“Why, God!?”

why god

“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

woman at the well

The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.

The Suffering of Christmas

candles

Christmas:  a time for joy and a time for cheer…  But, unfortunately, it is also a time of profound loneliness and a yearning of days gone by for many people.  A few years back, I received a call on Christmas Day.  One of my parishioners was stretching out to put the angel on top of the family Christmas tree, and fell over dead from a heart attack.  The family’s Christmas will never be the same again, a weird mix, a strange amalgam of both happiness and heartache.  Tragedy that occurs around the holidays makes all future holidays awkward and different.

I have also known folks who were expecting a juicy Christmas bonus, finding instead a pink slip and a surprise lay-off from their job.  Children of divorce probably know the strangeness of the holiday the most, being shuttled here and there obtaining more gifts than they need but more bitterness than they want.  For every one of us who look forward to Christmas Day, there is another who dreads facing another season with unpleasant memories of what happened and what could have been….

Whether Christmas is chiefly joyous for one or sorrowful for another, the bald fact of the matter is that we all suffer in some way.  Let me offer a definition/description of suffering for you to ponder:

Suffering occurs when someone or some circumstance acts against your will and damages either your body, mind, soul, spirit, or all/part of them, creating the great need for healing.

Suffering creates a portal, an opening to either love or hate.  It brings us to the point of decision:  We did not choose suffering; it chose us.  But the choice for healing is very much in our control.  Suffering is an event, maybe even extended over time, which will make us either bitter, or better – it’s your choice.

There are numerous people who will offer you a cup of bitterness, the sour wine vinegar which will dull the pain.  Jesus had such an offer while he hung on the cross, and he refused it.  Nothing was going to stand in the way of his full faculties experiencing the vicarious suffering for our sins.  Dulling the pain doesn’t bring healing; it only makes us forget for a time and just prolongs actual healing.

Instead, the wise choice is to take charge of your life and choose the hard path of healing.  There is a world of difference between the pain that is forced upon us, and the pain which we choose so that we become better and healthy.  The pain of violation must be followed with the pain of healing.

A major way you know your choice of healing is happening is when your heart and life open-up to love, when the shape of grace begins to mold your soul and brings a reception to people who benevolently wait to help with kind words and ways.  Your sight becomes different.  The world becomes brighter.  Decisions are motivated more by love than by protection.  There is the willingness to persevere and patiently complete the process of healing and see it through to a new maturity.  You cease trying to manipulate others and focus more on your own responses to people and situations.  Every day becomes a fresh opportunity to love God by serving others.

Because God is love, and we are created in the image of God, this means we were designed to receive and to give love.  We are love, as well.  To not love is to buck our inherent design from the beginning of time.  We are not just to grit our teeth and force-out loving words and actions; we are to tap into the originality of our souls and be love.  The great task of the Christian life is to awaken to who we really are, to become a whole person, complete and mature.  The only means for this to happen is through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our great professor in the faith, knows that suffering is a teacher.

Far too many persons are perplexed as to why they still struggle and hurt.  They have prayed.  They have read the Bible.  They have tried, time and time again.  Hurt and pain might and is very personal; but healing is communal – it demands more than our own efforts.  Unless we open ourselves to the love of others, and risk putting our souls on the line, we will not realize the peace we long for and the mending of our spirits.

The first step is speaking to someone who is safe, someone for whom you trust, and telling them where you are in your soul – not making yourself look better than you are, and providing a real picture of the state of your life – and, not diminishing the very real abuse which occurred against you by saying others have it harder than you.  In other words, be real.  Humility and honesty will always serve you well.

Yes, it’s Christmas.  How will you choose to deal with it?

Luke 5:17-26

            Jesus came to this earth to forgive sin and transform sinners.  Today’s Gospel story has a paralyzed man brought to Jesus in an unorthodox way.  His two friends carried the man on a mat, but could not get close enough to Jesus to be noticed.  This was not about to stop the two friends.  They just took him to the roof, created a hole in it, and lowered the man right in front of Jesus!  Our Lord was impressed with their faith, healed the man, and said “My friend, your sins are forgiven.”
 
