Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Times of Crisis and Speaking the Truth

We live in a cynical culture and I am the chief of cynics. Those closest to me will tell you that I am a natural skeptic and a knee-jerk pessimist. That is to say, when I have an instantaneous choice to make between seeing the best and seeing the worst in a given situation, almost always, I will choose to see the worst--particularly when it involves something in my life.

As you can imagine, I have struggled for some time to reconcile this fleshly tendency with what Jesus would have me become. The strength of this character trait is that I am very analytical, capable of contemplating issues from a variety of angles and finding the best possible solution. The weakness, of course, is that I have a difficult time being content or experiencing true hope in a tough situation.

As I deal with my personality and character before the throne of God, the question for every day is, What of my temperament is the sin residing "in the members of my body" (Rom 7:23) and what of it is intended by God for good, if only I can allow the Spirit to reign? I am grateful that I seem to be making some progress, slowly but surely, with God's patient care; but, of course, there is much room for improvement.

During the weeks since we chose to leave Liberty Heights Church, I have dealt with a range of emotions. Unfortunately, my tendency to cynicism and negativity has reared its ugly head more than once. This is true especially as Ronnie and I, together, have pondered what the future holds for us, as a family and as ministers of the Gospel. We've made a conscious decision not to pursue another church position right away, needing some extended time to heal and recover from a difficult few years.

Of course, this means that as Ronnie looks for work, he's looking for work in fields that are not his primary area of expertise. Yes, he has plenty of management experience, per se, but none in the business realm, where it really counts for the few companies who are hiring. The truth is, having a spouse out of work in the best of times isn't easy, but having a spouse out of work during a down economy, when virtually no one is hiring, as an apparent "career-changer," with two degrees in ministry, is very difficult.

So, how's my natural pessimism doing in all this? I'm so glad you asked! The reason for this blog post is that I feel like Ronnie and I have, by the leadership of the Spirit, stumbled across a spiritual discipline of sorts that has truly begun to reap benefits for us, in the midst of our difficult and often distressing situation. Its nothing new. Its as old as the New Testament and as practical as you can possibly get. But, it works:

Speak the Truth. In all times, in every situation, no matter how you feel, speak the Truth.

In the tumultuous first week of Ronnie's unemployment, we seemed to miscommunicate more than usual, easily offend each other, and quickly get "turned off" by the other's attitude or choice of words. The three monsters of stressful situations--cynicism, sarcasm, and negativity--began to emerge in our hearts and come out of our mouths. It wasn't pretty. One night, after a particularly emotional evening, Ronnie and I analyzed the situation together and came to some conclusions.

In the midst of a very trying situation, where the future is uncertain and virtually everything seems unstable, our tendency is twofold: (1) choose anger, negativity, and sarcasm, as a means to release stress, or (2) to look for false hope, pat answers, and easy "quick-fixes" to make us feel better. While the first comes more naturally to me, the latter was causing the most problems for us as a couple.

Rather than seek enduring peace or genuine hope, we wanted emotional 5-Hour energy drinks to give us a "happy buzz" before the next period of anxiety and depression hit. And, like 5-Hour energy drinks, such verbal quick-fixes are artificial and what they produce is just not real--just not true. Truthfully, this sort of emotional buzz-seeking behavior seems rather pathetic to me, but I'm sure you've been there, too. Even though he was down and emotionally exhausted, I wanted Ronnie to say nice, pretty words to me, and most days, he wanted the same in return. But, those nice words would have been just that--nice words--and deep down, we knew it. And, it made us angry and frustrated.

"Everything's going to be OK..." Really? Do we really know know that? In an earthly sense, we're never guaranteed that things will be OK. We're guaranteed nothing except God's presence.

"We won't lose our house, because God won't let that happen..." Where does God ever make that sort of promise? And what makes us think that we're better than the millions of other Americans who've lost their homes because of unemployment or hard financial times?

"You'll definitely find a good job that pays just as well..." Again, where do we find this guarantee? Since when is financial compensation a "given" in our discipleship to Jesus?

In the end, despite how nice they sound, these "fixes" don't work. And, ultimately, I don't think they should have any place in the lives of Christ-followers as they seek to absorb and thrive in stressful situations. Instead, we should strive to do what Paul instructs the Ephesians to do: Speak the truth in love. This means putting aside both sarcastic, negative, cynicism, and sugary, positive, escapism. Both are unhelpful and both are untrue.

So, what does this look like? It looks like what it sounds like: exercising the spiritual discipline of holding your tongue and choosing to speak truth into any given situation, no matter how you feel. Easier said, I know. But, it can and must be done.

