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Wit and Wisdom of Gateway Church Athens GA

As we begin our new church life … so too a new blog!

I want to give you the outline of the book.  There are 11 very interesting chapters.  I plan on following the order of the chapters, but I will supplement many of the ideas in the chapters with other author’s material.  Authors such as CS Lewis, Brady Boyd, Joni Ericson Tada and many others have a lot to say on the subject of suffering and I want to get every one’s perspective.

The 11 chapter headings are:

1.    Tragic Choices: Determining the origins of Evil and Suffering
2.    What’s wrong? I am: Accepting the reality of inherited sin
3.    Alternative Answers: Examining Explanations for Evil and Suffering
4.    A Clash of Worldviews: Investigating relativism, atheism, and the "problem" of goodness
5.    The Great Drama: Reviewing the roles of evil and suffering in Christ’s redemptive work
6.    Why so much evil?: Questioning why God allows Evil and delay’s justice
7.    God’s control and our freedom: Discovering how God rules despite our choices
8.    Are we promised prosperity?: recovering a Biblical view of health and wealth
9.    The World we long for: Exploring God’s eternal solution to evil and suffering
10.    Wanting more clarity: wrestling with the reasons for our suffering
11.    What we can do: Finding perspective in our suffering
   
Today we start on chapter 1, "Tragic Choices".

The book begins with a story we are all familiar with.  Somebody’s child is killed in a car accident.  The father (who is a pastor) rants and raves at God asking the understandable question: “Why?”  Then he makes a statement I found insightful.  He states:
    “In the silence I began to hear the voice of God … then, without any announcement, when I became silent, God spoke to my soul.  He had an answer for each of my three questions.”

When it comes to asking why, I think I must move to the head of the line.  Why is my middle name!  In one of our recent adult classes, the teacher mentioned that she had asked God this question: “Where were you when the sexual abuse was going on?”  I asked God the same question.  Where were you?  I found what the pastor said was true.  When I became silent, God gave me some very specific answers to my question.

When it comes to suffering and all of the associated pain and grief that goes with it, it’s ok to ask questions.  I think this pastor’s brief testimony brings out some excellent points we should remember.

1.    You have to cultivate the ability to hear God.
2.    It’s ok to ask questions.  God will answer you, He wants to communicate with you.
3.    It is hard to hear God in the middle of a storm.

Elijah is a good example of hearing God.

1 Kin 19:11-13 NASB ¶ So He said, "Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD." And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; {but} the LORD {was} not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, {but} the LORD {was} not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, {but} the LORD {was} not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard {it,} he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice {came} to him and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

I think this speaks of God’s presence in the middle of the storms we face.  With all of the noise and tumult we experience when we are in a storm, we must remember to listen for the small voice, the quiet voice.  That is the voice we want to follow.

Jesus spoke of hearing God’s voice:

John 10:3-5 NASB "To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. "When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. "A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers."

Hearing from God has two immediate benefits that I can see.

1.    You can hear him concerning comfort.  When you are in the middle of a muddle, you need comfort.  That’s the Holy Spirit’s job description.
2.    You can hear him for directions.  Obviously, when you are in serious difficult situations you need to have guidance and understanding of how to proceed.  Again, this is what the Holy Spirit does, provide guidance as well as comfort.

John 16:13-14 "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. "He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose {it} to you.

As I write this, I learned one of my favorite athletic personalities just revealed she has the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  Pat Summitt has been a model of leadership in the world of women’s athletics.  She is a fine Christian woman and a strong leader.  I am sure she would agree she find’s herself in a difficult situation.  She probably was caught off guard by this.  Yet her response is indicative of her strong faith.  I pray for her and hope you will too.  This statement from the Tennessee athletic department speaks for the impact of Pat Summit’s life:

For Pat to stand-up and share her health news is just a continuing example of her courage. Life is an unknown and none of us have a crystal ball. But I do have a record of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for; excellence, strength, honesty and courage.

He is right when he says life is an unknown.  This fact alone is why it is important for us to prepare for life’s unknown elements as much as we can by studying God’s word and developing an intimate relationship with Him.

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“The Goodness of God” by Randy Alcorn is a book that strikes a nerve deep within my heart.  He dives into a subject that has long been one of the most perplexing to mankind, “Why is there suffering and evil”.  My own testimony as well as that of so many others at Gateway is one where this question has more than passing relevance.  Everyone we know deals with this problem.  Some more than others. While we can always find someone who has experienced more or less than we have, the question always comes back to the big “Why”?

