Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Seven Steps through Difficult Times

Every person I have every known (and every one whom I expect to know) will have to wade through the muck and mire of life. This is often an entanglement with difficulties from outside ourselves or it may be personal crises. What I know by experience is that we all face these things with tiring frequency. We live for those lovely periods wherein everything seems balance and harmonious. They are remarkably less frequent than we would wish. It also seems to be a law that as soon as we have experienced the peak of that harmony, something will inevitably confront us and drag us back into the mire.

The melancholic personality views his life as running from disaster to disaster with brief moments of light. The sanguine personality views it just the opposite, life goes from joy to joy with the occasional period of struggle. The celtic blood that I carry in my veins tends to make me the former. You know the old rag about the Irish character, "It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse!" It was once observed to me that Daddy could be the voice of gloom.

But the real question is not about personality types, but how do we get through these times since they are universal and we'll all experience them? How do we make it through those difficult nights when we can't sleep because we can't find a resolution to the things that face us? Millions of Americans are facing these questions on a daily basis now because of the economy. I'll share a little bit about what I do--which I think is healthy--in these cases. I assume that one has already cried out to God that one is hurting and it is profitable to do this because God will give us solace, but it is not the way through the muck.

The first thing to do is ask the question what is the worst case scenario? You see, much of the time the fear and dread comes to us because of what we can't see. It is unknown and so it paralyzes us. If it is concern about your job, ask yourself then, "If I lost my job, what would happen?" Certainly one might go bankrupt and lose one's credit. One would not be able to care for one's family as one wishes and it would absolutely cause a strain on family relationships. Perhaps one looses one's house and many possessions. But there would also be things that would still be there even in the darkest moments. God would still love me--even if I was the cause of these things through grave and mortal sin. God would not turn his back on me and always stand ready for me to repent and come back to him. This realization is more important that we might think. Ultimately, we know we can be victorious and that nothing can finally hurt us. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" To know that we are unconditionally loved is the most reassuring thing we can have in times of darkness. We may be able to add that our spouses would still love us. That our children would still love us and our friends would still care for us. The most bitter darkness we could ever face is not so opaque when others bring their light to us through love.

We might ask would I starve to death? No. I would be able to find something to eat. Would I have a place to sleep? Absolutely. We would be able to find a place for our families to reside as we get back on our feet. Could we find work again? We would, but it would be different and the pay and benefits might not be the same. In other words, in the worst case scenario, things would go on. Life would continue for us even if it were uncomfortable for a time.

The second thing to do is to consider all those who have gone through trying times and come out of it. The best art, the best literature, often the most creative ideas, and sometimes even the most successful businesses have come from people who have gone through difficult times. It was as though the darkness forced them to light a fire inside their souls that finally burned brighter than the night about them. I would have about me a company of people who have suffered and become victors. They would inspire me and give me hope and courage that desperate times can be overcome.

The third thing to do is to admit where we have failed. Unless we are honest with ourselves we cannot hope to change our course. This is often uncomfortable for people, especially when they are down. But the purpose of this is not to gravel or beat one's self up about the failures. It is to admit them, to repent of them and to be aware of what they are. Often there is not sin attached to certain failures. Failures can come about when there is an aptitude or personality conflict. This failure might have been painful for many people, it may be grievous and open, but it is not necessarily culpable. The culpability may have been failure to get help or having taken on something that one constitutionally cannot fulfill. This isn't too uncommon and it creates a sense of guilt in oneself and irritation among others. The tasks may possible to complete on a talent or pragmatic level, but virtually impossible on another level. And sometimes it's impossible to understand why it my be so.

I remember my father told me that in business one should always source out tasks that one doesn't like or that one continually puts off. This was from his experience of doing his own accounting/bookkeeping for his photography studio. He would put it off until the taxes were due for the government and he would actually have to close the studio for a couple of days so he could complete his books. It didn't make sense financially because he was loosing billable hours on a task that only took up his time. It would have been cheaper for his to have hired it out in the first place.

This is the sort of thing we look for when we consider our failures. Often when we are able to face them honestly, we find that we can avoid the problems we have had to undergo. But it is worth noting that this cannot be done unless one has reached a certain amount of peace first. There must be a sense of stability and some certainty before one can see this. When one is in the midst of attacks and pressure, it can be very difficult to analyze. Hence, the first two steps are needed.

The fourth thing we must do is make some goals. If we don't know where we wish to go, then we will get nowhere at all. Within groups this can be very difficult because there must be a consensus about the goal. It is too easy for us all to be too dogmatic about both the goals and the plan (which comes later). Goals should be considered on several levels. They should be considered in practical terms, what can actually be accomplished. They should be considered in terms of the ideal too--what is my ultimate goal. Then they should be organized into bite-sized goals.

The fifth thing to do is to make some simple deliberate plans to work towards these goals. The steps we take towards the fulfilling of the short goals must be simple and practical. This is not a triathlon, it is daily life. For example, the long term goal may be to write a book. That's a big task. But one can set a goal to write three to four pages per day. That is something that one can easily accomplish. These pages add up to chapters and a whole book. Then one can begin breaking the editing of the book into small bites, until finally a finished book is produced. Deliberate little tasks are necessary, big ones can never be done.

Next, one would bring all of this to God. Why only pray now? Well, in a sense I have been praying about it all along. Or, one could say that I've been preparing to pray about it. It is impossible to go to God about problems until we see them clearly. Then we can bring this to God for his guidance and correction. Some of what we may need to bring is repentance, some of what we need is his blessing on our tasks. Some of what we need is the courage to act on what we know is right. None of this is really possible unless we have already done this work. There is also a truth that we will not be able to pray completely until we have reached a certain amount of peace and resolution in our hearts already. The cry to God of our pain is important because he helps us to rest for this process, but it must give way so that we can move forward in Christ to truly pray and work.

There are some who might object, then why pray at all? Haven't we already done all of the work? This is a misunderstanding of what prayer is, specifically petitionary prayer. We assume that we are asking God to do things for us and that that is all that's needed, that if we have already worked out a program, then there is no need to ask God to help us. Actually, what we are doing is asking God to fulfill his love and desire in us. We ask him to bless us, to be present in our tasks and to guide us. When we pray for his help, we are asking him to be with us as we struggle because we know our weakness and our inability to fulfill all that we see we need to accomplish. We are not asking for God to work magic. We are asking for his love. Our work will become far simpler when we do it with him.

Finally, we begin to work. We take our first steps towards our little goals and as we accomplish them, we thank God each time. We ask for God's help and presence as we are doing our work, lest we fall--ever mindful of our weakness and past failures. Eventually, the darkness passes and we arrive in peace again. And if we work through our difficulties in this manner, we will find that our dark times never become quite as black as they did before. We will find that our hearts begin to move naturally towards God in good times and in bad. We will know how to keep working and not to fall into magical beliefs or fantasies. In short, we will be working out our salvation in fear and trembling.

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