In a discussion about our finances--how long we can pay our bills and when we'll be in real trouble--we speak the truth: "No matter what, the Lord will never leave us or forsake us." In a discussion about whether or not Ronnie will find a job that truly utilizes his strengths (rather than just a job to pay the bills), we speak the truth: "No matter what you do, God will be honored by your faithfulness and will continue his work of redemption through you." In a discussion about whether or not our baby will have health insurance after he is born, preventing us from facing crippling medical bills, we speak the truth: "God cares for the sparrows and the lilies. He will care for us. And, we will rejoice in his provision, however that comes."

This sounds so simple, I'm sure, but it has become a powerful thing in our lives. And, why shouldn't it be? We know that the truth is what sets us free (Jn 8:32). We know that the One we love and serve is the Truth (Jn 14:6). We know that by speaking the truth in love, "we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph 4:15). And, we know that a key part of putting off "the former way of life" and being "made new in the attitudes of [our] minds, is to "put off falsehood and speak truthfully" (Eph 4:22, 23, 25).

For us, this has given new meaning to Paul's instructions about speech in Eph 4:29: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." In our good Baptist upbringing, we were taught that this meant don't cuss, don't tell dirty jokes, and don't hang out with those who do. But, its so much more than that.

In crisis time, when all seems unsteady, when hope is a tenuous string holding the fractured pieces of our lives together, speaking the truth is what will truly "build up," edify, and strengthen. Neither cynicism nor sugary idealism will do. Because of the power of the tongue, for good and for evil (Jam 3:1-12), it must be the first place we seek God's grace as we labor together through difficult times. And so, to paraphrase a well-known Bible reference, for Ronnie and me, for us and for our house, we will speak the truth. I invite you to join us.

4 comments:

Charlie Mac said...

I knew I liked you the first time I came across your blog. Now I learn that you are a sister cynic. No wonder I liked you because I am a brother cynic.

I too have also been in the position of analysing how much longer we would be able to meet our financial obligations.

I have taken several jobs just to be able to pay the bills. My 27 year career as a computer repairman was actually one of those. I have taken jobs and started businesses because it was what I wanted to do and failed miserably.

I have found jobs that I did not think I would like, but when I looked back, I am able to see where God was working either in or through me. ME?! That amazes the cynic inside.

God guides and uses even us cynics
when we allow Him to.
Mac, in beautiful South Alabama, if it doesn't rain. (cynicism?)

krisanneswartley said...

Your transparency is a blessing. Thanks for reminding me, someone who tends to be too optimistic, to speak the truth. Simple, honest, real words. How refreshing! I will pray for your family, Emily. Take time to breathe in the Love of God very deeply!

Joshua Rhodes said...

Em -

We understand, at least in part, of what you are going through. And you have expressed in ways so far beyond my own words and expertise my feelings, heartbreak and wonder. Kristi and I are obviously at a similar place right now.

It's so easy for me to be angry with a God who allows circumstances to happen. Never mind my sin, my complacency, my thought life, or any other reason for our hard times. It's so easy to be mad at the Church for not reaching out like they say they do. It's not their faults they don't know that we need their support and help... they haven't asked or followed up with us, how would they know?

As I struggle to be the man God wants for me to be, I'm having the hardest time right now being hands and feet. Maybe for a while I can be content being an elbow or a wrist. As a man who hates asking for help, and is content to struggle rather than ask, I'm learning to swallow some pride (occasionally).

I am working in a new field for which my only qualification is that I'm friendly and a quick learner. But maybe I can make a difference in someone's life by serving their coffee with a smile. I might just stumble into entertaining an angel unaware, or better yet, serve Jesus. Not a bad wrap, and while I'm in a period of healing as well, be able to somewhat support my wife and son. It's still ministry, and while it's not conducting choirs or leading worship, maybe there's a lesson I can learn from waiting tables and bussing the buffet line. Maybe I'm grasping better than ever before what it means to be a servant.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Joshua,

Thank you for sharing with such transparency. Even though we haven't talked in a while, I do feel somewhat of a kinship with you and Kristi, especially since we are both experiencing what its like to break from "official" church work for an unspecified time. Its a little scary, to say the least.

Its especially hard for Ronnie and you, I think, because you are having to loosen your grip on the comfort and security that comes from the title/position, "pastor" or "minister." Especially in SBC circles, so much of a pastor's sense of value and worth is tied up in what he's called, what he says he does for a living, that when that changes, it can be devastating. Sadly, we've been taught that being a minister is God's favorite vocation and everything else is just second-rate (at best). This is, of course, not true, but its harder to believe than it is to admit in theory.

All that is to say, Ronnie will be "serving tables" for a while, too. And, like you said, I think there is much to be gained from this experience. That's not to say its fun or easy, but God is good and he is always forming us into those who better reflect his Son. And, at the end of the day, if and when we (you) return to "official" church work, we'll have had the experience of unemployment, financial worries, and career-changing. During this down economic time, the ability to identify with those in similar situations will be, I believe, priceless.

Thanks again for sharing, Josh.

Love to you and Kristi,

Emily