Friday, February 27, 2009

Beauty From Pain

To hear this song, click on my playlist (right). This song is for my dear friends who are enduring heavy burdens with faith, day in and day out.

Isaiah 61:1-3
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.

"Beauty From Pain"

The lights go out all around me
One last candle to keep out the night
And then the darkness surrounds me
I know i'm alive but i feel like i've died
And all that's left is to accept that it's over
My dreams ran like sand through the fists that i made
I try to keep warm but i just grow colder
I feel like i'm slipping away

After all this has passed, i still will remain
After i've cried my last, there'll be beauty from pain
Though it won't be today,
Someday i'll hope again
And there'll be beauty from pain
You will bring beauty from my pain

My whole world is the pain inside me
The best i can do is just get through the day
When life before is only a memory
I'll wonder why God lets me walk through this place
And though i can't understand why this happened
I know that i will when i look back someday
And see how you've brought beauty from ashes
And made me as gold purified through these flames

Here i am, at the end of me
Tryin to hold to what i can't see
I forgot how to hope
This night's been so long
I cling to Your promise
There will be a dawn

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lost in Translation

The language in the Bible is sometimes hard for me to understand. Ever felt that way?

While reading Exodus and Leviticus, I find that the procedures for offering sacrifices and the exact dimensions of the tabernacle kind of make me want to skim and pick up the pace. Likewise, in the New Testament, certain terms have a vague meaning in my mind, making it hard for me to relate and apply scripture to my problems and my heart. Words like "righteousness," "sexual immorality," "falling away," "grace," "meek," or "sanctification," kind of swirl these nonspecific emotions and distantly related images in my head. If I don't stop to really think about what these words mean, I end up missing the full impact of a passage.

For instance, I recently read a parable Jesus told about how receiving the Word of God is similar to how different types of soil might receive a planted seed. Jesus talks about how some people don't fully receive his message for various reasons: Satan's direct intervention, difficult trials, or desiring the pleasures of this world too much.

The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.

I've read that passage before, and in my preconceived, skim-through-the-passage-today kind of thinking, I almost missed a little note that I had jotted in the corner a long time ago. The note was from a sermon and simply said: become 'offended.'

Immediately, a little alarm bell went off in my head connecting the word "offended" with the language Jesus used to warn John the Baptist about not losing faith due to doubt, fear, or God not stepping in to save the day in the ways and times we expect.

An arrow had been drawn from my note "offended" to "they quickly fall away."

So what's the connection? Why'd I draw that line, and what do these passages have in common that can help me get through an exceptionally difficult time?

I decided to dig a little deeper.

I found out that the original Greek word for both "offended" and "fall away" is skandalizo.

One of the definitions opened my eyes to the relevancy and the freshness of God's word for my life that was hidden under the dusty English translation. I just had to brush it off to see the message clearly.

skandalizo: to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey


This is the root of my trial.

The temptation comes to me over and over-- in 1,000 different painful, annoying, depressing, and difficult moments-- each new one adding upon the others to build a pile of utter despair. In my waiting for deliverance, I'm consistently tempted to distrust God's good purpose for my life.

Last week, I met a woman entirely by chance who prayed for me. She did not know me, and beyond knowing I was struggling with illness and painful family issues, she was entirely a stranger when she sat down beside me. But in that prayer, she prayed for me more eloquently and powerfully than many who know me well. She prayed for peace, rest, and freedom for me and for my family. And anyone who knows me well can attest that these three things are the very things I have longed for, cried for, and prayed for-- year after year.

It was this woman, this godly woman, who reminded me of God's promise: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." --Isaiah 55:9

His ways are higher than my ways in this trial. The darkness is completely under his control and power. The storm lasts only as long as his purposes require, and not a second longer. In the meantime, I must determine to not fall away, to not get offended at Jesus, and to not stumble or distrust and desert my Lord because of persecution.

God, though I don't understand your ways in my life right now, I trust you. I love you.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Not what I expected

Last night I heard an interview with a Christian couple who lost their baby a few hours after her birth. They talked about how they still believe God could have healed her, but chose not to. It's something they don't understand, and they feel tremendous grief. Yet they trust Him. How can they still believe in "a God that took their baby"?

For several years now, I've been probing the mystery of how God can be completely loving and still not always appear to act on behalf of those who love him, when it's within his power to do so.

As a Christian, it's tempting to want to defend God or present his "reasons" for not healing or for allowing tragedy. We often rub salt into the wound with phrases like, "all things work for good" or "God will never give you more than you can bear." We speculate about suffering in such a way that we can boil it down into detached cliches-- rationalizing to ourselves that God's lack of response isn't so bad after all. We try to make it sound admirable, or noble, or honorable to suffer. But trying to find the silver lining in a cloud with no sun behind it can be exhausting and futile.

