Comfort is Contagious

In 2 Corinthians 1:7, Paul connects hope with suffering: “Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” Because Paul believes that God comforts us not only for our own well-being but also so that we can pass that comfort on to others (2 Cor 1:4), then he does not fall apart when those he loves experience suffering. Instead, he rejoices in hope, knowing–from his own experience–that God’s comfort will come to his brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering. And in fact, Paul knows that there is a depth of comfort that only comes to those who are suffering.

Those who are comfortable need no comfort. Thus to some extent, when we avoid suffering at all cost, we miss out on experiencing a particular depth of comfort that only comes to those who suffer. I don’t believe this means we are to seek out suffering in a reckless manner. But I do believe that the reality of God’s presence and comfort means that we can obey Him in faith, even in areas that will likely lead to some degree of suffering. We can obey, knowing that in our suffering we will surely experience the mercy and comfort of Christ, and through His comfort we will be enabled to offer greater comfort to others.

I’m not much of a poet, but I was reflecting on this passage at a recent time of solitude, and God brought the title of this post to mind and then prompted me to make this attempt at expressing what I’m learning:

When suffering comes my way, God’s comfort will surely abound;

Thus suffering can be a gift, for in it true comfort is found.

When mere comfortableness is my goal, God’s comfort will not astound;

But when God’s comfort meets my suffering, then that comfort is spread around.

So God, in my suffering,

        let Your comfort to me

                 spread contagiously

                           so that others may see        

                                    Your all-sufficiency.

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Strength for today–Hope for tomorrow

I love the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness (by Thomas Chisholm). This weekend I was at two different gatherings of ministries who were celebrating major milestones and we sang this hymn at both events. Even though it is an old and familiar hymn, as I sang it again tears came unbidden to my eyes. God used one line in particular to minister deeply to my heart in that moment, primarily because of how that line connects with my own story, but also because it connected with the stories of the ministries we were celebrating.

This great hymn praises God for His faithfulness, while expounding many of the ways we as His people experience that faithfulness. In the third stanza, the fruit of God’s faithfulness that grabbed my heart was the line “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Strength is not something I must muster up or produce, but it comes because God is indeed faithful. And hope is not merely an elusive emotion that comes and goes with the circumstances–it is a solid and constant reality because God’s faithfulness is solid and constant.

Life with a child with developmental disabilities quickly drains today’s strength and clouds tomorrow’s hope. And the more todays and tomorrows that come and go with seemingly little change can make it very hard to recover strength for yet another day, or to keep hope alive for yet another tomorrow. Add to that the ongoing battle with the sin of my heart, and strength and hope threaten to disappear altogether.

It’s one thing to sing that line in the hymn when you are feeling strong and when hope abounds–then you sing with great enthusiasm. It’s quite another thing to sing that line when your strength is failing and your hope is fading–then you sing with a deep gratitude borne out of desperation because you know that apart from the faithfulness of God, you will not be able to keep going.

And yet, God is truly faithful! In Him there IS strength for yet another day, and there IS hope that all these todays are not the end. Therefore I can sing (and so can you):

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
  Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
    “Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!”

What’s out there? vs. What’s in me?

Should I sing in the choir?

Should I help at the food bank?

Should I teach Sunday school?

Should I join the planning committee for the men’s retreat?

Should I apply for the mission team heading to Thailand?

Amidst long lists of important opportunities to serve, how am I to figure out the unique role God has for me in the Body?

The way we tend to answer that question is by first asking “What’s out there?” In other words, what’s on the list of Opportunities to Serve? In that case it is often the biggest event or the most persistent recruiter or the most urgent need that captures our attention and moves us to sign up.

Certainly there is value in responding to a call to serve or in attempting to fill a need, even if that opportunity to serve is not our lifelong passion. In Nehemiah’s day, when God’s people were rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, someone had to repair the Dung Gate, and most likely the district ruler named Malchijah who did the job would not have listed that as his favorite thing to do (Nehemiah 3:14). In our day, any parent could tell you that there is a never-ending list of mostly mundane tasks that go into caring for a child. Those things are of immense importance, yet few moms would consider diaper-changing as her primary role in the Body!

I believe there is another way to find our unique contribution to the family of God. Rather than first checking to see “What’s out there?” we need to be asking “What’s in me?” How has God shaped me–in my spiritual gifts, natural abilities, experience and passion–to carry out a unique and needed role in the Body of Christ?

It’s possible that nothing on the list of service opportunities fits the unique combination of heart and skills and experience that God has given me. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook and don’t have to serve. Nor does it require that I sigh and select something from the list just so I can say I’m serving. Instead, what that means is that I need to find out what makes me come alive…and then go and do it, even if it’s not on the list.

Each Christian has been given by God a unique ministry that is needed for the proper functioning of the Body. What could the Church become–and accomplish–if every person were carrying out the role that God designed us for?! So if a volunteer is needed to change diapers in the nursery, do it with all your heart. But don’t stop there. Keep asking yourself “What has God given uniquely to me for the building up of His Church?” And then figure out a way to go and do it!

