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God In the Hard Places


Something I’ve always struggled with is relating to God intimately. Thinking ABOUT God, meditating on a text, trying to pray through the voice of a Psalm–DOING those things is simple enough. This is not how I want to relate to the people in my life, the people I’m most intimate with. I don’t want to merely think ABOUT my wife, our family, friends. Thinking about it is an after-effect.

It has been said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. I don’t begin to understand it. God is here as I write this and he is there as you read this. But I struggle to do better than simply think ABOUT him.

Jesus promised that he wouldn’t leave us alone, that he’d live in us, and we’d live in him, and he’d live in the Father. That’s the language of a tight nit relationship. How could the creative power of the whole universe be so close yet so far? For instance, God doesn’t talk to me. I’ve never heard a single word. But what’s fascinating is what he does behind the scenes that leaves me convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is right here, paying attention to my moaning and groaning, my attempts at worship, my stumbling attempts to give him my full attention and total obedience.

To be behind the scene is to be behind the curtain. Without a physical presence, the invisibility sometimes feels like the curtain. At the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain in the temple ripped in two. It’s been my experience that the closest thing I get to the curtain being ripped also comes at the cost of suffering.

I deeply appreciate the way Peterson brings out the sense of scripture in Matt. 5 where it is written, “Your blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

Here’s an experiment. Grab all your prize possessions, grab a few friends and family members, grab that diploma, the deed to your house, bank statement, and all the assorted valuables or symbols of those valued possessions.

Once you’ve got all that together, take everyone over to the edge of a cliff and latch on to a rope, then get a hold on everyone and everything you brought.

Jump.

When you get to the end of your rope what’s left? Where’d all the stuff go? You’re left hanging by one hand, with nothing, and you’re slipping.

Nothing you valued is any help to you when you are at the end of your rope. It is a rude awakening. Stripped of all the excess, there is less of you; more room is made for God. So you cry out to him for salvation, begging him to do something. No more time for thinking about or meditating upon. Relationship transcends that. In those dramatic uncertain moments God is there making things happen that would not have happened otherwise.

Words become less important when the curtain is torn. In the wake of an overt movement by God we can relish the nearness. We stand in awe.

I hate the end of the rope. I’ve been there so often that I should change my address to, “Dude dangling at the end of the rope.” But it forces me to come to terms with what is most important. God saves me and turns my mess into something he can use in his kingdom. But he takes his time and I get impatient, trying to nudge him with prayers and supplications. He acts when he’s ready to act, and as it turns out, it is always at the perfect time.

More is sure to come. I see it in the face of some of the desperate people I work with, or the poverty-stricken, lonely people packaged away in nursing homes, and prisons filled with despair. When I see all of that I see a slash in the curtain.I know that he is where misery gathers. Maybe the way to more intimacy is meet him where he is–the hard places.

Ben Overby

Beyond Recovery


“Does my strength come from the mountains?” That is part of Psalms 121, a song that would be on the lips of Israelites as they approached Jerusalem.

The mountains could give the children of Israel a false sense of security. Maybe they thought they could run and hide in the mountains if an enemy were to attack. Maybe the mountains would provide  shelter in the event of a storm. They were a massive, unmovable part of the landscape unaltered by the wind, not shrinking under the heat of the sun, an obstacle for travelers. Something that substantial could be depended on for strength.

The rhetorical question is, does my strength comes from the mountains? The resounding answer is No. The writer goes on to say God is the source of strength. He made heaven and earth and the mountains.

It’s easy to substitute all sorts of things for the source of our strength. Bank account, physical health, zip code, education, the church we attend, our children’s accomplishments, plastic surgeon, our wits, our ability to manipulate with words, our personal power, and this list could be extended indefinitely.

But where does our strength come from? What do we use for “cover?” Our strength comes from God who made heaven and earth, provides work, health, a zip code to live in, intelligence, churches, our children, doctors, our ability to think quickly, language, and our vigor.
Giant mountains are tiny heaps of rock in the shadow of almighty God. As the song says, He will not let us stumble….He guards us now, He guards us always.
Who and what we trust in is critical to joy and peace. We trust our own mountains to our peril.
Ben Overby

Why All the Chaos?


