A Stone’s Throw Away

April 10, 2017 – Monday
gethsemane
Read:  Luke 22:39 – 46, TLB
Focus: v. 41, TLB

He walked away, perhaps a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed this prayer: “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup from me. But I want your will, not mine.”

So, picture this: your best friend and you have been through an amazing few days culminating in a very moving farewell dinner where he tells you he is going away and you can’t follow. You head off up to a garden place and he says he needs time to pray about some momentous events ahead and he wants you to stay awake and pray for him and for yourself to be strong. He heads off a little ways away and is gone long enough that you fall asleep. He checks back a couple of times and wakes you up and asks again for prayer. Eventually he just gives up and tells you to go ahead and sleep – but what does that say about his friends that they can’t even prevail in prayer for him? He is just a stone’s throw away, sweating great drops of blood – and you fall asleep!

Jesus went to the cross for all to pay the price for sin and provide salvation – making a way for us to come to God. He was pretty much alone at the end (speaking in earthly terms). Today we are all just a stone’s throw away from someone in agony, who needs our prayers and our help: the homeless, the abused, the grieving, the hurting. Because of Christ’s work on the cross we have the Holy Spirit to help us to pray and give help to the ones God sends to us. Are we sleeping – or are we awake and praying and doing what we know to do? We are as close as a stone’s throw for a reason – let us get up and not sleep through the opportunity to minister in His name!

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A Broken Hallelujah

March 27, 2017 – Monday
eagle
Read:  Isaiah 40:28 – 31, TLB
Focus: v. 31, TLB

“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

Have you been through what I call a “Broken Hallelujah” experience, a time when everything piles up and then comes crashing down around you all at the same time? When the suffering and pain seem worse than ever and you are not sure if life will ever be good again? I had several of those times between 1984 and 2012. Up until then our life had been manageable and mostly wonderful. But it seemed that once the dominoes began to fall there was no stopping them. One particularly difficult time was in 2006 when our life changed forever, again, with my husband’s heart attack. He loves to testify about the peace that God gave to him and the lack of pain.. On the flip side, though, was me falling apart (Even as God held me in His hands and met my every need!). I was holding a lot inside and trying not to cry constantly – in January of 2007 we were riding in a car, possibly to one of the never-ending doctor’s appointments, when I heard a song on the radio that really touched me by its melody and by the anguish I felt in the song. I could not hear well enough to understand the words but I did hear the chorus which began with “Hallelujah” and ended with, “a Broken Hallelujah.” Immediately the thought came to me from God, “I know your hallelujah is broken, but we can fix that – just come to Me.” The tears began as I acknowledged that, “Yes, my hallelujah was broken” and I had been suffering in silence, alone. I felt the hope begin to spring up as I remembered that God knew it all, all along He knew, and waited for me to bring it to Him! I felt a new calm about the future and a new hope from Him! He gave strength and renewal to my exhausted, weary, and faint heart.

The crucifixion experience could have been a broken hallelujah time for Christ, and it sure was for his followers – but because He gained strength to go through it from His Father, and was able to persevere – because of that, we can also triumph and be renewed as we wait upon the Lord! Do you have a broken hallelujah that needs to be taken to the Lord?

(**A Note from Pastor Dan** – “Hallelujah” – Written by Leonard Cohen, Linked version Performed by Rufus Wainright – Cohen, who died in Nov. of 2016, was Jewish. While the song uses biblical imagery, it is not a “Christian” or “Religious” song. The lyrics do explore a great sense of brokenness and a search for meaning in life’s most difficult times – especially those brought on by broken relationships. Consider alternate versions from Jeff Buckley, Pentatonix and Cloverton (Hallelujah Christmas).

**It’s hard to reconcile the existence of pain and suffering with the All-Loving God of Christian faith. Precisely what I love about the devotional above is that it explores how God helps us to deal with and rise above our pain and suffering. It’s honest and simple – leaving the theological complications to others. It deals with things on an emotional level, which is where we are at during those times of suffering. There are theological answers to this conundrum (how can a good and loving God allow pain and suffering?) and I invite you to look deeper into the subject after the emotional trauma has passed. Consider this Catholic article on C.S. Lewis and his book The Problem of Pain. The reality is that, when we are going through a difficult time, theological answers don’t offer much help. Emotions, at their strongest, usually don’t care about logic or reason. As a pastor I find the best comfort I can provide in those times is simply my presence. We go through our broken hallelujahs best when we do it together. An embrace and a shared tear go much further than theology, sometimes.)

Day 17 – Shining Light Into Darkness

Friday – February 26, 2016

Day 17 – John 9:1-41 Blind Beggar

Focus: vs. 5

As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

America has a population of nearly 319 million and more than 7 million of them are legally blind. If you’re doing the math, that is about 2.2% of the population. While being blind is certainly a handicap it is something that can be overcome in our age with the help of a lot of people who know what to do. There are guide dogs and ever-improving technology available. There is braille for reading and even street crossings are made easier, in some communities, with warnings to help a blind person know when it’s safe to cross the road. This is the world we live in today.

The world that Jesus lived in was much more difficult for a blind man. It was not well understood and it was common belief that a man’s blindness was due to sin and was a punishment. A blind man usually had no opportunity in life except to become a beggar and hope for the kindness of strangers. This was the case of the man healed by Jesus in our scripture passage for today. The disciples asked Jesus whose sin it was that had caused the man to be born blind. Was it his or his parents? Jesus’ answer was neither.

We live in a world where there are many disabilities and afflictions. It’s a broken world that hides in darkness as much as possible. Many want to blame God in our day and age. The Jewish worldview in the Bible often took the spiritual roots of the world’s problems a bit too far and made it personal when it clearly was not. In modern America we don’t understand the spiritual roots of sin enough and we tend to see God as the antagonist. We could get ahead in life if only God would leave us alone. So we either blame Him for whatever is wrong with the world or we choose to think Him out of existence. There is a third option. We can choose the biblical view that we live in a world that is broken by sin and it was the choice of humanity that made it so. God is not working against us but our own sin IS. God is working for us but we need to choose to daily seek His help in being restored.

Once again Jesus talks about being the Light of the world. Light exposes what the darkness wishes to hide. This man, born in blindness, lived in the darkness of the world and it was the darkness, the brokenness from sin, that made him blind. But when that disability stepped into the Light of Jesus, it could hide no longer. Jesus, the Light, heals what has been broken in darkness.

I love this story. The blind man is healed and he can’t shut up about it. His healing starts an uproar in the neighborhood because it’s a big deal. It forced that community to deal with who this Jesus really was. They had a choice to make, do they step into the light or remain in the darkness. In the light is healing and the love of God; in the darkness is brokenness, deception and familiarity.

