Sunday, March 30, 2008

A God of All Comfort

My husband and I attended our first military funeral service recently. A 23-year-old young man died in Iraq after his vehicle struck a roadside bomb while serving with the United States Army. He was the son of a co-worker and friend.

It seems amazing to me that this would be the first military funeral service for us since so many people we know are deployed. This is good news because it means the number of soldiers surviving is greater than the number of soldiers dying. It is also amazing to me because our first military funeral could very well have been that of our own son.

Due to the seating arrangement in the church, I was able to clearly see the faces of this young man’s family, especially his mom. Sliding quietly into the front pew between loved ones, she seemed to be drained of all feeling. Before long, though, she was at the mercy of an assortment of emotions that would quickly overtake her and then leave just as suddenly.

When they spoke of this son’s exemplary military service, her face beamed with a strong pride. I shed tears thinking of her exemplary service in support of her son and yet, was comforted to know my son lived to be supported still.

When they spoke of this son’s humorous ways, she enjoyed a brief moment of laughter. I smiled deeply as I felt her rare joy and yet, was sad that she would not share that laughter with her son like I could continue to do with mine.

When they spoke of the family being notified of this son’s death, she began sobbing uncontrollably. I silently cried with her as I felt her grief and yet, was grateful that our notice held no such permanence.

Two moms. Two sons. Two lives… the same and yet, so very different.

Circumstances can bind people together who never knew each other existed before that one certain moment in time when their worlds came crashing together. This felt like a collision to me. It was as if this mom’s moment in time became my moment for a short time. I wondered how that could be and the Lord was faithful to answer.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV) “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

Verse 4 in The Message reads:
“He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”

God has invested His compassion in me, not only for my benefit, but also for those around me. His comfort was crucial in my time of need when my son was injured in Iraq and He poured it out in abundance so I would have enough for that day and enough to share another day. This day.

The Bible also says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15 - NIV) Sharing the sadness eases the burden; makes it light enough to get through the trial.

I was honored to attend our first military funeral; to recognize this son’s sacrifice and to be an extension of God’s comfort for his mom. And yet… I pray it is our last.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spiritual Lesson From a Snowbank

(Photo: Low side of the snowbank - February 20, 2008)

This winter has been a blast. Literally! Heavy lake-effect snow blasted us several times this year. Except for about one foot, what you see in this picture is the result of one day's worth of snowfall! Ok, so some of what you see was shoveled there, but it's all from the same day.

And, of course, it was a day our snowblower decided not to work after the first run of the morning, so the boys and I were relegated to - as I said - shoveling in order to clear the driveway before husband and college daughter arrived home at the end of the day. Not once, but twice we found ourselves battling the barrage of white stuff that was mounting by inches per hour… all day long!

Midway through our second snow removal campaign (which was greeted with much less enthusiasm than the first, I might add), we found ourselves completely sapped of energy in the fight to get the driveway cleared on time. Not only did we have what fell from the sky to contend with, but also the heavier onslaught left at driveway's end by our hard-working state snowplow drivers, as they roared past our house (multiple times) in their own unending battle to keep the roads passable. Our efforts noticeably slowed to a crawl.

And yet, we pressed on - youngest son clearing two-three feet of snow off the mini-van (again) and next oldest son pitching in with Mom to clear enough of the driveway for the car to enter. At one point, I suddenly realized a very discouraging thing. As we hoisted each shovelful of snow to toss away, we were not getting the snow on top of the pile, but merely at the top of the pile. Everything we were working so hard to get rid of was only smacking the side of the heap and then rolling back down the slope into the driveway again!

Now, mind you, I am 5' 7" and both of my boys are at least 5' 10"... we are not short by any means. At least we didn't think we were until this winter! The problem was two-fold. First, those lovely white snowbanks surrounding the driveway had grown as tall (or taller in some areas) as myself. Second, we were plain exhausted! We simply had no room left to put the snow and no strength left to cast it far enough away!

While my sturdy son redoubled his efforts and was able to launch his snow higher and farther once he realized what was happening, I devised another plan: scoop the snow, walk up the driveway where the banks were lower, dump it there, walk back, and repeat.

Alas, for all our valiant efforts, the competition was too great. We watched in slight defeat as my husband dropped off college daughter curbside, drove to the corner where he could park in a neatly plowed lot, then walked home in the road (because all of our neighbors had also lost their battles and there were no clear sidewalks, let alone evidence that any existed to begin with).

