Posts Tagged ‘Brittany Maynard Fund’

Sermon 10-12-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9b: Elijah”

October 22, 2014

superhero graphic

In today’s scripture, a drought has caused widespread famine. A widow is worried about having enough food to feed herself and her young son. In spite of this, the prophet Elijah asks her to feed him first—and then feed herself and her boy. This was a major test of faith. The question she must have asked herself was: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me?” This sermon explores some ways in which that same question is relevant for us today. This is the second of two sermons on this text.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the early 2000s, when I was working as an engineer, I traveled frequently. And once I was slated to go to Toronto, Canada, where I was going to be working at a Coca-Cola plant. It just so happened that there was an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus in Toronto called SARS. Remember SARS? And on the news, they showed people walking around the streets of Toronto wearing surgical masks out of fear that they, too, would catch SARS. And I was worried, too, frankly. I didn’t want to fly to Toronto and catch SARS while I was there. But I was also way too vain to go to Toronto and walk around wearing a surgical mask like the people I saw on TV. I didn’t want to look dumb. So I had pretty well convinced myself that I was going to go to Canada and get this deadly disease. Oh well…

As it turns out, the trip to Canada got canceled anyway. So I didn’t end up getting SARS.

But I’m reminded of that same kind of fear when I follow the news today. Because now, once again, we face a new public health crisis—a deadly new contagious disease that some of us are worried about: Ebola.

In fact, I sense that we’re living in a new season of fear… And our fear is way out of proportion to the actual threat. When it comes to Ebola, for example, from what I’ve read, it is very difficult to contract the disease. An Ebola sufferer doesn’t become really contagious with the disease until they’re really, really sick. So of course doctors and nurses have to take great precautions when treating someone with Ebola, but it’s unlikely that Ebola could be spread on a subway car… or out in public.

And we’re afraid And if we’re not afraid of Ebola, there are plenty of other things to worry about: like the renewed fear of Islamic terrorism. So we’re trying to contain the threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And there’s even fear that the Secret Service can’t protect the President and the first family—there have been break-ins at the White House!

Fear!

In today’s scripture, the people of Israel were afraid. It hadn’t rained in over a year with no end in sight. As God had communicated through the prophet Elijah, God was withholding the rain from Israel and the surrounding nations as punishment for God’s people turning away from him and worshiping Baal instead. Baal was considered the god of rain. Baal supposedly controlled the weather. So our God, the one true God, wanted to prove to his people that he was actually in control. So God keeps Elijah alive by sending him out of Israel, about 90 miles north to a city called Zarephath, in Sidon. God tells Elijah that there’s a widow there who will feed him. We talked about how Elijah answered that call to go there in last week’s sermon. This week, I want look at the widow herself. Read the rest of this entry »

“In the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace”

October 16, 2014

whitebol

Nancy Writebol, the missionary nurse in Liberia who contracted Ebola and was successfully treated at Emory University Hospital last July, was interviewed for this week’s Christianity Today. Her words reminded me of my sermon last week. As I discussed the headlines involving Brittany Maynard, I quoted James 1:2-3: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Count it all joy. Does “all” mean all? This is a hard truth but true nonetheless: God has what Tim Keller calls a “causal relationship with suffering”—meaning that God has good reasons for permitting it. As bad as our present suffering may be, we may trust that the alternative to our suffering—given this fallen world and its sin-filled circumstances—would be even worse. Even suffering, therefore, serves God’s purposes. The good news, as a consequence, is that God has the power to redeem it and use it for our good.

As I’ve said many times before, if God can transform the worst evil and suffering on the cross of his Son Jesus into the world’s greatest good, then he certainly has the power to redeem lesser evil and suffering—even our own.

Many Christians resist this idea. But I wonder: Would they rather God have no control over our suffering—and merely watch from the sidelines of our lives with pity? In that case, God would not be the God revealed to us in Jesus.

Writebol doesn’t pretend to understand why she contracted Ebola or why she was healed while so many others weren’t. Nevertheless, she said, “I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: ‘This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.'”

Here are some relevant excerpts from the interview:

How did you wrestle spiritually with the fact that you contracted Ebola and lived while many of your colleagues did not?

It is a wrestle. First of all, we don’t know the mind of God and why the Lord allowed me to survive and some of my African brothers and sisters not to survive. I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: “This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.”

God has allowed us to survive, and there are many African brothers and sisters who are surviving Ebola. We give God glory for those who are surviving. But it’s like cancer or any disease: some survive and some don’t. I trust the Lord in what he’s doing and how he’s working. He’s brought awareness to the Ebola crisis, which has helped in getting a vaccine and a serum that can maybe help, and in raising awareness for the rest of the African countries that are suffering.

Did you ever ask God why you got sick?

I don’t know that I ever asked “Why, God?” or “Why?” I know that I received peace from the Lord. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t dark times. All of us in Liberia felt that the week that Dr. Brantly and I were really struggling, there was a spiritual battle going on—there were some very, very dark days. But also in the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace…

To what extent had you already been thinking through these theological issues simply because you had been treating Ebola for several weeks?

I always felt safe going. I trusted the Lord that we were the hands and feet of Christ. I had experienced Christ’s peace way before I ever contracted Ebola. [After I got sick,] my relationship with the Lord deepened, knowing he was in control. He was in control of what was happening, and it was not a surprise to God. He has our days numbered.

Following up on yesterday’s sermon

October 13, 2014
Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she'll end her life on November 1.

Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she’ll end her life on November 1.

