November 14, 2018 – Comfort, Suffering and Christ-Reliance- 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

jesus_strength

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV)

There are some troublesome trends in American Christianity that are not healthy for us to follow. The phrase, “God will never give you more than you can handle” is an example of a not-so-biblical teaching that gets spread around on blog posts and such.  We think that it is comforting to others when we repeat such nice-sounding platitudes, but we are simply putting the burden on the other person and the emphasis on “you” rather than sharing the blessed comfort that God has our circumstances in HIS control.  We like to believe that we are the ones who are in control, but we are not. We do encounter more than we can handle.  Apart from the grace and mercy of God we cannot handle anything.

A more accurate and ultimately more comforting phrase would be, “God can handle everything you have been given, because apart from Him you can’t.” We share in the good news and in the real comfort that God offers in and through our suffering, beyond the limits of our strength, and beyond our afflictions. Suffering is not a surprise. It is inevitable. Suffering is part of the human condition we inherited in the Fall. As believers in Jesus we are not going to be spared suffering, but we are given the hope that suffering will eventually end.  Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him.  We necessarily share in the Cross of Christ, but we who share in the suffering of the Cross also share in the triumph and eternal life of Christ.

The apostle Paul experienced just about every imaginable obstacle and type of persecution on his missionary journeys. Apart from the grace of God, Paul would not have been able to continue to believe or to persevere in his mission.

Our trust is in God who raises the dead, God who delivers the captives from bondage, God the I AM before and outside of time.

It is interesting that Paul asks the church at Corinth for their prayers. We trust God, yet we still pray for each other in thanks for the blessings God gives us.  Prayer is one of the evidences and the results of our faith, that springs from our confidence that God is the one in control not only of us and our circumstances, but of the ultimate redemption and restoration of all things.  Prayer is the way that God invites us to align our wills with His holy and good will, such as He teaches us to pray- “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” in the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Paul is teaching us not to be self-reliant. Paul assures us that God handles those things- pretty much everything- that is beyond our ability to manage. Our culture teaches us to be independent and headstrong, but Jesus is teaching us through the apostle Paul that we need to be Christ-reliant. We need to pray together with other believers, trusting that God’s will is being, and will be done just as Jesus taught us to pray.  God is the master of our circumstances as well as He is the bringer of all comfort and peace.

January 30, 2018 Practicing the Prayers of Comfort- Deuteronomy 11:18-19, 1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 46:10, Romans 8:26

psalm-23-dave-wood

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Deuteronomy 11:18-19 (NIV)

Prayer is the most important spiritual discipline we have available to us as Jesus followers. Prayer is something we need to practice just as we practice any other good habit in our lives. Being aware of God and His presence in our lives is the first step to coming to Him in prayer.  We learn Who God is when we read and study the Bible.  We read the Bible and memorize the Scriptures, so that they are written on our minds and hearts, where we need them in times of crisis.

Martin Luther once said that the Bible is like the manger that holds the Christ child. What we learn in the Bible should always bring us closer to Jesus.

Most of us deal with situational anxiety in times of crisis, at one time or another in our lives. Others live with chronic anxiety that can be debilitating and crushing even when there is no immediate crisis taking place.

While God is the Author of healing, there are instances in which chronic anxiety is a mental health issue that should also be discussed with a physician, just as one would seek out professional help with a physical illness or injury. It is good to remember that God works in and through His people and in His world, including through our friends, family and health professionals. Sometimes we need to enlist their help as part of our healing.

Whether our anxiety is situational or chronic, we are invited to surrender our anxiety, our worries, and our seemingly unsolvable problems to the Prince of Peace.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. Psalm 55:22 (NIV)

Cast all your anxiety on him (Jesus) because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)

When we praise God we underscore Who He is and that he is in charge. There is no crisis in our lives that is beyond God’s ability to bring us through. Prayers of praise remind us that God is bigger than our problems. Sometimes prayer can be just remembering God as our Creator, and that our loving Father helps us find His comfort and peace. In Psalm 23 we learn that no matter where we may find ourselves, God is with us, and He will get us beyond the valleys of shadow.

There are many sources of prayers of praise and examples of God’s deliverance and comfort to be found in the Bible. Psalm 139:1-18 reminds us that God created us for a purpose and He knows our every thought, our very fibers inside and out. This beautiful Psalm reminds us to praise God and thank Him for the gift of life and for our physical bodies.

