So last week was a special week, which culminated in an awesome Sunday service.  We had the opportunity to celebrate Mountain Ridge Church turning 20 years old.  That is a big deal, and I’m so thankful that we took the time to break out of our normal routines, and Sunday Services and just to celebrate the place that means so much to so many of us.  It also gave us the opportunity to reflect on MRC, the life change, the mission that we are on, and all the places and experiences that we have been through and frankly it was a blast to reminisce and laugh as we looked back on some of those moments for sure.  But I will be very honest with you, and I think Ken and I are so similar in this.  I seem to be better at moving forward, and looking ahead at things, because looking back over these twenty years can really hurt too.  I think the phrase that hit my heart the most leading into last Sunday’s celebration was, just how much water has gone under the bridge.  So, for me, it was a day of mixed emotions, because as much as I wanted to celebrate what God has been doing in 20 years of ministry, there is another part of me that walks with a very heavy heart, because of all that water that has gone under the bridge.  Sometimes it bothers me that I feel that way, and frankly I can feel uncomfortable bringing that up with you, because I’m so blessed, and so in love with what we do here at MRC, but it is difficult to think back over so many challenging moments, so many painful memories, so many things said that weren’t followed through on, and many relationships that just disappear, with no warning, or some warning, but certainly no real understanding of why those relationships ended…especially with people you care about, that still live in your same small town, that you continue to bump into in your daily life.  It just isn’t easy at times and I’m realizing that I just try to keep all of that stuff in the rearview mirror as we do our best to keep moving forward in this amazing ministry at MRC and a lot of that stuff came up as we looked back.  So, a lot of that was hitting my heart and mind last week, because for all the good stories of redemption that bring us life, there are also stories of loss, of broken promises, and rejection that were hard to not personalize.  There is so much good, and last week was special, but these 20 years have also been challenging, painful at times, and filled with tremendous highs, and painful losses along the way.  All of it is what makes us who we are, and all of it is the reality of life on this planet…and all of it left me pretty tired by the end of that beautiful celebration last week.  And frankly all of that, leads us back into our Success Series, and a subject that is a reality for all of us in life…now it isn’t the easiest thing to talk about, frankly it may be the hardest thing to talk about, but it is where we are going to spend the next two weeks.  So, today starts a two-part miniseries inside the Success series over these next two Sunday’s, on the painful reality that we all face in our lives…and it’s this. There will be grief and loss in our lives.  Today we are really stepping into that reality and what God can do with it, then next week Ken is talking to us about the three phases of processing grief and loss God’s way.   I get it, it is a heavier subject, but hey, we did have cupcakes and balloons last week for you, so we are not all doom and gloom around here!  Seriously though, this is such an important conversation, because this is something we all face in life, and how we process it can move us towards God and walking in this Spiritual Success we keep talking about or it can weigh us down, and stunt our growth, blocking us from all God could be doing in our lives.  So, this is a difficult conversation for sure, but a really important one because this is life, and grief and loss hit us all…we may not want to talk about it or deal with it but it’s there for us all.  But before we dive into this, I do want to take a step back because this series has been built so intentionally, and every thing we talked about really builds to the next.

So, if you remember early on in this series, we wanted to understand the difference between how we people would define success and how God would define success and we found that there are some major differences.  Our culture and us people in it would view success very differently than God does, and we found an awesome definition of success from Pete Scazzero…

“Success according to Scripture, is becoming the person God calls you to become, and doing what God calls you to do-in His way, and according to His timetable.” – Pete Scazzero

The thing that should be so encouraging to us all is that if you really stop and think about this, it would mean that as we grow closer to God, and wrap our hearts and minds around how God would define success, we realize something pretty special, we can be successful…and it has nothing to do with the size of our bank accounts, or the size of our homes, or how many material possessions we have accumulated or even championships we have one.  If success is becoming the person God calls me to be, and doing what God calls me to do, in His way, and according to His timetable, it really changes the game on who can be successful doesn’t it?  It moves from the wealthy, the powerful, and the popular to all who can surrender their lives to Christ and follow Him!  So, we spent a few weeks really identifying and defining Success according to Scripture, then the series really began to move intentionally to how we can walk in Spiritual Success.  We talked about slowing down to be with Jesus, and how to follow Jesus, we have even looked at how to relax in Him, which we learned is all about trusting Him in every circumstance of our lives, and then Ken took us to something really important.

