Transition, Difficulties, and God’s Will

After our transition plans were announced Lourene and I were overwhelmed with encouragement and loving care from our brothers and sisters. People asked us many questions we couldn’t answer: Where are you moving?  Do you have another church? Have you sold your house? Is Lourene leaving her job, too? You will both be looking for work?

Several well-meaning people reacted to our answers to the above question with a statement that went something like this: “Well, we know you are seeking God’s will so it’s all just going to fall into place. You’ll quickly find jobs and sell your house.”  As I said, these words were spoken with the good intention of encouraging us.  But I have to tell you that I think an underlying flawed understanding of discipleship may have been revealed in these otherwise sweet words of comfort.

Finally a dear friend made a statement similar to the one above. And because it was a good friend, I responded without trying to nuance my words: “You do remember Paul was shipwrecked, don’t you? Wasn’t he following the will of God?  And don’t forget, our Jesus was crucified on a cross. He was following the will of God, too.”

Where do we get that idea that if you are doing God’s will, everything will work out with minimal difficulty? Some even judge whether a person is living “in the will of God” by how few challenges or difficulties that person faces. If the person is facing difficulties, some wonder if they have “missed” the will of God.

Such reasoning, popular among some (including Job’s friends), was not accepted by either Job or the apostle Paul.

There’s a verse from Luke’s account of Paul’s mission journey that I have been chewing on for years. Paul is traveling to Rome. The section of the journey that has captured my attention involves Paul’s setting sail from Sidon. Here are two translations of Luke’s account of what happened as recorded in Acts 27:4.

“Putting out to sea from there, we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland” (NLT).

“From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us” (NIV).

Very strong headwinds.

The winds were against us.

I find great significance in these words. Paul was serving God with all of his heart, but the winds were against him.  Imagine how very different the story would have been if living in God’s will meant an absence of difficulties.

Very strong tailwinds.

The winds were behind us.

And as if these words about the winds were not enough to drive home the point, there is a perfect storm and shipwreck in the later verses of this chapter. And this event is just one of the many difficulties Paul faced as he lived out the will of God.  A long list of these trials is recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. And then there is the whole thing of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12.

There is nothing comfortable about those days when we face “very strong headwinds.” There is nothing comfortable about spending “a night and a day in the open sea” following a shipwreck. But the truth is, those experiences in my life have been the times of greatest growth.

What about your story?  Have you ever faced very strong headwinds? How have those experiences strengthened your faith and your character?

A Prayer for Hospitality

Dear Lord,

Help me to be a hospitable place for those who are suffering,
so that they may be able to lay down their burdens
and find rest for their weary souls.

Enlarge my heart so there will be room for their frustration,
their confusion, their anger.

Help me to show hospitality to the stranger with unbearable pain,
knowing that some, in doing sao, have entertained angels.

Help me to make room in my heart for my own suffering,
a stable for my confusion,
a manger for my tears,
and swaddling cloths for the heavenly gift
that labors to be born there.

from The North Face of God by Ken Gire, p. 31

Earthquakes, God, and Answers

Last week an earthquake devastated Haiti.

Descriptions of the earthquake event are difficult to imagine. The earth rising and falling like crashing waves. Buildings shaking and then collapsing. People screaming and crying out. Day after day we hear horrific stories from the aftermath that we find hard to grasp. Entire villages destroyed. Death tolls rising. Bodies piled in the streets. Mass graves. We hear the fears of the future even as rescue and recovery efforts are underway. Aftershocks. Outbreak of disease. Growing violence rooted in utter desperation.

Even as stories of the event’s destruction and the future’s fears are being reported, another kind of report has begun to be heard — amazing stories of hope. People being pulled out of rubble after being buried for days. Orphans being relocated to join loving families. Churches mobilizing teams to go into the affected region in the name of Jesus. Athletes and rock stars organizing fundraisers. Heroes rising to the occasion.

Sadly, some have seized the plight of the Haitians to further their own agendas by suggesting they know the reason for the earthquake.  A televangelist who has for years hinted at exerting control over hurricanes now claims to know the earthquake was caused because of a deal the Haitians made with the devil in 1791. An actor who is no stranger to making headline-grabbing claims has suggested the earthquake may have been caused by our refusal to deal with his global warming concerns in a way he feels reasonable.

I am not writing to defend or accuse the Haitians regarding their religious tendencies (although my guess is that to talk about “the beliefs of the Haitians” is about as futile as to talk about “the beliefs of Americans”). I am not writing to advance a position on global climate change. I am writing to express some frustration with the need we sometimes have to provide logical, cause-effect reasons for everything that happens, tragedies included.

