This year has been one of the most challenging of our lives.  Due to the five-year-old illness that has been part of my life and my family’s, I needed to step away from the ministry role that has been–to this point–the most joyous and fulfilling of my life.  The University was overwhelmingly generous in continuing my salary and most of our benefits until December 31, which helped significantly with medical bills and other needs.  But God has kept the pressure on with health issues, being turned down for disability income (something we’ve been appealing with Mutual of Omaha for two months), and in numerous other ways.

But as we look back over the year, we wouldn’t change a thing.  God has drawn us closer to Himself, and He has drawn nearer to us.  We’ve learned about prayer, trust, hope, dependence, God’s provision and faithfulness, the ministry of Christians to each other, and numerous other lessons that have breathed life into concepts we’ve known about intellectually or heard about in the testimonies of others.  We’ve experienced renewal as a couple and greater closeness as a family.  All these lessons have made the trials of the year worth experiencing.  We have no regrets.

These lessons have also impressed upon me the Fatherhood of God to the point that I didn’t feel right allowing Father’s Day 2015 to focus on me.  Instead, I told Erin and our kids several weeks ago, that I don’t want any presents.  Instead, I asked each of them to write down a list of ways for which they’re glad God is their Father and how they’ve seen Him show His Fatherly love to them and our family this year.  After church and lunch, we’ll each read our list aloud, in praise to God.  I don’t know if this will become a new tradition in our house or if the Lord will use this idea in other families, but I wanted to share with you my list of how my “Father, which is in heaven” has become more dear and more near in my life this year.  I pray that my personal list will bless your heart and remind you of God’s tender, Fatherly workings in your own life.

Here goes . . .

            This year, God’s omnipresence has meant more to me than ever. God is always with me. While that’s sobering, and should inspire me to make every action one of which He would approve, it is also immensely comforting. God is with me at every moment—every doctor’s visit, every attempt to minister to someone in person or over the phone, every moment with Erin, every moment with each of the kids. He is with me in dark hours of discouragement, available to give comfort even when everyone else is sleeping or away from the house. And every day as I read my Bible, God’s presence with me makes it an act of worship. He opens the Word to my understanding, using it to convict, instruct, and change me. God’s presence is the one constant in this trial, where my body is hurting and changing daily, and it makes me long to be present with Him in the Home Jesus is preparing even now.

God’s unlimited knowledge and power also mean more to me than ever. There are things in my life beyond my control and beyond my understanding. I do not know why God has led our family through my sickness, and I ache for all the times I’ve been unable to attend one of the children’s functions. I feel guilty every time I have to move a commitment or cancel a meeting. But I’ve begun to learn that–while God expects me to do all the things I can do–He has a purpose in the things I can’t.  I can’t be ashamed of those. He is working even those things together for His glory and my best.

Though there are countless other things I can say about how God has especially revealed His Fatherhood to me this year, I want to close with what I’ve learned of His provision (a function of God’s love, His omniscience, and His omnipotence combined). There are things He has asked us to let go of that we were more attached to than we knew; but every “sacrifice” gave us an opportunity to see God provide sweetly and personally for each thing to which we’d been clinging! He has given us a great home back campus, with all the  room we need; He has given us more time being near the children because the rooms are closer together; He has provided friends on our street for the boys, placed us closer to the fields, continued to allow the kids to walk to school, and gave  our daughter with her first summer job. He has made it possible to get a loan on the van we love, and my one paying insurance policy covers our lease on campus and a few other needs.

In His provision, God has almost exclusively given help exactly when it has been needed. Right now we have an ongoing need created by a disability insurance company that has refused to honor the policy BJU bought in my name (as BJU does for each employee). That would double the amount I receive each month, allowing us to pay off the van more quickly and take care of almost every other bill we have. We have engaged a company to help, but all of this has dragged on since January.  Like our other needs, we have taken this one to God time and again; but there seems to be no answer. That no longer makes me fearful, because God has answered every one of our prayers for provision just in time and–usually–in unexpected ways—keeping us faithful and persistent in prayer, as well as reminding us how precisely He hears and answers His children with provision.

