Me and ‘Mine Ears:’ A Life Out of Balance, Part Three

Two years ago I posted a few blog posts about my ongoing battle with advanced-stage Meniere’s Disease. I wanted to give you an update on my fight in this third blog. If you want to know the background behind my illness, read here:

https://johncnewton.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/me-and-mine-ears/

https://johncnewton.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/me-and-mine-ears-a-life-out-of-balance-part-2/

Last year was a pretty good one for my Meniere’s, all things considered. I felt strong enough to drive my truck and a new RV out West to New Mexico in April of 2015, though I was limited to about three hours of driving each day. Exposure to motion and light has a cumulative effect on my Meniere’s, and by the time I have fought traffic, speed and the overall bumping motion of travel for a few hours, my body and brain has had enough. Last year I decided to break up long driving trips for the sake of my head. I get so worn down by motion that I simply cannot safely drive past a certain point in any trip. I never know when that moment will hit me, so I break up driving into segments.

Las Cruces, New Mexico is 680 miles to the west but it took me six days to get there — about the same speed as a one-horsepower stagecoach, I reckon. I camped in state parks and Walmart parking lots about every 120-150 miles. Along the way, I lost two days due to resting; days in which my vestibular system needed to recover from the previous day’s travel. This is one thing I have discovered about traveling with Meniere’s Disease: I have to add rest days to any trip in order to best absorb the motion of travel. I can no longer travel more than two days in a row without it affecting my head in significant ways.

By moving to New Mexico, I hoped to recapture the better feeling of the desert climate that I experienced in 2013. A combination of lower humidity and less-dense air (altitude) seemed to placate some of the most severe Meniere’s symptoms, including vertigo spells. But since I camped out West in 2013 I have entered a worse stage of the disease and the climate didn’t affect me this time the way I had hoped. Yet still, I spent another six months living in the mountains on land I purchased and enjoying the beauty around me.

Vestibular Rehabilitation

During my time in New Mexico I went through a physical therapy program called vestibular rehabilitation. Dr. Rachel at Back in Action Sports Therapy in Alamogordo, NM worked with me twice a week to “re-train” my brain to read my faulty balance signals differently. I cannot recommend this rehab enough for Meniere’s patients. It was tough to endure but it helped me tremendously. After almost four months of balance training — eyes open and (ugh!) eyes closed — I felt better than I had in two years. I no longer leaned right to counteract leftward pulling from my brain. I learned to disregard most of the faulty signals my brain was getting from my damaged inner ears. I no longer needed a cane to walk steadily!

By September of last year, the vertigo was minimal thanks to the steroid shot in my left ear the October before and my walking was steady and fairly balanced. I still had tinnitus, occasional balance issues and trouble getting around in the darkness (sight is SO important to balance!), but I felt that I could manage these things much better. I even moved to tropical Louisiana to buy my first house and live in a different climate. I felt good!

When the “Juice” Wears Off…

This year has seen a gradual reduction of the steroid shot, leading to a full return of my vertigo symptoms. I knew when I was injected with the steroid in my left ear that the shot was intended to be one of three. Sadly, finances forced me to only settle for one shot. I couldn’t afford another one and my temporary health care policy wouldn’t even cover the shot I received. So I had to hope for the best!

The vestibular exercises I was taught in New Mexico have also lost their settling power on my system, perhaps because the vertigo is so bad.

And so I continue to fight the illness that will not leave me. My wife and I found a doctor in Little Rock, Arkansas, who specializes in diseases of the inner ear. We have an appointment to see him on September 2nd. It is my hope that he can set up a treatment schedule for me and, I hope, give me a referral to go through vestibular rehab refreshment program.

As for a steroid shot, we’re going to ask. But the last ENT we saw doubted that it would do me any good. But then again, he also said we needed to see a specialist because Meniere’s Disease was not one of his specialties (contrary to what we thought and what the internet recommendations said!).

