Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Path that Leads to Christmas - Follow the Star

The Unreality of Social Media and Airbrushing our Lives

The beautiful young woman's strained voice revealed the deep pain she was trying to minimize. Her mother died when she was very young, her father remarried and the step-mother fit the Cinderella stereotype. She was losing her battle to stay focused on the good things in her life, longing instead to experience the same Hallmark Christmas family celebrations she saw on her friends' social media accounts. I encouraged her to remember that Facebook could also be called Fakebook at times. She agreed and said she was taking a break from all social media, believing the beautiful depictions of perfect, whole families fed her longing for her own childhood memories of Christmases with her mother and father. My dear sweet friend is not alone. 

Christmas can be challenging for imperfect people, because everything around tempts us to play that comparison game that always leads us to loneliness, self-imposed guilt and impossible expectations. 

Especially in our culture, through social media such as Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest, you’re the only teenager who doesn’t have a pimple on her nose, the only one  with dull, out of control hair, crooked teeth, teeth that aren’t as white as the driven snow, the only one not included in a get together, the only one whose BFF is now someone else’s BFF.

Or you’re the woman who doesn’t have a husband, not just a husband, but an adoring husband who brings you flowers and takes you on romantic dates and buys you the perfect gift. You're the only one whose house isn't decorated inside and out, whose father shows up drunk at the family Christmas party, the one whose children melt down at every special event. You’re the only mother with imperfect children, the only daughter whose family is broken, who is grieving,  whose shattered dreams will never be healed, whose house doesn’t look like a Martha Stewart showcase, the Grammy who isn’t doing enough with her grandkids, the  mom whose children are rebellious and have melt downs in the mall…

It’s hard to remember the pictures that don’t make it onto Facebook. If we had FB 35 years ago I would have posted a picture of my two angel toddler sons, Daniel and Mark, grinning happily in their car seats, anticipating a fun trip to the Mall with just Mommy. 

I would not post the picture of me struggling to put my two whining little boys into their double stroller, me saying through gritted teeth, “You’re ruining this special time, this is the only time I have to give you between now and Christmas" or a selfie of  me leaving the mall five minutes later because I’ve just realized that unbeknownst to me, those sweet angelic boys had consumed a whole string of candy canes on the ride to the mall, and were now having a sugar high or low or allergic reaction to red dye. Who knew which? All I knew was they were miserable!

Or rewind  a few more years and I would have posted pictures of our church family joining us for our traditional Christmas Eve open house, but not the picture of our two older children, Heidi and Chuck sitting on chairs all day because they were fighting and I had to get everything ready for a special night….No, we live in a pretend culture that whispers we’re not good enough, we’re never doing enough, we are letting people down, and maybe most of all, we’re letting down our God because we are so flawed.  The culture demands that to fit in, we must air brush our lives into perfection but the command is impossible to obey.  

We grown ups should be able to deal with all of this junk, but I guarantee you, most of us struggle. We are not alone in those feelings and we are not the first generation to experience such inadequacies.  

Speaking of Melt Downs – The Wise Men’s Journey
Speaking of melt downs, I have a feeling that the wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem had a few of those melt down moments along their hard, arduous journey, traveling by camel to find the one who had been born King of the Jews.

Their story is in Matthew 2:1 – 12

The Magi were not God-fearers, they were Gentiles, non-Jews, astronomers or astrologers, possibly made up of representatives from several countries.  They came from the East, possibly Persia, what is now modern day Iran and Iraq.  If they were astrologers than they most likely worshiped the stars.  They were known as Kingmakers. 

God Used the Stars

The Magi’s journey started because they were paying attention, they took action and they refused to allow distractions to stop them – even the threat of a murderous King.

The wise men thought that they initiated this search for the King, but God was the initiator and drew them to Jesus by using something with which they were familiar, the study of the stars.

This new star confronted them with a choice – they could continue to talk about the star, study the star and philosophize about the star or they could leave the comfort of their homes, their comfort zones, and choose to pay a high price of travel and time, and accept the invitation to follow that star so that they could worship this newborn king. 

Their journey and endurance challenges me. What is there in my life that is a invitation to journey toward the Star. How about you? A new opportunity? A financial windfall? A lost job? A difficult neighbor? Broken friendships? Fear? A disappointing diagnosis? A wayward child?Financial loss? Jealousy? Too many bills? Anger? A new life chapter? The wisemen would not rest, even when they lost sight of the star. They would not rest until they had a personal audience with this new born King. They were not just curiosity seekers, they were determined to worship this King and honor him with gifts.