            There is a very important observation about this story that we need to notice:  the man was healed because of the faith of his friends.  Yes, that’s right.  Read the story again.  It was the faith of the two men in bringing their friend to Jesus that led to the healing and transformation.
 
            If this does not inspire, impel, and inform you to pray diligently by bringing your friends to Jesus in prayer I’m not sure what would move you.  Sometimes great miracles are not brought about by a lone person praying for his/her personal change but by believing people who do not give up in bringing their friend to Jesus.  Think of one person right now for whom God has laid him/her on your heart.  Pray today and every day until there is a breakthrough.  In the metaphorical sense, create a hole in the roof and place your friend in front of Jesus and watch what kind of healing and renovation of life he can affect.
 

 

            Healing God, I thank you for doing your good work of forgiving sins and transforming sinners in Jesus’ name.  I pray you will deliver my grandson from the scourge of epilepsy and give him a new life full of spiritual power through Jesus.  Amen.

Luke 8:40-56

            Today’s Gospel lesson is a classic story of Christ healing a chronically ill woman of her suffering, and raising a deal girl back to life.  This is Jesus the Healer and Miracle Worker doing what he does so well – bringing new life to people.  What these accounts have in common with all of the other chronicles of Christ’s miracles is that they occur with Jesus as the object of faith.  It isn’t about the level of people’s faith, but about where that faith is placed.  Faith itself means nothing if it isn’t in Jesus.  Only Jesus can do the miraculous of healing, transforming, and saving people.
 
            In each healing narrative, the person’s need and desperation (poverty of spirit) were the necessary first steps on the road of faith.  Faith always begins with the acknowledgment of need.  You and I need Jesus.  If Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, he will do it.  If Jesus came to change lives, he will accomplish it.  If Jesus is the living Lord of the church, he will hear your humble and heartfelt petition.  So, pray!
 
            Come to Jesus, and pray.  Pray without ceasing.  Pray for your children, your friends, your neighbors, and your co-workers.  Pray for healing, and pray for deliverance.  I know there are people and situations in which it seems there is no hope, or that nothing will ever be different.  But Jesus is trustworthy, and he always keeps true to his mission.  All who come to Jesus receive a changed life – and that is what I bank on.
 

 

            Surprising God, you do amazing things in people’s lives.  You specialize in the impossible.  Work in my life to make me holy and set apart for you, to be a conduit of blessing to others here on earth until Jesus comes again.  Amen.

Mark 7:24-30

            There are many times in our lives when not much happens until something becomes urgent.  A doctor, a preacher, or financial planner can tell us something until they are blue in the face, but it will not mean much without a profound inner sense that some sort of change needs to occur – that the way things are isn’t going to cut it any longer.
 
            Today’s Gospel lesson is a story of urgency.  Here is a Gentile Canaanite woman, a person who is about as far from God as one can get in the ancient world.  She was not concerned about appearances, etiquette, or any pretense to hide her pain; she cared about her daughter getting healed of her suffering.  So, she sought Jesus.  And the woman believed that Jesus was the answer to her daughter’s situation.  It was the dogged belief (pun intended) that Jesus will deliver.
 
            Grace is bestowed only to the humble that recognize the urgency of needing Jesus.  It is bestowed only in God’s good timing – not ours.  The real muster of a genuine faith is exemplified by a willingness to beg, and is demonstrated with perseverance in the face of the slimmest of odds.  A superficial reading of the story might lead us to think that Jesus’ initial response to the woman was elitist and aloof.  It seems to me that a better way of looking at it is that our faith will be tested to prove its authenticity.
 
            The woman displayed a raw, real, and persistent faith – the very faith that Jesus commended.  It makes me wonder how urgent I am in prayer.  I wonder what would happen if I prayed for one lost neighbor or relative every day with the same urgent persistence as the woman; or, if I begged God without giving up to heal my grandson’s epilepsy; or, if I persevered in prayer for revival.  Perhaps the real enemy of the Christian life is mediocrity and a false sense of acceptance that all is just fine the way it is – kind of like the Pharisees.
 

