Monday, May 30, 2011

Suffering and Hope

After suffering from sinus/migraine headaches for the last 4 days, I awoke this morning free of pain. What a difference feeling healthy and good makes! While battling swollen sinus passages, a constantly throbbing head, and a sour stomach I managed to plant a new garden on Thursday, attend a family Memorial Day bash on Saturday, practice trumpet twice, and make it through leading Sunday morning worship. But by then I'd had it with the headache and with the rash of poison ivy I'd piced up on vacation. Off to Texas Medical Clinic where I received a prescription for steroids.

Monday morning I got up feeling great and spent an hour weeding, mulching, and watering the gardens; then straightened up the garage a bit, and finally jumped into house cleaning with vigor and satisfaction. What a difference relief from suffering makes. The change in my mood from yesterday to today puts me in mind of the song: "Sure feels good, feeling good again."

I'm thankful my suffering could be alleviated by medication. Recently Don and I drove through Birmingham, Alabama. I remember Joplin, Missouri, from a visit there many, many summers ago - a pretty spot. The suffering brought by a string of tornadoes in Alabama and a single, but massive tornado in Joplin will not be quickly or easily relieved. The stories have been heartbreaking - a mother found dead, covering her teenage son with her body (he survived). A young woman ripped from her boyfriend's arms as they hid in a closet - he survived, she did not. The pictures are shocking - neighborhoods leveled, rubbish everywhere, mangled trees and household goods intertwined.

Where is God in the midst of such suffering? It's a question that has been pondered from the beginning of time. Why does God allow tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes to hurt and kill people? I don't know. I cannot say why people suffer. It might be that reflection on suffering so as to learn from is is the best we can do. (I remember my Dad telling me that no experience is wasted if we learn from it.) Still, those who have lost so much, who face such daunting circumstances trying to put their lives back together might well wonder why God allows this kind of destruction in the first place. Can't God stop tornadoes and floods from happening?

There are biblical scholars and believers who would say that, no, God cannot stop natural occurrences from taking place. I disagree. I think God is able to do whatever God wants to do. A better answer, it seems to me, is that this is the world God has chosen to create. And the way this world operates, storms, floods, and natural disasters are a part of the mix. God is present and concerned wherever people suffer (scripture testifies to this). Those of us who love God also seek to be "present" with the suffering, to assist them and comfort them however we can.

This memorial weekend our thoughts turned to those who have suffered for the sake of the nation. We remember those who have died in service to our country, those who have survived combat but returned injured in body, mind and spirit. We cannot blame the suffering and loss that results from war on God: building and maintaining relationships (personal and between nations) is our responsibility. Even so, God is present on battlefields with the dying, with those afraid and those unafraid. God tends lovingly to those struggling to heal from their wounds and their memories. God is with us, too, as we pray for our specific loved ones in the armed forces - for their wellbeing and their survival, for help and guidance in difficult situations.

We can't explain the reason for suffering. Neither can we insulate ourselves from pain. Loss, hurt, and sorrow are part of this world, part of life. When they come, God is near - to hold us, to hear us, and to lead us back to life. May God bless you and your loved ones, whatever your griefs, and restore you to fullness of health.


Pastor Kris

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Water Ways

Don and I are heading East on Saturday, taking the southern route on I-10 through Houston, to Mobile, then heading northeast until we get to Hickory, North Carolina. After a few days there we'll head further northeast to Philadelphia. I'm looking forward to seeing familiar landscapes along the way and friends when we arrive. But I wonder if parts of the trip, places we've often been before, will look foreign.

Usually we take the quickest route, or one that affords the most beauty, or maybe one we haven't used much. But this time we've been listening to the news as we huddle around the map, changing our minds every few hours. To get from "here" to "there" we have to cross the Mississippi River, but where is the safest place to cross? Most years it's not an issue, but this year the mighty river has flooded its banks, swallowing up communities and farmland for miles and miles. Images from Memphis (highway 40) and Vicksburg (highway 20) show 8 to 12 feet of water consuming homes, streets, entire neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, drought and wild fires have ravaged Texas. Here in San Antonio we hadn't seen a drop of rain since perhaps mid-February. Grass is baked and brown, trees are stressed again, and water rationing was imposed many weeks ago. Alabama was recently tossed around by horrendous tornadoes, Mississippi and Tennessee are under water, and Texas is begging the skies to break open and rain. With crops dying and the water table shrinking here, it's hard to believe that just two states over people are suffering from too much water.

The habits of rainfall are frustrating - too much in one place can bring death just as none in another can bring death. We would like to receive a goodly amount each year - enough to water crops, lawns, and flowers, but not so much that it floods homes and streets. From our perspective that would be fair and sensible. But nature does not heed our advice. Maybe some of our frustration stems from our lack of control over the matter. As adults, we are used to addressing problems, finding solutions, striving for success. But the rain does what it wants, not what we want, making us feel like children with no say in the matter. God sends the rain when and where it suits God whether or not we approve.

