Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on God and Pain

I recently celebrated a significant anniversary. You see, on my 16th birthday my father set me on a path that would lead to my independence. He threw me out of his house. Actually he told me that he wanted me gone before he woke up the next morning. My mother had left him just a few weeks before and I guess he decided that he didn't need me any more than he needed her. What did I do? I bought a plane ticket and flew from Phoenix, AZ back to Little Rock, AR. My mother was in Little Rock and my natural instinct was to go to her. Two weeks later she announced to me that she was going to California and she wasn't taking me with her. Those events took place 33 years ago.

Please allow me to backtrack and tell you that I wasn't a bad kid, in fact, I would like to think that most parents would have been glad to have me. I was a good student, went to church, and had never been in any trouble. I didn't smoke or drink or chew and didn't go with girls that did either. I was no saint, to be sure, but I wasn't trouble either.

I wish I could tell you that I was prepared for my abandonment and that I handled it like it was any other event in my life....But I didn't. To be honest, I wasn't surprised, but I still had a real hard time accepting that my parents didn't want me, and by extension didn't love me. My love for my parents was real, even though I knew that they weren't exactly Bob and Carol Brady. My home life was filled with violence and abuse of every kind. I learned very early on to discern the proper times to be at home and the times to be gone, which was often. I used to joke that I could spend a week on Oprah and not exhaust the stories, the problem is that it wasn't a joke. The safety net didn't catch me....and I paid a price. I grew up lonely and fearful. My parents drilled into me three primary lessons about who I was: 1. I was a mistake, 2) I was ugly, and 3) No one would ever love me. I carried those lessons for a long time and can even hear their whispers as I write these words.

Life was hard. But it was still life, and I'm grateful for those lessons, no matter how hard they were to learn. I only wish I had learned their lessons sooner. But I have and live with no regrets. I can, from this vantage point, look back and see the hand of God protecting, guiding, and strengthening me throughout those long and lonely years. I wish I could say that I was always aware of His presence, but my lack of understanding doesn't negate the work He did in my life all those years ago. His ways are seldom understandable to our minds.

I recently listened to a program for pastors on CD-Rom and I heard the statement "God doesn't wast pain." I was so profoundly impacted by that statement that I actually hit the back button three times to hear it again and again. God doesn't waste pain. God is with His children in every situation, whether we can see Him or not. There is nothing that takes Him by surprise or causes Him to alter His plan. God actually brings good out of the pain of our lives. I have come to a point in my life where I can truly thank God for those dark times in life. I have known abuse of every type, abandonment, death. I have been wrongly accused, fired, and been viciously attacked by those with nothing more that a dislike for me. And God has known about every situatin before they happene and has not wasted any of my pain.

In my pain God has taught me about love and faith. Fear and courage. True strength and the value of weakness. Through defeat and loss I have learned that God keeps a different type of score than I do. I have come to appreciate God's ways whether I like them or not, whether they make sense to me or leave me utterly confused. I have learned that I am not first and I've learned to be okay with that. Those thoughts are completely foreign to most believers today, but they weren't lost on the early church or the great saints of the past. Could it be that believers today are unaware of this truth? It is true that we don't hear much preaching today about self denial or dying to self, or is the issue one of unwillingness to sacrifice our desires and comfort for the sake of the cross?

One of my favorite men in the Bible learned that God doesn't waste pain. His name is Joseph. Joseph knew rejection by family, false accusations, deprivation, and loneliness. But Joseph learned that God used all of that pain to prepare him for something far more important than his personal happiness. Thanks, Joseph, for giving me an example. Thank you God for using my pain to make me more than I could be by myself. I fully realize that I've failed far more than I've succeeded, but even in my failures you've not wasted by pain. May you give me enough wisdom to learn from those lessons as well.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lessons from a Piano Player

Today started out as one of those days. I prayed very specifically for someone only to find later that they were experiencing the very thing that I had asked God to deliver them from. This was followed by a trip to the mechanic. I recently had a pretty significant amount of work done on our Suburban. With six kids we naturally require a larger vehicle and the Suburban fills the bill nicely. On a trip to the closest Sam's yesterday I noticed that the truck was running hot. The repair work that we recently had done all had to do with the cooling system. I reasoned that it was merely a minor adjustment to one of the previous repairs. But it wasn't. While still unsure as to the true nature of the problem we are faced with the possibility that we may have to replace the engine. I don't know anyone for whom that expense wouldn't be prohibitive. All this before 8am.

My day then took me to the hospital, where I stood by the bedside of an Alzheimer's patient. The disease has robbed this person's family of a parent. This person was unaware of my presence but appeared full of despair. My heart breaks for their family and for the patient. The other visits were not as difficult, but taxing all the same. Everyone looks to a pastor for understanding and comfort, yet they are unaware of the cost these demand of the human agent involved. Hospitals are by their nature places of great stress and emotional upheaval.