So tell us what happened, Mr. Blind Man. Tell us about this Jesus! He disagrees with us so he must be a sinner. So tell us what really happened? The no-longer-blind man was dumbfounded. “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They keep pressing him. They can’t stand the light because they are still in the darkness. But the formerly-blind man has more light than he ever had before. He says, “I have told you already, and you would not listen.”

I love this guy. Keep reading. There’s no greater witness for the light than a man who has just discovered it. Jesus is the Light of your world. You once were blind but now you see. You see because of His light. If you still think God is against you, just step into the light and you’ll see more clearly.

Prayer Focus: Dear Jesus, You are my light. You help me to see the world clearly. Open my eyes and help me to see. Help me to be a witness that takes Your light into the dark world. Amen.

What Now?

What Now - Scripture LogoWe live in Nebraska and I’m sure we’ve all learned by now that storms can come out of nowhere.  Journalist Steve Tracton recently shared the story of a memorable event in our region you may have heard about.  He writes:

“On the morning of January 12, 1888, a blizzard swept down suddenly on the unsuspecting inhabitants on the prairies of the upper Midwest (especially portions of Nebraska and South Dakota) with unprecedented ferocity.

One moment the air was clear, calm, with spring-like warmth. Then, in a period of just [three] minutes the sky darkened and temperatures dropped 18 degrees, and vicious winds drove tiny snow flakes (described as “ice dust”) which almost instantaneously created a whiteout with visibility near zero. Blizzard conditions continued until about midnight as temperatures fell precipitously to double digits below zero with a wind chill of -40. An estimated 4-5 feet of snow had fallen, although drifting undoubtedly made accurate measurements virtually impossible.

By the next morning (Jan. 13), hundreds were killed (235) with a high proportion of children among the storm’s victims as they attempted to return home from school.

The storm is most commonly referred to now as “The Children’s Blizzard”.

The Children’s Blizzard ranks 5th on the list of all time worst U.S. blizzards and affected a large area with the death toll held down largely by the much lower population density.

What made this storm especially deadly was the unusual warmth in the region before the storm struck.

Anyone who ventured outside wasn’t properly dressed for the Arctic weather that was on its way. As fate would have it, parents sent their children off to school in the morning without heavy coats, boots, hats, or mittens, being totally unaware they could be caught in a raging blizzard on the way home that afternoon. When the blizzard suddenly struck, some teachers hunkered down with their charges in the small school houses. Many more apparently panicked at the raging storm and dismissed their classes relying on the children to somehow find their way home.

Scores of children, along with parents, teachers and other would-be rescuers, experienced severe hypothermia from rapidly falling temperatures, fierce winds and blinding snow which buried the landscape and encased school houses in tremendous snow drifts.

David Laskin, author of a book about the event, vividly describes several individual stories that end tragically. For example, dozens of kids got lost in the whiteout and froze to death or suffocated beneath the rapidly accumulating snow. One woman died after unsuccessfully searching for her child just feet from the safety of her home not visible through the blinding snow.

On the other hand, there are several suspenseful accounts of the harrowing travail of many who survived. Some children managed to find temporary shelters or bundled together for warmth in the open prairie. In one case, the teacher kept the children in the schoolhouse until the storm abated, surviving the night by the warmth of a fire fueled by the foresightedness of the teacher’s stockpiling of fuel.

More Stories:

Plainview, Nebraska: Lois Royce found herself trapped with three of her students in her schoolhouse. By 3 p.m., they had run out of heating fuel. Her boarding house was only 82 yards (75 m) away, so she attempted to lead the children there. However, visibility was so poor that they became lost and all the children froze to death. The teacher survived, but her feet were frostbitten and had to be amputated.

Holt County, Nebraska: Etta Shattuck, a schoolhouse teacher, got lost on her way home, and sought shelter in a haystack. She remained trapped there until her rescue 78 hours later by Daniel D. Murphy and his hired men. She soon died on February 6 around 9 A.M. due to complications from surgery to remove her frostbitten limbs.

In Great Plains, South Dakota, the children were rescued. Two men tied a rope to the closest house, and headed for the school. There, they tied off the other end of the rope, and led the children to safety.

Mira Valley, Nebraska: Minnie Freeman safely led thirteen children from her schoolhouse to her home, one half mile (800 m) away, after the roof to her schoolhouse blew off. As the story goes, she used a rope to keep the children together during the blinding storm. She took them to the boarding house she lived at about a mile away and all of her pupils survived. Many children in similar conditions around the Great Plains were not so lucky, as 235 people were killed, most of them children who couldn’t get home from school.

By the way, the story of Minnie Freeman is enshrined in a mural located at the State Capitol building in Lincoln.

For a few weeks now we’ve talking about dealing with the storms that come up in life.  We’ve talked about why these storms happen and, more specifically, why they happen to you and I.  We even talked about how God can use these storms to discipline us and fit us for His kingdom.  This week I want to take the next step and talk about our reaction during stormy weather in our lives.  We’re asking the question “What now?”

Deuteronomy 31:6 says, 6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

What do I do when the storm comes?  How do I react?  When real-life weather hits, how we react sometimes determines whether we live or die.  So, this morning, I want to share a few nuggets of wisdom from the scriptures about how to survive the storm.  It all comes in the form of three lessons I’ve learned about dealing with storms: first, take cover; second, pray it out; and third, learn to be prepared.

While in seminary in Jackson, MS, I was the youth pastor at a United Methodist church.  We had a game room there and often, after the meeting was over, we would gather there to play games.  I remember one particularly stormy evening where I was shooting a game of pool with one of the boys in the youth group.  He had just missed shot and now it was my turn.  As I maneuvered around by the window to take my shot there was a bright flash that lit up the room and one of the loudest cracks of thunder I’ve ever heard.  It was really bright, blindingly so, and you can be sure that every one of us in that room was a little startled.  I glanced toward the window and back at the young man I was playing against and started to say something when I realized that he wasn’t there.  In fact, he wasn’t even in the room.

The lightning had struck a tree about 30 feet from the building and it was still smoking when I looked out the window.  The boy I was playing pool with was somewhere down the hall, he ran just about as fast as that lightning when it hit.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  If someone were timing him, he would have run the 40 yard dash in about 1 second, maybe less.

I can’t blame him for running.  He was just following his most basic instinct to take cover from the imminent disaster.  He walked sheepishly back into the room a moment later and we all shared a good laugh over it.  Then we called 911 to have the firemen come out and take care of the smoke we were seeing since we thought it hit the house next door, not the tree.