They would not rest until they found Him.

Follow the Star - Who Me?

I know Jesus. I even teach others about Him. I know I will never get to the bottom of His love. But how much more can I KNOW Him and what price am I willing to pay to worship the King?  A new star entered the world of the wisemen astrologers and got their attention. What is there in my life that calls for my attention, inviting me to a new experience of His love, a new level of obedience, to forgive, or to rejoice in the day He has created for me, even though that day holds pain and disappointment.  

I think of my young friend, struggling to balance her grief over the loss of her "Hallmark Christmas" with gratitude for the "replacement" family God has given to her. She has taken on the battle in the middle of her depression, to follow the star that is Jesus, the Light of the World, who is calling her to walk by obedience, to move against her emotions in order to meet the tasks of the day. Is He  directing you and me in a similar way - to serve Him in a way that will be costly, self-sacrificing, to choose against our emotions, to follow Him. Can we see that the journey to the manger, to the Light of the World might be  long and hard, but by faith trust that His ways are also the pathway to joy?  Can we also see that every Christmas is a new opportunity to travel that pathway with renewed love and endurance?

The alternative is to be content to rest on our laurels, to be satisfied with what we know, to miss the invitation of our circumstances and interests  to "follow the Star" in a way that leads to intimacy, a deeper awareness of His presence and love, and a new, joyful recognition that the real Star of Bethlehem is the Light that enters the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Listen, God meets us where we are.  He used the stars to draw the wise men to Jesus.   Could it be the very thing that you love, or that breaks your heart or makes you feel inadequate, will be the conduit of His grace? The very thing that draws you to the manger, to the Christ child?

Our God is unchanging and when because of His great love for His children, He sent His only Son, Jesus, as our Messiah, He proved that He will stop at nothing to extend His unconditional love to His children. It's Christmas! Our Father, because of His love for His childrnen,  will use whatever is necessary to lead us to the manger and then to the Cross, to Jesus, the Light of the World. He uses our circumstances, our fears, our interests. 

Don't miss His invitation to Follow the Star.

We see three kinds of people in the story of the Wisemen. Some of them missed Christmas. Will we? Next week's post - Missing Christmas.

In His grip,

FREE Help and Hope Resources Are you or a friend struggling with a life crises that feels like there is no end in sight? Check out these free resources that offer help and hope to those who are experiencing life crises such as adultery, chronic illness, struggling with same sex attraction, raising a special needs child and more. Each real life story is designed to offer help and hope in the broken places in life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Woodmore Elementary School, Chattanooga, Valley of Tears

 November 21, 2016, started like any other day for the children of Woodmore Elementary School. Parents placed their children on the school buses, trusting that this day would be like any other, the children would arrive safely. But for one busload of young children, a nightmare like no other carried their little bodies and hearts into the middle of a deep abyss of terror, sorrow, and death. Six children would die as a result of the gross negligence of the twenty-four year old bus driver and many others were hospitalized, some in critical condition. This was no nightmare. This was reality. And while the funerals begin and people speak of closure, there will be no closure for the families who lost their babies. The terror impact of this tragedy has an ever widening ripple effect that has created wounds only heaven can heal.

The City of Chattanooga is no stranger to terror and loss. In June, 2015, a tractor trailer slammed into traffic stopped for construction, killing six people, including two children. On July 16, 2015, a shooter sprayed bullets into two separate military facilities and killed five servicemen. Many living in Chattanooga may be wondering how much more they can handle. Yet, the community continues to pull together, meeting practical needs and extending compassion to those most visibly impacted by these horrific losses.

As a mother who has lost a son, I know this journey for the bereaved families is long and hard. The community will try hard to help, but the calling to go into the extreme grief journey with bereaved parents will fall on just a few. While the families are trying to navigate this foreign land of Grief, hundreds of students, teachers, First Responders and community leaders will try to get life "back to normal," knowing that normal has dramatically changed. Many will dig deep to find the energy, wisdom and compassion to not only try to make sense in their own hearts of this senseless act, but also try to help those most affected by the grief. Teachers are navigating the Land of Grief with their young students, most likely stuffing their own deep sorrow in an attempt to help their children grieve in a way that moves them forward. This is a monumental task.