Finding a good Meniere’s doctor is not very easy. They are few and they are scattered. My wife and I went to a doctor recommended by a Meniere’s website only to find that he doesn’t really know any more about the disease than the average ENT. He can treat early stage Meniere’s but not my severity. He recommended a neurootologist, a specialist in the field of the inner ear nervous system and diseases. They have an additional two years of medical school in which they focus in on special conditions. The closest ones to me were in Little Rock, AR, and Baton Rouge, LA. And so we’re headed north to Little Rock.

Some really good news is that I now have Medicare to handle my health insurance. Back in 2014 I was found to be disabled by Social Security and I started receiving monthly payments in 2015. In July of this year I became eligible for Medicare Part A and B. Because of Medicare, I can treat my illness. My Healthcare Marketplace plan with Humana wasn’t going to allow me the freedom to see the specialists I needed to, nor would it cover the high costs of medical care. I was stuck and Medicare is giving me a lot of hope of getting better. Being legally disabled stinks, to be sure, but it has allowed me access to the medical care I need to keep fighting Meniere’s Disease.

My Current Battle

Right now I am fighting constant vertigo, confusion of sight and balance, and a strong sensitivity to light. I walk with a cane and generally have about two hours of “good” health each day after I wake up and before the symptoms catch up to me to render me disabled. I sleep late because my body seems to respond better to more rest than less rest. Of course, too much rest can rob me of the two good hours I long for each day!

The thing I cannot stress enough is this: Meniere’s is a frustrating disease of unpredictable symptoms. What worked for me one day fails me the next. So it is impossible to find routines that work consistently. It is an everyday battle that is exhausting. Sometimes I find my will to fight it to be lacking. I just want to give up. Other days I want badly to overcome my symptoms and be victorious.

I have resumed taking vitamin supplements in an effort to regain some vestibular function in advance of my doctor’s appointment. I take a daily dose of Vertisil, Vinpocetine and a Lemon Bioflavanoid. They may be helping me, though I only have two days worth of results so far. But I have felt a little better the past two days, so… I keep on fighting!

That’s the latest. I really appreciate your prayers and well wishes. God is with me in this battle and I have never doubted His love and care for one moment. In fact, I see this struggle as a chance to glorify Him through an attitude of faith and through my hope in His help. I may be broken but the Holy Spirit really likes to use cracked vessels to shine the Light of Christ into a darkened world. I pray that He uses me in such a glorious way!

— John

 

 

 

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Of Silence, Peace and Restless Hearts: A Blog From Iona

Author’s Note: I wrote most of this blog while on the Scottish island of Iona early in July. Mrs. Newton and I spent a week on the western island with a tour/retreat group. My time on Iona was filled with thought — mainly reflection on Scripture and pondering about matters of life and faith. This blog, in origin and in spirit, is from Iona.

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Silence, peace, rest, refuge and waiting… all of these words seem to be interrelated. Maybe one produces the other, then another and so forth. Maybe they are all synonyms or cousins. All of them, however, have been at the forefront of my mind this week on Iona.
My thoughts keep turning to the physical characteristics of this blessed island off the west coast of Scotland. To the lush green grass and the deep blue sea. To the rocky crags and the beaches of smooth stone. To the grey stone abbey and the white block houses; the waves crashing against the shore and the wind coursing between hedges of fuchsia. These are all physical attributes of Iona, things that make the island insanely beautiful and deeply desired. Add in the spiritual significance of this place and Iona is a must-see for any lover of goodness, truth and beauty.

It has been fun to learn about Columba over the past six days, and the religious order he founded that evangelized most of the British mainland in the span of a hundred years. From this tiny island, three miles long and a mile and a half across, monks went out on mission, befriending kings, establishing monastic centers, and spreading a message about God’s care that reverberated in hearts and minds. Celtic Christianity captured Britain, and for four hundred years Iona served as the sheltering mother for monasteries, pilgrims and merchants.

Iona was such an important place that kings and lords demanded to be buried there. Three Saints lived and died there. And many thousands and hundreds of thousands of Christians made trips there to worship God and find refuge.

The Stunning Nature of Silence

Iona is one of the quietest places I have ever been. Though it is an island filled with wildlife, dotted with houses and harassed by the crashing Atlantic Ocean, if you stop in the middle of it on a sunny day and cease all activity, you’ll likely hear the sound of silence. No noise other than an occasional seagull or endangered corncrake bird.

