Thanking God in the Midst of Turmoil

The Apostle Paul writes, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”(I Thessalonians 5:18.) I used to puzzle over this verse. How on earth do you give thanks in all circumstances? How do you thank God, when your water’s about to be turned off, your children are sick and you’ve just heard that you’re being laid off? How do you thank God when your best friend is mad at you, your boss in on your case and your spouse has blown up at you? How do you thank God when divorce has left you in poverty or the death of a loved one has colored your world in gray? How do you thank God when your world is in chaos, your heart weeps and you can hardly keep from drowning in your pain? And what is this stuff about it being God’s will – those trying moments you’re in. Is this really what God wants for you?

I don’t think that the Apostle Paul ever intended us to read his letter that way. I think his intention was that we recognize God’s presence in the midst of what we are experiencing. When we look at our lives through the lens of thanks, we find much to be grateful for. We see God’s hand coloring our world with beauty in every season. God writes a masterpiece in the sky. We look up on a clear night and we know that we are part of the vast mystery of all creation. We are awed by a sense that we have a place in God’s universe.

When trouble lands at our door, God is there to break into our darkness with light. In our brokenness, God yearns to make us whole. We are touched by acts of kindness, mercy and compassion. God’s presence and love become a source of courage, strength and hope. When we despair, God surprises us with life giving waters. Then, in some inexplicable way, God weaves the bitter and harsh places of our lives into a tapestry that glimmers with beauty.

We may never be grateful for the crisis which threw us into turmoil and grief. But we can give thanks for the people God sends into our lives who care. We give thanks for the ways we are helped through our crisis. The care we are shown is cause for gratitude. One day we will look back through the perspective of years and realize, that even there – especially there – we were covered with the light and love of God. In the midst of our turmoil we discover God planted people in our lives to listen, to care, to touch us with love. A book, a sermon, a word from a song, a friend reminded us that we are beloved and precious children of God. Genuine gratitude is born out of recognizing that God has not left us without comfort or comforters. The apostle Paul wrote his words to the people of Thessalonica through the eyes of one who had been shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned and falsely accused. He knew there was nothing that would ever separate him from God’s love in Jesus Christ. For that gift, we can indeed give thanks.

Syrian Refugees – Adrift and In Desperate Need

Every Thursday morning we held a Bible Study in the church kitchen of a small rural church I served between 1988 and 1994. Stories were told and memories of earlier days shared. What surprised me most about the history of the area were stories of World War I. The church was located only a few miles from a large German community which had at first questioned the wisdom of going to war with Germany. That question drew the attention of state and federal authorities, making the whole area suspect. Mail was scrutinized for signs of treason. The parents and grandparents of my class members had lived under constant threat of making a wrong comment, angering a neighbor, or being perceived as less than supportive of the war. Fear of these German immigrants had a grip on the nation.

World War II brought additional scrutiny, but at a lesser scale. Another ethnic group was arousing more fear . . . Japanese Americans. We would build Internment Camps, for almost 120,000 Japanese. Of those 80,000 were second generation Americans. In 1980 an investigation into the camps revealed that racism, and not national security, had led to their creation. Prejudice had led our political leaders to wrongly assume these citizens were just not American enough to trust.

The furor over a decision to take in 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, adrift and in desperate need, has challenged my understanding of the country I call home. I fear for the soul of our nation as the conversation about receiving Syrian immigrants has become more and more hostile. Politicians have in turn said, they would forcibly return Syrian refugees, or only allow Christians to enter our country. A mayor even suggested we create a new set of Internment Camps.

Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the story of a man from Jericho on his way to Damascus falling among thieves. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus’s first listeners would have been aware of the dangers of traveling from Jericho to Damascus. One would not take the trip alone unless absolutely necessary. As the story unfolds, first a priest, then a teacher of the law saw the injured man, but decided to ignore him. Stopping to help the injured man would put anyone who did so at risk. This was a dangerous road. The threat of more robbers hidden behind the rocks could not be discounted. Then a Samaritan came along the path. He also would have been anxious about unseen bandits still in the area, but he, in seeing the injured man, went to him. This stranger of a different culture and religious tradition, bound up the man’s wounds and took him to an Inn where he continued to care for the man.

Jesus was not unaware of fear that would keep us from loving our neighbors. I think he told this story to remind us that there are times when we simply need to face our fear and do the right thing. Jesus cuts to the heart. He tells us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear. Jesus speaks truth to power . . . truth to callousness . . . truth to our prejudices and biases . . . truth to our fears. He cuts through our defenses, to the reality which lies behind. The Samaritan confronted his fear, then crossed cultural and religious obstacles to care for a wounded man.

In the end Jesus says, “It’s about love.” Love for God . . . Love for others. He reminds us that we are loved by God. Our best response to that love is to reach out in love to those who most need our care. As Jesus ended his story about the man we refer to as the Good Samaritan, he asked the one who had posed the original question, “Who then is the neighbor?” The response was immediate, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Does Jesus ask any less from us?

Will We Live Out Our Heritage as People of Faith or Will We Succumb to fear?

In a scene reminiscent of World War II, when nations around the world refused refuge to Jewish people fleeing the death camps of Hitler, today we are preparing to abandon another group of refugees. Fear can paralyze. It can keep us from honoring our commitments to people in need. Since the Paris attacks, fear has swept around this country and Europe. Fear of the stranger and fear of the refugee. Some in Congress are already preparing legislation to prevent any more refugees from Syria coming to our borders.