The author lays a foundation for us in the introduction to the book:

To come to grips with the problem of evil and suffering, you must do more than hear heart-wrenching stories about suffering people.  You must hear God’s truth to help you interpret those stories. … You will not find relief unless you gain perspective.

Before I started this study, these scriptures from Isaiah were forefront in my thinking:

Is 55:8-9 Amp For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

The ideas that God “allows” suffering or the companion thought of God “causes” suffering to teach us are prevalent thoughts that I want to understand.  God “allows” everything, so for me, the idea that God “allows” my suffering is a non starter.  You will either go crazy trying to think your way around that particular thought or end up in a place that is unscriptural.  But the idea that God causes suffering and pain in order for us to learn about Him is difficult for me to accept.  Yet there are many great thinkers and Christian writers who seem to think that exact thought.

The purpose of this study is to get some of these ideas out in the open and wrestle with them.

There are a couple of other really good points in the introduction I want to touch on.  First of all, how we answer this question will radically affect the way we perceive our world and God’s place in it.  The problem of evil and suffering is the basis the “new atheists” claim they don’t believe in God.  So as Christians, we need to study and understand what God says about it.

2 Tim 3:16-17 Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration) and profitable for instruction, for reproof {and} conviction of sin, for correction of error {and} discipline in obedience, [and] for training in righteousness (in holy living, in conformity to God’s will in thought, purpose, and action), So that the man of God may be complete {and} proficient, well fitted {and} thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The second benefit of this study will be in exposing what the author calls “inadequate theology”.  When evil and suffering show their ugly heads, you may discover (as I have) that your theological underpinnings simply won’t hold up under the weight of life.  This process of learning can be extremely difficult and painful.  It can then become a turning point in your Christian life.  The destruction of weak, inadequate theology is a good thing.  It is important that the foundation of our life is built on the solid ground of God’s word and not the shifting sands of popular ideas.

The idea of this study is for us to be able to understand the character of the Gateway community.  We have seen suffering and pain and God seems to send us those who need ministry in the difficult situations of life.  I believe in pursuing this study, we will see more clearly where God wants to take us and who we are a a body of believers.

I plan on supporting the book with other ideas and thoughts from many other authors.  I find this study is an ever expanding one for me.  I want to know what the great thinkers thoughts are on this subject.  Of course, what God says about it is what really counts.  I think following the paths and rabbit trails of life will give God plenty of room to work with as He teaches us more about His good character and His love.

One last thought, this blog will be less than effective if you don’t participate.  Please comment and post your thoughts.  Only in that way can we learn what God wants for us.

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Pastor Tom asked us to begin to consider looking at our mission statement, “Helping people experience God” and see if we can better define who we are. Personally, I like the statement. I think it is a goal worthy of achievement. We live in a time when so many people don’t have a clue about who God is and what the Christian life is all about. I feel Gateway does know God and we have experienced God in so many ways. So I am comfortable with the statement as it stands.

But I want to honor Tom’s request to consider changing it. So I’ve thought about the statement and evaluated it in the light of where we are today. Is it still relevant? Does it communicate effectively who we are as a body? Does it tell people what God has called us to do as a body of believers? Gateway has undergone serious changes in the last several years. Perhaps a new vision is appropriate for reflecting these changes and what God is doing in us and through us now.

With that background I must say there is a need to evaluate the statement, if not change it altogether. It may well be the right mission statement for us. It may not be. So I’ve been thinking about how can I go about searching out this most important element of our existence as a local expression of the body of Christ. I would like to share some of my thoughts with you.

The first thought is this: Gateway is a body of believers who have survived serious struggles. As I look at Gateway I see people who have survived:

    •    Addictions of all kinds
    •    Suicide
    •    Family murders
    •    Sexual and child abuse
    •    Prison
    •    Financial setbacks
    •    Abandonment of all kinds
    •    Cancer Survivors
    •    Heart attack survivors

There are a lot of Gateway members who have been here for years. That tells me they don’t run when the going gets tough. They are not quitters. Mature believers trust God when times are tough. Gateway members know how to persevere through tough times.

The second thought is this: The members of Gateway pull together for each other when the need arises. It doesn’t matter what it is, we pull together. That would include financial hardships, accidents, hospital needs and any other need you can think of. I’ve been here for close to 25 years, and I can’t think of a time when there has been a need we haven’t risen to the challenge. Not one time.

The third thought is this: Gateway is familiar with suffering and pain. The challenges we have faced have molded us and shaped us to be more Christlike as we walk hand in hand with the Lord to deal with very difficult issues.