Yes, I realize this is nothing new and that these explanations are not limited to the aforementioned televangelist and actor. In fact, I remember in the Bible account of tragedy striking Job how everyone either wanted or had an explanation. We see Job wrestling with questions about why troubles had come his way. We see Job’s “friends” coming forth with explanations that made perfect sense to them.  I am struck with how little things have changed and how determined we are to explain events that leave us reeling.

And yet there are some things we are never going to understand, at least not in this lifetime. I think the reason we find this so tough to accept is that it underscores our finite nature. It means I am not in complete control. I am not even completely “in-the-know.” Neither are you. And honestly, I do not like to admit my limitations of control or understanding. Do you?

So this morning I have spent some time reading through Job chapters 38-42. The first 37 chapters of Job tell the story of Job’s tragedies, Job’s search for answers, and Job’s friends offering their explanations. But beginning in chapter 38 God answers Job out of the storm. God’s answer includes question after question that seem to be designed to help Job know God in a deeper, more meaningful way. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

When tragedy strikes we often look for answers to the question, “why?” Sometime we offer our explanations. But what I want to do is seek not explanations, but seek God. Because one thing Job teaches me is that knowing God is better than knowing answers.

Rugged Cross of a White Activist

The Chicago Tribune recently published an article by Rich Kogan about a white activist by the name of Edwin King. The article begins. . .

In the autumn of 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a wooden cross on the lawn in front of the home of Rev. Edwin King, the white chaplain of historically black Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.

This act of cowardly intimidation came in reaction to King’s efforts in organizing a kneel-in campaign by students to desegregate Sunday morning worship services at churches in the city. It was one of many horrors suffered by King, a protégé of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and a man who has been called “the most visible white activist in the Mississippi civil rights movement.”

He was many times arrested and jailed and beaten before and after the cross burning. Six days after Evers was assassinated, a car in which King was riding was run off the road by a car driven by the son of a rabid segregationist.

His face smashed through the windshield and as he lay bleeding, he could hear the laughter of the white members of the crowd that surrounded the wrecked car and bodies.

You can read the entire article, entitled Rugged cross: Evil couldn’t triumph over this legacy of faith by clicking here.

God in the Midst of Suffering

Reflections on 2 Corinthians 1

In 2 Corinthians Paul writes openly about his life. It just may be the most autobiographical letter in the NT. He talks at length about his struggles and suffering.

Why? It seems as though there are some false apostles who have come to Corinth teaching a feel-good message that has a great appeal. They look at Paul and his sufferings and say, “Is that the kind of life you want?” Their message was one of superiority, winning, being champions.

That’s a message people were eager to embrace.

Paul, on the other hand, looked like a loser. But rather than trying to write about himself in a way that camouflaged his struggles, Paul takes time to write about his life, including the struggles, in an open and honest way.

And he begins by saying he is sharing in the sufferings of Jesus: “The sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives.”

This message is probably no more popular now than it was back then. Be honest, wouldn’t you much rather hear about how to be a winner than about sharing in the sufferings of Christ? On some level I guess I would rather preach that message!

But Paul writes of suffering and let’s not miss the point here: he ties the suffering to Jesus. Sometimes we conveniently forget that Jesus died. We get so wrapped up in talk about being successful, a winner, that we push the suffering of Jesus from our consciousness. But the story remains the same: Jesus suffered and died. He gave up His comfort in sacrifice for God and others. Jesus was mistreated, rejected, judged harshly and wrongfully executed. Paul says, just like Jesus, I suffer.

I recently had a conversation with someone who explained that he just didn’t feel comfortable going to church because of the suffering in his life. He doesn’t feel like he fits in with all the trouble-free, successful champions at church.

Have we forgotten the sufferings of Jesus? Do they flow over into our lives? Have we presented a false picture of church? Do we need to reclaim suffering as a part of the Christian experience?

Paul gets more specific: “We were under great pressure” – I feel like I am being crushed. “Far beyond our ability to endure” – how can I handle this? And using language that I confess makes me uncomfortable, Paul writes, “We despaired even of life.” It’s like he is saying, “How can I go on? Is it worth it?” As if to top it off, Paul gives us this haunting word picture – “In our hearts we felt the sentence of death.”

