Breath Prayer for Comfort



I have written a number of times about the Jesus Prayer on my blog.  It truly deserves more reflection from me as it has become my crutch...no...make that... my staff for it supported me long before the wounds I have since taken.  But the form of prayer it has given birth to is equally important and something I feel called to share on in the days ahead.

But today I am starting with the image and prayer above.  It was birthed while I was praying the Jesus Prayer and the cry for mercy which I wrote about recently.  As I prayed, there was another longing I began to sense in my soul which needed expression, it needed a word.  It came from a totally different breath prayer from a few weeks before: comfort.

Having just done a funeral and spent time with the stories of so many other caregivers, I was worn down.  Weary.  Maybe even a bit battered as well.  Ever been in that place?  Maybe from a relationship?  A situation at work?  A conversation at home?  The isolation of family who have excluded you?  Yeah, I suspect many have been there in different ways.

The beauty and solace (another rich word) of praying a breath prayer is in the repeating of it.  No, not like that of the pharisees that Jesus condemned for you don't do it out on the street corner.  You ponder it.  Chew it.  Savor it.  Like hot tea or a coffee or cider.  And you do it as many times as you need it.  Silently or out loud.  In the moment you need it.  Mercy.


Facing the Filter of Grief


I had breakfast with one of my best friends the other day.  Waffle House is always a great place for really deep conversations because somehow, that is where our best ones seem to happen lately.  It was in that conversation that we came to agree that suffering is a great filter, straining out everything, sorting what really matters in our lives from the...other stuff.

What I am finding is there are personal traits, protections, and boundaries that also get filtered in this.  There are things I did not even realize were present.  I have learned stereotypes of clergy behavior still exist.  For instance, I’ve always been amazed how people seem to think it is inappropriate for clergy to hunt.  


But suffering, pain, and grieving don’t just filter things, they also lay bare, open and gaping wounds.  And the platitudes of religious jargon and stereotypes are the very things which act, not as the soothing balm of Gilead but more like the BLAM! of Thor’s hammer on the soul.  A few years ago, I listened to one pastor of a north Georgia mega-church quip that “bad things happen because you’ve taken Jesus off the throne of your heart.”  Really?  It is that simple?


In a text (quickly approaching in Lent) from Luke’s gospel, Jesus addresses the tragic events surrounding the collapse of the Tower of Siloam and the deaths of eighteen people (Luke 13:1-9).  Most commentators agree the point Jesus is making is we are ALL equal in our sinfulness; it is a universal condition.  We are all guilty of taking Jesus “off the throne of our hearts.”  

Jesus instead focuses on our universal need to repent and then he goes further.  In the parable of the fig tree included, we are hit with an inconvenient truth: God is slow to punish.  Time is always running out for us but God, Jesus says, is in no rush to pound on us but is waiting and working to bring us to repentance.

One of the un-noted parts of this however, is the underlying theme of our mortality.  Human beings seem to want a cut and dry understanding of who is “in” and who is “out” of heaven.  We would like this issue to be cut and dry.  It is is we who would rather not talk about death or to deny our mortality.  Twenty seconds of viral video footage is “enough” to make our mark.  If we’re remembered for this, at least we were remembered.


The more we try to give meaning to our lives, our suffering, our pain, our grief, and ultimately, our deaths, we rob ourselves of what God says about us: we are worth the very life and love of God’s Son:

God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.  (John 3:16-17 GW)


More to the point, the focus of Jesus’ coming is NOT condemnation… SURPRISE!!!  Nope, it is out of LOVE and the desire to SAVE.  The love mentioned though, is a sacrificing love, what Michael J. Gorman calls, a “cruciform” love: God’s love is known by the self-sacrificing nature.

But as Gorman writes that the paradigm Jesus’ death-resurrection creates offers us in this new life a new hope hope but “hope, therefore, is inextricably tied up with humiliation and suffering (pg 319, ibid).”  We just want hope with nothing messy and we don’t get that promised to us.


