Advent at the Chapel: Infinite Comfort to the Suffering

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by Emily Gibson

Jesus brings infinite comfort to the suffering

17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 2:17-18

 

At seventeen years old, I thought I had things all figured out.  I was a good student heading off to college and felt confident about who I was becoming.  I had attended church all my life but my commitment to my faith was actually waning rather than strengthening.

In anticipation of college tuition bills, I took a summer job at a local nursing home for $1.25 an hour as a nurses’ aide.  My training was two days following a more experienced aide on her rounds of feeding, pottying, dressing and undressing, and bathing her elderly patients.  Then I was assigned patients of my own and during a typical shift I carried a load of 13 patients.  It didn’t take long for me to learn the rhythm of caretaking, and I enjoyed the work and my patients.

One woman in particular remains vivid in my memory 46 years later.  Betty was in her 80’s, bedridden with a painful bone disease that had crippled her for a decade or more.  She was unable to do any of her own self care but her mind remained sharp and her eyes bright.  Her hearty greeting cheered me when I’d come in her room several times a shift to turn her in her bed to prevent pressure sores on her hips and shoulders.  The simple act of turning her in her bed was an ordeal beyond imagining.  I would prepare her for the turn by cushioning her little body with pads and pillows, but no matter how careful I was, her bones would crackle and crunch like Rice Crispies cereal with every movement.  Tears would flow from her eyes and she’d always call out “Oh Oh Oh Oh” during the process but then once settled in her new position, she’d look up at me and say “thank you, dear, for making that so much easier for me.”  I would nearly weep in gratitude at her graciousness in her suffering.

Before I’d leave the room, Betty would grab my hand and ask when I would be returning.  Then she’d  say “I rejoice in the Lord” and she would murmur a prayer to herself.

As difficult as each “turning” was for both of us, I started to look forward to it.  I knew she prayed not only for herself, but I knew she prayed for me as well.  I felt her blessing each time I walked into her room knowing she was waiting for me.

One evening I came to work and was told Betty was running a high fever, and struggling to breathe.  She was being given oxygen and was having difficulty taking fluids.  The nurse I worked under thought she was likely to pass away on my shift and asked that I check her more frequently than my usual routine.

As I approached her bed, Betty reached out and held my hand.  She was still alert but very weak.  She looked me in the eye and said “Do you know our Lord?  He is coming for me today.”   I could think of nothing more to say than “I know you have waited for Him a long time.”   I returned to her room as often as I could and found her becoming less responsive, yet still breathing, sometimes short shallow breaths and sometimes long and deep.  Near the end of my shift, as morning was dawning, when I entered the room, I knew He had come.

She lay silent and relaxed for the first time since I had met her.  Her little body, so tight with pain only hours before, seemed at ease.  It was my job to prepare her for the mortuary workers who would come for her shortly.  Her body still warm to touch, I washed and dried her skin and brushed her hair and wrapped her in a fresh sheet, knowing now I could turn her with no pain and no tears.

I could see a trace of a smile at the corners of her mouth.  I knew the Lord had greeted her and carried her from this bed Himself.

I rejoice in the glory of the Lord and am comforted in my difficult days, thanks to Betty.  She showed me what it means to watch for the morning when He will come.  Immobile in bed, crippled and wracked with pain, her faith led to loving a teenage girl uncertain in her faith.  Betty had brought the Lord home to me as she went home to Him.

 

For Advent devotions this year, we are using Pastor Tim Keller’s themes in his new book  Hidden Christmas

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Is It Nothing to You?

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me,
That the Lord brought on me in the day of His fierce anger”

Lamentations 1:12

 

Part of a lament for the destruction of Jerusalem (including Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC, and of course the whole works again in AD 70), this verse illustrates how the Jews didn’t so much have a Babylonian or Roman problem as a “God has had enough” problem. He (and Jeremiah) did not fail to garner the attention of His rebellious people, and contrition and repentance are evident at the end of this book. A few years later in AD ’89 (1989) a young man just out of college felt like he’d gone his own way and prayed for God to “get his attention, whatever it took”. The young man (Okay OKAY, it was me!) had been saved in high school, but after a nice “regenerative year”, started college with a minor in Backsliding.

