Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mercy One Soul At a Time

Grace Perspectives/Altered Lives

By Steven Clark Goad

His Name Is Manuel

Manuel, born into a violent slum, fatherless, his bed a “living room” floor, abused, abandoned, unfed, neglected having been taken by an aunt for medical attention at age 4 after being discovered near death, found himself at age 12 alone on the streets of Los Angeles, a gang member. Tender-hearted and sensitive, frightened by “scary” movies, horrified by anger and violence, the gang life was difficult for him.
Retreating when he could, he’d sit alone to think and cry. He committed crimes (never violent) to survive, and did jail time. One day Manuel agreed to drive a friend to the mall to steal a car. The friend, later, was arrested for grand theft auto and Manuel was arrested as an accomplice. Because of the “three strikes” law, he received a life sentence, and remains in prison to this day, 17 years later.
Two years after he entered prison he met Jesus Christ and became a child of God. He says, “Ever since that time, my life has never been the same. I have a reason for living now in spite of these prison walls and fences.”  Manuel subsequently attained his AA degree, many certificates, plus a BA in ministry. Active in chapel, witnessing and teaching others about God, this once depressed and hurting man, is at peace, treats every person with love, always has a smile and a good word for everyone, and is admired and respected by other inmates, as well as the prison staff.
While Manuel won’t have an opportunity to go to an initial parole board hearing for a number of years (a board which approves only 18% of those it reviews and rarely on the first application), he is peaceful. Manuel will tell you that, whether in prison or out of prison, he is joyful to serve the living God. He told me just recently, “I am more free inside this prison than most others who are outside on the streets.”

Two Souls

        Nancy’s mother tried, unsuccessfully, to abort her. Mom’s boyfriends were legion. She received no religious instruction while growing up. The only time she heard the name of Jesus was at Christmas. A school chum invited Nancy to church when she was 14. A caring congregation loved her into the arms of Jesus. Today she is a marvelous Christian mother, home-schooling her three children, with a devoted husband who is a deacon in the church.
        He was driven by an agenda. He possessed a brilliant mind and was highly educated. But he had one single flaw. All he could think of was how to terrorize those who didn’t think as he did. As a religious zealot, he actually attacked those he felt were not true believers.
Engaged in murder and other terrorist activities, his life was full of zeal to annihilate the offenders. He was driven by a fanaticism seldom observed. But Christ changed all of this for the man. He even took on a new name. No longer known as Saul of Tarsus, he became the apostle Paul, a true believer of the very faith he had so eagerly despised.

Her Name Is Linda

Linda was born to a formerly Christian mother, whose commitment was so weak that she actually gave up her faith to marry. The father, once a Catholic, was a self described “agnostic” by the time Linda was 2. He felt any kind of “indoctrination” wrong and that children should grow up without any religious instruction and “decide for themselves,” not realizing that with no instruction whatsoever, the child is flailing with no understanding of what or why or how we are here.
Linda told me, “Dad spent all of his time climbing the corporate ladder, which entailed numerous moves around the country. He didn’t spend time with his family at all. He attended no recitals, no back-to-school nights, no school functions, no picnics, no family vacations. He wasn’t even present for the birth of his two daughters.” 
By the time Linda was in 4th grade her dad was already a weekend alcoholic, his own God-free approach not working any better for him than it was for his daughter.  Mother, though kind hearted, taught Linda and her sister nothing about God. Linda felt alone, was always the “new kid” in school since her father moved a lot with each promotion.
At age 14, in another new school, Linda was introduced by her new, and unsavory, “friends”, to marijuana, pills, alcohol, LSD, mescaline and , by age 15, sex.  “Without direction, I really didn’t know what was right or wrong,” she said. Her naturally sweet and loving nature made her a poor fit for her new lifestyle. She was always unhappy, frequently suicidal and unaware of how to change her situation. 
The answers (free love, the hippie manifesto, tripping on drugs) offered by her “friends” weren’t satisfying her longings. But what else was there? No alternative had been provided. She maintained a D grade point average in high school, being so overcome by depression she could barely function.
       Enter Jesus. A visit during high school to an aunt and uncle she saw infrequently initially introduced her to Christ. A job just out of high school put her in frequent contact with a girl who called herself a Christian and who began witnessing to her. Slowly, she began to think to herself, “There must be more to life than this”. At age 21 she started actively searching for God and for Truth.
Every weekend found her at a different “church”. She listened. She watched. At the church of Christ she was offered a series of Bible classes, which she accepted and attended faithfully.  After sobbing through a number of “invitations” she knew she truly believed, accepted the grace of God and was baptized. Today Linda is an elder’s wife with her own ministry. She has raised God fearing children, has overcome the adversity of serious personal health issues and is known for her kindnesses to others. She is not afraid to die because of the faith she has in the God of heaven and his amazing Son. “If only I had known about the Lord when I was a child,” she reflects.

