03 August 2008

I will remember

Scripture Lesson From the OT: Lamentations 3:1-26
Scripture Lesson From the NT: Romans 8:31-39

As some of you know, I’ve been serving an internship as a chaplain at Borg Hospital this summer. I visit with patients on several neurological and other surgical units. I visit with patients who request to see me, and I visit with whatever patients and families cross my path as I “round”: walking through the units and sticking my head in rooms. During this time I’ve seen a lot of people who have come to a crisis point in their lives: folks in car crashes, folks with newly delivered terminal diagnoses, and their families. I frequently hear: “I never thought I/my son/my husband/my daughter would be here.” And then they ask the inevitable question, spoken or unspoken, “why?” Of course, that question isn’t limited to people in the hospital. Most of us have had some situation in our lives where we asked the same thing. Why, God? Why me?

Sometimes we can’t see God in our life. At some points, life just doesn’t make sense. We look at the mess that is our life and we do not see the hand of God. We think that if God were at work in our lives then our lives would look … well, better, somehow.

We want what society says is a good life. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that, at some level, most of us want to believe the prosperity gospel preached in so many churches today. Come on, be truthful, we yearn to believe that God wants us all to be rich, in perfect health, and have nice things and have an easy life.
We see Joel Osteen’s book on the best seller list and it promises Your Best Life Now. And we look at our lives as they stand, and we want what he promises. Joel tells us that we can have power and wealth and health if we just think positively. This is not a new message. But it’s not a Biblical one either. Wealth and health are not the primary indicators of God’s presence in our lives.

Look at the Lamentations passage. The picture the poet paints is not pretty. His city has fallen to the conquering army after a protracted siege. He was supposed to be safe because he was in the beloved city of the most high God. Instead he’s thin as a rail, weak, diseased. His home and his livelihood are gone. He has no material position or status. His paths twist around. Everywhere he turns, he runs into a wall. He is in darkness. Mocked and alone.

We look at our lives. We see jobs lost, bills that must be paid. We see families falling apart, children in trouble. We see disease and death. We feel the isolation, the shame of our lives. Where is God? Like the poet, we cry out to God in our prayers and we hear no response. Sometimes it’s just really hard to see God’s hand in our life.

But God has promised us He is always here even when we don’t see him. The most straightforward promise was the one Christ made to the disciples: “lo I am with you always even to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20) He will be with us always, for all time.

Psalm 139 which we read in the prayer this morning promises, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” So, wherever we go, God is with us. Our home, away at college, in the service in Iraq, in the hospital, the jail, the courtroom: God is there.

One of the seminary professors is fond of “catching” students in a trick question: “when you walk into a hospital room, do you bring Christ into that room?” Most students, aware that a) this is a seminary and b) they are pastors in training, will immediately answer, “yes!” to which the good professor will reply with an emphatic “no! … Christ is already there.”

We’ve seen that God is always with us. Romans ups it a notch. Not only is God there, but there is nothing can undo that. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, 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.”

Now, Paul’s not making a big deal out of these things, in fact he seems to just assume these horrible things will happen, but Paul knows God is with us through it all. Just as God is with us in the good things in life, he is with us in the bad. God is always wherever we are.

We remember God’s faithfulness… We remember all the times God has been there when we needed help and strength and encouragement.

The Israelites used to rehearse their history of salvation all the time. Just to say “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” was to recall the stories of each of these men and their interactions with God. Many prophets begin with, “The Lord who brought you out of Egypt” – the Jews are never to forget the history of God’s work with them. And the story of God’s work with the Jews is the story of God’s faithful love.

