Give Thanks Whatever Happens

(Job 1:1, 2:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:14-18) – J G White
11 am, Thanksgiving Sun, Oct 7, 2018 – UBC Digby

On a weekend in Canada for gratitude, we start the Bible story of the man named Job.  Known for his suffering, and the long debates he had with four friends, Job’s story is a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit when everything falls apart.  Job’s livestock and riches, his children and whole family, and then his healthy body are all destroyed. Nothing left, nothing left but pain and grief, and a few friends, his so-called ‘comforters.’

‘Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ Job told his wife.  And Job did not say a wrong thing, though she’d told him he might as well curse God and die.

That is one of the big questions we people have.  How to receive the good and the bad in life.  And what to do with God through it all.  Some of you have had a lot more suffering in your lives than others, and you know more from experience “where is God when it hurts.”

Six or seven years ago I preached a sermon one spring Sunday that upset a retired pastor in my pews.  He took time to talk with me about it, which I appreciated. He was not my favourite person in the world, but a man I respect and can appreciate.

From the Netherlands, he was young when his family had to survive the Second World War in ways I can but imagine.  When still a young man, he and his wife came to Canada, without any benefactors to sponsor them – with their own hard work they got themselves here – and started farming in New Brunswick.  Later, he went into the ministry, studying at university as a ‘mature student.’

When he sat down with me, upset about the sermon I’d preached, we talked of many things.  He talked of suffering – as a person, and as a Christian.  And he said, basically, that I had not suffered much. And he was right.  I think he implied I had a lot to learn – that could be learned only by suffering.  I can’t deny that.

‘Give thanks whatever happens.’  One small phrase in the Bible, a lessons that rings true.  The saga of Job we will explore for a few Sundays here. Like him and his friends, we want to see reasons for all the troubles that come our way.  

As we read the story and poetry of Job, we find a man feeling separated from God.  Even the pictures of God and angels and satan in the heavens, and Job far away on earth, make the experience clear.  ‘Where are you, God? Why is this happening, to me?’

During WWII, Betsie and Corrie ten Boom spent time in notorious Ravensbrück Concentration Camp north of Berlin for hiding Jews in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland.  Here is Corrie ten Boom’s famous story of Betsie and the fleas, from the bestselling book, The Hiding Place:

We lay back, struggling against the nausea that swept over us from the reeking straw.   
..Suddenly I sat up, striking my head on the cross-slats above. Something had pinched my leg.  “‘Fleas!’ I cried. ’Betsie, the place is swarming with them!’ ‘Here! And here another one!’ I wailed. ‘Betsie, how can we live in such a place!’
“‘Show us. Show us how.’ It was said so matter of factly it took me a second to realize she was praying.

1 Thessalonians inspired Betsy:  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.’”

So they prayed – giving thanks for many things. And then: “‘Thank You,’ Betsie went on serenely, ‘for the fleas and for–’
“The fleas! This was too much. ‘Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.’

The sisters, Betsie and Corrie, who had smuggled a Bible with them into the concentration camp, started to hold servies, Bible studies, in their crowded dormitory.  “They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28.
There on the Lagerstrasse [they] were under rigid surveillance, guards in their warm wool capes marching constantly up and down. It was the same in the center room of the barracks: half a dozen guards or camp police always present. Yet in the large dormitory room there was almost no supervision at all. [They] did not understand it.

Then, one day, Betsie discovered the answer. “‘You know, we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,’ she said. ‘Well–I’ve found out.’ Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: ‘Because of the fleas!”

‘Give thanks whatever happens.’

This Thanksgiving weekend we are sharing in the ‘great thanksgiving,’ what we call the Lord’s Supper.  With believers next door, and around the globe, we remember in a very special way the suffering of God – of Jesus.  There are many ways that Christians celebrate this ceremony, and different ways of understanding this. But we share with millions today, who take some form of bread and of wine.  Brought together by a God who meets us right at the heart of pain and suffering and grief.  A human body broken; blood spilled out so that He died.

Along with our joyful blessings: family and food and freedom and all, let us give thanks for the fleas of our lives.  The random problems.  The painful disasters we have suffered.  And let us find the attitude of gratitude because of our God, who knows what real suffering is.  And who comes to us wherever there is pain and disaster.  When we look upon the cross of Jesus, we discover that God knows what our suffering is all about.  