His Name Is Jake

As a prison chaplain I met Jake on the yard. Tattoos covered his body. Redheaded Jake and his older brother, ages 6 and 7, straggled behind Mother. In front of the store, Mother stopped short. “Jake,” she said “Wait right here until I get back,” and left with brother.  Jake waited. After hours, he went inside the store for help. A neighbor lady drove him to his former home. The place had been deserted.
The next door neighbor simply raised Jake as her own. While poor, she was rich in kindness and love. Early on, Jake was tagged “special education” which followed him throughout all his schooling. Finally, he dropped out. At age 25, living in the “projects”, having little in the way of education, a paucity of self confidence, and a wife he loved but couldn’t support, he made some consequential decisions which led him to a prison cell facing a life sentence.
By age 35 he had lost his adoptive mother to cancer and had been deserted by the wife he adored. That’s when he met Carrie. She taught GED classes at the prison. When she first met Jake, he advised her that he was “too stupid” to get his GED. Carrie knew better and told him. At first, he didn’t believe her. Yet he started taking serious interest in his studies. He worked and struggled, finally passing that GED after five attempts. He even began taking and passing college courses, which he continues to do, with Carrie’s support and encouragement.
Most importantly, Carrie witnessed to him about God. Soon an initial curiosity blossomed into a love and a commitment. Now studying his Bible, attending chapel regularly and completing Bible studies sent to him by Carrie, a sad and lonely boy is being transformed by the love of God and hope into a positive and productive man. Even a recent "10 year denial" at a parole hearing, while upsetting to Jake, didn't put him off his recently acquired determination to succeed! He reads his Bible every day. A work in progress. To God be the glory.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Why Does It Hurt So Much?

“We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:21).

Why Does It Hurt So Much?
by Steven Clark Goad

          How does one rejoice in the Lord always when he is in constant pain? Is it possible to remain cheerful and positive when beset with unremitting suffering due to maladies beyond our control? In light of the text in Romans that admits to the continual presence of childbirth like groaning, how is it possible to keep our faith vibrant? This is a dilemma for many of us.

          One thing our Lord was completely candid about was that those who took him and his teaching seriously would face severe trials and hard temptations. But he also told his followers that they would be blessed abundantly and that their joy would be made full. It sounds almost oxymoronic to say we can have joy while suffering. Who can believe it?

A Paradox

          Just how do we reconcile what seem to be opposites—joy in the midst of suffering? The answer can be found in the very life of Christ himself. He said, “I do always the things that are pleasing to my Heavenly Father” (John 8:28). He had the same hardships that we face today. He got splinters. He was hungry when his disciples reminded him it was past lunchtime. He replied, “My meat is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Part of our struggle with pain is that we often forget why we are here. Our purpose is not to live a life among roses with no thorns.

          We live in a spoiled society. We have been pampering ourselves so lavishly for decades that now when the bills must be paid we find ourselves insolvent, not only as a nation, but often as individuals. Many of us have lived sheltered and pampered lives. We live in a society of entitlements. We are provided the best food and clothes and medical care, whether we work or not.

          Dave Ramsey, CEO of Financial Peace University and radio and TV personality, said: “If the US Government was a family, they would be making $58,000 a year, they would be spending $75,000 a year and are $327,000 in credit card debt. They are currently proposing BIG spending cuts to reduce their spending to $72,000 per year. These are the actual proportions of the federal budget and debt, reduced to a level that we can understand.”

What Is Suffering?

          We have lost the concept of what suffering entails. Some might think it is going without our bottled water for a day. Evian spelled backward is naïve. Are we? Or going without getting our nails done this week. Or being unable to buy season tickets to all those necessary ball games. Or having a toothache. Or not being able to buy three times the house we are actually able to purchase with our present income.  Or__________fill in what you might think of as pain and suffering.

