Archive for November, 2019

The God who wants to hear our story — and hear it again

This is a long post — a sermon I preached  on Nov 8, 2019, during a Justo Mwale University (Lusaka, Zambia) chapel communion service, based on 1 Kings 18:42 and 19:1-14.

I’m honored to share the word during this final service of the 2019 school year. We as a JMU community have made it to week 10 of Term 3. It’s not been an easy term, but the finish line is near.  

In 2019 we’ve been hearing messages focused on “Living a life worthy of the calling”. This morning I would like us to think about the question: What about when living a life worthy of the calling doesn’t seem to be going as well as we thought it would? …When we think we’re living the life God has called us to live, but our circumstances seem difficult, when the life of ministry or life as a student at Justo Mwale does not feel it is going as smoothly as we hoped it would go?

Let’s open our Bibles to 1 Kings, where we learn about the God who wants to hear what we’ve been going through, the God who wishes to hear the difficult stories from our lives, and then hear our stories again.

1 Kings 18:42;  but also 1 Kings 19:1-14. As we read, let’s be asking: What is Elijah going through? And, What’s being said through the story about who God is?

Old Testament characters are often thought to be role models. Sometimes they are. But, much more often, their stories are meant to speak to us about God as we take a close look at what they were going through.

When our story begins, there’s just been a mighty spiritual battle, a showdown between on one hand Yahweh and his prophet Elijah, and on the other, Baal and his prophets. Baal was the god of storms, rain, and fertility. On Mt Carmel, God has revealed himself powerfully by sending fire from heaven and burning up a sacrifice. Elijah in his zeal has just slain the prophets of Baal.

And so we come to 18:42… So Ahab (the king of Israel) went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.

What is happening with Elijah? What’s happening inside Elijah? He’s bent down to the ground; he’s got his face between his knees. He might be talking to God, but the Bible does not normally describe having our face between our knees as a gesture for prayer. With his face between his knees, Elijah looks disturbed. He looks down, afraid, maybe despondent, despairing.

On one hand, a battle has just been won. But on the other hand, maybe Elijah is having second thoughts. Did he go too far killing the prophets of Baal? And he realizes who Ahab the king is going to talk to when he gets home.

Jezebel – patroness of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel. It’s not a name we Christians think much about when it’s time to name our baby daughters.

Elijah is probably realizing that once Jezebel finds out what he’s done…  his ministry is over, he’s as good as finished. Because Jezebel is a swift killer.

And sure enough, our story tells us, Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” (1 Ki. 19:1-2)

How does Elijah respond to Jezebel’s message? The Bible says…

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… he… went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He …sat down under a bush and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.

Elijah fears and runs for his life. He knows God does not always prevent terrible things from happening to his servants. Jezebel has killed other prophets of Yahweh (18:13), and Elijah is Jezebel’s enemy #1.

He’s afraid. He’s also down, blue, and despairing. “I’ve had enough, LORD.” “Take my life. I’m no better now than my dead ancestors.” All he can do is lay down and sleep.

So we see that God does not prevent Elijah from experiencing depression. Elijah recognizes he’s in a bad situation, and he feels it like a huge weight upon his chest and shoulders.

This is what happens sometimes to God’s servants. This is what happens sometimes to men and women of God.

But let’s also notice: instead of blocking out or ignoring God, as some of us might do when we feel despair, Elijah speaks his despair to God: “LORD, I’ve had enough.”

I’m thankful for this honesty between Elijah and God; there’s something here for us. God allows Elijah, God allows us sometimes, to go through difficult, difficult things. But we also get to speak our pain to God. We get to name our pain to our good Father — even to say: “God. have you thought about how this might be a good time to finish me off?”

I love how the the Bible is an honest book about what real believers go through. And God is a God who allows us to be honest.

Let’s not miss who God is shown to be.  We read in v 5… All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (1 Ki. 19:5b-7)

God is sensitive to human needs. God knows we need to eat. An angel of God touches Elijah, repeats encouragement to him, and gives him food (v 5).

Yet Elijah, even after being touched by an angel, is still so tired and blue he can hardly get up.

Then when Elijah rises, eats, and drinks, he begins a journey… all the way to Mt Horeb. That’s Mt Sinai, far to the south, where Moses had met with God. So we see this time of running for his life becomes a pilgrimage, a marathon run to meet with God on the holy mountain.

I wonder if we, like Elijah, can allow our fears and pains from a life of ministry to make us run like Elijah to Mt Horeb, to meet with God.

You see, fear and weakness and pain can be a precious gift. A feeling of inadequacy for ministry can be a friend. Because these feelings can call us to God and pull us to God and drive us to God, even as they took Elijah all the way to God’s presence on Mt Horeb. Negative feelings can prod us to run to God.  

And when Elijah gets to Horeb, the LORD speaks to him with a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s an invitation for Elijah to tell his story.