It is this third area I want to talk about. Over the last 23 years, I don’t remember a time when we purposely set about to study what God’s Word says about persecution, suffering and affliction. What is God’s perspective on it? I think if you look at Gateway, you see people who have suffered. While you can always find someone who has suffered more than you and less than you, there is one common element between all of us: suffering is a part of life.

I think it would benefit us as a body to study this very important subject together. Lets study what God says about suffering. Lets talk to Him, argue with Him and question Him. Lets ask Him for His perspective on this most important subject that affects everyone in the human race. I believe if we take the time to work through this subject together, being guided by the Lord, we will gain some fresh perspective about who we are at Gateway.

Many of us have seen people come to Gateway hurting and in bad shape emotionally. We’ve seen them come with physical pains such as cancer and other diseases. We’ve seen them bear the death of loved ones. I believe with this study, the Lord can give us valuable insight in a subject people need help with.

The book I would suggest we study is “The Goodness of God” by Randy Alcorn. It is a short book with 11 chapters and 104 pages. It is packed full of Scriptures and would generate a tremendous amount of discussion and thought.

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I’ve thought about how we could implement this study. I was going to offer a class on it, but quickly decided that may not be the best method for this study. Tom Crane suggested I blog the study. That way people can access it at a time of their own choosing and if a class is warranted, people will make that known. I like his idea.

So starting this next week, I will begin the blog-study on suffering. I ask for your prayers, because I believe this will be a very difficult study, but very rewarding. I don’t have answers. I used to have all the answers, but that was eon’s ago. The longer I live, the more questions I have. I get some of them answered, but more often than not, the answers lead to more questions.

I ask for your participation. We all need to hear comments and feedback. This study will be no different.

My first posting will have the outline I propose to follow and then we will be off and running!!!!

I look forward to a significant class that I believe the Lord will use to guide us to much fuller understand of who we are as a body and where He wants us to go.

Lord: Please guide us and show us what you want us to do and how you want us to minister to the Athens community.

Today, the Lord taught me a lesson I hope I NEVER forget.

I went to the doctor this morning to figure out what was wrong with my shoulder.  I was sitting in his office when they called me to sign in.  I went to the window and paid my $40 co-pay.  I was grumbling about it but when I went back to sit down I saw a vision of Frieda in Sunday school class saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you".  I knew immediately I was caught in the sin of un-thankfulness and being un-grateful.  I recognized the sin and as I sat down, I spent the better part of the next 10 or 15 minutes apologizing to the Lord for being un-grateful.

I told the Lord I don’t want to exhibit these sinful patterns in my life.  I thought about what I have and how fortunate I am to have a good job with good insurance the $40 bucks for the co-pay.  The more I thought about what I have, the more apologetic I became to the Lord.

I also thank God for Frieda and her faithfulness to teach our Sunday School class.  She and the Lord chose a book that is stimulating in discussion and provides me with much thought and discussion with the Lord.

It seems like this is becoming a habit lately.

I was at the home office for a week’s meeting. I stayed until Thursday and while I normally would leave early in the morning (6-8 AM) I was unable to get out of town until around noon. I was planning to make the entire drive that day and it would have put me in Athens around 10:30 PM. But it didn’t work out that way. It was hot and I was in my business attire rather than my "travel" attire, so I was uncomfortable for the drive. Lexington is only 3 hours down the road, but I was so hot and tired I simply couldn’t make it past there comfortably. So I stayed in Lexington.

Later I got a call from the pastor indicating his lovely wife’s niece’s husband was in the hospital in Lexington after suffering brain surgery. Would I go see him? Sure I said so I get the particulars of the situation and away I go. I decided to ask for directions rather than GPS the address. It took 45 minutes to find something I could have GPS’ ed in 10 minutes. I wasn’t in a hurry and I decided against the technological answer. (This is actually key to the story!)

I arrived and met with the patient and had a wonderful 20 minutes or so of fellowship. I prayed and left. As I got on the elevator, a rather haggard looking woman got on with me. She looked really beat down. As I closed the door I asked her if she was ok, because she looked like she had a rough day.

She told me it had a been a horrible week. She came to do a brief visit with her dad and he had a stroke while she was there. There were some rather serious complications that developed and they had to put him in the hospital. His wife was in bed at home with severe depression. To top it off, her husband was at home and not available to help her. I told her I was just passing through and my pastor had asked me to stop and pray for someone. "Oh, are you a pastor?" I assured her I wasn’t but I was the lay leader of my church and I asked her if I could pray with her when she got to her car. At that she started to choke up and she said that would be a wonderful idea.

As we got to the car, I prayed using a model given to us at our last prayer training. I don’t remember exactly what I prayed but I do know I asked God to bless her and give her encouragement. She smiled at me and said she had asked the Lord that morning for some encouragement today and that I was it!