          There is little joy to be found in having unrealistic expectations of what we are to possess in this transient life. It often appears that everybody wants to eat at the government’s table, but few are willing to do the dishes. One Christian couple is actually being challenged in their faith. Their baby boy was born with a hole in his heart. His chances for survival without surgery are nil. And they have no health insurance to cover the expensive surgery.

          Tyson Gosch just moved with his wife and five children ages 3 months to 8 years from California to a new job in Texas. Jenny, with a newborn on her breast, became ill. She rushed to an emergency clinic. Within days she was dead, leaving Tyson with five little ones to parent by himself. Now that is a challenge. That involves heartache indescribable.

We Have Grown Soft

          I won’t speak for everyone, but one thing I know, many of us have grown weak and feeble as individuals. We find air-conditioning comfort and full bellies the norm rather than the exception. Our standard of living over the past decades has been phenomenal. Rarely do we understand the hunger and poverty that is within a shadow of our own doorsteps.

          We have personally been trying to help a prison inmate. He grew up in the church. He had advantages many did not. But his drug lifestyle found him repeatedly behind prison walls. After years of attempts to help him reform, it occurred to us that the words “work” and “jobs” were just not part of his vocabulary. Last time I mentioned his getting a job, he replied, “I am hoping to get some kind of aid when I get out.” Our handouts have ceased. We have decided not to facilitate his high expectations of life without pain.

Nick Vujicic

          My handicap? I was born to be the butt of short jokes. At 5’ 7” I recall not being able to play power forward on my Indianapolis high school basketball team with the Van Arsdale twins. It’s enough to make one weep. Missing those necessary tall genes and now follicly challenged to boot, I should be wringing my hands as I type. Some of us have to create pity parties in order to solicit sympathy.

          Nick Vujicic was born without arms or legs. He didn’t even have appendages of any length at all. The only think remotely to be considered a limb is something like a toe or flipper that extends from his hip. He was stared at all his growing up years. Mocked worse than the elephant man, he lived a life of doubt and wonder. Though born in a Christian home with the best of love and care that his parents could provide, he had horrible doubts about God and life.

          Nick has a ministry called “Life Without Limbs.” I recommend readers to Google it and be encouraged by the joy and hope that emanates from the\is young evangelist. He is an inspiration to anyone who is having a bad hair day or actually struggling with physical maladies. If Nick can be that positive with what life and circumstances dealt him, then I must rethink some of the miniscule matters that cause me personal grief.

The Faith Healer

          Faith is not only a beginning point in our walk with God, but it renews us as we allow it to grow. Paul writes that faith which accomplishes anything is a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Every trial calls for faith. By the exercise of faith in obedience, it is strengthened so that one is prepared for even greater trials. It was Jesus’ formula for obedience under stress. It can be ours as well.

          The more we live to please the Father and to serve others the more we are at odds with the world. And whenever a new hardship or new form of suffering presents itself, the more precious will be the faith that grows and sustains us. The Lord does give us seasons of refreshing, even if it is only medication to ease the bodily pain. Trials will always be with us. We have never been promised immunity from suffering—just the opposite.

Discipline In Suffering

          Those who bend under the pressure of suffering are robbing themselves of the maturity that comes with it. When we follow Christ, we must accept the growing pains of change and obedience. The discipline he demands of us is severe, but with it comes his love and aid, and in the end eternal life.

          Jesus never hinted that we would have a recliner of ease throughout life. He offers the same struggles he encountered. “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:2). Even the apostles who were imprisoned for proclaiming the gospel were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

Our Pain Threshold

          How much pain would be required for you to lose your faith? Cancer? Job loss? Having to walk away from a house and mortgage? The death of a beloved mate? We are in this thing called life for the long haul. There are no guarantees except eternity with God. Jesus told Martha “one thing is needful.”  That “one thing” is still our pursuit and our hope for living. It is ours whether we endure much or little pain.

          All that required the great evangelist Charles Templeton to lose his faith was to see the lifeless body of a baby in the arms of his starving mother. That image stuck in his mind and caused him to turn away “from a God who would allow such suffering to exist in the world.” May we be sure that Satan has no weapon in his arsenal that would cause us to turn our backs on God.

