God’s Love In The Storm

There are physical storms of rain, snow, and wind. And there are storms that are emotional or spiritual.

In April of 2013, I had traveled to Sedona, Arizona, to photograph the amazing red rock canyons which are world famous. Sedona is one of the most picturesque locations in the state, and I was anxious to use my new Canon DSLR camera.

The average temperature in Sedona during April is 73 degrees for a high and 43 degrees for a low, so I was expecting to have a great day. I had failed to check the forecast in my enthusiasm to get there, envisioning all the locations I wanted to photograph. On the way, a snowstorm struck, a mix of wet snow and sleet. Although that was an unpleasant surprise to me and initially felt like a major setback to my photography plans, it turned into a blessing in disguise.

There are two songs that come to my mind immediately when I think about God and storms. The first is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, written and sung by Gordon Lightfoot. If you don’t know the song, it is about an event that occurred in November of 1975 on Lake Superior. The largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time, a freighter nicknamed the “Pride of the American Side”, encountered hurricane force winds and was lost, as were all 29 crew members. The following year, Gordon Lightfoot would release his song to commemorate the disaster.

There is one line from that song that is as follows: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

It is a difficult line to hear, as you can’t help but imagine the men struggling for their lives in the waters that were several hundred feet deep and storm-ravaged. Were the men crying out to God in their final moments? I know I would have.

The second song that comes to my mind is by a Christian group called “Casting Crowns”. The song is titled “Praise You In This Storm” and was released in 2005 on their album “Lifesong”. As in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, it was inspired by a real-life tale of tragedy. In this case, it was an encounter between the band and a young girl named Erin Browning. Near the time that the band met her and her family, she was diagnosed with cancer. Erin’s mother was faced with the storm of her daughter’s illness. The girl would pass away on November 1st of 2004.

Written by band members Mark Hall and Bernie Herms, “Praise You In The Storm” was inspired by Erin and her mother. It is about someone crying out to God in their distress, with a torn heart and tears in their eyes. They are looking to the hills, to the maker of heaven and earth, for mercy as their strength fails.

Storms come in many forms. There are physical storms of rain, snow, and wind. And there are storms that are emotional or spiritual. Both can cause us to look to God for help.

We all face storms as we go through life, and we see others facing them. In Sedona, that April day, I was facing a relatively mild snowstorm. One of the locations I chose to go to was beneath the Chapel of the Holy Cross. It was completed in 1956 and required a special permit in order to be built on land in the Coconino National Forest.

As the storm continued, I set up my camera on a tripod below the church, shielding the lens from the wind-driven sleet and snow. The image of the cross above me, nestled into the rugged rock and standing firm in the face of the storm, lifted my spirits. I wanted to capture the scene, to share the experience of it, not just the image of it. Fortunately, I found camera settings that allowed the diagonal lines of the sleet and snow to be seen and captured.  You probably can’t see it if you are reading this on your phone, as the image is too small in that case.

My hope is that you will look to the hills, to the cross of Christ, when storms enter your life. The love of God is ever present and the Holy Spirit is with believers in Christ. Although we may not be literally standing in front of a cross during such times, do not wonder where His love goes. It was a blessing for me to see and capture this scene during an April snowstorm in Sedona. Yet I have seen His hand in the midst of far worse storms in my life, and I know He can be counted on when we need Him the most.

Did you know that the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked? You can read the story about an angel of God appearing to him in the Book of Acts, Chapter 27. https://www.bible.com/bible/100/ACT.27.NASB

Photograph by John J O’Leary

Forgiveness is Crucial!

One of the most difficult things in life is to be faced with monumental unfairness.

One of the most difficult things in life is to be faced with monumental unfairness. There are basic reactions that we naturally have when we determine that an event is unfair. Examples include being cheated, being punished for another’s crime, and even something as mundane as someone else’s car pulling into a parking spot you had signaled to be waiting on.

Consider this scenario: Bank robbers brutalize a pregnant teller, pistol-whipping her in anger and frustration when they notice she has pressed an emergency switch notifying the police of a robbery in process. A police car happens to be just down the street and they get the call to proceed to the bank. As they pull up to the front entrance, the robbers flee the bank, running to their left to get to their waiting vehicle. The policeman riding in the passenger seat leaps from the slowing police car, yelling “Stop, police!” One robber pulls a gun and shoots back blindly at the police car, the bullet striking an older man on the other side of the street. The policeman on foot pulls his gun and shoots back at the robbers. But a six-year-old boy was cowering beside a freestanding mailbox, unseen by the policeman. The bullet strikes him instead of the robber. The robbers flee to safety with the cash, leaving behind a wake of carnage. The boy’s mother, shocked and in tears, kneels over her young son. The policeman frantically searches for a pulse on the wrist of the older pedestrian and finds none. Inside the bank, the patrons are trying to give aid to the injured teller and her unborn child.

