Thursday, August 18, 2011

God's Faithfulness

Today I read Lamentations - 1, 2, 3.

It is a short book, but filled with grief because of calamity. It's a picture of complete destruction and the aftermath of sorrow. A tornado destroys a city, or a war completely destroys the city. Lamentations is written in the midst of the war that destroys everything. Jerusalem is destroyed. It lies in ruins after the Babylonian army attacks, levels, and kills young and old alike.

Lamentations has traditionally been ascribed to Jeremiah who lived through these assaults and witnessed it all. He understands the WHY. It was the immorality and unfaithfulness of Israel that led to this. What God did was allow them to reap the fruit of their own sinfulness. We want to blame God when bad things happen; but the corruption caused by sin is so very real.

So where do we go in the midst of suffering? The writer of Lamentations takes us through the valley of despair and misery for two+ chapters; and then the writer leads us to the light...

"Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” The Lord is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him."

Faith is Trust...I have faith whenever I say "I trust you". It might be an object such as a chair I assume is safe to sit in; or a person - my wife, my friend...God. Faith is trust. Now, we all know that at times our faith is disappointed with failure. The chair fails and collapses. Spouses are unfaithful. Friends don't always prove to be real friends.

God? Is God always faithful? That is the question that needs our heart as well as our mind.

Jeremiah knows that God is not the problem...but he also knows that God is the solution. What do we do when we find ourselves in a fog of uncertainty? How do we find our way out? Jeremiah says,

"So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion because of the greatness of his unfailing love. For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow.

What do we do to cooperate in this process of restoration? Again, Jeremiah says,

"Instead, let us test and examine our ways. Let us turn back to the Lord." (Lamentations 3:21-26, 32, 33, 40 NLT)

It was Peter who said to Jesus, "Lord, who do we have to turn to, you alone have the words of life."

So true,


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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wisdom in Understanding

Today's readings were from Job 24, 25, 26, 27, 28

We reach the end of Job and his friend's dialog. There is still the speech of Elihu to follow and the response of God to all of them; but here Job and his friends stop their back and forth remarks.

Job's friends have one main refrain - "If you would only confess that you are a sinner and therefore deserving of your suffering, you might find mercy...and then again, you might not...either way, God is justified in all that he has done and you are not." Their orientation is towards God as judge, and humanity as sinners. Even the Psalmist says, there is no hope for any of us if God keeps a record of our wrongs.

Job has as his response - "I have been living with integrity and even though I know I have sinned, I am not worthy of this punishment. Look around and you cannot help but see wickedness day in and day out. That deserves punishment, but what have I done to deserve this?" Job's understanding of God is that his all powerful sovereignty does not translate itself over to being compassionate and caring about the individual sufferings. A lot of people share Job's concept of God.

There is more dialog, so the story is not complete yet; but note the end of Job's speech...he touches on the major issue,

"How do we gain wisdom that leads to understanding when our life doesn't make sense?"

Job says,

“But do people know where to find wisdom?
Where can they find understanding? “But do people know where to find wisdom?
Where can they find understanding? “God alone understands the way to wisdom; he knows where it can be found, for he looks throughout the whole earth and sees everything under the heavens. He decided how hard the winds should blow and how much rain should fall. He made the laws for the rain and laid out a path for the lightning. Then he saw wisdom and evaluated it. He set it in place and examined it thoroughly. And this is what he says to all humanity:
‘The fear of the Lord is true wisdom;
to forsake evil is real understanding.’” (Job 28:12, 20, 23-28 NLT)

At the end of this, Job's statement is profound. We don't understand, because we cannot see the whole picture. We don't understand, and therefore we are incomplete in terms of wisdom. Yet wisdom is there when we seek God, forsake evil, and choose to walk with profound respect for the ways of God. It does not mean that our problems, pains, difficulties, diseases, etc...will of necessity go away. It does mean that instead of blaming God we will seek another way - the way of wisdom and understanding.


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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why Blame God?

Today I read from Job 17, 18, 19, and 20.

The story of Job is interesting in thinking about how we speak about God in the midst of life's difficulties. No one can escape difficult issues in life. We all experience things in life that, if we could, we would definitely choose to avoid. Who wants accidents, disease, deaths of love ones and friends, etc...? Which one of us would not want famine in Africa to end? For little children around the world to have fresh water to drink? For the devastations in Haiti and Japan to have never occurred?