My Favorite Book (of the Bible)

In an online course I’m taking on research and writing, my professor encouraged the class to pick a favorite book of the Bible as a go-to topic to focus our writing around. His inspiration for that recommendation was from a sermon by Pastor John Piper in which Piper encouraged his listeners to make a life-project out of getting to know one favorite book of the Bible really deeply. That simple suggestion sparked some serious reflection on what my favorite book of the Bible would be.

I realized I had never really considered that question before. I have a favorite verse: Second Corinthians 9:8. I have a favorite chapter: Romans chapter 8. I have several favorite Psalms: 46, 63, and 130, among others. Jonah is a little book that I have studied and taught often. Philippians is a book I have memorized. But if I had to pick one book as my favorite, what would that be?

I figured it would have to be a book that I keep coming back to again and again, both in my own devotional life and also in my teaching and preaching. It would have to focus on key themes that have become my heartbeat and passion. It would have to contain multiple large sections that continually minister deeply to my heart. And if it were to become a life-long project of plumbing its depths, it would have to hold my curiosity and interest throughout varying seasons of life.

So as I thought through the various sections of Scripture that I am regularly drawn to, what God brought to mind was 2 Corinthians chapters 3-5 and portions of chapters 1, 9 and 12. In those sections are themes of transformation, suffering, dependence, hope, and glory. It is the intersection of those themes that is becoming more and more the driving passion of my ministry to the Church. So 2 Corinthians takes the prize as my favorite book in the Bible.

Granted, there is much in 2 Corinthians that I have not studied very deeply and which may not carry the same interest to me as these favorite sections, but as I compared this book with other possible favorites, I became more and more convinced that this was the one for me to invest deeply in for the remainder of my life on earth.

What about you? If you are a Christian who reads the Bible, what is your favorite book? I pray that this consideration might spark in you the same kind of interest and desire as it has surfaced in me. And feel free to leave a comment–I’d love to hear your favorite book of the Bible too.

Becoming the Gospel

As a pastor, a part of my role is to teach our church to increasingly become a welcoming and hospitable community for whomever God brings through our doors. That role became deeply personal when God called my family to adopt a little girl with special needs. Thus when I read what author and speaker Paul Miller wrote in his seeJesus ministry newsletter recently, I was both encouraged as a special-needs dad and challenged as a hospitality pastor.

So whether you are as directly connected with special needs as I am–and as Paul Miller and his wife Jill are through their adult daughter with special needs, Kim–or whether you are simply a churchgoer who might occasionally encounter someone with special needs, I hope you will take the time to read the snippets of Paul’s newsletter that I have reproduced below. What he wrote here was part of an email conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada, who asked for his opinion on “why the church and its seminaries have a systemic problem when it comes to embracing special-needs families.”

The problem of the church not enjoying and welcoming people affected by disabilities but actually distancing itself is strikingly pervasive. Several years ago, Jill asked me to video Kim walking from the close of church service downstairs to her Sunday school room. It is a moving 12-minute almost silent video. Only two out of 50 people greet her. And this is a very caring church that we had attended for 12 years.

I believe the problem is not bad theology but missing theology. There are four misses, each a function of the other: Missing the person of Jesus, missing community, missing gospel, and missing holiness.

Once you marginalize Jesus as a person, his teaching and life lose their punch. You no longer feel the weight of the kind of community he is creating, as in Luke 14 when he tells his host that he invited all the wrong people to his party, that it may look like generosity on the host’s part, but really it is just an exchange because they are going to invite him back. Next time he has a feast, he is to go out and invite the disabled, the blind and the poor. This isn’t about something else–it is about who I invite to my next party. Jesus is dead serious.

He wants the community that bears his name to love the least, the lost and the lonely. This completely transforms even as simple an act as entering a room of friends and strangers. My first question is not, “Who do I know? Who would I be comfortable with?” but “Who is lost, who is weak, who can I include?” So instead of searching for community, I’m creating community wherever I go.

[In Philippians 3:7-11] Paul is talking about two complementary ways of knowing Christ. The first, v. 7-9, I call “believing the gospel” and the second, v. 10-11, I call “becoming the gospel.” That is, once a foundation of justification is laid, we enter into the shape of Jesus’ life, what I like to call the J-Curve.

I like the letter “J” because it traces the downward path of Jesus’ life into death then upward into resurrection. Paul wants that. He doesn’t just want free justification, he also wants the experience of re-enacting in all his life, all his relationships, the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul embodies Jesus. So the entire Christian life is a life of suffering-love followed by repeated resurrections. …We aren’t Stoics, we don’t embrace suffering. Instead, like good Jews, we recoil from suffering, we pray against it. What we do, though, is embrace Christ in the suffering. “Becoming the gospel” is not application. For Paul, it is how he gets to know Jesus even more deeply.

