Friday, January 27, 2017

Wrestling with God When the Good Die Young

I had the honor of participating in the funeral of a friend of mine on Wednesday.  He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about ten months ago.  He early Monday morning.  He was only 42 years old.  He leaves behind his wife Brooks, two young children, parents, siblings, and friends.  It's hard for us to make sense of such things.  How do we honor our questions and our faith at the same time.  That's what I tried to wrestle with in my remarks.  I'm posting them on my blog for two reasons: first, if you didn't know Phillip, you need to; and second, perhaps my remarks will help you as wrestle with your questions and your faith. 

The Bible says …
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.  Be still and know that I am God.  The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
And do we ever need refuge, strength, and help today!
Well, I guess I’ll just say what many of us are feeling: this is really hard.  A God-fearing, God-loving man gets a horrible cancer.  We pray and pray and pray for God to intervene, to relieve suffering, to get well enough for immune-therapy, to heal.  And here we are at Phillip’s funeral today.  It just doesn’t make much sense to us, does it?
I remember a few visits with Phillip and Brooks when they were having a hard time getting pregnant and staying pregnant till term.  I remember a failed adoption effort.  How frustrating it was for them.  I remember the incredible joy when God answered prayers, the pregnancy took, and God gave them Noah … and then the extra blessing two years later with Hannah.  I remember the happiness, the joy, the opportunity they thought they might never have to raise children.  Noah is 6, Hannah is 4, and here we are at Phillip’s funeral.  This is hard.
But here we are … in a church that nurtured Phillip and Brooks … refusing to let our doubts outweigh our faith, refusing to let our feelings dictate our theology, stubbornly holding on to the truth that God is rock steady even when we’re not.  We are exercising the same faith as those in Israel who, in spite of their many hardships, would sing this psalm in worship, even if through gritted teeth, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
Early in my pastoral career, I really looked up to a man named Melvin Hill.  He had been a pastor for about thirty years, and then took the job as the Director of Missions for the association in which I served.  There was more than one time when I called or visited Dr. Hill to get a little advice, a little coaching, on one church situation or another.  Like Jesus, Melvin was the kind of man who just went about doing good.  I couldn’t believe it when he was diagnosed with cancer.  “God, why?” I asked.  “All he does is serve you.  All he does is help pastors and churches.  Why him, God?  And if he must have cancer, why not heal him?  He’ll give you the glory.  He’ll give you the praise.”  It was not the first time and it wouldn’t be the last when I would wonder if God is as good as the Bible claims He is.
After a couple of rounds of treatment that weren’t going so well, Melvin wrote an article in our associational newsletter.  It helped me.  This is what he wrote:
We must all accept life one day at a time, trusting God and using every day to serve Him.  That is what I intend to do, hoping for many more years to serve Him, but trusting Him to plan my life.  We are all in His hands, and they are good hands.
Those would be the last lines Melvin ever wrote.  He died shortly thereafter.  He fell asleep in his hospital bed and woke up in glory.  And you know what?  I wouldn’t be surprised if his last words on this earth and his first words in heaven were these: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.  His steadfast love endures forever.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if those were Phillip’s first words in heaven too.
But we still have our questions.  We struggle with this.  We are not the first persons to do so.  There’s a glorious yet haunting story in John’s gospel about Jesus’ friend Lazarus.  Lazarus was sick.  He was sick unto death.  His sisters, Mary and Martha, sent Jesus word, asking Dr. Jesus to make a house call, lay His hands on Lazarus, and make him well.  “Lord,” the message said, “the one you love is ill.”  Jesus got that word.  And Jesus did nothing.  Check that: the Bible says He did this: “So, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  If Lazarus ended up dying, Jesus couldn’t plead ignorance.  Jesus got the word and stayed where he was for two whole days.  It appears He was deliberately waiting for Lazarus to die.
And sure enough, Lazarus died.  “All right, men,” Jesus said to His disciples, Lazarus has fallen asleep, and it’s time for me to go wake him up.”  The disciples breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Well, that’s good news.  If he’s fallen asleep, he’s on the road to recovery.”  Jesus just shook His head and said, “Not sleep as in sleep but sleep as in dead.  Lazarus is dead.  It looks bad now, but trust me.  When I get through, you’re going to be amazed and you’re going believe in me more than you ever have.” 