Even though Lazarus is raised from the dead, Jesus still wept (John 11).  I think Jesus grieved, not for the death of Lazarus but the reality that Lazarus would know death twice and so would Mary and Martha.  Hope is tied up with suffering.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief, was and remains,
a helpful piece of work for us in the caregiving field.  As a pastor, I often am called upon to help people with this reality.  But my journey with my wife’s cancer and terminal diagnoses and living with my two teenagers has made something really clear: it is painfully messy.

We don’t really grieve in a simple bell curve.  We grieve all over the place.  When you are a caregiver in a long-term situation with family, then you grieve, literally, everywhere: in the car, in conversation, in the pulpit, watching Netflix, out hunting, basically anywhere you are is a cause for grief.  

Yes, I hope but my hope is tempered by the suffering and humiliation which comes from a culture and society which make grief and tears out to be a sign of weakness.  But for the Christian, for me, what I am learning is there really is a different culture available to us; the Kingdom of God is most real to me IN the humiliation and pain because the promise of resurrection IS hope.  

Here is where my filter breaks down though.  I am in the acceptance “arena” about the terminal diagnoses of my wife.  I am facing and having the conversation with God and my kids of preparing to be a single parent.  This IS NOT about lacking hope - this is the reality and it is directly tied to the suffering which I have come to know and live with everyday.  

Pastor and author, Ron DelBene’s observation is we should never, “...hold onto what we think is the wholeness of God.  In the end, it is always more than we expect (“Into the Light, pg 126).”  The hope of resurrection is for the believer, a true reality which ought never be dis-counted from the process of suffering, death, and grief.  We do a disservice to others by robbing them of the hope which we really have - one day, there will be an end to suffering and death.  

Just stop spiritualizing and demythologizing and deconstructing.  Let’s try being honest for a change about what the Bible and Judeo-Christian teaching has made clear for centuries - God did make a way to overcome sin, to make us whole again and make the way open to heaven and paradise.  Jesus Christ is the way and this is my hope in these days of facing reality.



I Cry Mercy In The Face of Suffering


We sat around the screen, our youth ministry students, this past Sunday watching the movie, “Son of God.”  It seemed a good idea to start the year off with such a movie as our church spends the year, “Following Jesus” through Luke’s Gospel (the lectionary gospel of this year).  For most of my life, Mark had been my favorite Gospel but like we all do, my leanings changed.


Now I find myself drawn to Luke’s telling of the Gospel story.  I’m not as hurried as I was in year’s past, something that tied me to Mark’s Gospel and his favorite word: “immediately.”  But Luke isn’t plodding along in his story either.  He offers more detail.  There is a personal nature to his book when he talks about his reasoning for writing.  I like his passion for telling Good News to everyday people and the reminder Jesus didn’t come looking for the world’s “beautiful people” who seem to have it all together.  This is no self-help book, it is a “GOD!  HELP ME!” book and we get God’s response - “I am here.”


In and among all the reasons I’ve come to listen to Luke’s voice is his focus on the stories Jesus told.  No doubt Jesus was THE master storyteller but Luke seems quite adept at story-telling himself, weaving the many stories Jesus told, some not recorded anywhere else but in his Gospel, and placing them expertly in the narrative of the God who is with us.


By far, my favorite is the story of the Tax Collector and Pharisee at prayer (Luke 18:9-14).  I love the way “Son of God” weaves this parable into the narrative of Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him.  Even more so, it is the simple and so profound prayer that has become “the Jesus Prayer,” prayed by the Orthodox Church and which has been instrumental in my own journey of faith.

I have written about it before, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I have taught on it and preached on it.  I can testify, that prayed along with prayer beads, one truly begins to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).  But it will go deeper.  If thoughtfully prayed and meditated upon, it will also do deep soul work, breaking apart our “hearts of stone” as the prophet Ezekiel wrote (36:26).

As my wife’s battle with stage 4 colon-cancer continues into the second year, it has become a more urgent cry of intercession: “Lord, have mercy.”  At times, the only word that comes is simply, “mercy, mercy, mercy.”  There is no more words that suffice.  No other words will do.  Hell, there isn’t another word that can fill the cry of my heart.  I pray it for Heather.  I pray it for my son, Logan and my daughter, Jay.  I pray it for everyone who asks for my prayers.


