Monday, July 25, 2011

All Things Work for Good

(Read Romans 8:26-39)

Adversity is all around us. There’s the homeless man on the street struggling with mental illness and addiction, and then there’s the person near you in the pews struggling with the same disease, but fortunately, they have a place to call home.

There’s the famous actress battling cancer, your cousin battling cancer, and then there’s the person near you in the pew also battling cancer.

Disease, divorce, drugs. Depression, anxiety, loneliness. Adversity is all around us.

And when it happens to any of us, we often feel compelled to ask the question, why? Why, oh Lord, is this happening to me or to someone I care about?

Several years ago, my sister in law, Alex, and my brother, Jason, ran into one of the greatest adversities of their lives. After four years of marriage, they could not conceive a child. It came to the point where the doctor recommended invetro fertilization, and fast! Alex was already 41 years old so their clock was ticking.

Alex and Jason did everything the doctors recommended because they desperately wanted to have a child together, but after two round of IVF, they still were not pregnant. In sadness, confusion and frustration, Alex came to me and asked me if I’d pray with her.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. Alex and I sat on the floor of her and my brother’s living room. We lit a candle. We held hands, and we prayed, “God, please may it be your will that Alex and Jason conceive and bare a healthy child. They want this more than anything. Will you please bless them?”

It was a sacred moment that Alex and I shared, but at the time, I couldn’t assure her that all things would be well.

In the past, I not only asked God “why?” when it came to the matter of suffering, but I also struggled with being angry with God in my suffering. I would challenge God, saying, “If you are an all-loving God, how could you let this happen? If you are an all-powerful God, why won’t you do something?” In my greatest times of anger, I would stop praying altogether.

But then, one day I heard a quote from a friend that helped to reframe my thinking. He said, “God doesn’t promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, or sun without rain, but God does promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way. If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it.”

It sets us up for failure if we think that if God really exists, if Jesus really loves us, that bad things won’t happen to us. As scripture says, “God makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike.” Mature faith requires us to go through some times of trial and tribulation believing that God will see us through.

In today’s passage from Romans, we hear Paul say, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

And this is a very important message for all of us to know and to believe, that God does make all things work together for the good, hopefully in this life, and definitely in the next. God is in the redeeming business. God brings transformation out of suffering and life out of death. We experience hardship, adversity, challenge, and somehow, out of those things, God can bring our most beautiful blessings. It’s not that God wills our suffering so that we will grow and learn, but once suffering comes into our lives as it surely will, God knows how to use our experience to bring him glory. God makes us stronger, more courageous, more grateful, more compassionate people. God uses what you and I have gone through to make this world a better place, or in Christian language, to make heaven come to earth.

Marilyn is a former parishioner I know who had breast cancer some six years ago. She is a source of inspiration to everyone who knows her because, not only did she survive breast cancer, she now works with other women struggling with breast cancer. She is one of the most grateful people I have ever met, never taking a moment of life for granted. And she is a witness to the very idea I am speaking about today because she said to me, “Mandy, I don’t know why I had to get breast cancer, but I do know that God brought me through it. And now, I am going to use the strength and hope I’ve learned to help other people go through what I went through.” God is using Marilyn to help others not only survive, but to thrive. God wants all of us to thrive, not merely to get by.

Now, I was telling my friend all of this the other day, and she said, “Yeah, but what if the cancer doesn’t go away. What if the baby is never conceived, or even worse, what if the baby dies when he or she is only a few days old? How is God making that work for the good?”

No one can justify babies dying, but I’m not trying to justify suffering and the evil that exists in this world. I’m trying to tell you a spiritual wisdom that I have learned to be true and many others know to be true. What we are talking about today is a way of seeing the world that will decrease our anger, increase our faith, and all in all, grant us a better experience of life.

Can you relate to what I’m talking about? Have you ever had a really difficult time in life, but after it was over, in hindsight, you could see that some grace, some blessing came out of it? I don’t tell people that “everything happens for a reason” because sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a reason. It’s just plain, old suffering and misery. But what I can witness to, what Marilyn and Jason and Alex and countless others can witness to is that somehow, God transforms our suffering to create blessing. God works all things for the good.

This Romans passage goes on to say that God is for us, so who or what can really be against us? No one and nothing can win over God’s love, mercy and goodness.

Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

He is saying that nothing can separate us from love. Cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s can’t separate us from the love of God. Whether or not you can have a child, whether or not your children are healthy or have serious problems in their life, nothing can separate you from the love of God. Whether you are sinful, greedy, gluttonous, envious, nothing can separate you from the love of God.

