Wednesday, October 26, 2016
DISCLAIMER: I’m about to share a very personal story that includes lot of medical information. While it may be new to the reader, this road and the medical support we’ve received over the years is not new to us. You’ll probably read this and have all kinds of questions and ideas that come from a place of love and concern. Please know that this isn’t written to garner sympathy, but rather to show the surpassing grace of God and how good He’s been on this journey. If you have any questions or suggestions, please refrain from bombarding Aaron with them. He doesn’t let this situation define him. You can contact me, if you’d like and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. Thanks! Love you!
“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” 2 Corinthians 12:7b-8
We were young as we sat across the table from one another in October of 1998 – 24 and 22, on the precipice of building a life together. Engaged for two months, our plan for the evening was to finalize our wedding guest list over dinner.
Halfway through our meal Aaron dropped his fork suddenly and said, "Something's not right. I need to go the ER."
What started out as leg cramps turned into a three day stay in the hospital hooked up to IV fluids in an effort to flush his system. He was in danger of kidney failure. Scary phrases like "astronomically high levels of muscle enzymes in your blood" and "you shouldn't even be able to walk" shook the world we were building for ourselves.
The weeks to come were a blur of tests and biopsies and words like “neurology” and “metabolic” and “disorder” and “quality of life.”
But soon, a diagnosis was in sight. The team of neurologists had narrowed it down to one of two possible maladies - one of which was ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). If that was the case, the prognosis was bleak. Aaron sat me down and told me that if the final test came back positive for ALS, he would break off our engagement. Chances were that he'd be dead inside of a decade and didn't want me to spend my 20s and 30s caring for a dying man.
The diagnosis finally came:
Myophosphorylase partial deficiency - an extremely rare glycogen storage disorder. His body is unable to store energy (glycogen) and therefore when immediate sources of energy are depleted, his muscle tissue breaks down as his body attempts to use it for energy. This in turn thickens his blood into an enzyme-rich slurry that his kidneys can’t filter. It’s genetic. There’s no cure. It had remained dormant until he went on a no sugar/low carb diet to drop a few pounds for our wedding.
Thankfully, the prognosis was so much better than we originally thought. We moved forward with our plans of making a life together.
His doctor told him that he is to constantly stay hydrated to keep his kidneys flushed because his body will most likely always be breaking down muscle tissue to some extent. To minimize that, he was instructed to avoid activities that isolate muscle groups. And exercise designed to build muscle would have the exact opposite effect on him. He is only allowed to do cardiovascular types of exercise – no weight training. Other than that there's no real treatment other than vitamin B supplements. His doctor also said that a factor he had working in his favor was that at the time of his diagnosis he was very strong and had significant muscle mass.
But he’d suffer with chronic pain for the remainder of his life.
It took him several years to fully grasp how to manage this disease. For the first three years after his diagnosis, he landed himself in the hospital once a year because he was 20something and invincible and didn’t follow the doctor’s instructions to the letter.
For over 17 years, each morning as I’ve laid next him, I’ve heard him sigh deeply as he prepares to gather the strength to hoist his aching body out of bed. Hunched over, he shuffles toward the shower like a man twice his age with his hands balled up into cramped fists. The hot, running water of the shower slowly loosens the knots throughout his body.
But on any given day, if I run my hand over his back, I feel a large, solid clump of muscle. It’s never in the same place. The pain and cramping migrate daily. Sometimes it’s in his calves or thighs and sometimes it’s in his arms.
He rarely complains and he doesn’t “look sick.” He plans the physical activity of his day around the pain. And yet, he’s the hardest-working, most productive person I know.
On really bad days, he doesn’t say a word, but I can see it in his eyes – they are puffy and sad. And on those days, when I lay my hand on his arm, I can feel the muscle vibrating below the surface of his skin. It’s not visible to the eye…only to touch.
As he said on Sunday, we all have a “something.” For some it’s physical. For others it’s emotional or spiritual. A thorn in the flesh can easily become a point of defeat, doubt and disillusionment. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast from Sunday, I would encourage you to go do so. Right now. I’ll wait. J
I pray for his healing with regularity. We know that he’ll be healed one day – in this life or eternity. As believers we are promised that. But in the here and now – in the weakness – when he could feel really sorry for himself or get angry at God he remains in awe of Him. I’ve never met anyone who loves Jesus as much as Aaron does. He exemplifies what a “relationship with the Lord” looks like. They talk to one another regularly. God speaks to him, encourages him, and gives him insight, wisdom and discernment in unbelievable ways. He weeps with emotion at the goodness of God and the potential of what God can do in the lives of others.