When the storm hits, the first thing we should do is take cover.  In Psalm 57:1 the psalmist writes, 1 Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge.  I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.

One particular Sunday in Bartlesville, OK, I had the opportunity to experience a day of tornado sirens going off.  Some friends of mine and I had gotten out of church late that afternoon and missed our opportunity to eat in the cafeteria on the college campus.  That wasn’t always a bad thing.  So this Sunday we all went out to Subway and enjoyed our subs while the sirens went off for two separate tornados that came through the area.  This was the storm, in case I mentioned it before (and I think I did) that had clouds swirling around the city like it was doomsday and we were about to be sucked up into the heavens all at once.  It was awesome!

The other guys were getting antsy and I had them drop me off at the church since we were within about 45 minutes of the evening service.  The service never happened as the weather forced us into the basement for even more sirens and warnings going off.

Now, I’m a little looney when it comes to this kind of weather and I was outside taking it all in.  First Wesleyan Church sits on a nice hill looking out to the Southwest.  If you’ve experienced many tornados, you know that they almost always come out of the southwest and move North and East.  So I was out watching the storms move in and, all of the sudden, a dark gray cloud drops down out of the sky and starts to billow in towards me.  It sounded just like a freight train, believe it or not.

I knew what that was.  It was a wind cloud that was coming in just ahead of the tornado and it was my cue to take shelter.  I turned to my left and got hit by a very strong wind that threatened to blow me over as I walked the 15 feet back to the door of the church.  It was really strong.  A few minutes later we came back out and surveyed the damage caused by shingles from the church being blown down into the cars in the parking lot.  A window in the church was broken, the sign for McDonalds was messed up, and all the air conditioners from the roof of the old Walmart were ripped off and carried a few miles away.  Neat!

I had to know when to take cover in that situation.  I am fascinated by crazy weather but it’s not hard to get fascinated to the point of putting myself in danger.  So when that wind cloud came towards me, I knew it was time to take cover.

Storms in life happen.  We can stand out in the rain, wind, and lightning, or we can seek shelter.  Nahum 1:7 says, 7 The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble.”

When life storms hit we need to seek shelter in God.  We need to take cover in a safe place where we can wait out the storm. 

When I was growing up in Lincoln, we (us kids) always got nervous when mom and dad went out of town.  We would have to go stay with some family friends and it never failed that, when mom and dad went out of town, the storms would come running our direction.  The vast majority of tornados I remember from growing up happened when mom and dad were out of town.  I remember one tornado-filled evening spent in the basement of a friend’s house.  These friends were close by and they were always ready for the next tornado.  So when the sirens blared, we headed for the basement, turned on the TV for the weather update, and found a safe place under an old mattress.

Basements are really important in some parts of the country.  It’s the best place to go when the storms hit.  We’d always head for the basement and wait out the storm.

Psalm 61:1-4 says, “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.”

When the storms in life hit, we need to take cover in a place where we can wait it out.  More importantly, we need to pray it out.  This is what it means to take shelter in the Lord.  When the big bad storm comes our way, we need to get on our knees and pray.  “Oh Lord, please help me through this.  Let me take refuge in You.”

Psalm 138:3 says, “When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted.”

The problem that happens when we get caught in the storm is that we often experience fear.  We worry.  We realize the danger we are in the midst of and we begin to worry that we’re not going to make it through.

Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It’s during the stormy weather in life that we learn to trust in God.  We learn to stay faithful to Him as we learn how faithful He is to us.

I’ve learned in my faith that I am ready to go.  I mean that.  Anytime, anywhere.  I know that, no matter what happens, I am going to end up with Jesus in Heaven.  If a tornado comes along and takes me out?  I’m ready.

I understand fear and worry.  But this is what we must fight against.  We can rest secure in the arms of our Lord.  Are you concerned about your relationship with God?  Fix it.  Fix it right now.  Don’t wait.  You can be sure of your eternal destiny.  Don’t leave that to chance.

When you rest comfortable in the Lord, you can wait out any storm and let the fear go.  If you’re not ready, well, we’ll make sure and give you the opportunity to be sure in a little bit.  And that brings us to our last lesson to learn this morning.

Growing up in tornado country has some unique twists.  I’m sure every place has its uniqueness but I’m most familiar with this kind of uniqueness.  In school we were always preparing for the worst.  We would do tornado drills several times a year.  This would include going to our designated safe place to get into our protective positions (on the floor, legs tucked in, leaning over and hands covering the back our heads) and wait out the storm.  The designated safe place changed depending on what grade you were in.  One year it was out in the hall next to the lockers and the next it was inside one of the bathrooms down the hall.  Curiously, the procedure was the same if a nuclear war happened.  And, curiously, I felt just as safe in that eventuality as I did if a tornado were to come along.  It was during the Cold War after all.

One year we actually had to put this procedure into play.  No, there wasn’t a nuclear warhead dropped near the school.  A tornado hit the area and we were moved to the hall where we assumed the position and waited out the storm.  It was a frightening one.  In those days we were taught to open the windows to prevent the changing pressures from shattering the glass.  So, in this case, the windows were open and the winds were really howling outside.  We could hear the desks and stuff moving around in our classroom.  As it happened, the storm passed over and we went back to our class.  After picking up a few desks and papers, we resumed the lessons of our day.

Always be prepared.  That’s the motto of the Boy Scout, right?  We were always preparing for bad weather or some other horrible disaster back then.  And that’s a big lesson to learn about the storms of life as well.

In I Corinthians 16:13, Paul says, 13 Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.” 

How many of us carry blankets, flares, and other tools along with us in our vehicles just in case we get caught in some sort of emergency?  How many of us keep water around in jugs during the winter in case we get snowed in and the electricity is out?  What kind of events are you prepared for in life?  The storms of life are no different.  We must be prepared.

The time to get your relationship right with God is not when you are in the middle of the worst storm of your life.  That’s a recipe for faith-failure.  It should never happen.  Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith.  Paul is right.  Read up and pray up.  Talk with God every day.  Read your scriptures.  Don’t let the sins in your life go un-confessed before the Lord.  Get yourself right, and keep yourself right.

The storms in life have just hit.  What now?  Are you ready?  What lessons have you learned for dealing with storms?  When the storms hit: take cover, pray it out, and learn to be prepared.

Psalm 46:1-3 reminds us that, “1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

That’s what it all comes down to.  When the storms hit I need to react by taking cover in God, my refuge and strength.  He is faithful.

