Monday, December 23, 2013

The Journey of Suffering, and the lies we believe.

"I think something's wrong with Shane."  Those were the words that got me up at 4 am on 11/6/2013.  At this point, we were 32 weeks pregnant, Shane's due date being December 28th.  I shot up, asking her what was going on, and she, in tears, explained that she had passed blood.  I was horrified.  I quickly prayed, and then probably did the worst thing you could do in that situation, go online to find answers.  Heather called the hospital, we felt for our unborn son with mild relief to find he was still kicking, so he was alive for the time being. 

In the hospital, we were shocked to find that Heather was 8 cm dialated, which for you folks that no nothing about birth (which I didn't... I planned on watching all the info videos that day), that meant that he was coming.  I got statistics about how he had an 85% survival rate, that he would need assistance breathing, etc.  I didn't care that the 85% was high, the fact that it wasn't 100% was enough to cause panic to me.  I wondered if we had done something wrong, if we had done something to trigger it.  The doctors assured me that we hadn't, but it can be hard to shake that feeling. 

After a quick labor, he was whisked away by helicopter where there were proper resources for him.  I stayed behind to be with Heather as she healed,  and I kept worrying.  How was his breathing?  What if he didn't make it and I couldn't be there with him?  How could I care for Heather?  If nothing else, going through birth of my son made me realize how weak and helpless I really am.  I had to keep reminding myself of 2 Corinthians 12:9, where Paul reiterates his weakness (of course, the context is different), saying that the Lord had said to him, "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 

What came next was 3 weeks in the NICU, living with a family (which was a major answer to prayer) that was a 10 minute walk from the hospital.  We went to see Shane for the first time since his birth, and the first thing we found out was he had an isolation room.  It seemed great at first, we had our own private room with him.  However, when they handed us gowns and gloves to go see him, Heather and I both had a sense of dread.  "What... what is so wrong with him that we need this stuff?" We thought.  It turned out he was fine, it was precautionary for an infection that he had on him but wasn't affecting him.  They told us he was doing great, just needed to pack on weight and stay warm, or as my friend Dave had told me, "He just needs to chunk up." 

We had our good days and bad days, the doctors would give us timelines for when he would go home, what he would need to accomplish, etc.  Some days it felt like 3 steps forward, others like 2 steps back.  We shared tears when he would struggle, other times anger and frustration.  And then, the guilt.  Oh how I felt guilty.  Why?  Because of seeing the struggle of others, most of whom were not only hopeless physically but spiritually as well.

The first family I ran into had all ready been there for a month.  Their daughter was born at 24 weeks, and the nurses were preparing her for her 2nd heart surgery.  My heart ached.  Others suffered through similar issues, either with surgeries or pre-maturities, others struggled with being in the hospital not just they and their spouse, but had to uproot their large families to watch over the smallest sibling.  I can't imagine the pain, the sleepless nights, the struggles.  And here I sat, worried about my son who was given every vote of confidence that he would be ok, he just needed to eat and keep warm.  The guilt sank into my heart... how could I be sad when I had so much to be grateful for?  Sure, it sucked being in Danville for 3 weeks, not being able to take him home.  It sucked that life got interrupted.  The emotion and shock of him coming early, and roller-coaster ride of him doing well or not well with eating was draining.  But, it's not like I was going through what these people are going through.  Right?

"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,  so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."  -- I Peter 1:6-7  

A friend's words were similar to this passage from 1 Peter, that God gives us whatever suffering we need so that we may draw nearer to Him.  Notice in the passage it says "various trials."  It's not about experiencing level 10 suffering which helps your faith, but level 2 suffering that our response should be, "Get over it."  It's saying that each trial we are grieved by has a specific purpose, which is to test our faith in Christ, and to refine it so that we praise and glorify Jesus further.

This flies in the face of a dirty, heinous lie that we, or at least I, believe in the midst of suffering, which is I need to compare my sufferings to others.  So, if my suffering isn't that bad but I'm all mopey, I just need to suck it up and stop complaining.  Or if my suffering is worse than others, my response to them is to stop complaining and trust Jesus.  It's heinous, and can result in cruelty when in actuality the suffering that people have been given is hard for them just as mine is for me.

What we should do is walk with people where they are at, remind them of the promises we have rooted in the scriptures, ultimately pointing them to Jesus.  How do we do that? 

