Monday, April 21, 2008

A Purpose Bigger Than the Pain

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God..." (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Pain is universal.

It doesn't take long after birth before a human being begins to suffer feelings of discomfort, even as simple as hunger pains. Everyone, at some point in life, endures pain on the level of:

Common illness.


Disappointment or disillusionment.

Inconvenience or unnecessary delay.

Lack of consideration shown by others.

On another level, certain brands of pain can be understood only by those who have endured them. Those who haven't, can only imagine the feeling of:

A chronic or serious illness that seems beyond cure.

The death of a child.

The betrayal of adultery.

Financial catastrophe.

Unjust punishment.

These and many other trials find their way into people's lives every day. Lives are changed by the impact of these experiences.

The question for the Christian is not whether pain will come, but how to respond when it does. Will the painful trials we endure pull us away from Christ, or motivate us to draw closer to Him? Every Christian must answer this question.

One of the most common questions asked during times of suffering is some variation on the theme of: "Why does God allow bad things to happen?" This question is easy to ask, and hard to answer. While there are deeper waters in which to dive for more complete answers to this question, every Christian should first come to grips with the basic reality of what God has and has not promised His children. God's promises have to do with eternity after this life, and with spiritual peace during our lifetime here on earth. His promises have never included any kind of assurance that we will be exempt from pain, even tragic or undeserved pain, in this lifetime.

Someone might think, "Well, that's easy to say, when you're enjoying peace in your life."

Precisely. That's just it. Times of peace and quiet in life are exactly the times when Christians should revisit God's promises and remind themselves that trouble can come, that it is likely to come, and when it comes, our response will emerge from the depth, or lack of depth, of our faith. Christians cannot afford to wait and wrestle with these questions when they've just been hit by tragic news. That's a wrestling match we won't be likely to win. You can't build a levee in the middle of a hurricane.

But, no matter how much we try to prepare, when tragedy and sorrow do come, the question is also likely to arise: "Why would my God, who could have intervened and prevented this disaster, stand back and allow it to happen?" Even the most seasoned Christian, who has been with God through thick and thin, could be tempted to lose faith because of this question.

To remain faithful in the face of this question, the Christian must make a choice to have faith in a purpose bigger than the pain. Once a Christian determines to have faith in God's purposes, he can respond to pain by living in faith, hope, and love, in spite of whatever pain he might have to endure. The only other choice is to refuse to believe in a larger purpose, and then to suffer bitterly in times of pain, struggling with doubt and frustration.

The ultimate example of choosing faith in pain is Christ on the cross. Jesus would have preferred not to go there, and even asked His Father to find another way. But, the only way to redeem the human race was to follow through with the mission. The mission could not fail. The mission was more important than the pain Jesus would have to endure. So, the answer to Jesus's prayer was "No". He was not spared the pain, but He did not lose faith in the purpose for it. He committed Himself to the mission long before the pain.

How might this concept be played out in the life of the Christian? Is every painful situation so clear in its purpose?

Another concept Christians benefit from accepting is the idea that we may not always know or understand God's will or influence in a situation. We're never promised to be kept in the loop as to why difficult times come our way. We might or might not have the ability or the opportunity to see the purpose that is bigger than our pain. What then? Are we willing to maintain faith in God only when we can see the purpose bigger than our pain? Or, is there a better way?

For the Christian, there are several possible scenarios for times when we are in pain:

*"I see the purpose bigger than my pain, right now." -- The Apostle Paul is a good example of this. When he sat in prison and wrote his letter to the Philippians, he stated right up front that his imprisonment served to further the gospel, because it stirred up other Christians to do the work he was restricted from doing. He also saw his influence on those entrusted with guarding him in prison. Is the Christian prepared to endure pain for the sake of a purpose bigger than himself?

*"I didn't see the purpose bigger than my pain at the time, but I saw it later." -- Joseph is the perfect example of this realization. He didn't see any purpose in being sold into slavery by his brothers, nor in being falsely accused by Potiphar's wife, nor in being imprisoned and forgotten about by a fellow inmate he had helped. But, once it all came full circle, and his long-lost brothers arrived in Egypt seeking food during the famine, everything became clear. The reason for all his suffering was made plain. Is the Christian willing to have faith in suffering, holding out hope that he, like Joseph, might see the purpose for it later on?