(What is a corncrake? We first learned of that little creature at a worship service, when a lady prayed openly for the restoration of “the corncrakes, wildcats and other endangered Highland and Hebrides species.” I thought, “What?? Did she just say ‘cornflakes?’” Indeed, the corncrake is a small Oriole-sized bird that is being fiercely protected here on Iona. Unlike the typical high-pitched singing or chirping sound of most birds, corncrakes sound a bit like bullfrogs, with a croak/short burst of noise/baritone call.)

Ah, stillness. Iona is amazing, seemingly void of all air conditioners, lawnmowers and every other piece of technology that makes background noise. Instead, you may hear a light breeze in the background, followed by silence. The world still exists around you but it is a place of perfect stillness and quiet!

The quietest place on Iona was found outside of this small craft shop located midway across the narrow isle.

The quietest place on Iona was found outside of this small craft shop located midway across the narrow isle.

I first noticed this still effect when our Iona tour group headed across island on a walking trip to St. Columba’s Bay, one of a number of pilgrimage sites. Shannon sat down on a bench outside a small artisan jewelry shop and I walked up to her when I noticed something remarkable. The only noise I heard was the sounds my ears constantly make (I suffer from constant tinnitus). I was overwhelmed by emotion. I motioned to my wife and shushed my lips, pointing to my ears and then the surrounding environment. It was almost too amazing to believe. Silence. Peace. Stillness. Remarkably, the island grass was still waving in a light breeze and sheep were grazing on every hillside and yet… silence.

Mrs. Newton and I talked at length about how our society is filled with noise and busyness. Even out in the American countryside, there is noise. Air conditioners, cars, weed eaters, airplanes outside… even inside our homes there is constant noise. Ever heard a refrigerator or ceiling fan? A dishwasher? An air conditioner? If you say, “No,” then you’ve probably become accustomed to having your ears filled with noise. The noise is still there. True silence? Found only between your ears and accessible via industrial-grade earplugs (unless you’re me, of course).

stockvault-speaker97042It could be that part of our world’s anxiety and stress problem could be blamed on the noise with which we fill our environment. I know that I, for one, have great difficulty finding rest in the midst of the noise or, more importantly, being silent before the Lord.

In Psalm 37, the older and wiser King David instructs his hearers to, “Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for Him (v7).” The command is literally, “Be quiet!” Be silent. I’m reminded of another famous verse, this one from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” To be still. To let go. To be quiet.

Learning to Block the Noise

Have you ever noticed how our world doesn’t appreciate the concept of silence? Music blaring, cars racing, machines whirring, TVs entertaining… the things were are exhorted to buy in order to occupy our time.

When I was growing up, I never understood why people read books. Funny, right? My older sister was a book lover and she would spend her free time with her nose in a novel or short story series. Family vacations, at home, during holidays… when someone would ask, “Where is Jennifer?” the answer would always be, “Upstairs reading.” I kind of grew to despise books, holding to the firm belief that Jennifer would have enjoyed her childhood a lot more if she simply looked out the window instead of looking at a page of tiny words.

It’s funny how attitudes change over time. I married a book reader. She reads multiple books each year and, in fact, just downloaded a new one here on Iona. Books may be one answer to the silence problem our society faces. Retreating from the noise and bustle of life to read a bit all alone might be a needed bit of stillness for the sound-bombarded soul.

Another way to combat the noise is to simply create a space around you where the noise is at its least. A “safe space” for stillness. One lady in our group mentioned that her back deck is her place of stillness. I’ve always enjoyed going hiking away from neighborhoods, letting the trail be my still space. The wife and I are hoping to one day build a covered gazebo-like place on our mountain property, with benches, so people can go away from the noise and either read a book, say a prayer, or just enjoy the creation of God around them. Speaking of which…

Creation and the Sensation of Peace

Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of the Lord; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. When King David looked at those heavens at night, he was amazed by the greatness of God (and the smallness of man; Psalm 8). Another man of faith, the Apostle Paul, put a theological spin on this sentiment when he wrote, “For since the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God have been evidenced by the things He has made.” God can be seen in His creation. Just like a potter that has left a thumbprint on a vessel he has just created, God has left His thumbprint on this universe — heavens and earth.

