Monday, February 22, 2010

Looking Back, Faith Grows

(Read Deut 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13)

Let me begin with a snapshot of a woman’s life:

Staci was blessed to have been born to loving parents who lived in a nice home in suburban Ohio. Sadly, she inherited diabetes from her mother, and the life-threatening disease affected her entire life. Over the years, she had three kidney transplants and a pancreas transplant. Going to dialysis and being in the hospital were as common to Staci as after-school activities and visits to the grandparent’s house were to “normal” kids. But Staci was really just grateful to be alive. She loved playing in her yard with the neighbor kids, painting and participating in the life of her church. Staci’s mom died from complications due to her diabetes when Staci was just a young girl, and this made her, her brother and father very sad. Her father remarried some years later, and while her step-mother was no replacement for her mother, it was comforting to have a woman in the house again. One morning before high school, while walking her dog, Staci was raped near the woods in her backyard. Obviously, this was a traumatic event and time in Staci’s life. She persevered and attended a small, private college, majoring in English.

Staci’s doctors didn’t know how much longer she would live, and so Staci chose to see every day as a gift from God. When Staci turned 30, outliving doctors’ predictions by several years, she decided to have a child. The doctors told her not to, that it was life-threatening, but that did not deter her. After all that she had been through, Staci had become both a brave and daring woman. Her son, Brian, was born with minor complications, and he is to this day, the joy of Staci’s life. When Brian was three, a young man moved two houses down form Staci’s childhood home. They quickly fell in love and married. Her life was now a dream come true, and a miraculous success story. After a few years though, her husband lost his job, became severely depressed and attempted suicide. His failed attempt lead to treatment, and when I last saw them this past summer, Staci, Tom and Brian were doing well. Staci put it like this, “I’ve been through hell and back, but I’m still here, and they are here with me. Life is good.”

Staci is amazing to me, the way she stays positive, her laughter, her endurance in the face of multiple challenges. When I asked her if she believes in God after everything she has went through, her reply is, “Definitely. Without God, I wouldn’t even be here. Although,” she says, “I say that now. There were times in the past when I cursed God or doubted God’s existance. Things look different once you have gotten through them.”

I thought about Staci when I read the Scripture from Deuteronomy. In this passage, Israel is remembering their life story and what God has done for them. They say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous” (Deut. 26:5) Biblical commentary says that the word “wandering” can also mean “lost” or “dying,” and that the Aramean referred to is Jacob and his ancestors. So, Israel became a great nation in Egypt, but then, “the Egyptians mistreated [them] and made [them] suffer, putting [them] to hard labor” (Deut. 26:6). Now, I’m sure you can imagine that the many years that Israel toiled in Egypt as slaves (400 years?) were terrible, and that during that time, their trust in God’s goodness and power waned. There had to have been many people on many occasions who cursed God’s name because of their life situation, many people who cried for help and felt as though God did not answer them. But this Scripture was written long after Israel had left Egypt so they are remembering their story from a larger perspective. Thus, the Scripture continues on a positive note, not mentioning the times of doubt and despair

“Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders” (Deut 26: 8). Aka. the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with mild and honey” (Deut 26:9).

Now, that is what happened, but in between God freeing Israel from slavery and bringing them into Canaan, there was that awful time of 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness when they had no food, no water. They were fighting amongst themselves. They wanted to kill Moses for leading them out of Egypt and into unknown territory.

The point I am getting at here is that while we are going through something, it feels incredibly intense and we are absorbed in the play-by-play action. Especially during the tough times, we cry, and we don’t think we can take anymore affliction. We say that God has forsaken us, abandoned us, turned his back on us. I can recall many times in my life when I prayed and prayed for God to do this or that, for God to change my situation and help me to feel better. Then, after a while and nothing seeming to change, still feeling confused or angry or sad, just giving up on God. I’d start to pray and then think, “Oh, forget it. What’s the point?”

But the point is, once we are out of dire straights, out of the terrible time, and we are reflecting back on it, we tend to see things differently. We start to see how God was there in that time. How God did help us through. While in the situation, you can’t see the forest for the trees as it were because we are so consumed, absorbed, unable to see clearly. But things become clearer as we get further and further from the situation. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. We recognize that God was present, and God’s hand was working in that time and place. That Jesus was walking by our side, and the Holy Spirit was comforting us.

And as we realize that, we start to think, or at least I know I start to think, “If God was there then, God is here now. Whether I feel him or see him or not, the Lord is with me. A very present help in trouble. My rock and my salvation. The ground of my hope.”

An analogy that can help us to understand this idea is recognizing that God’s presence in your life is like watching a movie for the second time. The second time, you already know the ending, so as you are watching it, you can see how each scene that happens is moving you towards the final conclusion or how all the parts of the film contribute to the development of the whole film. The first time you watch a movie, you experience each scene and are ingrossed in the action, not knowing how it all fits together. But in watching the film the second time, it becomes clear how certain events are meaningful and propel the story forward. You can see a character crying and think, “It’s okay. No need to cry. You need this to happen so the real blessings can come into your life.”

In the times when life is challenging, when we are really being tested, the devil comes to tempt us to give up our faith, to question God’s existence. We feel like it is all up to us, and we have to rely on ourselves, on our will and effort alone. We fight to control our lives, trying to make them the way we want them to be, only to feel more frustrated and exhausted as hardships continue to come our way.

In the first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). When Jesus says, “Man does not live on bread alone (Luke 4:4)” he is resisting the temptation to provide for himself, to depend on himself to get what he needs. This is a lesson for us to learn. That it is God who provides for us. We can trust that whatever we need to live, God will give to us.

Today, I invite you to think back on your life. Think of all the hard times, all the strange things that have happened, and see how ultimately, they lead to some sort of blessing in your life. They made you who you are. The divorce was horrible to go through, but you are much happier on your own or with your new partner than fighting all the time and feeling misunderstood by your partner. Or the illness was/is painful to endure, but it has helped you realize who your real friends are, and you have seen the generosity and kindness of all sorts of people in your life. Or getting fired or laid off seemed like the end of the world. What are you going to do now? How will you make ends meet? But slowly you realized that you can trust God to provide, that there are more opportunities than you imagined. Hopefully, you get into a new vocation which is more rewarding and meaningful to you and for the world.

As we recognize that God was there for us in the past, our confidence grows that God is here for us now and will be there for us in the future. Like Staci and the Israelites, we become living witnesses to the steadfast love and faithfulness of our Creator. Weeping may tarry for the night, but with assurance, we know that joy comes in the morning.

Brothers and sisters, keep the faith. I know life is hard. I know the trials and tribulations keep coming. The same problems occur over and over again. But God is with us, and we will triumph. While part of what happens in life is out of our control, our response to what happens in life is within our control. Train your mind to be hopeful instead of skeptical and doubting. You never know. Be creative and respond to that same old problem in a new and different way. By acting differently, you just might get different results. And reach out to people you know, asking them for help. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but when we are struggling, that’s when we most need family and friends surrounding us, cheering us on, lifting us up. We are all on this journey together friends. May it be the best journey possible, and may we trust in God every step of the way, because the way of trust is the way that leads to peace and joy.

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