Sunday, July 31, 2011

#16 My Garden of Discovery

     I enjoy gardening and devote a great deal of time, effort, sweat, and money to my flower and vegetable garden. Some of my endeavors are successful, and some are miserable failures. I have a particular deep pink rose I grow in pots beside my front porch. Every year I get a few big, luscious, fragrant blooms, and then the black spot attacks. I fight it, pruning off the ugly blighted leaves, give the poor things medicine, but then end up having to prune severely and hope to save the plant for another season of bloom. Somehow, though,  I don't give up on it and throw it away!
     The darn things require so much attention! They have to be planted in good soil, fed and watered at regular intervals, dead-headed, treated with anti-fungal spray, pruned, protected from the cold, and given plenty of sunlight. With only ten days of neglect, these potted roses turned brown and crispy while we were on vacation. But, with proper care, they are beginning to come back.
     How like those roses are we! No wonder Jesus used so many agricultural references as He was trying to teach His followers: the vine and the branches, the parable of the sower, separation of wheat from the chaff, the wheat among the tares. Our spiritual life is like tending roses. We need to feed upon the Word, drink of the Living Water, stay in the Son light to be able to bloom, emit His fragrance, and bear fruit, and even endure pruning at times. With a little neglect we grow cold apart from  the Son, we lose substance when we're not in His Word, and we shrivel up without the Living Water.
     I risk belaboring a metaphor, and I have another one yet to offer!!
     A few days ago, when I was out in my vegetable garden picking tomatoes, I had a revelation. Because of my visual disorder, I have blind spots. I have a really difficult time finding a particular cereal on the grocery shelves or even finding an earring on my bathroom counter!  I can set down my glasses on the kitchen table and not be able to find them again, even when they are right in front of me. Thus, I may meticulously go through the garden, picking all the ripe produce I see, then turn around, look again, and discover vegetables I missed!
     This particular day I had already picked a bowl of beautiful, ripe tomatoes.  I searched through the jungle of dense vines a second time and found more of the luscious Red Beefsteak variety that rarely grows in this hot, humid climate. I was looking over the tomato vines yet a third time and found even more lovely, plump, red tomatoes that I didn't see the other two times!! I actually laughed aloud because I realized God was teaching me something.
      Reading the Bible for me is like looking for tomatoes in my garden. I have read it through, and I regularly attend worship services and participate in Bible studies. We have a pastor who always offers new insights as he unfolds the scriptures for us. Yet, like I do in my garden, I still discover wonderful surprises in the Bible that thrill me and feed my soul.
     When I was going through some of the darkest periods of my life, I developed the habit of reading five chapters in Psalms a day and one chapter of the Proverbs as well. With 150 chapters of Psalms and 31 in Proverbs, I was able to read through each book every month. Strangely, as I read the same verses month after month, I would find new meanings and insights. God would be able to teach me something different from the same passages as long as I kept coming back to them. He taught me about myself and examined my heart. He showed be how to quit blaming someone else and begin examining myself. Although I read other portions of the Bible, those months of reading and rereading the Psalms and Proverbs were some of the best times of spiritual growth for me.
"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)
     I am amazed that a book centuries old is still "living". 
     Not only do I learn something new when I go back to the scripture, I receive fresh mercy and extravagant grace from my God Who is more faithful that any human ever can be. Like my tomato plants, God's Word is fruitful and bears a new harvest each day, awaiting my picking. I just have to hunt for it and regularly go back--even to the same places I have been before. I miss things the first time and even the second time I read a passage of scripture.  It's like "my secret garden"! I am fed and refreshed each time I visit.
    But, the garden cannot feed me continually or endure with me indefinitely like God does. My garden will eventually stop producing and shrivel up in this wilting Texas heat. Its season of productivity will end. The Bible, however, offers me something new and beautiful every time I walk among its pages. There I find a loving Lord Who pours out His compassion upon me and all who come before Him.

 " Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
   for his compassions never fail.
 They are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness."  Lamentations 3:22-23 (NIV)

     I find God's compassions by looking in the pages of His Word. I witness them as He blesses my life in ways I have never deserved. As He daily fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna from Heaven, He feeds me. He gives water to my thirsty soul. Under His tender care I become His garden!