Just got done watching the first 15 minutes of the Today Show. The news from around the world is packed full of death. Three plane crashes. In the Ukraine a reporter pointed out the tiny shoe of a child about two-years-old. Another plane crash in Mali. Then another in Taiwan. Missiles and weather blow aircraft out of the sky.

Images from the Gaza strip–carnage, rubble, innocent children blown to bits and scattered like pieces of a puzzle.

A tornado ripped through a campground in Virginia where a couple hid in their tent only to be crushed to death by a falling tree.

Man walks into a Wellness Center. Shoots and kills one person before being shot by the doctor. What sort of world is it that when a doctor prepares to see patients he needs a stethoscope and a sidearm? Listening to a heart one moment, firing a pistol at a heart the next. Heal. Kill. It’s “all in a day’s work.”

The threat of death is a constant. It is random. Arbitrary. If a terrorist doesn’t get us the weather, or freak accident, or disease, or old age will. We can know we are alive and we can be certain that we will die. Everything in between is a bit sketchy.

The bookends of life happen with a declaration–a birth certificate, a death certificate.

A crib for the freshly born.

A hole for the freshly dead.

Put our life on a bookshelf and the ends are unmistakable–basically the same for all of us. Our stories, spelled out in the books between the bookends, are hidden inside covers. But there’s no debating the simple fact–we are born and a little later we die.

Death is everywhere. How we feel about it is determined by what we believe is going on in the space outside the bookends–the eternity before we existed and the foreverness “after” us. Paul argued that after death there would be a resurrection. Jesus was the first. The rest of us will follow. As ominous and arbitrary as death appears it has already been defeated.

We miss the dead and we often don’t understand why God allows what he allows. Under the weight of suffering the questions come to us. In fact, in a shocking utterance even Jesus cried, Why have your forsaken me?

Sometimes it feels like God has forsaken his earth and the world. We, too, groan–we ask, Why? But the question comes in a package. It admits that he exists, that he fills up the reality on either side of the bookend. We’d never have the courage to ask such an audacious question without trust–trust that he can handle the question without a flinch, and that he knows the answer, that he knows what he’s doing.

At times the best that we can do is simply ask the question. Shaking our fist at the TV, asking each other What’s going on here, as if we’re ever going to make sense of a world and earth warped by sin, will do little except leave us empty and apparently helpless. Better to complain to God. At the very least the indirect assurance inherent in the question will sustain us. Death is caught in a trap. Even when it forces our questioning, it forces us closer to God. The bully has already lost the ultimate battle.

 Ben Overby
http://about.me/ben.overby
© 2014

Power to the Past?


No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead…  Ph 3:13

Meaning is the ‘one thing’ a person intends to communicate. If I warn you that there is danger ahead, then that’s the meaning I intend. You either accept the warning or ignore it. But past is not a person. It doesn’t intend to communicate anything. It has no life. Past is like ice cream without flavor. We choose the topping, the ingredients that give it taste. Without our decision, ice cream doesn’t take charge and say, “I am strawberry!”

Past is the ice cream. What it means is actually the one thing we are communicating to ourselves about the past. It is a waste of time to blame our past; after all, it is tasteless. It exists in our memory, waiting for a topping.

Are you giving your past life, giving it a voice? Is your past saying your are doomed to failure? Is it communicating that you are fat, ugly, dumb, and destined for poverty? Maybe it is conveying that you can succeed and only succeed? Is it warning you? Is it encouraging you.

We should accept past for what it is. It is a cluster of events. Nothing more. It can only mean the meaning we give it. If we don’t like chocolate ice cream, then we should reject it and demand strawberry. We can do it because it is in our power alone. We (not past) are literally talking to ourselves. So, take charge–when necessary spare the messenger and kill the message.

© Ben Overby, 2014

 


“You live in terms of what you see and touch. I’m living on other terms.” Jesus, John 8*

Maybe this accounts for the drastic difference between who we want to be (Jesus-like) and who we are. Speaking for myself, this is part of the Jesus vs. Christian gap which I wrestle with constantly.

If our rock bottom belief about what is important or most real, comes down to what we see and touch, then we are critically separated from Jesus’ thought world. And, if I don’t think like him, I cannot become like him.