Affirm and tangibly walk with those who suffer - This goes for the single woman who struggles with not being married, the young guy who struggles with besetting sins, to the father or mother who loses their child.  Regardless of the "degree" of suffering, affirm that there is suffering.  You don't need to try and fix it, just listen.  Ask questions, offer to pray with them, let them know you're there for them, whether it means a shoulder to cry on, an offer to talk on the phone, or just affirming that it's ok to feel busted up inside about what's going on.  Offer to look at the psalms, with which many of them paint brutally honest pictures of how the author feels both in the midst of circumstances and towards the Lord.  Randomly text, call, or message them to let them know you're thinking about and praying for them.  Pray for them privately.

Don't lose sight of the Lord's purpose in suffering - In other words, God is not absent in the midst of whatever suffering you are in.  Cry out to Him and confess what you're struggling with.  Be honest in how you feel.  But remember the good that He has done.  1 Thessalonians 5 says that we should "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."  That doesn't mean to plaster on a fake smile and say "Praise be to God," to everyone that passes by.  It means that we can thank God that we know, in spite of how much we hate our situation, that He will use it for good.  He has promised that.  "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."  (Romans 8:28)  We can remind each other of God's deep love and grace as we walk through the difficult seasons of life. 

Reach Out - If you're in the midst of suffering, don't go it alone.  Instead, drag yourself into community.  Self-pity, depression, and despair thrive in isolation.  It's easy to think, "no one will understand," or "I just need to be alone right now."  While it's ok to spend some time processing what you're going through, it's actually not helpful to you or to others. Reach out to others for help.  I can't tell you how many times we had people come into our lives, some of which we barely know, and they made us a meal, gave us a gift card, sent us a friendly e-mail or text, or something else very encouraging to our souls.  It has made our time much sweeter.  And, believe it or not, you walking through suffering actually might help encourage others, both in their relationship with God AND in helping them realize it's ok for them to share the suffering they are going through too.

Remember the Lord is your perfect comforter - Everyone is a sinner, so when people attempt to care for you, I guarantee people will mess up.  You will mess up too.  It's ok, we can run into the arms of our perfect comforter in our Heavenly Father, both when our circumstances are hard AND when people don't understand how to care for us in the midst of those circumstances.  He is always available.  He will always listen.  He can always remind you that while we have "momentary" suffering here, Jesus paid the ultimate price of suffering so we might have eternal, everlasting joy. 

In His Grace,

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why are we surprised? A reaction to the Duck Dynasty Controversy

It's been a few months since I've hit the blogging trail, so just when I started thinking I wanted to make my way back into the fray, Phil Robertson and his comments are plastered everywhere on the internet.  When I first saw it, I must admit I had no idea who this guy was or why he was important.  I quickly learned that he is one of the stars of one of the biggest shows of 2013 in "Duck Dynasty."

The reactions to the GQ interview have been all over the map, most of which are pretty typical.  (The best I've found is an article by Al Mohler, click here to see it).  Most folks bash him and label him as a bigot, homo-phobe, and closed-minded imbecile, the conservative Christian crowd rushes to his aid and says that he has the rights to freedom of speech, and then you have another group who basically preaches, "no one should preach their worldview."  (Which ironically is preaching their own worldview). 

My goal of this blog entry isn't to understand or to judge the character of Phil.  From reading some of the things he's said, he seems like he knows good theology, at least when it comes to sin, holding fast to the scriptures, and our need for Jesus as Lord and Savior from sin.  He also seems to hold his own sin in view, what I mean is that he doesn't make the error of elevating the sin of others (in this case, same sex activity) over his own sin.  He holds to the truth of Romans 3:10-11, which states,

"None is righteous, no, not one 
 no one understands; no one seeks for God,"

As well as the truths of John 14:6,

"Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

In short, he's getting the shaft to some degree.  Again, I don't watch the show, but from those I've talked to who are avid fans, Phil and his family tend to be pretty free with how they talk on the show.  How can A&E justify suspending a man for an opinionated, somewhat crude interview, when that's the type of thing they are making money off of?  Why are people outraged by this when this is the same type of persona that's portrayed on television?   And why is it when people speak out in support of homosexual lifestyles and Christians speak out against it, it's either disregarded or we're called bigots?  But when someone speaks out against homosexuality, it's ok to pile on them and their views?  On a big picture scale, there is a bit of a double-standard, and it's been that way for a while now.   