*"I never saw the purpose bigger than my pain." -- Is this thought too discouraging to contemplate? It shouldn't be. Job is the prime example of this. Scholars may dispute what might be read between the lines, but the fact is that Scripture never states that Job ever really understood what happened to him. All through his story, he believes wholeheartedly that God, for some unknown reason, has chosen to punish him without cause. In the end, he humbles himself before God, and all is restored, but we're never shown anything more than Job's misunderstanding. He never knew that Satan was really behind it all, and that the cruel test inflicted upon him by Satan served God's purposes in the end. Can the Christian endure the pain of never knowing the purpose being served in his suffering? Will the Christian commit to remaining faithful, and accepting the fact that the answer might not ever come? Will the Christian accept the fact that much suffering exists simply as a result of living in a sinful world influenced by Satan?

In the end, there must be some degree of acceptance of the message of Deuteronomy 29:29. According to this passage, there are some things that are secret, understood only by God Himself. Whatever these things are, they just don't belong to us right now, perhaps not ever. Can the Christian make peace with that? Will the Christian commit to faithfulness till death, even if that means living with questions unanswered? Even if that means suffering pain without seeing the purpose?

Will your anchor hold in a storm?

Will your house stand against the wind?

Will your faith remain strong in times of pain?

Are you preparing your faith now, or waiting for that storm to hit?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What God Has Joined...

In Matthew 19, the Pharisees test Jesus by posing an insincere question about divorce. Jesus responds by taking the discussion back to the beginning. He explains that the husband and wife have become "one flesh", and includes this admonition: "What God has joined together, let man not separate." (19:6).

This passage is often quoted in wedding ceremonies, and appropriately so. What better occasion to recall these words of Christ?

In a marriage, which person is more important, more necessary? The husband, or the wife? Obviously, this is a foolish question. Neither is more important than the other. The two are equally important, and both are necessary for the marriage to exist.

The concept of God joining two complementary parts together is not limited to marriage alone. There are many facets of the Christian life that include equally important elements joined together to form a complete picture. Too often, Christians gravitate toward one or the other, depending on personality, preference, or upbringing. But, to do so is just as short-sighted and limiting as trying to determine whether a husband or wife is more important to a marriage.

Just a few examples:

Love/Deeds: I Corinthians 13:1-3 reminds the Christian that all the godly deeds in the world are null and void if not performed in love.

Faith/Deeds: James 2:14-26 issues powerful instruction, detailing how faith is dead without good deeds resulting from it.

How easy it is to fall to either extreme: feeling confident in the depth of our faith, while pretty much keeping it to ourselves, or working like crazy "for God", without nurturing in our hearts the love that God has for those we serve.

Knowledge/Zeal: Proverbs 19:2 states that zeal without knowledge is not good; it causes us to "miss the way". How often do we find a Christian who excels in knowledge, but has lost enthusiasm for Christ? Or, one who is very enthusiastic, yet lacking in knowledge of the Word? Which is better? Can one be better than the other? They must be blended!

Grace/Obedience: Ephesians 2:8 makes clear that we are saved by the grace of God through Christ, and specifically reminds us that we are not saved by our works. We also read in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 that God will punish those who do not obey the gospel of Christ. Our salvation comes by grace, but obedience is a necessary element to receive that grace.

Spirit/Understanding: I Corinthians 14:15 contributes wise counsel to the ongoing discussion about worship. Which is more important? To worship with the spirit? Or to understand what we are doing? According to Paul, both! These elements go together, and should not be separated. Yet, how many discussions of worship have we had in which Christians have camped on either end of this spectrum?

Every Christian must strive to be in submission to the will of God in every aspect of life. The focus should be on understanding and putting into practice the full message of the scriptures, not just the parts that match our personality or way of thinking. In fact, things that are challenging to us deserve that much more attention and prayer, so that we may become fully equipped to serve Him.

What God has joined, let man not separate.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Benjamin's Music

We had a funny thing happen the other day.