Elijah’s flight from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-18) shows us that even the most faithful of God’s people can get to the end of their ropes.  We learn from Elijah’s story that:

God provides for us when we are at the end of ourselves.

God comes to us and speaks to us in the silence, after the storm.

God has solutions we can’t imagine or foresee. He is preparing us not only for life on this earth, but for forever to come.

God has a good plan for His world, including for those who come after us. We are not the whole story, just a part of it.

He (God) says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10 (NIV)

So how do we pray in crisis? We pray in crisis just as we should when the sun is shining and we can readily see God and His handiwork in the world.  Sometimes it helps to simply look around us and praise God for the beauty in creation, to thank Him for all He has done, or to just meditate on Who He is.

We learn the beauty and the power of prayer the more that we practice it. Prayer does not have to be complicated.  Sometimes all we can muster is something as simple as a song- the Kyrie song, for instance, that is simply, “God have mercy, Christ have mercy, God have mercy on me,” or we pray a word of thanks or praise as we inhale or exhale (breath prayers.)  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we aren’t even capable of uttering those simple prayers.  Prayer is about conversation and connection with God.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26 (NIV)

January 11, 2018 Comfort and God’s Promise- Psalm 119:49-50, Matthew 6:34

SacredHeart

Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. My comfort in my suffering is this:

Your promise preserves my life.  Psalm 119:49-50 (NIV)

Yesterday was one of those anniversaries that bring a great deal of sadness for me and my family. Every family has anniversaries like those. We remember the days when our worlds fell apart in the chaos and pain of tragic and unexpected loss. Everyone has those days that mark the points where life fell apart and from those points forward life is no longer the same.  We are reminded that life on this earth is not permanent and we are not guaranteed anything.

It is a comfort to know that doubt is part of faith. It is a comfort to know that God is big enough to handle our questions, our anger, our fear, and yes, even our doubts.

Those of us who are parents will remember when our children were toddlers, and they would rage against the boundaries- tantrums at bedtime, tantrums at bath time, tantrums when it’s time to get dressed. Toddlers are usually all about maintaining the status quo, with one curious exception- nobody looks forward to change more than a baby with a dirty diaper.

We get too comfortable in this world at times, but we shouldn’t be looking over our shoulder for bad things to happen. Jesus warns us about the worry wart attitude.

(Jesus said) :Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

So what do we do when our world crashes down around us? We can become cynical and angry.  We can wallow about in doubt. We can try to run away.  The prophet Elijah feared for his life, freaked out, and ran away when Jezebel threatened to kill him (1 Kings 19:1-18.)

Yet God stayed with Elijah. God sent His angel to give Elijah food, comfort and rest. God spoke to Elijah- when the storm died down.

Our difficult anniversary days can be hard to face, especially when we relive pain or sorrow or loss- or a combination of all three. God is with us when we freak out, when we run, when we scream in anger, and when the storm is raging on, even though we may not feel His presence then.  And when the storm is over He speaks to us with comfort and solace and peace.

God’s promise preserves our lives, no matter what this world may throw at us.

August 10, 2017 – God in the Silence 1 Kings 19:9-18

Elijah-in-the-cave

At that place he (Elijah) came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.  Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.  Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” 1 Kings 19:9-18 (NRSV)

The Lord was not in the wind.

The Lord was not in the earthquake.

The Lord was not in the fire.

 

After the fire, a sound of sheer silence- then the Lord spoke.

Elijah was pretty depleted and worn out at this time- having just dealt with Ahab and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-46 and 1 Kings 19:1-8) He was looking for God to come to him in a big and dramatic way, wrapped up in the whirlwind, but God waited to speak to Elijah in the calm after the storm.

Most of us have been in places where the storm around us is so intense that the breath is sucked right out of us, we fall to our knees, and we have no words with which to speak. God does not abandon us in those moments, but often He waits to speak to us until the storm is over- whether the storm is the shock of a physical injury or a sudden tragedy or the blow of a deep disappointment- or, like Elijah, when we are coming to the end of ourselves and what we can handle. He lets us rage and scream and bargain, and once we have completely emptied out our hearts and souls, God steps into that silent, empty space.  He speaks words of comfort and peace and healing, but after the storms, in the silence. He speaks through the silence so we can’t help but hear His words.

There is a strong theme of redemption and restoration and continuity in this passage as well. God reminds Elijah that he is not alone (even though he thinks he is the last man standing, he is not) and that God’s work will go on even after Elijah’s work is done.  In the silence after the storm, after God passes over Elijah’s fatigue and frustration and burnout, God spells out what Elijah has left to do, and who will carry on after he is gone.

