Monday, April 29, 2013

Two Prisons to Praise

As a young worship leader I read a classic old book by Merlin Carothers called 'Prison to Praise.' Merlin was a prison chaplain with a simple message to prisoners. "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice."(Phil 4:4) He told staggering stories of prisoners who had learned to praise God despite their circumstances, and had experienced great personal breakthrough through praise.

The apostle Paul was the ultimate prison praiser. Acts 16 describes Silas and Paul singing hymns to God in the middle of the night while locked up in prison. They had been unjustly tried, beaten and chained, but instead of wallowing in self-pity, they raised their voices in hymns of praise to God. What followed was dramatic. An earthquake, their chains break, prison doors fly open, yet none of the prisoners escape, which in and of itself was a miracle. The jailer and his whole household are saved and baptized and Paul and Silas are released. We love this story. It describes the great power in praising God.

However, when Paul wrote "Rejoice in the Lord always," he was in another prison. It was actually house arrest in Rome and he was chained, not to Silas, but now to a prison guard. There must have been times when Paul reminisced about how God had broken his chains as he praised before with Silas. Maybe he even tried to sing the same hymns they had sung before hoping for the same effect. Maybe it just wasn't the same without Silas's harmonies! Whatever the case, God didn't break Paul's chains in the Roman prison. God's power was to sustain Paul in prison this time, rather than get Him out like before. Paul could write "Rejoice in the Lord always" because he had learned to praise God for God, not for what God would do. And in actual fact, God has done more through the letters Paul wrote while in that prison, than Paul ever did while he was free.

This is such a vital lesson for us. Sometimes when we praise there is obvious, prison-shattering power. We find we are broken out of the confines of our situations immediately. Other times it seems like nothing changes at all. We praise God but our situation stays the same. It is then that we learn to praise less functionally ands more relationally. We learn to worship God for God, and remember that He is all too often at work behind our back more than before our eyes.
Lord, teach us to use every prison to praise You.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Asking better questions in Suffering.

There is no book in the Bible that deals with the subject of suffering like the Book of Job. Among many benefits, Job helps us to avoid a shallow response to suffering. We typically have one of two shallow responses to suffering. Either we respond with Moralism; you suffered because you are not good or Cynicism; you suffered because God is not God or good.

Job suffered because of his righteousness not because of his sin, which confronts our Moralism. God shows His "Godness" in suffering, permitting Job to suffer and limiting how much Satan could cause him to suffer. God also shows His goodness, by sustaining Job in suffering, so that He worships instead of cursing God, as Satan would have wanted. God works through suffering for the exact opposite of Satan's purposes. He gives Satan enough rope to hang Himself. God shows that He is God and He is good. This confronts our Cynicism.

Essentially Job's testing is around his love for God. Satan claims that Job loves God because of the things God has blessed him with. God claims that Job loves God for God. So God allows Satan to remove the things Job has been blessed with, to see whether he will curse or bless God.

I cannot imagine the intense anguish of Job's grief, having lost his sons and daughters, livestock and property all in one day. His lament comes with torn robe and shaved head, lying prostrate on the floor. But it is a lament of blessing not cursing.

"Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked I shall return.
The Lord gave the Lord has taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord."

When the blessing was stripped away, Job is still found loving God for God.
I have been freshly convicted by this song. Am I loving God for God, or for His blessing?
How often do I come to God with no agenda other than to love Him for Himself?
How much do I feel entitled to the things he has blessed me with, forgetting that they are on loan to me by grace?

Too often, in the pain of suffering, we question God's character. Is God really loving? we ask. What happens in Job's life serves to provide another question for us to answer, and that is, Am I really loving? The Bible says that Job, although he lamented, Did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. He did not understand the why of his suffering, just like many of us, but he understood the what. What God was doing was testing Job's love for God. It was not God in the dock. It was Job. And by God's grace, Job was tried and found true. By God's grace, we can be tried and found true too.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Potter and the Clay - a Biblical response to suffering

It’s been two painful Monday’s of tragic loss, hasn’t it?
Rick and Kay Warren lost their youngest son, Matthew, who committed suicide on Monday 8th April after suffering with depression for years. Many have wept and prayed with empathy for this remarkable couple, their family and church.

Then Monday the 15th, the Boston Bombings claimed the lived of three people and injured 183, many of whom were maimed terribly. One father who was running in the marathon, lost his 8 year old son in the bombings, while his wife suffered brain damage, and his daughter lost her leg. Of course, those who ran towards the bomb victims risking their own lives to help others, gave us glimmers of hope in the horror, but we were still left with the bitter gall of horrific injustice, tragic loss of life, health and peace.

There are many people in our own community who have experienced terrible suffering and loss too. They have lost loved ones prematurely, lost health, jobs, houses, marriages, friends, businesses and more. Some may argue that we still have so much here in the OC compared to others, and that is true. Suffering is relative, but it is no less real or painful for those that experience it.

If there is one thing we are assured of in this life, it is to suffer in some way, or to witness others suffer. Suffering is a central theme of Scripture, because it is a central theme of life.
It is natural and understandable to respond to suffering by asking,"Why?" "Why me?" "Why them?"
"Why me and not them?!" Buy 'why' is often a question that ties us in knots.

Many of the Bible’s characters suffer terribly for extended periods of time for seemingly very little reason. Still, scripture doesn’t view suffering as senseless, even if it doesn’t make complete sense to people in the moment. It becomes clear that God is at work in it to fulfill His purposes and for people’s good. As Martin Luther King once said, "The Arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."

So then, how do we endure suffering with joy, and even more, learn from it with hope while we go through the long arc? Isaiah the prophet used the metaphor of the potter and the clay to describe the mysterious relationship between God’s purposes and His people’s experience of suffering. Yet oh Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. The metaphor has two big ideas.

First, God’s Sovereignty as Creator, to do as He pleases with us, His creation. That God is Sovereign in suffering may seem offensive to us, but do we really want a God who is not ultimately in control of everything? Surely, if we rob God of sovereignty in suffering, we rob God of God?
Second, that God our Father, is able to shape something of profound beauty and value out of suffering; something that can hold his glory. He makes all things beautiful in his time. Suffering is not senseless at all, even if we struggle to make sense of it at the time.

No book in the Bible, and perhaps even the world, handles the topic of suffering, especially the topic of suffering and loss, as deeply and profoundly as the book of Job. Job is an Epic poem, made up of three conversations. One between God and Satan, one between Job and his friends and one between Job and God. The first chapter gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of suffering - showing us that suffering is complex and cannot be solved by pat answers or cliché’s. It also shows us a healthy way to respond to suffering and the real reason behind suffering.

God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specifically armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain --C.S. Lewis "Letters of C.S. Lewis"

This Sunday at Southlands Church we will be looking at 'Job, suffering and loss.'I hope you will join us, either live or online.