How to Handle Failure and Loss

July 28, 2015 our sweet black Scottish terrier, Maggie, slipped through the fence and was gone…forever. She was a hunter and loved to chase jackrabbits. That’s all it would have taken. We scoured the property and the surrounding desert. We left her bed and a dish of water at the place someone said they saw her. We took her picture to all of the neighbors, local businesses, and the post office. We checked in with the animal shelter day after day, but she was gone.

maggie-and-molly
Maggie (left) and Molly (right)

If you love a dog you understand what we’re going through. You’d think we’d be over it by now. After all, it wasn’t a child (thank God). We still look for her and can almost see her trotting back proudly from dispatching a jackrabbit, her tail in the air and her pink tongue hanging out. We think of her every day when we feed Molly, our little white dog. Yesterday, we talked again, Karon and I, about how much we still miss Maggie. As an experiment, I called Maggie’s name. Molly immediately jumped down from my lap and looked in every corner of the yard and then in the house. She misses her too.

I don’t think we’ll get over it.

Every loss is significant.

Mom and Dad lived into their nineties. Dad died at 93. Mom lived until 97. They lived wonderful lives and were citizens of the world, missionaries to the Caribbean and equatorial Africa. If you’ve read my other blogs, you know that as I grew older abandonment issues and many other things distanced me from them emotionally to the extent that when they died, my overwhelming feeling was relief.

To my surprise, I feel a greater loss as the years go by. I especially miss my mother and our first thirteen years in our West Indian home (when I knew her best). I see her hanging out the wash, her arms tanned from the tropical sun. I see her playing the piano and watch her keeping books for the mission. I remember when she picked me up from school and I shocked her with, “We’re going to have to hurry like hell!”—a phrase I obviously picked up somewhere other than the staid Shultz residence. We shared a deep love of color and beauty, so profuse in the tropical flowers with which she surrounded us. And I understand her so much better now at this stage of my life, a woman transplanted far away from her family that she never saw and separated from the two children that she loved because of duty and obedience to God. I would like to ask her about all of that, and, perhaps in heaven, she will again remember the things that I remember, and we can enjoy those memories together.

Many of us grieve fractured relationships. People we loved and trusted have disappointed us. Grown children live irresponsibly and discard our most deeply prized values. We mourn relationships we have lost or have been unsuccessful at saving, and we still remember the good times with those people or with those children when life seemed simpler and our world seemed safer. We remember the dinner table when we all laughed when one of the children passed gas. We can see the sunlight in their hair and hear they innocent chatter as they play on the monkey bars in the back yard. We remember family get-togethers when there were no political issues to separate us or illnesses to leave empty chairs where smiles used to be.

We mourn the loss of bodies that moved easily or without pain, and yearn for the days when getting dressed in the morning took five minutes instead of forty-five minutes. We miss the “good old days,” days perhaps different for each of us, but remembered in a golden glow of nostalgia.

 How to handle failure and loss.

 1. Remember and enjoy the good things.

Last night we saw the 1951 movie David and Bathsheba and I found it surprisingly moving and insightful. When David was confronted by Nathan and the full realization of his failure and sin was overwhelming him, he collapsed in prayer. In those moments, God reminded David of the good times in their relationship: when God called him by Samuel’s anointing, when he saw God in every star, lily of the valley, and care of his sheep, and when God helped him, not the least of which was killing Goliath. We cannot bring back the one who has died, but we can find joy in recalling the laughter and joy we shared together. We cannot undo the time we failed, but we can remember the hundreds of times we did not fail!

2. Remember that everyone deals with loss, even Jesus.

Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water, describes the first time this realization hit her.

 “One time I was talking to Canon Tallis, who is my spiritual director as well as my friend, and I was deeply grieved about something, and I kept telling him how woefully I had failed someone I loved, failed totally, otherwise that person couldn’t have done the wrong that was so destructive. Finally he looked at me and said calmly, ‘Who are you to think you are better than our Lord? After all, he was singularly unsuccessful with a great many people.’

“That remark, made to me many years ago, has stood me in good stead, time and again. I have to try, but I do not have to succeed. Following Christ has nothing to do with success as the world sees success. It has to do with love.

