Yea, Though I Walk…

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4a KJV)

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The world is waking up to a global pandemic as I write this. Over 100,000 cases worldwide have been diagnosed; thousands have died. Projections are dire, with the possibility of millions of people who will need to be quarantined or hospitalized, and several thousands more dead before the year is out. Panic has already set in– people are hoarding cleaning supplies, stealing medicines and masks from hospitals, demanding testing long before they show any symptoms, and spreading rumors and false information about how the disease is spread or ways to prevent its spread.

In the midst of chaos, fear-mongering, and panic, the Bible provides both comfort and practical wisdom to face times of struggle and crisis. Psalm 23, often used to comfort people in times of grief, actually says a lot more about life than death. We have no need to panic– even though we find ourselves in unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening situations.

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“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

  • Yea, though–Not “if”, or even “when” I walk through tough times, but “though.” Death is inevitable and unpredictable, and the shadow of death, the threat of our mortality, will fall on us, often when we least expect it. Even without a traumatic event, like a pandemic, we all must travel this valley path at some point. A crisis like COVID-19 is unsettling, but death and disease wasn’t invented last year, and whatever steps we take to prevent or treat COVID-19 will not stop death or its shadow from touching our lives. Nor will panic and fear, denial, or wishful thinking make death’s shadow dissipate. It is wise to face the reality of this crisis with truth and the proper perspective.
  • I–Not “we.” We are surrounded by others who may share much of our fear, our grief, or our confusion at a time like this. But, when we walk through this valley, it is deeply personal, and our reactions, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions will be uniquely experienced. One of the most difficult things about times of crisis is the isolation we may feel when others cannot enter into our thoughts and hearts and painful emotions. Especially when they are dealing with similar fears and pain. Not only is this valley dark and low, it is often narrow. Even so, God is still present and powerful. We can turn to others for advice, comfort, or even excuses. But no one else can walk the road beneath our feet; no one else can choose whether we will focus on the shadows we see or the light beyond the shadows.
  • Walk through— There is a great temptation to try to hurry through any crisis– to look for the shortcut– the immediate cure; the escape hatch; the high ground; the detour. God’s love doesn’t give us the promise of ease and escape. God does not ask us to sprint through this part of our life’s journey. But God gives us the grace and power to keep walking– this valley is not the destination, but part of the longer race. This leg of the journey is difficult; there will be darkness, rocks and walls closing in on us; we may feel the cold finger of death, disease, and loss. Some days our walk may feel more like a crawl–but take heart and keep moving through.
  • The Valley of the Shadow of Death–Death is stark, uncompromising, cold, and overwhelming. Its shadow looms huge and oppressive. But the valley is not death; the shadow is NOT death; and even the reality of death is not bigger or more powerful or more eternal than God. COVID-19 will bring death to many thousands or millions of people, and it will bring sickness, fear, pain, grief, and distress to many more. But it cannot kill God– it cannot dim His great love for each person who suffers; it cannot catch God off guard and unprepared. We may question God’s timing and purpose. We may face hardship, loss, and confusion in the days and months ahead. But we will not face anything– even COVID-19– that can weaken God’s sovereignty. The same hand that raised Lazarus from the dead; the same power that rolled the stone away at Easter; the same Shepherd that led David all the days of his life–the One who holds galaxies in his hand and has numbered every hair on your head–He walks through this valley with us!
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As God gives us wisdom, let us seek positive ways to reach out to those in crisis. Pray! Pray often, and fervently for those who are sick, and those who work in healthcare. Pray for wisdom, that our nations, regions, and communities will respond proactively and compassionately. And pray for opportunities to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy.

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Resent, Relent, or Repent…

We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.

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There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.

Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”

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But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”

If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.

Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.

Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.

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It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.

But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!

Hearts, Hype, Hatred, and Hope

Today marks the celebration of St. Valentine– Valentine’s Day. It is a day of hearts and flowers, romantic dinners and gifts, all celebrating love and marriage. Many people choose to marry on Valentine’s day; many more choose this day to propose marriage (my dad did, in fact, and he and my mom were married just a few months later in 1963).