SIDEBAR: Life with Christ is not a rose garden without thorns.

SIDEBAR: “It is by those who have suffered that the world has been advanced.”  —Leo Tolstoy

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Confession Of A Homophobe

Confessions Of
A Homophobe

By Steven Clark Goad

Personal Note From Buff Scott, Jr., Editor
Steven Clark Goad is one of my favorite authors. His writings cut illogical positions and absurdities to the bone. This message is captivating and excitingly sensible.

Closets Are Scary Nooks!

I’m coming out. Step aside! This isn’t easy for me, coming out of the closet. I have reached a point in my life that I can no longer remain silent about something that is so deeply misunderstood by so many others. Unless you have experienced the negative climate and hostile behavior of those who resent my secret, you could never understand the emotional instability and heartache attached to my alternate lifestyle. For, you see, I am beset with homophobia—a fatal politically-incorrect disease. There isn’t much tolerance for homophobic minds in today’s culture. Why other minorities have been so readily accepted and their platforms promoted, is beyond me.
No Seat At The Table—Oooh, my!
“Gays” can have their marches and project their political clout with certain parties and gain funding for health insurance and other entitlements, but the lowly homophobe is looked upon with disgust and derision. He has no seat at the table of public opinion, nor does he receive the respect he deserves when he is brave enough to come out of the homophobic closet and stand tall in the face of his detractors.
One of the most horrendous trials we homophobes must endure is the insensitive and demeaning terminology used to describe us. Who wants to be known as someone who hates humans? For that is what the term “homophobe” actually means. “Homo” means “human” and “phobe” entails “fear” and “great distaste.” We straight heterosexual men do not like to be called by ugly names such as “homophobes.” We prefer to be called “joys.”
The homosexual community has chosen to select a lovely word from the English vocabulary to describe themselves and to put a better slant on their perverted and unnatural behaviors among the same sex. They wish to be called “gays.” Well, we healthy and God-fearing men and women who agree that same-sex arrangements are condemned by God simply wish to be called “joys.” Don’t call me homophobe. Just call me joy. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot more politically correct? I mean, in today’s culture, what minority group should be rebuked and mocked for holding a strong opinion about what is right and wrong?
Can’t “Joy” Be A Genetic Makeup?
We have not chosen to be homophobic. We are joy because of some inherent genetic makeup. We can’t help ourselves. We must stand against homosexuality and speak up against it for what it is—aberrant and antisocial behavior that results in emotional and physiological sickness. Who can fault us for being what we naturally are? Why are gays allowed to bash and vilify us innocent joys while we must remain mute regarding our strong feelings about the unhealthy homosexual lifestyle? Perverts can’t have it both ways. They can’t condemn us for our birthright to be joy and then expect us to remain silent regarding something clearly condemned by the God of morality.
God Approves Of Joy
Joy isn’t spoken against at all in the Bible. As a matter of fact, it is encouraged. But men sleeping with men and women with women is spoken against in the harshest of terms. The entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their practice of the vulgar and horrible homosexual lifestyle. The etymology of our word “sodomy” has its origin in the Bible.
My Emotional Distress Is Bubbling Over!
Most citizens of the world do not understand how difficult it is to remain closeted with this secret that is looked upon as politically incorrect. Many of my mutual “joys” have confided in me how hard it is to keep their jobs for fear that it might be discovered they are heterosexually-married “joys” with children. The emotional distress alone has taken a great toll on the many who are straight in their attempts to honor God by marriage and family after the Adamic pattern established in the beginning. God didn’t create Adam and Everett. It was clear from the first family that being heterosexual is the God-ordained pattern for humankind.
Well, We’ve Made A Decision
We have finally decided to keep our secret no longer. Most of us, some still admittedly timid, are now coming out into the open and declaring our rights as citizens of the world and of this once great nation. Governments should begin at once to acknowledge our lobbying efforts. Funding should be set aside for the rehabilitation of those of us who have experienced great emotional trauma for having to repress our heart’s desire to be “joy.” Reparation bills should be submitted and passed at once for all of us who have suffered the slings and arrows from living a lie, pretending to accept homosexuality as just another lifestyle, when all the while we knew it was wrong but couldn’t speak up for fear of being labeled homophobic.
Leave My Self-Esteem “As Is!”
Yes, I am “joy” and happy to be identified as such. Nobody can take away my self-esteem. Nobody can change what I am inside by referring to me with nasty and uncharitable language. Homophobe? Yes, if you wish to use such terminology. I stand with God and all others who desire to do His holy will in the intimate and sacred relationship known as marriage. The very nature of homosexuality precludes having children. The lifestyle itself is unhealthy in every way. So, to be homophobic is natural. How could anyone find fault with someone who is simply living out his normal birthright? To do so would simply be politically, socially, morally, intellectually, and logically incorrect.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review - A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter

A Gathered People
[Authors: John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton, Bobby Valentine]

Over the decades of my Christian walk I have cherished the assemblies of the elect. In recent years I have made an error in judgment by making way too much/or too little of the purpose/purposes of gathering in the name of the Lord. I have often expressed my feelings by quoting Hebrews 10 concerning the need for mutual provocation to love and good deeds. And I have said out loud on several occasions, "Our meeting is more for us than for Him." Now that I have read A Gathered People by co-authors John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine, I have a far grander view of our purpose for meeting togther. Somehow I missed who authored each section, but seeing it as a collaborative effort, that is a minor consideration.

The chapter headings goaded me to keep reading so I could explore the next chapter. Though heavy reading to be sure, I found it hard to put the volume down. That many of us in the Stone/Campbell heritage have taken an anti-sacramental view of worship is unfortunate. Our penchant for making baptism some litmus test where we insist that a point of conversion must be embraced or else has also alienated us from a broader Christendom. The loss of theological substance is noted by the authors as they point out our evolved contemporary practice of liturgy, something some of us may even insist we don't practice since it somehow sounds "denominational."

The assembly is not merely for mutual edification. It is for drawing near to the presence of the Almighty in a transcendent sense. So many paragraphs beg to be lifted and quoted. I will do just that with the authors' permission in my church publication and in future articles. The word studies on the most frequent words translated worship is worth the price of the book. And the awesome truth that service to others is just as much worship as serving the Lord's Supper is noted. Pointing to the old order of Moses, the authors identified the trap of thinking rituals and cultic practices somehow absolved those involved from their self-serving lifestyles.

The shalom that was lost in the garden has been rediscovered in the fellowship of God's children within the assembly. The authors also acknowledge something many of us have missed, i.e. that Paul, nor any other New Testament writer, has given us an orthodox and limited set of divine/timeless rules for conducting an assembly of the saints. That the authors chose not to weigh into the "worship wars" over multiple trivialities is refreshing, for such miniscule matters are indeed trivial in comparison to the purpose of drawing together as a people to the very throne of God. The assembly constitutes the body as a visible reality. So many nuances are offered that enlighten that as I was reading it was difficult for me not to highlight section after section. One in particular points out that "some churches are victims of worship which fosters private emotionalism; some are victims of private rationalism. Both are missing the point" of assembly. Worship ala John 4:24 must be both emotional and rational.

This book is not an easy read. A myriad of scripture references keeps the reader on his alert. Are they using texts in context? Is their exegesis solid? Does their hermeneutic seem consistent? Yes to all of those. Every other margin was highlighted by me with asterisks for future reflection. Formats and formulas for assemblies are secondary to the purpose of assembly. This is discussed in vivid detail, which was one of the parts of the volume I enjoyed most. Every assembly must be worthy of the gospel of Christ. If they are not, the purpose for our gathering has been thwarted. And the discussion of "body worship" [bending knee/bowing head/raising hands/prostrating/clapping/standing/sitting/dancing] was especially enlightening and provided a broader perspective for how we express our adoration in a personal way. 

The climactic epilogue at the end of the book especially captured my attention. It lists the plethora of matters about which the book failed to address...on purpose. Such weighty concerns as multiple cups, instrumental music, drama, invitations, electronic devices and scores of others matters that have caused much grief and discord among patternists who have demanded a blueprint for every move within the assembly. These three amigos have done a masterful job of reminding the readers of how special, how awesome, it is to gather with those of earnest faith in celebration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the glory of Father God. This wasn't just a triple, but a grand-slam, out of the park, home run.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Feelings & Toxic Turmoil

How many of us make daily decisions based on feelings? You flirt once again with that redhead at the water cooler. Or you eat an entire large extra meat pizza on the way home from your annual physical that revealed your triglycerides are three times higher than the health standard. Why? You felt like it. It comforted you. Or worse, you cross the line and begin a torrid affair of adultery, betraying vows to your mate by way of serial infidelities. When asked by your confessor figure why you did it, you clumsily explain that you felt the need for validation that you were still attractive to the opposite sex. Or perhaps you had the feeling your mate took you for granted and a new partner might fill a vast ego need.