When they arrived on the outskirts of Lazarus’ place in Bethany, the mourners were all there.  Lazarus wasn’t laid out in a room; he was already in the tomb.  He was four-days dead.  Martha met Jesus first and she wasn’t all that glad to see Him: “Lord, if you’d have been here, my brother would not have died.” 
Might have a stung a little.  Jesus replied, “Your brother will rise again, Martha.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Martha, “he’ll rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
And Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me, even though he’s dead, yet shall he live.  The one that lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this, Martha?”
“Yeah, yeah yeah.  I believe you’re the Christ the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
So Martha went and fetched Mary.  Mary sang the same sad song, “Lord, if you’d have been here, my brother would not have died.”
And when the crowd of mourners saw Jesus, even they piled on: “Couldn’t this one who opened blind eyes have kept this man from dying?”
And in case you don’t know the rest of the story, Mary and Martha didn’t have to wait till the resurrection on the last day for Lazarus to be raised from the dead.  Jesus raised Lazarus that day.  It was big deal.
And here’s the deal for us: Phillip has died, and he is going to rise again too.  But we’re going to have to wait for the last day.  We’re not going to get him back today.
So maybe some of us feel about Jesus like Mary and Martha and the crowd felt about Him.  “Lord, if you’d have been here, Phillip would not have died.”
Could I suggest to you, that the Lord has been with Phillip all along?
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the many acts of kindness Phillip did for so many of us?  He certainly made me look good with my wife when he arranged flowers for her?
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip through his creative genius?  The guy had magic hands.  He was one of those good old Delta boys who could build anything, fix anything, and create something where nothing was there before.
I saw Jesus with Phillip and Brooks when we talked about them joining our church.  I went home and said to Dayna, “Now that’s a pleasant couple who aren’t considering our church as consumers but as serious followers of Jesus.”
I saw Jesus with Phillip on a mission trip in Senegal where he loved on the locals and served them gladly.
Didn’t you see Jesus in the way Phillip went about his work: 110% all the time?  Did he ever do any work for you when he didn’t give you more than expected?  He did the flowers for our son’s wedding, and he decided to make a couple of benches to go with the flowers.  I saw Jesus in that dedication to his work.
I saw Jesus in the way he handled his flower business.  I don’t know about Jonesboro but we’ve got some snooty people in Hot Springs, and Phillip was occasionally on the receiving end of that snootiness when he did some flower work for them.  I know it bugged him, but he returned kindness for meanness every time.  Don’t you see Jesus with Phillip in that?
And I’m sure Jesus was with Phillip when he did all kinds of behind-the-scenes things for people that we don’t even know about it.  I know Jesus was there because Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way he loved the church—a little teaching, a little singing, a little drama, a little missioning, a little deaconing.
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way he loved his family: devoted, protective, provider, all in?  His wife and children never had to ask themselves the question, “Does he really love us?”
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way he faced his illness: courage, faith, hope?  When I asked him how things were with his soul a couple of months ago, he said, “That’s the best part.  In spite of the struggle, my faith is strong.”  He and his family have suffered like Christians.
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way many of you offered love and support to him and the family during these days: neighbors, work, family, friends?  You were Jesus’ hands and feet for them.
We’ve got to get past this knee-jerk theology of God’s presence.  Some guy is in a horrible car wreck.  Car is totaled.  The guy walks away with a couple of scratches.  Our knee-jerk theology is quick to say, “Wow!  The Lord was surely with him.”  But you notice how you never hear anybody say that when the guy dies in the wreck? 
Just because Phillip died doesn’t mean the Lord wasn’t there.  Jesus is no stranger to death.  Jesus does not cower before death.  Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.  Jesus is a living Savior who shepherds His children through the valley of the shadow of death and gets us all the way home to the Father’s house where we will live forever. 