But, before all the Conservative Christians get excited about reading this, let me challenge our thinking for a minute.  Exactly why are we upset about the outrage?  More importantly, why are we surprised?  Did we forget that we live in a world which is hostile towards Christians?  That we live in a place where sin and death are still present, and that the devil is still prowling?  Did not Jesus say,

"Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved."  (Matthew 10:16-22)

First off, look at the first verse of the passage.  Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Phil, while he was faithful in preaching truth to a liberal, secular audience, spoke in a way that was unwise.  He didn't demonstrate wisdom and how to be winsome in the arena that is GQ and a secular readership.  Though he spoke words of truth, which is good, He didn't have great care with how he spoke.  

We shouldn't be surprised when people get upset because we misuse our words. That's not persecution, it's the fruit of foolishness.   Paul warns in multiple letters to put away crude joking and unwholesome talk.  Proverbs and James both have stern warning about the use of the tongue.  Regardless of how much I agree with Phil and his seemingly firm belief in the Gospel, he should have been more careful.  

Second, even if he did speak with perfect wisdom and winsomeness, why are we surprised by any of the repercussions and backlash?  Why do we expect that he'll (or we) get a fair shake, when Jesus, who IS perfect, got nothing but the most horrific, corrupted, back-stabbing trial and execution recorded in human history.   Those who genuinely follow Christ will be offensive to others.  We'll be persecuted.  And while it's ok for us to fight for the God-given rights we've been given in this country, it feels that far too often instead of looking and pressing into our perfect Savior, we look for sympathy from a country and world that has yet to yield it's hatred (or worse yet, apathy) of the real Jesus found in the bible.  

So how should we respond?

Remember that God is in Control:  Is God surprised that this is stirring up all sorts of controversy?  Is God surprised by the idea that gay marriage is the key hot topic of our generation?  No.  He's not surprised.  If we trust the scriptures to be true, we can even know that He has allowed this to happen.  It's still all part of His grand redemptive plan to rescue His people from sin and death through Christ.  The Gospel is far more powerful than this blip on the radar.  We should act out of that belief.  God can and will use this some way for the good of His Kingdom.

Take advantage of Opportunities to share the Gospel:  Instead of arguing about free speech, let's instead take opportunities to understand why people feel the way they do, and then share the Gospel.  Instead of fighting for our rights, let's be like Jesus and give up our right to be understood and be treated as equals for the sake of sharing our deep love for people that they would know their heavenly Father through Christ.  We can do this by asking good questions, gently exposing lies and sharing truth, and ultimately giving people access to Jesus.   If we really want the culture to shift, we need to make disciples, not political statements.  (Note: by no means am I saying we shouldn't graciously speak up when our rights are being violated.  But I think too often we spend time fighting to be comfortable rather than fighting for lost souls)

Understand the baggage between those who proclaim Christ and those who identify as gay:  One thing I think we need to remember as we engage with folks is to remember the history of the evangelical church.  I can understand the snap judgments people make against evangelicals, because there has been a level of oppression that has occurred from the church onto the homosexual community.  There were movements like "Pray the Gay away" and other non-biblical methods in how Christians handled this particular issue.  I think some of the results is what people now call "gay-friendly" churches, and there is a clear divide that one church is "right" (the one that accepts all people), vs. the one that is "wrong" (churches that hate gays).  I don't think that perception depicts what's actually true of the church, but we need to recognize that if we want to share our thoughts, we are the ones who must work through the baggage to share that the church was never intended to be this divide of acceptance and non-acceptance, but rather that all are called to belief in Jesus and repentance.  

Press into Christ, both privately and publicly:  Phil was right in what he said.  Same sex activity and lust is sinful.  So is heterosexual lust and adultery.  So is disobedience to parents, greed, murder, etc.  If you want more of a concrete list, look at Romans 1:18-32.   But, as you look closer at the passage, you'll notice the main point is not "hey, let's stop these things, that's not Christian or moral."  The main point is that all of these sin patterns are evidences that we do not honor God as God.  And we are ALL guilty of that.  So, press into Christ.  Be in the word and speak to your heavenly father as you both see the sin of others, and as you are confronted and grieved by your own sin.  Be willing to walk with others in the midst of their sin, pointing them to a God who loves them and proved it by dying on the cross for them.  Be willing to share your brokenness with others.  That's the beauty of the church:  it's a hospital for the weak, broken, sin-sick souls who know they can be healed by Christ, and help each other towards Him.  It's a group of people who know they're messed up but have confidence that Jesus is always stronger than their obscenely long list of mess-ups, shame, and brokenness.   And know, that if you aren't a Christian, you're welcome to partake of Jesus too.  But he'll radically change you, you won't be the same, and it will be for your eternal best. 

In His Grace,