Seek Him First

(This is an except from “I’m Still Standing,” a series of essays based on my journals during my encounter with breast cancer.)

Who would have thought so many would turn out to hear what this nondescript young man had to say?  What was it that stirred up so much interest—even among those who were sick and tired of hearing any discussion regarding politics or religion; or among those politically-correct individuals who sought to avoid controversy of any kind, preferring their “live and let live” philosophy that rejected any interference or judgment by others?  It certainly wasn’t his appearance.  He looked like any other 30-something guy; casually dressed in a way that didn’t make any sort of statement; and he didn’t have those movie-star-good-looks that the tabloids loved.  But there was something different about him.  Was it the humorous gleam in his eye?  Or the intriguing way he spoke in what seemed to be riddles?  Was it the way he seemed to be speaking directly to you when you were standing way in the back of a crowd?  No one seemed to be able to put a finger on it, but there was a certain charisma in his manner that divided people—they either loved him or hated him.  He was considered a dangerous terrorist who wanted to bring down the government to some, and a peace-loving pacifist to others.  So here they were—common everyday working people, stay-at-home-moms with their kids, reporters, clergy, politicians, celebrities and unknown businessmen—all gathered around and hanging on every word he spoke, just trying to figure him out.

He had a lot to say that day; touching on legal issues, personal accountability, lifestyles, and even the meaning of life.  Amazingly, the crowd remained quiet.  He was such a captivating speaker that they were literally speechless.  Then his manner seemed to change—for a moment he seemed genuinely puzzled as a new thought occurred to him.  “Why do you worry so much about things that really aren’t all that important?” he asked.  “You shouldn’t be so obsessed with your jobs, your finances, with how you’re going to afford to buy a house, with the cost of that new outfit or car or vacation, or even with where your next meal is coming from.  All you really need is faith in God because he knows what you need even before you do.  All you really have to do is look to him first and everything else in your life will fall into place.”  Oh boy—he’d done it now—if the crowd was just divided before it was polarized now.  Yet they remained quiet, almost mesmerized, as he continued speaking, with each person forming his own opinion of just who this guy was, and just how relevant were the things he had to say.

Such could be the scene should Jesus preach what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount in a public forum today.  And the simple truth he set down originally is as valid now as it was then, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:33-34, NIV)

It’s so simple we miss it—no matter that it’s written over and over in God’s Word—we still miss it.  “Seek him first.”  It means just what it says.  It shouldn’t be a complicated or difficult-to-understand instruction.  After all, the concept of diligently seeking after something is not foreign to us.  If we desire the love and attention of another person we go after it with everything we’ve got—romantic dinners, gifts, doing all of the little things that would please the object of our affection.  Or, if it’s a career we want, we perform and perform and perform to keep the boss happy—late hours, heavy workloads, compromised ethics—we do whatever it takes to get that bigger check or promotion.  We understand these pursuits, but when the Lord says, “Seek me first,” we don’t seem to get it.  We don’t seem to understand we need to pursue him just as we would pursue anyone or anything else that’s important to us.

And what of his admonition not to worry about tomorrow?  After all, worry is such a normal part of life.  It’s so easy to do it.  Who among us doesn’t worry about something?  Aren’t we supposed to worry about our kids, our health, or our finances?  Aren’t we supposed to worry about threatening global issues like poverty or war?

As a teenager, I remember worrying about what would happen during the Cuban Missile Crisis and, a few years later, about Viet Nam.  For my parents it was World War II and the Korean War; for my grandparents, World War I.  And today, the terrorism and doomsday scenarios are worse than ever before, even in fictional accounts.  Have you ever watched 24, or read a Clancy or Ludlum novel?

Jesus is still the solution.  His word remains true—he doesn’t make false promises, and he promised that if we seek him first all of our needs will be supplied.  Therefore, worry should have no place to rest in our lives.

So why is something that sounds so simple so difficult to implement?  I believe it’s largely because Satan knows how to manipulate us, and worry is just another face of fear.  Life is hard, and we routinely face painful and difficult situations and/or decisions.  And when fear wears this disguise it often appears legitimate—sometimes even admirable.  It appears as concern for things that are our responsibility—the financial stability of our family, the well-being of our child, or issues regarding our health.  But when worry appears, fear has done its job.  Fear has turned our attention away from the simplicity of God’s command and focused it on the “what-ifs” of life.

Part of my own struggle to overcome worry is recounted in a journal entry:   How do I re-focus and get rid of worry?  It remains just as Jesus said—I must seek him first.  And, in order to do that, I must give him ownership of all of the things that concern me.  I must ask myself, “What is the worst-case scenario, and if it happened would God still be there for me?”  Yes!  As promised in Romans 8:38-39, nothing can separate me from his love.  So, it comes back around to wanting him more than anything else—it comes back to seeking him first.