How do we have faith when God distinctly rejects our requests for relief? Why should we continue believing in a God who sometimes resists fixing our hardest problems or relieving the pain in our darkest hour? Where is the hope and protection that scripture offers up to us? It can almost feel like we are being mocked. What protection? What defense? Why does her faith bring her what she needs, but mine does not? Do I not believe enough? Do I have too much hidden sin in my heart? Is Jesus not really who he says he is?

John the Baptist asked that last question. I was really surprised the first time I ever heard a sermon on that passage of scripture because before that, I had completely missed the motive behind the question.

While John lingers in prison, he sends his friends to question Jesus about why he wasn't acting the way that John (and us, as readers) expected. Jesus came to "set the prisoners free," but here John was-- Jesus' cousin, friend, and forerunner-- locked up, soon to be killed. Why hadn't Jesus set him free?

John asked, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Why haven't you set me free? What am I missing here? If you're really the Messiah, why don't I see the healing, the protection, and the miracles in my life?

It's something we all wonder deep down when the tragedies of this earth knock on our door. The rest of the time, we try to push down that rising voice inside of us when we see genocide on the evening news or hear of one more person who's lost their job in the failing economy. We see it; we think, "This doesn't fit who I think God is or how I expect him to act," and we push it aside and turn back to making dinner.

It's not pleasant or convenient to think about it when things are going well for us-- and John the Baptist surely didn't question Jesus' identity during the good times, when he was baptizing him in the river, hearing God's voice from heaven. John only began to verbalize his doubts when his life was on the line and Jesus wasn't doing anything about it.

So the answer Jesus gives here really is the linchpin of this whole issue. I mean, the cat really came out of the bag. How's he going to respond to this very plain and straightforward question-- a question of the ages?

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

I heard a sermon by Dr. Erwin Lutzer the other night about having faith when God's response disappoints us. He talked about this passage with John and paraphrased the last line like this:

"Blessed is he who does not get upset about the way I run my business."

Now, it's one thing for Jesus to say that lightly to John who's in trouble, but it's another thing entirely for Jesus to offer up his own life, showing that he takes suffering very seriously. Jesus obediently went to the cross to die for our sins and was executed in a much more brutal and terrible way than John. And although it's not pleasant for us to grasp, there is some relief in the open acknowledgement that even as Christians (maybe especially as Christians), this life will bring us pain. There are times we will feel unprotected. We are not exempt from suffering, nor do we hurt less than anyone else. Our pain is not somehow lighter or easier in its nature because of our faith. It is a lie to think it is. So what is the difference between a Christian and anyone else who suffers?

I've heard several of my friends say to me that they are able to be quite patient when they are waiting for something that they know will come-- like a pizza they are certain will be delivered by 7, or a date with a special someone set for Friday next week. It's easier for them to wait because of the anticipation of what's to come and the promised end to their state of longing. Without that promise of reward on the horizon, patience becomes difficult, often turning into despair, and the uncertainty of waiting becomes a weight.

I get tired of waiting for things that might never happen on this earth. I might never be fully healed. I might never be able to reconcile with my dad. I might never bear a child. I might never see complete justice on this earth for what my family has endured. Nothing is certain-- money, health, relationships. I can hope all I want; still there are no earthly guarantees.

But the one guarantee I do have is a sure hope of heaven because of my faith in Jesus Christ.

I used to think this hope was distant, rather irrelevant, and almost mythical-- something to be glad I had as an insurance policy to "back up" for the day when I'd eventually need it. Someone would say "the hope of heaven," and I'd think-- but that's a million years away-- I need hope here and now!

But the fact is, heaven is more than a long-way-off dream. It could be our tomorrow if our lives are taken from us-- in a car accident, a sudden heart attack, or even Christ's return to earth. We have to live in that immediate awareness of the proximity of heaven and the temporal nature of our human sufferings. When we allow our suffering to become larger than the present moment, it overwhelms our vision, and all we can see is our pain.

We have a choice to make in that moment of pain (our prison moment)-- we can become offended at the way God runs his business, or we can "consider him [Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart."

Dr. Lutzer summed up his sermon about disappointment with 4 points that are so clear and honest, my heart can't help but leap at the tremendous, guaranteed hope to which they point:

Sometimes faith changes circumstances.
Sometimes faith does not change circumstances.
Faith never judges God by circumstances.
Faith in Christ always leads to ultimate victory.