Feelings. The bank has been robbed. The thief is now in custody. He’s grilled under hot lights. Why? He explains under duress that the feeling was overwhelming that there was no other recourse. He had lost his job. He was behind on house and car payments. He felt helpless and emasculated. He didn’t want to do it. He didn’t mean to do it. It just sort of happened.

Most adults have developed some code of ethics, or at least a moral standard for determining right from wrong. Those of us who use the Bible as our source for understanding moral behavior should have an advantage over others who have developed their moral values within a secular mindset. If that is the case, why do the elect of Christ behave as secular souls by basing their decisions and actions on feelings rather than on moral principles based on objective truth?

Adults are not children. Why state the obvious? Because we seem to forget that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.” Children act on impulse. They “react” rather than thoughtfully act. They push. Why? Because they feel like it. They grab; whine; posture; spit; stick out their tongues; cry and consistently do as they please. Why? They feel like it. There is little cognitive evaluation of any given scenario. Why? They have yet to be taught. They have yet to learn and to mature so as to be able to make wise and moral decisions. Chaos ensues.

We live in a world of chaos. Why? Because mature people behave immaturely. They make small and large decisions based on emotions and what drives them to feel a certain way. “You shot that man because you felt like it?” Society suffers from toxic turmoil because feelings trump thoughtful contemplation. Spontaneity pushes aside reflection. The higher moral ground gives way to the need to feed our feelings. The result? Lives are destroyed. Economies collapse. Marriages crumble. “She said I was sexy. I couldn’t help it.” Battles are waged. Disorder wins.

What is the point? Satan wins every time—every single time when we allow our feelings to override the will of God. Those who know not God and haven’t a clue concerning the rules of engagement that produce joy and peace and hope at least have some reason for their errant choices. But we are without excuse. We have tasted the heavenly gift. We have been enlightened by the living and abiding word of God that is able to save our souls.

Love God and do what he says—even when you don’t feel like it. Turn right and go straight—even when you don’t feel like it. Jesus didn’t say, “If you love me do what feels good/right at the moment.” No. He said, “If you love me, obey me.” It seems to me that most of the woes we bring upon one another are created by actions based on feelings. Feelings aren’t bad or wrong per se, but they must be sifted first through the word of God, the Bible.

Next time feelings fight to dismiss better judgment, ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” Better still, ask, “What would Jesus have me do under the circumstances?” Then do it. Why? We aren’t here to feel good but rather to glorify God and obey him regardless of how we might feel at the moment. Feelings aren’t sinful, but they surely aren’t to be obeyed. Feelings are to be felt, that’s all.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Guilt of Joy

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice" [Philippians 4:4]

The Guilt of Joy

Am I the only one who feels this way? There has always been the gnawing feeling that I needed to enjoy it as much as I possibly could. Life, that is. I desperately tried my best as I was growing up in the Midwest to relish every moment. But often there was the drudgery of  schoolwork, sickness and just getting through the day. Yet in spite of those setbacks, I would attempt to plan for some joy sooner or later.

Here is the rub. To enjoy life as a kid was to be able to go over to my friend’s house for some “ketch” or maybe get to go to Longacre Swimming Pool on Saturday. Getting Barbara Flaskamp to notice me at school brought not only a sense of embarrassment, but also of joy. “Yeah. She probably thinks I’m cute.” But soon Life 101 encroached and the moments of joy seemed to morph into other requirements. Surely one didn’t need to get drunk in order to enjoy life. Should promiscuity really be tried as many of my friends suggested? Surely a good church-going lad of my culture and upbringing couldn’t go there.