A few weeks ago, I wrote Townville Community - City of Tears in response to the school shooting death of six-year-old Jacob Hall. As soon as I heard about the tragedy at Woodmore, I thought of Townville, but first came the memory of my own stunned grief when I learned of the death of our son, Mark.  I remember the helpless despair, knowing we would never see, speak to or hug our son again. Without the widespread help of our community and the personal, intense help of a few, we would not have survived. And so I prayed that many will come alongside of these broken families, First Responders (FREE audio resource for First Responders First Responders: Help and Hope )  and school children as they process and try to find that "new level of normal." Again, I share some of the helpful ways we can offer comfort to a grieving friend:
What can we do when faced with such grief, sorrow, devastation? I asked the same question in this post a few weeks ago,

Townville Community - City of Tears
People are often afraid to reach out to a shattered person because they don't know what to say or how to fix that person. There is great comfort in knowing our job is not to fix a shattered person. Our job is to offer  help and hope that will help turn their hearts toward the Ultimate Comforter, our God. Living fearlessly in a fear-filled world requires a commitment to care about those around you. Here are some helpful ways to offer comfort to a grieving friend:
1. Each person's grief journey is unique. Their grief is their's. Don't tell them how to feel, how to act. 
2. Say the loved one's name. You will not make things worse. I still tear up when someone mentions Mark. You are not making their grief worse. One of our greatest fears is that our loved one will be forgotten. Tell stories and ask the bereaved friend to share stories. Simple words like, "I miss him, too" will help carry the grief and never be forgotten. 
2. Do not try to fix what cannot be fixed. This might seem like advice that communicates hopelessness, but in reality, it is comforting for a bereaved person to know they are with someone who recognizes the sorrow cannot be wiped away by human hands. This is also empowering to the encourager, to know that your job is to help turn their hearts toward the Only One Who can "fix them."
3. Be willing to absorb and watch your friend express unspeakable sorrow and anguish. This will be terrifying, but we need people who are willing to go into hell with us. Guard the privacy of your friend's private grief. Be a safe place for transparency.
4. Don't say, "Call me if you need me." Your friend will not call you. We don't have energy to even think about calling you. Anticipate needs that the bereaved person cannot identify. People just showed up for us and took care of practical things like watering plants, taking out the dog, etc., without asking.
5. Realize your grieving friend will most likely hurt your feelings, say things that are mean, forget to appreciate you. Don't take it personally. Grieving people can barely breathe, let alone cultivate a friendship. Grief is ugly and sometimes selfish. This is not about you. But, make sure you have friends who support you so that you can go into the darkness with your friend. 
6. Give up needing to be the public "best friend" of the grieving person. Be willing to do the background work of life for them, such as practical ways to keep their household running: putting out the trash and bringing in the cans, walking the dog, watering the flowers, things they may never know you did but will make their life easier as they do the heavy lifting of grief work.
7. Check with your friend about tasks that seem mundane. Don't change the bedsheets or do the laundry or paint over the fingerprints on the wall without asking. These little things might have special meaning that cannot be replaced.
8. Don't take authority over big decisions that is not yours. Make sure the bereaved wants you to make decisions about their loved one (funeral arrangements, etc.). Are you beginning to see how complicated comfort can be? On the one hand a bereaved person needs friends to step in and take care of daily tasks, on the other hand, the bereaved person needs to feel in charge of decisions about their loved one. Follow your friend's lead, gently, carefully.
9. If you are close to your friend, with her permission, be a gatekeeper. Relay helpful information to friends, help visitors know to keep their visits short.
10.  Show up and be dependable. Show up and unconditionally love the shattered person. Educate yourself on what your friend might be feeling and needing. 

Perhaps most often forgotten are the siblings, grandparents, best friends, of the lost child. Consider how you can acknowledge their grief, in a way that recognizes the holes in their hearts as well.
Loss of a Loved One
My husband and I share our grief journey in an interview you can listen or download for free: Loss of a Loved One.
Bereaved people often ask their families and friends to listen to this resource as a way to better understand what they are feeling and how their friends can help. I would love to hear from you, the reader, how people encouraged you, or how you encourage others.

Praying for Woodmore and the City of Chattagnooga.

Sharon Betters
MARKINC Ministries

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Same Sex Attraction - A Man's Perspective

MARKINC Ministries is committed to leaning into the pain of life experiences that often go unnoticed by the church and society in general. The Help and Hope audio library addresses life’s darkest circumstances that are difficult to discuss yet we are called on to help one another walk by faith. Each Help and Hope interview is a real-life testimony of someone who has walked through these experiences and has learned to see when the lights went out.

You can be one of the first ones to listen to these stories when you Subscribe to the Help and Hope audio library. We launch a new resource ever month, each one designed to help turn hearts toward Jesus.

