Saturday, January 7, 2017

Fear Not

Luke 2:8-11 King James Version (KJV)
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
THE WORD OF GOD FOR THE PEOPLE OF GOD
"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing... There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me." 
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

While I would never be so bold as to argue with the genius of C.S. Lewis, I have to say that what he described in that excerpt sounds a lot like fear to me. Grief is not only about loss. Grief has been described as “becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once.” It’s frightening. And the fear is not just about the untethering - it’s about not having the answers. The lack of answers leaves us feeling hopeless.
Like many of you, I am no stranger to grief. I have said goodbye to both of my parents, my only brother, and, just last year, one of my brothers-in-law...all of them because of disease.
In the Christmas movie, “The Polar Express”, a little blond-haired boy from the “other side of the tracks” explains that Santa has never stopped at his house. “Christmas just doesn’t work out for me,” Billy sadly states. Well, it seems that healing just doesn’t work out for my family. I know that God is Jehovah Rapha, I know that by Jesus’ stripes we are healed, but for whatever reason, God chose to impart the ultimate healing to my 33 yr old brother, as well as to my parents and my sister’s husband.

I don’t know why God heals some people and not others. I could stand here and tell you that I have never been angry with Him for this. I could proclaim that, because I know they are “in a better place”, I am happy. I could talk about how God must have needed another angel or rattle off another one of countless platitudes, but the truth of the matter is...it hurts. It hurts every single day. I still suffer.

We all suffer. 20th Century theologian, Henri de Lubac, writes in his Paradoxes of the Faith that there are two important truths to keep in mind when we encounter suffering. “All suffering is unique—and all suffering is common.” All of us...whether due to death, illness, broken relationships, or just everyday life things like disappointment, anxiety, financial woes, stress, loneliness, or fear...we are broken people living in a broken world. And it can be scary.
Somehow, the church culture has instilled in us a requirement for mandatory happiness. In an honest attempt to ease the heartache of our brothers & sisters, we tend to look for a silver lining or bright side of some of the darkest situations. Unfortunately, this often only “perpetuates pain and promotes dishonesty” (Tchillian). The Book of Ecclesiastes clearly states that there IS a time to weep. There IS a time to mourn.

After my brother’s death in 1993, someone gave me a little book about grief. While I cannot remember the title of the book, there is one quote that has stayed with me for 23 years: “God has created us with every emotion that we have...He fully expects us to use them!”
It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to mourn. Having emotions or feelings is a natural part of who God created us to be. We don’t really have any control over WHAT we feel. We do, however, have a choice about how we to RESPOND to those feelings. For instance, the writer of Ephesians tells us that it is acceptable to be angry, but we are not to let our anger cause us to sin. The prophet, Isaiah, says "To all who mourn... he will give: beauty for ashes; joy instead of mourning; praise instead of heaviness." It’s up to us to accept these gifts...to choose beauty over ashes; joy over mourning; praise over heaviness.

And God clearly knows that we are going to be afraid, because the words “FEAR NOT” appear 63 times in the Bible. That is not to say that it is wrong or sinful for us to be afraid. But In every instance that the words “Fear not” are spoken, there is always at least an implied “for” or “because”.

The angel of the Lord knew the shepherds were terrified. They had every reason to be! They were just minding their own business (and their sheep) on a dark hillside when they were suddenly face-to-face with the glory of the Lord. And it shook them. The words “fear not” weren’t a reprimand, rather words intended to calm them...to reassure them that, in spite of the frightening circumstances, the presence of God was very nearby.

The death of my brother, Matt, shook me. Everything I had believed for my entire life was put to the test. Ours is a family of faith. My father preached for my entire life: with faith, all things are possible. Matt loved the Lord. He was a devoted youth pastor. My entire family was serving in ministry. We prayed all the right prayers, quoted all of the right scriptures, and mustered up every seed of faith we could...but, it wasn’t enough. The last time I saw him was Thanksgiving 1993. He was lying in a hospital bed in Atlanta, dying of cancer. I wish you all could have known him. He was, hands down, the funniest man who ever lived. He could literally make you laugh with no more than a look. That night, I walked into his room and I barely recognized him. I tried to act nonchalant as I approached his bedside, but I felt a lump rising in my throat when I saw that the chemotherapy had robbed him of all his hair, and left him swollen and his skin had turned purple. He was purple. “Hey, Matt!” I chirped, clearly pretending not to notice his appearance. Matt just looked up at me and began to sing, “I love you...you love me…” in his best Barney the Dinosaur voice. Our family spent our last Thanksgiving fully together in an ICU room in Grady Health Center. On our last day together, Matt called us each in one at a time to say goodbye. When my turn came, I stood by his hospital bed holding his hand and I said, “Matt, I don’t want you to go.” “I don’t want to go,” he said. “But, I’ve put my life in God’s hands, and whatever He does is the right thing.” Not the words I wanted to hear. I wanted him to tell me that he was going to fight and that he was going to beat cancer again and that he was going to LIVE! But, he said, “I’ve put my life in God’s hands, and whatever He does is the right thing.” Two days ago marked the 23rd anniversary of the day we buried him. As much as I wanted to be angry at God, I couldn’t get past Matt’s words. That was the greatest testimony of complete surrender to God that I had ever witnessed. Matt knew who God was and that was enough. But, I couldn’t understand why God didn’t heal him.

Several months before that, we began to notice some health issues with my father. Now, you have to understand, my dad had never had as much as a head cold as long as I could remember. And, while he was also a huge cut-up, he was a very private man. So...we just didn’t talk about what was happening to him. Matt was actually the one who finally convinced him to go to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Daddy pretended like it was no big deal, which was typical of him, but we watched him slowly digress. Matt’s death seemed to exacerbate his symptoms, but he tried his best to continue pastoring for as long as he could. After a few years, he realized he had to retire and, in 2006, he joined Matt in Heaven. While I continue to miss him every single day, I rejoice in the fact that he is no longer wheelchair-bound and a slave to that debilitating disease, but I still don’t know why he had to get sick.

