Saturday, February 27, 2016

Suffering Well--Hope for the Homesick

When we first got married we moved to Mississippi so my husband could go to graduate school. While there we joined a church that was gifted with excellent teachers and loving friends. I felt more at home there than any place I've lived. Eight years later we moved away and I've adapted and had a lot of joyful experiences, but there has always remained a tinge of homesickness for my former church. When I read Daniel, I can't help but wonder if he experienced that same feeling I do.

Daniel and his young friends loved God and were committed to following hard after Him when King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and took them captive because they were among the healthiest, brightest, best looking, and wisest young men in Israel. The king commanded the men to be taken to Babylon where he changed their names, and ordered them to learn a new language and the ways of the Chaldeans.

I can't imagine being a captive and having my name changed. It would be like having someone try to wipe out my identity, my heritage, and my past experiences. Nor can I imagine what it felt like being taught about false gods and being expected to embrace them. This kind of indoctrination indicated that there wasn't plan for the young men to ever return home. It was a wise plan for a king, but a hard plan for the captives. In an effort to win the young men over, he ordered them to be housed in the palace and served from his own rich foods. But Daniel didn't want to be defiled by palace foods and requested the Jewish menu with which he has been raised. It was an important step, because the dietary laws were closely tied to worship and Daniel was subtly taking a stand and clinging to His God.

Daniel was made a ruler over a province when he interpreted a dream for the king and he placed three of his friends in leadership positions, stirring jealousy in the hearts of the locals. When the king made a statue to be worshiped, the Chaldeans  saw their chance to turn the king against Daniel's friends who refused to bow to the statue. The Chaldeans and told the king they wouldn't bow. The king became enraged and ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be brought to him. He threatened to make them fuel for a hot furnace and they still refused to bow so they were bound and cast in a furnace so hot it killed the guards throwing them in. But when the king gazed into the furnace He saw four men very much alive standing in the flames. In awe, he called the men out and gave glory to God who had stood with them, forbidding anyone to speak evil of their God.

When Darius came to power, the Chaldeans saw an opportunity to get rid of Daniel. Because they had seen Daniel praying, they asked the king to forbid people to petition anyone but Darius for a period of time. Faithful Daniel did as Daniel always did. He prayed to His God and as a consequence spent the night in a lions' den. When the king returned, he found Daniel unscathed and ordered the nation to fear Daniel's God.

Daniel and his three friends faced their suffering courageously and remained faithful to God despite their captivity and mistreatment. Their faith-life was so noticeably different that it irritated some and intrigued others. The young Jews stood strong in the face of persecution. We must remember, as humans, Shadrach, Mesheck, and Abednego didn't know if they were going to be burned or saved and Daniel didn't know if he would be eaten or or protected, but they chose to remain faithful to God.

Daniel 9 shares one of Daniel's prayers. It shows where his heart is in regard to God and the long captivity he endured. I am summarizing the prayer as I want to learn from it and I believe its appropriate for our time: "O Lord, you are great and awesome! You keep your covenants and love with a steadfast love. We've sinned, acted rebelliously, and turned aside from your commandments. We've not listened to the prophets who spoke in your name. Lord, to you belongs righteousness, but to us open shame because of the treachery we've committed against you. To you belongs mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against you. Because we transgressed your law and refused to obey your voice, the curse and oath written in the Law have been poured out upon us. You confirmed your words, which you spoke against us, by bringing upon us a great calamity, yet we have not entreated your favor by turning from our iniquities and gaining insight into your truth. Because of this you have kept the calamity upon us, for you are righteous in all your works. You brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and made your name great, but we've done wickedly. Lord, according to your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath turn away from Jerusalem. Because of our sins and iniquities of our fathers. Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among those around us. Please, God, listen to my prayer for mercy, and for your own sake, Lord, make your face shine upon your sanctuary. God, incline your ear and open your eyes to see our desolation. We don't plea because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. Lord, forgive, pay attention, and act, because your city and your people are called by your name." 

