Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Take Shelter (or, what is: Our Response to Dangerous Things)

Back in 2007 my best friend, Lane Moss, was working as an intern at our home church in Muskogee, Oklahoma. They cleared away some mops and buckets, and Lane squeezed a chair between some boxes and turned the broom closet into a nice little office. Lane was taking part in the internship in order to complete his degree of Biblical Literature in Youth Ministry from Ozark Christian College, in Joplin, Missouri (yeah, that Joplin). The majority of his time was spent working alongside the youth minister as they taught, led, mentored and hung out with Junior High and High School students. But, as is always the case with this position everywhere, being an intern means Lane did more than just youth ministry stuff. Because the trash isn’t going to take itself out. Plus, since his desk was made of trash bag boxes anyway, he was closest…
Really, this was a cool setup. If you ask Lane, he won’t be lying when he says he is grateful for all that he was able to experience and work through. Not limiting his responsibilities to just creating and teaching solid material to the students, this allowed him to serve in all aspects of ‘Church Work.’ In every way from helping in the nursery to making hospital calls, from managing finances to setting up and running media, he feasted on service. They even let him preach at ‘Big Church’ a couple times.
I’ve added it up. Including the two sermons Lane preached that I sat through that year, I’ve heard a lot of sermons. To make it clear: A LOT. Of the number of sermons too big to count, there are 3 I can readily recall as easily this afternoon as any other time since they first reached my ears. These three have stuck with me like house insulation sticks to a car after a tornado. They’re not going anywhere. Though they are rarely played on my ipod, the points within these sermons remain always fresh and true. In, Can Man Live Without God, Ravi Zacharias puts words on the futility I feel when I’m acting like I can act and actually accomplish anything on my own; works through the reason for, and reality of, this sense of emptiness; and speaks clearly about our source of purpose. Through Ten Shekels and a Shirt, Paris Reidhead still forces me to continually answer the questions, Why am I serving? Towards what purpose am I working? And every time Lane’s sermon comes to mind, I’m stuck singing “The bunny, the BUNNY, whoa I love the bunny…” for at least a half day afterwards. (In my last post I wrote about how streams of random thoughts link together in my mind. Check there if you’re curious.)
His last day of the internship was also his last time to preach in ‘Big Church.’ Whatever way it fit into the sermon series of the time, the elders and staff decided to have Lane preach through the text of Daniel chapter 3. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. This sermon, one of the three sermons planted firmly in my mind, is titled The God of the Furnace

Along with everybody else in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar expected, ordered these guys to bow down to his statue at the sound of music (I told you it was evil). I wonder how long it took them to decide what their action was going to be. Did they reach their decision quickly? Were they steadfast about it from that moment on? Did second thoughts increase as the anxiety grew and the moment to live out their decision to remain upright came nearer?
They’re not deaf. They heard the music. Yet there they stood. I wish it was told in the text what was going through the minds of these three guys in between the moment they remained standing amongst the now fallen, and the moment they were confronted by the furious king. Surely God will save us. At least, He can save us. Here he comes. God, please save us. A Take this cup from me type of prayer.
We don’t know their thoughts or actions in this space between. At least we know their response after the king gave them a second chance to fall. “Shadrach, Meshach, and, Abednego replied, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up’” (Daniel 3:16=18 NLT).
Our brothers stood their ground. And the king stuck to his word.
Pray as they might, God did not deliver them from the furnace.
But even if he doesn’t…
Not too far below The Flood and Daniel and the Lions’ Den, this story falls in line with other popular Bible stories you’ll likely hear at VBS if nowhere else. Frederick Buechner talks about what we call “children’s Bible stories” in his book, The Hungering Dark. In the chapter, “A Sprig of Hope,” our friend Fred ponders why it is that we take stories as tragic as Noah’s Ark and turn them into cute little cardboard cut outs and coloring books to be used as activities in church kindergarten classes. The events recorded in Daniel 3 surrounding our brothers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego carry the same tragedy. He supposes as horrific as these events are, it’s at least better to color them in bright blues and yellows than to forget them all together. This way we can store them in mind until we’re ready to see them in the light of what’s going on.
Whatever the reason we do so, it is tempting to overlook the glaring horror of the situation God allowed them – Noah, Rack, Shack and Benny – to be a part of, and jump right to the good stuff at the end. It’s easy to go straight to the bearded and naked Noah dancing beneath the rainbow; the three Servants of the Most High God strutting out of the blazing furnace without even a scent of smoke. It’s good to know the conclusions of these stories. A story is not a story without an ending. But at the same time, an ending loses its weight if the tragedy in the middle is glanced over. The Waters came and with it came an ocean of death. Though they were obeying God with everything they had on the ground they stood, God did not deliver these men from the furnace.
A lot of books lining my bookcase are written by a variety of different authors who attempt to answer the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” If I want to be intellectually sound, I can’t overlook the apologies these books offer in response to this question. In at least some sense, this question has been answered. However, as is stated in C. S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed, when you and I are drowning in this present sorrow, those academic answers ring hollow in our ears. There is no comfort in these rebuttals.
I see that I have written a whole lot for not really wanting to say much. I’m not trying to answer why Moore, OK, is going through what it’s going through. Why Shawnee, OK, is going through what it’s going through. There really is only one thing I want to say. It’s what is giving me some comfort, at least some clarity, right now. Sometimes God rescues us. Sometimes he doesn’t. But in every situation, be it furnace, firing squad, earthquake, hurricane, or hunkered down with me in Bed, Bath and Beyond on I-35 and 19th St, and everyone else everywhere else in Moore, OK, while the tornado ripped and plowed its way through town, the thing that is constant is that God never abandons us in our sufferings. If nothing else, He goes into the furnace with us.
Our God knows suffering. He chooses to suffer with us when we suffer. Sometimes He rescues us from the Furnace. Sometimes He rescues us in the Furnace.  

Stay with us, Immanuel.

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