My mother was diagnosed in July 2009 with a disease none of us had ever heard of, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. The word “idiopathic” means that they don’t know how or why she got it. She died three months later. That one sent me reeling. She was my best friend. My greatest fan. My true North. And she was just gone. No reason why.

There are many emotions that surrounded her death, but the thing that took me off guard the most was the feeling that I had lost my identity. I have never married. I have no children. I had just always been David & Louise Willetts’ daughter. When they were both gone, I no longer knew who I was. And I was terrified. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

So often, grief and suffering are surrounded by feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and fear. I will admit, I have had my share of fearful days. There have been times when I’ve wondered if God himself has forgotten or even abandoned me. Deep down inside, I know He has not...but, it certainly has FELT as though He has left me all alone. I have prayed prayers and wondered if they would even clear the insulation in my roof. I have lay face-down on my floor, staining the carpet with my tears. I have grieved and suffered...sometimes very loudly...but, you know what? God understands. He has never punished me for my cries. In fact, I believe God WANTS us to cry out to him.

In the midst of Jeremiah’s grieving over Jerusalem, God said ‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’ God actually instructed Jeremiah to call out to him in his time of grief. The word “call” is from the Hebrew word “kä·rä(h)'” which means to call, cry for help, utter a loud sound or even to summon.

In Job 1:20, we read that, when Job learned of the enormity of his loss, he fell down, rent his clothes and worshiped. First of all, the word “rent” is from the Hebrew word “kä·ra(t)'” ...which sounds an awful lot like the word for “call” in Jeremiah. In fact, it is a different word altogether...a homonym. But, I believe the word was intentionally used to bring to mind the idea of an embodied act of prayer. God sees our actions...our bent knees, our raised hands, our tear-streaked faces...just as much he hears our audible cries.

Secondly, though, the scripture says that Job WORSHIPED! He worshiped in his greatest moment of grief.

Tullian Tchividjian addresses this in his book Glorious Ruin:
“There is an assumption out there that worship can take place only when you’ve got a smile on your face. If that were true, two-thirds of the Psalms would be heretical. Instead, the Psalms are filled to the brim with words that lament failure, pain, betrayal, and human brokenness.The Bible teaches us that grief and worship are not opposed, that they actually go hand in hand. Grief can be heard as a cry for what once was, and one day will be again, a world without pain and disease and conflict, a world characterized by shalom. Grief acknowledges the catastrophic state of affairs east of Eden. God does not expect us to keep a stiff upper lip in times of trouble; He is not pleased with robotic attempts to exonerate Him in the midst of pain. We cry uncle so that we might cry Abba!”
Paul says in his letter to the Romans,
“8:15 the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
In verse 22, he writes: We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship…”
but, thankfully he goes on to say that
“...26 the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”

HE INTERCEDES FOR US! Jesus PRAYS for us! When we cry out to God in our grief and our suffering and our fear, Jesus intercedes for us.

When we are suffering, when we are hurting, when we are frightened, the natural tendency is to look for answers...most often, to the question “WHY?” We somehow believe that, if we find that answer, it will help to ease the pain, to lessen our suffering, to soothe our grieving soul. The truth, however, is that we are really looking for HOPE. And, even if we have the answer to “WHY”, it won’t ultimately bring us the hope we so desperately need.

Job worshiped in his darkest hour...not because he had discovered all the answers. He didn’t know why these things had happened to him. He had done nothing to deserve the calamity he was facing. The Bible tells us that “He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil.” Almost the entire book of Job is dedicated to the question, “why was this happening to him?? WHY??”

God’s response in Chapter 38 is not the answer to “WHY”. Instead, God’s answer is to reveal to Job WHO He is. And Job understands that the “WHO” of God is far more comforting, and brings far more hope than the answer to “WHY”. This is how Job was able to worship in his grief. “Job was comforted and encouraged by the promise that there is something (Someone) looming larger than the tragedy. A promise of hope for eternity.” (Tchividjian)

I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. It seems the past several weeks have been filled with tragedy and sadness. It feels as though our entire community, our nation, and even our world are grieving. I don’t know why so many seemingly senseless acts have occurred. But, I do know WHO is in control...and, if I put my life in His hands, whatever He does will be the right thing. That is where I find my hope.

Tchividjian writes,
"To grieve as a Christian is an act of worship …. because it is a statement of faith that one day things won't be this way …. Whether you realize it or not, there is a song underneath your grieving that cries out for Christ's return."

The Hebrew language has a word for life-long love that is richer and deeper than the English language can define: חֶסֶד or hesed (HEH-sed). Based in a covenantal relationship, hesed is a steadfast, rock-solid faithfulness that endures to eternity:
Isaiah 54:10 says, “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken”

So then...

Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ...

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k]neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Louie Giglio wrote, “In the midst of the fray and fury, keep your eyes on Jesus. He is fighting for you. Emmanuel [...GOD WITH US…] is near. —your hope is in the One who fights for you. You are safe in God’s love and in the power of His mighty name.”

Fear Not. For nothing can separate us from the love..the HESED...of God.

PRAYER

Father, in the middle of the storm I am setting my hope on You. You fight for me and You are greater than all my enemies. Nothing I face today is more powerful than You. You are the solid ground beneath my feet. Thank You for surrounding those who surround me. Give me peace in the presence of my enemies, knowing that You see me and defend me in Your [steadfast and unfailing HESED] love. Amen. (Giglio)