Archives For life

A Servant’s Heart

December 17, 2013 — 4 Comments

servantWhat can I say about my friend, Mark Thompson? He’s a great guy! Everyone that meets him loves him pretty much straight away. I met Mark my first day at OBU, in 1988. I think it was September – it was hot that’s all I know. I was walking out of the GC (student center) and he was walking in. I don’t know why we started talking, except for that’s kinda what Mark does – he just strikes up conversations with strangers, and it’s like you’ve known him all your life.

I found out that my youth pastor who just left my church had gone to his church – so we had something in common right off the bat. Then we talked more and had a lot more in common and just became friends. He has been a blessing to me for the last 25 years, and I hope there’s 50 more coming.

Mark is a hospice chaplain – has been for about 10 years. He helps those who are dying, and those who are left behind. I know this because I’ve seen it – he grieves with them and for them and guides them through every bit of it. He’s been there for me, as a minister and a friend on two occasions – once with my Grandmother, and more recently, when my Dad died.

So what more can I say? Mark’s been a youth pastor, senior pastor, chaplain, professional wrestler, and a missionary. He’s a husband and a father. And he’s awesome at all of it. He’s knocked me out cold twice with folding chairs, which is a whole other story. He once ate a bowl of the foulest stuff I could put together at the college cafeteria, for $10. He loves Jesus, he loves people, and he loves serving both. Mark has a servant’s heart.

Recently he wrote a letter to those who are grieving this time of year – and there are many. The following words shout hope from the highest hills – they cry out, “God loves you, no matter what you’re going through, no matter what you’ve done.” They proclaim that God has a plan and that we are His and that He delights in blessing and caring for those who are His – Please be blessed as you read the following -

April 21, 1997 – a day in my family’s life that will be remembered for all of our lives. Betty Lou Thompson passed away at 11:33 PM. Many people in Tulsa, Oklahoma weren’t aware. Most of the state of Oklahoma didn’t know. But we did. A husband did. Children did. Grandchildren did. A mother did. Friends did.

I was 27 years old when my mom died. 27 is too young to lose your mom…so I thought. Yet in 25 years of ministry having conducted hundreds of funerals, I have seen families struggle loosing a parent of 95, 98, 101.

My mom was 54 years old when she died. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer 18 years prior, and two years before she died, she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Why? I had prayed for her healing. Our family prayed. We begged God for her healing. Why would He not hear our prayers? Did He even hear our prayers? Did he even care??? Real hurts, real questions. God gave real answers.

You, like me, had people offer well meaning anecdotes. She is in a better place. She isn’t suffering any longer. Time will heal your pain and wounds.

I didn’t care. I didn’t want her to be in a better place! I wanted her with us!

People are well meaning but sometimes their words can hurt. Sometimes silence would have been better.

I had a group of friends from Oklahoma City drive over to Broken Arrow to spend some time with me. We played basketball. We sat on the couch. We talked, we cried. We went to lunch. I still hurt. I still hurt….with all of their well meaning words. But…I didn’t hurt like I did when she died…I had been able to laugh and smile.

Psalm 30:5 tells us “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Joy. Joy is a a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.

In the greatest teaching ever – The Sermon on the Mount – Jesus shares these words with us – Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are they who mourn…for they will be comforted.” That word blessed in the Greek language means happy. HAPPY? Happy are those who mourn? YES…why? Because they will be comforted! Comfort is defined as a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint. I have the hopes of being freed from my pain? Yes!

Years ago we went to my uncles house to visit. He had a stone retaining wall. We had a habit of walking on it when we would visit. After many years, it began to deteriorate and the stones and concrete cylinders began to become loose. We had been warned not to play on it. But we did what kids do…we did it anyway! I was walking along and as I put one foot in front of the other, it happened. I fell, and a large cylinder fell on my knee and gashed it open really bad. For some reason, the adults heard my cries for help. Mom began to clean my wound. It hurt…bad. But she had to remove the gravel in my knee. Then she poured 4 bottles of hydrogen peroxide in the wound, and applied Neosporin and a gauze pad. My knee hurt bad and did for several days. Then the healing became more obvious. I developed a scab. Then the scab gave way to a scar. I still have those scars on my left knee. They are a reminder of that day in Stonewall, Oklahoma. I see it….and I remember.