"The LORD will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." Isaiah 58:11 (NIV)
      Thank you, Lord, for the red beefsteak tomatoes, for the bountiful garden with which You have blessed me, for the laughter among the vines, for the feast of Your Word, and for tending me "like a well-watered garden." Thank You even for this eye disorder and for showing me I have blind spots--both physically and spiritually! You are an amazing God!! I joyfully sing Your praise.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

#15 Breaking the Chains and Moving Forward

     I recently had the privilege of hosting a missionary doctor who has been shadowing me in my clinic so that she may learn more about the newer psychiatric treatments and medications. She will take this new knowledge back with her to parts of the world where only the most rudimentary of psychotropic medications are available and where psychiatric patients are often treated with chains and a locks--and the patient has to buy the lock!
     A few days ago, as she was answering questions from one of my patients, she described how the patients in her part of the world are kept, sometimes for many years, in dark dungeon-like places where the odors of urine and feces penetrate everything. When she enters the facility to visit the patients, her eyes sting and gradually adjust to the deepening darkness as she descends into the stench-filled pits of human suffering. Surprisingly, when she offers the patients a new and different treatment that may give them hope and freedom, they are sometimes unwilling to accept it. They prefer to stay in the dark and keep their chains and locks. Others, once free from their chains, go back to them--out of fear of the unknown and lack of trust that they will be alright without them. They choose to be  prisoners to their illnesses and their past and to hold on to that which is inhumane but familiar.
     It struck me that in my practice many of my patients choose the same fate. I see a woman who endured abuse from an alcoholic father as a child and then married an equally abusive man who additionally abuses both her children. I show her the way to freedom, introduce counseling and other treatments, and suggest people and groups who would be willing to help her. Yet, she believes the lie that this monster of a man is the best she can do, that no one else will have her, and that she deserves or somehow causes the abuse that is dealt to her. She turns her face away and returns to her chains.
     Even those in the church, those of the redeemed, sometimes hold on to the familiar that binds them rather than letting it go and grasping hold of the freedom that Christ offers.  Paul is addressing this very problem in Romans 6 where he is writing to Christians who, although they have been set free from sin, continue to be tempted to live like they are still slaves to it. 
     Last night our family watched the gruesome but moving movie, The Shawshank Redemption. Our daughter had never seen it and wept when the old man Brooks, who was finally parolled after a 50 year imprisonment, committed suicide because he couldn't bear to live in freedom. He had been locked up for so long, said "Red", one of the inmates, that he had "become institutionalized." Freedom frightened him.
     The mentally ill "prisoners" in Africa have experienced much the same. They have become "institutionalized"--used to the chains and locks that make them feel safe., accustomed to the walls and the dark and the rats that enclose them. They cannot remember freedom and cannot imagine a world where there are no voices in their heads to torment them. They are frightened and reluctant to trust those who are wanting to give them a new life.
    Don't many of us who are Christians do the same thing? We want to live free (or "live strong", as Lance Armstrong would say), but we are unwilling to believe that we actually can do it. We look at the path on which we have walked our lives, see the potholes and pits through which we have come, and cannot envision a life in the future that isn't the same. We are so limited in our vision (seeing "in a mirror dimly") that we live far below the level that God has for us. We live on the poverty level of life instead of in the riches God wants to give us. We live in the dark dungeons, like those in chains in Africa, rather than in the glorious light God is providing for us.

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known." I Corinthians 13:12

     I sometimes tell my patients about the verse, "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I," especially when I am trying to help them see that it is time to trust a higher power. They may feel like they are in a dark hole with no way out, but God is above that hole and offering a hand up and a way out into the light. In Africa, my missionary doctor friend is offering her patients a way out of their darkness and chains. But, they have to choose to accept her help, to try the medicine that is offered. We, as Christians, no matter how long we have lived under the master of sin and slavery, need to trust that Rock that is higher than we are. That Rock can break those chains. He is offering us freedom and a victorious life. We need to get over our prideful thinking that "my wound is too difficult for Him to heal" or that "my sinful habit is too hard to break" or that "His grace isn't sufficient to cover me." That attitude is pure pride and is putting your opinion above that of Christ's
"From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." Psalm 61:2 NASB

     How do we do it? We have to let go of what we are holding onto to take hold of Christ. Those poor, suffering psychiatric patients in Africa must let go of their chains and locks to take hold of the new therapies that are offered to them.  Those in my own practice who have continued to languish in depression and defeat while continuing in the same habits that put them where they are must let go of the old bad behaviors and embrace the new lifestyle changes and therapies that are offered to them. We Christians must take hold of Christ. We cannot do that while holding on to the past and to our sinful ways. We must trust Him to do what He says He will do for us. We must let Him take our hands and lead us out of our dungeons into His light.
     And why should we trust him? Why on earth should we let go of the familiar and step out on faith to grasp His hand and move forward? Because He has the power to defeat our past. He has the power to defeat sin! He conquered death! He has resurrection power, and so do we-- in Him! That resurrection power means NEW LIFE. Take hold of it, because Jesus has taken hold of you.

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." Philippians 3:12
      I hope some day that I too can help the mentally ill in other places, in countries where there is little help, where darkness and superstition reign and where Christ's light is needed so desperately. Thanks to my missionary doctor friend for enlightening me about psychiatric care in the dark places of the earth. I thank God for being my Rock, for breaking the chains that enslaved me, and for the freedom that He has brought into my own life. May He do so in yours as well.
 Galatians 5:1-2 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”