 

            Healing God, you are the hope of the church and of all who look to you in faith.  Please turn the world, and my world, upside-down with spiritual power that heals people of disease, depression, and demonic influence so that the kingdom of God breaks into all of life and does its transforming work in Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

Luke 4:38-44

            One of the most fundamental truths about the person of Jesus is that he healed all kinds of people.  Even people who know very little about the historical Jesus know that he was a guy who brought healing to people while he was here on this earth.  For many Christians, the fact that Christ healed people is almost a “ho-hum” moment because we are so familiar with the Gospel stories about him doing the supernatural.  Yet, like with most Scripture stories we encounter, we really need to slow down a bit and let the story sink in:  “Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.”
 
            Every one of them, Jesus healed.  There apparently was no disease, no infirmity, no sickness, no malady, and no situation that was too much for Jesus.  He healed every one of them.  Each and every person, without exception, no matter the problem, was healed by Jesus.  What is more, please notice how they came to Jesus:  All those who had any who were sick brought them to Jesus.  That is, it was the family, the friends, and the neighbors of the sick persons who brought them to Jesus for healing.
 
            We are not to simply exhort sick and infirmed people to look to Jesus for healing.  We are to bring them to Jesus ourselves.  Perhaps one of the main reasons we are not seeing more healing and new life in the Western church is because we are not bringing the needy to Jesus.  Maybe it is our lack of faith and action, and not the sick person’s that prevents healing from being realized.  Methinks that a profound dearth and lack of prayer for others might be at the core of all the physical, mental, and spiritual sickness that abounds.  Let us bring people to Jesus, and let him heal every one of them.
 

 

            Healing God, there is no problem you cannot rectify and no disease you cannot overcome.  I bring all those with cancer, chronic illness, and debilitating depression to you now, in Jesus’ name.  Let the healing come in whatever form you choose to bring it.  Amen.

The Price of Prayer

 
 
All of the Christian life is grounded in two important theological truths:  God is good; and, God acts powerfully in the world for good.  Prayer is based in the conviction that God is concerned to hear us; and, that he is able to respond and answer.  Prayer might be something that we can engage in at any time, but real God-focused, God-honoring prayer has a price.  It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and following through with action.  Biblical prayer is not just throwing up some private requests, but is an activity that requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus (James 5:13-20). 
 
            The entire church is to pray – all of us, the happy and the suffering, the healthy and unhealthy.  More specifically, the New Testament letter of James tells us that the leaders/elders of the church are to pray for those who are “sick” (James 5:14).  The word James used refers not just to a physical illness, but also to those who are weak and weary, those who are completely worn down because of their life circumstances.
 
            James provides a clear chain of responsibility.  The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church.  James clearly puts the need for communicating the situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble.  For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they do not do it.  But prayer has a price – it will cost us some openness.
 
            When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith on his/her behalf.  It is the leadership’s job to pray.  In the Bible, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement in which a tangible thing was being done in order to lift the person from the trouble.  Physical ailments of bodily sickness; sinful problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression; anything and everything that would cause a lack of health could be prayed over and people could be anointed and encouraged.
 
            Prayer for James was not a strictly private affair; it was a communal activity.  I want us to entertain the notion that if we are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health whether it is physical, relational, or spiritual, then maybe God is calling you and I to not only personal private prayer, but corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church.  It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.
 
            The goal of prayer is healing in its complete form:  physical, mental, emotional, relational, and, of course, spiritual.  Effective prayer results in reconciliation with others, and a restoration to the community of faith.  To bring those who wander from the truth back – to realize a return of a prodigal – will result because of prayer (James 5:19-20).
 
            In the past ten years, the American church has experienced a pronounced slide of people out the door.  According to Christian pollster, George Barna, 25% of the U.S. population now identifies themselves in the religious category of “none.”  They have no religious affiliation.  Many of them have left churches.  You already know this.  You know it because this is not a statistic to you.  You know some of the “nones” personally.
 

 

            What will you do about it?  Wish it were different?  Lament it?  Complain about it?  Or will you and your church pray with heartfelt, earnest, passionate, deliberate, sustained, and believing prayers so that prodigals will return and those who have wandered far from God will experience the grace of Jesus Christ?  Bring them back.  Do it with prayer.