This morning the Farmers Market at Shepherd King closed early for a wonderful reason. Around 9:30 the skies darkened, thunder rumbled, and water descended from the heavens. (I'm sure the farmers don't mind trading one day's sales for a good rainfall.) It was the first rain here in more than three months and such a joyful sight! It felt like a holiday - an occasion for dancing and celebrating. Gracias a Dios! (Thanks to God!) The silty mud, however, slathered throughout those flooded southern homes will not be gone for weeks. Pie Jesu (Lord, have mercy).

In Matthew 5:45 Jesus says "(God) makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." What happens in the world does not revolve primarily around me and my situation, or you and yours. Certainly God loves us, but God also sees and knows much more than what concerns us. (In Isaiah 55:8 God says "for my thoughts are not your thoughts...") God is with those whose homes are under water - caring, providing, and comforting. God knows the seriousness of drought and responds to our prayers. But the world and God's intent for creation are bigger than merely "now" and "here."

So whether it is dry or soggy, whether it is hot or cold, with the psalmist let us "Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving... the LORD covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills... the LORD takes those who hope in his steadfast love." (Psalm 147)

Peace to all the earth,

Pastor Kris

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Enemies, Death, and Jesus

Our church in North Carolina took the youth to Lutherock camp the last weekend of April every year. The kids looked forward to hiking in the mountains, to Pastor Jim's faith scavenger hunt, and to bunking on the floor in the main room. The end of April in 2002, Jason and Michael smuggled some firecrackers with them, black cats, and were hoping for a good opportunity to use them. While hiking they found a pumpkin that had had its top removed. They stuck a wad of black cats in the pumpkin, lit them on fire, and as the orange ball exploded Michael yelled "Bin Laden's butt!" They all laughed.

Tonight we have heard that Osama Bin Laden is dead, killed by US special forces. CNN is busy getting reactions from a range of people - a firefighter from New York City, a correspondent who once interviewed Bin Laden, family members of those who died on 9-11-2001. A crowd has spontaneously gathered outside the White House cheering "USA! USA!" and waving flags. Our bitter enemy is dead and America is officially celebrating.

Just this morning in Sunday school we were pondering Matthew 5:43-45 where Jesus says "love your enemies." Working through a study called "For the Peace of the Whole World" our class has been discussing how peace can be made in a violent, broken world. This quest brought us to grapple with Jesus' command that we love our enemies. We've worked to define what "love" is in reference to people who hurt us; we've admitted that this commandment is hard, very hard to fulfill. The material we're using makes clear that "loving" one's enemies does not mean denying or dismissing the harm they have done; it does not preclude seeking justice. As we wrestled with the real-life implications of "loving our enemies" we decided that this meant not hating them, seeking justice rather than vengeance, and even seeking their wellbeing while pursuing justice.

Osama bin Laden is dead. I felt a sense of elation when I heard the news; I felt pride in our nation and especially in those who carried out this operation - from the intelligence officers, to the President, to the men and women who enacted the plan. At the same time I am mindful of not wanting to rejoice in the death, the killing, of any human being. Shortly after 9-11 we were shown pictures of people in some Arab nations who were celebrating the deaths of 3000 innocent people here. It was a sickening sight. In our minds bin Laden is deserving of death whereas those 3000 were not. Even so, I do not want to be happy, to dance, because someone has died.

We serve a Lord who told us to love our enemies, a Lord who allowed himself to be killed for the redemption of the world - to save sinners. As an American I feel relief and a sense of accomplishment that our enemy, bin Laden, is dead. As a Christian, as someone who loves Jesus, I take seriously Jesus' command to love, to forgive, to seek life and reconciliation. How do we do that in this situation? It seems to me that we can be glad and relieved that bin Laden is gone without gloating to the rest of the world, without antagonizing other peoples. And that is not only a good thing to do, but a smart response.

Darryl left for Afghanistan maybe 6 weeks ago. This is his first tour over there with the Marines. Darryl, his Mom, and I prayed for his safety the day before he left; I anointed his head with oil. We want him back, whole and well. We want all our soldiers to come back safely. If we can "love" our enemies by pursuing justice yet also treating others with humanity and respect, maybe Darryl and his comrades will be a little safer in Afghanistan, in Iraq. If we love our enemies rather than hate them, if we act so that our dedication to justice is clear and our kindness to others - even those who hate us - is at the forefront, maybe peace will find a place in this tired world.

May God bless and watch over Darryl and all the men and women serving our nation. And may peace be swiftly on its way, for us and for all peoples.

Pastor Kris