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.

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Going home

Very few of us can time our deaths the way our births are timed.

Nine months from conception, there’s a due date. With a natural birth, that’s a pretty good ballpark estimate. For a Cesarean section, the parents get to choose the specific date of birth.

Rarely does that happen on the other side of life.

Every death is sudden, even if it’s expected.

The guarantee

In the span of two days last weekend, five friends or acquaintances breathed their last breath.

They ranged in age from 81 to 43. Four of them had long-term conditions; two were in such severe pain, I’m sure their loved ones saw their passing as relief.

But still.

The fifth friend shocked everybody. He was healthy, to my knowledge – no one saw his death coming. He was 62. (I’m 58; he’s my generation.)

Two of them lived in Northeast Ohio, the other three in mid-Michigan (my old stomping grounds).

Death is guaranteed for each of us.

Later rather than sooner, we hope.

Unexpected deaths are the ones that make the news – traffic fatalities, drug overdoses, crime victims, that sort of thing. Most of us won’t leave Earth like that, thankfully, but there’s no guarantees about that, either.

Another friend’s granddaughter died about two weeks ago. She suffered numerous health issues from the day she was born. She was 21.

No one ever said life was fair.

Homegoing

Sometimes, those who suffer have the best dispositions. They are thankful for the blessings they have, even if good health isn’t one of them. Our 81-year-old friend was like that. He had debilitating headaches his entire adult life, but he looked on the bright side every day.

His strong faith allowed him to do that.

He is in heaven now with his savior, Jesus. He knows that with certainty. So does his wife. They were married 61 years.

We visited her yesterday afternoon to offer our condolences. She said she’s not planning a funeral for him, but a homegoing. We knew what she meant.

Funerals are sad. We mourn the loss of our loved one. Rightfully so. But that’s where the focus remains.

With a homegoing, family members and friends know that death is temporary – just a transition to a better life. Healing is promised in heaven. Physical, emotional and every other kind of healing that each of us needs.

The end of time

We mourn the loss of our loved one here on Earth and we miss him or her terribly, but we know we will see him or her again.

Earth is a temporary home, full of pain and struggle, as well as joy and laughter. We know this. Good vs. evil. Unconditional love vs. selfishness. Right vs. wrong.

These battles are fought in the human heart and mind, aren’t they?

We play them out in society, but the real battles take places inside each of us.

When eternity comes, those struggles will end. For better or worse.

We’ll either stand with God in heaven, or we’ll spend forever without Him. The Bible talks about a lake of fire. I wonder also if hell will be a lonely place. We may not see our friends and family any more. Ever again.

I can’t imagine a worse fate than that.

My choice, your choice

We get to choose where we live forever. We determine our own fate, really.

I can’t choose for you, and you can’t choose for me. This is personal, and it’s individual. I can give you chapter and verse, but you must decide whether to accept the gift of life forever or not.

Life is a gift.

Life on Earth is a gift. Each of us must thank our parents, both mother and father, for giving us life. You and I had nothing to do with it.

Life forever is a similar principle. There won’t be marriage in heaven, but we will have a Father. He’s the one who offers us that gift of life eternal.

Most of my friends who just died will receive a homegoing, a celebration of life on Earth and the promise of a wonderful, perfect forever future in heaven.

We can’t wrap our minds around forever. The end of time. No more alarm clocks or deadlnes.

Nor can we fathom perfection. Beauty for beauty’s sake. No hidden agendas. No secrets. No pain or suffering, of any type. No getting tired at night. Never a cold or fever, much less any other sickness or injury.

Mental illness? No such thing any more.

The big picture

One day, we will see the big picture of life. We don’t now. Each of us sees only our small part in this big universe. There’s so much of life I can’t see or understand. I write to try to make sense of it all, but as the Bible says, now I see in a mirror dimly, but then (in heaven) face to face.

I have strong views on certain subjects, and you may have a differing viewpoint on those same subjects. We both might be right, because we see the issue from different perspectives. Neither of us understands the big picture. We try, but we just cannot.

That’s why we need to talk, to listen, to respect each other, to learn from each other.

One day, all the issues we wrestle with will come together. The God of the universe, the One who created us and everything else in it, will reveal all to us.

For now, God has given us earthly minds to learn and grow. None of us can know everything about life.

We desperately need this perspective today.

We need each other.

We NEED each other.