Iona doesn’t have the highest mountains or the purest white beaches on earth. There cannot possibly be more than a hundred trees on the island! There is no flowing creek that cascades down a dramatic waterfall into a tropical lagoon. No, Iona is a wind-swept island on the turbulent and cold west coast of Scotland, inhabited by marshes, ferns, rocks and grass. And yet, Iona is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There is a great peace in its beauty, a peace that hits the heart and leads a stressed-out soul to relax‚ if but for only a moment.

My soul is easily ministered to by the beauty of God’s creation. Is yours? I’ll never forget one of my most memorable interactions with Creation. In 2011 I found myself on vacation, tent camping my way through Colorado by myself, exploring gold mines, Old West towns, waterfalls and the other adventurous landmarks that make Colorado special.

The mountain town of Silverton, Colorado, is in the lower-right of this picture.

The mountain town of Silverton, Colorado, is in the lower-right of this picture.

One day I drove to Silverton, a high-altitude mining town in the Southwestern part of the state. Silverton is in one of the most beautiful settings of Colorado, in my opinion, situated at 10,000 feet in elevation and surrounded by jagged rocky mountaintops on all sides. It is in a bowl — a high mountain saddle — that is bisected by the cold Animas River, a rushing stream that owes its origin to the melting snowcaps above Silverton.

After driving east of town to the Old Hundred Mine and snooping around on foot, I walked back to my grey Ford Focus and looked up. I don’t know what existential thing happened to my spirit in that moment but I suddenly was mentally, emotionally and spiritually floored. I leaned back against my car and took a deep breath. I found myself in a mountain valley that slopes down to the Silverton saddle, with steep, tall, rocky mountains on my left, on my right and standing right in front of me. I was surrounded! The air was clean and crisp. The sun was shining off the peak in front of me. I was both transfixed on the beauty of the place and completely stunned by it. God was certainly present in that place, though I also had no reason to question His attendance anywhere else in my life! But His Creation in that moment was testifying to His beauty, His might, His power, His… everything. And the fact that I could enjoy it with my own eyes and my own heart spoke to His love and grace for me.

The west side of Iona.

The west side of Iona.

I am fully convinced that God’s Creation can also be an agent of His peace. If the heavens declare God’s glory, the skies show His workmanship, the trees clap their hands in praise, and the stones cry out that Jesus is Lord, then… they must also point to His perfectly present peace. On Iona, we were surrounded by the vistas of white sandy beaches, green lush grass, and rocky outcroppings, and our ears were serenaded with the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls conversing. There was great peace on that island (though sin was also present thanks to humanity, both residing and visiting!).

One aspect that Mrs. Newton and I plan to commit to the operation of Restless Heart is that of “Creation’s Counsel.” We want to find a spot for our retreat center where people can come and find an environment of peace. Where water flows and trees wave and beautiful views beckon the heart to peace. I cannot help but think that the human heart may be more receptive to hear the ways of God if it is surrounded by the things of God. And so we want to see God minister to restless hearts through the peaceful things He has made while we counsel those hearts with His Word.

Final Thoughts

Iona had long been on my bucket list of places to visit, dating back years before I met my wife. It wasn’t until after we first met last year that I found out she had previously committed to a trip to Iona led by a former mentor at John Brown University. I must admit that I was very jealous. As our engagement proceeded, she was worried that this committed trip would prevent us from getting married when we wanted. So I decided to join her and call it our “official honeymoon.” Am I ever glad I went!

The week was relaxing and renewing for my heart and mind. I got to know my wife a lot better and we dreamed deep dreams about our family and our ministry. We came away from the time stronger as both individuals and as a couple. Like many pilgrims before us, we sought the Lord on Iona and He heard us. And now we’re ready to face the next exciting chapter of our lives. Stay tuned for details!

