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The Sixth Stage of Grief

May is Lyme awareness month and as has been my practice for the past two years, I feel it is only right for me to write about Lyme before the month is over.

I haven’t posted much about Lyme in recent months and I’m afraid my reason for the silence has been more emotional than physical. Although the disease is often on my mind (and in my body), I’ve struggled to actually write about it on account of weariness and, even more so, grief. And that’s what I’d like to write to you about today.

With a chronic illness like Lyme disease comes the temptation to chronically grieve. Missed milestones, dead dreams and lost opportunities are just a sampling of the causes of grief faced by someone in a chronically physically compromised body like mine. Every new pain, ailment and challenge threatens to drown the chronically ill in a violent sea of sorrow and sadness.

As a Lymie who has lived chronically ill for over ten years I have become very familiar with the burden of grief and its five stages as defined by Ross and Keller. Namely, anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Like a ping pong ball, I have bounced between these stages, sometimes experiencing every one of them in less a day or even less than an hour if the pain and suffering is acutely severe and debilitating.

The stages of grieving aren’t a pretty sight (especially those first four) which is why I’m not proud of how much time I’ve spent in them over the past ten years but I don’t consider it wasted time. In fact, I have come to believe that grieving is a necessary and vitally important process for the human spirit because of what I have come to find is a sixth stage of the process: growth.

You see, grief is not meant to capsize and sink us in a sea of sorrow. Grief is meant to sanctify and strengthen us. I didn’t always see grief this way. I used to think that sadness and loss was a reality you simply got used to. Acceptance, I believed, was the goal. But now I see that accepting the loss isn’t where the story ends. God has a greater purpose for our grief, using it is to break down our spiritual muscle fibers, causing them to grow big and strong.

Grief is one of the painful byproducts of living with chronic illness, but it isn’t reserved for those of us with broken bodies. As humans, grief is part of our earthly experience and there’s no escaping this world without feeling it. But I’m here to tell you that there is a silver lining to grief. You need not suffer through the first four stages only to settle for acceptance. God can do more with your grief than numb it. He can use it to mold and shape you into the image of His Son. If you ask and allow Him to use your grief, God will transform it into a tool employed to accelerate your growth.

The key to experiencing the growth of grief, I’ve learned, is turning to Jesus in the midst of it.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) The word mourn here actually means “to express grief or sorrow,” key word, “express.” When we express something, we are communicating what we’re thinking and feeling by conveying it through words. This is what God is asking us to do with Him  – communicate our emotions and tell Him about our grief. God does not want us to grieve alone. He longs for us to come to Jesus with our brokenness and baggage so that we can receive His Holy Spirit to comfort and console us.

Once we turn to Jesus and express our grief to Him, the blessed stage of growth can begin. He takes the pain of loss and heartbreak and uses it to purify our desires, renew our faith and restore our hope in God’s will and ways. In Jesus’ presence, we discover deep brokenness within ourselves, fractures so well hidden we didn’t know they even existed let alone needed mending. And what’s more, we see clearly that the only way to true healing and eternal strengthening is by way of uniting with Christ’s resurrection and resting in God’s supremacy.

Whether your grief is born out of a chronic illness like Lyme or a painful loss, rest assured that God has a purpose for your struggle and a redemptive plan for your hurt. He longs to turn your ashes into a beautiful garden of His grace and a testimony to His unfailing faithfulness and love.

And all He asks is that you call on the Almighty name of Jesus and let Him do the rest.  

 

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The Sent Scattering

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “Scattered” addressing the issue of churches closing in response to COVID-19. In that piece I referenced Jesus’ pre-crucifixion words recorded in John 16:32, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home.”

While reflecting on this scripture, I saw the current circumstances facing our country and the modern-day church. Like Jesus’ disciples, we too, are in trying times and, we too, have been scattered. Christians have been cut off from their comfortable life groups, regular programming and familiar Sunday morning services to experience the unknown future in solitude and isolation. (Click here to read the full post.)

But, as I previously wrote, I believe that in this scattering there will be sanctifying. In fact, I believe the purification of the church is already underway. At this very moment, broken people are, for the very first time, entering into a personal and private relationship with the lover of their soul. There is a great awakening taking place behind closed doors and it isn’t over yet. In fact, based on what we find in the Bible, I believe it’s just beginning.

So, let’s return to the Bible and turn to the ministry of Jesus post-resurrection.

After rising from the dead, Jesus dazzled His followers with some seriously shocking entrances (such as coming into a room through the wall – no door required). In both word and deed, Jesus confirmed His holy identity while pulling back the curtain on the future, giving His followers a glimpse of what was to come, namely the Holy Spirit.

