Why? Why? Why?

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Guest post by James N. Watkins

If you have children,nieces and nephews, or younger siblings, you know that a three-year-old’s favorite word is why.

“Johnny, hold my hand while we cross the street.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want you to run out in front of a car.”

“Why?”

“Because if a car hits you, you’ll be hurt or killed.”

“Why?”

“Because if it’s a contest between a thirty-five-pound boy and a three-ton SUV, the truck is going to win every time.”

“Why?”

“Because the laws of physics state that mass plus momentum equals . . . Just take my hand!”

And on itgoes-right into adulthood!

“Why didn’t God heal my friend?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why do I still have acne at 50?”

I’ve worked up way too much spiritual perspiration trying to answer why my second-grade Sunday school teacher committed suicide, why I was laid off from the perfect job in publishing—twice—or why bad things happen to such good people as you and me.

I have learned that while why is often a futile question, God is more than willing to answer other questions. But, like the popular game show, Jeopardy, the answers are in the form of a question.

What can I know?

“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5-8).

So, while I’ve struggled with hundreds—probably thousands—of questions about God’s workings, I have grown in my knowledge of who he is. While agonizing about an estranged relationship, I burst into tears—for God. I had described to a friend my pain: “It feels like my heart has been cut out with a chainsaw, run over by a logging truck, and then fed through a wood chipper.” If I was feeling this excruciating pain for one broken relationship, how was God feeling about billions of heartaches? It was one of the few times I actually felt I understood God.

I can also find the answer to . . .

How can I grow?

I’ve always leaned into Romans 8:28:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

But what is that “purpose”? The very next verse answers: “To be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). So do other verses:

“And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18b).

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1).

That’s our purpose! So ask, how can I grow more like Christ through this difficult time.

Who can I show?

Second Corinthians 1:3-6 has become one of my favorite passages in encouraging me while I’m going through terrible times:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all ourtroubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (NLT).

The Greek word translated comfort isparaklesis. It is a calling near, summons for help; a prayer, a plea; exhortation, admonition, encouragement; consolation, comfort, solace, refreshment; or a persuasive speech, motivational talk, instruction. And it’s feminine case. No one comforts like a mother.

We offer our best comfort to those experiencing what we have personally gone through.

So, sorry, we can’t always answer the why questions, but we can answer these three.

Condensed from The Psalms of Asaph: Struggling with Unanswered Prayer, Unfulfilled Promises, and Unpunished Evil by James N. Watkins. Browse and buy at jameswatkins.com/asaph/

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Heavy Hearted

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Apolitical. That’s how I would describe myself.

Early in my ministry, I was told that this was the route I was to take, and the lot I was to accept. Over the years, I have often wondered how so many of my colleagues missed that memo.

During political campaigns I have dodged nearly all the polarizing conversations. I have avoided endorsing candidates or issues. Rarely, if ever, have I even had private conversations on such matters. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to express myself. To the contrary, I have had to bite my tongue or leave the room on numerous occasions.

Perhaps that’s why I find writing this right now so difficult. Maybe it’s also why I have been recently struggling to write at all. I’m a jumbled up mess of feelings and opinions with no outlet. I have had no voice, and now I’m afraid to speak.

Yet, here I am.

And you might find it humorous where and why I found my motivation to break my silence.

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Star Trek, Next Generation.

My husband is a Trekkie from way back. Yesterday, on his day off, there was episode after episode on our TV. And episode after episode explored topics of importance and interest in ways that laid out the issues and left the observer to come to their own decision and awareness. My suggestive mind then dreamt the entire night in Star Trek fashion.

As a result I woke up this morning in a exceptionally malleable state. Not always a good thing for someone as naive and impressionable as myself. And probably not the best time to go scrolling through Facebook.

But I did.

And what I read nearly broke my heart.

First, there’s this whole health care mess. I read a lengthy post by my friend Jules in KC. She has an amazing way of piercing my heart with her words and her photographs. Her honest response reminded me of an exchange I had at our local hospital as I paid a bill that I could not afford. I looked at the clerk, who was only doing her job–and in a completely professional manner (this wasn’t about her at all)–and said, “It might be cheaper to just die.”

I couldn’t believe I used my ‘out-loud’ voice in such an inappropriate manner. My mother would have been appalled.

But it’s how I felt…and that feeling came back in a overwhelming rush as I read my friend’s response to a proposed bill that’s being rushed through congress.

You see, I’m one of those people whose life defines pre-existing conditions.

Then, in the comments of her post someone made a statement about the way we shuffle people off to nursing homes and rely on expensive medical procedures others ultimately pay for (like knee replacements) instead of just sucking it up and plodding on. I’m not sure what planet this guy lives on, but my mother’s husband has severe Alzheimer’s disease, is military veteran, and they can’t get any assistance, nor can they afford to put him someplace where professionals can keep him safe and deal with his erratic mood swings. And my husband has lived with chronic moderate to severe back pain (think bulging and herniated discs, spurs up and down his spine) since the 80’s because we have never had insurance coverage that would have allowed us to address any of it.