I smiled and as I left I thought about being an answer to someone’s prayer. What happened was a real encouragement for me in several ways:

First of all it tells me God is using the everyday elements of my life and speaking to me through them. I don’t normally get tired yet this time I was so tired I decided to stop at Lexington for the evening. Then when the pastor called, I was willing to go pray. I decided to take my time for once and skipped the whole technological thing and did the old "manual GPS" methodology we used in 70’s and 80’s. I asked directions and plowed my way through town to the hospital.

The folks I went to see are strong Christians and as such were armed with faith and gratitude for God’s goodness. While I was there several people came to see him and they too were strong in faith. As the crowd started to grow we held hands and prayed and I excused myself.

I assumed the people I was there to pray for was the purpose of my trip, but I don’t think it was. Meeting the lady on the elevator was the real reason. God is so meticulous about His timing, that he had me bag my GPS equipment and pursue a course that took just enough time for me to be there when the lady got on the elevator. Had I used the GPS I would have missed her.

We don’t know what impact a simple decision may have on others lives. My decision to stay in Lexington and my decision to go to the hospital and my decision to pray for a lady I had never met all came together in God’s timing to bless someone that so desperately needed it.

Isn’t God good!

I had an experience yesterday that I find to be utterly amazing. I’m not at all surprised about God’s part in it, I’m just surprised He used me.

Tuesday as I was eating dinner, two Muslim women cut in front of me in line. They were fully garbed in Muslim dress and I just stood there. As I think back on it, I am sure I was glaring. As I “glared” at them, I had the most horrible series of thoughts go through my mind. The thoughts were simply right out of the pit of hell. I immediately told the Lord I was sorry, I hated the fact I thought those thoughts and worse, that they represented what I actually thought inside. I repented but I don’t think I asked for anything. I was really too ashamed to ask for anything. I just shook my head and moved on.

Fast forward to yesterday. I am on my way home and buzzing through Atlanta traffic. I had just talked to a friend for quite a while concerning prayer and a number of other church related issues. I hadn’t eaten and thought I would stop at one of my favorite restaurants to eat. I jumped off 85 and went there to eat. As I walked in, two Muslim women were in front of me in line. I stood there looking at them, not really thinking about anything. The taller of the two looked at me, smiled and told me to go ahead. I did and as I went by them, I sensed something about them that was stirring my spirit. I didn’t know what, but something. I ordered and as I walked down the line and started to pay, I looked back at them and I immediately saw a $20 bill flash in my mind. I was shocked and looked back at my tray and paid. I looked back at them again (thinking I might get a 10 or two 5’s) and again the $20 bill was there. I turned to the little Chinese lady running the cash register and gave her a twenty and told her to apply it to those ladies bill. She smiled and nodded.

I grabbed my food and split as fast as I could because I wanted to get out of line to avoid the ladies. I didn’t think it would be prudent to be there. I went to the farthest part of the dinning and room and sat purposely behind a post so they couldn’t see me. I made sure they couldn’t see me. I thanked the Lord for what He did, although I wasn’t sure of what He did. I looked up from my prayer and there was the little Chinese lady standing in front of me waving a 20 and pointing towards the cash register where two clearly confused Muslim women were standing and looking directly at me. The Chinese lady asked me if those two ladies were who I was talking about and then pointed directly at the two women. I was mortified but I said “Yes, that’s them”. She said (honestly she did) “Okray Dokrey” and smiled and walked off. The next thing I knew a very tall Muslim woman was standing beside me and said (with a huge smile) “Thank you”. I told her she was welcome and turned to finish lunch. I then heard as clear as a bell “Tell them you did that because you are a Christian”. At this point, I realize I haven’t eaten much because I lost my appetite about 5 minutes ago. So I got up, went over to their table and pulled out a chair and sat down. I had no clue what I was going to say. But as I opened my mouth here is what I told them: “I am a Christian and I wanted you to know that not all Christians hate Muslims. I believe the Lord told me to buy your lunch to let you know that He Loves you.” I don’t have words to describe their smiles. I asked their names. “I am Esra said the tall lady” “I am Wreeim” said the shorter lady. I asked her where she was from, she smiled a smile that was one of the most engaging smiles I’ve ever seen, “I’m, from Jerusalem!” Oh really I said. You know Bethlehem is close by don’t you. Her face kinda scrunched up with a bit of a confused look and Esra put her hand on my arm and said “I will explain to her” with a big smile. I smiled back and left.

Isn’t God good!!!!!!