Monday Morning Second Thoughts

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon.  I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!

Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!

But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?

As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.

Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.

We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)

There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.

The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!

If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.

Grace, Gift, and Generosity

This week is about grace, gift, and generosity…

Those words spoken by Rev. Peter Matthews during his Palm Sunday sermon settled into my heart yesterday with an intensity that surprised me! For the past few days I have been pondering the irony of Palm Sunday: Jesus riding on a colt, nearing Jerusalem amidst cheers of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, all the while knowing that he was riding towards a gruesome death, called for by the very people who were now singing his praises. I have imagined the anguish he must have felt as he tried to reconcile this praise that was rightly his with the coming crucifixion that was certainly not.

Holy Week of 1988 forever changed my experience of Easter. My life commitment to Christ was still relatively new. We had just moved far from our Kentucky roots, settling in a little town in southern Alabama. In our search for a new church home, we were led to an Episcopal church which was a far cry from what I was used to. I decided to participate in all the events of Holy Week, curious to experience fully the traditions of this new denomination. As I journeyed from the palm-waving praise of Palm Sunday to the somber reflection of Maundy Thursday–kneeling in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to the haunting words and melody of “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” softly sung acapella which provided an apt backdrop for the stripping of the altar and the draping of the cross–I wept with an awareness of Christ’s suffering that I had never before experienced.

As painful as the anticipation I felt in that Maundy Thursday service was, returning to the darkened sanctuary with the black-draped cross for Good Friday itself was heart-wrenching. By this time, I had so entered into Christ’s passion that I was simply wrecked…or so I thought. I grieved and wept, and for the first time I could understood that ancient Jewish practice of putting on sackcloth and pouring ashes over one’s head in an expression of unbearable grief. Saturday’s Easter Vigil brought little relief. That black-draped cross and bare altar overshadowed the baptism of a young woman that evening.

Finally, Easter morning dawned! We headed to church with an anticipation the likes of which I had never before felt for Easter Sunday! I was not disappointed… We entered into a sanctuary resplendent with beautiful flowers and freshly polished brass, the black drape happily missing and the altar covered in starched white linen, the candles lit in welcome. The choir sang a beautiful anthem as the little children in their Easter finery (and I do mean finery–no one does this like southern mommas!) processed into the sanctuary, each with a flower to place on a styrofoam cross wrapped in chicken wire–something quite ugly to start with and absolutely beautiful when the children were finshed with it! The joyful praise, so much richer than those Palm Sunday hosannas, reverberated as we worshiped our Risen Lord. It was then that I was totally wrecked!

Long story, I know. But I needed to relive it in order to see clearly why those words spoken by Fr. Peter yesterday captured my heart. For the past 30 years I have experienced Easter in much the same way as in 1988. Each year I recall the memory of that particular Easter and how it changed my perception of that final agonizing week of Jesus’ earthly life…how it changed me. I’ve entered into the darkness of it in order to fully experience the unsurpassing joy of Easter.

But this year I want to embrace Holy Week differently. I’ve pondered and lamented my sin and the world’s sin and the darkness that Jesus came to illuminate, as any Christian must! But today I want to lay all that aside to remember what this week is really about: God’s incredibly generous gift of absolutely amazing grace! I want to experience all week that unsurpassing joy I typically save for Easter morning!

My prayer for you is that you will open wide your arms, unclench your hands from whatever you are holding so tight, and simply receive the deeper truth that this week–of all weeks–is about grace, gift, and generosity. Amen and amen!

Is God good?

I became a Christian in 1986. For several years, my focus was on Jesus. I read the New Testament because it was clearly about Jesus. I prayed to Jesus. Jesus was my Lord and my Savior, my Brother and my Friend. I was all about Jesus.

Nevermind that Jesus continually talked about the Father. Nevermind that Jesus prayed to the Father. Nevermind that Jesus said He only did what the Father told Him to do. Nevermind the Father. Jesus was all I needed. It only took about 20 years for me to start paying attention to the fact that Jesus was always pointing to the Father, and to decide that perhaps I should take notice and follow Jesus’ example.

During a season of upheaval in my life, I sought the help of a Christian counselor. I know it’s a tired metaphor, but I felt like a rudderless boat in a storm-tossed ocean, and Jesus was nowhere in sight. The source of my angst defied illumination until one day the counselor asked, “Do you believe that God is good?” He quickly followed that up with an admonishment not to give him the Sunday school answer! (How well he knew me by this point.) I remember clearly just sitting there in stunned silence as the tears welled up from a place deep, deep inside me. When my sobbing subsided, it was like the sun breaking through clouds after a summer storm. At long last, the turbulent sea of my soul was calm.

I really wasn’t aware that I was ignoring the Father. I didn’t struggle with the mystery of the Trinity. And I didn’t have “daddy issues” resulting from a poor relationship with my biological father. He wasn’t perfect and we had our issues from time to time, but I always knew he loved me.

So why did I distance myself from God? Perhaps because God didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I suffered a deep loss at a tender age, and I blamed God. For years I had nothing to do with God or Jesus, or any form of religion. Even when I accepted Christ as Savior, I simply put Father God on a shelf. I had Jesus, and that was enough.

I’m sure there are others who have great fellowship with Jesus while keeping God at arm’s length, unsure if he really is as good as Jesus says he is. If he is such a good God, why does he allow pain? Why does he not stop all the suffering?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to those questions. I do know that my problem was a direct result of my expectations. When I understood that he is GOD–omnipotent and almighty and beyond my manipulation…while, at the same time, loving and gentle and merciful–it was at that moment that everything changed.

I know now–beyond a shadow of doubt–that God is good. He is the definition of good! That certainty came about because someone asked me what I believed, and wouldn’t allow me to put on my church leader mask to evade giving an honest answer. It stands out as one of the best days of my life.

Since then, my experience of Father God has been totally different. Mornings are spent in quiet communion with the one who loves me, reminiscent of walks in the Garden when we were God’s beloved companions. I sense his love in the core of my being, and his wisdom and provision are what I most long for. I pray always now to the Father. Jesus–my precious Savior–is continually with me, too, the bridge to my Father’s open arms.good father

So, on the off chance that you have been ignoring Father God in favor of Jesus, let me ask you…

Do you believe that God is good?

And, please, don’t feel obliged to give the Sunday school answer.

 

P.S.–Two of my favorite songs that remind me of God’s goodness: Good, Good Father by Chris Tomlin and King of My Heart by John Mark McMillan and Sarah McMillan