So a life of commitment and self-control ensued as I did my best to serve the Lord who gave us all good things to enjoy. So why didn’t I find the joy in life I was told to embrace? Why did I feel guilty when I let my hair down and went to a movie or just kicked back and played a game of Scrabble or went on a self-serving vacation? Perhaps I didn’t understand what joy was. Or maybe I didn’t know how to enjoy life. And if that was the case, not only would I be missing one of God’s marvelous graces, but also I would probably been sinning as well. How can I not enjoy life?

It’s taken me a few years to discover that we need not feel guilty for relaxing. Loafing is one thing—relaxing another. We all need some quiet time to ourselves. Don’t feel guilty about it. Enjoy it. And as serious as life and eternity are, I see no prohibition from the Lord to avoid having fun at all costs. Perhaps some of us were schooled too severely in the notion that fun was somehow sinful. Church ought to be fun. So should life. So, go ahead, grab for all the joy you can get this side of glory. Rejoice!


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

“We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:21).

The Pain Dilemma

by Steven Clark Goad

          Amazingly, one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament that is so full of hope also contains the verse above. How do we keep our faith in light of all the suffering in the world? Should not the famines and tsunamis and hurricanes and poverty and homelessness and AIDS and wars and cancer and birth anomalies and divorce drive any thoughtful person to as least some serious doubts about a supposedly loving Creator God?

      Charles Templeton, a protégé and friend of Billy Graham at the beginning of Graham’s ministry, was so moved by an image in Life Magazine that it altered his life dramatically, robbing him of his faith. It lent a stamp of approval on all the doubts he had been visiting in his mind. The gut-wrenching image was a photo of an African woman holding up the body of her lifeless baby. Lack of rain had caused a famine and countless people were dying. He reasoned that since God was in charge of the rain there must not be a God who would allow innocents to die for lack of water and food. Templeton, the varsity to Graham’s reserve, lived into his old age without prayer or faith or hope of eternity.

Personal Observations

          Though I do not consider myself an expert on the topic of suffering, I‘ve had my share. My mother died when I was 16. She was 43. That challenged my fragile new faith greatly. The few other hardships I have had in my life pale in comparison to that African mother and others who have suffered in extremis. When I compare my life to Job or the apostle Paul for example, it has been a cakewalk. But what of those who cannot process the horrendous doses of pain in their own lives or what they see in the lives of others? How do we exonerate a good and loving and beneficent God over against the image of abject pain and suffering?

Some of us living in the USA have little vision of the daily horrors of life in third world countries. Filth. Children living on the streets. Gutters used for toilets. Nakedness. Festering sores. Hunger. Flies and rats and pestilence. No pure water. Some children are born on the sidewalks, live their lives on the sidewalks, and die prematurely on the sidewalks.

The Long View

          We don’t have the mind of God to see the entire picture. When I was a boy one of our cocker spaniels got his foot caught in the garage door. My sister ran to help him. All she wanted to do was rescue him. She was bitten through her thumb for her efforts. Why? Because our cocker didn’t know the mind of my sister was to aid him. All he felt was his pain. Life is like this at times for us. Since much of our pain is self-induced, we strike out at some other cause instead of admitting we have brought it on ourselves. I think of people putting themselves in harms way constantly and suddenly when they are hurt they seem to look for someone else to blame.

          Faith could not exist if it weren’t for the challenges to it. Faith is not an easy thing to obtain. It requires effort. If God protected us from our own bad choices, there would be no need for faith. Some of the greatest strengths in life derive out of hardship and suffering. The man who has just cheated on his income tax and has just abused his wife and children is not in a position to ask, “If there is a God, why is there so much evil in the world?” God has left so many clues for us so that we might find him that we often take them for granted. Some frequently use him as a scapegoat for their own indiscretions. That’s a mistake.

Finite Human Reasoning

Some reason as follows: 1) If there was a loving and generous God, there would be no pain or turmoil in the world. 2) There is much pain and turmoil in the world. 3) Thus, there can be no God. This was Templeton’s assumption, driven home by the image of the grieving mother. Another reasons as follows: 1) If there is an omnipotent God who could do anything, he would not allow suffering and evil to exist. 2) Suffering and evil exists and nothing is being done about it. 3) Thus, there can be no all-powerful God.