Why?  Why mercy?


As I said, it is the sum of my heart and all that my mind can muster.  It is a word that is at once a prayer for healing and a respite from pain.  It is a word that puts what I cannot control into the One who has the final say.  It is both a prayer when my faith is strongest and a wish when I have lost hope.  It is on behalf of all the goodness and joy which I see in my wife and dearest friend and it is penance for my sinfulness and anger and the ugliness in my own heart no one but God can see.  


I pray it because most days are a kind of purgatory I never imagined existing.  I pray it when I stand in solidarity with other caregivers who feel alone and isolated and have no voice because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves but are longing for someone to notice them.  I pray it in the quiet of the night and the hectic nature of the work day.

I cry mercy because it is the only word I have found sufficient for the created to say to the Creator.  Mercy dear Lord.


Mercy.


So while I do not know what it is you face this day, there is a prayer that can express your heart when other words will not suffice.  It is not magical and it is more profound than mantra.  Pray it in your need or at your own risk and if you cannot, know that I will be praying this day for you…

Mercy.



Lessons of Caregiving: Saying No To Star Wars

Would you mind if I shared some rather personal things today?  I hope not and I hope you’ll take what I write understanding I am writing from heart and soul.  It is the heart of husband and father.  The heart of a pastor and Jesus-follower.  The heart of cancer survivor and a cancer caregiver.

I realized this morning it is one of “those weeks.”  It is busy, yes, but it is more than that alone.  It is a realization that many of the roads I have travelled are going to and are intersecting this week.  Where to start though?  

One of my former students and long time friends, Brandon, asked me when tickets were about to go on sale for the new Star Wars, if he, Whit and I were going to try and get together.  The three of us saw the midnight showings for all the Prequels together.  At the same, my friends in the Hothlanta Rebels were making similar plans.  My answer to both was simple but hard: No.

It isn’t like I haven’t had to do the same thing for the better part of two hunting seasons now and plans to section hike the A.T. and many other things.  This is what is unseen about being a caregiver with someone with a terminal or life-threatening illness.  I have learned this in my cancer caregiver support group.  I learned this from the wonderful caregivers I spent time with through Inheritance of Hope’s NYC Trip this past Thanksgiving.  I’m not speaking this just for me but for all the caregivers who have to say no every day to their lives, their friends, their hopes and their dreams.

In reality, we all have said a more profound, more resounding, and more soulful: Yes.

We are saying yes to the promises we made on wedding days.  We are saying yes to the responsibility of being a parent.  We are saying yes out of loyalty to the sacrifices our parents made.  In some cases, it is the integrity of a fiance giving up everything to care for a wedding day that may never come or a friend committed fully to another.  

But it is a yes that comes with a price.

Diseases that are terminal take life.  They also kill dreams and crush hopes.  They destroy families and relationships.  Sometimes the effects are sudden and crushing.  Reading, hearing and experiencing those times is awful.  I know.  Sometimes though, it is death by a million papercuts.  For me, it is saying no to a movie which, under nearly any other circumstance, I would have never missed.  It is saying no to numerous invitations to sneak away for just a few hours to hunt because, well, you don’t know what is coming next.

But this week, I also go for my regular blood work and ultrasound on my remaining testicle because I’m not only a cancer care-giver, I am a cancer survivor.  The odds are so slim I’ll have a recurrence of testicular cancer but it IS a possibility and I do not get a pass on this.  I do not get a pass on my health, I can no longer take anything for granted.  I do not get to pass this off.  I said yes on January 15, 1995 and I don’t get to give up.  I said yes twice to the responsibility of being a dad.  So if that means I have to fight cancer, or a disease that takes half my vision or migraines, then so be it.  

I said yes to those three people.   Loving them means I have to say no.

Caregivers are not trying to be jerks.  We really would love to go out even just for a quick breakfast or lunch with you.  Heck, a text message or voice mail is great.  A lot of times, we’re so behind we cannot even hope to answer your call as bad as we want to.  When you think a caregiver is not doing anything, if you see a post that their watching Netflix or playing Farmville, you’re wrong.  They are recovering.  They are breathing.  They are taking the one moment they have to come up for air.

