categorized as good or even great while around 20 percent of the time, you may have troubles of one kind or another. . . . If we do not accept the inevitability of some trouble as part of God’s design (that we will have moments when we feel unloved or disrespected), we may fall for the idea that a marriage should always be the perfect Hollywood romance. And then, when troubles do come, we may conclude that we are not receiving what we deserve.” 

A few months ago tropical-storm-force gusts blew through our neighborhood as Hurricane Irma roared by. Four trees went down. Three of them were Bradford Pears. 

I don’t have to share recent divorce statistics to warn you – the danger is real. So whether you’ve been married three weeks or three decades, investing in your relationship now will ensure you and your spouse grow stronger, closer, and more together as time passes. Be an oak, not a Bradford Pear.

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10 Things to Say at an Unbeliever's Funeral

“I just can’t believe all those (Bible) stories,” my friend said. “They’re just fables.” 

I’d prayed for, witnessed to, and even wrote a letter sharing my faith with her. During the weeks before her death, godly friends visited her and shared the Gospel. People in several churches prayed for a softening of her heart toward spiritual things. To my knowledge, my friend died without placing her faith in Jesus. 

Her funeral was one of the saddest experiences I’ve ever endured. 

The apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 tells believers facing the death of someone who has died in Christ, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” This comfort is achingly absent in the death of an unbeliever. 

When we attend (or officiate at) their funerals, what should we say? 

I'm sharing today over at To read the rest of "10 Things to Say at an Unbeliever's Funeral," CLICK HERE.

You might also find this helpful:  "10 Scriptures about Death to Comfort the Grieving."

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One Simple Way to Keep Our Neighborhoods Safe -- Reflections on the New York and Sutherland Attacks

I awakened with New York City weighing heavily on my spirit. It’s heartbreaking to think that innocent people, out for a walk, a run, or a bike ride on a crisp autumn day, had died because an evil man had mowed them down with a truck.

Later, the news of a church shooting in Texas added to the horror.

I walk almost every day, and although I don’t live in a metropolitan area or a tiny town, evil isn’t limited by geography or socio-economic status. A rash of recent car break ins have troubled my neighborhood. Many have installed special lighting, and one neighbor organized a Crime Watch meeting at a nearby church. 

Car break ins are a nuisance compared to the carnage New York City experienced recently, but both are proof that we need greater security. How can we protect ourselves? 

When fearful thoughts trouble my spirit, I’m learning to take them to God, so that’s what I did. As I walked the streets of my neighborhood early one morning, I prayed, and God spoke. He brought to mind a Bible verse I’d studied this week. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 

In Psalm 122:6, God calls his people to pray for the peace of their holy city. While no one’s ever called Lexington, South Carolina, a holy city, the principle still applies. Praying regularly for our city’s peace, and, on a smaller scale, the neighborhoods in which we live, is biblical. God uses our prayers to spread his protective covering over our homes and our streets. 

So this morning, as I walked the five streets and seven cul de sacs of my neighborhood, I prayed. I asked God to keep our neighborhood safe from anyone who would do us harm. I prayed a blessing over each family, inviting God to make himself very real to them and to meet their every need. I petitioned him to strengthen the faith of the believers who live here and embolden them to share their faith with others. And I asked him to bless us, using us to minister in his name.  

Today, as you drive or walk through your neighborhood, instead of listening to music or mindlessly daydreaming, why not spend a few minutes praying? It could make all the difference.

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