Hope In The Face Of Affliction

(One year ago today, after spending the night by my brother’s bedside, we said our last goodbyes just twelve hours before he passed into eternity. As I reflect upon his final years as he struggled with various illnesses triggered by diabetes, I have no doubt that our conversations about faith helped inspire my decision to establish this blog. If you or anyone you love has been impacted by severe affliction, I trust that this post, which is adapted from my remarks at Ronnie’s funeral, may resonate with you no matter what trials you may face.)

image“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

In the weeks leading up to Ronnie’s passing, I was drawn not only to God’s Word for comfort and inspiration, but also to some of the writings of one of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, who offers uncanny insight and wisdom on the subject of pain, suffering, and grief with books like “Reaching For The Invisible God”, “Where Is God When It Hurts”, and “The Question That Never Goes Away”.

You cannot talk about Ronnie’s life without addressing the suffering he endured when diabetes entered his life. Yancey reminds us that while the Bible is certainly a source of great comfort in times of trouble, sickness, and grief, it never gives clear answers to many of those troublesome Why? questions we all face in this life. Even at the end of the Book of Job, where God had the perfect opportunity to address the problem of pain and suffering- the longest speech by God in the entire Bible- he seems to avoid the topic entirely. God’s reply to Job in a nutshell is that divine providence is a mystery that only God understands.

In his initial struggles with the diabetes that would dominate his life, Ronnie wrestled with those unanswerable Why? questions. He had difficulty sensing God’s presence or even accepting that God heard his prayers. He felt unworthy of God’s forgiveness for past transgressions. But through the years, as he focused on God’s Word, and as he drew closer to God through his affliction, he began to recognize the presence of God, experience the reality of God’s forgiveness, and receive the assurance of his salvation. And those things made a tremendous difference in his outlook.

Only God knows whether it required years of affliction for Ronnie to come to that assurance. But God’s Word informs us that he works all things together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28) I saw that Biblical truth exemplified in Ronnie’s life. After one of his last hospital stays, he told me that looking back on all that he had been through, he could see the hand of God guiding all the circumstances of his life. That is evidence of a mature faith- the ability to reassemble all the events of our life around trust in a loving God, believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.

As I examined his Bible before preparing my remarks for his funeral, the verses from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 that are cited at the top of this post clearly had very special meaning for him. He had started to view this life from a heavenly perspective.

Lessons from the 23rd Psalm
In times of grief, we often quote the 23rd Psalm, a psalm most of us likely memorized in our youth. But I doubt if many of us have ever noticed a subtle transition in that psalm. It begins with those reassuring words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” But then the subtle shift occurs, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (KJV)

Have you ever noticed the subtle shift in perspective there? When the psalmist spoke of experiencing green pastures, still waters, and paths of righteousness, he spoke of God more distantly, using the third person, “He maketh me to lie down, he leadeth me, he restoreth me”. But when he begins to speak of the valley of the shadow of death and the presence of enemies, notice how his tone becomes more personal, referring to God no longer as “He”, but as Thou or you. “Thou art with me … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me … Thou preparest a table before me … thou anointest my head.”

God had drawn closer in his trials. Yancey says that those reassuring words, “Thou art with me” are the best biblical answer to the question that never goes away in difficult times. Where is God when it hurts? … He is with us. No matter the circumstances, we have the assurance of “Immanuel”, which simply means “God with us”.

Grieving With Hope
Since delivering my Mother’s eulogy eleven years ago, I have spoken at several other funerals, including those for my sister, Paulette, my Uncle Frank, my Uncle Ralph, my dear friend, Jay, and most recently, my Aunt Carolyn- the last surviving sibling of my mother and father. As I look back on those messages today, years after their passing, I still grieve. Tears come to my eyes. I can be sitting in church, and the choir starts singing “In Christ Alone” which was sung at Paulette’s funeral, and I rarely get through it without choking up.

