September 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
One of the kids from our neighborhood got married two weeks ago, and I had the privilege of officiating her wedding. Her family was in celebration mode, dancing together at the reception. The bride’s brother had double the reason to be joyful as he and his girlfriend were expecting a child any day.
Five days later, this family was together again when it came time to have the baby. But this time they were together to grieve. The baby didn’t survive the delivery, and the parents had asked me to join them at the hospital to pray for them. This afternoon I officiated this baby’s funeral. What a difference a few days can make.
This contrast brought to my mind a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, where King Solomon writes his observations about life and its ups and downs:
“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance. …”
There are 10 other pairs of seasons contrasted in this chapter, but those four lines stood out to me as a picture of how life goes sometimes. We often go back and forth from a time of dancing to a time of grieving, or from a time of laughter to a time of tears.
For sure, dancing together gives us strength when we have to grieve together, and laughing together helps us through the times we have to cry together. But it seems much harder to experience such extremes when they occur in such close proximity to one another, almost immediately plunging from one of life’s happiest occasions, a wedding, to the unimaginable depths of losing a child.
We can always expect seed time and harvest to be several months apart. But what do we do when the time to be born and a time to die are virtually the same moment? When we don’t have a lifetime of photos to look at and memories to share? What do we do then?
I think we should look for hope. We need something to look forward to, and something that will last.
Ecclesiastes 3 continues… “What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”
In that last verse we learn that “God has planted eternity in the human heart.” It’s interesting that we often talk about “forever” as if we have some kind of experience with it, like it’s a normal part of our lives, but it isn’t. We often say “I’ll love you forever,” but no one on earth has experienced forever. While stuck at a long traffic light we might in frustration declare that it’s taking an “eternity”, yet we’ve never seen eternity. Buzz Lightyear says he’s going “to infinity and beyond,” but isn’t infinity theoretical? We can’t count to or even calculate infinity with math. We can’t really even imagine it. The best we can do is get a little closer to it.
Maybe we think and talk so much about an eternity we’ve never experienced because God “planted eternity in the human heart” to give us hope that there is more to life than this life and its misery. If we think about eternity, we can perhaps imagine ourselves in it.
Solomon wrote in chapter 7, that “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” In this way, a funeral is better than a party because it’s where we contemplate eternity and how we might spend ours.
The best outcome in times like this is that thoughts about eternity give us hope. Hope that this family will see their child who died in infancy. We can take comfort in knowing this child is in heaven with His Creator. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” King David had this confidence about his own son, who had died before birth. “I will go to him,” he said. John Newton (the author of the hymn Amazing Grace) said, “I cannot grieve the death of infants. How many storms do they escape! Nor can I doubt, in my private judgment, that they are included in the election of grace.” I believe the Bible teaches that young children are included in this grace.
Where we spend our eternity depends on where we put our hope today.
The parents of this little boy, his aunts and uncles, and grandparents, all had other plans for him. Death was never part of God’s plan for us either. Death was foreign to His original creation, but mankind ushered this curse into the world through sin.
God could have left us alone in our sin, but He loved us too much in spite of it. Instead, in an act of amazing grace, God gave up His own Son who went willingly to the cross, suffering to pay for the sin that we all struggle with and see the effects of in creation. It is through faith in Jesus Christ, that we have that hope of an eternity with Him and others who rest in His loving arms.
We can’t see the full scope of God’s plan, or why God, the author of life, allows some children to leave us so soon. But we can know God’s plan of salvation, and through a relationship with Christ, look forward to a reunion with the the departed. This is the best hope we have in light of the reality of death.
1 Corinthians 15:54-57 tells us that “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, this saying will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We’re told in Revelation 21 that one day God will make all things new, and the new creation will not include death. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” Hope in Christ means there will once again be a time to dance, a time that will not end.
At the very end of Ecclesiastes, 12 chapters in, Solomon ends with his conclusion about the meaning of life. He discovers that it isn’t worth living without God. All is meaningless without God at the center. Of all the projects Solomon undertook to find satisfaction, He only knew satisfaction in knowing God. And God has given us His Son, to satisfy all that’s wrong with the world.
We can’t bring stillborn sons or daughters back, but we can go to them. John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Jesus was acquainted with grief, and suffered the cross on our behalf. He knows what we are going through, and He promises to go through it with us. And through faith in Jesus Christ, you can look forward to an eternity with Him.
A week ago The New York Times ran a story in the middle of Hurricane Irma and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, showing how storms can destroy just about everything except faith. Storms instead strengthen our faith. Following a group from various churches doing disaster cleanup, The Times seemed surprised that, in crisis, the church does what the church is supposed to do.
Untimely death isn’t God’s fault, but God has the power to stop it, and sometimes He doesn’t. As Ecclesiastes tells us, human beings can’t know or see the full plan of God, otherwise we would be God. But we can trust Him because we know He is good, and our faith will grow stronger in the storm. Then, instead of shaking an angry fist toward heaven, we can put our hands to work on earth, helping our neighbor through tragedy, and putting our arms around them.
My prayer for this couple who lost their baby boy, and for you if you’re in a similar situation, is that you would feel the hands and arms of family and supportive friends and neighbors, and above all the comfort of God’s strong hand of love. God’s hand is outstretched with the free gift of eternal hope found only by faith in Jesus Christ, because “God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If you know Him, you have hope—the forever kind—and assurance that the time to dance will come again.
