Strong to the Finish

I had the privilege of speaking at a women's retreat in Glen Rose, Texas over the weekend on the theme of "Strong to the Finish - through daily heart-wrenching challenges".  I decided that one of my bloggy friends might need to hear this message, so I wrote it down.  Keeping in mind that this was written for a live audience, here is the general idea:

Our theme for the weekend is Hebrews 12:2, but I want to back it up to include verse 1.  "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."  I have been employed as a fitness instructor for 15 years, so I can't leave out the part about running our race.  Especially with its emphasis on endurance.  Many of the challenges life throws at us last for a season.  But without minimizing how difficult those challenges can be, the kind I want to share with you about can last a lifetime.  I'm not talking about problems that we just have to find a solution for.  I'm talking about situations that we must persevere through.

As some of you already know, my daughter Shelby has Dravet Syndrome.  Dravet is a genetic and catastrophic seizure disorder.  She has endured uncontrolled seizures of varying types her entire young life.  She has visited ERs and hospitals more times than I could count and she's tried more medications and treatments than I care to rehash.  Shelby has had seizures lasting just a few seconds, she's had seizures lasting over an hour, and everything in between.  Due to the nature of the syndrome, the frequency and duration of her seizures, and some of the awful medications she has been on, Shelby is extremely developmentally delayed.  At 15, she has the mental and physical capacity of a 2 year old.  She speaks in primarily one-word utterances, needs her food cut up for her, has to be bathed and dressed, and wears pull-ups.  She cannot be left unsupervised for any length of time.  And did I mention that she still doesn't sleep through the night?  I never imagined, that at the stage in life that I would have grandchildren, I would also, for all practical purposes, still be taking care of a toddler at home.

How do you endure when life is so different - so much harder - than you pictured?  How do you stay strong?  First, I want to tell you that I have an amazing support system.  My husband is an incredible hands-on dad.  We make a good team.  God knew what He was doing when He put us together.  My sister Erin kept Shelby for me during the scariest years of seizures so that I could escape to stress-relieving exercise.  Kristen, my twin, volunteers for night duty when she stays with me - even though she usually has to work the next day.  My parents have been amazingly involved from the onset.  They take care of her, whether it scares them or not, to give my husband and I time to nurture our marriage.  And my parents and in-laws both have been generous with the resources they have when procedures, medications and respite have been cost prohibitive.  I have friends and family members, and many of you, that have prayed diligently for Shelby and for us.  We feel those prayers and they are deeply appreciated.  I confess to you now, however, that with all of my amazing support, with the world's best doctors and therapists, and if I had the financial resources of Donald Trump himself (no, this is not a political statement), I would still be a basket case without the peace that only Jesus Christ can supply.

Jesus said in John 16:33, "I have told you these things [that's the words in red in your Bible], so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world."  Did you catch what Jesus said there?  He said we will have trouble.  He never promised anything different.  But He also said peace is possible.  Let me say that again.  Possible.  He said you may have it.  Not you will.  I don't say that to be discouraging.  I say it because if you have lived in this world for longer than a minute, you know that just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you will float through life on a cloud of tranquility.  And yet Jesus does make this promise, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you."  John 14:27  He says He'll give it.  But I believe Satan would like nothing better than to steal our peace.  In this crazy, complicated, painful world, someone who can handle difficult circumstances with joy and a calm assurance is very attractive to others.  Anyone can conduct themselves well when times are good, but when a believer walks through adversity with victory, it can be a powerful witness.  Unbelievers will want to know the difference-maker - who is Jesus.  Peace intimidates our enemy.  So how can we grab onto this promised peace and keep it for the long-haul?

The first two action items are in Phil 4:6-7.  "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  We have to pray.  Present your requests.  God knows what you want already, but there is no better way to build your relationship with Him than to talk to Him about it.  There is power in that.  Psalm 29:11 says, "The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace."  Ask for strength.  Ask for peace.  And in your prayers, thank Him.  That's action item #2.  Practicing thankfulness for who God is and what He has already done for you will increase your faith.  And bigger faith leads to more trust which leads to - guess what?  Is. 26:3 "You will keep in perfect PEACE [emphasis mine] those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you."  I want to steal from Priscilla Shirer's The Armor of God study to encapsulate the changes that can occur in our lives when we regularly practice prayer and thanksgiving.  She says, "When God sees this type of prayerful, grateful faith, when our mind is squared on Him, the peace of God expands within us.  It stabilizes our runaway emotions, centers our minds, guides our footsteps and even overflows into our experience with others.  It cools our sharp tongue, dismantles our emotional walls, and keeps us from being so difficult to be around."

The third thing we simply must have to usher peace into our situations really should be the first thing.  It's the most important thing.  Psalm 85:10 says that "righteousness and peace kiss each other".  In Biblical culture that kiss would probably not just symbolize that they are in relationship with each other, but that they are married to each other.  We must be in right relationship with God to experience true peace.  Does that mean we have to be perfect?  No.  Romans 5:5 says, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  We can only be made right through belief in what Jesus did for us on the cross.  And the more we spend time with the Father and get to know Him and His Son, the more peace we can have (see 2 Peter 1:2).  When we accept God's salvation and receive the Holy Spirit, peace is one of the fruits given to us (Gal. 5:22).  If you are not certain of your right relationship with God, I would love to talk to you further.

As I wrap us, I want to make sure I haven't given you the impression that I believe we can tie a neat bow on all problems by being a Christian and saying a prayer.  When we are dealing with heart-wrenching challenges, peace is most often not immediate, and we don't always feel strong.  Life is messy and complicated, and we occasionally need outside help to navigate it.  I benefited greatly from Christian counseling during a particularly difficult period of grieving.  God specially gifts and trains some clergy and therapists to help us find our way to peace.  So please reach out for that type of assistance if you are struggling.

To close, I would like to speak Romans 15:13 over you.  "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."