He introduced us to another reality in our lives, and that is that we actually have limits.  We learned how important it is that we not only understand that we have limits but also that we fully embrace our limits in life.  This was a really important talk, and Ken did a great job of helping us understand the different types of limits in our lives and the challenges that we face as we walk through them!  I will say, I think the older I get the better I understand my limits in life.  LOL, I don’t think I could have accepted that I even had limits in my more youthful years.  But my body is clearly letting me know these days that I just don’t have the energy and life that I once had, with every snap, crackle, and pop of my body when I try to stand up after sitting for too long, it has become clear to me that I do actually have limits!  I grew up on The Rocky movies, and just that idea that you can accomplish anything if you just put your head down and go for it!  Which is inspirational and can also lead to some big let downs, and some painful realities in life, because we do have limits in our lives and embracing them will allow us to trust God, let go of control, and walk in Spiritual Success.  So, we needed to take a step back here and remember where we are going because it all builds on itself and leads us into the discussion we are going to have today.  I think Ken’s talk on limits really leads us into a section of this series that we could just call, “The Reality Check.”  Why is this a reality check?  Well, it’s because there are some realities in life, frankly some can be pretty painful, but these are things we will all face in life, even if we don’t like talking about it!  Embracing reality is a very important part of our spiritual growth and will determine if we can walk in Spiritual Success.

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. In fact, the true spiritual life is not an escape from reality but an absolute commitment to it.” Pete Scazzero, EHS

Growing into who we are spiritually is not ignoring reality.  It is not escaping from the truth of life.  It’s actually engaging into reality.  Listen, if you have spent any length of time on this planet, you know that this doesn’t mean everything in life will be happy and easy.  The reality of life is that sometimes life is hard.  Sometimes there is pain.  Sometimes there is loss and sometimes there are limits that you just can’t push past.  What’s interesting to me is that this isn’t a popular thing to talk about, it certainly isn’t a good way to fill the seats in a church service or to sell a lot of books.  It’s interesting, I felt strange even sharing with you the reality of my emotions from last week’s 20th Birthday Party, because the cupcakes and the balloons and the awesome stories of life change are great, and heart-warming, and inspiring…but the other part of that reality is, there were many challenges, and a lot of pain, and lonely nights built in to those 20 years as well, but it just isn’t something we like to talk about is it?  We just want to hear the good stuff in life and that is pretty dangerous and telling about who we are as people. Listen, this is such an important thing to look at and discuss because it is real and real isn’t always easy.

We will all face losses and grief in our lives.  I wish that wasn’t true, but some of the eventualities and reality of our lives is painful…and grief and loss are part of our reality living in this fallen world.  But as people I think we would rather just avoid talking about this stuff because it’s rough stuff!  I mean, who really wants to talk about painful things, am I right?  It’s not exciting, and it’s certainly not inspiring!

I want you to see something important, we see adversity, grief, and loss all through Scripture!  Now, does that take you by surprise?  I think for many people it does because we just are not finding these types of Scriptures on posters and coffee cups, and T-Shirts am I right?  I think it’s interesting that for most of us we kind of miss the reality of the lives these people were living in Scripture.  We tend to gravitate to the inspiring verses, which listen, I will never condone you reading the Bible!  It’s a good thing, but we like those one-liners and they do inspire us and give us strength, but there is typically a lot of pain, and challenges in the greater context even of those Scriptures that we love to read for energy and inspiration!  We tend to ignore this reality that we see all through our Bibles.  We want to read things like this from Paul…

Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. ESV

You have heard that before, right?  It’s awesome and inspiring that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us!  But we forget that He is writing this from prison knowing that his execution was right in front of him.  I think it’s very interesting how we miss that part of what He is saying here.   How about David?  I don’t know about you, but I love his Psalms.  They bring me so much strength, and so much comfort in my life…here’s just one example!

Psalms 31:24 So be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord! NLT

It’s awesome and inspiring, isn’t it?  But we don’t see too many posters with other verses from that same Psalm in it…like this do we?

Psalms 31:9 Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.  Tears blur my eyes.  My body and soul are withering away. 10 I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness.  Sin has drained my strength; I am wasting away from within. NLT

That just doesn’t have the same sizzle and certainly wouldn’t look so good on a T-Shirt or bumper sticker, would it?  We tend to gravitate towards the positives, the inspiring, while ignoring the greater reality in Scripture, which is giving us a window into us as people!  If I asked you the first thing you would think about when I ask you about David…what would it be?  Well, most would talk about David and Goliath, a big win in his life!  But the Scriptures are full of David’s reality and adversity and pain.  In 2 Samuel 12 we watch David’s grieve over his sin, of murder and adultery, we see him grieve over the death of his baby who dies of a terrible illness…which ends with him in the temple worshiping the Lord and leads to many of these beautiful Psalms that we read…in 2 Samuel 15 he is betrayed by his own son Absalom who takes the throne from David for a short time, before Absolom dies in battle, and David lays another child to rest who has rebelled against him.  I want you to see this because the Scriptures show us reality, but we are drawn to wins, not losses.  When we sit with people they don’t want to hear about tough stuff, they want to hear about the good stuff, and what we are learning today is this…