All the injured or killed in this scenario were innocent. It is so incredibly unfair! That’s what makes it so difficult to accept. The guilty party, the robbers, are unscathed, leaving behind a wake of death and grief. Unfairness can be a huge mountain for us to scale when we try to come to grips with a scene like this.

So the question that I would pose to you is this: “How on earth does forgiveness occur in such a scenario? Who would be able to forgive? Could the husband of the teller, the mother of the young boy, the wife and children of the older man? What about the policeman who accidentally shot the boy, could he forgive himself?

The answer is yes. Please read on.

You may be unable to fathom how that could be. But let me point you to an incident that occurred in Prescott Valley, Arizona. The date was July 9th of 2010. Two neighbors in an apartment complex were talking and having a few drinks. One lived above the other. The discussion turned into an argument. The neighbor from downstairs went back to his apartment and grabbed a knife. He charged back upstairs and in a drunken rage attacked the other by stabbing him repeatedly. The victim tried to fend off and flee his attacker. Yet he was unable to do so and was killed by multiple knife wounds, collapsing near his front door.

Let’s now advance in time to the murder trial in a courthouse in Prescott, Arizona. I was there. So was my wife, Cindy. It had been her brother, Steven Ogle, who had been killed by his neighbor. Think on this a second: If it had been your brother who had been killed, what would you have said to the murderer, assuming you would have had the chance?

The trial was conducted. After sentencing, if you had been there with us in court, you would have seen my wife arrange with the Victim’s Advocate to say a word to the man who had brutally stabbed her brother multiple times. He had just been found guilty and had been told by the judge that he was sentenced to the maximum 29 years in prison for his crime. You would have seen the murderer turned around by the Deputy to face my wife. You would have then easily heard my wife say to him “I forgive you’ [pausing then repeating again] ‘I forgive you.” You would have seen tears flow down the murderer’s face as my wife and I walked away.

When we were driving from Prescott back to Scottsdale, I told Cindy that I was so very proud of her having the courage and the grace to forgive. It had impressed me so much. It was as if I had seen the hand of God upon her at that moment. By forgiving the man who murdered her brother, she had lifted any burden of bitterness, hate, anger or resentment from her own shoulders. She was free of such consequences. Forever. It truly was God giving her the ability to forgive in such circumstances.

Cindy had experienced the healing power of forgiveness in the loss of our son in 2003. She believes that a key part of her healing was the forgiveness we both had for the driver who had pulled out in front of our son Brian that year. We both knew it had been an accident, and we were able to forgive completely. We believe God had blessed us with the ability to immediately forgive. It wasn’t any merit on our part. We both heard several years later that our forgiveness (given to us by God) had been spoken of for several years afterward. A dear Pastor had shared with us how the story had been a blessing to others.

Cindy feels that the forgiveness in the death of our son led to her being able to turn to God for forgiveness for the murderer of her brother seven years later.

If we are unwilling to forgive, it may be because we equate forgiveness with condoning an action. That isn’t the case. Cindy believed the conviction (and lengthy prison sentence) was just. Forgiving the murderer was simply saying that she would never hold on to all the negative feelings and stress that come along with unforgiveness.

If we don’t forgive, we are unwilling to let God work in our life. We have all probably heard the expression “Holding a grudge.” That is an accurate statement. If you hold on to it, instead of letting it go, you aren’t hurting the guilty party, you are just hurting yourself.

Reading this, you may understand the concept and see the benefits to you and others, but just can’t find a way to actually forgive. Might I suggest prayer? God is the source of all good things. Forgiveness, or the ability to forgive, is a gift that you can ask God for.

Here is an example of a prayer that you might consider and personalize:

“Lord, you have forgiven me for all the wrong things I have done. I seek to follow your example. Grant me the ability to forgive those who have wronged me, those who have hurt the ones I love, and help me to also forgive myself for the things I have done wrong. Free me from the burden of unforgiveness, and let me see the blessings that can occur when forgiveness is in my heart rather than bitterness. In Jesus name, I pray, Amen!”

A few scriptures on forgiveness from the Bible:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
~ Ephesians 4:32

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
~ Romans 12:19

But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
~ Matthew 6:15

But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.
~ Luke 23:34

For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.
~ Psalms 86:5

Photograph by John J O’Leary

A Bittersweet Joy

Yet amazingly, we were feeling joy in the midst of our greatest sadness.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
~1 Corinthians 13:12

The famed writer Rudyard Kipling wrote a deeply touching story of only six pages entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” Published in 1905, it tells of a young couple’s love for each other and, most significantly, their willingness to sacrifice their most prized possessions due to that love. For they each wanted to purchase a Christmas gift for the other in secret, but they had no money to do so.

