God Hates Death

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“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

Trembling at The Door

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One of the common stereotypes of preaching is that a sermon must have “Three points, a poem and a prayer.” Another is that a sermon should always begin with a joke—I guess that is to disarm people and make them think the dreaded message may not be so bad after all.

My sermons rarely include jokes or poems. Once in a while, however, there’s a poem that is, itself, a sermon. George Herbert’s poem, Love (III), is such a poem. When I heard it presented as an anthem by our wonderful choir recently, I felt compelled to spend time reflecting on it.

Herbert (1593-1633) served as a tutor at Cambridge University and as a parish minister in the Church of England at Bremerton St. Andrew, near Salisbury. He died from tuberculosis at age 39. The poem Love (III) is part of his anthology The Temple. While I’d love to share more about this fascinating pastor-poet and his superb compilation of devotional poetry (highly acclaimed by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden), let’s move right into this poem.

Just a few preparatory comments, then I’ll let the poem speak for itself. It helps me to picture the human narrator (listen also for the Lord speaking) as one overwhelmed by unworthiness. The unworthiness of having failed in faith and faithfulness. Shame in simply being all-too-human is mixed with regret and fear and the (un)belief that the Lord could or would never really want anything to do with her or him.

Love (III)
By George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

It’s sound corny, but there is a sweetness here, a gracious kindness, that melts all resistance. This is a portrait of love expressed not because of the worthiness of the person, but because of the greatness of the Lover.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32 NIV).

Read this poem a few times.  Soak in it. Marinate. See it “play out” at the front door of a glorious mansion: You’ve just walked a very long, stately, tree-shaded driveway through magnificent grounds. The drive ends with a mansion that cannot be seen in its entirety without turning your head from side to side (Louis XIV’s Versailles palace comes to mind). With great hesitation you approach the door—and it opens while you are still debating whether or not to knock. It’s the Owner of the mansion (not the butler) who greets you. You stare in awe and then look down on your filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Every fiber of your being wants to run back down the long driveway…

Then the Owner grips you with a word. Welcome. As you are. Welcome. For Love’s greatest joy is showing love.

God’s Wink

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I was reading a devotional for pastors and ministry leaders when it suddenly struck me, “I can use this material in the message I am preparing for our missions’ conference.” I stopped, thanked the Lord, made some notes to include this in my message, and then returned to my devotions with another prayer of gratitude. As I prayed, I sensed this experience was like a wink from God. I really like the image of warmth and care conveyed by a wink.

It reminded me of the time Sarah and I were at a restaurant on the North Shore outside Boston, in the town of Essex. I was in seminary and she was a nurse, so it was rare for us to go out to eat. When it came time to get the check, our server came over and said, “I have the privilege of informing you your bill has been paid in full—including the tip!” We were speechless. “How’s that possible?” I asked.

“That couple over there said they wanted to take care of it.”

We looked over, and a physician Sarah worked with at the hospital was sitting with his wife. He gave us a nod, winked and smiled.

We know intellectually God cares for us, but may rarely feel it in our hearts. When it’s hard to feel God cares, it helps to become more aware of the little things we often call “coincidences.” They could better be described as “God-incidences.” Or, as I’m now suggesting, God’s “winks.”

Sometimes love is shown more fully in simple ways. I am deeply touched not only by Sarah’s gifts on my birthday, but by the notes she slips into my suitcase when I have to travel, or that quick text that just says she cares. I am encouraged by those who take time to know and appreciate the little idiosyncrasies that make me me. A couple in our congregation heard that I really like apricot nectar. Periodically we will open our front door to find a can of apricot nectar sitting on our porch. I feel joy and affirmation in that gift.

Jesus continually spoke of God’s joy in blessing us. “So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32 New Living Translation NLT).

Romans 8:31-32 gives us confidence that God is not stingy in his care, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (NIV).

The primary focus of each passage above is God’s provision for our redemption and transformation in Christ. And these include, I believe, the love and care that extends to all of life, often seen most clearly in the small, ordinary “God-incidences” that flavor our days. So watch for God’s “winks”– and you’ll see them more often than you can imagine.