In yesterday’s sermon, I connected perhaps the two biggest news items last week—Ebola and Brittany Maynard—with the scripture on which I was preaching, Elijah and the widow from Zarephath from 1 Kings 17:8-24.

The sermon was well received. One parishioner said she was surprised to hear a Methodist pastor speak with clarity and conviction on a hot-button subject like physician-assisted suicide, or so-called “death with dignity.” Is she saying that we namby-pamby Methodist preachers wouldn’t risk offending anyone? Perish the thought! Regardless, for whatever reason, Maynard’s story struck a chord with me. I blogged about it last week, and while I borrowed words from that blog post, I expanded on them, in part to address some thoughtful criticism of that post.

One commenter on my blog wondered whether I failed to express sufficient compassion for Maynard’s plight as someone dying of brain cancer. She was probably right. As I tried to make clear in yesterday’s sermon, however, my criticism of her decision and the cause that she’s advocating in no way detracts from my compassion.

In yesterday’s scripture, Elijah asks the widow to deny her maternal instinct to keep her young son alive and her human instinct to keep herself alive by using her last handful of four and oil to feed Elijah first. I asked, “Isn’t it hard to trust in the Lord like that? My faith has never been so badly tested… yet.”

Speaking of which, it is with great sympathy that I read last week—along with many of you—the story of a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard, who is dying of a brain cancer in Portland, Oregon. She announced publicly through CNN that with the help of a doctor, she will end her life on November 1st. She says she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, without going through painful cancer treatments, without lingering for weeks or months in hospice, without putting her husband, and family, and friends through the heartache of watching her die. And she’s advocating for the cause of physician-assisted suicide.

I promise I feel great compassion for her. I watched my own father take his last breaths in hospice care many years ago. And in my job as pastor I’ve seen people of all ages succumb to cancer and other terrible diseases, and I’ve ministered to them and their loved ones with a heavy heart and sometimes with tears. In spite of that, I’m deeply troubled by her decision to end her life like this—and since she’s made it a public issue in order to convince us to change our minds and change our laws regarding suicide, I don’t mind sharing with you why I think she’s wrong.

After sharing the insights from my blog post, including the words of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, I returned to a recurring theme in recent sermons:

You know, I’ve preached a lot recently about all these contemporary Christian martyrs who are suffering and even dying for their faith all around the world. And I speak of them with a sense of wonder and amazement at how courageous they are—that they can stare death in the face and simply accept it, as a consequence of their faith in Christ. And I speak of them as if their example and courage and witness are something unusual and exotic—something to which most of us would have a hard time relating. But that can’t be right. Because I’ve been privileged enough to be at the bedside of dozens of Christians who’ve faced their own death not with fear, but with this same kind faithfulness, and courage, and equanimity, and hope. They teach me—they teach us—how to die as a Christian.

I pray that Brittany will find this same courage, this same peace, this same hope, which comes from our Lord Jesus, before she makes this irreversible decision to end her life.

In the sermon, I also dealt with the implicit question that the widow must have asked herself: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will there be enough left over for me?” Another way of asking: If I surrender my life to Jesus and seek to be faithful to him, will my own needs be met?

I can’t tell you how this last question resonates with me. Because I’m constantly frustrated that some of my “needs” (if you want to call them that) continue to be unmet by Jesus: my need for recognition, for instance—for awards, for praise, for the kind of objective “success” that other people would recognize and appreciate. After all, if I can’t be “successful” as a pastor (by which, let’s face it, I really mean more successful than my clergy colleagues) what good am I?

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous that some part of me keeps craving these things! Perhaps by withholding them from me, the Lord is starving the sinful impulse entirely. I hope so, because even if I got what I think I needed, it would never be enough. My ego’s appetite is without limit.

Just in the past several days, a clergy colleague posted on Facebook (on two different occasions, I’m sorry to have noticed) that he’s recently baptized dozens and received many more into membership in his church. I read these words and can’t be happy for him—not really. Because I feel judged by him and his success. I wonder, “What am I doing wrong? After all, despite my best efforts, I haven’t baptized dozens.”

It makes me depressed.

When I feel this way, I find that prayer helps. I sense that Jesus is telling me, “Just be faithful to me, and you’ll be O.K. I’ll take care of you. I’ll give you what you really need. I promise.”

“Life still expects something from you”

October 8, 2014

euthanasia

Given the tone of this article, which was reprinted in USA Today and received much sympathetic approval on social media, I find myself strangely unmoved by this 29-year-old cancer patient’s decision to end her life later this month. Whatever else her decision may be, it is deeply unchristian. It denies the fact that God gives us each moment of life as a gift. It also denies that God could have any purpose for permitting someone to suffer—what Tim Keller rightly calls God’s “causal relationship with suffering.”

Easy for me to say, I know. I’m a big coward who doesn’t want to suffer, either. But when suffering comes—and it will come to all of us in one form or another—God wants us to endure it and bear witness to our faith in the One who suffered far worse than we ever will.

I’m reminded of something that psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl said to fellow inmates who were thinking of walking into electrical fences and ending their lives: “You may want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Life still expects something out of us, which is another way of saying that God expects something from us—for as long as he gives us life. If God didn’t, he would stop giving us that life.

Again, I say this as a coward who never wants to endure that kind of trial. But make no mistake: it is nothing less than a test of faith that I hope I’ll pass if—God forbid—suffering of that magnitude comes my way.

We follow a Savior, after all, who asks us to lay down our lives. That might include laying down our dignity as well.