 

 

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The Refuge of God, The Value of Stillness & the Making of Lists

Even though it has been over a month since I last blogged, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had anything to say. On the contrary, I’ve had much on my mind in the midst of frantic busyness! Let’s see, since I last posted…

  1. My wife and I have been to Scotland and come back (after 17 days). We primarily visited the island of Iona on a “pilgrimage” with a group of believers. Iona was the epicenter of the spread of Christianity to Scotland, Northern England and Northern Europe 15oo years ago. A few Saints and a lot of beauty and peace reside there.
  2. I’ve been sick with bronchitis (in addition to my other ongoing illnesses). I developed it our last night on Iona and had to stifle the coughing on the trip home, lest people feared I captured the black plague! That seven-hour plane flight was a beast…
  3. I’ve been feverishly working on ministry plans for our retreat center in Arkansas. The Mrs. and I are joyfully pursuing a ministry of rest and reconciliation that we pray that the Lord uses to transform broken and distressed lives. We have a long way to go, but with the Lord preparing the way before us, we cannot wait to see what He has in store!
  4. I spent six days finishing interior work on my house in South Louisiana. It is the “bachelor pad” I bought when I was but a mere single man. Whew! Check it out here. The home I bought for myself (my first house) did not have flooring, had wallpaper walls and looked a lot like a factory-built mobile home. BTW… we Newtons cannot afford to have two houses, so please pray with me that the house sells this summer.

But the Lord has been fueling my heart and mind throughout the time away and I have so many subjects to blog about that I just cannot write as much about everything as I desire! So I’m going to clue you in to what has been on my heart so far this summer. Maybe I’ll write more on each topic later. Maybe not. We’ll see.

  1. The Scottish island of Iona is a remarkable place.

    1. IMG_0914sm

      A replica of St. John’s Cross, believed to be the first “Celtic cross” design.

      Iona, for those not familiar, was the launching place for the evangelization of most of Great Britain and some of Northern Europe. In church history, Iona is a most special place. From this three-mile-long by one-and-a-half-mile-wide barren spot of land in 563 A.D., Saint Columba of Ireland stepped foot and established a monastic order that would send out missionaries across Scotland. By 650 A.D. most of modern day Great Britain was “Christianized.” On our tour of Iona, Mrs. Newton and I saw where Columba came ashore, where he established his monastery, and where pilgrims worshiped God for nearly a thousand years.

    2. Iona has a beautiful 12th- to 14th-Century stone Abbey that serves as a kind of spiritual and architectural center of the island. Daily worship services are held in the abbey church by an ecumenical group that is also spearheading the restoration of the site. A number of “high crosses” remain standing on Iona, places where pilgrims would stop and pray on their way to the abbey and St. Columba’s shrine there. Shannon and I stopped to pray at one cross, 15th Century MacLain’s Cross, and it was my wife who sent shivers down my spine when she said, “Can you imagine how many believers have prayed to God on this very spot through the ages?” I was reminded of Hebrews 12:1, “Since we have such a cloud of witnesses (before and/or around us), let us run the race marked out for us with endurance…” The very first Celtic cross, known for its distinctive circle around the crossing, was carved on Iona. It is now in a museum but a replica stands on its original foundation and site.
    3. Iona is a peaceful place. I’ll write more later about this, but Iona was one of the quietest, calmest, most vibrant places I have ever been in my life. Because the island is under Scotland’s National Trust (kind of like our Parks Service but with a history/preservation bent), very few people live on it and those that do lead a much different life than residents of the big cities. Time seems to slow down. There are very few cars. There are no air conditioners, no ceiling fans, no “filler” noise in the air. Not even a lawnmower. Iona is quiet during the day and dark during the night. Unless…
    4. IMG_1317esmThe sun doesn’t want to go down for the day. The northern latitude and the island geography mean that Iona gets 19 hours of daylight in late June. Shannon and I laughed a lot as we took 11pm walks on the deserted pathways, never losing sight of the ground or the surrounding buildings. On the flip side, however, it also got light at 3 a.m. and the sun came out at 5 a.m., well before we wanted! On the plane flight to London, England, I stayed awake during the entire night, looking to the north, bewildered that I never saw darkness descend up there. It was the first time I ever experienced a night that never came.
  2. The “refuge of God” has both an emotional AND physical side to it.