I trace the rainbow through the rain
and know the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

Thanks be to God!

Armoured with Faith, Hope & Love

(Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) J G White
Sunday, Nov 19, 2017, UBC Digby

This is a sermon about non-violence, in part.
Why then, are we going to sing, at the end, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”?  Why was one of our Bible readings from the violent Book of Judges in the Old Testament, with God inflicting oppression on the chosen people, and then fighting for them in a war?  Why is the New Testament Bible reading one that uses the imagery of armour: a breastplate and a helmet?

The closing hymn reminds us what holy armour and strength is made of.  
take every virtue, every grace,
and fortify the whole

It’s like the better-known hymn, ‘Lead On, O King Eternal,’ which sings
for not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums,
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

In the bit of the Bible that’s called First Thessalonians, we find a letter.  A letter from one of the early pastoral leaders to a little congregation in a town.  Amid everything else being said, the believers are encouraged: let us… put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 T 5:8)

This is the kind of personal armour to wear.  Armour we are given: faith; love; hope.  

But we still have many other pages here, in the Bible, many pages of armour and weapons more traditional, fashioned of wood and metal.  The kind you see in a gladiatorial movie.  Or, a biblical movie.  Right here in the book of Judges.

Reading this, we set ourselves back in an era far from our own.  We are accustomed to this when we read fiction or history, when we enjoy some action/adventure film.  

Today’s story – really just the beginning – is of Deborah the prophet and judge in ancient Israel.  Judges 4 is quite a chapter when it comes to female heroines, not only with Deborah but also a Canaanite woman named Jael, who does in the fleeing Canaanite general, Sisera, with a tent peg.  D’you know this story?

Out of those violent days, in that context, heroines arise, peace sometimes comes, justice is done.  Human nature and violence – in the name of faith – lives on today.  The struggle is real.  And to keep these stories – very honest stories about what the people were like – we must keep them together with all the other tales we know and that we forget.

That was then.  And the First Letter to the Thessalonians was also then. But it is a Christian letter, under the New Covenant of Jesus. Thousands of years after the days of the Judges in the Promised Land.  And here the armour of God for us people is described in terms of faith, hope and love.

If this is to be our armour, how shall we wear it? Get it?  Use it?  I find there is always more to learn about this than what I already know and do.

Faith.  I don’t think of faith as having something proved.  I think of it mostly as confidence.  That’s what my faith is in God, and in the Christianity I wander in.  Confidence in Jesus.  Frederick Buechner said, In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point.  A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, “I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice.  There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands, the way he carries his cross — the way he carries me.” (Wishful Thinking, 1973, p. 32)

Put on the breastplate of faith and love.  Of course, to put on a helmet, to put on body armour, one must take off the helmet and breastplate one already had on.  

We notice, here, that this goes together with faith.  It is a breastplate of faith and love that we wear. I don’t know if this was intended, but it reminds me that faith in God and love for everyone are like one thing, inseparable.  Or do I say, faith in people and love of God go together?  

It takes some doing to put on the breastplate of faith and love.  Put on Love.  I could give lots of examples of love.  Ways we do it.  Ways we put it on and wear it, instead of other armour.  
We could think about the habit of ‘paying it forward.’  That’s love.
Tell a story about someone learning from the past to see people differently, like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
Remember to pray and seek an opening and healing of the heart through prayer and meditation, devoted time with God, one on one.
Or testify about the people who loved us in life, and that opened us up to love more.  

Let me give you this example: love in terms of Nonviolent Communication. For, among the many ways we people give out or are hit by violence, one is our language.  Our talking, our body language, the whole bit.

Ever thought about some of our day-to-day talk being violent, and some not?  The term, Nonviolent Communication, has been used especially by the late Marshall Rosenberg, to help people communicate in understanding, loving, peace-making ways.  He founded a thing called the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

It teaches that there are four steps or parts of speaking in a way that is not violent.  First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we seeing others say or do that is either enriching or not enriching our life?  The trick it to put this into words without judging, critiquing or evaluating it.  
Next, we state how we feel when we see what’s going on: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated?  
And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to our feelings.  