We will post a link below for you to read this story, but first a bit about why we are doing so. In early December of 2003, we lost our eighteen-year-old son Brian in an accident. The funeral was held five days later. During those five days, we had dozens of Brian’s friends share their stories of what Brian’s life had meant to them. These stories, and the emotion behind them, brought us both joy and sadness.

During the middle of the night after the funeral which had been held in the afternoon, Cindy and I were awake in bed. I believe it was around 3:00 am. We were talking and there were many tears. Yet amazingly, we were feeling joy in the midst of our greatest sadness. We know this was God’s loving hand and His Holy Spirit giving us comfort. It was at that moment when the little story of “The Gift of the Magi” came to my mind.

After remembering the story, I explained to Cindy that I felt bittersweet joy and sadness at the very same time, mixed together and flooding through me. I reminded her of Kipling’s story. Then, I explained that there was a strong correlation between what I was feeling and what the young couple must have felt. “Imagine,’ I said, ‘when they saw the gift that the other had sacrificed so very much in order to give them!”

We would encourage you to read the story as it is quite short. We believe that Kipling was able to tell stories with such powerful emotion due to the intense highs and lows of his own life, some of which is explained below.

About Rudyard Kipling

Perhaps, in this day and age, Kipling is better known for having written children’s books such as “The Jungle Books”. As this is being written, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is playing in movie theaters across America and it is based on his stories. He wrote the famous book “Kim” in 1901. He would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, at the age of 42. However, he also suffered great personal loss.

In 1899, on a trip to the United States, both he and his daughter Josephine developed pneumonia. It would take his daughter’s life. During World War I, his son John was killed at the age of 18. Kipling was devastated by both losses and felt personal guilt at having helped his son get accepted into the Irish Guard through personal connections.

Read “The Gift of the Magi” by Rudyard Kipling

Photograph by John J O’Leary

To Share with Your Children at Christmas – “The Tale of Three Trees”

“Now I shall be made into a beautiful treasure chest,” thought the first tree. “I shall hold marvelous treasures!”

Sharing a precious memory of Christmas past on this Christmas morn.

When our three children were very young, we would read children’s books to them each evening before bedtime. “Story Time!” always created excitement and had become a tradition that started with our first-born child Brian, as he grew old enough to listen, and in the following years with Daniel and Katie. Cindy and I were blessed by such times, and we knew the children enjoyed the stories. There were many, many books that we collected over time such as “A Giraffe and a Half”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “The Enormous Crocodile”. Yet there was one story that held special significance for us at Christmas and again on Easter – “The Tale of the Three Trees”.

It is a tale of dreams held, of dreams shattered, and of dreams realized. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the story:

Once upon a time, three little trees stood in a forest high on a mountain, dreaming of what they would be when they were grown.

The first little tree looked up at the stars twinkling like diamonds in the night sky. “I want to hold treasure,” it said. “I want to be filled with gold and decorated with jewels. I will be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!”

The second little tree looked down the mountainside at the ocean far below. “I want to be a strong sailing ship,” it said. “I want to travel mighty waters and carry powerful kings. I will be the strongest ship in the world!”

The third little tree said, “I don’t want to leave this mountaintop at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me their eyes will raise up to heaven, and they will think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world!”

Source

Thus the dreams of the three trees are made known to the reader. But then woodcutters came up from the town and their dreams were shattered one by one. The first was felled and fashioned, not into a treasure chest, but into “a simple feed-box.” The second was felled and fashioned, not into a strong sailing ship, but into “a simple fishing boat.” And the third that dreamt of never being cut down was instead felled and then cut into rough-hewn beams and laid aside.

But though the trees dreams were shattered, the story goes on to talk about a feed-box being used as a cradle that held “the greatest treasure in the world.” And a small fishing boat that would not “travel mighty waters” but would carry “the King of heaven and earth.” Finally, the story tells of beams of wood fashioned into a cruel structure onto which a man was nailed by his hands and feet. Yet the earth would tremble as the man died and then three days later “the earth knew that God’s love had changed everything.”

This simple, touching story has been illustrated by more than one person, but the book that we read to our children was “The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale” by Angela Elwell Hunt, with illustrations by Tim Jonke. We think the illustrations are wonderful.

You may perhaps find the book at your local library, but we encourage you to buy a copy at your favorite bookstore or at an online source. We pray it blesses you and your children as it did our family.