There are several lessons we can learn from Daniel and his friends. When given the choice of to obey man and live or obey God and die these men chose obedience, making it clear they trusted God and His plan for them. They didn't have foreknowledge; they simply knew and trusted their God. They didn't see captivity as an abandonment by God and chose to draw near to Him during it. Daniel's prayer showed us God was faithful and true to His word. He also came to realize that captivity wasn't due to a flaw in God's character, but a sin problem with Israel who lived in open rebellion at the time. Even though Daniel was obedient and faithful, he identified with the sin of his people and he humbly confessed it to God and pleaded for mercy on their behalf. As a faithful person, Daniel didn't show a sense of entitlement and demand justice for himself, Instead, he prayed for the restoration of Israel because she bore God's name and he wanted God's name to be magnified, not mocked.

When we face hardship, the enemy wants us to believe we're abandoned by God. When we're obeying and trusting, we may believe we are entitled to a life of ease. Oh, how we often forget we live in a country where babies are daily slaughtered, where families are disconnected from each other, where sexual integrity is challenged on every front, where gain is obtained through dishonest means, where more humans beings are being trafficked than ever before, and where the church has allowed itself to be more influenced by the world than the Word. If we are honest, we will admit we live in a culture not much different than Daniel's and many people who claim to be believers have resorted to bullying, shaming, and rejecting instead of loving and sharing the gospel of grace. I want so bad for us to be "Daniels" who look at the suffering and persecution beginning to happen as an invitation to return to the heart of our great God. I would hope we let suffering humble us and that we would begin to pray fervently, not for an end to our suffering, but for the suffering to do its godly work in us, in our churches, and in our nation. Suffering is never just about us, it is about a family,communities, churches, and countries and through suffering we know God is calling His people to trust Him and display His grace as never before. Whatever God has in store for us as a nation and whatever we endure, we will be blessed if we trust Him and respond to the calling to be intercessors and faithfully confess the sins of our families, our churches, our communities, and our nations. We tend to talk about "they" instead of realizing we have a shared identity with the "they" who carry out atrocities that bring on all of our heads great shame.

Daniel's prayer showed, as aged man, he still had a heart for his original 'home" much like I do for my Mississippi home. But as ambassadors of our great King, maybe the suffering and discontentment we feel living in a Godless nation will be used to draw our hearts and minds to our heavenly home so the prayers we pray will be from an eternal perspective instead of earthly, fleshly perspective that wants easy and wants safe.  In God, there is always hope for the homesick heart! In God, there is always peace and purpose to be found in the suffering.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Suffering Well Part 3--The Road Home (Ruth)

I love the story of Ruth because it contains characters both transparent and strong. It opens as Naomi and Elimelech move their family, which initiated a season of suffering for Naomi. She  left her home, her familiar God-worshipping community, and her extended family because the rains had ceased, thirsty plants were wilting, cows were starving, and her family  was experiencing  hunger they couldn't ease. They landed in Moab, a culture flooded by pagan worship. I imagine Naomi hoped the move was temporary, just until the rains began to fall again. While in Moab, her husband died and her two sons married Moabite women, killing her hopes of returning home.

After ten years Naomi had buried her husband and both of her sons. Her grief was unbearable and she wanted to move back to Judah. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their families so they could remarry. At first both protested, but she reminded them she was too old to bear sons to be their husbands. In her pain, she shared she believed the hand of her God had come against her. The three wept together and Orpah rose, kissing Naomi's cheek she returned to her family. But Ruth refused to leave, declaring allegiance to Naomi and her God. I love that in the pain of widowhood Ruth was willing to go with her husband's mother. Maybe by holding on to Naomi she held on to a bit of her husband. Maybe she had grown to love Naomi and didn't want her to leave her alone. Maybe she simply wanted to serve the older woman who had suffered even more loss that she had. What ever her reason, Ruth went even though she knew she might not be accepted.

