Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 28, 2007

2007.10.28 “Church at the Passages of Life: The Crises of Life”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Church at the Passages of Life: The Crises of Life”

Job 1: 1 – 5, 13 – 21

Rev. David L. Haley

October 28, 2007

I read a story this week in The New York Times by Iraq veteran, Lee Kelly.  Kelly said his time in Iraq taught him a lot about the fragility of human life, and reminded him just how brittle these bones can be.  But a few weeks ago, with his Iraq lessons starting to fade, near his home in Salt Lake City, Utah, he got another reminder.

Kelly was driving down a familiar road on autopilot, scanning the events of the day in his head, planning the things he had to do that night: pick up the kids, make dinner, give the kids a bath, try to get them to bed by 8:30 so I can have an hour or two in front of the computer, call my sister back.

Suddenly, from the back of a construction truck ahead of him, six to eight boulders — ranging from one to three feet in diameter, fell off, bounced off the road at 60 miles per hour, and begun to move into his lane.

Says, Kelly:

“. . . Time slowed down. I began swerving in slow motion to avoid the boulders, while trying not to hit the guard rail on my right and staying out of the path of oncoming traffic. I don’t remember how I avoided the first five or six, but I ducked as each one flew past the cockpit in the video game that my car and my drive home from work had become.

I realized that the last boulder was coming in fast and low for the center of my front end, and that I needed to slow down, and if it hit my windshield it would pass through it like so much wax paper. I was ducking and sideways in my seat belt when it smashed into my front bumper.

Finally, he got stopped, clear of the guardrail and other cars and the falling boulders.  He was OK, but his car was totaled.

        Kelly’s experience serves not only as an example, but as an analogy, of what I’m talking about today in this 5th sermon of my sermon series, Church at the Passages of Life. Today, the ministry of the Church at the Crises of Life. I suppose, if I wanted a more colorful title, I could call it, “Beware of Falling Rocks.”

        Because, as we sail through life, somewhere out of the blue, the inevitable crises can strike without warning.  Such crises were once described by author Gail Sheehy as those life crises we can neither prevent nor predict. 

        Oh, I suppose if we were actuaries, we might.  The pure cold calculations of mortality.  How many people are going to die of cancer, how many of heart disease, how many of traumatic accidents.  Really, when you consider all the things that can go wrong, it’s amazing that we do well for as long as we do.

        Some of these crises are slow in onset, simmering beneath the surface, chronic disease which suddenly becomes acute.  Deteriorating relationships which finally erupt.   Emotional stress which leads to breakdown. 

Others may strike with no warning whatsoever.  The sudden crushing chest pain.  The car which comes out of nowhere.  Bad news of injury, or death.   Falling rocks bouncing down a roadway on a usually boring ride home.

        Probably nothing like these falling rocks of life — crises we may not be able to prevent nor predict — scares us more.

Quite frankly, they scare me too.  During my 17 years in West Chicago, as Police & Fire Chaplain and as a Firefighter-Paramedic, I saw what — in a moment’s notice — can go wrong.

I saw households shattered by homicide and cardiac arrest.  I extricated shattered bodies – sometimes mothers and children – out of cars.  I wished I could have reversed circumstances to prevent the fire deaths of two small children.  I stood in people’s living rooms – uninvited — and gave them the worst news of their lives, and saw them collapse under its inconsolable weight.  The knowledge that that is out there, which could happen to any of us at any time, scares me too.

The story is as old as one of the oldest books in the Bible,  the book of Job.  As phrased in modern times by Rabbi Harold Kushner, it is the search for an answer to the question, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”  Kushner wrote the book as a reaction to his own personal tragedy — his son Aaron died from premature aging.

In Job’s case, the worst happened to everything and everyone he cherished most.  He got boils over his whole body.  His entire family — his sons and daughters — were wiped out in a freak accident.  Perhaps worst of all, his so-called friends — Job’s comforters, we call them — showed up and accused him for what had happened.

And, in fact, there were heavenly scenes (which we did not read) that even Job was not privy to.  What had transpired in heaven, between God and Satan, that led — without his knowledge — to Job’s “test” of faith.

Because, for some reason, we feel better in the midst of suffering if we know there is a reason behind it, even if the reason is a bad one. In the ancient world, where scientific understandings were unknown, they only had religious ones. Even today, with scientific understandings, we grapple for the meaning behind our personal crisis: “Why did this happen to me?”   Some people are even willing to accept that crisis happens because God hates them, or wants to punish or test them, rather than believing that such things can happen to us fortuitously, for no apparent reason at all.  As one of my favorite cowboys, Augustus McCrae, says in Lonesome Dove, when a young Irishman dies after being bitten by poisonous snakes, “There’s accidents in life, and he met a bad one.”

