When the calendar flipped from 2012 to 2013, I thought there was no way I could have a year worse than the one I had just experienced. In 2012 we lost Ember Church, I lost my job, and, worst of all, Zeke started having his seizures. While 2013 has had its share of blessings, I’d have to say that it has been just as hard and painful as the year before.
In 2013, we found out that Zeke’s seizures are more than seizures – that he has a rare, fatal, neurological condition known as Batten Disease. He has regressed significantly, and it seems to me that we will likely lose him in 2014. Shortly after his diagnosis, Breena and I made the difficult decision to leave Westerville, where we had been raising our family for the previous seven years, and move to Toledo, where both of our families live. We needed the support that only family can provide in such dire times. We had built a life in central Ohio – a life full of amazing people with whom we had shared so much of ourselves. Leaving is hard. Leaving because your child is dying and you need to be close to family for his last days…well, that’s something else entirely.
It’s been a rough couple of years. God is faithful.
Putting those two thoughts together gives me hope. He has been active in my life this year, teaching me, molding me, refining my character. Here are five lessons I’ve learned this year (four are serious, one is trivial).
1. God is a refuge in times of trouble, not a safeguard against them.
This is a lesson I’ve been learning over the past couple of years, actually. When “bad” things happen to “good” people, we tend to complain that God is being unjust or, perhaps worse, incompetent. Jeremiah made this kind of complaint to God in Jeremiah 12:1.
You are always righteous, Lord,when I bring a case before you.Yet I would speak with you about your justice:Why does the way of the wicked prosper?Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You see this sort of thing throughout the Psalms, as well. In fact, Scripture is soaked in this kind of complaining to God that the righteous do not get a fair shake from him in this life. But faithfulness to God is no guarantee of a painless life. This can come as a surprise to young pastors. It certainly did to me. (I’ve written about this here.)
Suffering can feel like a sort of exile, like God has abandoned me and now I am alone, exposed, vulnerable to the forces of evil that terrify the world. I’ve wrestled through all of this with God, especially in the wake of losing my church and now, more importantly, as we have walked with Zeke through his disease. What I’ve learned is that the deep, relational knowledge of Jesus Christ is forged in the furnace of suffering, loss, frustration, and disappointment. The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering and failure are kingdom victory.
The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering is kingdom victory.
2. Suffering can be used as an excuse to be lazy, entitled, and self-centered.
The most dangerous element of our suffering is not that we will lose someone we love, but that we will become engulfed by our own self-pity and our identities will become submerged in a self-centered victimhood that robs us of the joy of giving and receiving love. The worst thing that can happen is for your suffering to steal your empathy. Devolving into victimhood is no way to honor the memory of those you have lost.
Breena and I are losing a child in one of the worst ways I can imagine, but that does not entitle us to live self-centered, lazy lives of burdensome self-pity. In the midst of our sorrow there has been tremendous blessing. God has even been at work in our trial to expand his kingdom. Our eyes have been opened to the suffering of those around us. We have, by the grace of God, become more empathetic. Though, at times, I can become self-centered and shut out the world in my victimhood, I have sensed myself becoming more aware, and more compassionate, of those who suffer.
It is a constant temptation to let my son’s terminal illness be an excuse for laziness. “Sorry, I don’t have time for that. MY SON IS DYING!” is a refrain that echoes through my heart and mind all too often. Sure, my capacity is severely limited by the extremity of my circumstances, but it is no excuse to be lazy in my relationships and responsibilities. Suffering exposes your weaknesses, and in that exposure, offers you the grace to grow in character in the power of the Holy Spirit.
3. Vocational humility is pleasing to God.
Losing my church at the end of 2012 was a big blow to me, personally. (You can read more about the story of Ember, and its closure, here.) I have always had high expectations of myself, vocationally. Church planting was the culmination of a long, arduous journey in ministry where I often put my own desires and dreams ahead of everything else.
Losing my church, and then losing my job, put me into a tough situation, vocationally, at the start of the year. The good people at LifePoint Church in Columbus took a risk with me by hiring me as a Video Producer and Graphic Designer. In terms of ministry vocation, this was a significant step away from being the Lead Pastor of a church, which I had been for a year and a half. In order for this to work, I had to swallow my pride and release my sense of entitlement to vocational ministry. I had to accept the fact that I was someone who worked behind the scenes, contributing in ways that were not as “significant” as preaching and teaching. It was humbling.
This was a very significant change in attitude for me. For too many years, I lived with a sense of entitlement, that I deserved to be doing “more” than I was doing. I wanted more responsibility, more opportunity, more chances for my voice to be heard. To let go of that was freeing, and I think it pleased and honored God. It is an attitude of heart that I am intent on maintaining because there is life in humility.
4. Positive character development requires active participation.
The opposite is also true. Negative character development requires passivity. In other words, you don’t need to do anything to either stay where you are, from a character development perspective, or regress. If I want to grow, and I do, then I need to be actively engaged in that process. Some of the things that I try to incorporate into my life are:
- daily Bible reading
We may be saved by grace, but we grow through hard work and perseverance.
- prayer journaling
There are other things that I could do, and some of the things I’ve listed might not be what you need right now. There are many spiritual disciplines that you can participate in, and I would encourage you to find the two or three that suit your temperament and situation in life. But I’ve found that the more faithful I am with these few disciplines, the more I become like Christ. I am changed, and I notice it. (So does my wife!)
Spiritual development just doesn’t happen by accident. You have to be committed to it. We may be saved by grace, but we grow through hard work and perseverance. This is a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.
5. Winning championships in sports is really hard.
This is the trivial one.
I follow three sports teams: the Detroit Tigers (baseball), and the Ohio State Buckeyes in football and men’s basketball. All three teams were very good this year – fully capable of winning a championship. None of them did.
After the sports heartache I experienced this year, I’m not sure if it’s worse for your favorite team to be bad or almost-good-enough-to-win-the-championship-but-not-quite. Watching and cheering for these teams has underscored just how hard it is to win championships. I’m trying to learn how to disassociate myself from these teams so that I’m not such an emotional wreck when they lose. So far, it hasn’t worked. I guess there’s always next year.