The two women arrived in Bethlehem as barley fields were ready to harvest. Naomi was remembered and greeted and grieving deeply she asked to be called Bitter. I love her honesty. I have had friends who buried children and their were times their sadness was so deep and so raw they could barely breathe. There were times their anger felt like it would erupt like a volcano. There were times the anger and grief resolved into shame because they believed, as Christians, they shouldn't grieve so deeply. Naomi shows us the way out of the pain and the bitterness. It is to acknowledging it and walk through it with compassionate people who don't judge.

Ruth volunteered to glean the fields of Naomi's extended family to provide for Naomi, Boaz showed her favor by providing safety as she gleaned and by arranging for her to glean extra barley. Naomi realized Boaz had been gracious and devised a plan, seeking Boaz as a kinsman redeemer. He agreed and Boaz and Ruth married and had a son who was in the lineage of Christ.

I love this story because it is an honest account of real people like you and me. Naomi, had faced so much hard she had become bitter and openly acknowledged it. I understand bitterness. I've experienced it--it is that slow burning anger and pervasive negative point of view that clouds the ability to see good that resides with the bad. It takes crazy courage to acknowledge it aloud and it takes even more courage to admit we've lost our way in the midst of pain that taints our view of God.

I admire Ruth, because she chose to follow a bitter woman to a different culture, even though she herself had suffered huge losses. She didn't let Naomi's bitterness deter her and didn't let Naomi's tainted view of God deter her from trusting Him. She didn't let Naomi's desire to push others away deter her from loving her with a steadfast love.

I love Boaz and his great big heart. He treated the foreign woman with kindness and integrity. In the face of all the kindnesses being shown her, Naomi had a choices to make. She could remain bitter, deep complaining, and keep pushing people away, or she could acknowledge the  kindnesses, plan for the future, and trust the sovereignty of her God. Despite her pain, Naomi chose to acknowledge the love and grace she was receiving. And out of that she healed enough to remember she could initiate the kinsman-redeemer process. As a result of her choice, Naomi had the joy of bouncing a grandson on her knee. I can't help but think Naomi really took her first step out of the sea of bitterness back in Moab. She knew she was returning to a culture that worshiped the God by whom she felt abandoned. To go home meant she would be forced to deal with her feelings about God. Each step towards home was a step towards God.

When we face the loss of people we love, the loss of security, the loss of possessions, the loss of health, or the loss of dreams and our pain runs raw and threads of bitterness dig deep, we too can choose to suffer well by choosing to take a step towards the Savior. Maybe our step is going to be going to church when we least feel like it. Maybe it is attending home group where it is hard to conceal the truth of who and where we are. Maybe it is reaching out to a friend and telling her the truth about the negative mess running through our head, the hot feelings overwhelming us, and the desire to give up. Those things may be the path that leads to our suffering well. For bringing our darkness into His light allows His light to dissipate the darkness inside. Being honest about pain is not just a protest of our reality, it is a declaration that we believe our God is big enough to bear our pain, understanding  enough to show us His grace, and faithful enough to comfort us with His love. Being transparent  exposes the lies tainting our views and allows us to realign our thinking with His. Moving towards God allows God to insert His joy in the midst of our hard. Moving towards God keeps us on the road home.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Suffering Well-- Part 2: A Man Like Joseph

There is a man named Jacob whose family was one hot mess. To start with he had fallen in love with a woman and worked seven years to marry her. But his father-in-law substituted his older daughter for the bride and he had to work another seven years for the one he loved. For several years the loved was barren and the unloved wife was birthing sons to earn love. Eventually there were twelve sons in all--two from the loved and 10 from the unloved.