Finally, that’s what the book of Job is about. Shamelessly, in the midst of his suffering, Job’s comforters blamed him. But Job steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, until God appears, rebukes his comforters, and says, in effect, “Job, there’s just some things you can’t understand.”

        When such crises of life – such falling rocks hit – how can the Church help us?

        Well, one of the major ways is what I have already talked about, by building our faith to find meaning even when no meaning is apparent. To make our suffering, even when it is apparently meaningless, redemptive. Sometimes that happens through comforting us, and sometimes that happens through challenging us, to grow up, to grow beyond our simplistic, naive understandings.  That’s why participation in “church” is so important.

        It’s like this.  Last January in West Chicago, we had a fatal house fire.  It came in on a Sunday afternoon, announced with the words every fireman dreads: “Structure fire, with children trapped inside.”  One of my friends on the incoming company risked his life to go in over the fire, find and rescue those two children, even though it turned out to be too late to save them.  It is the ultimate test for any fireman.  For his efforts he and his Lieutenant received the DuPage County 100 Club’s Award of Valor.

        Afterwards, as we talked about it, we realized what it had taken to prepare him for that ultimate test: all the training, all the drills, all the evolutions crawling around the floors of unfamiliar buildings with a blacked-out face masks, all of his previous career had prepared him for that moment.

        In a similar way, every worship service you’ve ever attended, every Scripture you’ve read, every sermon you’ve heard, every study you attended, helped prepare you for the day in your life when crisis comes, as it eventually does for us all.  No wonder Jesus taught us to pray in our daily prayer, “Deliver me from evil.”

        But the second way the church ministers to us at such times of crisis is this:  through the support of those who care for us.  As the little boy said, when told that God was with him, that he preferred “someone with “skin on.”  That might be a Pastor or Chaplain, or it might be another parishioner.  

        As a pastor, and as a chaplain, I’ve had the humbling opportunity to help people this way.  The saying for chaplains is, “At first you’re afraid they won’t call you. Then, after they do, you’re afraid they will call you.”  Pastors can bring the symbols and rituals and prayers of the church, we can help you think in the midst of crisis-induced shock when you no longer can  think, and perhaps most importantly, we can help you mobilize the support of family and friends, as well as other professionals, such as counselors.  But of course, I can’t do any of that if I don’t know.

        Sometimes, though, even better, when there is nothing to be done and nothing to be said, the very best support you can get is “non-professional:” those — both clergy and laity — who will come to be with you, to pray for you and with you, to give, to embrace, to comfort, and to support.  And sometimes I mean that literally.  I have literally held people up to keep them from falling.

It is true there are hypocrites in the church, but there are also those who are heroic.  I have seen people in congregations pull together for people in crisis, by offering calls, casseroles, money, patterning, tutoring, by giving rides and doing home repair, by visiting the sick and the lonely, by being there at all hours of the day and night when no one else was available.   The compassionate ministry of people in churches to those in need has been and is heroic.  I’ve not only done it; I’ve received it, and it is one of the best reasons I know to belong to a community of faith.

Believe me, I wish I could promise you it will never happen, or even — in the midst of it — that all be OK.  There are some — myself included — who dislike the last chapter of the Book of Job, as a likely addition to the story.  Because it’s a little too unreal, a little too “and they all lived happily ever after.”  But however the story of Job really turned out, what it did do was make Job and Job’s faith in God stronger, in the sense of, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Reflecting upon the experience he had, Lee Kelley said:

“ . . . Believe it or not, I’m glad the accident happened. I must have needed the lesson because already, after a short 16 months of being home from Iraq, I had begun to take life for granted again even though that is the one thing I swore to myself I’d never do . . . .

It’s amazing how much we all try to get done in a given week, month or life. We’re some busy creatures. And yet sometimes, even when we least expect it, mortality strikes our consciences like lightning electrocuting the endless Middle Eastern sky.

In this instance it was a boulder that brought the lesson to me. Two years ago mortars, rockets, and any number of other possible deaths were keeping me honest on a daily basis. I’m hoping that if I keep watching, and keep learning, someday I won’t need these blatant wake-up calls.” (October 22, 2007, The New York Times, “Mortality Strikes,” by Lee Kelley.)

        Beware the falling rocks of life.  But when they do come, thank God for the ministry of the Church in our lives.  Amen.

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