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Gifts have gotten more elaborate and expensive over the years, though there are many who choose simple, homemade gifts or cards, as well. Advertisers promote their products as being perfect expressions of romance and love–diamonds, lacy nightwear, expensive candle-lit dinners, vacations, deluxe tool boxes, cars, spa treatments–if a new broom or pair of socks can be made to look romantic, look for them to be advertised as “perfect” for this year’s gift.

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I have a long and difficult history with Valentine’s Day. I remember, as a school girl, being forced to choose, sign, and address valentine cards for every person in my class at school. Some were easy enough, but I had to send cards to classmates I didn’t like; classmates who teased or bullied me, or were just “icky.” I think most parents did the same, but I noticed that I rarely got cards back from everyone, and sometimes, the “icky” kids only got two or three cards, which they hid away in their desk or threw away. I never knew if they were glad to have gotten the few cards, or if they were embarrassed and hurt (especially if they had no cards to give to anyone).

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As a young woman, I disliked Valentine’s Day for its way of sorting out the “loved” from the “unloved.” I was loved by my parents, and liked by friends and colleagues, students and neighbors. But every 14th of February, I was reminded painfully that I was not considered “loveable” by the young men buying candy, flowers, or engagement rings. Year after year passed with no gifts, no dates, nothing to signify that I was worthy of romantic love or attention. As I write this, I know there are millions of young women who are facing pain and rejection today, where they might feel confident and happy on any other, normal, day.

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This year, Valentine’s Day seems like a bad joke– talk of love and romance rings very hollow when I see the amount of hatred being spread on social media. Should I feel “loved” if I receive a card from someone who spews hatred and death wishes for people they barely know because of something they said about politics or the environment? If I followed my parents’ rules and bought valentine cards for everyone at the office, would I be brave enough (or foolish enough) to send them?

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The original St. Valentine (though this is disputed and there may be more than one martyr with the same name from around the same time) is believed to be a young martyr who was beaten, stoned to death, and beheaded for marrying young Roman soldiers against the mandate of his emperor. It was felt that soldiers would fight better if they were unmarried and unencumbered by family ties, but soldiers who had converted to Christianity wanted to live pure lives, married to one woman, and faithful to their vows. St. Valentine was committed to helping these men and women live their new found faith and show love for each other, and for God. For that, he was jailed and sentenced to die a horrible death. There were no greeting cards, no diamonds, no spa treatments on that day. There was suffering, death, sacrifice, humiliation, and loss. And plenty of hatred.

But St. Valentine’s death had quite the opposite effect than the emperor intended. God’s love has a way of shining brighter for being targeted, tormented, and beaten down. Real love doesn’t show itself in new clothes, hothouse flowers, or candle-lit dinners. It shows itself in a pouring out of self, and being willing to suffer for others– even those who do not love us back.

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This Valentine’s Day, I live in hope that Christians around the world will demonstrate the true love that comes from God– a love that practices Grace, Kindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Patience, and Joy, even in the face of Hatred and Evil. Hatred shouts and raises its fists. Let Love whisper and reach out hands of service. Let Love kneel and pray for our enemies, and bless those who curse us. Let love be ready to die rather than spread hatred and return evil for evil.

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Love One Another (1 John 3:11-24 ESV)

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers,[a] that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God,[b] and God[c] in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

Dust in the Wind

Several years ago, there was a popular song lamenting that, “all we are is dust in the wind.” The song evokes a feeling of helplessness– we are weak, small, and helpless as dust in the wind. It speaks of impermanence, brevity, sadness, and hopelessness in the face of forces greater than ourselves, and offers a warning not to “hang on” to earthly vanities.

The Bible speaks to this –God told Adam in the Garden of Eden that he would die and return to the dust from which he was formed (Genesis 2:7 and 3:19). Abraham was told that his seed would be “like the dust of the earth;” spread out across the earth and unable to be counted. The book of Job is filled with images of dust and ashes, as Job, homeless and afflicted, sits covered in them, talking of his life and death, and the emptiness of loss.