It's not in our ability to control all that occurs around us or in the world. Therefore, it is natural, when people experience these sorts of things to turn to God - prayer is the most typical way. And we should. God has promised us that he is near, that if we seek him with our whole heart, we'll find him. Jesus said to us, "ask, seek, knock..." and that is what we do when we have a confident faith in God.
But there is another dimension of those experiences that can't help but wonder, "Why God?" "Why me?" "Why did you let this happen?". In other words, we blame God.
Or, the other argument is that there is a direct cause that leads to the effect. The pain, disease, difficulties are not undeserved, but a result of a person's own sins - open ones, or hidden. That is the argument coming from Job's friends.
Job's difficulties led him to a place of suffering...but it was his friends who argued that Job had no one to blame but himself. He MUST have sinned in some way to deserve this punishment. If only he would humble himself, repent, and cast himself on the mercy of God, all would be different.

There's the dilemma...regardless of which way it's is God who is the blame.

"....using my humiliation as evidence of my sin. But it is God who has wronged me...capturing me in his net. God has blocked my way so I cannot move.
He has plunged my path into darkness. “Have mercy on me, my friends, have mercy,...
for the hand of God has struck me. Must you also persecute me, like God does? (Job 19:5ff)

Job is battling his friends judgments and he is battling God. Why God, why did you do this? Why do you let it go on?
I've heard all of these..and have felt the sting of the judgments and the questioning of God within myself also.

Is there a faith answer? Maybe not in resolving the "why", but certainly in coming back to a place of rest where anxiety and stress abate. Job says,

“But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
and he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed,
yet in my body I will see God! I will see him for myself.
Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.
I am overwhelmed at the thought! (Job 19: 25-27 NLT)

Is God to blame? NO...the corruption of the earth is real. Paul in Romans 8 says "the creation groans...we groan...the Spirit groans..." because of that corruption that occurs in a fallen world. Job does not know, and sometimes we don't either, that there is an enemy of God that is fighting against those who seek to love and obey him. This enemy is indiscriminate. He is a liar, a thief, a destroyer, who seeks one thing alone - to harm the work of God.

Job had it right... "I know my redeemer lives...I will see God!"


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Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Story of Job, Or, God and Suffering

Today I began reading the book of Job. Job 1, 2, 3, 4

The story of Job is a classic story. It's so well known - on the surface - that people who do not even read the Bible know about Job. It's a story of personal suffering, and and age old question that goes along with suffering - where is God when calamities strike and suffering occurs.
Job might be the book, and the person that begs the question; but Job-like circumstances have happened millions of times over and his questions, complaints, and personal journey have been replicated by believers and unbelievers. So has Job's so called friends and their advice. It might be a few thousand years since this was written, and Job's friends passed along their judgements and opinions, but it does not mean that those things have disappeared. They still are aired today by many.

In case your unfamiliar here's some quick background from the first four chapters. It begins very simply with an introduction:

"In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil."

A narrator opens this book. He walks out onto the stage, looks out at us, and says let me tell you about this man, Job. Job is just a man. A godly man who lived as blamelessly as possible. He seemed like the perfect neighbor, the perfect friend. What he does is live before God and Man with integrity and honesty. He should deserve more we think than what is about to happen.
The narrator now tells us that the story continues with a twist...Job doesn't know what is happening in the "heavenlies"; but there is a dialog taking place between the Lord and Satan. It sounds bizarre, but it is real, and the subject of the dialog is this man on earth - Job.

"One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. Then the Lord said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil."

God is bragging on his man Job. And, at the same time, God is picking a fight. We want to yell from the audience, "leave well enough alone Lord", because we know what is about to happen; but the bait is set and Satan takes the wager.

"But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."

As we often note it and hear it said, "all hell broke loose". Satan attacked Job destroying his possessions and his family, save his wife, and in all of it, Job hung on to his faith.