My next trip took me to the nursing home. I must confess to you that nursing homes are not my favorite places to visit. A bad experience at a nursing home as a child still has a profound effect on me today. But I have learned to deal with my discomfort. The first place I always check for the person I came to see is the dining room. I found her there taking part in a worship service being held by a local church. As I came into the dining room the first thing I noticed was the piano. The woman playing the piano was in her 60's but she played with the energy and enthusiasm of someone a third her age. The music was infectious and joyful and I enjoyed it as much as the residents. It was uplifting to see and hear her play.

But the blessings did not stop there. After a testimony time a woman using an oxygen tank shared a devotional message. I honestly cannot tell you much of what she said, but I can tell you that she made this statement: Without the mountain you have no testimony. When I heard those words it was as if the Lord had slapped me on the side of the head and said "See, there's a purpose in all this." I don't know about you, but I need to be reminded every now and then that God really is in control. Somewhere in the course of the morning I had become overwhelmed by the hurt and struggle all around me. Coupling that with the unpleasant possibilities with the car and I found it easy to think that God had somehow forgotten my situation.

Without the mountain you have no testimony. How easy is it to forget the truth of those words. She went on to say that we shouldn't pray that God would move the mountain but that we should pray for strength to climb the mountain. There are people all around us who need to see that God can and does give us the strength to climb the mountains of our lives, whether they are financial, health, or spiritual mountains. I should have remembered that and I'm more than a little embarassed to admit that I had allowed myself to forget it. In my years in ministry (30 years come November) I have met many people who thought their pastors could make no mistakes...I'm sure I've disappointed all of them. But I'm also certain that God has provided the strength to climb every mountain.

As I thought about that this morning I thought about the piano player. She had seen much trouble in her life, I'm sure, but there she was playing with a passion and a joy that told me that she understood that there was a purpose in the mountains she had faced. She had learned the truth of God's presence and the strength he provides on the mountains. She reminded me that cars, health and church are all under his dominion. The may be mountains to me, but they are opportunities for God to prove his faithful love for me.

Thank you ladies....God used you to redeem my day.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Pastor Lets Off Some Steam

I never cease to be amazed by the brazen hypocrisy of people. Recently three politicians have been in the news for revelations that are embarrassing to say the least, but whose subsequent actions are truly incredible. I will deal with these fine examples of leadership one at a time and then attempt to make sense of it all.

First on our list is the honorable (what an embarrassment to use the word) Mark Sanford, governor of the fine state of South Carolina. The good governor didn't have the good sense to keep his pants on....even to the point that he made numerous trips to South America to see his "soul mate." Never mind the fact that his "soul mate" (how I hate using that phrase) is not his wife or the mother of his children. This disgusting example of all that's wrong with modern manhood then had the nerve to announce that he would not resign the governorship. I'm not from South Carolina, but I cannot imagine that Gov. Sanford is an accurate reflection of the fine people that he serves as governor.

Then there's Bob McDonnell, the republican candidate for the governorship of Virginia. Mr. McDonnell wrote a Master's thesis some twenty years ago in which he had the gall to say extreme things like the feminist movement is harmful to families, governmental policy should protect and promote traditional families, and criticize a Supreme Courth ruling that there is a legal right for single persons to receive government funded contraception. Now before you go join the local lynch mob that is looking for Mr. McDonnell you should be aware that Mr. McDonnell has been backing away from these "radical" positions faster than a crawdad on steroids.
But the interest of fairness (Mrs. Sanford and McDonnell are Republicans) I must point out none other than the tax man himself. Rep. Charles Rangle of the 15th district of New York. Rep. Rangle, who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has seriously underestimated his income, gotten sweetheart deals on houses, and conveniently failed to disclose his ownership of a posh getaway place in the Dominican Republic! Oh, I almost forgot...He also gave large cash donations to three members of the House Ethics Committee just before they investigated him! Did I mention that Rep. Rangle is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee? Did you know that committee oversees the IRS?
My greatest problem with each of these men is that they have forsaken, in order, their marriage vows, their personal conviction of what is truth, and the law and constitution of the United States. I suppose the argument could be made that we can't expect anyone in our multi-cultural, post-modern society to be faithful to their wedding vows, understanding of truth, or even the constitution that they have sworn to uphold and protect. What's next...math that lets 2+2 = 7? Don't laugh, I was alive when "new math" was introduced!
But before I leave behind this motley crew I have to add some more members. Today I wish to nominate church members. I realize that I have just offended a whole lot of people. I'm not talking about those faithful, gracious saints who love God and the church. I'm talking about those folks who fuss over things like the color of carpet, the music style or even what the preacher is preaching. I have heard all of these complaints throughout my years as a minister. A selfishness has invaded the church that is destroying it from the inside out.
Folks, IT SHOULD NOT MATTER what color the carpet is or what style the music is (as long as the lyrics are theologically accurate and pleasing to God) or even what book of the Bible is preaching from. Mature believers realize that church is not about buildings or music or liking either the preacher or what he's preaching....Church is about loving God and serving others...I think Jesus called those two the greatest commandments!
Yet our churches continue to be consumed by materialism, commercialism, and selfishness. Is it any wonder that our altars are empty, our youth are wayward, and the world discounts us? I
give thanks to God for the faithful few who get it.