As a child, Phillip put his trust in Jesus.  He turned from his sins, believed in Jesus, and Jesus saved him.  When Jesus saves, He saves forever.  So Jesus was there for Phillip all along.  He was with him as he was growing up in Vanndale.  He always had a lot of Vanndale stories proving that you can take the boy out of Vanndale but you can’t take the Vanndale out of the boy.  Jesus was with Phillip in his schooling and his football and his just being a boy.  Jesus was with Phillip when he went off to college.  Jesus was with Phillip when he met Brooks.  Jesus was with Phillip when he got his first job out of college and traveled all over the world.  Jesus was with Phillip when he moved to Hot Springs and then back to Jonesboro again.  Jesus was with Phillip when the doctor said, “You’ve got pancreatic cancer.”  And Jesus was with him every day since.  And Jesus was there early Monday when Phillip finished his race, broke the tape, and fell into the arms of Jesus in heaven.  The Lord has been with Phillip all life long and with him closer than ever even now.
Phillip is with Jesus today.  Of course, we’d rather have him with us.  But since he can’t be with us, how grateful we are that he is with Jesus!  How grateful we are that death didn’t get the last word; life gets the last word.  Phillip is strong and well and he is at peace.  And death won’t even get to keep his body forever, for the Lord will raise his body from the dead on the last day.  And we who trust Jesus will see him again when we join him in heaven or when Jesus comes again.  Like Peter Marshall used to say to those grieving a believing loved one: “Since he is with Jesus and Jesus is with you, you will never be too very far apart.”
And we can say that because the Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead defeated that last enemy death once and for all through His own death and resurrection.  That’s our hope in life, in death, and in grief. 
Jesus defeated death.  That’s why Thomas Brooks could preach in a funeral sermon from 1651:
Death is another Moses: it delivers believers out of bondage, and from making bricks in Egypt.  It is a day or year of jubilee to a gracious spirit—the year wherein he goes out free from all those cruel taskmasters which it had long groaned under …  Death is a rest from sin, a rest from sorrow, a rest from afflictions and temptations,
See that Christ be your Lord and Master … and then your dying-day shall be to you as the day of harvest to the farmer, as the day of deliverance to the prisoner, as the day of coronation to the king.  Your dying-day shall be a day of triumph and exaltation, a day of freedom and consolation, a day of rest and satisfaction!
Jesus defeated death.  That’s why John Piper could write: “For believers, death is not the condemning wrath of God toward them, it is the last gasp of a defeated enemy who opens a door to paradise.”
I’ll admit that it’s a lot harder to take and appreciate at the funeral of a 42-year-old in the prime of life than someone twice that age.  But this is true for every believer whether he is 12 or 22 or 42 or 62 or 92.  It’s the gospel truth.  And it’s our only hope.
Some of us have voiced the kind of hurt that Martha, Mary, and the crowd voiced to Jesus, “Lord if you’d have been here, Phillip would not have died.”
Well, Jesus was here and Jesus is here, and Jesus will be with us forever.  So when your grief is hardest may God stir up this hope in the deepest parts of your lives in the name of Him who is our refuge, our strength, our very present help in trouble, and Him who conquered death and walks with us through our grief to a brighter day.  He is Jesus Christ the Lord, the resurrection and the life.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

That’s Ray Peeples in the picture on the left.  Ray is one of the finest men I’ve ever known.  And it was my privilege to be pastor to Ray and his wife Bonnie for a little more than a decade.  They were friends, encouragers, occasional providers of fresh fish, mission-loving, mission-centered Christians who lived lives of service and sacrifice.  Ray died a week ago Sunday at the ripe old age of 93.  His beloved Bonnie died in 2009.  They just made it to 60 years of marriage before she passed.  A part of Ray died with Bonnie.  The rest of him lived in pretty ill health since then.  He’s just fine today.
Ray was a card-carrying member of “the greatest generation”—raised on a farm in the Great Depression, fought in World War II to keep the world safe for democracy, worked hard after the war to become a doctor (first as a G.P. and then as an anesthesiologist until he retired), added to the famous post-war baby boom with three boys of his own, and contributed to the well-being of every organization and institution he was part of.