We can’t make this life work without each other. Even though we try.

Oh, we try.

The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. Keep teaching me, each one of you. I’ll do the same for you.

Meanwhile, as we do that, I’m ready for my homegoing, when all will be well. I’m not expecting it any time soon – I’m still relatively young and in excellent health, if I can say that. No guarantees, of course, except that I will die one day. But whenever the day comes, I hope you’ll celebrate it with me.

And I’d love to celebrate yours, too.

Just not for awhile.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate this life on Earth together. And remember with gratitude those who are already home.

A search for joy

When we talk of joy as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), we aren’t talking about a worldly concept, or an idea that the world even understands. Joy hardly isn’t even in the world’s vocabulary.

We talk more about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Happiness and joy are not synonyms. Happiness is temporary; joy is forever. Happiness is the result of doing something that makes us happy, such as eating a good meal.

My wife and I enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner at Red Lobster after church yesterday. But we had a light supper that evening and breakfast this morning. The happiness we felt from yesterday’s dinner didn’t last; we got hungry again.

Joy is constant. Even when I don’t feel “joyful” – and I don’t consider myself a joyful person – joy remains in my heart. Joy, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, is something that only Christians can understand. It’s deep in our hearts. It comes from relationship with Jesus Christ. It involves knowledge as well as feelings.

Let’s look at this a little further.

Good news of great joy

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Luke 2:8-11

 

For the shepherds, that night started like any other night. With no warning, an angel showed up. The shepherds received the shock of their lives. But the angel had a wonderful message to deliver: Don’t be afraid. The Savior was born today.

This news is “great joy.”

Jews had waited for that moment for hundreds of years. Their prayer, their hope, their longing were answered. Expectation and silence were replaced by great joy.

That joy is the Savior, the Messiah. His parents named him Jesus.

Temporary pain, permanent joy

Jesus … said to them (the disciples), “Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me?’ Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.

“When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.

“So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

John 16: 19-22

 

Just a few hours before He was crucified, Jesus told His disciples that their pain would be temporary, and that it would turn into permanent joy – that no one could take from them.

Pain comes first. Perhaps we have to feel pain before we can understand joy.

The world will rejoice in their pain, Jesus told the disciples. He knew the disciples would run away from Him when He would be arrested soon after this conversation took place. The world did not understand Jesus’ pain, or that of His disciples, nor can the world understand the joy that followed His resurrection.

This remains true today.

Lost and found

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Luke 15:7

 

Luke 15 describes three parables with the same theme: one lost sheep in a flock of 100, a lost coin and a lost son (prodigal’s son). In all three stories, something valuable was lost. When it was found, the owner in all three parables threw a party for his friends and neighbors to celebrate.

That kind of joy is uncontainable. It bubbles over. It has to be shared.

It’s not “happiness.” Finding something meaningful that was lost brings out a much deeper response in us. A joy worth celebrating.

Reading the law

All the people (about 50,000) gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.

He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

Then he (Nehemiah) said to them, “Go your way … and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And all the people went their way … to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:1, 3, 10, 12

 

After Nehemiah and Ezra led the Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem and, despite opposition, rebuilt the wall around the city, they read the book of the law of Moses (the first five books of our Old Testament), which was God’s word to them. Because they had been exiles, they hadn’t heard God’s word verbalized for decades.

When the people discovered through the law how much God loved them, they rejoiced. They found joy in God’s promises to them, and in His faithfulness despite their sinfulness.

Do we have the same response when we read the Bible?

Joy while suffering

Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

 

Can there be joy in the midst of pain? When someone is suffering from cancer and is given a short time to live, can that person rejoice despite his or her pain? When a loved one dies, can those of us who remain find joy in the eternal rest our loved one is now enjoying? We miss the deceased person terribly, of course, but can we find joy in the midst of sorrow?

I’ve seen it happen. Such times are never happy. But they can be joyful.

A friend of mine in his early 80s has suffered from severe, often debilitating, headaches since he fell down a flight of stairs when he was 14. He has suffered for decades, literally. He and his wife just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. She has suffered alongside him all those years.

Yet, they rejoice in God’s goodness. Like Job in the Old Testament, they accept the bad with the good.

They persevere. Even more than that, they overcome. They continue to live life to the fullest as best they can.

If that’s not joy …

And yet I can’t explain it. I have never experienced anything like that. When all is taken away, we discover what we truly need.