A Sunday Sermon: Thinking and Praying for Houston and SE Asia

Standard

This is roughly what I offered my congregation yesterday in light of the devastation that floods have wrecked across our world this week.  It is a bit long but I hope it helps you as you “think and pray.”

Introduction

I want to begin by sharing about how I was awakened to the fact that this Houston tragedy was “the real deal.”  I have been super busy the last three or so weeks, busier than I have been in a long time.   That is a good thing but in my busyness I haven’t been able to pay attention to national headlines as much as I usually do.  That is also a good thing.

So I heard rumors of hurricane Harvey but what I initially read seemed minor.  It appeared to me that Hurricane Harvey was one of those headlines that was exaggerated by the media in an otherwise low news cycle.  Even the articles I did read said that Harvey only barely reached category 4 status before being downgraded to a tropical storm shortly after going over Houston.  That’s all I read and I figured, “no big deal.”

But Harvey’s problem was what came behind it.  Although Harvey itself was not that bad as far as winds go, it was the wettest hurricane on record in the US.  To make it worse, several rain storms followed in its wake so that Houston got hit again and then again and then again resulting in the catastrophe that it now is.  It took me until about Wednesday of this week to realize that this is the real deal.  This is pretty bad.

Right around that time I came across the pictures from southern Asia.  For those of you who don’t know, there are several countries and areas under water all across the Indian Ocean shores.  This started happening in June and has continued to get worse until now when most of the shoreline is uninhabitable along with several inland areas.  Thousands have died due to the flooding and millions of families have been displaced.  Flooding  is a global concern right now.  We have millions suffering in Texas and tens of millions more in Asia.

“Thoughts and Prayers”

About the time the gravity of all this occurred to me, another feeling came over me.  I think  this feeling is common nowadays.  I am going to call it “overwhelmed apathy.”  This is not apathy that overwhelms.  It is apathy that comes from being overwhelmed.  I was so overwhelmed by the pictures, the stories and the amount of neediness that I had no idea how to respond.  So I didn’t.  I shrugged and went on with life.

There is a phrase which “overwhelmed apathy” loves to utter.  It is, “Thoughts and prayers.”  Those of us who are so overwhelmed say this often as a way of trying to convince people we actually care.  Sometimes I wonder if that phrase is thrown about because we have no idea what else to do or to say so we say, “Thoughts and prayers” as a way of trying to signal that we are still decent people.  Thinking and praying are not bad but some people throw that phrase around as a way of trying to convince others they care when they really don’t.  They are more worried about showing they care than actually doing anything that would actually be caring.

Thursday night, about the time the gravity of Houston was dawning on me, I had a conversation with the daughter of a recently deceased mother.  From the minute she answered her phone, I noticed that she didn’t sound so happy.  She sounded like someone who is grieving.  She sounded like a daughter who doesn’t have a mom any more, at least not on this side of eternity.  She also sounded like someone who was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to close out a person’s estate.  It was a rough conversation.

Guess what I heard myself say to her, “Well, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  I hated myself for it!  It sounded so shallow.  What I hated even more was that I wanted to do something tangible but I seriously could not.  There was almost nothing I could to help other than listen.

In my defense, I have been thinking and praying for this family a lot.  If you were to somehow measure how much time I have spent thinking and praying about the various areas of my life, that family would top the list.  Every time I think about them I offer a prayer for them and that prayer is offered with a tear or two.  I miss their mom and I hurt for their loss.

Yet here is another tragedy which is a lot closer to home than Asia or Houston.  It only involves the fifty or so extended family members but it is no less a devastation.  Death is a tragedy.  I think we are numb to it, especially when people die in their 80’s, but it is no less a violation of God’s original plan for creation.

Actually Thinking and Praying

So that happened Thursday and then Friday morning came.  I was at a worship service and they had an extended prayer time.  Prayer times can be awkward, especially for pastors.  I felt like I had to pray to sound “spiritual” but I didn’t know what to pray for or about.  Somewhere in that, it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to actually think and pray for Houston and for Asia so I started to think and pray.

