Don’t Doubt God

Two years ago, when I found out I had cancer, I didn’t doubt God, not for a minute. I knew Christ was real and present with me. I knew that he had seen the tumor growing deep in my gut from the beginning. The Lord knew it was there before my doctor knew it was there, and I knew my life was in the Lord’s hands. I knew he would give strength to me and grace to my family. I knew he would provide for the church, the ministry so dear to my heart. I didn’t ask why me.

I’ve seen too many of God’s good people face sickness and suffering worse than mine. I’ve watched them die with the peace and integrity of their faith. I never felt singled out or stricken by God. And I wasn’t mad at God, either. Not for a minute. How could I be angry at the One who in whom I had found my soul’s delight—the One from whose hand I had always received such blessings? I didn’t feel doubt or anger or the need to question why. But I don’t know what I felt. Alone I cried and prayed, but in my praying, tears came easier than words.

Truly, the foundation of my faith kept me from falling; nevertheless, faith for me would never be what it was before cancer. I simply had never known firsthand the way life allowed such uncertainty—how faith permitted such anguish. Like Jacob, the God to whom I was clinging was yet the One whose face I struggled to recognize in the night of my struggle. Sickness changed me. It was a physical crisis, certainly, but it was also an emotional and spiritual crisis.

And as my healing came and my body began to heal, my faith began to heal, as well. During those days of weakness and waiting, I found that God’s word began to soothe an aching in me that no medicine could reach. I turned to a familiar passage— Isaiah 40—and though I had read all the verses before, the word became new, because I was being made new. Surgery healed my body; this chapter healed my soul. I read the verses slowly. Deeply.

Words of comfort dripped into my soul’s veins like an IV. That was two years ago. I knew I would eventually preach Isaiah 40 with you all, eager to share the strength and comfort that I myself had found in that single chapter. I made notes for a sermon series and prayed about preaching it in the fall of 2015, but it was too soon. The healing work in me was still ongoing: one must never try to preach from the mouth what the Spirit has yet to apply in the heart. I planned to preach the series in 2016, but again, I felt prevented from doing so. The Lord said no. Until now.

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Death Is Difficult

To me, preaching a funeral is one of the greatest privileges ministry affords. It’s always an honor to be the one called upon to say a few words, as someone is mourned and buried. In ordinary circumstances, as a preacher, I’m standing on my head to get people to listen, to keep their attention. But at the funeral, they listen. Everybody listens. It may be one of the few moments when believers and unbelievers alike sit side by side in the pews, hoping there’s a word from God strong enough to bear the weight of loss. When hearts burst open, when we speak and listen to one another through tears, the gospel preaches itself, if you point people to Jesus. I don’t care who you are.

When death knocks at the door, you need Jesus. Losing someone is hard. I don’t know exactly how anybody is ever supposed to deal with the kind of loss a death brings. Even Jesus, when he got to the tomb of Lazarus—whom he loved—Jesus just broke down and wept. It’s overwhelming, and I don’t believe anybody can say exactly what somebody else needs to do—every loss is different, everybody is different. But when you’re the one staring down into the casket of one you have loved, you have a choice to make.

What are you going to do with your brokenness and grief that day, and the day after that? Before the day comes, I want you to be prepared. You will have to guard your attitude, choose your attitude even. When grief knocks you down, your attitude often determines how long you stay down and how fast you get up. I find one passage in particular that offers several life-changing, attitude-adjusting promises. It’s from the book of Isaiah, chapter 43: “But now, …listen to the Lord who created you…the one who formed you says, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One…your Savior…. You are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you…. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be.

Yes I, am the Lord, and there is no other Savior…. From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch [you] out of my hand.” Let the words sink in. God says, “You are mine.” That means you have an advantage from the start—God created you, formed you, redeemed you, and God takes care of what belongs to him.

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Love Is From God

Love is an amazing thing. The book of Proverbs talks about this (30:18-19): There are three things that amaze me—no, four things that I don’t understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with a woman. This is a good passage for young couples today, because it has to do with love, and it has to do with science. Of course, the ancient proverb doesn’t ask any scientific questions outright. It looks at the world simply.