I know that the thorn in his flesh – although he’s prayed for God to take it from him on numerous occasions – has brought 2 Corinthians 12:9 to fruition in him:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Often in the agony of the unanswered prayer, God uses our "something" – our thorn – to further His purposes and perfect His will. If you’re suffering with a thorn in the flesh today, I would encourage you to ask for His grace to allow His power to be made perfect. You are loved. You are seen. You are not alone.
Written by: Jaime Hlavin
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
I have an ambivalent relationship with the game of soccer. My family loves it, my stepfather was a coach for years, and my brother played well into adulthood, while my own grade school years playing were mostly a struggle. After a year or so, my first coach talked extensively with my family about joining an expansion team in the league the following season. Only after the fact did I learn the endgame: I would know no one on the new team, the practices were much farther from home, and the move had served primarily to help my old coach open a slot on his own team for a better player. That taught me a lot about soccer and life which had nothing to do with ball control or goalie distribution drills. Mostly, however, it taught me about myself. Amid my resentment and hostility with my new teammates, I came to realize that I spent more time thinking about the soccer team than anyone else in the uniform did. And I wasn’t much better for it.
In my soccer experience, negativity and turning inward were a natural response to the challenges I faced. However, there was an alternative response that I could have pursued. As we have learned in this teaching series, people who are suffering can still retain some capacity for kindness and generosity. By doing so, they look beyond their own pain, and move their attention elsewhere.
Paul gives the Corinthians the example of the generous Macedonian church to the north, who “in the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty, welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).
It’s probably not lost on his audience that Macedonia was a rural region of the Roman Empire at the time, where Corinth was a bustling and affluent port city and cultural center. Maybe it's not coincidental that we don’t seem to have any epistles in canonical scripture for the churches in Macedonia, Antioch, or Smyrna (which gets only a passing admonition among the churches in Revelation chapter 2, to “not be afraid of what you are about to suffer”). I strongly suspect that the churches in these places of suffering and hardscrabble perseverance didn’t develop the vices that required the writings of Paul and the other apostles. They got over their baggage – maybe because physical necessity forced them to, or maybe because grace moved them beyond their own ability.
What if the grace of God empowered you to give beyond your own ability?
It never occurred to me that giving to others was a measure of resilience, but the more I pray and meditate on it, the more it makes sense. The enemy would like nothing more than for our suffering to turn our thoughts inward, make us overlook our neighbors and reduce our capacity to love. It’s reasonable to assume the best lesson to learn would be the opposite. In so doing, we show ourselves and our Maker that darkness hasn’t diminished our light in the world.
And if you don’t believe me, think back on some of your darkest hours and thoughts in life. Isn’t it ironic that, even in the moments when you are miles from boasting or loving yourself, you are still entirely focused on you?
Maybe, as we heard this week, our struggles come from being in awe of something else more than of God’s grace, and needing to be slammed with the magnitude of grace one more time. Sometimes I wonder if the greater gift of grace is deliverance from hell, or deliverance from self. Sometimes I wonder if they are two gifts, or one and the same.
Written by: Chad Halcom
Edited by: Tamara Sturdivant
Thursday, October 13, 2016
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 2 Corinthians 7:10
Sunday morning was that time as a kid when your mom or dad said something to you about yourself that you knew was true, but you were hoping wasn’t.
“You’re hurting your little sister/brother.”
“You know how to act better than this.”
“You are looking for attention.”
We all know the feeling: the feeling when you hear out of someone’s mouth what you haven’t yet gotten the courage to come to grips with in your own heart. While the instances above are familiar and pretty mild, this isn’t always the case for many of us now, and certainly was not for me listening to Pastor Aaron’s speaking and Paul’s writings on self-reflection and apology.
These two things are practically inseparable in our quest to become better representations of Jesus on earth. I used to be terrible at being sorry. I don’t even mean just apologizing, I mean being and feeling apologetic for any negative input I had placed in the world around me. Or any negative input I had inside myself, whether it made an appearance to anyone else or not. I did not grieve in the spirit of Heaven, I didn’t have godly strife—strife that searches for holiness and purity for no other cause than that of God and His will. My wrongs and flaws sat untouched so long as I could keep them contained under wraps.
In the world, I grieved heavily about my flaws. Do you know what I’ve come to discover time and time again? Grieving in the world is guilt. It is festering and clingy and it latches on to you. And ironically enough, it is self preserving. Guilt will keep you from being free because you feel too guilty about having guilt to receive any freedom. Grieving in the world in this way will turn your face to all the ways you could let others down, but never will it turn your face towards the cross.