I immediately had another problem.  I had no idea what to pray.  Everything obvious seemed so cliché, like a million other people had all ready prayed it.  What good would it do to echo popular, overly simple sentiments up to the heavens?  “God be with them.  .  .even though I am sure you are and probably don’t need me to ask so that you can be with them.  God I wish I could do something but they are there and I am here.  God, um this is kind of sad.  .  .Amen.”

I also didn’t know what to think.  These floods are devastating and so senseless.  There is no rhyme or reason to it and the rhymes and reasons others have offered seem so trite and shallow.  When we “think and pray” for such tragedies there is a very real danger we end up as callous as Job’s friends in the ash heap.  “This happened because of sin!”  “You should have moved away from there!”  “Those guys deserved it for not evacuating!”  How cruel can you be?

So I had no idea what to think or what to pray.  I just stood there, overwhelmed and apathetic.

Then another feeling came over.  Even though I had no words to say and no thoughts to think I found that I had an incredible longing, a longing for a world where these things do not happen, a longing for Jesus and his kingdom.  This longing itself was my prayer but it was one those prayers that was too deep for words.  It could only be expressed in sighs and groans.  It is a prayer of lamentation.

Mark 13

Then I remembered Mark 13.  The chapter opens with Jesus leaving the temple.  One of his disciples marvels at the beauty of the buildings.  Jesus plays the role of the downer.  “You see these great buildings here? Not one of them will remain standing!”

They sit atop the Mount of Olives and his core group asks him, “Well when will this happen?  What are the signs that this is about to take place?”  We now know the answer to that question.  In 70AD the Roman Empire, the “abomination that causes desolation” sacked Jerusalem and tore down the temple and those in Judea who went back from the fields were raped, enslaved and slaughtered.  Jesus was right.  The Roman conquest of Jerusalem was a tragedy unequaled too from the beginning and never equaled again (though the Holocaust came close), at least for God’s chosen people.

We know this now but Jesus didn’t answer their question, at least not directly.  Instead he seems to be more concerned that they not be deceived by false answers to the question.  He tells them to be careful not to listen to false prophets or pay attention to false signs.  He say, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”

There is a very shallow reading of this passage and its companion passages in Matthew and Luke that thinks Jesus is telling people that things like wars, famines, earthquakes, floods and pestilences are signs that Jesus is about to return.  The people who argue this have a very inadequate understanding of history.  They seem to think that right up until 1960 there were never any wars, earthquakes, tornadoes or floods.  They think pestilences are this brand new thing.  But trust me, there have always been wars or rumors of wars.  There have always been murderers.  There have always been floods.  There has always been death.  There have always been terrorists and terrorism.  Pick a year in history and you will find a war or a rumor of war.  Far from being new, these tragedies are a very old part of our dying world.

In Mark 13 Jesus is not saying, “See this paradise you live in without wars or famines or hardship or death?  Well in 2017 that won’t be the case anymore but don’t worry I am coming back in 2018!”

Instead Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be deceived by the false Christs and false prophets who point to wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and the like.  Those things will continue to happen and unfortunately, must happen.  When they do happen, stay faithful and remain smart.  But when the end of the world does happen, you will know it, because you will see the Son of Man coming on clouds!”

So when we have things like wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes, famines and yes, even floods, they are not a sign that Jesus is coming back soon.  Instead they are a sign that Jesus has not come back soon enough!

The hurricanes and rain storms happening all over the world today are signs that this old, broken world continues to be old and broken.  The mom who died on her bathroom floor one night is a sign for us that death still continues.  The victory is not yet won.  Sin continues to be sin.  Death continues to fight.  Creation still groans under futility, waiting for the children of God to be revealed.  Our bodies are still subject to decay.

God has not yet sealed the victory.

We are still between the times.

Proclaiming Our Hope!

So Friday morning there I stood, between the times, thinking, praying, sighing and groaning my longing for Christ, my hope for the final healing and victory!

And as I cry the tears of hope and groan the compassion of Christ I can boldly proclaim that even though death, destruction and decay still seem to reign, one magic day the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to blood.  The heavenly bodies will be shaken and we will see the Son of Man coming with great power and great glory.  He will send his angels and gather us up from the four winds!