You know what? Cancer has returned to Marilyn’s life. She is fighting the battle once again. But if you call her up and listen to her voice message, she continues to say, “It’s Sunday. And I’m still grateful.” She is not letting this separate her from the love of God.

And I am so filled with joy to tell you that on December 20, 2006, Samantha Carolina Iahn came into the world. She is Alex and Jason’s beautiful, baby girl. She is the good that God brought out of that whole terrible episode that they went through.

Brothers and sisters, adversity is all around us, but nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. May you know this and find peace in your soul.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You Can Walk on Water

Read Matthew 14:22-33

What do you think sounds worse: seeing a ghost or drowning? Because both almost happen to Peter this week.

I have to go with drowning even though I’ve never experienced it myself. Well that’s not true totally. I have experienced a sort of drowning in my life. It was more of a feeling though than an actual experience of being submerged underwater.

Depression feels like you’re drowning or struggling to keep your head above water. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression knows how hard it is to do even the smallest, most basic tasks like getting out of bed, taking a shower and doing your laundry. Depression chokes the joy from life like drowning chokes the air from your lungs.

I picked this scripture this week because I can relate to Peter at this point in my life, and perhaps you can too. Peter is in the boat with some other disciples, and when he realizes it is Jesus walking towards him out on the water, he wants to walk on the water too. “Lord,” he says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14: 28).

Jesus invites Peter, saying, “Come.” I can imagine Peter joyfully jumping out of the boat, excited because he is a part of a miracle.

This is kind of how I felt when I received the call to come to Park Avenue UMC. Oh, how exciting, I thought. I get to go to the big city and work at a beautiful church. I took a leap of faith and jumped out of the boat I was in.

But very quickly after arriving here, I became afraid. Of what, you may be wondering. It was the simple things like figuring out how to ride my bike to work or take the subway from the upper west side to the lower east side. And I can’t even tell you how much stress I felt initially over who was going to take care of my dog while I was at work. The first Sunday before church I woke up with my heart beating in my throat, and I wasn’t even preaching. Transitions are hard, but I’m glad to say that only one week later, my fear is starting to diminish.

Peter also became afraid very quickly. He jumped out of the boat all excited, but scripture says that when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink.

This image of the wind blowing, and Peter noticing the wind blowing, getting afraid and starting to sink is a powerful image. I imagine the waves on the water, and Peter’s hair whipping all around. And then there is that loud noise that wind makes… There is chaos on the sea in that moment that Peter starts to sink.

For Peter, the wind is what made him afraid, and so I can’t help but to think about, what is the wind in my life? And what is the wind in your life? What is it that is blowing through your world hard and strong, perhaps making you doubt, making you afraid, making you sink? The wind can be an obstacle in your path. The wind can be a situation that you can’t quite get a handle on. The wind can be a person who puts you on edge. The wind can be anything that makes you doubt yourself or God.

Adjusting to living in New York City is my wind right now. But I can’t let this awesome place overwhelm me anymore than Jesus would have let Peter sink right before his eyes. God wants us to walk on water with him. God wants us to be successful and confident even in the face of fear and danger because God has plans for our good and not for our harm.

When Peter began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Why do we doubt? Why do we fear?

I’ll tell you a story. My friend Lisa worked very hard to get her PhD, and then got a job as a professor at a Catholic university. She was one of the youngest people on staff and the only Protestant. Her first year teaching she was filled with fear about what other members of the staff thought of her and what her students thought of her. After one student came into her office and criticized her because of the grade she had given him, she really began to doubt herself. She began to wonder if she was doing a good job teaching… She wondered if she was she being too hard on her students…

Much of the fear and doubt Lisa was experiencing, and much of the fear and doubt all of us experience, is a product of our own minds and our own insecurities. The threats are more mental than physical. The storms swirl up in our thoughts and rock the boat that is our lives.

But trust in God, trust that Christ will save us, can prevent the storms from getting too big and too debilitating. Often, we just have to give it time. Even in your darkest moments, use your faith to keep you going. God will help us. God is helping us. You will not sink even if the wind is whipping about you.

After about a year at the university, Lisa started to feel more confident in herself. She received positive feedback from students and other professors, and this helped her to believe that being a professor was truly the task God had called her too. But it took time.

“Patient Trust” by Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages,
We are impatient of being on the way to do something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

My friends, let us not be afraid because of the wind. Let us trust in God to hold us up. There is a song called, “Be Still, My Soul” that says: Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in every change God faithful will remain…Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know the Christ who ruled them while he dwelt below.