Jesus’ losses and disappointments were massive: (a) the loss of divinity and heaven during the Incarnation; (b) the death of Lazarus; (c) the intense humanity of the disciples (“Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?  [Matthew 23:40]); and the failure to succeed with many people: the Pharisees, the rich young ruler, and Judas, to name just a few. But Jesus did not allow his losses to define him.

 3. Remember that God is always with us.

A secondary result of salvation—wonderful beyond description—is God’s continual friendship and presence with us. He cares deeply for us and is intensely interested in the tiniest details of our lives. Before Jesus departed this earth, he told the disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, who will never leave you….I will not abandon you as orphans (John 14:16-18).

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3)

A book which always encourages me is that ancient classic The God of All Comfort by Hannah Whitall Smith. The language is dated, but Ms. Smith’s insights are simple and remarkable. For example,

“A wild young fellow, who was brought to the Lord at a mission meeting, and who became a rejoicing Christian and lived an exemplary life afterward, was asked by someone what he did to get converted.

“‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I did my part and the Lord did His.’

“‘But what was your part,’ asked the inquirer, ‘and what was the Lord’s part?’

“’My part,’ was the prompt reply, ‘was to run away, and the Lord’s part was to run after me until He caught me.’ A most significant answer; but how few can understand it!

God’s part is always to run after us. Christ came to seek and save the lost….This is always the Lord’s part; but in our foolishness we do not understand it, but think that the Lord is the one who is lost, and that our part is to seek and find Him.

We must simply believe what the Bible says about God’s love for us and His determination to be with us and to help us. We don’t have to explain it, feel it, or defend it, just accept it.

4. E + R = O (Event + response = outcome)

This formula was concocted, or perhaps repeated, by Matthew Cornell, a man whose blog I read the other day. He struggles with imagining the worst possible outcome, always reacting negatively.[1] For example, when he receives a letter from his insurance company, he immediately imagines that he is being canceled or that his rates are going up, and dreads opening the mail. It’s easy to imagine the worst when we lose something important to us or when we face an embarrassing situation or failure. But such events, losses, or failures do not define us. Our response defines us. My granddaughter, Krissy Klotz posted this on Facebook recently: “There are always going to be hard days. The way you respond to them defines you.”

As I mentioned above, Jesus suffered unimaginable rejections, disappointments, and pain. But he did not let those things define him. When bad things come our way, we need to learn to respond with a childlike innocence and curiosity instead of imagining the worst right off the bat. What can we learn? What good and positive thing is God going to bring from this? (Romans 8:28)  It may take months—or years—to get to the point where we can see it, but God promises that it will come.

 

[1]  http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/10/9/e-r-o-event-response-outcome-dealing-appropriately-with-crin.html

I Will Take Care of You

In earlier blogs I have talked about my pain from a degenerating spine. Surgery in October of 2014 promised relief which did not materialize. More recent tests have revealed multiple issues and my surgeon has declined further surgery at this point. For the last year I have managed pretty well with pain medicine and even enjoyed a trip to Florida for our fiftieth wedding anniversary. In recent days, however, new pain episodes have occurred which impeded walking. Fortunately this pain has been temporary and passed in a day or so.

These episodes have made me think. If you’re like me, you usually jump to the worst scenario. Will I have to use a wheelchair? Will I be able to walk? Will we have to sell the house? The fact that my mother spent the last twenty years of her life in a wheelchair lurks darkly in the back of my mind.

My wife, Karon, is always super helpful at times like this to keep me level-headed. She is good at balancing compassion with level-headedness, and and so I am going to return to the doctors and see about additional spinal injections. Yet I wonder…

God speaks

light streaming through forestA couple of days ago I went into the bathroom late afternoon for medicine. My hamstrings were aching terribly and the new pain was on my mind. Out of the blue God spoke: “David, I will take care of you.” I have learned to recognize these rare moments when God intervenes with a word for me, but these unexpected words of comfort were clear and incontrovertible. They were not whispered but almost shouted into my ear.

I don’t know if you believe in things like this, but I do. I am immensely grateful for such undeserved moments. Why the Creator of the Universe should care about me, much less communicate His care, is inexplicable. But God wasn’t done yet…

Quite often I waken in the night from troubling dreams. I think perhaps that my medication makes them more intense. These dreams are all similar: in every one I am in an exasperating situation, like showing up to preach a funeral only to discover I don’t know any of the people there, including the deceased. At times I am traveling and get lost in a large foreign airport teeming with strangers, or I arrive to speak at a convention, step to the podium, and discover the notes I brought are blank paper. My entire career involved preaching and traveling and perhaps my subconscious mind is processing years of unspoken fears. Occasionally I have enlisted prayer support from my wife and children when the dreams become darker and scarier.