Ray was decidedly Christian but never lost his humanness in the process.  He was who he was—highly educated but still a country boy in many ways, able to get along in social circles but without pretention and without trying to project any kind of image.  He was who he was.
I loved that about him.  He used to joke with me about his work.  The retired anesthesiologist used to say to me, “You and I really do the same kind of work.  We both put people to sleep, but I get paid a lot more for it.”  Ray described his work as “sitting around all day passing gas.”  He was a low-key funny guy.
He flew B-17s over Nazi Germany as the war was moving toward its end.  He flew 35 missions and lived to talk about it.  On one mission his plane was the tip of the spear of the formation.  They were attacked by a Nazi Messerschmitt who came roaring out of the clouds, machine guns blazing, knocking out a couple of planes in the formation.  Then the German fighter made a big loop in the sky, turned back, and flew directly toward Ray’s plane—as high stakes a game of chicken as you’ll ever see.  Ray was sure he was about to die.  The Messerschmitt’s guns were firing when all of a sudden the German took a steep nose dive to the right.  That’s when Ray’s co-pilot motioned for Ray to look up to his left.  And there they were, “the angels on their shoulders”—two P-51 American fighters chasing off the Nazi and saving Ray and the formation.  Ray said he rededicated his life to Christ then and there: “If I live through this war, I want to serve God in all I do.” 
And he lived that dedication for the rest of his life.  He wasn’t perfect—didn’t claim to be.  Ray never lost sight of the gospel and his need.  The closing hymn he chose for his funeral was Christ Receiveth Sinful Men—himself included.  But Ray served the Lord with a good heart.  After retirement, Ray and Bonnie did a lot of mission work, spending, on one occasion, a year in Nigeria working surgery in a missionary hospital, sharing Jesus with the patients.  The Peeples were among about three couples that pioneered the mission spirit so prevalent in our church today.
I remember an occasion when some B-17s were going to be on exhibition at Hot Springs Airport.  People could come look at them, even pay a steep price to take a ride in one of them.  I called Ray and said, “Hey Ray, would do you say we go out to the airport, look at those planes, and you can tell me some stories?”  He was glad to do it.  We were walking around a B-17 and he was telling me this and that about the plane.  And the next thing I knew, this octogenarian had climbed up into the plane.  I followed him.  He worked his way up to the cockpit and was pointing out things and telling me about the instruments when one of the guys in charge called out from the ground, “Hey, get out of there!  You’re not supposed to be in plane!”  Ray responded to him through the cockpit window, “I flew these planes during the war.”  The guy on the ground replied, “The war’s over.”
And that’s true for Ray today: the war’s over.  He is in the land of perfect peace, in the presence of the Jesus he loved and served his whole life long, in sweet reunion with Bonnie, their son Carroll, other believing loved ones who preceded him in death, and some of his buddies from the war.  Yep, the war is over for Ray.  No more battles with a body and mind that just wouldn’t cooperate anymore.  No more frustration over his incapacity to take care of himself.  The war is over, and he is enjoying the victory Jesus won for all who put their trust in Him.
In February of 2003, the Shuttle Columbia, on its 28th mission, was destroyed upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.  Ironically, Michael Anderson, payload commander of the Columbia spoke with his pastor before the flight.  Anderson said to him, “If this thing doesn’t come out right, don’t worry about me; I’m just going on higher.”
And Ray, a man who had flown up into the wild blue yonder more times than he could count for both pleasure and for war, just went up higher too.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Questions for My Father

My father died the day after Christmas, 1987.  I still think about him now and then, but always on his birthday.  If he was still alive, he would be 103 today.  He died on the cusp of turning 74.  And when he died I was left with questions for him that never got answered.  My mother left my dad Christmas, 1964.  My two brothers and I rarely saw him after that.  I never had much of a relationship with him.  I tried pretty hard to make that happen when I became a man.  He didn’t try very hard in return.  In 1984 I took my wife and two kids (4 and 2 at the time) to Mississippi to meet him.  That’s right—he had never met any of them.  He seemed genuinely glad we came.  I hoped this would mark a new beginning in our relationship.  It did not.  Though we talked occasionally after the visit, the next time I saw him, he was laid out in a casket.