I believe all of us as a family know God better, trust Him more, and care less about the things of this world. That makes this past year priceless–something we would never undo!  Thank you, Father, for being “Our Father, which art in heaven.” Even in hardship, we pray that You will do whatever it takes to draw us and our loved ones closer to You. You are our Joy; You are our Hope; You are our Strength; and one day You will be our Reward.

Thank you for so amply showing us Your magnificent Fatherhood this year. We love You all the more for all You have taught us! Be honored this Father’s Day with our praise and overflowing hearts’ gratitude!

Your son,

Stephen

“Does our faith rest on having prayers answered as we think they should be answered, or does it rest on that mighty love that went down into death for us?  We can’t really tell where it rests, can we, until we’re in real trouble.”

Elisabeth Elliot, A Path Through Suffering

The last two weeks have been difficult ones for personal discouragement.  Just weeks before, I had really good weeks physically, but now again my daily vertigo has worsened (taking turns with immobilizing migraines and nausea), conspiring to make for difficult days and lower spirits.

Sunday morning after spending time in Scripture, I picked up where I had left off reading A Path Through Suffering, by Elisabeth Elliot (who went Home to be with the Lord the same day).  She recounted a phone call in which she was trying to provide comfort to a 30-year-old cancer patient and mother of three young children.  After counseling, encouraging, and praying for the mother.  Later, as she lay in bed, Elisabeth Elliot replayed in her mind the things that had transformed her own view of suffering over the years.  They are separate paragraphs in the book, but I’ll number them hear for ease of grasping each powerful truth:

  1. “Suffering was indispensable for the world’s salvation.
  2. “There was no other way but the cross.
  3. “The servant is not greater than his Lord.
  4. “If we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him.
  5. “Shall we not follow the Master in suffering as in everything else, sharing with Him in His work, that the world and the devils themselves [think of the opening chapters of the Book of Job] may be shown in this [day]that we love the Father and will do just as He says?  The world does not want want to be told.  The world must be shown-shown the very guts of faith.”

 A Path Through Suffering

Elisabeth Elliot

Over a series of three summers during college and graduate school, I was privileged to work at a medium-sized camp in the eastern hills of Pennsylvania.  It was a wonderful experience to touch the lives of so many campers and to form lifelong friendships with the year-round staff and my fellow counselors.

Early in that first summer, one of the full-time staff invited all of us to his house for a devotional time.  It made a deep impression that Rudy (not his real name) and his wife Violet (not her name) would go to the effort and invite us to get away from the camp for a while in their home.

The more I worked with Rudy and all the full-time staff, the more I saw his huge heart for God and for others.  In one situation, I saw him working with one of my campers who was more than I could handle.  Patiently, lovingly, and filled with God’s Word, Rudy touched that child’s life and started to deal with some of the core issues.  Some people wear off their testimony, but others grow on you; and that’s what Rudy and Violet did.

At one point Rudy shared with a group of us that he and Violet had tried to have children for almost a decade, but weren’t able.  So they told us they were going through the adoption process and kept us updated.  At some point in the following school year, Rudy called with the thrilling news that the adoption agency had located a child for them.  But within months, the birth mother changed her mind, and Rudy and Violet went home to grieve in an empty house.

The second summer I worked there, Rudy and Violet again got called.  A young teen was expecting a little girl, but didn’t want it.  They visited the birth mother and endured numerous other evaluations of their home and their suitability for a child.  But even these hurdles seems tiny compared to their joy.

After birth, the mother transferred the papers to my friends.  To say they were ecstatic is too tame a word.  They instantly became the godly parents we had observed every summer as they worked with campers and counselors.  They were happier than I’ve ever seen them.

A couple of months into the following school year, I again got a call from Rudy.  He explained that Pennsylvania had a law allowing a birth mother a certain number of weeks/months to reconsider.  If she changes her mind during that period, it cancels the adoption.  Their baby had only been with them for four to six months, but the teen mother decided she wanted to try to raise her daughter.

