An unexpected blessing

You have a story. So do I.

Our pastor began his Easter Sunday sermon by saying that.

Jesus has a story, he said. The apostle Peter also has a story.

I won’t re-tell his sermon. It’s excellent. You can listen to it here, if you’d like:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLHjQKzbevhK_vJCFUmIKGdsdIoyrmQ2b3&v=-hH6-6wxwWM

 

Our youth pastor recently began an after-school basketball ministry on Thursday afternoons, and I’ve been helping him with that. Not that I’m any great shakes at basketball – I’ve never played in any kind of organized league – but it’s fun.

After playing for a bit and working up a sweat, our youth pastor, Joe, stops the games for a breather and a devotion. He asked me to lead the devotion last week.

Rather than give a Bible lesson or (even worse) a sermon to a group of teens and early 20s ballplayers, I decided to tell a story. Because we all have stories.

My wife and I had just joined a church in Saginaw, Mich., and when I discovered they had a slow-pitch softball team, I decided to sign up. Baseball is my favorite sport, so I thought I’d give softball a shot.

My very first game turned out memorable. As the new guy who few people knew, I played right field. Our church fielded two teams that year, and the first game was against our church’s other team. So just about everybody knew each other.

Early in the game, a batter on the other team hit a short fly ball to right-center field. I can catch this, I thought, so I went running in towards the ball.

Slow-pitch teams field four outfielders. Our fourth outfielder was a high school tennis player, a good athlete with a strong body. He was playing behind second base a little toward left field. He raced after the ball too.

Not knowing each other’s skills, we didn’t account for each other. Both of us ran as fast as we could toward the fly ball. Joel caught it. I crashed into his body, hard, and crumpled to the ground. I didn’t get up.

My teammates quickly gathered around me and realized I needed to visit the emergency room. I was loaded into the van of one of the players on the other team (who remains a good friend to this day), and John transported me to the ER.

I had a broken wrist and a fractured cheekbone.

Nurses placed me on a hard table in the emergency room. Since it was after hours, they had to call an orthopedic surgeon from home to treat me.

It took some time for the surgeon to arrive. My pregnant wife was handling the paperwork for my unexpected visit. For a few minutes, I was left alone on the table, in more pain than I’d ever felt before.

At that moment I felt an unnatural calm come over me. I knew other people were praying for me but I didn’t know who they were. I knew that I would be all right.

I discovered later that at that moment, one of my teammates had put me on our church’s prayer chain. That’s a group of people, mostly elderly ladies, whose primary mission is to pray for people who have an immediate need. Even though I was new to the church and most of them didn’t know who I was, they prayed for me anyway.

I felt their prayers. For real, I did.

God works like this. In my most painful moment, God showed up, because people on Earth asked God to show up.

The surgeon arrived and after a few painful X-rays, he put my wrist in a cast and scheduled an appointment at his office in 10 days to check on progress. Thankfully no bones were displaced in my face, so he just authorized some pain medication and let my cheekbone heal on its own. I had quite the black eye and the pain in my face lasted a couple of weeks before it healed.

My wrist didn’t heal quite so smoothly. I eventually had surgery on it.

Needless to say, these injuries put me on the disabled list for the rest of the summer. I still attended as many games as I could. I went out for the team the next year – indeed, I played for about 25 years, and have many wonderful memories of the people I played with.

My only concession? I shy away from contact to this day, especially around my head. One injury like that was enough for me.

But even in that unexpected, painful moment, God showed up and did something special, something that I still remember and will continue to remember for the rest of my life.

When those ladies prayed for me, God could have healed me miraculously, but He didn’t. Instead, God gave me the strength to get through the pain – and the healing process, including the boring rehab.

God frequently doesn’t take away our pain, suffering or sorrow. Instead, He gives us the strength and whatever else we need to endure it.

This builds our character – and gives us stories we can share with others who might be enduring a similar struggle.

When we are in our darkest moments – when the storms of life are coming on strong – that just might be when the living God shows up. When I was hurting the most in the emergency room, that’s when God gave me assurance that I would be all right.

As long as the living God is my guide and I follow His direction, I’ll be fine. There may be more pain and heartaches along the way – I’ve attended several funerals already this spring, for example – but God will give me what I need to get through it.

As He will you.

A litmus test for evangelicals that shouldn’t be

Honduran migrants cross the U.S. border wall to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 16, 2018, before turning themselves in to U.S. border patrol agents, standing at the top. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

President Trump, along with Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives, have forgotten that immigrants, legal and especially illegal, are human beings. They have turned the immigration issue into a political football.

They threaten a partial U.S. shutdown later this week over whether to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico (which, by the way, during his presidential campaign Trump promised that Mexico would pay for). Trump wants $5 billion for it. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion for border security.

Those numbers are peanuts compared with the trillion-plus-dollar budget that Congress oversees.

The stalemate has nothing to do with dollars and budgets.

It’s all about the politics.