• Related post: Grief, Joy and God
December 12, 2016 § 2 Comments
Two Thousand Sixteen has been a rough year, personally. It began with a corporate acquisition that left me with more work and less pay. My mid-year introduction to the elder board at church coincided (coincidentally, I hope) with a slew of new problems. I spent the last half of my summer seeking treatment for sinus trouble. Parenting took a frustrating turn as our son’s behavior in school did too. The November election seemed to please very few human beings. Now as the year closes—in fact in the last week—I see a coworker’s 36 year old husband entering hospice, attended the funeral of a neighbor, and had a friend I’ve been mentoring just watch his apartment and all his possessions burn to the ground. Life sucks like that sometimes.
The word JOY is propped up and lit up in our front yard during this time of year because joy is one of those words people associate with Christmas time. This is also when people reflect on the past year, try to see the positives and resolve to make the next one better, but often fixate on the year’s struggles. Is there room for joy here?
There is. And for Christians, we should have a monopoly on joy. Why? Because we have a sorrow-proof hope, a hope that goes even beyond the silver linings others look for in this life.
For the friend who lost his home, he can say that at least he has his health. For the one who’s lost his health too, at least he can say he and his loved ones are alive. For the sick who have lost loved ones, at least they can be consoled because their loved ones are no longer suffering. Sooner or later though, we run out of silver linings, either because life gets really bad or our own pain keeps us from seeing them anymore. But beyond the silver lining, there is gold.
Christians should have a monopoly on joy because of what Christmas celebrates: The coming of a quite literal bundle of Joy, Jesus our Lord and Savior, bringing joy to the world. From man’s first sin, God has been working to redeem us from sin and the misery it brings. Absolutely everything in this life, even death, will be made right. If that’s true, hope in Jesus Christ gives us absolutely everything. Eighty or ninety or a hundred years of misery on earth is nothing compared to a moment in heaven in God’s presence. If this is our focus, joy will follow. Shouldn’t it? Christians are defined by our identity in Christ, not our circumstances, and eternal joy is our destiny. That should change things for us. While it’s appropriate to mourn, our inner joy shouldn’t stay inner. It’s part of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22).
Jesus said: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:10-11) I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Paul said: “Rejoice always… (1 Thess. 5:16) In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. (2 Cor. 7:4) May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13)
James said: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3)
Even Habakkuk, having hope in the promised Messiah yet to come, said: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
More than a feeling (cue Boston guitar into), joy comes from knowledge of the truth of who we are in Christ, unworthy recipients of the grace of God in eternal salvation. A lack of joy means we either don’t have this, or have forgotten this, and either way we are in trouble. If our faith is not in Jesus, it’s in things that can’t save us from eternal misery—things like positive thinking, optimism, or whatever drug we use to feel better or make things go our way. Are you a Christian who just isn’t feeling it? If our faith IS in Jesus, then the joy that resides in us is merely forgotten—and who knows what other truth we’ve forgotten as well. Remind yourself and each other of the hope you have, and be the bearer of joy that others would do anything for.
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.'” (Luke 2:10-11)
December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
Most of the time we get into trouble because we do stupid things. But sometimes we get into trouble because we do the right thing. Maybe we all can recall a time when we were maligned for putting our hope in the truth. In my daily reading I journeyed through Paul’s adventures in Acts, a classic example of a man in trouble for the truth.
In the presence of the Roman Governor Felix, a contingency of Jewish leaders and their lawyer brought this charge against the apostle in Acts 24: “For we have found this man to be a troublemaker, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” (vs.5)
The fear was that Paul would be politically dangerous. In his defense Paul denies the accusations of inciting a riot, but admits: “But I confess this to you, that I worship the God of our ancestors according to the Way (which they call a sect), believing everything that is according to the law and that is written in the prophets. I have a hope in God (a hope that these men themselves accept too) that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous…(vs.14,15) “I am on trial before you today concerning the resurrection of the dead.” (vs.21)
Most Jews believed in a future resurrection, a raising and judgment of all mankind, something that Paul preached in connection with Christ’s resurrection (Acts 17:30-32, 1 Corinthians 15:15-58). The Sadducees (Acts 23:8) did not believe in any type of life after death, or miracles, or the supernatural. The Greeks believed in immortality, but not the imminent judgment of Christ. These slanted teachings started to infect the Church somewhat. And this was a cause of much of Paul’s trouble.
In the next two chapters, Paul finds himself in Jewish court before Israel’s King Agrippa. In his defense before the king in Acts 26, Paul testifies: “They know, because they have known me from time past, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve God night and day. Concerning this hope the Jews are accusing me, your Majesty!” (vs.5-7)
On trail for hope in God’s promises, Paul believed His promises to be true. To an extent, so did Paul’s accusers, who believed in the same Hebrew scriptures where hints of the future resurrection should have vindicated Paul. The charges of stirring up riots were unfounded. Instead, their main contention was that “they had several points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a man named Jesus who was dead, whom Paul claimed to be alive.” (Acts 25:19)
Among other things, Christians believe this: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18)
Jesus Himself promised us trouble (John 16:33), and when we merely do what Paul and others did, preaching God’s word and holding to His future promises, we may find ourselves on trial. We’ll dispute big issues with those who claim to follow God, even true Christians. Persistent hope in Christ has its cost, and it sometimes gets us in trouble. But we are promised that any present trouble cannot outweigh future glory, and that’s where our hope lives. “So we do not lose heart…” (2 Corinthinans 4:16-18)