So, having graduated from college, and feeling like most of my Christian walk up to that time had been more of a stumble, I prayed that prayer (above), and soon after was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma (aka cancer). “Dear Lord, I’m not saying I didn’t mean it- that thing about you getting my attention – but really? Cancer?” He had my attention. It’s amazing the kind of stuff one dives into when deciding to give God this sort of attention. I joined a Navigator’s study at my church and memorized tons of scripture, including the “Roman Road” verses, became more active in the body (for instance) helping out with AWANA, started accountability fellowship with a more mature believer, etc. In short (brace yourself this will blow you away!) I started doing the sort of stuff I should have been doing all along.

As thick in the skull as I am, I am comforted by the fact that I have beside me a book with 66 books worth of compassion, for me and my People (the stiff necked, thick skulled ones). Sometimes the best thing God does for us is to hand us down a new chapter that is not at all to our liking. That chapter for me grew my family much closer, really introduced me to the Body of Christ, and put me back on the right track spiritually. And all of that with a backdrop of feeling quite rotten physically. Though in one sense I was under God’s judgement, I really got to know him as the God of Psalm 91- faithful in protection, comfort and deliverance.

This verse in Lamentations is also one of those gems that foretells Christ’s suffering-the physical abuse, being put on public display for sins not His own, the spiritual agony of taking all sin apon Himself- and that at the instant he was separated from the Father. None of us can begin to fathom suffering of that sort. I praise God that we only need to understand that it was so for our own salvation. Even we believers with extra-thick skulls.

~Kerry Garrett

Confrontational Communion

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Isaiah 50:6

On a daily basis I do everything in my power to avoid confrontation. I love peace and I love pacifying. I like the Christ who calms the waters; he and I could be really good friends.

However, a distinctly different Christ is waiting to be found within Isaiah’s depiction of the Suffering Servant. The verse gives us a vision of one who does not merely endure suffering and confrontation, but one who offered his body up for the suffering. We see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision in Christ, who consistently refuses to capitulate to the expectations of those around him: the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate, and even the Devil. Christ gives his back to be beaten, he presents his beard to be torn, and he offers his face for mocking and spitting. All of this occurs without resentment, bitterness, or revenge.

What, then, is our response?

We cannot be Christ. We cannot turn ourselves over in the same way, free of sin, free of resentment. Rather, we receive that which he offers. We respond to Christ in the Lord’s Supper. There we receive the beaten back, we drink the spilled blood, and we proclaim as king what others so loudly denounced. In the Supper, we cannot avoid confrontation. We cannot avoid the fact that our Savior was rejected. We cannot avoid the fact that apart from Christ offering His own body we would still be enemies with God. We cannot avoid the fact that we participate in an act that is foreign and confusing to the world.
At the Lord’s Table we offer ourselves: our backs, cheeks, and faces. Yet we acknowledge that Christ gave an offering sufficient once and for all. Our offering is gratitude. We offer ourselves to Christ, regardless of what confrontation might come.

~Ben Gibson

He Knows the Trouble We’ve Seen

” a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering…”

Isaiah 53:3

 

At first glance, this might not seem like a very encouraging verse: our Lord despised and afflicted, but I think there is a hidden comfort in this. Some of you may be familiar with the song ‘Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen’, but even if you aren’t, most of us have heard this phrase.

I think that in the midst of life’s troubles, it is easy for us to forget that Jesus is well acquainted with suffering, and that he understands our struggles better than we think He does.

~Wyatt Garrett

Called Through Suffering

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

Psalm 22:1-2

Disclaimer: I have been attending my mother’s Sunday school class for the past few weeks discussing Jesus’ “I Am” statements in the book of John and I have so appreciated her teachings that I am going to steal one of her most memorable points and paraphrase it here (sorry mom; they do say that mimicking is the highest form of praise, don’t they?).

During her teachings, my mother made a comment that has been echoing in my head for weeks: she said that God is not primarily concerned with our comfort, or our prosperity, or our ease, or our success. He is chiefly concerned that we see and know him. All of our needs and wants and desperate prayers are valuable to and heard by God, but they are secondary to God’s desire for us to see and know that He alone is God.