So the family had two wives vying for one man's affection and Jacob who himself made some serious parenting mistakes. He loved one son, Joseph, more than his other sons and he made him a colorful coat, conveying his favoritism. Second, when Jacob sent his older sons out to tend sheep, he sent
Joseph to check on them and the reports he gave Jacob weren't always favorable and who likes a  tattle tale?.

Then there was a matter of dreams. God gave Joseph dreams, indicating his brothers would all bow in submission to him. Being 17, he did what teens would do--he bragged. In the midst of a family with two wives competing, a dad with rotten parenting skills, a son prone to bragging, and slew of sinful natures smoldering, the sibling rivalry grew into a great big, ugly hatred. 

After the coat giving, the dream bragging, and the hatred growing, Jacob sent Joseph once again to check on his brothers. When they saw him coming, they plotted to kill him and planned to tell their dad he was killed by an animal. But one brother with a smidgen  of integrity left suggested they  throw him in a pit instead. When Joseph arrived, they stripped him of his identity as the favored one when they stole his coat. They threw him into a pit and sat down to eat, which showed just how hard their hearts had become and how deeply rooted their hatred was When a caravan traveling to Egypt came, they pulled Joseph from the pit and sold him as a slave, showing his bloodied coat to their dad and Jacob grieved the grief parents grieve on losing a child.

That seems like enough hurt for one person to go through for a lifetime. But, there was more suffering in the story God penned. Joseph was bought by Potiphar, the captain of the guard and  Potiphar realized God was with Joseph and put him over his whole house. Potiphar's wife tries to seduce him and he runs away as she grabs his outer garment. Angered by  rejection,  she claimed he  attacked her and her lie lands Joseph in prison. He rose to leadership in the prison and ruled with integrity over other prisoners. Two prisoners dreamed dreams Joseph interpreted. One was released and promised to remember him, but didn't. Not until Pharaoh dreamed dreams no one in Egypt could  interpret. The freed prisoner tells about Joseph and Joseph is summoned to interprets the dreams that revealed seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh makes Joseph a ruler and tells him to prepare Egypt for the famine and he does.

As I read, I wished the story were written by a woman because a woman would have told us what Joseph thought and what he felt. But the story makes Joseph seem super human. Initially, we aren't told about his grief and I wonder if his grief  was overshadowed by his need to survive. We aren't told about anger that would kindle in a human heart betrayed by one's own flesh, that was falsely accused of rape, and that was forgotten and left in prison. Maybe it was because he focused on the steadfast love of God and His blessings that were poured out on him in each circumstance he faced.

As a human, Joseph had choices to make. He could put his eyes on the injustices he experienced and the suffering he endured or He could put them on God who was at work in His life. He could choose to focus on people who did him wrong and grow a hatred of his own or he could focus on God who is sovereign and in control of what appeared a mess. He could choose to lie in bed at night and plot the revenge his brothers deserved or allow God to fill him with peace and grace freeing him to be who God created him to be. He could focus on the mistakes his dad made, showing favoritism and asking him to tattle or he could choose to forgive. He could focus on his dream-bragging ways and hate himself or he could focus on Gods grace and allow Him to grow humility that could dissipate the pride that had dwelled in his young heart. 

We eventually get a glimpse of the pain Joseph endured. During the famine his brothers knocked on his  door to buy grain. He recognized them, but they didn't know him. Joseph devised a plan to get them to bring his youngest brother to him. When they returned he invited them to a feast. When Joseph saw Benjamin, he was overcome by emotion and ran from the room to weep. When he decided to tell his brothers, he was so overcome with emotion that he wept so loud the whole household of pharaoh heard him. He revealed his identity and his brothers returned home to bring their dad and their families to live in Egypt under Joseph's rule. Joseph extended them grace, telling them what they meant for evil, God meant for good.  

There are several things we can  take from Joseph's story. First, God's plans will not be thwarted by man's schemes. The brothers bowed to the bother they sold. A modern story that also reflects this truth  is the Jim Elliot and Steve Saint story. God sent them to people as His witness and the people  murdered them. But God wanted these people's hearts and sent their wives and families back and  used them and their grace to win the people's heart. That abuser. That user. That slanderer. That betrayer. That murderer. They cannot stop God's plans.