Only the type of self-reflection that we lack so often, that turns our grief to Heaven, towards a hope for being better today than we were yesterday, leads us to repentance. I know, that word sounds stuffy and boring and traditional. It’s the epitome of having to identify our shortcomings in a moment of humility—something we’re never fond of doing. It doesn’t feel good at first. But perhaps it’s time we stopped feeling so good. I’m not advocating for wallowing or being ashamed—quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that perhaps, if we look at our culture today, and our nation, might what we see be the result of feeling ‘good’ for too long? Might we all benefit if we took time to self reflect, to strive and ache over the things God wants for us and our character, to humble ourselves to the reality of the things we could be doing better in our individual lives, and feel good not about ourselves in those moments, but in the hope we have inherited, and the magnificent grace that flows so freely to us?
This week, this month, I give you a challenge possibly more comforting than usual in the midst of all that is happening. Do not grieve in the world, do not give your strife to the things that pass and will pass again. Instead, spend some time looking within. Without gain or promise from the world, grieve for Heaven, repent with a heart of pure motive, and do not wait for the healing of the world around you to receive your own.
Written by: Bri Vanderveen
Edited by: Jenelle Kelly
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
This week, I have been checking weather updates and social media posts intently, as several people I value, quite literally, have been “stripped of their earthly tent.” Most are probably very aware by now of the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. The people of Haiti have a special place in my heart, and knowing that they are enduring such great suffering right now saddens me deeply. It doesn’t seem fair that a country with the least amount of resources, and the least amount of protection from natural disaster should have to face this.
As I have been reading the updates from Hut Outreach and Arise Haiti, two organizations I have had the pleasure of partnering with, I am blown away by their dedication to God amidst tragedy. Many of these people are dealing with flooded or completely lost homes, and a great lack of resources. Nonetheless, these individuals have made it a priority not solely to meet their own needs, but to enter into a community that is faced with devastation and offer help.
As I reflect on Sunday’s message in relation to this story, I see a beautiful example of people bringing God glory amidst a groaning nation. Living on earth is something that was never promised to be easy. The members of Arise Haiti and Hut Outreach have certainly encountered an event worthy of groaning. However, they possess a beautiful “deposit” of eternity within them. They possess the Holy Spirit. It is my prayer that they continue to grip tight to God’s presence and love during this time, and are able to bring God glory here on earth, until they enter into eternal glory with Jesus.
If you are facing any challenges right now, I encourage you to cling to the “deposit” God has placed within you. While our life on earth may strip us of the things we value the most, nothing can keep us from the love and glory of our God that was, is, and is to come.
Written by: Tamara Sturdivant
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
As I sit down to write this, my phone continuously jingles with updates from a group text I’m in with my co-workers. I work for an inner city non-profit that focuses on empowering and building up elementary school children.
This morning, the older brother of two of the children in our program was shot while walking his siblings to the bus stop.
It looks like he’s going to be okay, but it was really frightening for a stretch as the texts flew in while the situation developed. Unfortunately, where I work, this is the rule and not the exception.
Life is difficult. As tragedy unfolds daily and crises occur constantly, I often wonder if resilience is even possible.
This series on “bouncebackedness” – or the art of learning resilience – is something that only applies to you if you’re human.
This past Sunday, we focused on the fact that our “jars of clay” – the bodies with which we travel this life – can really get banged up.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-9
So, how do we come back from the bumping and bruising and breaking caused by our life? It’s easy to read those verses and focus on the fragility of the clay jar. Don’t miss the little word nestled in there: treasure. That’s the thing about jars of clay – they aren’t super durable. But the treasure within is.
I can’t get this quote out of my head:
“Sometimes we focus on the container and not the contents.” – Lead Pastor, Aaron Hlavin
So what are those contents? What is it that I cart around in my clay jar that’s of so much worth? It’s Jesus and the hope and the grace that He offers. The life He so freely poured out for us. I carry that in me. I’m learning how to offer that to those around me.
I recently attended the viewing of a woman who had passed away. I stood in the funeral home with her mother – who was no stranger to tragedy. In the past eight years, she’d lost a granddaughter, a husband and now a child.
Yet, she recounted to me all the ways the Lord had been faithful in her many years, including as recently as that day when she was able to share Jesus with her former employer in front of her daughter’s casket.
If she had wanted to express the grief she was feeling and the unfairness of life, no one would’ve faulted her. But she chose to focus on the contents of her earthen vessel. And she poured that treasure into my life that day.
I was humbled.
A couple of weeks ago, Aaron and I visited a woman at her home. She’s under the care of hospice – weak and frail. She, too, is no stranger to loss – two children and a husband. But the joy of her life is her two adult grandchildren. Her eyes brightened when she talked about “her angels.” With tears in her eyes, she shared of God’s faithfulness.
Again, I was humbled.
Both of these women of God could’ve easily focused on the trials and tribulations of life. But instead they chose to focus on the treasure. On Jesus.