But there are surprisingly few references to dust in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples to visit cities, and where the people will not listen, the disciples are to leave and “shake the dust from (their) feet” as a testimony against them (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5)

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There are two aspects of dust I want to look at today. First, as the song suggests, dust is carried along by the wind. It has no permanence, no weight, no importance, no resistance, and is swept away by a chance wind, or by design with a broom or dust cloth. Dust is not cherished, but discarded. But dust is not destroyed by the wind– it is carried, lifted, moved, and dispersed, but not destroyed. The dust of today will be somewhere else many generations from now, and the dust that settles on our floors, tables, and under the bed may have been blown there from thousands of miles and centuries away! In just such a way, our lives– fragile and brief, leave traces of words spoken, kindnesses shared, and sacrifices made, that live long after our bodies return to ashes and dust. There is an amazing glory in a mote of dust carried by the stillness into a beam of sunlight. It sparkles and dances and drifts in a graceful spiral, suspended in light and air. And there is glory in a life lived in the light, seeking stillness and grace, being carried by the slightest whisper of God’s eternal love.

Secondly, dust that is not in motion, not in the light, IS discarded, unwanted, corrosive, and dead. There is no glory in layers of accumulated dust covering the beauty of an antique dresser or building up in the corner of a room. Dust that is NOT carried on the wind sits, worthless and destructive. It gets absorbed into an unsightly pile of sad, dead matter, and it sits– going nowhere, doing nothing. We shake it off, brush it off, wash it off, sweep it away, and get rid of it.

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Dust comes from death– dead skin cells, dead plant and animal matter–and I think there is a very real reason it is mentioned so often in connection with sin, sickness, unbelief, judgment, and death (though not in all cases). God does not want to leave us unmoved and dead– He wants to bring us to glory and give us new life in Him. We are dust in the wind– but that is not all we are. Instead, it is what we are for a brief moment in time– being carried to a new destination, or sinking and settling into despair.

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I pray that we will be lifted up in prayer and faith today, to dance in the light of God’s glorious grace, and carry our mote of glory and grace to wherever God my send us.

“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. And every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which seems to be singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse.

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What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey?

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

Hot Dogs and Eutychus..

There is a curious story in the Bible about the Apostle Paul and a young man named Eutychus. https://www.gotquestions.org/Eutychus-in-the-Bible.html. The story is found in Acts 20:7-12, and involves a young man listening to the Apostle Paul. As Paul talks on into the night, the young man, sitting in the third story window, falls asleep, falls out of the window, and plummets to his death. Luke, who authored the the gospel which bears his name and the book of Acts, was a doctor, and an eyewitness of this event. He clearly states that Eutychus died from his fall. But Paul runs outside and brings Eutychus back to life, returning inside to finish his talk and eat with the crowd– who are amazed and relieved to have their friend alive and well.

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Luke’s story doesn’t say whether or not Eutychus was alone in the third story window, or leaning against a wide window frame or perched precariously before he fell into “a deep sleep.” I have always imagined him perched comfortably leaning against the side of a wide and open window frame, one leg drawn up and the other dangling as he listened to Paul speak. As the night wore on, he may have slouched a bit, or even turned to lean his whole back against the frame, pulling both legs up onto the wide ledge. My mental picture may be completely wrong, but I don’t think of him hugging a narrow space and sitting tense and clinging before sleep claimed him.

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A few days ago, I referenced an old hymn knows as “The Solid Rock” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand. ” One of the lines of the hymn states, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.” But the flip side of this is that Jesus IS the solid rock and the “frame” on which we can both stand and rest secure.

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I was reminded today of another old hymn; one that I heard as a child and did not understand at all. Have you ever heard a new song, and completely mis-heard the lyrics? As a young child, I often heard hymns sung that were old to the adults but “new” to me. This was one of them. I paid little attention to the first verse, but the chorus!?! I was sure the congregation was singing, “Wienies (the word my grandparents sometimes used for hot dogs)! Wienies! Wienies on the everlasting arms…” It sounded like a righteous chorus of hot dog vendors at a baseball game. I giggled and snorted, and my grandmother, who was standing next to me, quietly leaned over and asked what I found so funny. When I explained it to her, she too began to giggle a little, and we shared a (quieter) giggle and smiles throughout the rest of the hymn. (Sacrilegious, I know, but it seemed very funny to a five-year-old.) Later, my grandmother lovingly explained the hymn–turning a “silly” song into a wonderful testament of God’s tender, loving care that touches me to this day.