It is not so simple for us to just have somebody else come in and help.  We pay a price for saying yes and we also pay a price for saying no.  We learn this as we go along I think and we had no idea and nobody could possibly convey the price to us.  

I was writing this in part to tell everyone to please NOT ask me about if I got tickets for the new Star Wars movie or ask if I’ve seen it or if I’m going to see it.  But the last few weeks have shown me I’m not alone in this, not about Star Wars but about life.  So if you read this and you know a caregiver, if you’re a family member of a caregiver or a friend of a caregiver this holiday season, please consider giving a very simple gift…

Say to them, “Thank you for saying YES.  Thank you for living out love.  Thank you for being a living example of integrity.  Thank you for saying yes to serving someone else.”  

Remember, sometimes love means saying no.


And here is my yes:




Shattered Dreams: Trust and Hope


(This is Part 3 of a 4 part sermon series. Before reading farther, take a moment and read Ruth Chapter 3 from the Old Testament)


It was on the eve of a critical battle that the general walked among his troops.  There was a group of local militia who seemed most like a mob and untrained.  He turned to his closest advisors and said, “I don’t know anything about these soldiers.”  The next group he came to were recruits fresh from basic training.  To his advisors he said, “I think I can trust these soldiers.”  Then he came to a group who stood at attention with stern lips and weapons at the ready.  They had served for sometime alongside the general in many battles.  The general turned to his advisors again. “These men I know I can trust!”

Trust in God grows from time spent in the battles of life.  Just as soldiers grow to trust their commander because of experiencing faithfulness, we grow to trust God, first in the small struggles.  When we “grow up in faith,” through practices of prayer, giving, worshipping and serving, not only do we grow in our trust of God, but God does the real work of forming us into the image of Jesus Christ.  This is what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:   17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplatea the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)


God is not in the business of simply blessing our dreams and desires for fairy tale “happy-ever-afters.” If our understanding of religion is to learn the secrets of principles and practices to get “good stuff” from God to make us content and successful, then we are missing the point of what God’s word has been saying to us.  So what can we count on God for? In Shattered Dreams, Dr. Crabb states simply: “We can count on God to patiently remove all the obstacles to our enjoyment of Him (pg 144).”


The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a principle-based teaching that presents us the secret to a happy life. It is the truth that God keeps First Things First and God’s First Thing is a relationship with us and He will not allow lesser things to get in the way.  We can deny it all we want and we even will argue the point but we only NEED God.  The Psalmist describes it so clearly when he writes, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)”   So keep in mind, a week is about the longest anyone can go without water but more typically it is 3-4 days. (www.businessinsider.com).  So the question for us rests on how much more do we desire God over the things and stuff of this world?


Naomi had lost husband and sons.  She and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, were vulnerable.  Because of the cultural traditions, they couldn’t access the property and wealth of her husband and sons. Someone must redeem it.  Naomi knew all this and with the kindness shown by Boaz, Naomi began to dream a new dream.  No arranged marriage and no inheritance would make it possible.  It was trust and hope - in the character of Boaz but more so than that, it is in God as she proclaims in 2:20, “He (the Lord) has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.”


Our desire though is to feel better.  We confuse our feelings with facts and we live in a society where this is encouraged.  But feelings are fleeting.  DBT therapy describes feelings as clouds.  They take different shapes and forms and then dissipate as the days go on.  Naomi cautions Ruth, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens.  For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today (v18).”  God is in no rush.


In his book, “Where Is God When It Hurts,” Philip Yancey makes a simple point about hope saying, “True hope is honest.”  It believes that even when “...the worst has happened...a person...can stand up and continue” (pg 211).  Yancey goes on to point out this isn’t a pollyanna hope.  It is a real hope, one that honestly views God’s Word and sees there is place for both miraculous healing and the pain of long-suffering.  Naomi had reason to hope and reason to dream new dreams even in the midst of shattered dreams.