Maybe I scared him off in that 1984 visit.  I remember going with him to the laundry room in his apartment complex.  He and I were the only ones there, so I started asking questions—a lot of questions met with zero answers.  Well, one answer: “That’s a long time ago.  No point dragging it up now.”  Not to him maybe, but there was to me.  This might be my only chance at this conversation, so I rolled the dice, and came up snake-eyes.  Other than talking about the weather or the Razorbacks or the general, safe topics of life, we never talked about the things my heart longed to know from the only person who could provide the answers.
I have more questions now than I had in 1984 because I learned more about him after his death than I ever did when he was alive.  That said, these are the questions I would like to him to answer:
What was it like to lose your policeman dad to a drunk man’s bullet when you were fourteen?
And how did you cope with your grief when your boss (the significant man in your life since your dad’s death) unexpectedly died not long after?
What did you think when your mother left you and your siblings in Lake Village and went back to Mississippi to be with her people there?
What was it like to excel in sports in high school and college and have no parents to celebrate your accomplishments with you?
What was it like to be a Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II?  What scared you the most?  Where did you find your courage?  Tell me about any friends you made there.
What was it like on that war-racked, sniper-infested, God-forsaken island when you got a letter from your wife she had written to her new lover and had accidentally placed in the envelope addressed to you? 
How come you and my mother couldn’t get along?  What prompted you to occasionally strike her in your anger?  How did you feel when she took us away from you?
Why didn’t you keep up with us boys better than you did?  Did you think about us much?
My high school graduation and wedding were important to me.  You told me you’d come.  You never came to either and you never explained why.  How come?
How come you paid for three years of my college but only two for your youngest son, Ray?  How come you didn’t reach out to your oldest son, the one who, like you, served his country, the one who bears your first name?
How come you became such a hermit in your old age?
When did Jesus begin to mean something to you and tell me about your relationship with Him?
Perhaps he had answers for these questions.  Perhaps all he could have done was shrug his shoulders, not sure of the answers himself.
All of us have some daddy-hunger in us.  If yours has been satisfied by a good father who knew you and loved you and was there for you, give thanks.  If your story is more like mine, could I encourage you to give thanks too—to give thanks for any glimpses you have gotten into the nature of the man and for any time you got to spend with him.  And though a more difficult gratitude, could you at least try to give thanks even for the hurt he caused you?  At 60 years old, I can tell you that God has redeemed in a couple of ways the hurts my dad brought me.  God stirred me to be a better father to my kids than my dad was to me.  I became more attentive, more intentional, more involved.  And God has given me empathy and compassion I might have never had apart from such hurts.  To borrow an image from the late Henri Nouwen, God has used such hurts to fashion me into a “wounded healer” of sorts, comforting others with the comfort I have received from God.  God’s redeeming these hurts has helped me forgive my father and cut him some slack.  I didn’t live his life.  I didn’t understand his personal pain.  Under similar circumstances I might have behaved in similar ways.  God has helped me so much here.  What God has done for me, He can do for you.  So give thanks.
And give thanks most of all for the One who is “a father to the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5).  Somehow, my heavenly Father has satisfied much of my daddy-hunger.  He has given me the affirmation, the provision, the listening ear, and the guidance that was hard to come by from my earthly dad.  And for that I give God thanks and praise.  He is not just my God; He’s my Father.
But I still wish I had known my old man better, still wish I had gotten answers to my questions.  Though my life is full and blessed, I can’t help but believe I’ve been a bit diminished without a quality relationship with my dad.
That’s just one more reason I look forward to heaven.  In spite of his flaws and failures, I’m confident my dad trusted in the grace of Jesus to save him from his sins and from himself.  That same grace has saved me too.  And it took as much grace to save me as it did to save him.  So perhaps, on the other side, Daddy and I can sit down and have the talk we never had this side of the veil.  I suspect a lot of my questions won’t even matter then; only the relationship will matter then.  And the one I got to know mostly through his faults will be the one I get to know at his best.