Second, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in God is a God who blesses. God blessed Joseph in Egypt. He blessed him in Potiphar's house. He blessed him in prison. When we take our eyes off of our circumstances, off those who wrong us, off those who hate us, off of the disease we have, off the broken relationship that stings, off the job we lost, and put them on God we will be able to see God's blessings.  

Third, God may take us to some places we don't want to go, so He can bless people as He blesses us. Potiphar was blessed. The jailor was blessed. Joseph's family was blessed--all because God blessed Joseph. My friend Mary Esther was taken through a cancer battle with her two year old son and she kept her eyes on Jesus and experienced His blessings daily. As they sat with their son after surgery and through chemo, the medical staff, their friends, their church family also experienced the blessings with which God was blessing them. In addition, someone gave her a journaling Bible and she share the pictures she began drawing during that dark time and her journaling has gone viral. More and more people are being blessed by their story and just as Joseph's trust in God saved people, her trust is showing people the way they can be saved.    

Fourth, there is nothing wrong with grieving losses and expressing pain. Joseph held his pain close until he could contain it no more and he grieved long and hard right in front of this brothers. I have a hunch his pain did a lot more convicting than anger ever could have. His pain, the grief their father experienced, and their fear of retaliation may well have been the chisels God used to soften their stone cold hearts. 

Finally, there is  no offense so big that a heart in the hand of God can't forgive it. Joseph was hated. Joseph was thrown into a pit. Joseph was stripped of his identity. Joseph was taken from the pit only to be sold as a slave. Joseph taken to a foreign land, falsely accused of rape, cast into prison, and forgotten by someone he helped. Yet, he worked hard, rose to power, and saved lives, preserving the line of Jesus.

Suffering well allows God to do his work in us, in our families, in our church, in our community, and even in our nation. Suffering well allows us to experience God's love and blessing even in the hard. Suffering well allows us to see how God works in and through us. Suffering well produces patience, which endurance, which produces hope.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Suffering Well -- Part 1

"Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame,
because God's love has been poured in to our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."
Romans 5:3-5

We've had an increase in terrorists' attacks this last couple of years. At the end of last year a Russian plane was blown up, a violent attack occurred in Paris, and then one just a few hours away from me in San Bernardino. I happened to turn on the TV just as the last attack was being announced and watched the story unfold. I thought I was fine until I was driving to church and a large planed flew over me. It seemed to be flying lower than usual and all of a sudden I felt like that child growing up during the Cuban crisis. I remember the drills at school that were supposed to keep us safe in the wake of a nuclear attack and I remember sitting at the dinner table feeling the terror rising within as I heard jets flying over. I never said anything, but I always looked at my dad to see if he looked scared, but when he seemed calm I assumed we were safe. I recently talked to a counselor friend about the fear I was experiencing and asked him if he were experiencing fear as well. In the course of the conversation he said something that resonated with my heart. He said his prayer wasn't the avoidance of suffering, but that if he had to suffer, He would suffer well.

The thought resonated with me because I realized had prayed that same prayer during different  circumstances. I prayed that prayer when friends buried young children, finding comfort and hope in Christ. If I were to lose one of my children, I want to suffer well and find my hope in Jesus. That doesn't mean I would not grieve, but that I would grieve with hope as someone fully assured of life eternal. I have prayed that prayer as I watched people suffering an illness like cancer as they  found  comfort and hope in God in the midst of the pain they experienced and the very real possibility of  dying grew. If I were to become terminally ill, I want to suffer well so that nothing in my suffering would cause another to turn away from God. I have prayed that prayer when I saw others living with chronic pain, I prayed it because I tend to get angry when I experience bouts of arthritis and desire to be a person who can find comfort in Jesus and I want to reflect my Jesus to others even in the midst of discomfort and the exhaustion that comes from living with pain. I have prayed that prayer when I watched others go through a season of financial insecurity. If that happens to us, I want to suffer well, maintain integrity, and cling to God who promises to provide. I don't want my fears, my reactions, my actions, or my bouts with unbelief to keep others from coming to my Jesus.