Lord, help us – help me – to be resilient. Help me pour You – and the salvation that you offer – out to a dying, broken world that needs the contents of my jar so much more than it needs the cracked and broken container. Make this clearer to me day by day, as I bounce back from the bumps and bruises of this fallen world. You are our hope. You are our reconciliation. You are our everything. Let us never forget that.
Written by: Jaime Hlavin
Edited by: Brigit Edwards
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Once I took a spiritual gifts test that supposedly showed me one of my two spiritual strengths was mercy. I was relieved to see it because I figured I could avoid confrontation. After all, if I’d had discernment I’d know when my brothers and sisters needed correction, and I’d have an obligation to confront them. And who needs that drama?
I had the good sense to know it isn’t over when you deliver a (hopefully) loving rebuke because you’ll spend forever worrying that your words weren’t received the right way. Maybe someone is even watching you just for the opportunity to show you up and call out a hypocrite? And then, when do you know if you’re expressing your discernment to others, versus a less spiritual arrogance or discomfort? What if you bring condemnation and division instead of restoration because you didn’t have enough discernment about your own discernment? Yeech. Pass, on that burden. Mercy it is, for me, because I assume it’s hugs all around and nursing the wounds for people, once the big standard-bearers come through with their needed rebuke.
Ruminating might be the right word for Paul’s tone in much of II Corinthians. In Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthian Church, he gave a frank dressing-down of shameful behaviors. That’s tricky to deliver long-distance, and Paul had agonized that he “wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice,” and “that even in Troas where the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind… .” (II Corinthians 2:3, 12) This concern followed him back through Macedonia until he is finally assured that the local church has bounced back in a godly way from his words. “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed… .” (II Corinthians 7:8-9).
Just a few years ago, the word “bouncebackability” was added to a new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – and I have never had the ability to bounce back from it, since resilience has an identical meaning with the added perquisite of being an accepted, real word. I can recognize that, in Christ, Paul was able to bounce back from his own anxiety over his correction to the Corinthians. Helping him, I’m sure, was the Holy Spirit allowing him to discern that It had inhabited his words, and they reaped healing. But that is perhaps the challenge of operating in discernment, or any spiritual gift: knowing when to properly use it, and having to wait in faith for your spirit-directed actions to bear fruit.
Maybe like Paul, when we bounce back from second-guessing ourselves our faith is restored and rewarded. But it’s also good to make sure we bounce back in God, not in ourselves, and remember where to place our confidence.
Written by: Chad Halcom
Edited by: De Ann Sturdivant
Thursday, September 8, 2016
For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. 1 Chronicles 16:9a
Commitment is a big word. In marriage, it is a promise of faithfulness and partnership. In the workplace, it is illustrated by doing a job with excellence. In sports, music, and many other facets of life, commitment may be demonstrated by persevering amidst challenges or dedicating oneself to a set goal. Regardless of its application to life, commitment can be a daunting task. In particular, it can be quite intimidating to take responsibility for future choices when there is no clear picture of what the future holds. Nonetheless, God has called all of mankind to a lifetime of commitment, and the way in which we respond to this call is a direct reflection of how we value Him.
The reality is, every day we make choices. God did not create us as robots. He gave us the freedom to choose to give (or not to give) our lives to Him. As Christians, we have made the verbal “commitment” to accept Christ as Lord of our lives. Granted, with this commitment there is an expectation to eventually enter into eternity with Jesus. However, what we sometimes may lose sight of is the fact that before reaching eternity, we must choose to commit each DAY to God.
On Sunday, Pastor Aaron highlighted five vital choices that reflect our commitment to God.
1. I choose to take responsibility for my spiritual growth. (James 4:8).
2. I choose to practice contentment in all areas of my life. (Philippians 4:12).
3. I choose to serve with regularity in my church. (John 12:26).
4. I choose to invite one person a month to church with me (Colossians 4:2-6).
5. I choose to bring the full tithe to God each week (Deuteronomy 10:14).
These five choices are simple in theory, but take effort to truly carry out. It is one thing to say we are committed to God, but to live a lifestyle of commitment is powerful. When we truly own our faith by studying the Bible and praying, expressing gratitude in all things, giving freely to others, sharing the gospel, and giving financially to grow the Church, we are backing our promise. We are honoring God. We are living faithfully.
In 1 Chronicles 16:9, it states that God strengthens those who are fully committed to Him. Not only has God offered eternal life to those who commit their lives to Him, but He also offers strength. He doesn’t neglect us as we walk through challenges on earth. Rather, He walks with us and empowers us.
This week, I challenge you to examine your commitment to Christ. Have you settled into a habit of partial or wavering commitment, or are you fully devoted to God? Let us all strive to choose commitment in all aspects of life, even when it may be difficult.
Written by: Tamara Sturdivant
Edited by: Jenelle Kelly