In my seminary preaching class we debated the topic: When something catastrophic happens, when should the preacher stay the course and preach from the lectionary and when should he/she deviate from the text and address the topic of immediate concern?
It’s a tricky balance. If you err on the side of current events, you run the risk of becoming a crisis-de jour preacher and compromising God’s Word with your own personal bias. If you err on the side of proper liturgy, you run the risk of being irrelevant.
You see the problem. You don’t want to go chasing after the news of the day; yet there are legitimate there are times when tragedy strikes and it would be unconscionable to stick with the prepared text and go on as if nothing had happened. This is one of those times.
I got a call from my oldest son, John, Wednesday morning telling me that Patrick, my middle son, was in the hospital. He’d gone to the ER to have a piece of food removed from his esophagus. Something went wrong and he was in ICU. I told him I was on my way. Before I could get out the door, he called back to say they were airlifting Patrick to Dallas. If you don’t mind doctor talk, he had an arterial gas embolism –an air bubble on the brain – which caused a stroke. He’s still in ICU. His vital signs are strong, and his condition is stable – otherwise I wouldn’t be here this morning. The doctors are guardedly optimistic about his recovery, but caution us that it’s apt to take a long time.
And so, rather than continue our post-Easter series on First John, I want to share with you some thoughts I have about the events of this week. I hope you’ll find them to be of some benefit. I also hope they’ll serve to bear witness to God’s amazing grace and love that sustains us through such moments of crisis.
My first thought is this: Things like this happen when you least expect them. Tragedy strikes without a moment’s notice.
John called just after six o’clock. I was getting dressed and on my way to the gym. Little did I know when the phone rang where I’d be and what I’d be doing and – most importantly – what our family would be experiencing the rest of the week.
You never know. So, be prepared. Live each day cultivating your faith, strengthening your relationship with God in prayer, being at home with the Bible. When the alarm sounds, you need to be ready to hit the ground running.
The analogy that came to mind – and I thought it was fitting, given the fact that Patrick is a football coach – is that of an athlete in training. He works day in and day out building muscle strength and endurance in preparation for the moment when the coach looks around, points at him and calls his number. When that happens, he doesn’t have time to say, “Just a minute coach. Let me do a few more pushups.” He fastens his chinstrap and runs out on the field – ready, willing and able – to do his part to win the game.
Jesus told his disciples that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:2) Point being: Don’t be caught off-guard. Prepare for the inevitable. It’s not a question of if, but when.
Another thought had to do with the importance of community. At a time like this, it means everything to know that you’re not alone.
Those of you who got the word early – and I apologize if, somehow, you were left out of the loop – were quick to say, “How can I help? Is there anything we can do? We’re holding you in our prayers.”
John’s church – which is also Patrick and Emily’s church – rallied around him. Emily’s mother’s church in Dallas brought food to the hospital. The whole community of Ponder, where Patrick teaches, responded en masse: Students put up posters at school; a couple of businesses put messages on their outdoor signs to pray for Coach McLarty; teachers and co-workers at his school volunteered to transfer sick leave days to cover Patrick through the ordeal. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Yes, it was a crisis, but we were not alone. We felt the strength of your prayers – we still do – and we thank you for that. The strength of community means everything at a time like this; plus, it reflects the nature of the Church and who we’re called to be. Paul said,
“When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.
Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.”
(1 Corinthians 12:26-27)
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Another thought I had was how a crisis helps you put things in perspective: Whatever you thought was so pressing five minutes before the phone rang pales by comparison to the need of the moment. In a moment of crisis, time is relative. So is money. So are mundane matters like eating and sleeping. You put first things first and do whatever needs to be done. You don’t sweat the small stuff.
Sad to say, that’s typically not how we live each day. When everything is going along smoothly, we get our priorities mixed up: “I don’t have time … I can’t afford to … I’ve already got a full plate.”
I’ll never forget the day my wife, Donna, was scheduled to have surgery. She was working as Patient Care Coordinator for Hospice of Wichita Falls. Every day on her calendar at work was filled with meetings and appointments and important things to do. She met with the Executive Director, and they went over the calendar together. “Oh, I can take care of this,” the director would say, “I’ll get Mary to cover that … this can be rescheduled.” In less than thirty minutes, her calendar was cleared, and she was good to go. More importantly, the stress she’d been carrying about how she was going to get it all done went out the window.
