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.

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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!