A few years ago, at our church in Hendersonville, we hosted a singing group called “This Hope”. I love that name- it is based on Heb. 6:19 which says “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” They sang a song I had never heard- “There Is A Heaven”. The lyrics hit me like a brick. The writer laments about a friend who has died too soon. He talks about the days they could have had together. But then he reflects on his friend’s destination as he gets to the chorus, singing “But I know there is a heaven. And one day I’ll see you there. Where Jesus holds us through forever. There will be no goodbyes when I see you in Heaven. I close my eyes and see you basking in the presence of our Lord. The fullness of His grace you now know face to face.”

As I processed those words, I began to cry once again. But for the first time since my sister and mother’s deaths, they were not tears of grief or sadness. They were tears of joy as the thought of them together in their heavenly home overshadowed my grief.

As I remember those loved ones, I grieve only for myself and those of us they left behind- but not for them. They are basking in the presence of our Lord. The fullness of His grace, they now know face to face. While times of grief are always times to reflect on experiences from our past, as Christians we must remind ourselves that there is also a future. Based on God’s promises, we grieve knowing that because of our faith in Christ and the promises of God’s Word, we’ll be together again one day with all those loved ones who preceded us in death knowing Christ as their Lord and Savior.

And my prayer is that because of your relationship with Christ, you can be as confident of that as I am. And that on the day The Lord calls your name, you can face it with the same dignity, grace, peace, and positive expectation that they did.

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In memory of Ronnie and all those loved ones who are awaiting us in Glory, please enjoy “I Will Rise” performed by Chris Tomlin.

Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)

 

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Hope In The Face Of Adversity

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

After much speculation, Mark Richt was officially named today as the next head football coach of the Miami imageHurricanes. Even though he coached my team’s arch rival for the last 15 years, I have always had the utmost admiration and respect for Coach Richt, both as a football coach and as a life coach for his players, most of whom will not go on to play professional football, but will need other life skills, knowledge, and character to succeed in life after their playing days are over. Coach Richt understands that better than most coaches at the college level.

It amazes me that a coach of his caliber and abilities, the fifth winningest active coach in Division I football, whose team was 9-3 this season, averaged 9.6 wins/season over 15 years in arguably the toughest conference in college football, who won two SEC championships, led his team to 14 straight bowl appearances, was 9-5 in those bowls, was 13-2 against his team’s state rival, finished the season ranked in the top 10 seven times (most recently 9th last year), and came within five yards of a national title game just three years ago, was fired this past Sunday.

This action adds to my increasing disillusionment with what college football has become- big money and win championships at all costs, no matter the impact on those who are putting their health on the line to fill the stadium. Coach Richt never bought into that philosophy and I applaud him for it. Meeting with his team for the last time Thursday, he reportedly told them “Life is about people, not rings.” Amen, Coach Richt!

The greater lesson in all this is a spiritual one. Coach Richt’s response to his unwarranted dismissal last week has been both encouraging and inspiring. His calm professionalism, grace, and unshakeable faith in his Lord has been on display for the world to see. In interviews following his dismissal he made it clear that he answers to a higher authority than athletic directors when it comes to the direction of his life. I’m glad that direction will keep him coaching college football where he will continue to have a positive impact on young men’s lives and the Kingdom of God.

He is a living example of a truth I have emphasized for years as a teacher of God’s Word – that our responses to the inevitable adversities we encounter in life are our greatest opportunities to witness to others about the reason for the hope they see in us. (1 Peter 3:15)

One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey says that “Faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” Coach Richt clearly has that kind of faith and I firmly believe when he looks back on this week in five years, he will see that things worked out much better for him than for the Georgia Bulldogs. And as a lifelong Georgia Tech fan, that would please me very much!

By the way, Coach Richt is from Boca Raton, Florida and played his college football for the University of Miami. That’s right- he is returning to his Alma Mater. And unlike the Georgia fan base, Miami fans appear to be extremely united in their approval of his return. This story just gets better and better. Congratulations, Coach Richt and Go Hurricanes! You have a new fan in me. (Unless, of course, you’re playing the Yellow Jackets or the Tarheels!)