A crisis can help you get your priorities straight. It can also open your eyes to the serendipities of God’s grace and love that are there all the time, but you don’t notice – little things like someone bringing you a cup of coffee … or driving across town in traffic to pick up your dog … or flying in from out of state just to spend the day.
You notice the personal attention the nurse is giving your loved one and realize how deeply she’s committed to getting him back on his feet. You appreciate the doctor who’s willing to sit down with you and explain what’s going on and patiently answer your endless questions. Things as simple as a smile or a pat on the back mean everything in a time like this. You begin to see strangers as angels-in-disguise.
Somewhere along the week a friend sent an email with a daily Bible devotional from the Old Testament. It had to do with the prophet Elisha and a big battle the people of Israel were preparing to fight. Elisha’s servant counted heads and realized they were far outnumbered. It was likely to be a rout. He told Elisha and Elisha prayed that his eyes would be open to the things unseen – or seen only through the eyes of faith – that the army of God covered the battlefield and would give them the victory.
In the busyness of everyday life we often fail to behold the presence of God. Sometimes it takes a crisis to open our eyes and realize what has been there all along.
Well, I could go on and share some other thoughts and observations, but let me stop here and simply close with the obvious question: Why? Why do things like this happen? More pointedly, where is God in all this?
In the Old Testament you find lots of scriptures crediting – or blaming – God for our suffering. For example, in the Book of Lamentations, we read:
“It is good that a man should hope
and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh…
For the Lord will not cast off forever.
For though he cause grief,
yet he will have compassion
according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses.”
(Lamentations 3:26-32)The people of Israel believed in the sovereignty of God over all creation. They believed that, since God was all-powerful, nothing could happen apart from God’s dominion. This led them to believe that, if you’re hurting, God must have caused it, either to punish you or teach you a lesson.
Jesus gave us a different image of God – that of a loving parent. He said,
“Or who is there among you,
who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?
Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent?
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father who is in heaven
give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
We’d like to think that, given this, God would direct the outcome of any crisis to our liking, that all we’d have to do is ask in faith. I’ll be quick to say there are scriptures to support this. For example, in John’s gospel Jesus said,
“Most certainly I tell you,
whatever you may ask of the Father in my name,
he will give it to you.
Until now, you have asked nothing in my name.
Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.”
At face value, you’d think, with God’s help, we could manipulate any situation to our advantage.
It doesn’t quite work that way. For one thing, God is not capricious – parceling out favors for some and punishment for others – especially not on our command. God is sovereign, and God’s love is steadfast over us and all creation, all the time.
Yes, bad things happen to good people, and we don’t know why, except to say that it’s part of the reality of this fallen world in which we live. Sometimes our grief is the result of others’ sinfulness or stupidity. Sometimes accidents happen. And sometimes we simply seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and our only consolation is if the tornado hadn’t hit our house, it would’ve hit somebody else’s: Why shouldn’t it happen to us?
We can’t blame God for stepping out of the way and letting nature take its course. But we can turn to God in times of crisis with every confidence of knowing that God loves us and will be with us and give us the grace and strength we need to weather the storm.
What’s more, we can trust God to use the circumstances of life to bring us ever closer to himself and each other.
In the midst of her cancer treatments, Donna used to tell me, “You have to understand there’s a bigger picture here.” And so there is. It’s not about you, and it’s not about me. It’s about God and God’s love for us all, and God’s determination to reconcile us to himself and each other.
Knowing this, we’re able to believe what Paul told the Romans so long ago:
“We know that all things work together for good
for those who love God,
to those who are called according to his purpose.”
That’s why I wanted to sing It Is Well With My Soul for our closing hymn. It was written by Horatio Spafford in the wake losing all four of his children in a shipwreck. He was in Chicago at the time. His wife was among the survivors taken to London. He rushed to New York and took another ship to be with his wife.
When they came to the place where the shipwreck occurred he stood on the bow and looked down into the cold, black waters of the Atlantic. Grief-stricken, he felt the strength of God’s grace and love and knew that God was merciful, even in the midst of this heart-wrenching tragedy. He rushed down to his cabin and penned these words:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.