“I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve done all these things for you, and look at me now. Look at what your people are going to do to me now. I’m the only faithful one left, and I’m counting down my last hours.”

Reality is that the rest of the story tells us it’s not completely true that Elijah is the only faithful one left. But he feels isolated. And God does not argue.  God listens.

And God listens to us.

I like this Elijah story for us at Justo Mwale – for us as a community, and for us as individuals. For most of us, coming to Justo Mwale was a victory, a breakthrough. Perhaps a little like Elijah on Mt Carmel. We saw the Lord’s power for us as he brought us to Justo Mwale.

But as we’ve been here, we’ve also been through some difficult times. This academic term a lot of you have found the basics of life very difficult – difficult to cook, difficult to bathe, difficult to sleep, difficult to use the library, difficult to use a computer to write assignments.

Some of us have also walked through numerous other hard things – some have been stolen from, maybe some of you were expecting money to arrive, and it didn’t come. Maybe there’s someone you thought you could trust as a friend, and now you’re not sure. Some expected to be healthy, but you found yourself sick. Some of us have faced serious difficulties in our families.

Or maybe some of us are still hurting from things that have happened to us in life or in ministry from the past, and we thought the pain would disappear here at Justo Mwale, but we still feel wounded.

Now Elijah, we remember, has journeyed to Mt. Horeb. He’s run because of fear, but he’s also run to meet with God.

Verse 11 — The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:11-13)

God has listened, and God responds to Elijah and proves to be a God who makes himself known. But it’s not in the wind, or the earthquake, or fire but in the “sound of silence”, a faint whisper. God responds to us often not in the ways we might expect, often not on our terms, but on his terms. He responds. But he does it his way.

And notice when God makes himself known, he says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:13 NIV). Haven’t we heard that question before? God again invites Elijah to tell him his story. And Elijah repeats the same story again.

Why would God do that? Why would the Bible describe God as one who invites Elijah to tell his negative story two times in the same chapter?

 

Because that’s real relationship, that’s real relationship with someone who loves and cares. When we go through something hard, we need to tell someone our story, and we often need to tell it more than once. And we get to do that with God. Because he wants relationship with us. And he knows we need to tell him things. And that we may need to tell him some things again and again.

As with Elijah, God says to us, even today, “What are you doing here?” In light of Elijah’s response, I think God means, “What have you been going through that brings you to this place and time in your life, feeling what you’re feeling now?” And like Elijah, we get to tell God our story. “God, this is what I’ve been through. Coming to Justo Mwale was a great thing that happened to me. Thank you. But it hasn’t been easy. Some things have been difficult.”

We are honored by our call, we’re honored to be here. But that doesn’t make this calling or this time in our life something easy.  We get to tell God: This is what it seems you’ve allowed us to go through. And this is how we feel.

Once Elijah has been able to tell his story twice, in God’s presence, and God has listened, it’s now that Elijah is ready for God to give him something else to do. The experience of being in the presence of a listening God, a God who keeps asking questions and keeps listening, prepares Elijah to go forth and keep on being a prophet. He can get back to fulfilling the call.

And after God listens to us, and listens to us again, he says something similar to us:  I’ve got something I want you to do. Don’t give up. I’m not finished with you.

When we’ve gone through difficulty, it’s being in the presence of a listening God, the God who wants to hear our story again, that prepares us to get back to living a life worthy of the calling.

Perhaps some of us can relate to Elijah. Maybe we feel we’ve been faithful, even zealous, but some things have not gone the way we thought they would go.  The Christian life can be like that. The life of ministry can feel like that.

Elijah goes through fear. He’s troubled. He gets so tired. He feels despondent. He feels isolated. And maybe some of us feel some of the same things.

But through Elijah’s story we see.. Our God is listening to us… giving us what we need along the way. He may not always do things the way we want, but he’s involved, he speaks, and he gives us good work to do.

And what speaks to me is that we can be honest with God. He’s attentive, welcoming our honesty.

If we think about what the Lord’s Supper is, it’s communion with God through Jesus. It’s an invitation to closer relationship. When we take holy communion, we respond to God’s invitation to come into his presence just as we are. No need to pretend.

 

As God asks us, “What are you doing here?”, what do we need to tell him? What would we say as a JMU community? What would we say as individuals? Maybe like Elijah we need to tell God a difficult story. And then, in God’s presence, we need to tell God the same story again. That’s real relationship.

That’s what happens in a relationship that empowers us to live a life lived worthy of the calling. We cannot live the life worthy of the calling unless we first have that real, honest relationship with the God who wants to listen.

Let’s close our eyes and take moments of silence, and ask ourselves: What do I need to tell God about what I’ve been through? And you’re invited to start telling him now, silently, or think of a time when you’re going to be alone with God and tell him the story that you need to tell. He’ll listen. And when you’re ready to tell it again, he’ll listen again. Let’s pray silently…

(silence)

We thank you, God, that the Bible is honest about Elijah’s inner suffering and despair. You asked him questions. You listened to him. You were there for him. And we thank you that you are here for us as well, for us as individuals, for us as a community. Help us to tell you the story we need to tell, and then to tell it again. We need that kind of relationship with you to be able to live a life worthy of our calling. Amen.