Thankfully, dear husband was able to start the snowblower. While our newfound hero (Dad) beat back our enemy of the day, our sons and I gratefully traded in our shovels and snowbrush for mugs of hot cocoa with marshmallows.

While sipping on chocolaty warmth and listening to the sounds of snow being quickly dispatched from our driveway, the Lord began to speak to me about spiritual things I could learn from the day. He’s funny that way.

As children of the living God, we are called to cast off the things in our life that get in the way of our relationship with Him. Anything that we are which thinks, speaks, feels, or behaves in a manner that is offensive to God, needs to be cut out of our lives and thrown away.

We don’t always agree with God about what those things are, but His word is pretty clear that we need to figure out what things He calls unholy and then do something about it – for our own sakes!

(WARNING: I am so growing to appreciate the bluntness of The MESSAGE version of the Bible! It cuts right to the root of the problem and leaves no sin unexposed. Unless otherwise indicated, that is the version I will be using today.)

Jesus used a very extreme and vivid analogy to stress the importance of casting off unholy things from our lives.

Matthew 18:8-9 "If your hand or your foot gets in the way of God, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owners of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.”

I’m pretty sure God was not telling us to literally cast off our eyes, hands, and feet because it is not the body parts that do the sinning! It is the mind and heart that lead these body parts to see, do, and go into sin. Jesus is talking about casting off the thoughts and intentions that motivate us to sin, which will, in turn, allow us to repent of – turn away from; separate ourselves completely from - that which keeps us unholy.

Romans 12:2 (NIV - italics mine) “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

Or… from The Message: “Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

What God was showing me through the snowbanks is that sin left unaddressed will continue to pile up and overwhelm you. Sin is a problem that compounds itself – it adds one thing on top of another. One definition I found for 'compound' is this: to make something more extreme or intense by adding something to it. (Note 1)

If you get away with one lie, you’ll lie again. And again. Soon you may become what is called a compulsive liar – you’ll be driven by an irresistible inner force to do it. It will become a habit that comes naturally to you.

If you don’t think one drink hurts you, you’ll drink more. And more. Soon you may become what is called an alcoholic - you will be addicted to alcohol and unable to control the urge to drink.

If you reject a portion of scripture because it doesn’t “feel” right to you, you will reject more scriptures. And more. Soon you may believe the entire Word of God to be a book of lies and you may become what is called an atheist – someone who does not believe in God. You will have cut yourself off from the promise of eternal salvation and condemned yourself to eternal death.

Sin does not stop with just one act. Sin wants to consume and overtake your life - to dump on you until you are buried. The question is, will you let it?

My son and I worked very hard trying to shovel the snow out of the driveway. We saw the problem and knew it had to go. We got rid of a lot of it, but found our efforts to be weak compared to the sheer amount of snow to be removed. God showed me a rather gory image related to our efforts. I saw myself tossing shovelful after shovelful of body parts toward the snowbank. But I was so tired, they weren’t being tossed far enough and they kept rolling down the slope and landing at my feet again!

That’s what happens when sin has built up in our life so much that we are overwhelmed by it. We struggle with temptations so great that we find it difficult to cast off unholy things from our lives even if we want to. Until we look at unholy things as gory body parts piling up around our feet, we'll never see a need to be rid of them.

If you recall, our solution with the snow removal was… to work harder! We devised new ways to cast that snow away from the driveway. You may also recall that it still wasn’t good enough.

Our salvation only came by one who had the power to cut through the snow on our behalf and be done with it once and for all. Jesus Christ offers this salvation to everyone for each and every unholy thing in our lives that overwhelms us and is offensive to God! He has the power to cut through to the root of the sin, remove it, and we will be done with it once and for all.

Jesus said we have not because we ask not and that when we ask we must believe. Are you asking? When you ask, are you really ready for the thing to be cast off? Would you believe today in the power of Jesus to meet your need?

Ephesians 4:22-24 “Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything - and I do mean everything - connected with that old way of life has to go. It's rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life - a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.”

Jesus, rescue me from my sins! I have been powerless to cast them off by my own strength and by my own methods. I give You each unholy thing by name and will do what You ask me to do so that those sins will no longer overwhelm me, holding me in bondage to them. I agree that these things are offensive to God and that they must go – every last one of them. I choose to take on an entirely new way of life – a God-fashioned life – as I allow You to renew me completely from the inside out. Thank you, Jesus! Amen.

Note 1: Encarta World Enlish Dictionary as used in Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac, Version 11.3.8