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Friday, August 24, 2018

Study Break

    We need to talk, God. I really need You to understand something. Life is tough and I’m getting kind of tired of it. Year after year after year You’ve sent me one challenge on top of another.

    Medical conditions that slow me down and disrupt my career. I’ve seen You lead me to the right diagnosis and treatment so many times, sometimes (usually) through incredible “coincidences,” but now I’m stuck again with too little energy to pursue a normal life, and no solution in sight.

    Watching a loved one suffer physically and economically, and feeling helpless. Wishing I had the resources to help him out a bit.

    The financial challenges that I’m facing. You’ve closed countless doors without opening any new ones. Yes, I remember as a newbie Christian my great respect for believers whose faith in Your provision remained firm even as they sat down to eat the last food in the cupboard. I know how much I longed to have that kind of faith. But somehow I thought the growth could come through walking with You day by day, studying Your Word and spending time in prayer and fellowship, without having to actually experience the lack of resources.

    So here’s the deal. I’m feeling burnt out on this whole learning-by-suffering issue. I need some relief. I’m sure You remember my student days and how those precious study breaks were so essential to my success. Coming home after a long day in high school. Thinking I’d better hit the books or I’d never be ready for the next class. But the brain just wouldn’t cooperate. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate. I needed time off from the schoolwork, time to refresh my mind. Then I would learn the lesson even better.

    That’s how I’m feeling now. Like I need time off from this constant emotional stress, this school where suffering is the only teacher. Do You think You could relieve me of one of these burdens—my health issues, my loved one’s illness, my financial concerns? Think of it as a study break. I’d be so much stronger, so much more ready to face the challenges if I could just take a breather for a little while.

    Even Jesus, Your perfect Son, felt this necessity. In Matthew chapter 14, John the Baptist was killed by Herod. “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (verse 13). He needed time to get away, time to process His grief without additional burdens.

    Yes, I know the break You gave Him didn’t last long. The crowd followed Him and He had compassion on them, healing their sick and feeding more than five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish (verses 13 through 21). The point is that He faced a very real human need and took steps to meet it. Won’t You let me take those same steps and withdraw just for a little while, just for a time of refreshment? Won’t You relieve me of some of the pains and sorrows and stresses of my daily life for a few weeks or months or maybe even a couple of years?

    A few days later . . .

    Okay, God. I know I opened this post with “we” need to talk. But I didn’t really expect it to be a two-way conversation. I expected to end it with that last question. I was just feeling the need to vent and thought maybe my readers could relate and find comfort in knowing that others are going through the same things they are. But You surprised me by answering my prayer for a study break in unexpected ways.

    First there was the burden of trying to straighten out mistakes made by my health insurance company. It involved a doctor that I see for regular treatments. Somehow, whoever processed a few of the claims had wrongly denied coverage. Then when I tried to get it corrected, they fouled up several of the other claims with the same doctor.

    It was such a mess. It looked like my only option would be to file a written appeal with the insurance company, detailing the many different mistakes made in my Explanation of Benefits (EOB). But I had no faith in their ability to get it right this time, so I was planning on also contacting the state agency that oversees health insurance. So many hours to spend correcting someone else’s errors when You know how limited my time and energy are.

    I stopped by the billing department at the doctor’s office with a copy of my EOB to explain all the details of all the mistakes made on the many claims. Their response was a shock and a blessed relief. The office had decided to just let it go. I had paid my required share. They would not be receiving any money from the insurance company anyway. They preferred to have an accurate EOB for their files, but I’ve been a regular patient for several years and have always paid my bills on time. They wanted to save me the trouble of pursuing it. The weight was lifted. I thanked You all the way home.

    The very next day I had a follow-up appointment with another doctor regarding an injury that I’d sustained several weeks ago. At previous appointments, I’d found him difficult to communicate with. I was dreading this meeting enough to ask friends to pray that I would handle it in a godly way. I dragged my feet in the door, praying that it would go well.