I want to leave you with Psalm 16:8 on your mind.  It says, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”

Good Storms

Good Storms - Scripture LogoIt was a day like any other day in 6th grade.  It was a long time ago but I still remember the one day I ever got in enough trouble to stay after school.  The common discipline was to have to stay after school for 15 minutes.  It was a terrible discipline for a young kid.  That was 15 minutes of daylight wasted.  No playtime.  On this day one of the other kids complained that I was sticking my tongue out at him.  This was news to me.  Maybe I was doing a little Michael Jordan-in-flight while doing my math or something.  The teacher asked me if this was true and I flatly denied it.  She believed me and went back to teaching.  The nerve of that little jerk trying to get me in trouble like that!  So I did what any of you would have done.  I looked him straight in the eye and stuck my tongue out at him.  Which happened at the same time the teacher happened to turn back my direction.  Busted.  Obviously I was a young criminal well on my way to a long prison career.

I got disciplined that day and learned a valuable lesson: keep your tongue in your mouth and forget about revenge or you’ll be wasting valuable play-time.  I hope my sordid past doesn’t cause you to lose faith in me as your pastor.

Discipline can be a good thing.  In Proverbs 3:11-12, the wise father says, “11 My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, 12 because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

For a few weeks now we’ve talking about the storms of life that we all go through.  We started out talking about why storms happen and, last week, we asked why storms happen to us.  Why Me, Lord?  Generally we’ve been admitting that storms aren’t any fun.  They’re painful.  But is it possible that a storm could be a good thing?

While we’ve talked about the many causes of storms, we’ve focused on random storms that seem to come up for no reason.  We take them personally and even question, “why me?”  But what if we had an attitude adjustment?  What if, dare I say, we welcomed storms when they happened because God can use them to shape us into the Christians He wants us to be?

The word discipline really brings up two concepts in Scripture: the first concept is correction and the second is conditioning.  Both of these concepts apply to why life storms happen in the first place and what we should take away from them.

Let’s talk about the first concept, the first definition of discipline in the Scriptures.

Discipline as correction of sinful behavior

After dying, three friends, Jim, Frank and Bob wake up outside of heaven. St Peter says that before any can enter, they have to pass through a bog. All those who pass through sink in proportion to the amount of unconfessed sins they had when they died. Jim launches out and immediately begins to sink. He struggles onward, and finally pushes to the opposite side, just as the mud reaches his neck. He looks back, and sees his friend Frank walking across, his shoes barely sinking in the mire. Jim says, “I can’t believe it. I never would have thought you were so holy!” Frank replies, “Oh, I’m just standing on Bob’s shoulders.”

Sin is a problem before and after we have accepted Jesus.  We talked last week, briefly, about how sometimes the storms we are experiencing in life are storms of our own making.  Bad stuff is happening to us because we sinned.  We broke the laws of God and the storm that ensues is the natural result of that sin.  Now, everyone that sins, and that means everyone, is bound to experience the consequences from those sins.  But the Bible encourages us to look at those consequences differently – as discipline for those sins.

For the non-Christian, the idea of Godly punishment isn’t a pleasant one, but its purpose is to bring one to the point of repentance and reliance upon Jesus.   The Christian, although just as unlikely to find punishment pleasant, can have a different perspective on the results of his sin.  The Christian can recognize that God’s call to repentance is an act of love that has good intentions.  It’s hard to see that perspective when you don’t know God, but when you do know God, you need to be able to accept that God has higher purposes for chastening you.

Billy Graham has some interesting words on this topic that I’m going to share in a bit.  For now, I want to share some of his thoughts about God’s motivation for disciplining His children.  First of all, “He wants to lead us to repentance“Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance.” (2 Corinthians 7:9).”

God disciplines in order to bring us to repentance.  The joke I shared a moment ago was about unconfessed sin.  God’s desire is to get sin out so we have to deal with it.  He wants to teach us that what we have done is wrong so we will repent of our sin.  Parents, isn’t the primary idea of punishment for your kids supposed to be correcting a wrong behavior?  The reason for the punishment is to stop the bad behavior and keep it from happening again in the future.  When you are experiencing a storm of your own making, pray for the strength to turn back from your sin.

The second motivation that Billy Graham mentions is: “He wants to restore us to fellowship.” Punishment is meant to do more than just stop a behavior, it is also mean to restore the believer to a right relationship with God and with fellow believers.  When being disciplined, this is often hard to see.  We get prideful and our ego is hurt.  We could even resist and become obstinate, stubborn.  But God’s discipline is meant to restore us to fellowship with Him.  It is an act of love that will help the prodigal to come home to open arms.

The third motivation for God’s discipline follows the first two: “He wants to teach us spiritual discernment. “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” (I Corinthians 11:31-32).”

Correction for our wrong behavior really is meant to help us NOT to do it again.  It’s a learning experience.  Discernment means being able to look at events and discover the true meaning behind what is happening.  Spiritual Discernment helps us to separate the good from the bad actions.  Going through a storm of our own making is meant to help us to realize what we have done wrong so that we can keep from doing it again.  It’s a learning experience.

So storms can be good.  Just as stormy weather can bring life-giving moisture to the earth, a life storm caused by our own sin can bring life-giving changes to our souls.  I know it’s hard to accept punishment.  Your ego gets involved and you want to act as if somehow it’s not your fault.  But that’s not what God wants us to do.  He wants us to confess our sins, be restored to fellowship, and to sin no more.

Discipline as conditioning/preparation for maturation and strengthening. 

But what about when we are facing hardship that isn’t caused by our own sin?  How should we react to life storms that are caused by the actions of another or are just caused by general sin? The second concept of discipline is that of conditioning and we can welcome the storms of life for that purpose.

I mentioned earlier that I have some comments from Billy Graham on this subject.  He says, “‘The Bible says, ‘Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.’ If life were all easy, wouldn’t we become flabby? When a ship’s carpenter needed timber to make a mast for a sailing vessel, he did not cut it in the valley, but up on the mountainside where the trees had been buffeted by the winds. These trees, he knew, were the strongest of all. Hardship is not our choice; but if we face it bravely, it can toughen the fiber of our souls.

Is it possible for storms to be used by God to shape us into the Christians He wants us to be?  Yes.  Hebrews 12:4-11 says, 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

 “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

What I find interesting here is the beginning sentence: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  It almost seems as if it doesn’t quite fit but it really does.  You see, the author of Hebrews is bringing out the fact that the sin of this world is what was standing against the faith and many Christians were suffering persecution because of it.  Some were even being martyred for their faith.  How do you stand for your faith when it leads to death?