And I know our situation is a drop in the bucket compared to others. We are aware of loving couples who have had to “divorce” or been forced to live together unmarried (both which go against their personal convictions) to be able to just cover medicinal needs.

Our system is broken and it doesn’t seem anyone knows how to fix it.

So today my heart is aching and breaking…unfortunately, it is a pre-existing condition.

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Pursue Peace

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(This was written right after the tragic events in August in Charlottesville. I thought I posted it–perhaps it needed to percolate a little longer and be posted on International Peace Day. Perhaps.)

I will confess, I wrestled with God yesterday morning as I woke early and headed to my computer to make the revisions I received as He roused me from my comfortable slumber.

Before I climbed into bed I had been watching and reading all the news coming out of Charlottesville. My heart and mind were troubled…confused. I don’t understand hate–especially not the kind I was seeing and reading about.

I made it through the service…prayerfully and not without tears. Heavy-hearted, but less afraid. God is still in control–even if I don’t know how that will play out–and I choose to trust.

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Earlier in the week, when the focus was on the crisis with Korea, a phrase from an old hymn came to mind: “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”

The song came back to me this morning. I know it’s a “Christmas” song, but the words (feelings) are powerful and poignant.

 

Bottom line: God is not dead nor does he sleep. The awareness and presence of God is what is truly supreme.

I’m holding onto that and looking for places where I can plant seeds of peace, of healing. I want my life to be one of those ringing bells the song speaks of–waking and alerting others to the God of peace.

Generosity

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I am challenged today to think about my giving. Facebook just reminded me that April is National Donate Life Month. Several years ago, one of my friends donated a kidney to her father. More recently, another friend donated one of his kidneys to his wife’s aunt. Talk about generosity!

Today, I probably won’t be donating anyone a kidney, unless I’m dead, and then everything gets donated. So what can or will I give? I can give a hug to the woman who just lost her husband. I can share a smile with the cashier who just doesn’t think anyone really notices her. I can send a card to that shut in who feels all alone. I can respond to the list of needs for a family that just lost everything in a fire.

Giving can cost all or nothing at all. When I thought about that I was reminded of the Macedonian church that gave to the offering Paul was gathering for the needy. They were experiencing severe trial and they gave beyond their ability to give. I went and looked the passage up and found this in verse 8: test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.

I had never noticed that before!

I am humbled today by the generosity of my friends. And I’m challenged. I don’t want to be found short when it comes to being generous. I want to be earnest and sincere. How about you?

Lenten Thoughts: Suffering

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Several years ago I helped with a “Prayer Journey to the Cross” at church. Similar to the Stations of the Cross, participants move through Jesus’ final week on earth before his crucifixion. I was responsible for two stations, The Betrayal and The Garden of Gethsemane.

I partnered with an amazingly creative woman for the Garden Station. As soon as I knew the focus was suffering, I had an idea for the station. I called my friend and asked her if she could put together a video loop of pictures of suffering and tie it to music. When I got the CD from her, I was blown away. The images and the music made a powerful statement about the human experience of suffering.
I have known my share of disappointments. I’ve gone through some difficult times. I’ve grieved the loss of friends and family. Things have been tight financially, but we’ve never gone hungry or wondered where we’d sleep at night. I’ve never really suffered. Not like the people in those pictures. We lost our home when the restaurants failed and I lost my livelihood. We had two auctions and sold the lion’s share of our belongings, but we always had a place to live and way more stuff than we can use.

Suffering.

Life will always have struggles. And while I can identify certain struggles that will follow and impact me for the rest of my life—consequences of poor decisions—I can also several blessings in my life. I am married to an amazing man who blesses me every day. I have two daughters and three grandchildren who bring me immeasurable joy. I have the best friends in the world. I am privileged to serve and pastor a wonderful group of people. I’m reasonably healthy.

How will I use my life, with all its blessings, to ease some other person’s suffering?

At each of the stations there will be an item the participants will take away with them. When they are in the Garden they will receive a hand (a construction paper cutout). They will be invited to write the name of a person or group who is suffering on the hand and then ask God how they can be his hands to that person or group.

I know you don’t have the video. I know you can’t hear the music. But you can hear His voice. Whose suffering can you ease today? Will you let him write that name on your hands and in your heart?

 

 

Lenten Thoughts: Purpose

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For a while I thought I was depressed. Life changed drastically for me when I lost my job in 2008. In part, I think the trauma was due to the fact I found my identity in what I did. The challenges of the work gave me purpose. I felt vital and alive. Losing my job meant I lost my sense of purpose.

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I used to teach groups of people how to write their mission statements. We didn’t start with that. We would back up and talk about finding their passion in life and for life. When it came to putting that passion into a working purpose or mission statement, I would teach the difference between a goal (short term) and a mission statement (life-long driving force). A mission or purpose statement is something you can see devoting your whole life to. It is true now and will be true in twenty, thirty, even fifty years.