She was speaking particularly about the passage of scripture in John 9 where Jesus heals the man who was born blind. The disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Their question reveals their framework for understanding suffering: they perceived affliction as being punishment, the righteous consequence for a previous sin, either individually or generationally. Jesus completely turns this notion upside down with a simple sentence: “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God may be displayed in him'” (John 9:3). What a radically different perspective! The blind man’s suffering was not an act of an angry God disciplining and rebuking, but the act of a merciful and gracious God who desired this man come to see and believe in Jesus and therefore allowed him to suffer. God was not ignorant of the man’s blindness nor was he maliciously inflicting the man’s blindness to right past wrongs. God’s desire was to call this man to Himself. Without his blindness, he would not have come to seek healing from Jesus. Without his suffering, he would not have come to belief. If he had been perfectly healthy, Jesus would have no reason to interact with him and their paths might never have crossed. Without the season of being blind, he would never seen the true light.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). We go through seasons of darkness that we may recognize the light when it is revealed to us. God does not allow us to suffer out of punishment or malice, but out of the depth of compassion, a compassion that wants so much more than comfort, or ease, or success, or fame, or prosperity for us. God’s primary desire is to draw us to himself through his son, Jesus Christ, even if that involves seasons of distance from God, like the Psalmist, or periods of blindness, like the believer in the Book of John. May we take comfort during suffering in the knowledge that God is pursuing our greatest good and drawing us to himself.
~Hilary Mulhern

The Purpose of Pain

3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Romans 5: 3-5

Simply put, I would say the purpose of pain is to indicate that something is wrong. When my finger hurts, the pain tells me that I need to take my finger off the stove. God designed our bodies that way. Pains in LIFE indicate something is wrong too, with the world. It’s affected by sin. But, God doesn’t STOP it. He ALLOWS it, sometimes even SENDS it. Ask Job.

A friend’s recent e-mail contained the following: “When GOD solves your problems, you have faith in HIS abilities. When GOD doesn’t solve your problems HE has faith in your abilities.” I would add the qualifier, “He has faith in your abilities,” PUT there by His “training” and His Holy Spirit.

Romans 5:3-5, talks of “exulting in our tribulations,” because they bring about certain thinking, which results in certain behaviors and HOPE.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s  devotional, “God is on the Cross,” says “In suffering, the deliverance consists in our being allowed to put the matter out of our own hands into God’s hands”

Job never did get an exact answer to the WHY of his suffering but he learned much from it that wouldn’t have been learned without it. To me, the story of the silversmith gives understanding and hope, though many answers are still lacking. Malachi talks of the silversmith who sits over the fire while the silver is in it. If he doesn’t let the silver in the fire long enough, he won’t burn out all the impurities. If he lets the silver in the fire too long, he will ruin it and either way, it will be worthless to fashion into something of value to him.

So how does the smith know the silver is ready to come out of the fire? The silver is ready, when the smith sees his image in the silver.

Then He can fashion it into what He wants it to be. But first, He has to cause the heat, the pain, and what appears to be neglect; He has to cause all these things to work together for………well, you know.
~Lee Mielke

As If We Were There

Surely he took up our pain 
and bore our suffering,
 yet we considered him punished by God,
 stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
 the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:4-5

And how shall we pray those psalms of unspeakable misery and suffering, the meaning of which we have hardly begun to sense, even remotely?  We can and we should pray the psalms of suffering, the psalms of the passion, not in order to generate in ourselves what our hearts do not know of their own experience, not to make our own laments, but because all this suffering was real and actual in Jesus Christ.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We just passed the third anniversary of the 3-11 (earthquake/tsunami/nuclear) disaster. Many of us who are personally connected to it still feel a very immediate and emotional bond and let that bleed out into our social media posts. But I observed that the overall reaction was generally limited, even tepid, in comparison to other years. And there was some discussion (not on mine but observed) equivalent to: time to let it go and move on with your lives. And this is true on some level. We shouldn’t wallow in it or make it about us. But we do need to remember that it really happened, and it still is having a profound affect on Japan, the Japanese, and on us.

All the unimaginable horror and suffering of 3-11, 9-11, and the rest of the nightmares we have observed or experienced in our lives, pale in comparison to what Christ endured for us. If we can’t even begin to imagine the horror of someone caught in the Oso mudslide, how do we begin to comprehend and interact with Jesus’ experience? Perhaps it is best kept in the abstract: out there, holy. If it is unspeakable, why talk about it? But Bonhoeffer gives us a formula for interacting with this “unspeakable misery and suffering.” He calls on us to not only read, but to turn into the active act of prayer the words of Christ’s suffering and passion. Not, he says, so we can be empathetic or to seek understanding about what can’t be understood. Not so we can make it about us. But because it happened. Really. And it affects us every day because as a result of His suffering, we are healed. Treat Christ’s death as if we were there. Treat it like it was this morning. Say the words prayerfully, respectfully, and with awe and tears. Gratefully.
~Brian Vander Haak