In ancient Rome, crowds by the tens of thousands would gather in the Coliseum to watch as Christians were torn apart by wild animals. Paul Rader, commenting on his visit to this famous landmark, said, “I stood uncovered to the heavens above, where He sits for whom they gladly died, and asked myself, ‘Would I, could I, die for Him tonight to get this gospel to the ends of the earth?’” Rader continued, “I prayed most fervently in that Roman arena for the spirit of a martyr, and for the working of the Holy Spirit in my heart, as He worked in Paul’s heart when He brought him on his handcuffed way to Rome.” Those early Christians “lived on the threshold of heaven, within a heartbeat of home, no possessions to hold them back.”

It still happens today.  God can use the storms in your life to condition you for stronger faith.  He can use those storms to draw you closer to Him and keep you steadfast in the face of persecution.  Billy Graham offers a couple more motivations for God to use storms as conditioning in our lives.  First, “He wants to keep us humble. “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, NIV).”

God wants to make us fully reliant on His grace so that, when persecution and moments of weakness come in our lives, we’ll have the strength to stand strong.

Another motivation is that God “wants to prepare us for more effective service.  God can use the storms in your life to make you more effective for Him.  Athletes go through conditioning to make them stronger and to develop more stamina in order to become better at what they do.  God often uses storms in your life to bring about the same result.  Will you let him do it?

God’s discipline is a sign of His love for us.

Is it possible that God’s discipline is a sign of His love for us?  Good parents discipline their children out of love for them.  Its purpose is restore the child and help them to avoid more dangerous sins later in life.  Discipline helps us to become all that we can be.

Pastor and author, Warren Wiersbe, talks about taking blessings for granted.  In his book God Isn’t in a Hurry he writes, “I have felt for a long time that one of the particular temptations of the maturing Christian is the danger of getting accustomed to his blessings. Like the world traveler who has been everywhere and seen everything, the maturing Christian is in danger of taking his blessings for granted and getting so accustomed to them that they fail to excite him as they once did.

“Emerson said that if the stars came out only once a year, everybody would stay up all night to behold them. We have seen the stars so often that we don’t bother to look at them anymore. We have grown accustomed to our blessings.

“The Israelites in the wilderness got accustomed to their blessings, and God had to chasten the people (see Num. 11). God had fed the nation with heavenly manna each morning, and yet the people were getting tired of it. ‘But now our whole being is dried up,”” they said, ‘there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!”” (v. 6).

“Nothing but manna! They were experiencing a miracle of God’s provision every morning; yet they were no longer excited about it. Nothing but manna!

One of the evidences that we have grown accustomed to our blessings is this spirit of criticism and complaining. Instead of thanking God for what we have, we complain about it and tell him we wish we had something else. You can be sure that if God did give us what we asked for, we would eventually complain about that. The person who has gotten accustomed to his blessing can never be satisfied.

Another evidence of this malady is the idea that others have a better situation than we do. The Israelites remembered their diet in Egypt and longed to return to the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. They were saying, ‘The people in Egypt are so much better off than we are!”” Obviously, they had forgotten the slavery they had endured in Egypt and the terrible bondage from which God had delivered them. Slavery is a high price to pay for a change in diet.”

Sometimes God uses the storms in our lives to wake us up.  To snap us out of the rut of expectation and help us to see blessings as just that, blessings – as opposed to expectations.  Why do we expect nothing but roses in life?  It’s a setup for disappointment.

God loves us and His discipline, painful as it may be, is proof of that love.  He wants us to be all that we can be.  He wants us to be all that He has designed us and purposed us to be.  And God often uses the storms in our lives to shape us into the Christians He wants us to be.  Storms can be good.

Psalm 94:12,13 says, “Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord, the man you teach from your law; you grant him relief from days of trouble.”

How are you handling the storms in your life right now?  Do you realize that God has a higher purpose and can use those storms to make you into a better person?  Will you let Him?

Why Me, Lord?

Why Me - Scripture LogoThis verse is a reminder that, in the midst of pain and suffering, God is with us and is waiting to show His love to us.  How will you respond to suffering?

A couple of weeks ago we began talking about storms in Life – those times in life when bad stuff happens to us and we suffer.  We asked the question “why do storms happen” and we answered it by talking about what sin has done to the world we live in.

Today I want to get more personal.  Why do storms happen to me?  Did I do something to deserve this? Is God punishing me?

At issue here is ultimately this question:  Does God cause storms to happen?  A lot of people seem to think He does.  In Biblical Jewish thought all things, good and bad, were attributed to God to show He had sovereignty over all things.

The reality is that God has created this world with basic laws in effect.  There is cause and effect.  So, since God created the world and He created how this world works, in some ways He can be said to have caused bad things to happen.  In some ways.

My body has been given many senses.  Like most people, 5 senses would be the right number.  I can taste, touch, hear, see and smell.  All these senses help me to discern, among other things, when I might be in danger.

Like you, I was taught early on to look both ways before crossing the street.  I remember one fateful day when a friend of mine forgot this rule.  I have no idea which ways he looked or how long but it wasn’t enough.  He started across the street and got hit by a car.  He was fortunate and only broke a few bones.  They healed over time and his life, eventually, got back to normal.  But what happened, I’m sure, still sticks with him today.  Do you think he pays more attention when crossing the road now?  It was a lesson he should have never needed to learn.  He has the same five senses I have.  In fact, he’s had them all his life.  Somewhere between his eyes and his ears, he should have seen the danger coming and avoided it.

My friend suffered the consequences from not paying attention to the natural laws God set in order.  Physics tells us that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  My friend and the car proved it.  I can’t walk through walls.  Can you?  I can’t see in the dark.  I can’t stare into the sun.   I can’t jump from the top of the Empire State Building.  I can’t breathe under water.  And, contrary to what my mother occasionally told me while I was growing up, I can’t grow potatoes behind my ears.  There are a lot of things I can’t do without experiencing the natural laws God set in motion.  And when I try to do them anyway, I shouldn’t be surprised when bad things happen.  From a broken nose to going blind to just plain getting myself killed.  Those are the rules and it doesn’t make sense to fight against them.

Why do storms happen?  Because the world is messed up.  We talked about that a couple weeks ago.  Why do they happen to me?  Well, that’s a bit more complicated.  I’ll offer two reasons: first, because storms do happen and sometimes we get caught in the storm; second, because we set them in motion when we break the rules.

So storms happen.  The world is a mess and, sometimes, we get caught in the rain.  A part of my morning ritual is to check the Weather and find out what the day looks like.  It often determines how I dress and whether I should pack my umbrella.  Sometimes I’m working outside and I just need to know if I get do the job I need to do.  So having a good prediction of the weather helps me to avoid getting caught in the rain.

Sometimes I can see the storms coming.  I watch the skies and I know when storms might happen.  Then, when a few drops come, I’m ready to get inside and stay safe and dry.  Sometimes there’s just no avoiding the storm.