Worse, for many Americans, it’s become a litmus test of evangelical Christianity. Many outspoken proponents of the border wall are evangelicals who support Trump’s for-the-most-part conservative social agenda.

https://www.vox.com/2018/10/26/17989084/christopher-maloney-in-god-we-trump-evangelicals-trump

Many staunch opponents are “social justice” Democrats who see the immigrants’ “caravan” in Mexico, heading for the U.S. border, as displaced Latin Americans fleeing poverty and, especially, violence in their home countries.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fleeing-poverty-and-violence-central-american-women-explain-why-they-join-caravans-1543947664

I am an evangelical Christian who supports the Democrats on this issue.

Why?

Because Jesus would.

The kingdom of God has feet

Jesus’ primary mission on Earth was to introduce us to the “kingdom of God.” He offered us a personal, one-on-one relationship with his Father. In the Old Testament, God came and went, offering support to specific individuals for specific events or short periods of time. In the Gospels, Jesus said God would come and remain with us at all times, not come and go as he did previously.

To do that, Jesus did not require us to get our act together spiritually or socially before we could let God into our hearts full-time. No. God met – and still meets – us right where we are.

In other words, Jesus Christ was – and still is – the “social justice” God as well as the “evangelical” God.

Very few Christians understand this, even though the message is obvious throughout the New Testament.

Jesus called several fishermen as his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Not exactly upperclassmen. He also hand-picked a hated tax collector (Luke 5:27-28), who left a lucrative job to follow a charismatic leader and his band of nomads. His other disciples were not exactly household names or community leaders when Jesus called them (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus the social activist

Once he had his chosen twelve, Jesus did some surprising things. He visited Samaria, which no self-respecting Jew would have done, and talked with a woman who had been married five times (John 4:1-42). He acknowledged her past but didn’t condemn her for it.

Same with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). And a mentally disturbed caveman (Mark 5:1-20). And an inquisitive political leader who met him at night because he didn’t want to be noticed (John 3:1-21).

He healed numerous disabled people, including several who were blind and others who had physical deformities (read the gospel of Luke, for example).

All of these folks were outcasts. Yet Jesus met them right where they were, healing them and encouraging them to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus the leader

Jesus also interacted with the religious and political leaders of his day, who were the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13-40). Those religious leaders also were the local political leaders, serving the oppressive Roman government in return for keeping the peace in their communities.

They tweaked Jewish laws and customs to keep themselves in Rome’s good graces, picking and choosing Scriptures to fit their agendas.

To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t like that. He called them blind guides and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-36).

Jesus didn’t attack the Pharisees and Sadducees on a political level, but on a spiritual level. On politics, he said: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

On Palm Sunday, the crowd thought they were hailing a political king who was entering Jerusalem to overthrow the hated Roman government (Matthew 21:8-11). When Jesus didn’t do that, they deserted him – and crucified Him.

What does all this have to do with immigration?

Jesus the servant

For people outside the church, Jesus was compassionate and gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. For people inside the church, Jesus spoke harshly for their judgment and hard-hearted attitudes, because they knew the Scriptures and should have known better how to treat people (including Jesus Christ himself).

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he would give us the same message. We still haven’t learned it.

Immigrants need us. They are fleeing for their lives, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In contrast, many Americans are richer than we think we are. Globally, if your wealth (assets minus debts) is in the $100,000 to $1 million range, you are among the 7.3 percent of the world’s population that has about 40 percent of the world’s wealth. If your wealth equals only $3,210, you are wealthier than half of the people across this planet.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

Our response

What are we afraid of? That we might lose political influence?

Blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups already are gaining influence in this country. So are women. Are we truly worried about immigrants who have nothing materially, but who just might have the gifts, talents and work ethic we need to make this country run?

Is there not room for all?

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on urban ministry. One speaker pointed out that white Americans will not get involved in any project or event unless they lead it. That means whites will not allow any minority individuals to lead whatever they are involved in.

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener.

Are we afraid that a minority person might actually have leadership skills? As white people, are we not willing to submit ourselves to a black, Latino and/or female supervisor or other type of leader?

In the words of a decades-old slogan, what would Jesus do?

Jesus’ response

Jesus hand-picked a group of outcasts and under-the-radar people to train as the leaders of his future church. (If you read the book of Acts, there are women and couples who are leaders in the early church, as well as the more well-known Paul, Peter and James.)

No one is an outcast in Jesus’ eyes. Not disabled people. Not mentally disturbed people. Certainly not immigrants.

In a dispute between outcasts and church leaders, Jesus sided with the outcasts every time.

The “unchurched” often understood Jesus better than the church folks did. They certainly connected with him in a more real way.

We forget this at our own peril.

Overcoming the Great Sadness

I think deeply, but I do not feel. I buried my feelings deep inside my heart a long time ago.

This is my escape, my way to conceal pain. I can’t remember the last time I cried. Seriously. I rarely laugh. I’ll share my thoughts, but rarely my longings and deep desires. It’s too much to expect that my deep desires might ever come true.