What is our alternative?  I am forced, because of the continuing horrific acts of terrorism and the tragedy in Paris, to address, at least in part, the problem of evil, the issue of theodicy.  I do so by sharing the words of Dr. Jerry Walls who wrote, following 9/11:


“Those who give up their faith in a good God because innocent men and women were killed have, ironically, consigned those people to oblivion. If there is no God, there is no good reason to believe those men and women will ever life again.  There is no hope that can reach them. But if one continues to believe in God, one retains the hope that even such a terrible situation as this can be resolved in the end.  God can and will restore the lives of those people.  Indeed, no innocent suffered will be lost or forgotten in God’s final reckoning. (Good News Magazine, Nov/Dec 2001)."


What is our dream though?  Is there hope in this present life for those who suffer?  Of course!  But there is something more which the Christian is to hope for, it is what Paul writes the Roman church in 8:16-18 (ESV)  (16) The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  (17)  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  (18)  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  

Naomi had hope in God for a redeeming work. She does discover a new dream.  But through her dream, we must not miss the greater dream God has for us - to see an end of suffering and to become, through sanctification, like Jesus Christ!  Naomi’s lesson for us is to hope and trust in the promises of God; to be faithful even in suffering as we become the children of God.




Works Cited and Referenced:

Where Is God When It Hurts? Philip Yancey

"Making Sense of Evil." Jerry Walls. Good News Magazine, Nov/Dec 2001)

"Here's How Many Days A Person Can Survive Without Water." Dina Spector.  Business Insider.com.  May 9, 2014.




Shattered Dreams: Feeling Grief - Seeing Grace


(This is Part 2 of a 4 part sermon series. Before reading farther, take a moment and read Ruth Chapter from the Old Testament)

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.  -Megan Devine (http://www.refugeingrief.com/)

Everyone has an opinion on suffering.  Usually we are wrong. I say we're wrong primarily because we human creatures work so hard at avoiding pain. The end of chapter one of Ruth highlights this. We quickly skip over Naomi’s name change but it is the vital and raw reality - faith being confronted with real life.  Call me MARA - “I am bitter!” Come to think on it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian song about Ruth 1.  Human beings are uncomfortable with this topic in our age and Christians in particular have cringed and sulked in the shadow of suffering and pain.

Some come up with excuses to lay blame on those who suffer such as the pastor who declared on TV as I awaited surgery for my cancer in 2000, “The reason bad things happen is because you’ve taken Jesus off the throne of your heart.” Some such as Rabbi Kushner come to see God as limited by the laws of nature and by human nature and moral freedom (134).  Still for others, it is to journey the Buddhist way, to deaden pain by denying our desires, to deny joy and passion.

Naomi’s response? “This stinks! God, I know you are somewhere in all this and I’m bitter because you’ve done NOTHING!” I get that! I still had my cancerous testical removed. I still collapsed under clinical depression. I faithfully worked to start a church - I worked on something so big that it could only succeed if God showed up and God didn’t.  I lost almost 50% of vision in one eye and a year later it happened to the other one.  My wife has stage 4 cancer now - I’m ready to go for a name change too and bitter sounds like as good as any other.  God hasn’t fixed any of these yet.  I’m carrying.

In Aushwitz, psychotherapist named Viktor Frankl suffered and saw others suffer and die at the hands of Nazis. He observed that those who most often survived were those who found meaning, or better still, MADE meaning.  Frankl wrote in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that though “...one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude. (172)”   Like Hercules’ battle with the Hydra, we can cut off many arguments and causes for suffering and a new “head” of pain and suffering will arise.  

But “Hope has its own rhythm.  We can’t rush it,” writes Larry Crabb.  For whatever reason though, we try to place limits.  Crabb warns of two temptations we find in the church.  1) Mourning has a time limit and 2) there is a proper way to mourn (pg 65). I think there is at least a third that there is a spiritual formula to provide us an out. We want to believe there is a secret principle to get us out of suffering. I’ve seen/heard these in the stories told by other caregivers and in some of my own friendships. The principle that Naomi's story teaches? The way out, the way of hope is through.

