Strength to Journey On in the Face of Tragedy

Can we follow a God that allows bad things to happen to those he loves? Jacob was a man that God loved dearly. In one of the more peculiar stories of the bible, God gets into a wrestling match with Jacob and does not pin him down. Jacob demands a blessing from God and God grants it. God and Jacob had a unique and intimate relationship. God also blessed Jacob with wealth and material possessions, but the greatest blessing that Jacob received was his wife Rachel. Jacob’s love for Rachel was so great that he gladly worked 14 years of hard labor just so that he had the chance to be with her. But as sure as the Lord gave, he also took away.

In Genesis chapter 35, we read that Rachel died when she gave birth to her second son, Benjamin. As she was giving birth, she realized that she was dying and named her son “Ben-oni” which means “son of my sorrow”. Jacob refused to keep that name and renamed him Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand”. What strikes me is how “matter of fact” the reference is to Rachel dying. It’s not that the bible is glossing over the fact that her death was a tragedy. That she named her son “son of my sorrow” speaks to the fact that she obviously was very sad that she would not live to see her son grow up. And Jacob changing his name to Benjamin is probably because he didn’t want to be reminded of the sorrow of losing his beloved wife to childbirth. And yet, there is no mention of a faith crisis. We don’t read about Jacob wandering about aimlessly for years. We don’t see a family breaking apart because they can no longer see God’s goodness in the midst of losing a loved one. God doesn’t apologize for Rachel’s death. God doesn’t even appear to say anything at all about their loss. “So Rachel died, and she was buried…”

And what’s even more striking is the timing of this tragedy. Only a short time prior to Rachel going into labor did Jacob have this incredible encounter with the living God. We read earlier in chapter 35 that God appeared to Jacob and blessed him. And God reiterated to Jacob the promise that he made to Jacob’s fathers; that he would be fruitful and multiply and that he would become a company of nations and kings. It is on that high note that Jacob and his family journeyed out only to have the unimaginable happen. Just as he’s rejoicing in the promise of God’s fruitfulness and seeing it being realized before his own eyes as his wife begins labor, things take a turn for the worse. And God is silent.

It is at this point that many would make the case that God failed him. Was this God’s idea of blessing and fruitfulness? If God would allow that much pain and suffering then is he really worth following? And yet, despite the tremendous heartbreak and misery that Jacob experienced, after burying his wife, he journeyed on. In changing his son’s name he refused to remain in sorrow. We know that Jacob’s journey would bring even more tragedy as he would lose his son Joseph for many years when his brothers sold him into slavery. But in the midst of heart wrenching loss, he remained faithful to his God until his dying breath. I certainly don’t hope to be tested in the way that Jacob was. But I am encouraged to know that I follow the same God that was enough for Jacob in the worst of times and that I can trust that he will be enough for me also.

God’s Promise of Peace in the Midst of Anxiety

Often times after I preach, I feel there are things that I haven’t said as well as I should have. I preached a sermon on December 9th, 2018 on the Advent of Peace. After speaking with my wife, I feel that there is a level of nuance in speaking about anxiety that I could have touched on with a little more depth.

I understand that many people, my wife included, have struggled with anxiety at very acute and even clinically significant levels. For those people, passages like Philippians 4:6-9, can actually be quite frustrating, because it can seem like they can pray and pray and pray for peace, but never feel His peace.

My encouragement for those who feel like this is as follows:

1) It’s helpful to recognize that the brokenness in the world not only refers to the physical and external, but also the emotional and internal. Brokenness can and does affect the very mind with which we would hope to feel peace. For example, we have heard of instances where people get into a bad car accident with severe head trauma, and it seems like they come out of it a different person mentally. Their minds have been literally impacted in a way that their patterns of thinking are necessarily altered. In addition, some people have gone through such traumatic events in their life, that their patterns of thinking are altered and broken (PTSD for example). In these circumstances, fighting for peace seems an even more arduous endeavor, because not only are you fighting against more typical day-to-day worries, but you are also fighting against a mind that simply does not work the way it ought to. Just as the physical body that is broken sometimes needs aid in the form of medicine and physical therapy, a mind that is broken may also benefit from medicine and mental therapy.

2) Secondly, I want to encourage you to think less in terms of how you “feel” peace and more in terms of your confidence of God’s presence with you in a sea of unrest. Peace is less of an emotion and more an act of the will (I would say the same with hope, joy, and love). Paul says in Colossians 3:15 “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”, implying that we have a choice in how much space we give to peace in our hearts. In Philippians 4:6-9, God’s promise, if we pray and “practice these things” is not that we will “feel” at rest, but rather that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” and “the God of peace will be with you”. The peace that we can start to have today is maybe better said as a willful confidence of God’s presence with us, to protect us and keep us from anything that would come between Him and us. I believe that as we practice speaking these truths to ourselves and seeking God in prayer, that God will answer by giving us an increasing confidence that He is our comfort even in the midst of anxiety and other types of mental anguish.

3) Thirdly, I want to encourage you to hope in a God who has promised to get rid of all brokenness everywhere, once and for all. Anxiety is NOT your eternal destiny. Depression is NOT your eternal destiny. Mental anguish is NOT your eternal destiny. When Jesus comes again “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” All suffering, including anxiety, depression, and mental anguish, is temporary and passing away. Jesus encourages you to take heart, because He has overcome the world.

4) Lastly, I want to encourage you to fight for peace in the context of community. The scriptures tell us that we are the body of Christ and individually members of it, and that the Spirit has given each of us gifts for the common good (see 1 Cor 12). No one person has been given all the gifts, and therefore in order to experience the fullness of God’s gifts to us, we need to be in community. As believers we are never intended to follow Jesus as individuals. Most of God’s promises and commands are given to a community of believers, namely the church, to work these things out. This very post comes from the context in being in community with my wife who pointed out that there were some additional things that I could have said to be helpful. Please open yourself up to both knowing others and being known by others. Please open yourself to loving others and being loved by others. I think you will find others that have struggled in very similar ways to how you struggle, and can encourage and empathize with you as you seek the Lord’s help together.

Grace and Peace,

Transcending Boredom

I wonder if the cure to boredom is transcendence. When I think of the times where I’ve felt most alive and the most energized, those have been the times where my mind and body seemed to have been transported to a higher realm where awe pervades and overwhelms my senses. The majestic sight of Mount Rainier has taken me there. A sultry sunset in the dog days of August has also done the trick. But perhaps more so than either of those is reflecting on the grace of God.

God gives the mountains and the sunsets for us to enjoy. I never did anything to earn that right. I was just simply born. And yet I get to partake and drink of His beautiful creation. I get to bathe in the infinite color palette of the Creator of the universe. It’s in this space, that I feel most human…full of life, breath, creativity, and awe. In many ways transcending beyond the mundane day to day activities of life to catch a glimpse at the underlying creative power and grace just beneath the surface is what “home” truly feels like. Perhaps staying home more often would alleviate my boredom.