We were at a gas station on the way home from church, when Benjamin began singing a song from the back seat. (Just as a little background: For this to make sense, you need to know that Benjamin was, at the time, keeping a pet "Roly Poly" from the backyard. He has since released it back into "the wild".)

Anyway, out of nowhere, and to no one but himself, Benjamin sang, "Ro-o-ly Polies, get gas, get gas! I-I-In their cars, their cars, their cars!" That was about as far as the song went, but the song was sung to the tune of "The Blue Danube" by Strauss. (Don't be impressed by my quoting that. I had to hum the tune to the Band Director at school to get the title.) We had a good laugh. We're assuming he learned that tune from one of his "Baby Einstein" DVD's.

Later on at home, Benjamin noticed me listening to music on our iPod. Benjamin wanted to listen in as well, so I let him. The song was "No One" by Alicia Keys. (Totally worth a buck on iTunes, by the way....)

I'm not sure if Benjamin had really paid attention to this song before, but he sure picked it up quickly. With headphones in ears, he belted out the chorus, "No one, No one, Noooooo ooooooooonnnne!" with a pretty much blank expression on his face.

We cracked up.

After this, it was the Cars soundtrack, singing along with Chuck Berry to "Route 66". Benjamin's becoming quite the iPod king!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Home Runs & Roller Coasters

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?" -- Luke 24:5

This question was asked of the women who came to Jesus's tomb on the third day after His death. They found His tomb open and empty, and two angels appeared, challenging them to remember Jesus's words about how He would rise again. These women were looking for the right person, but looking in the wrong place. They weren't going to find Jesus in that tomb.

Have you ever found yourself seeking something good, but looking in the wrong place?

Looking for...

A stable relationship, in a bar?

Intimacy, outside your marriage?

Financial peace, at the scratch-off counter?

Relief from hurt, at the bottom of a bottle?

Self-worth, through neverending hours at work?

What about our worship? Don't we all seek more meaningful worship? Don't we all want a more intimate relationship with God? These are good and noble goals, but where do we look to find these things? Are we looking in the right places?

There are two significant moments in my life that illustrate something important about the nature of worship.

The first occurred in October of 1988. It was Game 1 of the World Series. My beloved Dodgers faced the powerful A's, and weren't given much of a chance to win. The end of Game 1 became a classic ESPN moment, as Kirk Gibson gave the Dodgers the victory with a dramatic home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The second occurred in the summer of 1993. I took my first ride on the famous Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags. It was an awesome ride! Just intense enough to get your heart pumping, but not scary enough to ruin the experience. I really enjoyed it, and couldn't wait to ride again.

If there were snapshots of my face at both of these moments, I think my expression would be about the same: Jubilation! Smiling, shouting, screaming for joy! All the excitement you would expect for both situations.

But, if you could take these two snapshots and lay them down side by side, the question would be: Are these two moments really the same? Are these identical facial expressions really expressing the same emotions?

The answer is a definite "no". These two moments are actually quite different from each other, and have very little in common, aside from the facial expressions that resulted from them.

October, 1988:

The last pitch of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was much more to me than just the moment you would have seen had you been with me that night. To this day, I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it. And, seeing the replay is almost more than I can take.

Why is this moment so significant? It's something only a lifelong Dodger fan could understand, and perhaps not even all of those.

To give you a little background...

You didn't hear my dad's stories of the excitement in L.A. when the Dodgers moved to town from Brooklyn in 1958, or of "his" Dodgers of the '60s, led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, pitchers who were nearly unhittable in their prime.

You weren't there with me during the 1981 World Series, feeling the fear I felt when Goose Gossage came to the mound to pitch for the dreaded Yankees.

You never heard me recite the Dodgers' lineup as a child, remembering the players as if I knew them personally.

You weren't lucky enough to enjoy a Dodger Dog with me, sitting in beautiful Dodger Stadium, hearing the organ music.

You didn't see the afternoons I spent in my backyard pitching tennis balls at the house, pretending to be a right-handed Fernando Valenzuela.

You've never seen my autographed baseball from former Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey. It's still on display in my office today.