    And then an amazing thing happened. Instead of the doctor, his physician’s assistant met with me. Communication was smooth and clear and helpful. He patiently answered my questions and volunteered additional information. I walked out of the office smiling and thanking You for sparing me the anticipated pain of trying to understand what was happening to my body while facing a doctor who had never yet explained it well. It wasn’t until several hours later, while I was once again praising You for this unexpected answer to my prayer, that two little words suddenly popped into my mind: study break.

    It wasn’t the great big, long-lasting time off from suffering that I’d hoped and prayed for. But it was a reassurance that You hear me, You understand me, and You answer my prayers. Maybe, as with Jesus, You knew all I really needed was a brief break. Maybe You can see me through even without the extended one I was seeking. Maybe You provided this short respite to help me focus on having compassion on others and to encourage me to place what little I have in Your hands so that You can multiply it.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Strengthening the Weak


    Still reading Ezekiel. This time chapter 34. Again, seeing God’s heart for those who are hurting. He’s speaking to the shepherds of Israel. (Not literal shepherds, but the leaders of His human flock.) “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. . . . So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals” (verses 4 and 5).

    Several years ago a brother in Christ made the sad but accurate observation, “Whenever someone from church is going through a tough time, they just disappear.” The Sunday school class member who struggled to remain free of the nonChristian faith of her childhood, especially when her sister was healed of incurable cancer and her family gave all the credit to their faith. The newly widowed thirty-something with four young children. The couple filing for divorce. The weak, the sick, the injured. Were they strengthened or healed or bound up by the church? Apparently not. When trouble came, they left.


    Ezekiel isn’t speaking here about those outside the flock, about bringing in new sheep. Evangelical Christians have a real heart for those who haven’t heard the Gospel. There are effective ministries all over the globe serving the weak, the sick, and the injured who are without Christ. This is one of the greatest strengths of evangelical Christianity.


    Where we tend to fail is within the flock. Believers in the younger generations seem to recognize this shortcoming better than their elders. That may be one reason why they’re leaving the church in such large numbers. I hope and pray that instead of leaving, they’ll be a part of the solution. When younger pastors speak at my church, they address this issue with broken hearts.


    It’s encouraging to see that some changes are occurring, because Ezekiel tells us what happens when we neglect our own weak and sick and injured. They scatter and become food for all the wild animals. As my brother observed, physically, they leave. Spiritually, they become prey for other worldviews and belief systems.


    Just what do these weak and sick and injured look like? And how do we strengthen, heal, and bind them up? The first question is easier to answer than the second. Weak, sick, and injured Christians have substance abuse problems. Their marriages are falling apart. They’re mentally ill. They’re engaging in sexual immorality. They’re struggling with doubts and fears. They’re addicted to pornography. The list goes on.


    It’s true that the church is expected to hold its members to a high standard of ethical conduct. When Paul hears of a case of blatant sexual sin in Corinth, he tells the church to “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13). Some of the forms of suffering mentioned above involve immoral actions. It sounds like we should just kick out anyone who’s engaging in them. Maybe it’s for the best when they leave of their own accord.


    But 1 Corinthians 5:13 isn’t the end of the story. Paul may be referring to this same situation when he later writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). He also advises the Galatians, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1).


    If someone is flagrantly defying God, as the man in the first letter to the Corinthians was proudly doing, it’s appropriate to call him to repentance. But when he’s hurting from the burden of his sin, we need to forgive him, comfort him, and reaffirm our love for him in order to restore him. Can I do that with someone who’s just been released from prison? Can I do that with the pastor who was caught in an adulterous affair? Can I do that with the young woman who is back at church after two weeks in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch? I don’t always know when to admonish and when to offer support, but according to the Bible what I do must be done in love and with the goal of restoring a fellow believer’s relationship with God. That process just might start with a kind and gentle relationship with me.


    I still remember how much my heart was touched the first time I read, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3; applied to Jesus in Matthew 12:20). How many Christians who are struggling with substance abuse, failed marriages, sexual immorality, mental illness, or other forms of suffering are more like bruised reeds in need of support than defiant sinners in need of discipline? How often do we break those reeds and snuff out those wicks rather than strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strays, and searching for the lost of our own flock?