While Paul is open about his sufferings and his feelings of despair, he doesn’t tell us much about the specifics of the situation that caused his despair. That could be because the people in Corinth had heard all the details. But I think it’s more likely because while he was being open and talking about his life in this letter, the real focus is on something bigger than himself. He is more interested in finding purpose in the suffering than detailing the causes. He is more interested in the “Why?” than the “How?”

All this happened for a reason, Paul says. This taught me not to rely on myself. And be honest, isn’t that exactly what we do when everything is going well. We rely on ourselves. But when we get in situations we can’t handle by ourselves, we have to rely on God.

And how great is our God!

Look at how Paul describes God in this passage. He has already indicated that God is the source of grace and peace (1:2). And now he recalls the resurrection power of God: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (1:9). This leads us to search our souls, asking: What’s better, to rely on myself in times of trouble, or to rely on God who raises the dead? It’s in times of despair we really come to know and experience God’s resurrection power. Do we really believe this?

Paul describes God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God sacrificed His one and only Son for us. His name is Jesus – the one who suffered and died. Jesus who laid down his life for us.

Paul describes God as the Father of compassion. God knows when we hurt. He feels our pain. He is aware of and affected by our suffering. He hears our cries. He knows the despair that crushes us. He understands the heart-felt death sentence.

Paul describes God as the God of all comfort. God does not hold us at arms-length. He walks with us in our suffering, bringing us comfort when we are inconsolable. God walks with us through the pain, giving us hope when we are hopeless.

Just as the suffering of Jesus flows over into our lives, so does God’s comfort flow over into our lives. That same comfort we receive from God when we are in a time of despair, we are to share, pouring out to God’s comfort to others when they suffer.

When we suffer the temptation is to get so caught up in our problems that we miss the bigger picture of what is going on.

  • We share in the sufferings of Jesus
  • We get out of ourselves
  • We learn to rely on God
  • We know the sacrifice of God
  • We come to know the resurrection power of God
  • We know the compassion of God
  • We know the comfort of God
  • We are able to pour out on others what we have experienced from God.

So when we are in a time of despair: this passage helps us realize two things –

  1. This can be a time for us to come to know God in a deeper way than we have ever known Him.
  2. This is a time like no other when God can equip us to serve others

Question to ponder: Do you remember an experience that taught you that you could not rely on others and you could not rely on your own strength so you had to rely on God?

Sufferings Flow

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NIV)
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. or just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

Don’t you just love it when a preacher makes some mid-sermon statement that just doesn’t quite come out right? Or when a politician on the campaign trail gets off the script and makes an off-the-cuff gaff that sends his damage control people scrambling? Or when an athlete says something like, well, “I guess I’m gonna fade into Bolivian.” Sometimes sermons are too polished, politicians too robotic, and athletes too aware that whatever they say could end up as bulletin board material.

Has Paul botched the introductory words to this letter we call 2 Corinthians? When you read the opening lines you get the feeling that Paul has not run the ideas he’s putting down on parchment by the public relations department. He starts talking about suffering. Over and over he mentions suffering. Obviously Paul has done no research to discover what are the felt-needs of the folks at Corinth. Would any survey of felt-needs would turn up a desire to suffer, being overwhelmed and crushed by pressure?

Doesn’t Paul know what people want to talk about is winning, power, and getting to the top? Don’t people want to hear about finding a better self? They want to be great. They want to be winners, champions who experience God’s favor. That stuff preaches. That stuff sells. If you don’t believe it, just ask Paul’s “frenemies,” the false apostles. They’ve been running all over Corinth telling people what they are wanting to hear, and it is very different from what Paul has been telling them.

Paul has been telling them about suffering; “the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives.”

Here’s a quote from Paul Barnett’s The Message of 2 Corinthians.

Some ministers today unhelpfully raise the hopes of people by promising them immediate health and prosperity, as their due portion from God. These promises appear to be tailor-made for a society whose need for instant gratification is unprecedented in history. Paul, by contrast, soberly refers to his readers’ sufferings, and he promises, not immediate healing and success, but God’s comfort which they will experience as they patiently endure (verse 6).

As we allow these words to pour over us, we are reminded that the kingdom of God is indeed an upside-down kingdom. Values are upside-down in God’s kingdom. Suffering can be meaningful. Nobody wanted to hear it, but Paul says it anyway. And nobody wants to hear it today, either. We can cover our ears and sing so we can’t hear him. We can search out somebody selling a different product, one more to our liking. Or we can open our hearts and minds and go with Paul as he takes us deeper into the upside-down world of Jesus.