"At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
"Naked I came from my mother's womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised." In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:1, 6, 8, 11, 20-22 NIV)

We don't know what to do with this, frankly. If everything is taken away and my kids are all killed, could I say that. Is that faith? Is that a stoic response? Is that something I'd ever be able to accept? I remember talking to a woman one time many years ago who in the course of six months lost her husband (he ran off with another woman), and all of his kids in a car accident. She went from a wife and mother of three, to a divorced woman with three children all killed in a car accident. I asked her, "How did you handle all of that?" She replied, "No one gave me a just happened, and you wake up and have to figure out how to go through the rest of life, and part of you doesn't want to, and the other part says 'you have to'...and then one day turns over the next begins, and then you are months down the road, and then years...but you never forget, it's the scar that always is visible." I understand that.

The narrator changes the page and a plot gets thicker, and as if we could imagine, even more worse. And he introduces us to another individual who has to share the life he is in, his wife, and she views it completely different, which is realistic in many households.

"On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. His wife said to him, "Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!" He replied, "You are talking like a foolisht woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

What is she saying to him? Is she telling him to give up and die? Is she saying to him, your so-called God is not coming through for you? She focuses in on "his integrity"...the way in which he is approaching the issue. Job is not succumbing to the "blame God" at this point...and she is not accepting it either. The narrator then ends the scene and introduces us to the friends who will both serve as judge and jury, weighing the events of Job's life and coming up with their own opinion - an opinion often based on their understanding of God and faith - about what is happening to Job.

"In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:1, 7, 9-11, 13 NIV)

The summary of Job's friends is found in this:

"Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. (Job 4:7, 8 NIV)

It seems rational, reasonable, and for the most part accepted understanding of suffering. People suffer because they are guilty of their destructive behavior. Cause and Effect. People do things, and they reap the consequences.
Yet we know that sometimes that is not true. Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes good things happen to bad people. Now it's also true that bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. That is what we want. That is the way of justice from our point of view. That is what we think is fair.
It's difficult for us to understand the former, because we can't help but want the latter. Suffering is not fair. And, we don't have the ability to change that.

Now, think about this. The story so far is one that Job does not know about the heavenly wager. He does not know that he is the outcome of God believing in him! He doesn't realize that this is all the effort of Satan who attacks him mercilessly.

And neither do we. We don't know...we don't understand...we never will. I don't understand the holocaust, I don't understand the crusades, nor the Cambodian massacres, nor the famines in Africa, or the Tsunami in the Asian basin that killed 100's of thousands. I don't understand these, as much as I don't understand my friends son dying of cancer at age 33. I don't understand the mother I buried who left behind 6 kids, ages 2 - 10. I don't understand my mother's Alzheimer. Suffering is the most real thing about life, and it's mixed in with births, weddings, football wins, and happy marriages....and that is what makes me hang on to faith in God.


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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

True Friendships

Today's readings are from Proverbs 27, 28, 29

I was struck today by the references to friendships. There are many different ways in which Proverbs refers to friendships. For example:

1. Friends are honest with each other, even when it hurts to be so:
"Better is open rebuke than hidden love.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses."
(Proverbs 27:5-6)

2. Friends help each other grow in maturity and grace:
"As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."
(Proverbs 27:17 NIV)

3. Parents care should about who their kids friends are:
"The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray." (Proverbs 12:26 NIV)

Also, along that same vein:
"One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." (Proverbs 18:24 NIV)

4. When times get tough, friends are the ones who stick with you through it all:
"A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity." (Proverbs 17:17 NIV)

One of the most difficult things that happen in life is the loss of real friends. People are more and more "lonely". The combination of our family mobility, the disintegration of family, the busy-ness of life, even the prosperity that allows us to purchase extra "toys" in life (hobbies, cars, vacation homes), all contribute to the loss of real friendships. I am not saying that it's wrong to be mobile, or to have a career/job that is enjoyable, or to have things to enjoy; but what I am convinced of, is that it's more and more possible to live without ever forging real friendships.

Jesus said of his disciples that they were his friends and that what marks our relationship with Him is our relationships with each other:
"I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:11-15 NIV)

What I love about the fellowship that I have the privilege to lead as a Pastor is that there are genuine friendships. Friends are better than church members! In friendships there is resilience. People "weather" life together. Not everything is good, and in fact, there are some very difficult aspects to life that friends go through together; but that is something that everyone of us needs to have. Now, how does a person gain friends? Be a friend and you'll find out.


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