For many of you today, your hurt is still fresh…it still stings. For others you are dealing with a scab. Yet others have a scar. You are reminded when you see it. For some of us, it’s everyday.

Isaiah 9:6 tells us, “For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Prince of peace!

Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel – meaning God with us. God promised to never leave us and he won’t.

He didn’t leave me…He was with me…He sent friends to support me in the days following my mom’s death. Not only that but He has used my life to help others. He wants to use your hurt. God never wastes a hurt. Today, understand that God loves you, and He knows, and He cares. He really does. You may feel all alone, but you’re not.

I remember that first Mother’s day after mom died. I hurt worse and cried harder that I did when she died. Then Thanksgiving, then…..Christmas. The first Christmas without mom. It was weird. We tried to keep some of the same traditions. It is strange to go shopping and not shop for your loved one who is gone. We ate Christmas lunch, through tears. But we did it….we made it through the first Christmas.

Joel 2:25 tells us, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” God has been faithful. When my mom had died, I was single. I am now married  to an amazing woman with 3 amazing boys, ages 4 1/2, 2 1/2 and 9 months. God has brought so much joy back into my life! He has restored my hurt.

He cares about you!  He loves you! This year you may hurt more than you thought you had the capacity to hurt. Take it day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Don’t just listen to your heart….the Bible tells us our hearts are deceitful…listen to the spirit of God. Zephaniah tells us “For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”  Just like when I walk in to watch my boys sleep and take delight in them, God, your Father watches over you. Take courage. Take a breath. Be loved. You will make it. It will hurt….the pain is real. Hold on to Jesus, He is holding on to you!

Song by Dennis Jernigan

It’s gonna be alright, child

Even through the darkest night, child

I’ll even use the darkness

To teach you how to hear Me

 

It’s gonna be alright now

Even if you don’t see how

I’ll even use your failure

To help you to draw near Me

 

Hear Me. I am calling,

“Child, come falling deeper in love with Me.”

Trust Me, you must let go

Or you will never know any deeper love in Me

 

It’s gonna be alright here

If you will let Me hold your heart near

I’ll even use your sorrows

To teach You how to love Me

 

It’s gonna be alright, child

I’ll hold you really close and tight child

I’ll even use Your woundings

To help you know more of Me

 

Hear Me. I am calling,

“Child, come falling deeper in love with Me.”

Trust Me, you must let go

Or you will never know any deeper love in Me

 

Why do you hold on to the things of your past

Let go and cling to Me and love that will last

How can you know Me if you do not trust My love

Let go! You’ll find My love is more than enough

 

Ch-Ch-Changes!

December 14, 2013 — 2 Comments

ChangesLess than 5 years ago, Cheryl and I didn’t have two pennies to rub together. In spite of each of us having pretty good jobs, making pretty good money, we were broke. We were also *broken*. Without hope – lost. We were ashamed of where we were in life. We were in a really good church, but afraid to talk to people about our situation. We were all alone -

(Still don’t know what I was waiting for, and my time was running wild. A million dead-end streets and every time I thought I’d got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet. So I turned myself to face me but I’ve never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker.)

I wish I was kidding about all this – but about every other week, something was getting shut off – water, electric, phone, cable. Cheryl’s car was even repossessed once in the middle of the night. I remember sitting in the dark, lighting candles for light and warmth, wondering what we could sell on Craigslist to get our heat back on. I wasn’t even thinking about Christmas. We had a tree but there was no reason to even put it up – we had nothing to put on it or under it.

(Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, turn and face the strain. Ch-ch-changes – don’t want to be a richer man. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes - Turn and face the strain. Ch-ch-changes, just gonna have to be a different man. Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.)