God’s gift

Just one night after God’s message to me, “I will take care of you,” I had a vivid, brilliant, and completely different kind of dream. I found myself in an extensive building with soaring ceilings and beautiful appointments. An ingenious blending of indoors and outdoors gave the impression of timeless wonder. Wide corridors lined with planters and fountains opened into spacious rooms filled with light and peace. Everywhere there was a sense of tranquility, holiness, and safety. Beautiful, ethereal music somehow interpreted what I was looking at.

Tall windows looked out onto breathtaking views. Behind three churchlike windows tall trees in the bronze of autumn color stood majestically. They were backlit with the light of dawn. A gentle breeze drifted through their branches and leaves floated quietly down, spiraling, twisting, hovering, and sinking. The slightest tinkle of wind chimes could be heard in the distance.

Behind a wall of the palest aquamarine glass was a huge aquarium in whose transparent waters floated exotic fish and coral fans swaying in the warm current. There was no sound, but the movement of the fish and the corals seemed to produce their own music.

Hallways and alcoves were covered with iridescent mosaics that shimmered in hues of pale green, blue, and mother of pearl. High windows slanted light and shadows into the rooms and hallways where benches offered a many places to sit in contemplation.

There were many people present who met me with warm smiles and kindness; but no one intruded into my thoughts or interrupted my observation. I felt almost as though I were in a large hotel where the muffled sounds of conversation mixed with the clinking of silverware and china in a nearby restaurant. It was a holy and indescribably beautiful sanctuary that went on forever without effort, maintenance, or care. There was no hurry. There were no expectations. No lost notes. No pain. Only wonderful beauty, light, peace, and uninterrupted serenity.

As I awoke from this dream I again heard God’s voice, “I will take care of you.” I am not sure whether, for this blissful moment, God gave me a vision of heaven, that unimaginably beautiful place where death, fear, pain, and tears will be banished. Maybe God created this vision of the things I love, the world that feeds my soul, and beauty that transcends pain in order to let me know that the desires of my heart are important to him. But I know this, I am not alone and the One who redeemed me also cares for me now and forever.

I know something else. God cares for you, also. He will speak into your life and your pain if you will listen for him. Have you noted that in Scripture, whenever an angel came to someone, the first words were, “fear not?” This is God’s first and deepest desire for you. Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:1-3).

He will take care of you.

Saying the Wrong Thing at the Wrong Time

Has it happened to you? A well-meaning friend or even a stranger has offered advice that you did not ask for and ended up totally baffling you or leaving you feeling worse than before. “Aren’t you married yet?” someone said to our wonderful single friend who had endured horrible relationships and yet was a positive and insightful woman. I still remember a family friend looking me up and down when I was about ten. “David, you’re too fat!” she exclaimed.

Off the top of my head, there are a few categories of comments we make:

  1. Nitpicking (“Pastor, you pronounced Mephibosheth incorrectly. I knew you’d want to know.”)
  2. Uncalled for advice (To someone with cancer: “Well, you know the statistics. One in three will get it.”)
  3. Judgments (“She looks like she’s pregnant”), and
  4. I don’t know what to say but I have to say something. (To the pastor: “I enjoyed your little talk.”)

No one group of people is better at this than others. We’ve all put out foot into our mouths. Some people seem to live that way. As we approach another presidential election, be prepared for wild and sweeping statements by just about everyone, whether it’s the latest Hillary bashing, Hillary bashing someone else, the right wingers assigning all liberals to hell, or the liberals calling the right wingers idiots. Hey, it’s our national pastime and its Bibles are in the tabloid racks at supermarkets and the airwaves. Twitter is a helpful vehicle if you want to get the word out quickly. We all know that the truth can be gauged by the number of hits on a web posting, the number of views on YouTube, or the latest polls from the media.

saying the wrong thing-idea copy

If you want to live your life far from the madding crowd, step back from all the hype and blather, take a deep breath, and think before you speak, post, or write. Perhaps we should hit fewer “Like” buttons on Facebook and consider the true needs of the people with whom we rub shoulders day after day. Isn’t sharing posts we have not researched in 2015 like gossiping at the backyard fence in 1940? Our yearning to be the first one to communicate it trumps whether or not it’s true. Or wise. Or kind.