Such ideas are completely foreign to the story of Ruth and Naomi.  In the movement from chapter 1 to 2, Ruth is shown as Naomi’s companion.  When she speaks in 2:2  does she tell Naomi, it is time to get over it?  Nope.  She asks, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.’ Naomi said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ (2:2)  We don’t know what stage of grief Naomi is in and we see Ruth doesn’t dwell on “fixing” Naomi’s faith - she goes about taking care of other needs.  Ruth leaves room for God to work in Naomi’s life.

C.S. Lewis, one of the most significant authors and Christian thinkers of the 20th Century, wrote about his own struggle with pain.  Most are aware of his book “The Problem of Pain,” but it is in his later book, “A Grief Observed,” that he writes about the death of his wife, Joy, who died of cancer.  He cautions us on our words to those who suffer:

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly.
Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively.
But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.” (pg 19, Location 358 of 849)

Even as she was feeling grief, Naomi remained attentive to grace.  Though she was bitter, Naomi could see better than most when she heard from Ruth about her time in the field.   When she heard the name of Boaz, she was given hope; hope that God was not ignoring her cry but at work for she was in need.  That need was for a redeemer.  

It is hard not to miss we have the same need.  In our own grief we may well find God being silent, uncaring.  It may make us bitter.  But Ruth, in her bitterness, had been surrounded by home - God’s people.  And in that place - she allowed room for hope and found grace.    It is a grace which is available to us still in Jesus Christ...

Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus offers a living faith; an empathetic faith; a faith for the present time.  Borrowed faith cannot sustain us.  In the aftermath of shattered dreams, surrounded by the followers of God, we learn the lesson of Ruth to allow ourselves to hope for new dreams, dreams which come from a living God; a redeeming God who even redeems our suffering and pain.



Works Cited and Referenced:

Bakers Evangelical Bible DIcitonary ( http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/kinsman-redeemer.html )

For other books cited here, see my previous post: Sojourn of Suffering


Shattered Dreams: Sojourn of Suffering



(Part 1 of 4)

During my time in ministry, twice I slid into depression.  There were a couple of causes related to this, primarily it was the handling of stress and during the last time, I was referred to the book “Shattered Dreams” by Dr. Larry Crabb. It was then and remains a foundational book in my library. It helped me through that time and led me to other books and authors that have helped me deal with the issue of pain and suffering. As you can imagine, I returned to it again over this past year and have read others.  My hope and prayer in this series is to help us all wrestle with the issue of suffering and pain in our world and our faith.


From the outset, there is a clarification I need to make and it is primarily what subject matter I want to touch on here.  The word theodicy, is the word we use to describe our attempt to understand God’s justice in a world of evil.  This usually overlaps with the problem of suffering and pain.  And while this in most cases makes good sense, I want to keep this separate, not because I don’t think theodicy isn’t important (it is profoundly important!) but because suffering and pain do not necessitate the presence of evil as a cause and in the Book of Ruth, the issue of evil is not brought to the forefront.  


As a confession, let me say whenever I read authors or hear speakers/pastors talk about pain and suffering and theodicy, there is often a credibility issue. The credentials aren’t pasted on walls but on scars, “what have you suffered that I should listen to you?” Mine comes from being a testicular cancer survivor, a depression survivor, failing as a church planting pastor, and living with a vascular condition in my eyes that has taken nearly 50% of my vision. But none of those has prepared me for the pain and struggle of being the primary caregiver of a spouse with stage 4 cancer as I am today. Are there some worse than me? Sure, but I think those are sufficient. And as I look at Naomi’s story in the Book of Ruth, I find a story where I can relate.


So let me introduce Naomi to you. She is a  Hebrew wife and mother who, with her family travel to Moab during a famine in Judah.  There, her two sons marry Moabite women.  But her husband dies and then her two sons, leaving her a widow and helpless in a foreign land.  She chooses to return to Judah and her daughter-in-law’s follow until she dismisses them.  One leaves but Ruth has other plans - to follow Naomi.