Likewise, to those of us who have lost loved ones, I can proclaim the hope of the Apostle Paul who said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

And to those suffering under natural disasters I can proclaim the hope that John the Revelator offers when he tells us,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

If you find yourself “thinking and praying” for the tragedies surrounding us, there might just be three words to offer and they comes from the very end of Revelation, the very end of our Scriptures.  Will you pray it with me, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord.  .  .”

Advertisements

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Tale of 2 Cancers

Standard

This is a post in the ongoing series “What’s Pastor Kevin Reading” where I briefly summarize recent books I have read and explain why they are important for Christians (particularly pastors) to read.

I make it a practice to read one book a week.  And while I often fall into the trap of reading 150-200 page tomes on pastoral self help I have tried recently to branch out into popular novels and heftier theological and academic materials.

Over the last two weeks I have read two stories about cancer.  The two have much in common but they come from entirely different perspectives.  The first was John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.”  It is fiction (though I use that word hesitantly) and written from a secular, atheistic perspective.  The second was a memoir called “Same Kind of Different As Me” written by Ron Hall and Denver Moore.  It was non fiction and deeply spiritual, bordering on bizarre.

It was not my intention to read 2 books about cancer back to back.  I ran across “The Fault in Our Stars” in a bookstore and flew through it in a day.  A friend of mine recommended I read “Same Kind of Different As Me” the following week.  He was the kind of friend that you feel obligated to read books he recommends so I downloaded it and read it in a week.

John Green’s book is every bit deserving of the hype it has received.  I personally think it is the best thing to happen to Young Adult fiction in years.  Instead of specializing in the stuff of vampires and wizards and dystopian heroins, Joel grounds his narrative in the very real world where death comes without prejudice and there is no victory against it, just the frustrating endurance in suffering by all involved.

As I read the novel a line from another popular TV show echoed in my mind.  In that TV show a decidedly anti-religious person argues to a Fundamentalist Christian, “I will never believe that God gives us cancer to teach us self help lessons.”  That may as well have been the thesis for Green’s novel.  And I could not agree more.

The push in Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity, has been to treat death as something painless and shallow.  A glance at my Facebook wall testifies to a sub culture that believes death can be easy dismissed by pithy cliches and shallow puns.  If you slap a picture of a cat or a flower on them it makes it all the more disgusting.  Green dismisses all of these cliches with his haunting descriptions of two teenagers aging rapidly and dying before their time.

In doing so Green calls Christianity back to our biblical roots where death is not a tool of God, teaching us self help lessons.  Neither is it a nuisance that can be easily ignored.  Death is the enemy.  It is an enemy so severe, destructive and all encompassing that it would only take the death of God on a cross to overcome it.  When we belittle death, we belittle the cross.

Green does not end at the cross but where he left off Ron Hall and Denver Moore picked me up.  I did not realize that “Same Kind of Different As Me” was about cancer until I had read half the book.  I thought it was about a white, upper class, art collector befriending a black, homeless, plantation worker.  But right at the halfway point the art collector’s wife was diagnosed with cancer.  So  I was once again subjected to the raw details of cancer, slow killing the body and the soul.  And I had just stopped crying over “Fault in Our Stars!”

Ron Hall is an evangelical Christian so I was worried that he would fall into the trap of narrating his wife’s death using those pithy cliches we slap over pictures of flowers.  However, he avoided them, choosing to be as honest as could be about how the cancer process exhausted him to the point of depression.

Interestingly the answer to his depression came not in the form of those lousy sentimentalism’s but in the friendship of Denver Moore, the homeless, drug addict.  Their friendship was a true representation of Christlike love.  As they worked together to both build a new homeless mission and create a garden space around Ron’s wife’s tomb, the two men gradually realized the conquering power of the cross.  They chose not to give each other easy advice but endured the suffering together, often times in silence.  It was only through that bond that they were able to continue with some semblance of faith and hope.

It would seem that the answer to death’s destructive ways are found in the cross and the community of true friendship that the cross creates.

Next I am reading a book titled, “Reading for Preaching” which exhorts all of us preachers to read and read often.  I barely need to finish that book because these last two books have convinced me that I must dig deep in the narratives surrounding us, both secular and religious to find the voice of God at work.