I don’t recommend to anyone that they trust themselves to a window frame, a third story balcony, a too-comfortable seat at the theater, or to hot dogs eaten in bleacher seats at the baseball game. God doesn’t call us to get comfortable! Even if we are listening, and trying to follow Jesus, we may still fall– literally, like Eutychus, or figuratively. We may misunderstand, or get confused or weary and lose our focus. We may put ourselves at risk by leaning on the wrong frame.

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God could have kept Eutychus from falling from that third story window, but I believe He meant for that story to come down through the ages. It is not just a miracle, and a testament to the power of God and given to the Apostle Paul. It is a great reminder that even when we are trying to listen and follow God, we can still end up trusting in the wrong things and “falling asleep”. But no matter how far we fall, or how broken or “dead” we may seem to be, God sees us, cares for us, and wants to give us new life! We can rest “safe and secure from all alarms” when we remain in (or return to) the reassuring, everlasting arms of our Savior.

Some days, I feel like Eutychus– lying broken and useless three stories below where I began. Other times, I feel like a confused hot dog vendor, calling out to God for “Wienies”, when I really need Wisdom and Grace. But God is faithful to bring me back time after time, wrapping me in his amazing “Everlasting Arms”:

The Truth Hurts

“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

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

Bringing in the Leaves

It’s fall here in western Michigan, and that means falling leaves…lots of them!  In cities and larger towns, there are leaf “pick up” schedules.  Trucks come along at appointed times to pick up leaves that have been raked and piled up by the roadside or placed (along with other yard waste, sticks and such) into waste bins. In smaller towns and around the countryside, leaves will be raked, piled up and burned or placed in compost heaps and bins.  In a few cases, leaves will be left where they fall or are carried by the wind until the snow covers them, to be rediscovered in the spring when the snow melts off.

pave covered on red leaf between trees
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Falling leaves are part of the cycle of every year.  They announce the advent of autumn, delighting us with their colors for a few short weeks.  But when that task is done, they fall beneath our feet to be stepped on, swept up, burned up or forgotten.  Gone are the memories of shoots and buds blooming in the spring, or rich green leaves shading us from the intense heat and light of summer. Leaves are ephemeral.  They pass out of memory and time, their swirling colors lost in a heap of crunchy detritus underfoot.

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People are not leaves.  We share the same creator, but God has placed eternity in the minds, hearts, and souls of humankind.  Whether we are blooming, changing color, falling, or being swept aside in this world, God will gather us all in a great harvest of souls.  But we will not be turned to ash or mulched into compost.  We face an eternal destiny; one where our true “colors” will be permanent, and our placement fixed.  We will either be raised to vibrant life, attached to the source of life and abundance; or we will be eternally “fallen”, swept away by judgment and guilt and the consequences of rebellion.

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That may sound harsh and dramatic, but it is written in our soul–we feel it as we watch the withering leaves let go of the tree or smell the acrid of the burn pile.  We feel the pain and injustice of people being treated like no more than dead leaves– swept away as just another inconvenience.

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Today, I want to look for fallen leaves–we are all “fallen” from Grace, but some have also “fallen” through the cracks or by the wayside–look for people and seek ways I can pray for, reach out to, and offer Hope and Grace, especially to those whom life has swept aside.  Someone did it for me…Now it’s time to pass it forward.  It’s time to turn over a new “leaf”.  Let’s not “leave” the job unfinished–“branch” out beyond our comfort zone and bring in some leaves this autumn!

 

Surprise!

Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party?  Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”.  Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration.  (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)

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Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party?  Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father.  It required several months of planning.  We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends.  We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions.  All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing.  Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up.  We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.

 

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Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident.  The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration.  We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead.  With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan.  It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other.  Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away.  From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other.  The first several minutes were surreal and jarring.  But it was also cathartic.  As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt.  Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.

Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother.  Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event.  As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion.  All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time.  Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.

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What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties.  We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.

But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge.  “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party.  But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans?  When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome.  When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences.  What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing.  God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives.  Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.

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If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness.  And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing.  But we learned so many things that day.  We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way.  We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources.  We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt.  But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.

If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom.  If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life.  Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder.  We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.

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God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time.  He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds.  It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation.  Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.

As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way.  And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.

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