The scripture says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18) I once mixed the wording of the verse up when I was putting together a sermon. Instead of “Perfect love casts out fear,” I wrote, “Perfect fear casts out love.” This is the paradox of love and fear. When we allow fear to rule our hearts, it is difficult to love our neighbor. Fear pushes love away. It sets a barrier between “us and them.” Instead of concern over another’s well being, we are fearful that reaching out will be a danger to ourselves and our families.

In the Biblical drama the people of Israel seek refuge in foreign lands as desperate situations arrive. Abraham and Sarah move when famine breaks out. The Israelites will seek refuge in Egypt as another famine threatens their lives. Mary and Joseph, under threat, will take that same journey when they are warned of impending death for the infant Jesus. So it is that Jesus begins his life as a displaced person seeking political sanctuary from the vicious regime of Herod.

We are placed in this time of history and called to live out our faith in action. It would be easier to site security and let someone else deal with the refugees. History records the trauma of decisions made to the Jewish population before and during World War II. It is the same kind of mentality which caused us to imprison people of German descent during World War I and Japanese decent in World War II. We look back with regret on our fears as we sort through the lessons of history.

Today we stand on the cusp of another decision. Will we live out our heritage as people of faith or will we succumb to fear?

Standing in the Need of Grace

One day I observed a squirrel climbing all over somebody’s lunch box. It was obvious that this squirrel was looking for a free lunch. I was disappointed! I thought squirrels had more ambition. Where was the thrifty, industrious nut-carrier? As I continued to watch, I realized that this particular squirrel walked with a limp. There was a reason for its lack of industry.

Many among us limp. Oh, not with an obvious limp. The limp I’m speaking of may be far more internal than external. All of us are shaped by forces including, the family we are born into, our life experiences, along with advantages or disadvantages which are ours. One person has a voice that causes hearers to glimpse heaven, while another can barely squeak out a tune. For one person, life just seems to come together, while another struggles with basic issues of housing, job, and supporting a family. One person has a strong support system to turn to when in need, another has no one. Societies’ expectations may be something that “those who limp” will always struggle to attain.

Judging people comes easy. Judging takes no leap of the intellect, asks no compassion from us, requires no putting ourselves in another’s shoes. Anyone can judge another human being, not, knowing what burdens that person has to carry, what battles have yet to be fought, or obstacles which stand in their way. Anyone can judge, while remaining ignorant of the internal limp which keeps a person from fulfilling our expectations.

Judging comes easy. Compassion forces us to care. As I read the words of Jesus, it is clear that his primary concern was that we love God and we love each other. Over and over Jesus hammered away at that message, hoping that we could get it through our heads and into our hearts. Outward success has never been the measure that God measures us by. What matters is our love for God and how we love and care for each other.

For isn’t it true that all of us stumble at some point in our lives. Each of us has stood in the need of grace. We’ve needed a person to care, to respond to our needs. We’ve needed people who let go of judging and instead chose to care. The old African-American spiritual speaks to our human condition, “It’s me O Lord, It’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer, not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” May you live in the world loving God and loving, especially, those whose limp may not be so obvious. May you live remembering the compassion you’ve been given, as you’ve traveled along the way.

We Cannot Fall From Grace

KGrHqEOKpIE4j5-KdHBOQe-hlBfg_3One of the jobs I had growing up was cleaning out the cabins on our small fishing resort. My brother and I would clear the refrigerator of miscellaneous left overs and the inevitable cup of bacon grease. We would empty baskets, make beds and have the cabin ready for my mother to finish the clean up.

Neither of us was crazy about the job, but there were ways to take the dreariness out of the task. Stripped down beds were bounced on. We played with matches, lighting and relighting propane burners. Always though, we would be on the lookout for my mom, sounding the alarm when she was on her way. By the time she walked through the door, gas burners would be turned off and we would be busy making beds. Sometimes, she would sniff the air and ask if we’d been playing with matches. We admitted to nothing. Thinking back, I wonder how we thought we could have hidden something so obvious as the pungent smell of sulfur mingled with propane gas. We can try to hide our sins from others and ourselves, but we cannot hide who we are and what we have been about from God.

This fall there has been a church wide study on Timothy Keller’s book, “The Prodigal God” based on the scripture in Luke 15: 11-32. The story is of a father who has two sons. One begs for his inheritance early, then disappears into a far country. Along the way his bad choices and bad companions cause his downfall. One day he decides to return to his father’s home and beg for a job. To his surprise and utter amazement, his father races to meet him and welcomes him into the family, throwing a feast of celebration. The older son is angry and resentful, refusing to join the festivities. We have been reminded that all of us slip in some way. Like the younger brother in Jesus’s story, we mess up running as far from God as we can figure out how to run. Our mistakes compound, one upon another, until we are so trapped by the prison we’ve erected that we cry out for God. We’ve looked at the elder brother, also alienated through his self-righteous pride. Unable to celebrate his brother’s return, he fumes in his own arrogance, frustration and resentment. Both are lost, but only one realizes it.

The pungent smells of off-center living corrodes the atmosphere of our lives. Yet, in Jesus Christ, God comes to us with an alternative way of living. He calls us to return home. Home from all the lost places we have run to. He calls us from our self-righteous pride in our own goodness. He calls us to himself and tells us that we are loved and cherished for who we are. J. William Harkins writes ( Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 2) “We can fall from justice, we can fall from faith; we can fall from righteousness; but we cannot fall from grace.” God’s grace reaches out to every part of our lives. God searches after us, yearns for our return, then races to meet us, when we are wise enough to turn around. All we need to do is turn and open ourselves to accept the love that has always been there for us.