Elisha will finish off and continue some of the projects that Elijah started. It’s encouraging to hear that, that the work we do for God’s kingdom is part of an ongoing endeavor.  We build on to the work of those who were before us, and God will ensure that there are people after us to build on the work we have done, even though sometimes when we are tired and burned out and overwhelmed by grief and sorrow , we think, “I am the only person doing anything for God.”

The truth is that God’s work will get done.  We as individuals aren’t called to do it all. The laborers might be few and the work intense, but God finds a way.  That doesn’t mean that we should just bow out and miss out on the joy of serving because “someone else will do it,” but it does mean that we are in this together.  Everyone has his or her purpose in God’s plan along with others.  Bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth is something we do together, not a solo effort.

Do we trust God that He does speak to us in the silence, and that we are not called to be-all and do-all, rather we are called to complete the purpose He created us for, to contribute a piece of an ongoing tapestry, to write a chapter in a never-ending story?

In the end, in the silence, God brings us rest. There will be a day when we will see Jesus and He will say to us:  “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”-  Matthew 25:21

June 21, 2017- The Beautiful Attitudes of Desiring Righteousness, Being Merciful, Being Pure, and Being People of Peace- Matthew 5:6-9

jesus

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Matthew 5:6-9 (NRSV)

These four verses set up a rather tall order for Jesus followers. The heart of God is such that He wants us to want righteousness– all the things that are good and proper and fitting- so badly that it is a hunger in our souls.  The desire to bring about God’s will here on earth is a noble aim, but are we really passionate about righteousness?  Righteousness is not a thin goody-goody veneer or an attitude of holier-than-thou, but it is simply doing, being and living the right way.  It is a beautiful attitude of wanting things God’s way.  Of course in today’s world of moral relativism the definition of what is good and proper and fitting can be rather muddy.  One wise pastor put the longing for righteousness this way: “Love God and seek Him, then do what you want.”  Do we seek God and want to live His way so badly that He transforms our living from the inside out?  He promises us that if we want His way, that He will make His way happen for us.

Mercy goes hand in hand with forgiveness. Forgiving isn’t forgetting, but it is choosing to let go of the hurt someone else imposed on us so that we can let God heal us from that hurt.  Mercy is the beautiful attitude of knowing what the other party may deserve, but giving him or her better treatment anyway.  Mercy implies empathy and having a kindred heart with one who has in some way offended us or fallen short.  It’s just plain easier to be merciful to someone who understands what it is to be fallible and to fall short than it is with someone who either does not understand or who has a hard heart.  Even so, mercy is at the very heart of God.

Purity can have many different connotations, but physical purity (i.e. chastity) is only one manifestation of purity.  The beautiful attitude of purity means being authentic and being free of guile or pretense.  Are our motives and actions pure?  Do we show loyalty to God as well as to our family, friends and spouse?  When we put away the lies and games and drama that this world seems to glorify, we can see the world around us more clearly and live more simply.   We see God more clearly too, without all that clutter.

Peace seems to be an ever elusive, almost impossible goal in today’s world.  The world teaches us to fight for what’s ours, to reach out and grab the gusto, and to get what we are entitled to (and maybe a little more than what we are entitled to) no matter what.  Having a beautiful attitude of peacemaking means we think about God’s heart in relationships and in the situations we find ourselves in.  Interactions with fellow humans will inevitably include conflict.  We might not be able to eliminate conflict altogether, but can we resolve conflict in the most beneficial ways for everyone involved?   How can we be the solution instead of contributing to the problem?

May 18, 2017 Playing Hooky, and More on Isaiah 53:5

gravestoneangel

But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)

I was never much for rocking the boat when I was in high school.  By the time I’d survived it long enough to get to my sophomore year (1983-4) all I wanted to do was to stave off boredom while still keeping up my GPA.  Keeping up my GPA wasn’t much of a challenge, but staving off boredom was quite another issue.  I do have to admit to reading every single issue of  Mad and National Lampoon from 1982-86, along with the works of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and JRR Tolkien, and a somewhat extensive collection of the classics- including Dante’s Divine Comedy, many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as a fair number of scientific publications,  and a plethora of non-fiction historical works on WWII.