    1. IMG_0760smWe saw many castles and fortresses in Scotland, none mightier than Edinburgh Castle. Seeing the massive walled stone fort 300 feet above the valley below gave me chills. It seemed so imposing that no army could possibly muster the courage to attack it! The castle was a fortress — a refuge— for the people of the Old City of Edinburgh. During times of siege, the people could retreat behind the castle walls and find protection. During the days before airplanes, building a wall around a city was the best way to protect it from attack. Berwick-Upon-Tweed in Northeastern England is such a mighty walled city. From the train, it looks incredible!
    2. People came to Iona for refuge of another kind —spiritual refuge. Iona was a place where pilgrims, religious orders, and merchants could come and find spiritual shelter from the monks and nuns of the island. Hospitality was practiced there by both rule and by principle. It still is! For Shannon, myself and our tour group, Iona provided refuge from the stress and worry of our everyday lives. We could kick back on Iona with very little Internet access, no television, three solid meals, and the beautiful sound of waves crashing on the rocky coast with seagulls conversing overhead. Our week there was really de-toxifying, mentally and emotionally.
    3. As I thought about refuge and Iona, I wondered how churches in our world today could become a part of the refuge of God that David often wrote about in the Psalms. Is the Church of God even thinking of meeting people’s physical needs in a sheltering kind of way? Are our buildings places where hurting people — people under emotional siege or spiritual attack — can come to find refuge? To not only seek the Lord but also de-stress, find hospitality and be embraced with the love of God? Shannon and I are planning to open a retreat center in the mountains of Northwest Arkansas that we hope serves as a refuge for those in distress — “restless hearts” I call them. We want it to be a place of beauty and stillness; of rest and re-connection with the living God. But how can churches channel this same ideal? I was part of a church a few years back that went from being open-to-the-public during daylight hours to having locked doors day and night. Even during the middle of the day, “enhanced security” called for a key card entry system, a buzzer, and a good reason for letting you in. What if someone came needing prayer? What if they wanted to kneel before the cross in our sanctuary and plead before God because they are at wits end? There must be a way for our churches to become better at being places of spiritual and physical refuge.
  3. Stillness has a way of bringing about more productive days.

    1. Here’s the kicker for being nearly internet-less on Iona and in a place of quiet: my days got more productive! Stillness somehow led to more productivity.
    2. When my heart is calm, my mind is clear. It is easier to think when I’m focused on the here and now. Being on Iona showed me that truth about myself.
  4. Hospitality can break down many barriers.

    1. I’m still chewing on this concept, so please forgive any verbal vagueness. But the simple attitude and act of hospitality can minster to a person’s soul regardless of where they’ve come from or what they’ve experienced. I’m thinking of the nomads of old and Bedouins of today, who hold hospitality towards strangers in the highest regard. Think of Abraham with the three visitors in Genesis 18. A stranger, if they did not present themselves as hostile, is a friend.
    2. Take this concept to a Christian principle. Humans need certain basic things in order to live and not struggle… nourishing food, clean water, adequate clothing, a safe place to lay our heads. Without meeting these basic needs through hospitality, why should they listen to the message of hope in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t God care about their basic needs? I think of James 2 and those believers who would say to the poor, “Be warm and filled” but not reach into their pocket to meet a need. Being “incarnational” means to enter into people’s physical lives and show them Christ.
  5. Stories of the saints of old can be quite entertaining.
    1. OK, this is gonna sound odd but I really, REALLY enjoy reading the hagiographic stories of the Saints of old. Do I think Saint Nicholas really restored three murdered children to life? It’s a stretch, for sure, but maybe! Either way, it’s cool to think that God might work in the New Testament world like He did in the Old, and that the Saints with a capital “S” are like the old school prophets.
    2. I picked up the modern print of a book written in the 600s by Adomnan, an abbot of Iona and distant cousin of Columba. The book is a biography of the famous saint and includes a lot of stories about the saint’s travels, miracles and teachings. They are a hoot to read! Fun! We’re talking “Merlin the Wizard” kinda stuff with a Godly purpose. I was fascinated. In the book, “Columba performs various miracles such as healing people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild beasts, calming storms, and even returning the dead to life (Wikipedia).” Like, awesome!
    3. I really enjoy those stories and legends, true or not. They remind me that the power of Jesus Christ precedes the Gospel wherever it is preached.