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. In fact, the true spiritual life is not an escape from reality but an absolute commitment to it.” Pete Scazzero, EHS

So, while it’s a bit opposite of the way we humans think or want to act, it’s important that we embrace reality, and the reality is that we all face loss and grief in our lives.  We face devastating losses and tragedies in our lives, like the death of a loved one, terrible illnesses and disease, shattered dreams, and broken relationships.  We deal with natural disasters, terrible accidents, and other things that just seem to hit out of the blue.  We deal with painful losses, like the loss of friends, children moving away, even things like important leaders moving on at work or church and I want you to see something…we shouldn’t ignore these things, and try to keep moving forward but we should embrace these things as an opportunity to grow.  I know, that is so much easier said than done but even as I say it, it’s hard to not go right to Jesus’ words here in Luke…

Luke 9:23 Then he told them what they could expect for themselves: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat — I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. 24 Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. 25 What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? MSG

As people I think this is so challenging because we instinctively run from pain!  Yet if we embrace it and can turn towards it, we have a massive opportunity to grow into the very people God designed us to be…but this isn’t easy and for many of us instead of embracing suffering and finding our true selves…we tend to run from pain and try to keep moving forward and never look back, because pain is…well, it’s painful.  All of those things we listed out, all of those forms of loss are part of our lives, they hurt, we struggle, they cause us to grieve, and we should grieve…as we turn towards the pain, rather than run from it, we step into reality, and can walk in Spiritual Success.  When we choose to ignore our pain and push past or ignore the grieving process it will stunt our Spiritual Growth, and not allow us to stand in the true reality of our true selves.  I want you to see this quote here…

“Losses that are not grieved accumulate in our soul like heavy stones that weigh us down.  When we fail to attend to them, they prevent us from living freely and honestly with God and others.” EHD

That is some awesome imagery, isn’t it?  With every hurt and painful moment that we don’t embrace and work through, it’s just adding more weight for us to carry through life, and I don’t know about you, but I just don’t always have the energy to do life, let alone to do it while carrying these heavy stones of hurts and loss and grief…doesn’t that just add context to Jesus’ words earlier?

“…Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. 24 Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. 25 What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? MSG – Jesus

I wanted you to see this today, loss and grief are part of our reality.  We may not like talking about it but this is the truth, life is hard, there is pain in our lives, we will deal with grief and loss.  And while we all deal with different types of loss, that will look and feel different to each individual, no one escapes suffering and pain in life.  I wish that wasn’t true, but it is…and while we may not like it, it’s all through Scripture, time and time again we see it, but I think maybe we must be open to receiving it to understand the importance of this difficult reality.  I love this wording from Peter here, who seems to want us to remember that challenges are part of the reality of life…it isn’t something we should be surprised about when they come.

1 Peter 4:12 Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. NLT

Do you see that?  Many Christians conclude that life won’t keep hurting and happening and challenging them when they come to know Christ…and that just is not our reality on this planet.  Life is hard, and Peter here wants to make sure we understand, that stuff is going to happen and time and time again in Scripture we read…we must embrace it, and deal with it or we are left carrying all that weight, and we may think it’s out of our minds, but we still carry it in our hearts and souls, and it needs to be dealt with.

Listen, this isn’t easy to talk about, and frankly I get it, talks like this are pretty rare in our churches today, because frankly they don’t fill the seats because it’s a tough subject.  No one enjoys pain because pain is painful.  The problem is, if we don’t talk about this, it leads to a huge problem and one that is only growing in the North American Church today…because we don’t do the tough stuff and turn into pain, we find less and less Christians who understand loss and grief as it relates to God, our Spiritual Maturity, and the expansion of the mission of Christ.

We must understand something…To walk in spiritual success we must learn how to deal with loss and grief God’s way!  This is challenging, and it does go against almost every instinct we have as people, but we were called by Jesus not to run from suffering but to embrace it, and we can…but many choose not to and I want to show you the primary reason why that is…and it’s all about control.

We don’t want to lose control.  So, let me ask you this, when pain hits your life what is the first instinct?  It’s to get away from it…or if it’s already on us, it’s to ease the pain or numb it.  This is instinctive in us, and so many people do this in different ways.  For some they just plow ahead in life, and keep building, and earning, and trying to produce…if they never look back, they never have to deal…but the pain is still there.  For some of us we try to just get as busy as possible and distract ourselves by pouring into our jobs, our families, or whatever we can to distract ourselves from the pain…but the pain is still there.  For some we turn to substances, drugs, and alcohol hoping to numb it for a while, but the pain is still there…the weight is still on us…I think there are just countless ways that we try to protect ourselves from pain, but that is what we instinctively want to do, protect ourselves from pain…that is a good thing in many ways and is our bodies way of keeping us safe!