I didn’t have too many challenging classes in high school- with the exceptions of AP English and  AP music theory, but I did some major reading, mostly for my own edification and recreation.  Being a geek who stayed quiet and out of the spotlight, I had some advantages. On the rare occasion that I considered bending the rules, I was usually able to do it under the radar and beyond suspicion.  I got away with murder (in a figurative way, of course) when I wanted to- quietly and covertly.

maranathabaptist

Every year on Good Friday, since the powers that ran the school system didn’t really care if Spring Break coincided with Holy Week or not, Mom wrote us an excuse to skip the afternoon so that we could go to the Good Friday service at the Catholic church that generally lasted from about 1PM-4PM.   The service that is held in lieu of Catholic Mass on Good Friday is called Tenebrae service, which means “service of shadows.”  The Tenebrae service is also observed in the Lutheran tradition, and includes the reading of the Passion of Christ, and reflections upon His death.  Heavy, heavy somber stuff, as it should be on Good Friday.

We- meaning my sisters and I- were well acquainted with the Good Friday service, but being both teenaged and disinclined toward participation in religious observances on such a delightfully warm day, decided that we would spend the afternoon not in the shadows, but in the bright April sunshine.  We just didn’t have the somber thing going on that day.

That particular Good Friday was very good indeed, weather in the low seventies, bright sunshine without a cloud in the sky, and just a hint of  a light breeze.  Perfect weather in April in Ohio is almost unheard of. My oldest sister (who happened to be driving that day) wasn’t about to spend such a glorious day inside.  The only problem with not going to church was that her car- a bright orange ’71 VW- was readily visible.  We couldn’t hang around in town.

1972superbeetle

She managed to find one of my favorite hideaway places- the railroad trestle bridge.  It’s long since been torn down and scrapped for whatever the steel was worth, but in 1984, though the line was dead and the tracks torn up, the bridge was still lingering over the river, a monument to obsolescence, a shadow still standing from a long-ago sphere.

bridge

It’s hard to describe the serenity I found that day.  Even though I was with my sisters, they left me alone for awhile and didn’t attempt to knock me off the bridge where I would surely be sucked into the brackish water and unspeakable muck below.  I would never recommend swimming, wading or touching the water in that part of the Scioto River today (and certainly not back then) but sitting about 30 feet above the river on the trestle bridge listening to the soft breeze and the running water is hard to describe.  It was a slice of rather undeserved, unearned serenity and peace.

The world has moved on since then.  Places like that old trestle bridge, those happenstance cathedrals that stay bright in spite of the crushing hammer of entropy, and in defiance of conscious efforts to unmake them, are harder and harder to find in a world where the new mantra is structure and order.  Even small children have every minute of their days scheduled and dedicated to a specific purpose.  We all know all too well what it is to be locked into the whirlwind of busy- going everywhere and getting nowhere.

busy drug

It’s hard to wrap our heads around the grace of God.  As much as I should, at the very least on that long-ago Good Friday, have been in that service of shadows, I was in reality sitting on a railroad bridge without a care in the world.  It’s not so much that dropping out and going to sit on the bridge and watch the world go around is a bad thing, it’s more that everything has a price.  It’s easy for us to say we want to walk with Jesus- until it’s shadow time.  History gives the apostle Peter a bad rap for denying Jesus three times, but isn’t that we humans in our weakness and fallenness do? Yet the reward Jesus bought for us, even though we fail and fall short all the time is that unearned, undeserved grace- the freedom and the ability to find serenity and peace and security in Him.

One of the beauties of the grace of God is that He knows our weakness.  He knows that our bodies are weak and our moral constitutions even weaker.  Although we are also called to carry the cross, like as not we end up playing hooky instead, spending our lives blissfully unaware and disconnected from the suffering our Savior bore in our place.

The good news is that even when we are faithless He is faithful.  He offers us His grace, purchased with His blood and suffering and tears.  He is the Reason why we can have peace and freedom and serenity, because He took the punishment that we deserved.

January 25, 2017, The Spirit of Truth, John 16:13

hqdefault

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  John 16:13 (NRSV)

I read a saying the other day that said, “Feed your faith and your fear will starve.”  That’s an encouragement for me.  It is easy to get mired down in fear and in the concerns of this world.  It takes intention, prayer and surrender to God’s perfect will to find peace and rest in Him.

It is better to find solace in the inspired word of God and seek the Holy Spirit in the stillness than to stay mired in worry.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, but especially in the quiet, away from the noise of our troubled minds and busy schedules.  God has our times and lives in His hands.