Monday, June 30, 2008

A Grief Mostly Observed

One of the most difficult things in life is to observe the grief of someone you care for—and discipline yourself to do nothing. Every impulse of love electrifies us into action, because we’re afraid inaction will be confused with uncaring. I’m not suggesting that doing nothing is a virtue in most cases. I do assert that resisting giving easy answers and waiting for God's Spirit to allow your heart to be broken is truly comforting in the life of the grieving.

I have a great many friends who, in my hour of loss, moved to action. I deeply appreciate the practical love expressed to me and my children. But I’ve also come to appreciate the most thoughtful ones who acted not out of impulse but in deliberate caring. The word care has it's root in the Gothic word "kara" which means "lament." To care is first and foremost a word which means to grieve with, express sorrow and cry. To care is to come alongside the grieving and do little more than weep with those who weep.

What appears to be doing nothing is, in fact, one of the deepest acts of love a human can express. Jesus modeled this for us with Mary and Martha at the loss of their brother Lazarus. Yes, the grieving need practical ministry, but they also need stronghearted people who can just weep with them without giving in to the temptation to offer answers for that which the soul cannot grasp. Job's friends did well for the first week or so of Job's prolonged and confusing suffering. Then they all three gave in to their darkest nature and began to argue with this hurting man—proving their own arrogance.

The reason we offer answers to the unanswerable questions of suffering sometimes comes from our own need to be in control. When we bring "care" to our hurting friends like professionals and not broken-hearted friends, it places us in a powerful position over them. We seek to cure them, when, if we’re honest, we don’t posses the cure. This is why, for the grieving, the "comfort" so many bring instead offends and often curses.

I admit it’s a dangerous thing to get near the brokenhearted and the crushed. I find great comfort that the Lord is not afraid to draw near. Psalm 34:18 says, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” It’s in drawing near and weeping that we bring an inexpressible comfort which the grieving learn to appreciate later and never forget. Don’t be afraid to be silent in the face of a friend's loss. Life can be inexpressibly hard, and there are tragic events that take your breath away and leave you speechless. Be careful and be willing to offer nothing but yourself, your tears and your willingness to let your heart be broken with your friend. You will find the undying gratitude of the grieving and yourself becoming more like Christ.

Ed Litton

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Face of an Angel

In Acts chapter six, Stephen is listed as the first deacon. He’s said to be full of the Holy Spirit and faith, as well as God's grace and power. There’s clearly something unusual about Stephen--Christianity's first, but not last, martyr.

During his trial, as angry men hurl contrived allegations at Stephen, Scripture says the Sanhedrin notice his face looks like that of an angel. I suppose this means there was a peace, a calm, maybe even a supernatural beauty to his face. There in the heat of extreme danger, this deacon was so full of the Holy Spirit, God's peace controlling his heart, it showed on his face. This intrigues me.

How can a person in such danger have such peace? The answer is surrender. Surrender of what? Everything! If we cling to anything in life, even good things, we’ll find ourselves robbed of joy. We’ll find ourselves taking mental inventory of our "things," wondering where we placed them last and if they’re safe. Surrender says: give it away--for this is the only sure way to keep track of things without worry. Surrender says: my life is not my own to do with as I please. Stephen, even in the midst of the most stressful of situations, has such peace and joy that those looking at him compare his face to an angel. Even as stones pelt him to the ground, Stephen looks up with joyful praise for the Lord.

What a supernatural and radical way of living! A way of living that honors Christ by finding joy in pain and peace in suffering. We often think joy, peace and fulfillment come with pleasant circumstances. But for the child of God, joy comes with hardship, struggle, trial, conflict--and, yes, even loss. To me, the most interesting part of the story of Acts chapter six and seven is that people are watching. God knows how to display His greatest drama. The onlookers see how a genuine Christian lives and dies. They see firsthand how Christ transforms the most painful life events into a platform of grace.

Never forget these words, for this is the reason Stephen suffered as he did. God is always doing something more than we can perceive, and He certainly was at work on this day. Stephen's bold sermon infuriated the spiritual leaders of Israel and they moved to kill him. According to Acts 7:57-58, “they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Saul, the instigator, stood in the shadows, doubtless finding perverse pleasure in the death of this young "infidel." He couldn’t know then how his life would be transformed by this moment. This young man Saul would become Paul, the Apostle of the heart set free. Paul would remember this moment countless times as he himself suffered and found God's joy in the midst of danger. The world knows of the gospel of Jesus largely because of Paul--and there would be no Paul were it not for a young man with “the face of an angel.”

How are you suffering? Don't wait to find joy in the conclusion of it--ask God to reveal His joy in the midst of it. God is doing something more than you can perceive right now, and it likely has to do with someone discovering the God of love and grace. They will find God's grace in the face of an angel and that face may belong to you.

Ed Litton

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Flight Interrupted

My children and I are taking a few days away just prior to the Southern Baptist Convention. We flew from Mobile to Memphis and then on to Indianapolis. Our flight took off from Memphis on time. Ten minutes into the flight there was a loud noise beneath us, the sound of the plane’s landing gear lumbering down. Kayla and I were sitting together; the boys, Josh and Tyler, were behind us a few rows back. Kayla was asleep. I turned to see if the boys were worried. They were but I motioned to Josh a thumbs up. I was concerned. I began praying. As I checked my emotions I felt a strange peace. Strange in the sense that I was not afraid of dying. In times past I have been terrified by much smaller events in mid air. I was concerned for my kids, especially Kayla, who has been traumatized by the car accident with Tammy just over nine months ago.

We later discovered that the front landing gear didn’t go up on take off. The pilot did a masterful job calming the passengers and getting back to Memphis. Our plane circled in a fly by the control tower to make certain that all the gear was down, then attempted a landing. At the end of the runway I could see fire fighters and equipment standing ready. Thankfully the landing gear was in working condition and we landed safely.

That was a little more drama that I was expecting today. And it reminds me that "my time" may come at any time. We don't have guarantees of a long life, but we do have a guarantee of life. As I prayed I sensed confidence in the Lord as my shepherd. If this was it, then this was it, and I know my family is ready to go. Yet I wanted to live on. This is the dilemma Paul addresses in Philippians 1:21-23: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far."

Death doesn’t hold the terrors it once did for me. I’m grateful for that. I was shaken, but it was more for my children and how to help them navigate this very real part of living. As Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” I am proud of my kids. After a brief stay back in Memphis, we loaded ourselves onto another flight and continued on to Indianapolis.

Ed Litton