 

Strength and Weakness

A theme I’ve often found significant for my relationship with God is strength in weakness; the two seem to go closely together in the Christian life. I’ve always been intrigued by the apostle Paul’s words, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

A main goal of mine in 2019 has been to draw closer to God, and to learn more how Justo Mwale University and Zambia can be a place where that happens for me. One “action step” toward this goal was to attend a nine-day retreat called “Breathe” in July. The setting of the Breathe retreat was one of outdoor beauty, and the point was to give everyone space to get refreshed and take a deep breath of God’s presence through the times of worship, teaching, prayer, reflection, and conversation. Meanwhile my wife Sherri and I, and especially Sherri, were quite sick throughout the retreat. It felt ironic that we were attending a conference called Breathe, and she could hardly breathe, and we both felt miserable.

Something I didn’t realize ahead of time was that a main focus of the retreat would be how our weaknesses and wounds can be the very things that open our lives to God’s presence and grace. The speaker helped us see that our disappointments and failures help us to welcome God, so that our inadequacy becomes his route to get through to us. Sherri and I were encouraged, even as we felt physically weak. We were also able to look back on difficult times such as when we had to leave Egypt, and recognized signs of God’s presence.

Little did I know that the coming academic term would plunge me into the midst of circumstances that bring me face to face with the very lessons we reflected on at the “Breathe” retreat.

For the first time I’ve been able to teach Justo Mwale’s course on Paul’s letters, which can seem different to read here in Zambia versus reading them in America. As my students have looked closely at Paul’s thoughts, they have been struck by how he put himself into situations of vulnerability, and by how he taught his congregations to take paths of self-sacrifice for the church and the gospel. It looks like planned weakness and vulnerability, for the sake of knowing Christ and advancing the gospel. This has been quite a challenging picture for the students, and for me as their teacher, since perhaps most of them have known need and vulnerability much of their lives, and they know that such things are not glamorous but painful. It’s also startling to read Paul’s letters closely because a big emphasis of Christianity in this part of the world is on faith and ministry as a path toward material well-being and success. Just recently a student shared in class that most people in his home country believe that if you’re passing through suffering, you’re not a Christian. And yet Paul’s letters keep bearing witness to vulnerability (at least in this life) for the sake of God, others, and the gospel, and designate that path as marked by God’s power and presence.

Around September 15, I received news that my father was declining rapidly. I got a plane ticket to head back to Kentucky. I didn’t make it before he died, but I spent what felt like a blessed week with my extended family, reflecting on Dad’s life and sharing in his funeral. He had told my stepmother that he appreciated the passage in Ecclesiastes 3 that speaks of a time and season for everything, and of God making all things beautiful in their time. There’s a time to be born, and there’s a time to die. There’s a time to tear and a time to sew or mend. I thought of how our hearts sometimes need to be torn, so that they can ultimately be mended. I think that was happening to Dad in the past several years. He had had some hardness and unforgiveness, but it seems his aging and sickness helped to allow for his heart’s healing. My stepmother, Rita, said in those last few days she spent with him at the hospital, about forty staff members came and shared how much Dad came to mean to them in the seventeen months he was there with Alzheimer’s. How had he touched their lives without a functioning mind? I think God had been making Dad’s heart beautiful. It seems like a sign of Christ’s presence, and it gives me hope.

One of the tough things about life in Zambia since our arrival nine years ago has been how everything seems to come to a halt when anyone dies so that people can attend funerals of people they might not know very well. I’ve tended to see this as a weakness in the culture. But as soon as news got out that my father was dying, and before I left for the airport, our head of school met me teary-eyed and held both my hands for a long time. It was the first time I became able to feel the reality of what was happening; I hadn’t been ready to grieve. Then one of my students came to me with tears in his eyes because of my dad. I was deeply touched; I knew it must be okay for me to feel the weight of what was occurring. When I was in the USA for a week, I received many notes from Zambia and I felt myself buoyed by the Justo Mwale community’s prayers. Students kept referring to my dad as their “grandfather”, and some colleagues called him their “father”, though they had never met him. They felt a connection both to him and my grief. As I have found myself on the receiving end, I’ve been able to see that what I thought was a weakness is, from a different angle, a strength. I have drawn so much strength from African brothers and sisters as they have walked with me the past few weeks. I can now see that, for many Zambians, times of death and funerals are when they become very real before one another and before God. Such times must be a way they receive God’s strength to bear their own many losses. Now I’m partaking of this strength.

Thank you for allowing me to share bits of my recent journey. Gradually, Sherri and I are learning that God’s grace is sufficient, no matter the weakness we encounter around us or within us.