A number of years ago my brother and I went to a Christian music festival just outside of Lincoln.  The festival was in Riverside Park in Milford.  It was in the summer of 1993 and it had been a very wet year.  There was flooding all over that end of the state and over in Iowa.  Riverside Park had its river way out of its boundaries and there was mud everywhere.  The festival was called Love-fest and that year we nick-named it Flood-fest and Mud-fest!

It was a hot hot day – over 100 in fact.  But the music was great.  We’d already seen a lot of good bands on the stage.  But the headliners that year were Whiteheart and Degarmo & Key.  Whiteheart was one of my favorite bands and I slushed through that mud all day to hear them play.  About 45 minutes before they were set to play, the announcer came out and told everyone that there were some nasty storms down south of us with tornados and all sorts of neat stuff.  It was all headed our way but it wasn’t going to hit until around 10:00 or so.  So, just to be safe, they chose to move the last two bands up so we could be sure to get them in before the storms hit.   Good news!  No more waiting.  Whiteheart was coming on stage in just a few minutes.

Wow!  What a concert!  Whiteheart came out full of energy like they always did.  They lead with the song “His Heart was Always in It” and lead Singer, Rick Florian, was all over the place.  About five minutes in he was sliding across the stage on his back when the sound was cut and the announcer rushed back out onto the stage to stop the concert.  He says things were developing a lot quicker than they thought and that we all needed to take cover as soon as possible.  What a let-down.

So my brother and decided the concert was over and we headed towards our car, parked two miles down the road at my sister’s home.  We got a few hundred feet down the road when some nice couple offered us a ride.  We took the ride and they dropped us off at a gas station just a little ways from my sister’s house.  As we walked down the road, lamenting the untimely end to our concert, we started to hear a strange sound.  It was coming from behind us – some sort of whooshing and gushing.  It sounded like a waterfall.

We had one of those movie moments.  You know the type.  The ones where everything goes into slow motion, two people turn to look behind them, see what’s coming, and get that look of absolute horror on their faces.  You know, like when there’s an explosion and you have to run as fast as you can but no one can run that fast.  In the end the force launches them forward somewhere just to the left of the screen.  What we both saw was a literal wall of water moving towards us.  It was one of those moments when some strange sound comes from somewhere deep within you and you just run.  Did we make it to the house safe and dry?  Nope.  Three seconds in that rain was enough to be drenched to the bone.

That rain was unavoidable.  We got caught in a storm we couldn’t avoid.  That happens in life sometimes.  My story is funny because no one got hurt, just really really wet.  Not all storms end so well.  Life storms are no different.  Sometimes people get hurt.  Innocent bystanders that got caught in the rain.  That’s you and me sometimes.

Back in college I had a friend who was hit by a drunk driver.  It was a Spring break and she was heading home, along with a friend, to Arkansas.  There was a drunken man driving the opposite direction on this lonely stretch of highway.  I’ve driven it before – a nice highway with two lanes on either side of nice grassy divide.  This drunkard stopped at a convenience store to buy more alcohol.  He was so drunk that the clerk refused to sell him anymore alcohol.  He left angry and took off down the road.  Another traveling couple was in that store and the encounter with the drunk man scared them.  They had lost a child to a drunk driver years ago.  So they, and the clerk, called the police and told them what they had seen.  There was an officer about a mile back down the road so he turned his lights on and sped up to try to catch the drunk driver.  He caught up with him just in time to see him drive into the center median, get thrown from his vehicle, and leave his car to continue up the embankment and directly into the path of my friends.  They never saw it coming.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why didn’t God stop this?  What kind of a God lets things like this happen?  I just can’t believe that, if there really is a god, that He would let this sort of thing happen.  Have you ever heard this before?  I’ve heard it many times as a justification for why a person doesn’t believe in God.  And this is the kind of story that brings that line of reasoning straight to the front.

In Ecclesiastes 7:15 the teacher of wisdom says, “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.”

Back at college we were all asking similar questions.  Why her?  She was a good person.  A happy person.  Someone you enjoyed being around.  Someone who loved Jesus with an infectious love.  I mean, if God would let something this terrible happen to someone like her, then who’s safe?  Does He really watch out for us?  Why her?  Why me?  Then the answer came: Why not her?

I remember dropping by the hospital on my way home from visiting my future seminary in Jackson, MS.  My friend was a mess.  All sorts of broken bones.  And yet she was chattering away at how wonderful the Lord was.  He had saved her and her friend and she was spouting scripture and witnessing for Jesus like crazy.

Listen, I don’t know why she got hit by a drunkard that evening any more than I don’t know why I didn’t get hit by a drunkard that evening.  Other than to say this: we live in a world messed up by sin.  Sometimes it’s the general kind of sin we’re all born into in this fallen world.  Sometimes it’s the sin of a man whose life has somehow driven him to such levels of irresponsible drinking that he nearly killed a friend of mine.

By the way, consider these statistics from 2009:

1. 33,808 people were killed in traffic accidents. 10,839 of these deaths was a result of alcohol (32% of all traffic deaths)

2. Drunk drivers kill someone approximately every 48 minutes

3. 181 children age 14 and younger died in alcohol related accidents in 2009. Over half (92) were riding WITH THE ALCOHOL IMPAIRED DRIVER!

4. In 2009 1.4 million people were arrested for driving under the influence. This is less than 1% of the amount self-reported by adults. (147 million self-reported episodes of drunk driving)

5. An average drunk driver will drive drunk 87 times before being pulled over!

6. 1 in 3 people will be involved in an alcohol related crash in their liftetime

7. 75 percent of drunk drivers whose licenses are suspended continue to drive.

Sin destroys lives.  It causes storms to rage that sometimes catch innocent bystanders.  Sometimes the reason something bad happened to you is just because bad things happen as a result of this world being damaged goods.  Sometimes the reason something bad happened to you is simply because of someone else’s sin – and you just got caught in the middle.  Could God stop these storms from happening?  Could He stop them from raging over you?  Yeah, He could.  Does He?  Sometimes.  But sometimes will never mean all the time.

I don’t like getting caught in Life’s storms any more than you do.  I don’t like it when I, or those I love, get hurt.  Would it help if I had a reason given to me for my pain?  No, not really.  It won’t justify it and it won’t make it go away.  But I also have to ask: what kind of person would I be if I had never experienced pain?  How could I tell someone, who is going through a major storm in life, about how Jesus will be there for them if I’ve never experienced it myself?

In II Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul says, 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Yeah, the comfort we receive from God helps us to comfort others when they are in need.  Why me?  Why not me?