So those are a few things percolating in my mind this summer, most of which came to the fore on Iona.

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A Lesson About Faith From One of the Bible’s Most Bizarre Stories

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you (Genesis 22:1-2).”

The story of Abraham offering up Isaac on an altar as a potential human sacrifice is rather odd, at the least. An old man asked by God to offer his only son as a sacrifice to test his faith? Maybe it’s even weird. Disgusting, even. Bizarre. Unexpected. Lord, you want me to do what again?

But that is exactly what God asked of his son of the promise. And you know what? He acted immediately.

So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son (v. 3).

Chris Ramsey, one of the elders at our church, made some great observations about the faith of Abraham in his sermon on Sunday. It was Father’s Day, and so Chris decided to preach on a father… being told by God to kill his son. Great, eh? (Spoiler: the son lived) Here are some principles of faith that can be gleaned from this story, from both Chris’ message and from my own pondering:

  1. Positive Experience Builds Trust

Chris pointed out that Abraham had already experienced a lot of life with God guiding him — speaking to him — and blessing him. Abe had learned to listen to God’s voice and muster the courage to obey. For every step of his life after knowing God, the patriarch built trust in God as he took risk and God provided for him.

Part of this faith experience was God’s promise to provide he and his wife, Sarah, a natural-born son. Both were older than parenting age, so it took a heck of a lot of faith to believe that God would provide. Finally, after trials and incidents of various sorts, Sarah had a son, Isaac. God had promised that the entire world would be blessed through Abraham’s son and his offspring (Gen 12:1-3), making Isaac’s very life quite an important one!

Three years ago I found myself living on a high mesa west of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I never intended to end up living out in the wilderness, surviving in sub-freezing temperatures in a pop-up camper on government land. Nope, I had dreams of a nice warm adobe apartment, abundant WiFi and a hot shower. But the government shutdown and a scarcity of jobs meant rice, beans and a bed of four blankets in a 1983 Starcraft camper.

When I tell people that my faith is God was never deeper than it was at this time of my life they cannot believe it. But it was. I was living on donations and waiting for my first paycheck from Target, where I had a seasonal job doing menial tasks like re-arranging the cat food cans and putting away all those misplaced toys. My real “job” was to observe, experience and pray over the city of Santa Fe for potential church planting or missional ministry. It’s a very dark city, spiritually.

But a lack of funds meant taking risks every night on public land, listening to gunshots in the distance and having drunk men drive by my camper at high speeds at 3 am, shouting incomprehensible phrases at me and throwing things at my camper. I buried my head under the blanket and prayed to see the morning.

But I never felt more alive because I knew that God had my back. He was my loving Father in heaven and I had walked with him for 30 years. He was my High Protector and He had never let me down. I went where He asked. I never truly lacked food. My clothes were sufficient, often because a brother or sister in Christ surprised me with clothes in His Name. That happened to me the summer before. A couple in Ruidoso, outside of where I was campground hosting, said they felt Jesus wanted me to have some warm clothes for the chilly mountain autumn. So they brought me four or five sweaters from their small thrift store, a space heater, and food I could heat up. God provided. Why would He abandon me on a frozen mesa?

My experience with God bolstered my faith in Him and allowed me to continue to take “risks” to see how I might help expand His kingdom. I knew that God has provided for me before, in many circumstances, and I trusted that He would continue to do so.