During this time, I was reminded of a similar feeling Christmas, many years ago, when I learned that my wife (at the time) was having an affair and wanted me to move out of our house. It was too late for me to make any other plans – parents were at my sister’s house on the east coast, all my friends were out of town. So I packed up a few things in my car and drove off, but the car broke down about 20 miles from where I was headed. Then there was a literal blizzard…I thought I was going to die in a 1971 Buick Skylark, in a snow storm, sitting behind a convenience store in the middle of nowhere.

One thing I knew, in both these situations, was that something was not right between me and God. I was a pastor during both these trails. I knew, more than most people know, WHO God is.

But like Jesus said, the demons know as well. And tremble.

(I watch the ripples change their size but never leave the stream of warm impermanence, and so the days float through my eyes. But still the days seem the same, and these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.)

As it was, we were going to lose everything. Our home, our cars, our jobs. Our lives.

We didn’t start out thinking we would ever end up like this. We had dreams! We had plans and goals! We had it all figured out and what in the name of all that’s holy happened? How did everything get so bad? It’s like our dreams had soured, and our lives had rotted away.

(Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes – turn and face the strain. Ch-ch-changes - Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes – turn and face the strain. Ch-ch-changes - Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it. Time may change me, but you can’t trace time.)

Even now, if I told you everything was fine, I’d be lying. Different? Yeah. Better? Way. Fine? Define fine.

We have a Christmas tree, but we haven’t put it up yet. Christmas is 10 days off. We are lethargic – mentally, physically and spiritually this year.

(Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of Thy redeeming love.)

One thing is different between then and now – the way we know God. That one little thing changes all things. He is not just a god (yeah with a little “g”) that we know, pharisaically, in our heads. He is not a god who sits and watches. He is not a list of commands to keep, holidays to observe, or doctrine to learn.

Our God is real, he is One, and when I say I know Him, I mean in a way that involves my heart more than my head. The Truth is setting me free – I know this Truth and His name is Jesus – and He doesn’t care about my Christmas tree, my light bill, or whether or not I love my job. He cares that I know Him – intimately, experientially – and when I do, all these things will be added.

Our God is a warrior God who fights for what is His! And WE ARE HIS!

It just seems like there is so much trouble, so much pain this time of year. But there is more than enough hope to go around. Turn your eyes upon Jesus! Look full in His wonderful face – and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace!

 

- Lyrics above in parenthesis are from “Changes” by David Bowie, and “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” by Robert Robinson

Birthday

December 6, 2012 — 3 Comments

 

birthday

 

Tomorrow is my birthday! Yep, December 7th – a date which will live in infamy. I’m pretty excited about it actually – I like cake and presents very much!

Unless something really bad happens, I will be 47 years old tomorrow. Much, much older than my youth ministers ever thought I would be. One guy, every time he sees me, he says, “Nifong? You still alive?” And I say, “Yeah, Steve, still kicking. Thanks!”

I have the day off, Cheryl is off 1/2 day and we are going to lunch (Pappadeaux’s) and a movie (Skyfall?) and she will give me a present and then we’ll pick up the kids and they’ll sing happy birthday to me. I love my birthday!

It has not always been so. December birthdays are tough. When I was a kid, I’d either get something really good for my birthday, and socks/underwear for Christmas, or sometimes my parents switched it up and did it the other way around.

Sometimes I didn’t even want to be home or have a birthday at all. 30 was tough for me. I had just gone through something pretty terrible and honestly I didn’t see a way out – I didn’t care so much how old I was, just that I was eating at Taco Bell by myself, and was headed back to a broken down roach motel where I lived at the time. No cards, no phone calls, no presents at all. 30 really kinda stunk.

It got better though – the next 10 years were filled with friends, family, a beautiful wife, and successful ministry. Not that the years before 30 weren’t. I’d already done a lot by then, it’s just that it all fell apart for a while and I didn’t see a way back.

40 was awesome. Cheryl had a surprise party for me at Putt Putt – there was about 50 people there. People from churches I’d served in, people I’d ministered to, great friends, pastors. And we all tried to kill each other on the race track all night long!

Then – believe it or not – everything fell apart again!

It’s kinda funny how life tends to do that. We all have ups and downs. My ups tend to be VERY UP and my downs tend to scrape the bottom. Life’s a roller coaster most of the time. What I’ve learned is, regardless of if you’re up or down, you can still live in freedom and victory!