Sometimes the storms we experience are not caused by a messed up world or by the sin of another.  Sometimes, I go through storms of my own making.  Sometimes, the sin is my own and so are the consequences.  Sometimes it’s my sin that causes the storm that overtakes a few innocent bystanders.  I’ve had to say “I’m sorry” a few times, what about you?

God created the world.  God made the rules and there’s no changing them because I want to do something that is contrary to the natural laws of this universe or is contrary to the moral laws of God.

The bigger question is this: since these storms in life are going to happen, how will you respond when it happens to you?

The story of Joseph, in Genesis, chronicles the terrible circumstances of a young boy sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.  I can’t imagine being betrayed by your brothers and being ripped from your family.  All sorts of bad stuff happened to Joseph but he always trusted in God and allowed God to work through him.  You know the story.

James 1:2-4 says, “2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

You can choose how you respond to suffering.  You can lose your faith or you can go deeper into it.  You can respond positively by building yourself and others up or you can respond negatively by engaging in destructive behavior and/or losing your faith.

Why me?  Why not me?  Why you?  Why not you?  Will you be the one who goes through the fire and comes out the other side stronger than ever?

I’ve watched people go through trials or times of doubt and turn to alcohol and drugs to escape reality.  And I’ve watched people go through tough times and come out the other side proclaiming loudly how Jesus was with them every step of the way.  I’ve seen some discourage while others encourage.

Which one are you?  You can choose how you respond to the storms in your life.

Stormy Weather

In Church, we’ve recently begun a series of sermons talking about dealing with human suffering.  There have been several national tragedies in recent weeks and months so I wanted to post the sermons here for all to keep up with.  There are a few weeks left to the series and I will post the remaining sermons after they have been delivered on Sunday morning.

I hope these messages will offer some help in understanding the age old question of “Why does God allow suffering in the world.”  There are answers to questions like these but, as a pastor, I have often found that the worst time to offer these answers is in the midst of great suffering.  The best time to consider questions like these is when all is calm, not when the storms of life are causing wave after wave to crash over us.

I know that this issue is at the heart of many who have a difficult time believing in and accepting God.  If you are one of those persons, these messages are especially for you.  I’ve been through a few storms in my life and I can’t imagine going through them without God by my side and, sometimes, carrying me all the way through.

I believe there are seven sermons in this series in all so hang in there for more answers.

Stormy Weather - Scripture LogoI love weather.  I admit it.  My name is Dan, and I love weather.  And I’ve experienced my fair share of weather, growing up in Nebraska as I did.  I even lived in Oklahoma for four years.  Tornados galore.  Even in Mississippi I had the opportunity to experience part of a hurricane.  I’m just fascinated by the awesome displays of a nature that are so much more powerful than I am.  It reminds me of my God who is far more powerful than anything nature can offer.  I’m not a fan of destruction and pain, of course, but I don’t mind coming out of the other side of bad weather and being able to say I experienced something intense.  You may remember the storms that greeted Stacy and I as we arrived in Red Cloud last year.  That was just God’s way of welcoming me back home to Nebraska.    Anyone else enjoy the storms?

Speaking of storms, there’s a great story in Luke 8 about a storm. “22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

What a story!  I can just imagine being on that boat with these guys.  In my mind, I’m with the disciples one hundred percent.  The wind is crazy, the waves swamping the boat – you ever been in a boat on a lake when a storm is coming up the waves start churning?  Depending on the size of your boat, you may have experienced some of what the disciples were experiencing.  And then the rain comes.  Lightening, thunder, buckets of water.  The disciples are going nuts with fear and Jesus is sleeping like a baby.

You know, the only time I don’t like storms is when they come in the middle of the night.  Not because they wake me up and scare me, but because they don’t wake me up.  I sleep right through them.  I have to hear about them after I wake up.

So Jesus is sleeping through the storm.  He’s just not worried about it.  The disciples have to wake him up.   They were frightened and they thought He needed to . . . well, what did they think he needed to do?  Wake up and be as frightened as they were?  Or did they have some inkling that he could do something about it?  Remember, they’re still trying to figure this guy out.  And that day they figured something out.

Jesus wakes up and rebukes the storm.  Have you ever tried to do that?  How’d it work for you?  I can tell you how it worked for Jesus – the storm stopped.  The skies cleared, the waves calmed, the wind slowed.  Safety returned.  Yeah, it works for Jesus and, just like the disciples, I’d have needed a hydraulic jack and three medical specialists to get my gaping mouth to close back to normal.

You want to know another reason I love storms?  Because life is filled with all kinds of crazy storms and, every time a freak-of-nature storm passes through, it reminds me that all of life’s storms have an end.  They don’t last forever.  They pass and, usually, I’m still standing.

The storms in life happen all the time.  Some of you are going through some real storms right now.  Hard stuff.  The hail is coming down and it’s big.  The lightening is flashing and the thunder is immediate and loud.  It’s scary and you probably feel a little like those disciples in the boat with a sleeping Jesus.  And you probably have questions right now.

Why do these storms happen?  Why do they happen to me?  Did I do something to cause this?  Why does God allow these things to happen in the first place?  What can I do to weather this storm?   Will I make it through the storm?  Is this you right now?  If it isn’t, I bet it has been you at one time or another.

I’ve said it before, life is hard and, in the end, nobody gets out alive.  Storms happen.  They happen often and I’ve watched a lot of storms blow through not just my life but also the lives of those around me.  So let’s talk about the storms and the questions that come with them.

I want to spend a few weeks dealing with those times when our world seems to be raging all around us.  I want to offer some answers that are often hard to hear and accept in the midst of the pain so that we can consider them during a time of rest and understanding.  More than that, I want to offer the hope and promise that God provides in the Bible to help us through the stormy times in our lives.

I was talking to my brother in Omaha a couple of years ago about the stormy weather we had been experiencing lately.  I recalled to him how, earlier in the week, I saw the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore giving an update from Council Bluffs (right across the river) with Omaha in the background.  There had been a lot of rain and some severe thunderstorms on that day and there was still lightening flashing in the background while he reported the day’s events.  I guess the mix of weather and the current College World Series going on there made it a good location to report from.  But Cantore had been doing those spots across the country where the storms have been.  My brother told me that folks had been getting worried whenever they saw Cantore show up in their home town because, where ever he goes, the storms seem to hit.  If only the storms in life were always so easy to predict.

Sometimes they are, most of the time they are not.  If only we had a storm-prediction center like that on the Weather Channel!  Maybe you’ve asked the question before, “Why do these storms have to happen in the first place?”  Wouldn’t life be so much easier without painful experiences and times where our worlds seem to fall apart?