This is my Great Sadness.

And this is why I was moved by The Shack, showing in theaters now, based on the book by the same name (which I own).

Some Christians are bothered by the theology presented in the film. I think that misses the point. The main character in the movie suffers a horrible tragedy not of his doing. There’s a bad guy to blame. It’s totally unfair. The main character, Mack, has a right to be angry. Doesn’t he? Let the bad guy burn in hell!

The author calls the tragedy a Great Sadness.

Do you have a Great Sadness? The Shack is for you.

Returning to the scene of the crime

Mack’s Great Sadness is a dramatic event that most of us cannot relate to personally. But I’m sure each of us can point to “unfair” events in our lives.

Mack is drawn back to the shack, where the horrible crime was committed. He had to face his anger and bitterness head-on, in the very place where the anger began. Author John Eldredge, who wrote “Wild At Heart,” calls this re-entering your wound. Every man (and woman) has a deep wound in his life. To overcome that wound, we must re-enter it and let God heal it, Eldredge writes.

This is difficult. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet in my own life.

God as a woman?

While at the shack, Mack meets God. This is where the theology gets interesting. God is portrayed as a black woman. Jesus is a Middle Eastern-looking guy, an accurate representation, actually. The Holy Spirit is a tall, thin Asian woman.

Is representing God as a woman sacrilegious? I don’t think so. The Bible says “God created humankind in his image … male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, emphasis added)

God has femaleness in Him. Otherwise, He could not have created women. We rarely acknowledge that.

For most of the movie, Mack needed a mother’s touch to face his deep wound. This is why God appeared to him as a woman. There’s one scene where God appears as a white man, because the lesson Mack needed to learn at that point required a man’s point of view. In the movie, then, God appears as a woman and a man, depending on the circumstances and the lesson Mack was being taught.

Can God not do this for us as well? The Bible calls God Father many times, but never specifically calls God “mother.” Does God have maternal qualities? Certainly. There’s no doubt.

As a man, it’s easy for me to bury my feelings deep in my heart. I’d rather do something than speak it. It’s the way I’m wired. Do I need maternal leadership to help me discover my feelings and share them? I’m sure I do.

Jesus did things in the movie that He would have done in real life as well. In the movie as in the Bible, He was a carpenter. He had a shed and built something (you’ll have to see the movie to find out what it was). He walked on water – there’s a pond behind the shack. Mack walked on water, too. Except when he tried to do it on his own; then he sank. “It works better if we do it together,” Jesus told him. Um, yes. The real Jesus would say something like that, too.

Finding justice

Jesus led Mack across the pond to meet another person, called Wisdom. This is a powerful scene that describes justice – real justice – better than I’ve seen or heard it described anywhere else. Life is not fair. How do we deal with the Great Sadness in our lives when it shows up unexpectedly? Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? Why does God allow awful things to happen to us?

God hears us when we ask these deep questions, even if we ask in anger, sorrow and/or frustration. And we must re-enter the wound at its source to get the full answer.

The Holy Spirit tended a garden, which was a beautiful mess. Mack agreed with that assessment as he walked through it. The Spirit told Mack the garden represented his heart. You’ll have to watch the movie to see what the Holy Spirit does with that garden.

Finding forgiveness

When God appears to Mack as a man, He helps Mack forgive the evil man who caused the Great Sadness in his life. Whether the evil man deserves forgiveness or not is irrelevant. Whether the evil man accepts Mack’s forgiveness also is irrelevant.

Forgiveness is a decision Mack must make on his own.

Which he can’t, of course. That’s why God had to meet him at the shack and show him how to forgive.

Forgiveness does not reverse tragedy. It acknowledges that the Great Sadness is very real, but that the Great Sadness does not have to define who we are. By the hand of God, we can overcome it.

This takes time. It’s not a one-time deal, and the movie makes this clear. God gets it. He is patient, and helps us along this journey.

This message is so timely today. I see so much anger around me. I daresay many of us have a Great Sadness in our hearts, something unfair that happened that angers us and that it’s easy to blame God for. Even if He didn’t cause it, He allowed it, right?

See the movie. Take that question directly to God.

The God of the Bible will answer it. You and I both will find healing as we talk honestly with God, and follow His lead.

I haven’t figured it all out yet. I’m still a work in progress.

Finding healing

There’s hope. There is healing. It happens all the time. But our hearts have to be ready for it. God will not force His hand. He gave us free will; we can push Him away if we want to.

There are consequences for that, one of which is that we will miss out on so many blessings that God wants to give us.

One of His biggest blessings is joy, which comes when the Great Sadness is defeated in our hearts.

This is what I saw in The Shack. If you are analyzing the movie with your head only and not your heart, you’ll miss the big picture. Just as you’ll miss the big picture of life itself.

It’s not about judgment. It’s about forgiveness.

That’s the only way the Great Sadness disappears.