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?

 

 

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TGIF…No really, thank God

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But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NASB)

That’s what today is all about.

It’s Friday. Jesus is made to carry his cross. They pound nails into his flesh. He hangs there and dies an excruciatingly painful death. And he dies.

He loves. And he dies.

He is the sacrifice to atone–to bring into one. My sin, your sin, our choices to feed our selfishness and our greed have separated us from the One who not only created us, but loves us.

But he didn’t wait to do that after we sinned. He did it before. He did it with us in mind. He did it for us. He did it because of us.

This was God’s plan from before time began.

That’s how much he loves me. That’s how much he loves you.

At our darkest point, he loved us…loves us. Provides for us.

That’s grace. That’s amazing.

PRAYER: On this solemn day, we say thank you for the expanse and expense of your love. Amen.

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Waiting through Suffering

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV)

I did a search for images of suffering. I was in the library. I sat there and wept.

Suffering is all around us.

I’m not talking about hangnails, hair loss, and hurt feelings.

I’m talking about life crushing brokenness.

But no matter where our suffering falls on the scale of horribleness…no matter what or how we suffer, it can’t be compared to the glory that will come.

What if we would opt to look at the suffering in our lives like these teeter totter acrobats? The heavier the weight of suffering, the higher we will soar…the greater the glory to be revealed.

I know some people who are ready to fly. God knows it too, and he’s got the glory ready.

PRAYER: God, I don’t understand suffering. Help us to trust you even when we don’t understand, even when glory is the furthest thing from our minds. Help us to endure as you endured…to your honor and glory and hope. Amen.

Ponderings

I’m sorry.

I have been writing.

Well, rewriting, anyway.

Right after the bombing and goings on in Boston, I wrote a response to some of the hate-filled things that I saw coming from people of faith…my faith. As a person who has been forgiven much, and one whose life has been characterized by peace-making, I was deeply troubled.
God seemed to be holding me to the thoughts because I kept coming back to the themes of love and brotherly kindness, grace and forgiveness—but even with that I just didn’t feel the release to post. It was as if it needed to percolate a little while longer.

Then this week in Cleveland three young women, who have been missing a decade or more, were found and freed. All of the newscasts on every channel have been totally dedicated to covering every detail over and over and over. As with Boston, it didn’t really matter if the news was new, it seemed to be necessary to repeat it.

One of the things I quickly noticed that the coverage in Cleveland had with the news coverage of the Boston disaster was a question that was being asked often and loudly: how could this happen? Why? I began to lift my voice and found myself asking the question the prophet Habakkuk asked as well: How long, Lord? How long will you allow evil to get the upper hand?

I wish I had an answer. God was pretty clear with Habakkuk that he wasn’t going to like the answer because in Habakkuk’s case things got much worse. God allowed the Babylonians to sweep in and take the Hebrew children captive. I can’t image that message preached very well.
Recently, while translating Ephesians from the Greek with a friend, we found ourselves in a discussion about predestination. Not a place I usually like to go, because I don’t get it. On the one hand there is abundant scriptural evidence for the lavish love of God, demonstrated in grace and mercy. But there is also the story of Job, the painful experience of Naomi, the unfair treatment of Joseph’s brothers, and all the misery Paul endured while trying to grow the church of Christ. History is full of examples of persecution—some of it even coming at the hands of the Church!
I do not understand why God allows his followers to suffer. I don’t know why, if God is all knowing (and I believe he is), he wouldn’t stop someone from committing destructive acts against another person. I realize that I often learn lessons best when they are hard, when they cost me. Hard lessons don’t seem to be solved by easy answers. I’ve found in most cases the tough questions continue to hang out there defying any answer at all.

This is as close to pessimism as I come. Because when I get this close I immediately turn the other way. I’m not foolish enough to belief that it’s going to go away just because I chose not to dwell on it. Realistically, though, I know that there is very little I will ever do to rid the world of evil. That being said there are still things I can and must do:

1. I will forgive. No one has ever gained anything good by harboring an unforgiving spirit. It is a poison that kills the one who carries it. Jesus was pretty clear that with the same portion we forgive others, we will be forgiven. I choose to be extravagant because I know how much I need.

2. I will pray for my enemies. I will not allow hate to percolate in my heart. I will lift them before the throne of grace.

3. I will thank God for all the circumstances in my life. Nowhere does it state in scripture that I will understand why things happen. Faith doesn’t exempt me from suffering. Both Peter and Paul are pretty clear that there is a measure of worthiness involved when we suffer. James takes it one step further by instructing the believers to count it all joy when trials enter into their lives.

4. I will hold onto my “nevertheless” faith. When the three Hebrew servants faced the fiery furnace, they were clear with the king that their faith was still strong, and even if God did not save them from the fire, nevertheless they would hold strong. Habakkuk put it this way:

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
And there are no grapes on the vines;
Even though the olive crop fails,
And the fields lie empty and barren;
Even though the flocks die in the fields,
And the cattle barns are empty,
YET I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength! (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)

That’s a pretty bleak picture. It’s a pretty clear “no matter what” coming from the prophet.

Jesus was looking for that same faith in his disciples. At the very end of his time with them before the crucifixion, he looked at them and said: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NLT)

Peace will not be found in this world. It only brings turmoil and trouble. Real peace can only be found in Jesus and the knowledge that he invites to a life that will go beyond this world.

I don’t feel like I solved any great mystery here. I’m still troubled by the quick judging and slow forgiving. But I feel more grounded. I am reminded what I need to hold onto, and what I am to let go—to give to God. And perhaps that will be enough. For now…it is.