About 3 years ago, life was tough, our family was in trouble, I was depressed, I think Cheryl was angry about a lot of things. All I could think was, “God, I’m 45 and it just seems like life for me is over.” I was wrong, just like I’d been 15 years prior to that when I’d been thinking the same thing.

I remember most of my birthdays – who came, what we did, even some of the gifts I got.

I remember my 10th birthday. We lived in Tulsa, and I wanted to see “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (an R rated movie about a mental institution). What I got was “Against a Crooked Sky (a G rated movie about some girl kidnapped by indians). My friends thought it was lame. 

I remember going to Skateland with David Byers when I turned 16. There was one cute girl in the whole place and he ended up getting her number. On my birthday.

I remember 21. Kinda. I was a mess back then.

I remember 25, thinking, “I’m a quarter of a century old and I’m on top of the world!”

And now I’m 47. Which is pretty old compared to 10, 16, and 21. But I don’t look old, mostly don’t feel old, and most of all, I feel hope. I feel peace. I feel alive! And I’m so very thankful for all the birthdays I’ve ever had, and all the birthdays still to come!

Aftermath

November 7, 2012 — Leave a comment

arch

Aftermath. It can be pretty messy. Have you seen pictures of the devestation of Hurrican Sandy? It’s not good.

Most history books have pictures of wars and natural disasters. In a few of them, if you look just right, you can get a sense of not just the destruction, but of the human suffering as well. It’s scary, sad, gut-wrenching.

Have you every been through something like this? I know my home town, Harrah, OK has been through some tough times in the last few years – tornadoes and wildfires just to name two things. I have friends and family who have been affected. Some have lost everything.

About a year and a half ago, a tornado swept through Joplin Missouri and caused massive damage. Less than a week later, I was in my front yard here in Texas looking straight up over my house at the circulating wall cloud thinking, “We are in bad trouble here.” Many tornadoes touched down that day all around us, but we were spared.

I had panic attacks for weeks after that. I had never been scared during any kind of storm before. But I never had a wife and two little girls crying and praying for their lives in cramped closet before either.

I saw how close it was. I saw with my own eyes. The cloud, the part that was spinning and dipping down and going back up. My heart was racing, I was almost hyperventilating. I was well and truly scared – like I had never been scared before.

None of this was in my control. All we could do was pray and ride it out.

It was completely out of my hands.

How much of life is like that? Things happen. Bad things. Horrible things. Things that tear up our bodies and minds and souls. Things we have no control over – illness, loss, abuse, job loss, families torn apart.

These things change us, these things scar us. They can even destroy us, and what we are left with is a wasteland in our hearts and minds and bodies. Who can pick up the pieces? Who can make us whole, when we have been so completely torn apart?

Tonight at church, an assignment was to make a diagram of our families, and using symbols, show a variety of things – addiction, divorce, mental illness, death, just to name a few. Mine looked like the pictures above – the aftermath of a nuclear strike. I was not prepared for this.

I know everyone has their own baggage, and they all deal with it in their own way. I discovered that I haven’t dealt with it.

My birth mother is dead. She ruined her life, and ultimately her liver from drug use. She was bi-polar. She was abused and abusive to my birth father. My mother was adopted, so I have no idea what her parents were like, but I do know her mother got pregnant either outside of marriage or due to an affair with someone she wasn’t married to. She always felt like she was unwanted, and she always acted like nobody loved her.

My father was a hippie and from what I can tell he got over it. He was a drug addiction counselor, and is selling real estate in Las Vegas now. We don’t keep up with each other.

I was adopted, along with my sister, by our great aunt and uncle who were the opposite of my birth parents. Very strict. My new dad was career military, a command sergeant major. Tougher than nails. A veteran of three wars. He has his own scars from what he had seen and done as a soldier on the battlefield. He never spoke of it.

My mom raised the family while he was away – I have three older siblings – 2 brothers and a sister, who were the grown children of my new parents. I think my youngest/older brother is 17 years older than me.