You don't know about the times I secretly took a transistor radio with me to bed so I could continue listening to the Dodger game after my parents told me to get to sleep.

You didn't hear my childish prayers to God that the Dodgers would rally to win an important game.

You didn't feel my heartbreak in the 1985 National League Championship Series, when the Dodgers lost Game 5 on an unlikely home run by Cardinals' shortstop Ozzie Smith.

You didn't live through the frustration I felt as the Dodgers suffered through miserable seasons in '86 and '87.

You didn't feel the surge of hope I felt as the Dodgers retooled for the '88 campaign, picking up outfielder Kirk Gibson, who would later hit that famous home run.

Your mind is not programmed to hate the Giants.

You can't possibly understand the frustration and disconnect I feel at the Dodgers' inability to return to playoff greatness since that magical 1988 season. This season marks 20 years, and that's a long time.

Devotion is the only word that comes to mind to capture all this history. A lifetime of devotion. That's what came bursting out of me that night in October of 1988 when Gibson's home run cleared the fence. It's also what never could have come bursting out of anyone else who had not loved this team with their whole heart for so long.

How do you package devotion? How do you put it in a jar and hand it to someone? The answer is simple: You don't. You can't. There's no shortcut to it. There's no microwave package that will be ready in a couple of minutes. The only way to experience the joy of devotion is to give yourself to someone or something, without regard for what you might get in return, and maintain that embrace no matter the cost. Ask a couple celebrating a 50th anniversary how to get what they have, and see what they tell you.

Summer, 1993:

So, what about the Texas Giant? What can be said about that? I paid for a ticket to the park, stood in line, and rode the ride. That's about it. It was a great ride, but it was just a ride. I rode it once, maybe twice more, never again finding it as fulfilling as I did the first time. It was just never the same. And, how could it have been?

Our Worship:

"God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship Him in spirit and in truth." -- John 4:24

Again, the question: What about our worship? Many Christians desire something more meaningful than what they currently experience. Something more moving, that touches them deeper.

Of the two moments discussed here, many Christians desire the worship equivalent of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. That's a good thing to want. But, in our search for that, are we actually climbing aboard the Texas Giant and waiting for something to happen?

By default, most of the discussion surrounding meaningful worship has to do with what is planned and presented up in front of a church audience. The discussions tend to focus on worship format, which songs to sing, how to sing them, type and length of preaching, physical layout of the worship area, lighting, technology, etc.

All these things have their place, and need to be discussed. Every worship assembly should be designed and planned prayerfully, with the goal of glorifying God and keeping the attention on Him. A poorly planned or sloppily executed worship assembly is painful to endure, and draws more attention away from God than turning on ESPN would do.

But, as important as those discussions are, they do not capture the most important question. The question becomes a matter of what our worship really is. Is it something that happens to us, or something we give of ourselves to God?

If it is something that happens to us, then we are right when we think the path to more meaningful worship leads directly to the stage in front of the church audience. Then, it is a matter of who presents what in front of us on Sunday. Then, the way to achieve that elusive experience we're desiring is to get whatever is hip to get, and use it until it is no longer hip. It's someone else's responsibility to give us Game 1 of the 1988 World Series while we climb aboard the Texas Giant.

However, if worship is not something that happens to us, but rather, something we offer to God, then the path to more meaningful worship leads directly to the mirror. Worship becomes a product of the life we live from Monday through Saturday, not just an intake of what someone prepared for us on Sunday. Worship becomes something we offer to God from the depth of our hearts, without the slightest regard for the hipness or non-hipness of anything anyone planned or presented from the stage in front of us. Worship becomes directly linked to the level of devotion to God in our daily lives. It becomes our own responsibility to create the conditions conducive for Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. And, we realize that a ride on the Texas Giant, or any other roller coaster, can never match a home run like that. We give up on that thought entirely.

Are we prepared to take personal responsibility for the worship we offer God?

Will we abandon hope that the Texas Giant can give us Game 1 of the 1988 World Series?

Will we devote ourselves to God every day, and create the personal history with Him that will bring about those home run moments that put a lump in our throats, and bring tears to our eyes?

We have the right destination in mind. Will we understand that there is no shortcut to get us there?