2. Faith is Built Through Our Risk Met With God’s Response

Here is something that the security-minded will cringe to read: people of faith take risks and trust God with the result. Over and over again we see men and women stepping out in faith — into the uncertain — and God providing for their needs as they act. Noah built an ark. God saved him and his family. Abraham left Ur for a place he had never been. Jacob went to Egypt to escape famine. Rahab hid two spies from evil men. Ruth gleaned in the field of a stranger.

In many cases, God instructed the person to act. In those cases, the “risk” was a matter of obedience. However, other times, like when Nehemiah decided to go back to Jerusalem, the saint of old planned, prayed and proceeded to take the risk, acting in faith. Abraham’s life is filled with both examples. God told him to leave Ur and he did. But when Abraham decided on his own to go after Lot and save him from peril, God blessed that action.

In my own life, I have come to see faith-prayer-action in this light: when a child of God is following God and has a holy desire of their heart, they have God’s blessing to follow that desire and He will bless it. We too often paralyze ourselves by waiting for the voice of God to say “Go” when we already carry the blessing of God with us. Unless He said “No” or “Not yet” to you, then it is not wrong to step out in faith and trust Him with the results.

I think our Lord said it perfectly when He taught,  “What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:9-11).”

God is a loving Father to us and, because He has accepted us as His dearly-loved children, why wouldn’t He want to bless us when we truly desire to follow Him and make an impact for His kingdom?

3. God Always Seeks Our Good, Even During Hard Times

So now God wanted that Isaac’s precious life to be given up as a sacrifice? What about the promises of blessing? One thing Abraham had learned through his life of faith was that God always sought his good. Safety, security, blessing, righteousness… this resulted from his believing God and obeying. So now…

Abraham never questioned God. He obeyed, knowing that God kept His promises and, thus, there would be some way out of this command. God would provide. Somehow, some way. But what he needed to do was simply obey and see.

There is a tendency in our Church society to see God as a strict taskmaster instead of a loving Father. Maybe a few teachers who had bad dads here on earth have poisoned the message of grace, but God wants you to enjoy His blessings in this life! Jesus promised this to those who would believe in Him: “A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10).” This abundance should not be trivialized, though I’m not talking about an abundance of material wealth or a lack of trouble like the so-called “prosperity gospel” teaches. But Jesus wants His followers to have life — LIFE — and in abundance! To have joy. To have peace. To love and be loved. To be holy and find the blessing of God in acts of holiness.

John the apostle wrote, “Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness, for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:16-17). Grace. A God who punishes His children like a taskmaster isn’t full of grace!

Cue the Good Father analogy. “…How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” The same Paul who wrote, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” also wrote, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:1, 28).”

Abraham knew that God was for him and not against him. God considered Abraham his “friend.” He considers you His “son” or “daughter.”

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As the story goes on in Genesis 22, Abraham takes Isaac and two male servants and goes to a hill in Judea later to be known as Mount Moriah. He goes up to the top of the rocky mount with his son carrying the sacrifice wood on his back. Where is the sacrifice lamb? Isaac wondered. God will provide, Abraham responded. Isaac climbed up on the altar, Abraham took the knife in his hand and then….

The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son (vv. 11-13).

God never intended for Isaac to die. Human sacrifice never was part of the worship of God. The pagan nations did it. Israel, as a settled nation in Canaan, cried out against it for hundreds of years. God always intended to provide a sacrificial lamb. But Abraham knew that he needed to obey God until he heard something different. This is faith at its purest: to obey the voice of God even when it seems irrational. To trust God to provide for you even when you cannot see how.

Allen P. Ross, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, wrote: “The lessons about true worship are timeless: (1) Faith obeys completely the Word of God. (2) Faith surrenders the best to God, holding nothing back. (3) Faith waits on the Lord to provide all one’s needs.

If there is one thing I want you to take away from this pondering on faith it is this: faith without action is not going to grow. In order to trust God more and obey with less hesitancy, you need to build up experience with following Him in active faith. Step out and trust God. Look for His action in your life. Listen for His voice. Like Abraham, obey His voice even when you don’t understand the details. Know that God seeks your good and that He will deliver you from any circumstance that arises as you step out in faith.

Don’t stand on the sidelines. Be God’s!

 

 

 

 

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