Well, yeah, it would.  The core of this question is the fact that it’s hard to find someone who actually likes pain.  Nobody likes pain.  We’re all seeking some sort of Utopia in this life.  What do you suppose we would have to complain about if we didn’t have pain in our lives?  I suppose we would just redefine suffering to include all those times we don’t get our way on things.  Suffering will always be with us in this life.  It’s a result of Humanity’s sin begun by Adam and Eve.

Early on in Genesis we see the effect of sin on the earth itself.  No more Garden of Eden.  No more life going on forever here.  Death was set in motion and it is death, and the decay that leads to it, that causes the storms that occur in our weather as well as the natural disasters.  It is also the force at work that causes storms in life.  We are sinful and we live in a sinful and broken world.  Suffering, therefore, is now a natural part of living in this world.  No one avoids it.

Sin is also what separates us from God.  We have to understand that much of our suffering is caused by our lack of a perfect relationship with God.  I have to state it like that because anything less than perfection will never match up with God.  And sin has so messed that up that it is impossible for us to meet that perfection.  Our relationship with God suffers to the point that so many deny Him altogether and so many do not have the kind of relationship with their Maker that they should.  Sin separates us from God.  And being separated from God will cause suffering to occur.

Can anything good come from suffering?  That’s a good question to ask.   Author Paul Patterson III writes, “Pain is not a problem in and of itself.  But rather, it is a symptom, a sign of something gone wrong.  When one places their hand on a stove, the problem is not the pain but it’s the fact they are doing something that shouldn’t be done.  The pain in this world is simply a sign that something is wrong; something is seriously messed-up.  Without pain, we may never realize that something is wrong.’”

C. S. Lewis wrote an entire book on the Problem of Pain.  He writes, “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities, and everyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Is it just possible that God can use pain (as opposed to causing it) to draw us to Him?  Pain wakes us up to the reality that something is wrong with our world and it acts as a megaphone that speaks loud enough for us to actually hear God speak.  And when we hear God speak, we can begin a relationship with Him like no other.

American pastor and author James H. Brookes told of visiting a friend’s house and hearing the music of a bird singing. It was not the ordinary sound of chirping; instead it resembled the strains of a lovely melody. At first Brookes didn’t know where it was coming from; but when he glanced around the room, he saw a beautiful bullfinch in a birdcage. The lady of the house explained that it had been taught to sing that way at night. The teacher would repeat the notes time and again until the bird was able to mimic them. But this was possible only because it was dark and the bird’s attention would not be diverted.

How often we learn our sweetest songs when the blackness of trial closes in around us.

Pain and suffering can be used by God to bring us closer to Him.  It can be worth it in the end.  The experiences in our lives are what shape us.  They make us who we are.  What we become can be embittered by our sufferings, or we can draw closer to God and allow Him to use our suffering to transform us into the people He wants us to be.  People who please God and use our sufferings to reach out to others who are experiencing the same things.

We began the message today talking about Jesus calming the storm.  Not a single disciple in that boat was calm and sailing along without a care in the world.  So often storms bring out the fear in us.  We can look at the disciples and berate them for their lack of faith but that was a day where their fear caused them to reach out to God.  They may not have fully realized it at the time.  In fact, I’m sure they didn’t.  But they did provide for us an example in stormy times.  They cried out to Jesus.

Will Jesus always calm the storms in our lives?  No.  But He will always be a shelter, a calm place where we can go, while the storms rage on.

I Protest – Reaching Out Blog #15

“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?”

Proverbs 24:11-12

“It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it.  Because out of an inner solidarity with our fellow humans the first attempts to alleviate these pains can come forth.” (Nouwen)

This book has been filled with “ouch” moments.  If you’ve come this far in this series of blogs I hope you have already picked up this book for yourself.  You’re never too old or too young to be changed by God.

In the last blog we opened ourselves up to the suffering world around us.  We connected with humanity and realized we are all a part of the human race.  Nouwen calls this the “burden of reality.”  It’s impossible for us to truly bear this burden.  It’s too much.  And yet isn’t this what Jesus did on the cross?

Nouwen goes on to say, “When the answer to our world remains hanging between our minds and our hands, it remains weak and superficial.  When our protests against war, segregation and social injustice do not reach beyond the level of a reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteousness, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments.  Only when our mind has descended into our heart can we expect a lasting response to well up from our innermost self.”

That’s what it takes.  It takes our mind descending into our hearts.  It’s deep in our hearts where our own humanity connects with the humanity of those around us.  It’s where we understand the pain and suffering and form that “inner solidarity with our fellow humans.”

Perhaps this is why we avoid solitude so much.  Maybe this is why we fill our lives with constant entertainment and refuse to retreat within ourselves.  For it is deep inside that we will connect with a God who will call us to accountability.  And, perhaps worse, it is there that we will connect with the condition of our race.  It’s an open and dark closet in the dead of night.  It’s where the monsters under our bed come from.  It’s the chilly eerie feeling you get when you walk into a dark and unfamiliar space at night.  It’s where we are confronted with the human condition and it’s more than we can bear.

I’ve tried to cultivate a confrontational attitude in my life when it comes to fear.  If I find myself hesitant or fearful, I find another desire even deeper that rises to confront that which I dread.  If I fear the monsters under my bed, I find the desire to get down off the bed and crawl underneath to meet my foe.   If I am fearful of what I will find in the solitude of my heart, perhaps now is the time to delve deeper still.

As I’ve grown older I’ve begun to notice the difference between the average person and the world-changer.  There are some who are able to step past indecisiveness and move to action.  Many are capable of doing something significant in life but those who actually do are the ones who decided to do something about it.  It sounds redundant but that’s only because it’s just that simple.

Here is the hope in what Nouwen talks about:  if I’m willing to connect with God and my own fallen race I will find the strength to do something about it.  It is there that I will connect with the very heart of God – a heart that wants desperately to save the human race from sin and is willing to do whatever it takes, even though it would cost Him His one and only Son.

Many times I’ve seen a need but didn’t do anything about it.  Maybe the solution required more from me than I thought I could give.  Maybe I was too afraid of getting hurt emotionally or physically.    The cost was too great for me and I failed at serving my God because of my own fears.  What if I could face those fears just like the monsters under my bed or in my dark closet?  What if I chose to serve God fearlessly, set my eyes on the goal and ignored all that caused my hesitations?  What if I opened myself up to allow God to use me?  What am I so afraid of?

Jesus has already done more than any of us ever could to help the human race.  He’s paid the price.  And, if we are willing to let Him, He will use us to reach out to the suffering around us in a tangible and human way – fully human by the power of God.