Immediately before ascending into Heaven, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). The disciples were instructed to stay sheltered in place but not indefinitely. Once the Holy Spirit descended into their midst they were to then leave the protection of their homes so they could travel EVERYWHERE and tell EVERYONE about the way to truth and eternal life.

The disciples obeyed, heeding Jesus’ instructions to a T. They stayed hunkered down until they were met with “a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) “Then what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:3-4)

What happened following Pentecost was a second scattering: the sent scattering.

Once the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were transformed from fearful followers of Jesus into powerhouse proclaimers of the Gospel. Peter, the same disciple who had denied Jesus during the first scattering, became so bold and brave that he stood right up and addressed a crowd of skeptics who were convinced that the disciples were just plain old drunks. In response to that sermonette, three thousand doubters became believers.

In those early days of the post-Pentecostal church, followers of Jesus became united as brothers and sisters in Christ. They held everything in common, fellowshipped and broke bread together. They spent time in each other’s homes, praising, performing miracles and celebrating as more sinners got saved.

But it wasn’t all butterflies and roses. During that abundant harvest was an abundance of hardship. Standing up for Jesus put the disciples directly in the cross hairs of the enemy and his attacks were fierce.  Persecution reached a fever pitch when Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power” (Acts 6:8) was stoned to death. Following his murder, Saul, the chief of persecutors, gathered up arrest warrants on a mission to invade the homes of believers and imprison them for their faith. During that time, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1) and “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).

What’s interesting about this moment in the church’s history is what the persecuted Christians didn’t do and where they didn’t go. They didn’t hide from the unbelievers and persecutors who might hurt, imprison and possibly kill them. Nor did they deny the truth about Jesus or try to downplay their devotion to the Risen King. Instead they fearlessly proclaimed the truth of salvation. They boldly and bravely scattered the Gospel message throughout the land, distributing the Good News everywhere they went.

So, dear Christian, what does this mean for us? How should we heed the call in the midst of the COVID-19 hysteria? How are we to move from being sheltered to sent in the face of shutdowns, restrictions and government mandates? How should we as post-resurrection, post-Pentecostal Christians embrace Jesus’ command to go everywhere and tell everyone about the way to eternal life?

With each passing day, it is becoming more and more likely that our sent scattering won’t include a swift return to church as knew it and that’s okay. The believers in Acts weren’t living life as they knew it, either. Nor were they gathering in sanctuaries, meeting in connect groups or offering a stellar children’s programs. Yet none of those perceived limitations stopped the power of God from performing miracles and saving lives through the work of the earliest Christians. What the disciples lacked in organized religion they made up for in what I like to call the four F’s. Fearless. Faithful. Forward. And filled with the Holy Spirit.

  1. The earliest Christians were fearless. What’s so ironic about this particular characteristic is that, during the first scattering, Jesus’ followers embodied the precise opposite characteristic. During the sheltered scattering, the disciples were so afraid of what people would think of them and do to them for being a friend of Jesus that Peter denied knowing Christ not once, not twice but three times! Fast forward to the second scattering and Peter is standing in front of hostile crowds (including the authorities) preaching the Gospel! Retribution no longer scared him because He had encountered the resurrected Christ.
  2. The earliest Christians were faithful. Being a follower of Christ wasn’t a Sunday only event for them. Being a follower of Christ was everything to them! They were devoted to one another so wholeheartedly that they sold everything they had and held it in common. They were, as we would say today, all in. Becoming a Christian was the defining feature of their lives.
  3. The earliest Christians were forward. Shy is not a word found anywhere in the Acts account of Jesus’ followers. They were the very antithesis of shy. They were bold in any and all circumstances. It didn’t matter if the disciples were among friends or among enemies, they put forward the truth about Jesus Christ with conviction and confidence.
  4. And, last but certainly not least, the earliest Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit. It is this characteristic that empowered them to go from sheltered to sent. The impartation of the Holy Spirit was required for them to be forward, faithful and fearless. Without the spirit of the living God working in and through them, the disciples could do nothing. They needed to be unconditionally surrendered to Christ so that the Holy Spirit could be poured out and into their lives. Then and only then could they heed the call to go EVERYONE and to EVERYONE proclaiming the way, the truth and the life.

Friends, more than the reopening of a building or the relaunching of normal order, our lost world needs the simple Gospel. They need followers of Christ who have been scattered and sent to faithfully and fearlessly share with them the Good News about the blood of the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. They need Christians who will come forward, filled with the Holy Spirit and unashamedly declare that Jesus is the only truth, the only way and the only everlasting life.