It works like this: “As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life?” Paul, Romans 6.*

I do have to think about my thinking (the actual meaning of repentance) . And I find it more difficult than it seems. Regardless, I can’t run on automatic, though it’s easier to live enslaved to what I see and touch.

The physical world fits into a vast spiritual reality, an infinite reality with different cravings, different routines, different outcomes. It is a worldview that allowed a man to give his life serving others, to hunger and thirst for God, and to accept as his throne, a cross; a gasping-for-air king who could be seen and touched. But a dying king “living on other terms.”

Ben Overby

*Scriptural references, The Message, by Eugene Petterson


Websters defines hate as: intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury b : extreme dislike or antipathy : loathing

One of the more complicated challenges I face personally as well as many of the peers I mentor is self-hatred. It usually takes the form of self-criticism or self-condemnation. It is that nagging voice that refuses to shut-up.

Aversion is repugnance. It is a desire to turn away. When we avoid someone because we’re angry or afraid of them or sense they’ve injured us it is signaling hatred.

My mom pickled cucumbers when I was a kid. I hated the smell. It was repulsive to me. I had an aversion to it, which explains why I ran outside and refused to return until the coast was clear of the stench. Sometimes we feel that way toward others. And sometimes we feel that way about ourselves.

The trouble is I can’t run away from me. I’m stuck in my own skin. Sometimes the hatred is because I’m afraid of myself. Experience with mania over the 33 years has left deep scars. Though manic experiences are now controlled by medication, the fear remains close by. Sometimes I’m angry at myself. To really complicate things, a lot of the time I’m angry with myself because I’m angry with myself and want to stop being angry with myself but feel powerless. I’m sealed in a room with boiling vinegar, no ventilation, no escape route.

Often fear and anger have self-injury as the source. We can injure ourselves a thousand different ways.

For those raised in a performance-based family this is a particular problem. Did your parents connect their love for you with your performance, your behavior, your goodness however they defined it? When I kept the rules I was a “good boy.” When I violated the rules (some I didn’t know existed until it was too late!) I was bad. Expressions of love came with contingencies. So, if my parents couldn’t love me because I didn’t meet the standard, then it didn’t take long before I didn’t love me for failing my parents. And this failure to love myself was, and still can be, a devastating injury to the self.

A lot of the peers I work with, or people I coach, loath themselves. Sometimes it is countered with substance abuse. Other times it results in attempts to snatch love from anyone who will give it (or at least appear to). There’s a craving for intimacy. At other times the person disconnects from their own emotions, thinking they are escaping the repugnant smell, ignoring the fact that at some point they are going to have to breathe.

The remedy is simple but difficult. It’s love–the prescription that heals hatred. Love does not run away but runs to. It is not angry but is understanding. It puts into context perceived self-injuries, accepts them for what they are, and forgives; lets it go. We get a double benefit because we also stop being angry at other people, cease being afraid, and stop attempting to injure the other.

I’m not an expert on any of this; I’m not a counselor and certainly not a psychologist.  I trust Jesus. He didn’t study human behavior. He knew it. He knew what was real and passed it on to his apprentices. And one of them expressed it better than I can, and I’ll stop with this;

“My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God!” from The Message, 1 John.

Ben Overby

 

You’re Not Alone


Long ago. Those two words mark the beginning of the letter known as Hebrews.

Long.

Ago.

This is not a once upon a time fairy tale. It’s a comment about Jesus. The great I am. Always existing.

Imagine long ago. Think back to your childhood long ago. Imagine the childhood of your father, mother, grandparents. Close your eyes and drift back in history. Long ago Christ rose from the dead. Crucifixion. His birth. Israel. Wilderness wandering. Moses, Jacob wrestling God, Issac, Abraham, the great flood, the Fall, the creation of the universe. Then, pre-creation. Nothing. At least nothing that we can get our heads around. Just the God community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Long, long ago. And They will be long into the future, without end.

How long have you been depressed, afflicted with some form of mental distress, mental illness? Put it in the context of the Hebrew letter. Disease can feel like an eternity. Pain slows down time to a crawl. And God has been there with you all along, and with countless others from long ago until now. Meditate on being with Them before anything about you was that is. Lose yourself in that thought before returning to now, and an awareness of his unimaginable never beginning, never-ending nature that has stretched out as long as His love for you. You are not alone.

Ben Overby
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