Reflecting on this, I wasn’t really depressed. I was just adrift and going nowhere because I had taken my eyes off the map. I thought without the job I wouldn’t be able to follow my purpose and mission. I forgot the job wasn’t the only vehicle to get me where I needed to be. I forgot that the whether I’m teaching or cleaning toilets, it is the purpose or mission God has for my life that matters and he will provide me with the opportunities I need. I forgot God is the one who gifts me and directs me to use those gifts.

I was reading about John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel. I don’t think there are many who would sign up for John’s job—especially if they knew how it was going to end for him. Yet, even in the briefest of ministries, John paved the way by preparing the people for the emergence of Jesus’ life-changing ministry.

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This reminds me of relief pitchers in baseball. These days few will pitch a whole game. That’s not their job. It’s not why they were hired. Some of those guys will only throw a few pitches and the next thing we see is the coach headed to the mound. Those couple of precisely placed pitches are what the reliever gets paid the big bucks for. It’s their purpose.

Now, dust off your imagination and try and picture your favorite baseball team has made it to the playoffs! And they did it not just on their bats, but on their pitching. But now that they’ve made it to the biggest games, the team’s relievers and closers have decided they want more playing time and they’ve threatened to not play at all if they don’t get the opportunity to pitch a whole game. How crazy is that? How dare they hold the game hostage for their whims?

The apostle Paul, in his discussion of gifts, makes this statement: “But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it (1 Corinthians 12:18, NLT).” Right there with the assurance we all have a part, we’re told that we are placed right where He wants us.

Perhaps that’s why we need to bloom where we’re planted—to trust God’s process, timing, and purpose.
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Lenten Thoughts: Rhythm

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Rhythm. I never spell that word right. Perhaps if I were a heart specialist spending my days examining and checking rhythms, or a professor of music, pounding out rhythms to students, I would find the word more natural to use and spell. As hard, though, as it is to wrap my brain around spelling it, it’s even harder for me to wrap my spirit around it.

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As I reflected upon rhythm, I was reminded of the movie, “Kate and Leopold.” In the movie a man from the past is transported to modern day. His presence changes the life of a marketing executive who is all push and drive. Late in the movie, when Kate finally believes who Leo is, she asks him what he misses from his time. He tells her he misses the pace and rhythm of life.

When Jesus looked out on the crowd, he was moved with compassion. He saw how horribly out of sync they were with the Father and he told them: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

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I’m a pairs junkie. I love to watch great partners dance. I am easily sucked into watching pairs figure skating. I don’t think they televise nearly enough pairs/doubles tennis. I love to see how two become one. It’s as if they transcend anticipating the other’s moves and begin to beat as one. I think that’s what Jesus was inviting the people, inviting us, to do.

I remember a night, several years ago, I got home from work and I was spent. I had put in three twelve hour days in a row. I wanted to crash, but my then three year old grandson was here. I love him. He is the most fun thing on earth. His favorite thing to do was chase. We ran through the house like race cars. That night he was lapping me because I just didn’t have the energy to keep up. After his mommy picked him up, I sat down to type a devotional. I had written most of it earlier in the day. I felt good about being ahead. When I went to save what I typed, I hit “don’t save.” And just that quickly, it was all gone. I sat in my chair, staring at the blank computer screen in disbelief. I was so tired that I erased everything. I was totally spent, completely mentally and physically weary.

We can become just as weary spiritually by keeping a pace we were not designed for. Think about it. Back in the Garden, what did God and Adam do? They weren’t practicing for a marathon. They walked together. Enoch walked with God, and was no more. Jesus walked with the two on the Emmaus Road. It seems God’s pace is very different from our own. Then when we might expect God to walk, he ran. He ran out to meet the wayward Prodigal Son to welcome him home.

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Unforced rhythms of grace. I love that phrase. As I think about it, I am aware of the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock across the room. Its beat is so natural and reassuring. It’s very unlike the beat when I worked at Curves. To keep people working out at a healthy clip, the music has to be within a specific beat—fast. Some of the remakes of songs make me laugh, because those songs were never intended to be sung as fast as our beat requires. Think about “O Holy Night” or “Word of God Speak” at 180 beats per minute. Ludicrous. Ridiculous. Unnatural.

So is much of our living. The problem is this: sometimes we are called to a fast paced life. The demands require much of us. I would never presume to say we need to return to the pace of the Amish (though recently, the thought held some intrigue for me). I would, however, suggest that we need to check ourselves. Can we honestly say with Paul, “’For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28, NIV)”? That’s what Jesus was inviting us to. When we live life at our pace, we are out of sync with the Creator of life, and we will always feel out of step.

If we are tired of being tired, perhaps the solution is to find those unforced rhythms of grace and learn how they will work in our lives.

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