          Life is full of speed bumps. Does this disprove God? Consider Job. Robbed of his wealth, his family and his health, with friends accusing him of sin, with a wife goading him to denounce God and die, Job cried out, “But I have not sinned to bring this upon me.” Since Job did not know the future nor could he determine the outcome of his tragedies, he is not unlike the rest of us in that regard. Judging God is like reading half of a novel and then putting the book down and critiquing the author for not presenting a climax. Job was right. He was not suffering because he was an unrighteous man. In John 9:3 Jesus noted that suffering cannot always be passed off as sinful living on the part of the sufferer. Certainly babies born deformed have done nothing to deserve that.

The Free Will Factor

          We often suffer because we abuse the laws of nature. Our free wills open the door to suffering. If our wills were removed, we would become robots programmed by God never to skin a knee or harm someone else. We have the choice to do good or bad. When we choose the wrong paths, we end up often paying a painful price. Eve had the freedom of choice. She chose to disobey God. She, and we, are still suffering the consequences of that choice. And this is one of the great causes of human anguish and misery. We live in a world where those around us who make wrong decisions in life harm the rest of us who live among them.

         Distress and torment can produce positive results. In Roman 8 Paul tells us all things can work out for the good of those who love God. All things would include hardships. Our primary purpose on earth is to honor God. Everything that takes us from that objective is evil. Everything that draws us closer to God is good. This view allows us to understand world events in a different, more positive, light.

The Comfort Factor

For example, it is quite possible that living in an affluent society that tempts us into caring more for the size of our HD plasma television set than we do for the spiritual growth of our children might cause a great deal of heartache. “A man’s life consists not in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). It is even conceivable that illness, loss of income, or even the death of a loved one might ultimately serve some good purposes. I reflected more on God in my hospital bed than I had in the days of my health and strength.

          It is often in suffering that we experience the most powerful force in our lives. It is difficult to be arrogant when you’re slowly dying. The things that seemed so glamorous become meaningless in such crises. David said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I may learn God’s ways” (Psalm 119:71). David experienced heartfelt grief. He lost his son with Bathsheba. He lost his beloved Absalom. He was closely acquainted with suffering. Yet he was drawn closer to the Almighty because of it.

Feeling No Pain

If God removed suffering from the lives of those who followed him, they would serve him out of self-interest. We are not promised immunity from pain. Jesus told his disciples he didn’t want them removed from the world, but to minister to the world. He told them clearly their ministries would involve hardships and great disappointments.

           The Lord has not promised immunity from pain if we love him. C. S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks clearly in our consciences, but shouts at us in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Many have been driven to repentance out suffering. That we suffer because of others is part of the price we pay for being neighbors with humanity. “For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself” (Romans 14:7).

          Three things leap to my mind. 1) My own suffering. 2) Those who complain about it most. 3) And those who benefit from it most. I surprised myself recently for thanking God for suffering I was experiencing. Without getting into details, I had one of those “why not me” epiphanies. Though I was upset and beside myself about the physical dilemma that intruded into my life unannounced, it drove me closer to God rather than to a posture of accusing him.

Oh, yes, have you noticed those who complain the most about suffering? It is typically the well fed who are comfortable in their lives and routines. The mother with the malnourished kids will do all in her power to find the next bowl of rice. Only the affluent have the privilege and resources to navel gaze about their wardrobe or which restaurant to visit today. And third, it has often been those who have experienced the greatest suffering who have produced the most shining examples of the indomitable spirit that rises above it.

A Broken World With Imperfect Souls

          We live in a broken/fallen world. Every cause has its effect. Sin results in suffering. Free will causes hardships and tragedy. Living in a world bombarded by the unwise decisions of others results in suffering. Perhaps the sin of a drunken driver will snatch the life of an innocent family, or leave a child orphaned. Whom do we blame? God? The distiller? The bartender? The man who didn’t know when to stop imbibing? The auto manufacturer? Living with others brings pain—no doubt about it. Yet living with others also brings some of life’s greatest joys and most cherished memories. Most of us, if given the choice, would choose to cast our lot with our fellows, even if we must risk a few inconveniences along the way.

          Two parrots are talking to each other in a pet shop. One says to the other, “I’d like to ask why God allows all of the pain, hardship and injustice in the world?” The other parrot replies, “Aren’t you afraid God might ask us the same question?”

SIDEBAR: It is by those who have suffered that the world has been advanced. —Leo Tolstoy