In this transparent and sometimes emotional interview,  Chuck talks with three men and their counselor about their struggles with same sex attraction. No question was off limits and listeners will hear these men address such issues as how people who loved them treated them even though they disagreed with their life choices; how their churches responded; and ways they were hurt by people who claimed to be Christians.
They talk about their greatest misconception about God’s view of sex and homosexuality and how same sex attraction is similar to other sinful choices.

Listeners will be encouraged to hear scriptural principles that will help guide relationships with loved ones who identify themselves as gay and how parents can create a safe place for their kids to talk to them about same sex attraction.
Like all of our Help and Hope resources, this interview goes beyond a discussion of the life crises and digs deep into how each of us can grow in our own walk of faith as we process and face the challenges of living by grace in our messy world.
We know this is a difficult topic and most people will be reluctant to share it on their social media page for fear of offending someone they love. But the beauty of these resources is that people can listen to them in the privacy of their own home, while exercising or riding in their car. And the powerful redemption message might be exactly what they need to make it through the next day. In an effort to offer the same help and hope he experienced, one man shared the resource eon his Facebook page with these comments:

This is a new audio resource from MARKINC Ministries hosted by Chuck Betters, pertaining to same sex attraction from the man's perspective . I highly recommend this as it delves into the struggles that we go through in striving to live our lives for Christ, while still dealing with the desires of the flesh as a result of our brokenness. It also deals with not isolating ourselves but to be transparent with others. Satan wants nothing more than to make us feel that we need to carry this burden alone. It's also important for the church body to know that we need their love and support. Also, in many ways, the church is the family that we/I will never have via a wife and kids. Whether or not you have a close friend or family member who is going through this, I recommend your listening to this resource as it may help you understand the struggles we go through and the hope we have in our Lord and Savior.
Bless you and yours in Christ Jesus!

I encourage you to share this post widely, publicly or privately. It is a message filled with hope, help, encouragement, and unconditional love.

In His grip,


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Apples, Peaches, Pears and Plums

At a recent family reunion, my sister and I reminisced about our childhood family gatherings. Gayle asked, "Do you remember how old we thought our great aunts and uncles were?" I chuckled and nodded, "They seemed elderly, over the hill." She smiled and responded, "Well, all the little kids here see us as really old - we're the same age as our great aunts and uncles were way back then. . . ."

Chuck and I will be sixty-nine in January. That's one year away from seventy! Seventy seemed ancient when I was a teenager! Yet, as Chuck and I muse about what retirement looks like, we know our theology teaches us that "redeployment" might be a better word to describe this next season of life. 

For this week's blog, I'm sharing a devotional in which Chuck shares some of his thoughts on retirement, fruit bearing and what that might look like for us as we find ourselves on top of life's hill and get ready to tumble down the other side.

Apples, Peaches, Pears and Plums
by Dr. Chuck F. Betters

As I near that magical age of retirement, I know I have worked hard all of my adult life to attain this new chapter but that doesn’t mean I am going to sit around, eat grapes and have angels fan me. I cannot imagine that I would ever retire from my first love – the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. From that there is no such thing as retirement.
But I do have to constantly pray that God will show me when and how the next chapter of my life will unfold. Psalm 92 says:

My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants. [12] The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. [13] They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. [14] They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, [15] to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psalm 92:11-15 ESV)

Did you catch that? They still bear fruit in old age (v.14a). God expects the aging saints to be fruit bearers. I wonder, what kind of fruit?

Years ago, I got the bright idea to try my hand at raising peaches. I planted three trees, watered and fertilized them expecting to have peaches coming out of my ears. That didn’t happen. In fact, the peaches grew to pea size and then fell off the tree. Concluding that I was doing something wrong (brilliant, eh?) I contacted an elderly man in my church, the owner of Milburn Orhards, a very successful orchard that was known for its apples, peaches and other fruit. When John arrived at our home he had in his hand a pair of sharp shears and took it to the trees. He snipped here and cut there brutally shaving that tree down to almost nothing. I actually asked him if he knew what he was doing as he was mumbling something about why don’t novices like me just don’t visit his orchard and buy his peaches.

John told me something I will never forget. He said that the trees should have never been allowed to bear any fruit in the first two years. He continued that they needed to be pruned to drive energy to the vine and the root system. He chastised me lovingly and said that I will be very happy with big, thick juicy peaches next year but for now I had to be patient and wait for God to do His thing on the trees.