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect ..” (1 Peter 3:15)

Note: All Scripture references taken from the New International Version (NIV)

The Message Of Easter

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen! (Luke 24:5-6)

These familiar words from Luke’s gospel articulate the central truth upon which our faith is based. As I said in my last post, the Easter story is so familiar that teachers and preachers often struggle to offer some fresh insight or present some deeper truths to consider. But in reality, Easter is truly a time to just reflect on the truths that we already know so well – the truths that are foremost on our mind when we think of that first Easter morning … the message of Easter.

As you reflect on the message of Easter, what one word would you use to complete this sentence? ..  The message of Easter is a message of _________.  As I reflected on that first Easter this week, I thought of numerous words that fill in that blank quite well.

A Message Of Love

Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for us. The first Bible verse you likely memorized is John 3:16. If you’re from my generation, you probably quote it as it is translated in the King James Version, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  This foundational verse is the message of Easter in a nutshell. On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

A Message of Life

imagePerhaps the most basic and encouraging truth imbedded in the Easter message is that simple truth spoken to the women at the tomb – the truth with which Christians have greeted each other for centuries – the truth stated in three simple yet extraordinarily profound words, “He is Risen!”  The message of Easter is a message of life. We serve a living Savior through whom is available the gift of eternal life – a Savior who lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit that we might experience the abundant life He promises in John 10:10.

A Message Of Power

1 Cor. 1:18 says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  Think of the awesome power that was demonstrated that first Easter morning. Paul says in Eph. 1:18-21, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart might be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.”

That’s a profound statement Paul makes – that the same power by which the Father raised Jesus from the dead is available to us who believe. Let that sink in for a moment. Paul goes on to say in Eph.3:20, “Now to him who is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…”  I have often heard it said that we use less than 10% of our brain’s capacity. Imagine how much of God’s power we actually use compared to what is available to us.

A Message Of Hope

In recent years I have spoken at the funerals of several loved ones, including my mother, my sister, my brother, aunts and uncles, and a very dear friend. A number of people have commented that they did not understand how I was able to do that. And I must admit that initially I felt a little unsure myself. The grief that I experience at such times  is so overwhelming. But as I seek the Lord’s comfort in the pages of His Word and am reminded of His promises, I am always filled with hope – a hope that redirects my focus from my own personal sense of loss to my loved one’s present reality. Ultimately, the message of Easter is a message of hope.

While I always share my personal memories of the deceased, I am mindful that there is only one message which gives hope – the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Because the central message of the gospel is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the resulting hope of resurrection and eternal life for every believer. To comfort Martha upon the death of her brother, Jesus said. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” (John 11:25)

The only reason I am able to overcome my own grief and speak on such occasions is the assurance I have that death is not the end for those loved ones. That because of our shared faith, we will be together again someday with our Lord and Savior.

At my sister’s funeral, I discovered that one of her favorite songs was “In Christ Alone”, written in 2002 by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend – a song I mentioned in my last post. It has become one of my favorite songs, although I can hardly sing along with it now without choking up. As it was being sung that day, the lyrics ministered to me and reminded me of those tremendous truths – the truths that enable believers to grieve differently from those who have no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13) – the truths of Easter.

“There in the ground His body lay, Light of the world by darkness slain. Then bursting forth in glorious Day, Up from the grave He rose again. And as He stands in victory, Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me. For I am His and He is mine, Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death. This is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, Could ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home, Here in the power of Christ I stand.”

Those verses so clearly and concisely articulate the message of Easter – the message of love, the message of life, the message of power, and the message of hope. But wait – there’s more!

A Message To Be Shared

Certainly, the message of Easter could never be adequately conveyed in just one word.image It is indeed the thread that runs throughout God’s Word. But let us never forget that the message of Easter is also good news. And what do we do with good news? … We share it. The message of Easter is not just for those of us who believe – it is a message we have been commissioned and empowered to share with the world – the living hope that is ours through the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Pet. 1:3)

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references taken from the New International Version (NIV)