"Dear friends, do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. Instead, because you are participating in the sufferings of Christ; keep on rejoicing, so that you may be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13 ISV)"
I can remember the humor that flooded my being as God spoke to me that October day in 2004, telling me that He was calling me to be a pastor. Me, redeemed surely by the blood of Christ, and yet still bracketed by the consequences and struggles of a life lived in direct opposition to the Lord of Host…not merely living in darkness but taking up arms against the Army of the Lord in my foolish pride….my anger and pain, to be a pastor…to speak of God to those in the pews before me…to speak God's words to His people and those who were in the process of seeking Him. Right! It must've been just indigestion or a funny mushroom that seeped into the food I ate the previous day. He's a funny guy, our God….
I left the conference and went outside, walking through the little wooded area that lies on the Willow Creek's massive grounds….pacing…wandering…and offering up one valid excuse after another for why I, above all people, wasn't "that guy" that God wanted to be associated with. Finally, almost as a flippant remark, I said, "Fine, I'll tell my pastor and You can do what You need to do to make it a done deal."
It was one of those, "Be careful what you say" moments that now, five years later, I realize what God heard when I said it…..the journey hasn't been the most pleasant or enjoyable, but God has been doing what He needed to do to make such a thing happen.
And in His time, it will happen.
Not just a simple pastorship in a church where I can hide behind the lights and the stage productions…..not even going back to the simple chapel full of saints as an ordained chaplain…..but something I surely would've ran from years ago. Ran because where that will take me is far beyond any comfortable place I would want to be and places me squarely in the firing sights of anyone and everyone. I have found, as I've been shaped and molded by God's will, that the Christian Army is one of its worst enemies…..eating their own wounded.
"If you are going to be used by God, He will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all, they are meant to make you useful in His hands, and to enable you to understand what transpires in other souls so that you will never be surprised at what you come across." Oswald Chambers writes in My Utmost for His Highest. "The sufferings of Christ are not those of ordinary men. He suffered "according to the will of God"………."
The Hindus say that it is a result of our past lives….'karma'. The Buddhist says it is merely an illusion. Islam says it doesn't matter; just submit to the will of Allah. Even atheists tell us that suffering is a random chance event, though I wouldn't try and tell a mother of a five year old cancer patient who is dying that randomness, illusions or something in the child's past life have cause him to suffer this and through him, the parents, family and friends. I wouldn't even say "It doesn't matter" because in the pain and agony of the moment is very real, very direct and very personal.
I remember Hurricane Katrina…..how God arranged for me to go down with the Church I was attending at the last minute and the return to a place where I had once called home. From the rest of the country, far removed from the life and times of the people living in Louisiana, and the other states hit by this hurricane….aid and comfort came; supplies and people, not motivated by governmental jobs but a kinship to the citizens who survived and those who didn't. The physical needs of a people were overwhelmly met….but there was a lesser known or realized need that would never be filled again, but could only be adapted and reshaped. Community. Friends. Family.
There were some, even in the midst of handing out food and water, expressed how it was the sinfulness of New Orleans and Marti Gras that caused the devastation or the wickedness of the US in its worldly involvements and petty wars. "Even if nature or Satan unleashed the deadly tidal wave, one word from Jesus would've stopped it. He did not speak it." John Piper says "This means that there is a design in the suffering." It is possible that God ordained or allowed this to happen in the coastal area of the United States….for the sake of redeeming a people or nation that have fallen away from God.
But it doesn't matter if this was just nature or God moving….the call is the same; nurture and compassion to a people suffering.
For five and a half years, I 'lived' under the shaky employment that has become the automotive industry. Every year, every quarter I would wonder if this was the time that I would find myself on the unemployment line. Then, November 8th, I received a call from my HR representative. Despite the fact that Ford posted surprising profits for the last quarter, it still wasn't enough for the projected "One Ford" plan and budget cuts were made. Myself and two other members of the team I worked on were being laid-off or retired. I was the one to be laid off. The one remark that the HR rep said to my boss and a coworker was that he was glad I was a man of faith. Surely, in the economic climate I would need this faith that he had seen displayed in each moment he interacted with me on the job.
As with the Katrina disaster, God is glorified in the suffering of His people. Countless churches, missionary groups and faith-based organizations moved with quickness and intent to reach those countless thousands who were stranded and abandoned in the coastal areas affected by the devastation. Far ahead of the Federal Government and with more direct effectiveness. Driven by compassion and mercy, those countless thousands have not given just food and water to the residents in those areas but something far greater….a connection to community, the nation as a whole. As one dear lady asked me, "Why, all the way from Michigan, are you here in the midst of this?" I told her because I've lived in Lousiana that I knew how much suffering lie beneath the surface of the physical…..the devastating loss of community and I wanted her to know that she was not alone…we were united in our grief, bound in our sorrows and would climb out of it hand in hand because we were family…the family of the United States of America.
In this place of unemployment that I find myself in now, even here God can be glorified….in the movement and provisions that He has promised me and all those who suffer this stressful season. God's provision and movement will be undeniable. As I have spent the last few days going over the 'classified' ads, seeing job after job requiring more experience than I have or a degree I do not, I am a bit disheartened. My two week severance is going to run out too quickly and my ability to go back to school is seriously hampered by financial restrains. But, as I spend time with God each morning I remember and am instilled with hopeful peace because He has provisioned me in countless ways in a timing perfectly His own, through methods that I would have not thought possible through His direction and built my faith through the trial and tribulations of this life. God will provide and that provision will be undeniably His.
"It is only when we are related to Jesus Christ that we can understand what God is after in His dealings with us. It is part of the Christian culture to know what God's aim is." Chambers continues, "In the history of the Christian Church the tendency has been to evade being identified with the sufferings of Jesus Christ; men have sought to procure the carrying out of God's order by a short cut of their own. God's way is always the way of suffering, the way of the 'long, long trail.'"
It has been a long, long trail as God has delivered upon the promise He made when He first called me out to go into direct ministry for His kingdom. Much has been lost, much more has been learned through the brutal examples of what Church is in the post-modern Western culture and much more has been given for the strengthening and equipping for a life of service under His guidance. Suffering isn't as hard when it is taken under the context of sharing in the suffering of Jesus Christ, as we can experience in the reading of the Bible and hold up to the light of God's righteousness for clarity.
This could be the time that God has brought me to where the calling is realized or this may just be a step towards His ultimate goal of apostleship to a nation down under……
I will sit still and listen to the instructions of my God and be ready to pack up my tent to follow without firm idea the cloud of His presence into the desert. Knowing that:
"If we will not bear suffering for Christ now, we must bear eternal sufferings hereafter."