When I say they were all great, I really, really mean it. But I was already screwed up. When I was four my mom injected me with heroin. She rolled me up in a rug once. She would put me in a dark room and scare me just for fun. I got thrown around a bit, too. But the worst part was when she would disappear for days on end, with just me and my one year old sister in the house alone.

The little family tree I drew tonight was supposed to give me some insight into areas where I still need to experience freedom, so that I can help guide others to freedom as well. The purpose was to help identify life patterns, and to break them – in ourselves and in others.

Folks, I have a ways to go. All of this devastation, all the broken pieces still laying around in my soul were brought to the surface tonight. I’m a mess. Most people are in some way, and sometimes they don’t even know it. Now I know it – and now I have the tools to deal with it. And maybe one day I will be able to minister to those who are going through this as well.

We’ve been in Freedom Training for about two months. This was the last night. Every single week, this one verse always pops into my head – “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” (Is 53:5)

Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but look at that verse – we can have peace and healing through him! Not just forgiveness – we can have that and we need it, but we can have healing in our souls and in our bodies! We can have peace! We don’t need to have a stiff upper lip, we don’t need to bury our hurts, we don’t have to act like everything is ok – everything CAN BE OK! You can have what God has promised – if you ask!

What is God saying to you right now? What are you struggling with? Ask God to show you if there is a lie associated with that. What is the lie? Ask God to show you what is true – accept his truth, and live in it! Be free!

Eclipse

October 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

eclipse

Tonight at Freedom Ministry Training, the leader did a personal ministry session in front of the entire group, so we would know in general what it looks like to do this type of ministry. One person from the group came forward and shared some very personal struggles and the leader walked her through it. The end result was freedom from those struggles for the participant.

During the session, I realized the number one thing I need to be free from is my dreams.

I know I’ve said this before, but when I was a “vocational minister” some aspects of my ministry I was very good at. I was a great preacher and teacher of the Word, and for as long as I can remember this was the only dream I had for my life – to preach the Word.

Once the session started, the leader asked the participant what she wanted the outcome of the session to be, how she wanted God to work in her life, what she needed to be free from. If it had been me, my answer would be that I want my dreams to die.

I can’t handle the burden of my dreams anymore. I can’t handle having these desires and these abilities and having no way to use them. I want those dreams and desires to die so that I can live.

Some of you may have seen me or heard me speak. It’s like I am a totally different person. I stand tall, I’m full of energy, my voice projects to the back of the room. I like the idea that all eyes are on me, that every ear is tuned in to what I am saying. It’s not just fun for me – it actually feeds a part of me that is otherwise starving. A part that might not need to be fed that way.

The burden of this dream and gift I have is that fulfilling it feeds an already over-inflated ego. Maybe it’s not even correct to call it a gift. Maybe it’s just an ability that’s innate to me – I got it at birth and like a 3rd ear, I just need to have it cut away.

Maybe it’s time to redefine the dream. If it had been my session tonight, I’d have wanted the old dream to die, and I’d want to be given a new dream. Not my dream of a perfect life for me, but God’s dream of the perfect life for me. His dream, if I could discover it, would supercede everything. Like an eclipse. His dream would overshadow everything else in my life. I would know that dream for a certainty, and it would become my dream, too.

If it had been my session tonight, I would have discovered that my pursuit of my selfish dream fed me more than it fed others, and the ministry that God called me to all those years ago wasn’t about me and my ability. It was about hurting people – and like a vampire I fed off them instead of feeding them.

If it had been my session tonight, I might have learned that regardless of what I have done, regardless of how I have acted, in spite of the people I disappointed, God still loves me and there’s still hope, there’s still a calling and there’s still a dream for me.

I would have learned that I am forgiven. I would have learned that I’m accepted. I would have learned that my deep need to be heard can be filled by God. He listens! He hears everything I say and it’s important to him!

If it had been my session tonight, I might have experienced healing and freedom from these things. I might have left feeling renewed, energized, alive! I might have seen God’s mighty hand extend over me – blocking out every distraction, every selfish impulse, every self serving thought and desire.

But, then again, it wasn’t my ministry session tonight :)