But if you think about it, regardless of what we try to do, work harder, dive into distractions, numb it, it’s still us trying to protect ourselves from the pain.  The last thing we want to do is face the truth which could completely set us free, because it’s the last thing we want to admit or buy into…do you know what that is?  I want you to hear me…We were never really in control to begin with.  I think because of this one fact, we make a huge mess of trying to ignore, run from, or numb pain in our lives and it only compounds the problem…and frankly our churches and many Christians fall into this, and we lose our ability to grow through grief and loss.

This really is a cultural thing, we have been trained to focus on success, accentuate the positive, and if you think about it, that is what we do.  We focus on the wins and do our best not to pay attention to loss and grief.  I was trying to show you that we even do that with our Bible, and I don’t even think we do it all that intentionally.  We aren’t drawn to suffering and pain, we are drawn to the good stuff.  The problem is life isn’t all the good stuff.  We will all have to face and deal with this reality of grief and loss and living in this culture of avoiding or ignoring or just coping with it rather than embracing it has led to some real issues…that all stem from our efforts to control something we never were in control of in the first place.  So we work to develop coping strategies to keep these tough feelings suppressed, and it leads to many more challenges, things like substance abuse, which can be anything from drugs, to alcohol, to food, to work, to busyness, to shopping, to pornography and many other vices, even serving at church…anything to distract us from reality and the pain that we are facing…and what have we kept coming back to today?

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. In fact, the true spiritual life is not an escape from reality but an absolute commitment to it.” Pete Scazzero, EHS

I actually like the way Jesus says in Luke 9, because it’s everything that we have been talking about today…do you remember what he said?

Luke 9:23 Then he told them what they could expect for themselves: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat — I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. 24 Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. 25 What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? MSG

He reminds us that He is in control not us.  Then tells us not to avoid loss and grief and pain in our lives but to embrace it.  He helps us see that trying to stay in control and fix it ourselves will never work, the way to experiencing our true selves, to walking in Spiritual success is to let go of control and follow Him…when we lay our lives down and embrace reality, we will experience our true selves…our God created selves…do you see it?

When we fail to embrace the reality of grief and loss, there are ramifications of that as well.

  1. We end up with shallow churches, who don’t love us enough to lead us into life’s reality.
  2. We end up with a shallow faith, walking in weight we don’t need to walk in, always wondering deep down why Christianity doesn’t seem to work for us.
  3. We develop Christians who lack compassion for those who are hurting, because they aren’t willing to admit to their own pain, and because they aren’t in that reality, they can’t place themselves in the shoes of others who are walking through tremendous pain.

I know this was a challenging talk today, but I wanted you to understand something really important.  We all face grief and loss.  Asking Jesus into your life, doesn’t mean that you will not still have to deal with pain…it comes for us all, it is our reality, and we love you too much here at MRC to not talk about this, even if it really does preach a lot easier than it lives out.  So, as we close this down today, I want to ask you some questions, and I hope these questions lead you to some important and probably challenging moments in your own walk with God.  Now, this may not be easy, but this is important…

  • Do you embrace loss and grief in your life, or do you try your best to run from it?
  • Would you have ever thought about loss and grief and pain as an opportunity to grow, or has it always been something to avoid?
  • When you walk in those painful moments do you turn into the pain, or do you try to numb it somehow?  Would you have ever seen that as your struggle for control before today?
  • Have you ever noticed the pain, adversity, and grief found all through Scripture?  Did you ever wonder why there is so much of that in our Bible?  Could that be speaking to you today?
  • Are there some heavy rocks of pain that you are carrying in your life that you are choosing to ignore?  And it just gets heavier, doesn’t it?  Name it, it could be personal tragedy, broken dreams, fractured relationships…but what is it?  Could you invite God into that hurt and begin to do the hard work of letting go of that today?
  • What would it take for you to give up control and walk openly in the true reality of life?
  • How do you cope with pain in your life?  Be honest here, what gets you through it right now?

I know this is a heavy subject, and I will fully admit to you that this preaches easier than it lives out…but I promise you this, the pain that you ignore or try to cope with that maybe you have hidden deep down inside for a while will eventually need to be dealt with.  You can only carry that weight for so long, and while the suffering and grief scream at you to never let go, when you do get to the place where you can give it to Jesus, you can begin to walk into this Spiritual Success that we keep talking about.   Next week Ken will be walking us through God’s three phases for processing grief and loss, but to end today, I will just say if your heart is heavy, if you are identifying things in your life that are so hard to carry, you don’t have to carry it anymore.  Jesus wants you to let go, and wants to take that from you and it starts with embracing reality…we all walk through pain and suffering, we all will deal with grief and loss…so I will leave you today with Jesus’ words one more time…and just want you to know we are here for you if you need prayer or help on this journey to embrace suffering and let go of control.

Luke 9:23 Then he told them what they could expect for themselves: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat — I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. 24 Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. 25 What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? MSG