I've read a lot about the refugees and people's reactions to them being placed in our country and I confess the idea scares me. How will we know who is a believer in need of shelter and who is a person planning carry out an attack. After praying about it, I did not come up with the solution, but I did come up with a conviction--I don't want my fear to govern my actions and responses to those seeking asylum. I want Jesus, His will for me, His will for our country, and His will for refuges to be what prevails. That means if He calls me to witness to someone who may or may not be a terrorist, I want to obey rather than giving into my fear. I pray that if I or someone I love is tortured or killed that I would suffer well that others would come to know Christ through the suffering. Others coming to Christ is really what matters and it doesn't matter if it is by my life or my death. I don't want to treat another human being with hatred because of the fear that dwells in this human heart of mine. I want to overcome the fear and extend compassion and love to whom ever God will it. I am not by nature a bold person. I have loads of fear and voice many "buts" and "what if's" to God--What if a culture of men who has not been raised to honor women do harm to wives and daughters here? What if the person claiming to be a refugee is a terrorist who plans to blow up a community? What if a terrorist in disguise as a refugee kills my kids or grandkids? Then I realized the alternative is to allow the slaughtering of other people's children because they have declare the name of Jesus and I want to live brave and moving beyond the fears that dwell deep! All I know to do right now is pray that God will make His will clear, that He will give me the courage to obey, and that if suffering occurs He would enable me to suffer well so others believe.

I fear we're a culture who wants easy. We don't share Christ because we're afraid to offend or afraid of persecution. We don't stay in difficult marriages, because it's hard work and often painful. We don't want to work on the painful baggage we carry from the past because facing the stories we've lived causes exposes the pain we avoid through denial, addictions, eating disorders, pornography use, and business. Yet, we really are suffering silently as we are governed by our efforts to forget. We change friends often because we don't like working through the painful parts that come with loving well.

There are times we even blame God for our suffering when it is really is because of choices we've made. Sarah was such a person. She experienced suffering not of her own doing as a barren woman living in a culture that worshipped fertility. After God promised her and Abraham a baby, she grew weary of waiting and gave her Egyptian handmaiden to her husband to have a baby in her place. The suffering she endured because of the situation was her own doing, not God's. I've heard single pregnant women ask how God could do "this" to them. The "this" they were referring to is an unplanned pregnancy. God didn't do it to them, it was a consequence of the choices they made. Some illnesses we suffer with are the result of being in a fallen world and others are the result of the choices we make--aides, venereal diseases, cirrhosis, and some forms of skin cancer. 

The Word makes it clear that God knows the suffering of His people. It makes it clear that sometimes He even allows suffering to draw us to Him. We also know that Jesus responded with compassion to those who suffered and in response He healed bodies, cast out demons, fed multitudes, and raised Lazarus from the dead. He even confronted religious leaders who burdened people with unnecessary laws and kept them from coming to Him. He even suffered a painful death for us so we wouldn't bear the wrath of God for our sin. The suffering we experience now is nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed in the future. Paul made it clear that there will be suffering when the Gospel is lived. The verses above tell us we should even rejoice in suffering because it produces endurance which produces character which produces hope because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. As we go through fearful times, I can't help but wonder if the way to navigate them is to sit in His presence and bask in His love so that we can be among those who suffer well as suffering does its work in us and those around us. Over the next few weeks I plan to study different people in the Bible who suffered well--Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, Stephen, Paul, and Jesus. I hope you will find it encouraging to look at their the mean time be strong and of good courage, our God is always with us and He is mighty to save!



Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!