So then, very practically, my whole life is love. Love constantly leads me into suffering. When the typical Christian sees a disabled person in church he sees “the other.” He doesn’t see or hear Jesus loving the disabled, forming a new community out of the broken and despised pieces of this world. He doesn’t look, feel compassion, and then act. Neither does he understand the call to enter the J-Curve. Instead he is frozen, fearful of the unusual. He has no category or model to understand Paul’s desire to inhabit the pattern of Jesus’ life. So he pulls away, fearful that disability might be catching.

If you are the host in Luke 14 and you follow Jesus’ command to fill your table with those affected by disability, you are going to be loving all the time. The person in church who sees Kim walking to Sunday school instinctively realizes that to make friends with her will be work. It will disrupt his Stoic calm. It will be messy. He will make mistakes. He has no paradigm for accepting the fact that he might have to love every second for the rest of his life. That seems overwhelming, unusual, in fact, impossible. He has no theological frame to enter into God’s life of grace, the J-Curve, so he quietly recoils from real relationship.

The result? Kim walks in silence.

May God grant each of us the grace to “become the Gospel” by entering in to the daily mini-deaths and resurrections of loving the Kims–and Anahs–around us, despite the messiness and disruption that entails.

Go-Aheadism Is Lacking

Significant milestones are usually marked by celebration, but I’m not feeling very celebratory with this one. September 17 is Gotcha Day (or Chosen Day, as others prefer to call it) for our adopted daughter, Anah, and this one marks 5 years. It’s significant because the 5-year post-placement report is the final paperwork that China requires, so there was a little bit of celebration when I read the email from the adoption agency stating “I received your Final report and photos for Anah. You have completed your requirements for China.” Yay!

But apart from the relief of finally being done with that huge load of paperwork, it is hard to celebrate. One year in it was still all adrenaline and high hopes. Two years in was the painful crash with reality–this is far harder than we imagined. Year three was a fog of desperation–maybe we can figure something out. Year four started to move toward resignation and despair. And now five years in there is burnout and grief–this is not what I had planned or hoped for.

So when my wife was looking through the progress reports that the orphanage had filled out periodically in the seven years our daughter spent there, she discovered something that I’m sure we had seen prior to the adoption but hadn’t given it much thought. The report was written when Anah was a little over 2 years old, and the phrase that caught my wife’s eye was this: “She is a little lack of go-aheadism…” And in the report a couple months prior: “She usually does the things she likes to do, and refuse the things she dislikes. Foster mom also said she is lazy; never does things that she dislikes even forcing her.”

Obviously something might be lost in the translation there, and I don’t know what Chinese word corresponds to “go-aheadism.” But it is a pretty apt description of what we are experiencing with our daughter: she is greatly lacking in go-aheadism. A willful child can be trained and shepherded; a rambunctious child can learn to funnel his energy in positive directions; a timid child can gain confidence to come out of her shell. But a will-less child…what do you do with that? If all internal motivation is gone, can that ever come back?blank Anah

What didn’t seem like a big deal in a 2-year-old orphan has become a much bigger deal in a 12-year-old daughter. We were as prepared as we could be to deal with the slowness and intellectual delays of Down Syndrome; we were not at all prepared to deal with the blankness and learned helplessness of institutionalized behavior. And the longer we go, the more we begin to wonder if this is how it is going to remain.

So it’s hard to celebrate this 5-year milestone. Perhaps my own go-aheadism is lacking also.

 

Intentionally Indirect

There is a difference between training and trying.

Trying is a direct attempt to produce some kind of result. Take knee surgery, for example.  If your knee is injured in some way, then surgery is a direct attempt to repair the injury. Surgery is a way of trying a specific methodology that has good potential to produce a positive result.

Training is very different from trying. Training may be aimed at the same end goal, but it is an indirect means of getting there. If your knee is injured, you could opt for a training regimen in place of surgery. The stretches or exercises you do may not be directly producing repair in your knee, but they are creating conducive conditions for repair to happen.

Christian, you are called to “Train yourself for Godliness” (I Timothy 4:7), not to “Try to be more Godly.” There is a big difference in this as well.

None of us can produce Godliness simply by our own fortitude and effort. Rather, Godliness is only produced by God as He forms our character to be more like Christ. So when we tell ourselves (or demand of others) “Just try harder!” or “Tsk, tsk, next time try to be more loving,” we are attempting to do the impossible.

Rather than trying to muster up will-power to somehow produce a change in our hearts, we need to learn how to be intentionally indirect. And that means training, not trying, for Godliness. Unlike knee surgery, we cannot directly operate on our heart spiritually and remove the cancerous anger or replace the longsuffering “ligament.” Instead we train our heart to worship Christ (not “getting my way”) as our greatest treasure. We train our heart to “Count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We train our heart to share honestly with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive their encouragement and prayer or even rebuke.

Sinful anger is not overcome by directly trying not to get angry. (I could tell you firsthand how effective that is!) No, sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my heart of worship increases through training. Sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my confidence in God’s goodness grows through training. And sinful anger is overcome indirectly as its power is diffused in grace-filled community through training.

Training is not aimed at producing change, but at opening our hearts to the change that God alone can produce.