Think before You Speak

I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home. Our denomination leaned toward Wesley rather than Calvin (free will vs. predestination), and we emphasized unity, sanctification, and divine healing. If you don’t know what this means, hang on for a minute. Let me illustrate briefly how even the best-intentioned of people can say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

We loved the doctrine of divine healing and share stories of those who were miraculously restored to health. One of our main leaders displayed on his office wall the crutches and canes of people who no longer needed them. Without discounting any of these marvelous testimonies, let me observe that many slipped into the seat of judgment when talking to or about people who were not healed. Our theology was a little thin at this point. While praising faith we forgot grace, and sometimes assumed—and said so—that people were not healed because they had unforgiven sin in their lives. We criticized their faith as insufficient or flawed. We said they didn’t pray with the right words or passion.

We had to face it as time wore on. Not every Christian was healed. When a prominent and respected national leader’s twins died instead of recovering in spite of prodigious efforts around the world to move the hand of God, we began to relax our theology of healing and consider that God might not fit into the box we had built for him.

What the family—the one whose twins died—needed was not judgment but compassion. They didn’t benefit from the endless speculation about their failures of faith. In fact, I imagine it wounded them deeply. What they did need was arms around their shoulders and an outpouring of love and support.

A Call for Kindness and the Benefit of the Doubt

The other day one of my tennis friends returned from an extended vacation. She had not seen us in a while and wanted to catch up on everyone. When I mentioned the name of another player I knew she didn’t care for, she…let’s say she found it challenging to be positive. (I knew for a fact she had refused to play on the same court with that person.) I mentioned how well the uncared for tennis player had done in her absence, pointing out a few of her good qualities. My recently returned friend looked at me with amazement. “You’re incredibly kind!” she said. Am I? I know that I want to be

What do you say to someone you know has been diagnosed with what could be a terminal illness? Here’s where we need to stop and think before we rush in and say the wrong thing. What not to say:

  • “I’m sure you will be better soon.” This attempt to be positive is inaccurate and unhelpful.
  • “You need to try these essential oils (or organic products, bee pollen, etc.)” Thousands of popular remedies may have marginal benefit if any. Those with terminal illnesses get far too many of these simplistic solutions. Leave prescribing to the doctors.
  • “Have you prayed for healing?” If you are very close friends who share the same faith you might possibly ask this. Too often, however, it strikes the wrong, judgmental chord instead of bringing hope.

Kindness and gentleness, two of the nine characteristics of a genuine Christian (found in Galatians 5:22-23) will guide you. Ask yourself what you would want to have someone say to you.

What to say when you don’t know what to say.

comforting hug-cropped
Being held is one of the best therapies for those enduring loss. If you don’t know the person well, ask permission as some people are not “huggers.”

When your friend is bereaved or experiencing huge loss, sometimes the most eloquent thing to say is nothing. But do not ignore them. Cry with them. Hug them. Send cards or notes. Touch them on the shoulder in passing. Pray for them and assure them of your prayers. Stay in touch. A simple “thinking about you” text from your phone can bring the ray of sunshine they need that day. Be there. Instead of asking how you can help, pick up the mail, run errands, mow the lawn, or take a casserole. People will often forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

And as for the news, political candidates, wars, and the economy? Watch and observe. Make your own judgments but don’t be quick to assume you have the answers. Name-calling is the practice of those with small minds. Keep your disdain for people private. Don’t sit in judgment. Offer the kindness of the benefit of the doubt. The greatest man who ever lived said it this way, “Be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

Comfortable clothes. Comfortable people.

DS in sweats at piano cropped

Back in the 1980s my dad showed up for the family picnic in a striped blue shirt, plaid brown shorts, black socks, and dress shoes. Looking at him in mild horror, I whispered to my wife to please never let me dress like that. Just the other day I glanced in the mirror as I went forth to meet the day. I drew in my breath sharply. Plaid shorts, American flag T-shirt, black socks, and sandals! Oh no! What happened? I was not only more stooped like my Dad used to be, but somewhere in the last ten years I apparently had a stroke in the part of my brain that controls good taste in clothes.