With amazement. But if you know anything at all about science, you know that amazement is not one of the principles. The very things that amazed ancient people, science can now explain. Like “the way of an eagle in the sky.” No doubt a bird in flight seemed magical at one time, but now we know there’s no miracle involved. The lift force is created by the action of air flow on the wing. Flying is science—just like snakes. The verse says that a snake slithering across a rock is amazing, but any seventh-grade science student can tell you that serpentine movement is an effect of scale friction and dynamic weight distribution. Science, people, explains it all.

The proverb can’t understand “the way of a ship in the heart of the sea,” because Archimedes had yet to explain the principle of upthrust or buoyancy. It gets less amazing when you know the science. But wait. The proverb counts not three but four amazing, incomprehensible things; and the fourth is when a man loves a woman. Surely, when we get to women and men and love, we’ve left the purview of science. Now we’re talking the magic that happens between a boy and his girl.

Scientists now tell us, however, that love isn’t magical at all. The human experience of love is not mysterious, and it’s not even limited to humans. Prairie voles and Eurasian beavers fall in love and are monogamous for life. Neurobiologists tell us that what we describe as love is actually a set of natural behaviors common in response to neuropeptide expression. Turns out love is science, too. Of course the biblical proverb doesn’t ask any scientific questions. It looks at the world simply.

With amazement. Science, however, doesn’t deal with amazement; and because it doesn’t, there are facts of our lives that science can’t talk about. Science describes, but it can’t explain. And when something can’t be explained, we stand amazed. Love is one of those things. We can tell a love story, but love itself can’t be told. There’s mystery and magic with it, amazement. It’s amazing, because love is from God.

Gospel Goodbyes

 

I’ve heard them called “gospel goodbyes.” It’s the goodbye that must be said when serving the Lord leads us in separate directions. No matter what you call it, it’s still goodbye. And sometimes goodbye is a hard word to say. This month we mark the official start of Journey Church. It’s thrilling to see a vision become reality! It’s gratifying to see real ministry take root in a community with real needs. It’s beautiful to see individuals and families from our congregation respond to God’s call for them to go—to take the risk, to let their hearts be broken, to put their hands to the work of the gospel.

Already, they have counted the cost and made the commitment. They have placed themselves into the Father’s hands like seeds for planting. What God is about to do through them is going to be spectacular. As pastor, I couldn’t be more excited or proud. But I’m really going to miss them. The team being sent from among us—they are family to me, just like the rest of you, brothers and sisters. I’m going to miss seeing them every week. I will not have a front row seat to watch their children grow, to see the Holy Spirit fan gifts into flame. I know it’s inevitable, that people come into our lives only for a season.

Friendship remains, but seasons change. And goodbyes must be said. Saying farewell to our launch team also means we say goodbye to the Betts family. Like most of you, I knew from the start that Matt was meant to be a pastor. There was something about the way he preached, something about the way he loved Jesus and the church, something about the contagious joy that he brought to the work of ministry. He has become my right hand, close as a brother. At the same time, Dawn has become integral to the worshiping heart of this congregation; and in the last 18 months or so, her own heart has been set afire with vision and passion.

She was dreaming the dream of Journey Church before many of us. And as Journey Church launches this month, it is Dawn who takes her place at the worshiping heart of this new body. Together with their girls, Dawn and Matt have sacrificed much for the life of Woodburn Baptist Church, and they are placing a lot on the line now for the sake of Journey Church. For the sake of the gospel. And for the gospel’s sake, we say goodbye. Lord knows our goodbyes are never forever. Journey Church of Bowling Green is obviously not that far away. We’ll stay close, we’ll see one another out and about. (For that matter, Matt Betts will probably still borrow my weed-eater every week.)

But now we necessarily loosen the bonds of relationship, so that we all remain free to follow Christ and love him first. It’s one of love’s supreme acts, to bless and release others, that they may continue to grow, to be and to do all that Christ intends. In heaven we’ll be together forever, but down here, life is too short, and the work is too important. For now, the gospel is all that matters.