For example, a mother might express these three pieces to her teenage son by saying, ‘Felix, when I see two balled up, dirty socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common.”
She would follow immediately with the fourth component – a very specific request: “Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”  (Nonviolent Communication, 2003, p. 6)

Five years ago I had a Bible Study group go through video sessions on this Nonviolent Communication, and Marshall Rosenberg’s book is lovely and thorough.  But what this is about really is ordinary, loving interaction.  Something God has made us for, and offers to us.  Let me give you one of Rosenberg’s stories, told him by an uncle, about Marshall’s own grandmother. His uncle asked, “Surely your mother told you about Jesus.”
“About who?”
“Jesus.”
“No, she never told me about Jesus.”
The story about Jesus was the final precious gift I received from my uncle before he died.  It’s a true story of a time when a man came to my grandmother’s back door asking for some food.  This wasn’t unusual.  Although grandmother was very poor, the entire neighborhood knew that she would feed anyone who showed up at her door.  This man had a beard and wild, scraggly black hair; his clothes were ragged, and he wore a cross around his neck fashioned out of branches and tied with a rope. My grandmother invited him into her kitchen for some food, and while he was eating she asked his name.
“My name is Jesus,” he replied.
“Do you have a last name?” she inquired.
“I am Jesus the Lord.” (My grandmother’s English wasn’t too good.  Another uncle later told me he had come into the kitchen while the man was still eating, and grandmother had introduced the stranger as Mr. Thelord.)
As the man continued to eat, my grandmother asked where he lived.
“I don’t have a home.”
“Well, where are you going to stay tonight? It’s cold.”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you like to stay here?” she offered.
He stayed seven years.

When it came to communicating nonviolently, my grandmother was a natural. She didn’t think of what this man “was.” No, she just thought of him in terms of what people feel and what they need.  (Nonviolent Communication, pp. 193-194)

Looking at the book again, I’d like to delve into this whole thing, and put it into practice.  

Finally, Hope.  For a helmet the Hope of Salvation.
Emily Dickinson wrote,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Hope will get you to be more positive than how you started out, without hope.  If you are naturally optimistic, hope still gives you more out of life. If you are on the pessimistic (or realistic) side, hope brings you up.  Can keep you pointed in a good direction.

A helmet of hope gets put on when hope floats in, and we take off the hard attitude we had been using to protect us from things we thought inevitable.  

Now, I don’t need super heroic amazing stories of hope and faith to inspire me.  Really, I need true stories of simple ways that people stepped over everyday obstacles.  

Like the story of Amelia.
One year ago, sharon’s daughter, Teanna, was getting excited – and anxious – because she was pregnant again. In the New Year, she and Sherwin had a little party to announce that the expected baby was… a girl. In spite of problems in the past, they held onto some hope that they would have this second child.  Hope that the baby would be saved, not lost.
It was March.  Preparations were all made for our grandson Dryden’s fourth birthday.  That Sunday there would be a party at Teanna and Sherwin’s house.
No.  The baby girl was in trouble, and she had to come out – be born three months early.  And so she was, on her brother’s birthday.
Starting off at one pound, three ounces, Amelia Joy Doucette lived in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the IWK for 118 days.  Teanna stayed there too, and Sherwin as much as he could, and Dryden visited.  Every day was a day of looking for hope, hoping against hope.  Some days better than others. The thousands of people who know them, and heard about Amelia, prayed and prayed, day by day, Sunday by Sunday.  Lots of people hoping, helping the little family hope.  Amazing, wonderful nurses and doctors giving hope by doing their daily work.
Hope continues, and keeps being sought and found. This past week, nine pound Amelia had a feeding tube put in to help get enough food into her for her not just to survive, but to thrive.  That’s the next hope, eh?  She’s a happy little thing, and so are we.  Happy, and grateful, and hopeful.  

Not that the story has a happy ending.  It hasn’t ended, of course.  Maybe there is no such thing as the ending of some little person’s story.   By the grace of God, our lives are timeless.   It has simply been amazing, so far, how a little struggle for life and health can bring out the hope in so many people.  

Let me quote Buechner again.  He gets at hope by talking about Wishful Thinking.  Christianity, he says,  is mainly wishful thinking.  Even the part about Judgment and Hell reflects the wish that somewhere the score is being kept.
Dreams are wishful thinking.  Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking.  Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking.
Sometimes wishing is the wings that truth comes true on.  Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.
(Wishful Thinking, 1973, p. 96)

The armour against all the things that attack our souls shall be faith, and hope, and love. Wear them as best you can. And I will do the same. AMEN.