When you’re young it never occurs to you that someday you’ll walk differently or visit a podiatrist (“What’s a podiatrist?” we said.) When your energy levels are surging and body responds without a hitch every time, you cannot imagine stumbling along or have trouble getting out of a chair. And, I suppose, you never think that someday you might develop different standards for life that place a low priority on many of the things you’ve admired your whole life.

The older I get the more I find myself wearing comfortable clothing. I used to buy fashionable shoes, often from Florsheim; now they hurt my feet and I wear tennis shoes and gardening clogs. I wear socks all of the time (because my feet are cold) and my farmer’s tan now stops at my ankles. Sweatshirts and sweatpants do well around the house in the winter. I used to dress in the current style; but have you noticed what’s in style these days? All the stores in the mall cater to young people and, even I could find something I liked, it would not fit my body that long ago lost the fight with gravity.

I value clothes that fit easily. I wear clothes a long time, until they wear out, actually. Why spend money on new clothes when you’re on a fixed income and you have plenty of things to wear (even if the garments you think of as new were purchased ten or more years ago)? Let me assure my children, lest they worry, that I will not go out in public in pajamas and slippers or wear clothes so old they advertise Eisenhower for president (“Ike, Ike, he’s our man!”). Nor will my photo appear on the web site, “People of Walmart.”

Here’s my point: aging brings us far more benefits than liabilities, even as we lose vision and mobility. It has taken me a long time to be comfortable inside the body I have, and I want to keep that perspective.

What other perspectives have come with age?

  1. We are more accepting.

Here’s an example: we’re a part of a wonderful church where we are totally welcome as we are. The 8:30 a.m. service is one in which we sing old hymns and I play the piano (something I haven’t done since I was in high school). Acceptance in this group has been immediate and unconditional. At our potlucks we commiserate about back surgeries and unashamedly bring pillows to sit on. We pray for each other’s children and never think about whether what someone is wearing is fashionable or not. We’ve been through the war, sat at deathbeds, and cried over wayward family members. We’re survivors who celebrate life together and rejoice in our wonderful God, who loves us.

  1. Experience provides a clearer perspective

When you’ve lived a long time you understand what is valuable and what is not.

  • Friends, for example, are important. Popularity is not.
  • Family, both by blood and by choice, are priceless.
  • We listen to news broadcasts differently. Jesus said we would hear of wars and rumors of wars, that famine would come as would times of plenty. The important thing is that we belong to God and it’s his world. We won’t get out of it alive, anyway, and when we leave this world, a better one is waiting.
  • We value people with integrity and have no use for pretense, showmanship, or politicians who create their belief systems based on public opinion polls.
  1. We recognize true heroes.

The media loves to give attention to those who “accomplish” things. But is it an accomplishment to reach my one hundredth birthday or is that a genetic hiccup? I’m happy for those who are still running marathons into their eighties, but most of us can’t achieve this and it falsely labels youthfulness as success. Recently ABC aired a nationally televised awards program in which someone who had recently undergone surgery to switch sexes was given a standing ovation for heroism. Please!

The elderly see through this utter nonsense. We may use wheelchairs and Depends, but we know that heroes are motivated by a love for people and respect for truth.

We have made peace with our past.

The perspective of years helps you separate and discard painful experiences because we know they do not define who we are. Only recently did my wife, Karon, help me see that I still clung to put-downs and thoughtless hurts in the past. I now realize that nursing that pain only hurts me and not the persons who did those things. I have chosen to lay aside my victim mentality and no longer focus on the pain of my past, my failures, or poor decisions. We are so much more than abuse, job loss, or bullying.

Forgiving everyone in your life, even those now dead, will bring you unimagined freedom and joy. In the New Testament, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. Jesus answered in the vernacular of his day, “without number!”

I thank God for my past and everyone I’ve been privileged to meet. Some have brought me pain. Others have been uncommonly kind and generous. All have enriched me and helped to shape me as I am today. I thank God for his grace that forgives me and his endless love and optimism that ceaselessly encourage me day after day. Not everyone will like me, marvelous as I am. Life’s experiences continue to stretch me and build my faith. And tomorrow will be a wonderful day!