He grabbed a bag of special fertilizer and threw it about the roots being careful to pour the fertilizer only on the edges where the branches once stood. It took him all of ten minutes to ready those trees for the next season. And, ready they were with the biggest, juiciest and most delicious peaches one will ever eat.
Where are those trees now you ask? They are all dead. Why? Because I did not listen to the peach doctor. I expected that they would continue to produce abundantly without pruning and fertilizing. John is with the Lord now but his orchards continue to draw people from four states because he passed down a legacy of knowledge to his kids and their kids. The future of these orchards is bright, thanks to an old man who continued to practice his art in his old age. He not only invested in his family business, but invested in a young pastor who was a wannabe farmer. That next summer I enjoyed his investment in me when I bit into the juiciest sweetest peach I had ever eaten. Sadly, I didn't follow his pruning instructions and within a few years, my peach trees died.

Not so the old man of Psalm 92. The old man of Psalm 92 is a man of great vision. He asks the Lord for details on the next chapter in his life. He passes on to each following generation sound instructions for remaining ever growing ever green. For the believer there is no such thing as retirement from the spreading of the Gospel. Instead, there is redeployment. To be full of sap and green requires staying rooted in the house of the Lord, cultivating community, not only with our own age group but intentionally connecting with the  younger generations. Those young people coming behind us need ot hear that "the Lord is upright, that he is our rock, and that there is no unrighteousness in Him." Who better to make this declaration than those who have experienced hard places, the pruning of suffering, the presence of the Lord when the lights in life go out? We are credible witnesses to God's faithfulness. Our redeployment will always entail telling the next generation of His faithfulness because we ahve experienced it.

They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. [14] They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, [15] to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.  (Psalm 92:13b-15)

Sharon's dad, better known as Daddy to his seven children, embraced the truth of Psalm 92 and never stopped looking for ways of declaring that the Lord is sovereign, in control, and can be trusted. Throughout our region are numerous church buildings, Christian schools and numerous other edifices built by him through his company, Watco. Thousands of people worship every week in many of those buildings, lives are impacted by the Gospel preached in the "house of the Lord." He used his financial security to send numerous people onto the mission field and give wings to the dreams of young people. He poured resources and time into his many children and grandchildren, making memories that pull many back to the roots of their faith and family. But perhaps his sweetest fruit grew in the last years of his life, when he was unable to continue to lead his company as he had. His children and large family of over 100 grandchildren noticed his demanor and spirit seemed more mellow and gentler, especially after the death of his beloved wife, Eleanor. Those who knew Ralph when he was younger probably would not use the word "sweet" to describe him, but that was one of the words his son, Jim, used to describe the times he spent with his father shortly before his death. Grandchildren of all ages enjoyed hearing his stories and life lessons woven into the details. After his death at 89 years of age, Jim told his siblings that their father, a man of few words who struggled to describe the deep things in his heart, had expressed a deep desire of his heart that explained the change in their father's spirit. He said to Jim, "I know that I have a reputation for being harsh, but I'm trying to change. I hope people will give me chance and extend grace." Ralph got his wish as his love for Jesus showed up in the way he treated others.

The fruit of my father-in-law's life grew sweeter in his last season of life. Eighty nine years of living yet he never wavered in his assertion that God is sovereign and can be trusted, no matter how disappointing the circumstances. When I needed hope for resolving a hopeless situation, I knew Ralph would see some way out, because He saw the Lord's hand even in the messes. Lifelong friends and young people alike continue to speak highly of Ralph's heart and faith. He is still bearing fruit.

How sweet will the fruit of my life be in old age? Sometimes I get mixed up and thing fruit bearing is about doing. But it's not. It's about being, it's about falling more in love with Jesus. When that happens, the harshness or other thorns in my life have no choice but to start falling away. In this season of life, the greatest gift, the sweetest fruit I can give to my family is to invest in Jesus, and know that the dsciplines of suffering and grace will grow sweeter fruit than I ever thought possible in this last season of life.

Is your fruit bearing yielding a deeper love for Jesus that attracts others to Jesus? Are you practicing the presence of the Lord in worship and prayer in a way that continually matures and creates delight in His love? Do you receive the disciplines of the Lord, His pruning, with an open heart that refuses to grumble but graciously says yes to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11)?

Friends, one thing I know, at some point the old man of Psalm 92 embraced the “old season of life,” recognizing that his life had prepared him to continue to bear fruit – he would not stop growing or seeing life with eternity in view. That’s my hope for myself. How about you?

In His grip,
Dr. Chuck F. Betters
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