The Puritans made this more personal. Puritans were encouraged to keep a diary to examine the work of God in their lives. Each person examined their spiritual growth and insights, but they also used these diaries to record answers to prayer and the places where they saw God’s hand moving in their life – what they called “the providences of God”. Then, they would go back and read these diaries, some would even underline and dog-ear passages to find them more readily, and these Puritans would use the diaries to bolster their faith when life was rough. As one Puritan woman recorded (in her diary of course!): “My own experience has ever proved to me that thou art the God that has fed me my whole life long, the God that didst never leave me upon the mount of difficulty, but always appeared and wrought deliverance” The diaries served much like a family photo album or memory book and the woman was like a child going through the stories with her father, recalling all the times he’s been there for her. Not abstract stories of someone else’s life, but clear, first hand experiences from her own. She remembers all the times the Father has been there and she knows he will continue to be. She didn’t dwell on the bad things happening in her life, she didn’t look for someone else to blame, she moved forward in life, remembering the God that would see her through.

We’re not so good at that. We tend to be “what have you done for us lately?” last week is just, so, last week. But we must not forget all that has come before, we have to remember from our lives and through the ages. We must choose to remember God’s faithfulness.

Sometimes remembering can be difficult. We might not have been looking for God in our joys and good times so we may not remember the things the things He did for us. We don’t have those Puritan journals. That makes it hard. Trust is built over time, first in small things then in the big ones. If we haven’t been looking for God and trusting Him in the small things, we are not going to be ready for the big things.

Athletes rely on something they call muscle memory where you practice a move some many times your body almost learns to do it without your brain. For example, you keep swinging that golf club or that bat until your body knows the movement; or when you take a self defense class you go through the moves many times. You build the muscles, and train your body so that, you should ever need to respond, the response will be automatic. It will come from an ingrained pattern of behavior. We need to build up our spiritual muscle memory. How do we do that? Romans 10:17 tells us, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” If you want to know God, know his word.

If a crisis hits, we can only draw on what we have. And I have seen too many people this summer that don’t have anything to draw on. They haven’t done any spiritual training. They don’t know scripture, they don’t have a prayer life – They do not personally know Jesus. Maybe they know they ought to turn to God because their parents were Christians. Or maybe they have friends who are. Maybe they even go to church. But without a working relationship, they have no history to remember. They don’t trust God.

But when you need to remember, Each of us must decide for our self: Will I remember ? Do I trust?

When we chose to remember, God gives us hope. Hope isn’t something we can find or muster up for ourselves. Hope is a gift from God. Hope is a lifeline God gives us to get through the hard times.

Now, I’m not talking about “I hope the local team makes it to the playoffs this year” or “I hope my husband got us reservations for our anniversary.” That’s wishing. That’s the problem with the English word. In the Hebrew, the word for hope is the word for wait, with expectation. We know it’s coming, we’re just _waiting_ for it.

The problem is, it doesn’t always come the way we expect or the way we would choose. God doesn’t follow our scripts. And sometimes we forget that our priorities are not necessarily God’s priorities – after, all, we don’t see the whole picture. We hold to our wishes and try to call them hope.

But part of Hope is the letting go of our wishes. And the willingness to trust God, the loving father, whose compassion never fails, to trust God to do what is right for us in the context of all humanity and all time. To believe as it says in V28 “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”

Trusting is not an easy thing to do. That’s why we remember all of God’s providences like the Puritans did. Their remembering didn’t mean they were without doubt, as a matter of fact, they might have been relying on their “habit of faith”. You know, that point where you’re beyond actually hoping or trusting; but you make a decision to continue to remember God’s faithfulness. To believe that if God is for us none can successfully be against us.

All our answers, all our theology is an just attempt to confess what we believe, not to explain how it works. So we wait on the Lord. And the Lord is good to those who wait, his compassions are new every day. Because we need help everyday. God gives us the faith to wait. God gives us hope.

Life isn’t always what we want or what we think it ought to be. We can’t truthfully say we understand why rotten things happen. Some times we don’t like the place we’re in. But we remember who is in control. Who is the Lord of the universe and of our lives. And we can remember what that God has done for us in the past. By remembering the past providences of God we are free to trust our lives to him even when we don’t understand. We’re free to say “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I can trust God to come through this time, because I remember how God has come through for me before.” In all things we are conquerors – not because it turns out the way we want, but because we are in Christ Jesus.

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