I was profoundly shaped by the rhythm and cadence of the prayers that I prayed at the very beginning of my spiritual life, and so just like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or is it more a case of the buzzards returning to Hinckley, I find myself going back to them when I am spiritually sick, or stuck, or stalled, or stifled. I especially love the “Forms of Prayers to be used in Families with Additional Prayers” (587-600). I have prayed these prayers with some regularity now for more than half of a century, and they have left their mark.
“Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.” I pray this petition, and my heart roams to south Fort Worth and to New York City, to Los Angeles and to Modesto in the central valley of California, to Garland next door and to Oklahoma City up the road, to North Carolina and to wherever the Special Forces have put a nephew in harm’s way this week. I pray these words and I think of my family – my wife, my son and my daughter, my grandsons and my son-in-law, my sisters and their families, my brothers-in-law and their families, my mother-in-law and her husband. I so want God to “take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection,” but there are weeks when, to be perfectly honest, it feels like anything but this, and this has certainly been one of those weeks.
Without bogging down in all of the messy details, suffice it to say that over and over again these past few weeks my heart has been wrenched by the painful and difficult circumstances that some of the people I love the most in this world have been forced to face. I have been afraid and anxious for them. I have worried, and I have wept, and I have prayed – “Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”
The very first Bible verse that I ever consciously memorized (thank-you Billy Graham) was I Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares about you.” And so I am in the long habit of translating my fears into prayers (Philippians 4:6). But in a season of upset like this one that I and my loved ones currently find ourselves in, even as I pray I ponder. “Just exactly what are you expecting will happen because you are doing this?” I ask myself. “What do you think that God is going to do about it?” I am leery of what Vernon Grounds of blessed memory used to call “the heavenly helicopter” notion of Christianity. Neither my experience nor my theology convinces me that Jesus Christ is going to automatically and invariably swoop into the rising flood waters of my discouraging circumstances and magically whisk me and mine away unscathed. Of course, God could do this. But God doesn’t always, and from my own personal point of view, God doesn’t often do this. So, just exactly what then am I expecting of God? What is that does God does?
Acts 14:22 is another one of those Bible verses that I have deliberately committed to memory because I am a pastor, and a human being – “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is the realism of the Bible that only serves to reinforce my confidence in its inspiration and authority. I don’t expect things to be easy for me, but I do expect that God in Christ through the Spirit will accompany and empower me in all of the twists and turns of my life, and finally bend it in the direction of wholeness, peace, and joy.
So, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,” as the song from “The Sound of Music” puts it, what sustains me spiritually? As this week has unfolded, I’ve been trying to consciously keep track of how my being a Christian has supplied me with resources that have strengthened my faith and fueled my hope. And so, in no particular order, here are some of the things that my Christian faith has provided me with, and that have proven sustaining to me as the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew. This is how my Christianity has “worked” for me in the midst of my recent storms –
- The indwelling Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, at least that’s one of the ways that the word that Jesus used in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John to talk about the Holy Spirit’s coming sometimes gets translated (John 14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7). And I have felt this Spirit’s comforting presence. It’s not continuous, but it is real. Paul described it as the assurance we have that we are children of God when God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits (Romans 8:16). And that’s it. That’s what sweeps over me from time to time quite unexpectedly and inexplicably. It’s like a hug out of nowhere. A reminder that I’m not alone; the reassurance that I have not been abandoned or forsaken.
- The keys that the Holy Spirit plays on the instrument of my heart are the promises of God’s Word. Bible verses will just pop into my consciousness like song melodies that get stuck in your ear, and I savor them. My long love for Scripture has stocked my head and heart with lots of raw material for the Spirit to use. I’ve sometimes heard this described as the experience of receiving a “living” Word, and that certainly “feels” right. It feels like God speaking directly to me from the pages of the Bible. Is this what Jesus meant when He told us that “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63)?
- Finally, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 Paul described an important dynamic that’s at work in the experience of comfort that we receive from God in Christ –
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. (1:3-6)
When we receive God’s comfort in our own times of personal struggle we are being equipped to share God’s comfort with people we will meet later who are struggling with the same sorts of things we have already been through. Our comfort comes with a ministry assignment. At the end of his life, when debilitated by a series of strokes, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was asked to reflect on what he had learned in his years of decline. And this man of massive intellect and tremendous influence talked about what he called “the charismatic gift of love.” After years of writing, teaching, traveling and leading, when health “dismissed him from the battle” and “relegated him to the sidelines,” Reinhold Niebuhr said that in the end it was the simple kindness and support of ordinary people who went out of their way to help him that was the most effective expression of the Gospel that he knew anything about it. And it has in fact been the kind words, the offers of support and the expressions of care from Christian brothers and sisters who have travelled these same roads of sadness and carried these same burdens of fear and pain that have made God’s love so tangible and visible to me over and over again.
Paul in a season of struggle was able to say (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) –
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…
And in the end, was bold to say (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)–
The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
And in this season of struggle, it is because of the comforting Spirit, the comforting Word, and the comforting community that I have experienced the sufficiency of grace. DBS+