Ruth 1:16-22  But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, there will I be buried.May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them,‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara,   for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full  but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’ So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Here is the thing.  This is NOT what should have happened to Naomi! She is of God’s chosen people.   Yet here  she is now.  She  knew what it meant to really go hungry. She has lost all that is meaningful to her - her husband and her sons.  No one to watch over her and care for her. She is hurt and in pain.  When she arrives in Bethlehem she even changes her name so everyone knows how bitter she is.

Now note what Naomi says in 1:20 - “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”  Naomi declares she holds God responsible.  I think she is right to do so, after all, God DID make this world. Contrast this with the book of Job.  Job’s three friends almost can’t wait  to point their fingers back at Job - “What did YOU do, Job?” To this  day, this seems to be the default  approach to suffering su;rely WE did something bad to suffer like this! But thankfully Naomi has Ruth.  Ruth doesn’t blame Naomi, she sticks by her.  Ruth remains silent and consistent.

When it comes to suffering and pain, the issues of disease, accidents, disasters, and numerous other causes; we are likely not going to discover the meaning  for our suffering and pain in a day or a week or maybe, even years. We can ask, as Rabbi Harold Kushner brings up in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” - “Why did this happen? Why do I deserve it?  But Kushner writes and points out this is not particularly helpful question (pg 136). Kushner offers a better question to be sure but I think it isn’t sufficient.  

I believe there is a better question to ask.  It will come at another time, maybe not immediately, but in its time, hopefully we can deal with it.  I word  it this way, “ It has happened but will I continue to cooperate with God’s grace?”


This is question came arose from a lot of time with various traditions and  sources.  One was the early church leader, Irenaeus who had a unique opinion of the world God created.  He argued that God created human beings to continue to grow. God intended there to be some adversity in the world God created.  And as sin does with everything good that God makes, it has been made worse a thousand times over. (referenced Jerry Walls, “Making Sense of Evil,” Good News Magazine.)

Ironically, if we give up the idea of a good God in the midst of suffering and pain, we give up hope that our pain can be redeemed, and those who die are condemned to nothingness.  At few times and to few people, God has revealed ways in which he works.  It is not likely God is going to reveal that way.    I don’t expect God is going to do that for me but I will not give up the idea of God being a good God and so I have hope there will be meaning.


By choosing to cooperate with God’s grace, we are choosing to recognize some of our dreams and ideas about our world and about God, need to be shattered.  They need to be shattered to make room for new dreams, better dreams.  Hope makes that possible I think.  But it is also a pattern Jesus did this to his disciples and their idea that God’s Messiah, the World’s Savior would be a great warrior. They left home, careers, and even their religion to follow Jesus Christ.


Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them, “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life!  Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower. Luke 14:25-27 (ERV)


Larry Crabb writes, “As long as our purpose is to have a good time...God becomes merely a means to an end, an object to be used (Shattered Dreams, 32).  Perhaps we’re meant to learn that the richest hope permits the deepest suffering (45).”


So what do we learn from Naomi in this first part of her story?  What is Naomi’s response to the question: “Will you continue to cooperate with God’s grace?” You need only look where she went: she “...set out on the road that would take them back to land of Judah (1:7).”  Empty and bitter though she was, Naomi seeks refuge among the people of God  Naomi returned to the place which raised her and taught her faith - she went home, where she could weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15)

Has anything really changed?   I see it far too often people leaving the church and God’s people in times of suffering.  Sometimes it is because people were more like Job’s friends and less like Ruth.  Sometimes it is because we think God needs to be defended, when in truth, people need to have hope that pain and suffering can be redeemed. Sometimes, the pain and grief is paralyzing and no one is there on the path like Ruth was. I have no doubt there are more but I think our opening hymn said it best this morning, for when dreams shatter, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.  And when we’re done - when we’re worn out - we are being called to return to our “Judah,” to the church - to Jesus’ people.


Author's Note: These are the notes of a sermon and so some thoughts are not fully "fleshed out." This is partly by design in all my sermons so that there might be room for God's Spirit to show up in ways that might be unexpected. In addition, the links I will be providing throughout these posts will be varied each week. Though you may not find a favorite book this week, it doesn't mean I won't refer to it in the future.

Books Cited In This Sermon:


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