Again, we were all in shock and aching for our friends.  After having a baby and creating a family home, Rudy and Violet now had to pack up their nursery things and pass back the daughter who had been “theirs” since her birth.

Many of us questioned God’s goodness and His justice.  Here was a young couple dedicating themselves to ministry, praying for a child, but investing themselves in other people’s children.  Rudy, on the other hand, tried to help all of US work through our grief for them.

During my third and last summer of camp work, Rudy shared that they had once again been contacted with the possibility of an adopted child.  This time they were still excited, but more reserved.  The extra exciting thing we learned was that this was going to be a little boy–the perfect match for a Christian School teacher who was also a die-hard sports coach and fan!

We prayed about it all summer, and then kept in touch often to make sure nothing had gone wrong.  Nothing did…and little Michael has now been a part of the family for almost 20 years!

But less than a year after Michael arrived, Rudy called with news of Violet.  During some testing the doctors had found a mass in her abdomen.  It turned out to be cancer with limited treatment options, given its progression.  I wept with Rudy on the phone and again prayed and wrestled with God.  It just seemed that this couple DESERVED better from the God, Who had already tested their faith in heart-broking ways.

Violet endured multiple treatments, surgeries, nutrition regimens, and medicines, but the cancer continued to grow.  All in all, Violet had about three years more with Rudy and Michael.

When I heard that she was close to finishing her race and had been moved to a facility that tries to make terminal patients as comfortable as possible during their last days (otherwise known as “palliative care,” I called Rudy to let him know they were constantly in our prayers.

Even as the phone on his end rang, I began sobbing.  Rudy picked up, we cried together, and I asked about Violet and Michael.

Rudy shared something on the phone that I will never forget.  He said that he and Michael had just been down to the little stream on the property, because Rudy felt he needed to help Michael prepare for Violet’s Homegoing as best he could.  After talking about Mommy going to live with God and being free from any more pain, Michael asked simply: “Are we going to be OK without her, Daddy?”  Rudy answered, “Yes,” but Michael immediately asked how his dad knew that so certainly.  Rudy said he started internal panic prayer for the right answer.  Then God gave it to him.

“Michael, I know we’re going to be OK because God loves us, and everything that touches us is filtered through Him, to make sure it’s good for us.”  A short paused punctuated the conversation; then Michael looked up at his dad, satisfied, and said: “You’re right; we’re going to be OK with a God like that.”

That thought has often come back to me in hardship and many times in my own illness.  I pray it’s a thought that will change your life, too–whether people have hurt you, illness stalks you, or you daily wake to face disablement, Go back and read the first two chapters of Job, Christian.  Read them well.  Note Satan’s destructive, malicious intent, and then note that Satan could have never touched Job’s family, wealth, position, and body, unless God allowed it and intended good for Job through it.

Remember this blessing of being a Christian: Nothing can touch our lives unless it has first come through God.

(In Memory of Violet Soane–a friend, a Godly example, a wonderful wife and mother, and an ongoing inspiration to trust God’s hand and timing.)

Often while growing up, people allow you to believe things that will later prove untrue. It’s not an intent to deceive; in fact, if I could ascribe any motivation to it, it’s likely a desire to let childhood and dreaming last.

But in working with college age young people, I’ve found that many of them feel somehow short-changed when they realize marriage isn’t the answer to a habit of lusting, that the world isn’t made up of all black-or-white decisions, or even that they’ll still struggle to be consistent in having their devotions after college.

My wife and I have often talked about this unintentional disservice that people do to young people, and we’ve tried to be brutally (and biblically) honest with young people we counsel.

But my heart is as a mentor. Life’s challenging enough without incorrect information! So my intent is to deal with things here–as a Bible-believing Christian trying to help younger Christians navigate the road ahead of them. We’ll start with once a week, and I’ll deal with very real issues young men and women face. In fact, I’ll probably have faces of friends in mind as I write–usually young men I’ve gotten to know during their student days.

And I’ll call this “Paragraphs to my young friend.”

More paragraphs to come.