But worry is accepted—even expected—as normal behavior, and I’ve been criticized for not being logical when I’ve refused to worry about certain things.  I’ve been accused of being unrealistic, irrational, or impractical.  I’ve been told that “the world just doesn’t work that way” or that I need to “get real.”   Others have tried to put me on a guilt trip for not worrying—surely they’re more well-adjusted than me because they worry about things that are important, and I’m being irresponsible if I refuse to do it too. But the ways of God are not understood by man’s logic, so I must come back to faith—I must trust what he’s said in his Word—I must live outside of worry because my God is bigger than any problem I face—he’s bigger than the cancer, he’s bigger than the chemotherapy, he’s bigger than the radiation.

This, then, is the foundation of my faith—God is real and his Word is true.  Jesus said it—I believe it—I must always seek him first.  My life is his and he is my refuge, my place of rest, my peace, and my hope.  He meets my every need.  What more could I want?

A Message of Hope

(Excerpt from “I’m Still Standing” which is a series of essays that were born out of my struggle with breast cancer in 2006-2007.)

Every time I think of Enid’s I hear a phrase from the old hymn, “There is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God.”  So what, you may wonder, is Enid’s?  And, surprisingly, this place of refuge is not a church or chapel or ministry center—it’s a wig store.  Labeled with a cancer diagnosis, it’s where I went when I was struggling to cope with the idea of losing all of my hair.

Years ago, in the days when nurses wore those perky, white, starched caps, I had a short, curly, red wig.  Keeping my long hair neatly up and under my cap was quite a challenge so I would hide it under the wig—much easier and quite a time-saver.   But it’d been a very long time, and now it wasn’t for convenience—it was a necessity, unless I wanted to go around bald or wearing a scarf, thus branding myself as a cancer patient; and that idea just didn’t work for me—I wanted to look and act as normal as possible.  I wondered if I could even find a wig that would look natural, so off I went to find the store.

Five minutes after I walked through the front door of Enid’s I felt like I’d entered some other dimension where it was party time.  All around me were women with no hair, laughing, talking, and trying on wigs and hats, browsing through lingerie and swimsuits, checking out pretty pieces of jewelry and selecting make-up.  Enid, a cancer survivor herself, and her staff were more like cheerleaders than sales ladies; encouraging everyone, patiently helping us try on style after style and telling us how good we looked, teaching us how to cope, answering questions, sharing their own experiences—they’d been where we were now.  I can’t imagine a support group that would have been more helpful—it was as if everyone had checked their diagnosis at the door and entered an arena of hope.

Hope—an intangible orientation toward the future, expecting something that is not yet a reality—a belief that there can be a positive outcome even when all evidence says otherwise.  Hope that is not seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what he already has?  But, if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24b-25)  Hope is often what keeps us going in the face of adversity.  It may motivate a rescue team searching a mountain for a missing hiker, a teacher working with a learning-disabled child, an unemployed man searching for a job so he can provide for his family, a terminally-ill patient looking for a cure, a lonely person looking for a friend—or me, looking for relief in the midst of my pain.  There were times during my treatment when I identified with Job as he cried out to the LORD, “What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?  Do I have the strength of stone?  Is my flesh bronze?” (Job 6:11-12)  But I knew I could trust God’s promise that, those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint, (Isaiah 40:31) so I held on.  And God did not disappoint me.  One morning as I awoke I saw a vision of a blank sheet of bright yellow paper floating before my eyes and I was comforted, for I immediately knew without a doubt that this was him telling me that the next page in the book of my life was before me, a page full of hope.

The LORD also encouraged me with a living example of His love, described in Psalm 147:11, the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love, as I observed the joy of my son, Kevin, as he anticipated his wedding; and the look on his face as he watched his bride, Rachel, walk down the aisle to become his wife.  Her hope was evident too—that of the bride preparing herself for her bridegroom, fully confident in his love; knowing that he would be there to welcome her into his home; to love her; to honor her; to protect her—and I remembered that we, the church, can rest in that same kind of hope because we are the Bride of Christ.  And once again, instead of crying like Job, I was able to rejoice like David; I could find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5-6)

I still go back to Enid’s.  I use the excuse that I need to pick up some make-up or a scarf; but the truth is that there are a lot of places I could buy those things, and I really go back because I love to be there.  I love to visit those amazing ladies who probably don’t even realize what a wonderful blessing they are.  I love to see hope in action!