Our reading from Acts has a rather abrupt feel to it. We get no background, just a man named Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, being stoned to death. It does include a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God and Stephen's final words. But who Stephen was, who is stoning him and especially WHY was he being killed is not explained. And all that is in the full chapter, the lectionary reading just doesn't include these details.
What I want to do today is play off this incomplete/abrupt story and the why's it leaves unanswered. In our congregation today, many of you are living lives with why's that aren't understood; challenges that we don't all see nor do the people get to understand the “why” for their sufferings. I'm going to share first person stories from four sources that reflect some of the very things some of our members are facing today.
(scene shift) What lay ahead (for me, Olivia) were the endless challenges of being so close to a loved one whose mind was going. Hob swung wildly between clarity and confusion. His sense of reality shifted, dissolved and reformed. His mental states were affecting me.
(final chapter, after Hob's death) In retrospect, I felt uplifted at remembering some of the treacherous territory we had negotiated together, his perplexities and fears, the medical emergencies, the reality of living with the imminence of death. We treasured little moments; the sunlight flooding into the family room, the liquid song of the cardinal in the elm outside the window, the touch of hands as we reached for closeness even as his illness moved us toward separation. I understood that the people around us couldn't know how, along with the grief and challenges, unseen blessings were woven through the complexities. And the greatest of these was love.
This wasn't written from a Christian perspective, but they went at their life with intentionality and it allowed them to find blessings in the trials, and the greatest of these was love....
I move on to the story of Cass Gray who writes of her long desire to have a baby: I have spent many days sitting on park benches, in a mall corridor, or even in a church service watching mothers interact with their children of all ages. There are countless other times I have found myself staring aimlessly at pregnant women who would be ready to deliver at any moment. I have spoken to and counseled teens, young women, and older seasoned ones of all walks of life who have become pregnant without effort either outside the boundaries of marriage or in marriage but not desiring the child they have conceived. I have attended and even given baby showers for friends and co-workers and bought gifts for birthdays and graduations, yet in each case, though smiling on the outside, internally, I wondered, "Why?" Why have I not conceived? Why do I not have the privilege of experiencing the joys of motherhood? Why them and not me? Why does it seem like I am not receiving all that God has promised? WHY?
Although loved unconditionally by my husband, it was a battle to overcome my human nature and not give in to the emotional trauma of never-ending feelings of emptiness and defeat. Empty arms. Empty womb. Empty heart. I would fight mentally to control my thoughts which so easily tilted toward the facts (what the doctors said) and not the truth (what the Word says) about my situation. I began to notice how I would not enter into a place of worship, which I had previously enjoyed, nor would I present all of myself to the Father in a posture of prayer, because I did not want Him to be disappointed in me for wavering in my faith.
When walking through a journey as difficult and heart-wrenching as wanting something so badly and having absolutely no control over if, or when, you will receive it (be it a business, a husband, healing – whatever "it" is), the only solution to this multitude of problems is God. We should not allow the enemy to plague us with fear and depression or doubt and unbelief. In God’s hands, He holds the answers and in His heart the capacity to bear the heaviness of the weight we try to carry alone.
From that belief I gained strength to research my options – there are always options. If you or someone you love is battling any infertility issue, understand that there are viable solutions including the advancement of medical technology such as surgical procedures, medications as well as adoption.
If you are going through this type of situation, remember that God’s joy provides us with the strength to endure hard times and with peace which allows us to rest in His plans and trust His timing for our lives. Surround yourself with people of faith and step out of the ashes of gloom and despair, shame and confusion, to receive life and hope from the Lord.
God's timing is not our timing; our plans don't always correspond with God's. We all have desires and hopes and dreams. Some are much stronger and deeper than others, but God holds the answers, and God has the capacity to carry the weight of doubt and disappointment that is part of our life here in this world.
Let's lighten things up a bit with a more fun look at aging. I preface this next passage with an account of what happened to me on Monday evening this week. I was doing some yard work and my shoelace was tied too loose. I looked and considered three options. I could just leave it loose. I could bend over and retie it; problematic because it has gotten so far down to my feet. Or I could sit on the step and retie it; but then I'd have to get up again. I went with bending over. Most all of you relate, we are an aging congregation. Here's a paragraph from Ray Stedman:
Everything is farther than it used to be. It's twice as far from my house to the station now, and they’ve added a hill which I've just noticed. The trains leave sooner too, but I've given up running for them because they go faster than they used to. Seems they are making staircases steeper than in the old days. And have you noticed the small print they're using lately. Newspapers are getting farther and farther away when I hold them. I have to squint to make out the news. Now it's ridiculous to suggest a person my age needs glasses, but it's the only way I can find out what's going on without someone reading aloud to me and that isn't much help because everyone seems to speak in such a low voice I can scarcely hear them.
Times are changing. The material in my clothes, I notice, shrinks in certain places. Shoelaces are so short they're next to impossible to reach. People are changing too. For one thing, they're younger than they used to be when I was their age. On the other hand, people my own age are so much older than I am. (Shaving this morning), I looked at my own reflection in the mirror. You know, they don't use the same kind of glass in mirrors anymore.
Much truth there and just a lighter look at problems we are all familiar with. My final tale is more serious again. It is a letter written by a man who is in remission from both brain and colon cancer, Steve Deluca. He writes: Dear Cancer,
It's been awhile since we have talked so I thought I would write to you to clear up some things. I have been thinking a lot about you lately. In fact, I can’t remember a single day where you weren’t on my mind.
You certainly have been busy taking up residence with people I know since you have left me. Don't get me wrong. I'm really glad we aren't living together anymore, I'd just wish you were still homeless and not taking up residence in my friends.
I've learned so much since that first day you moved in with me back on November 6, 2001. I’ve learned that you don’t care who you move in with. You’ll take residence in young people, old people, men, women, Christians, atheists, all races, and personalities. I will give you credit for that, you’re an equal opportunity leech.
You know what, Cancer? You may think that by taking residence in us that you are taking over all the good in the world and replacing it with bad and evil. You may cut people’s lives short. You may make us sick. You may make our hair fall out. You may cost us thousands in medical bills. You may think that you are winning this battle, but I have news for you: You are actually responsible for a lot of good things in my life.
I have met some amazing people because of you, some who will drop everything to go that extra mile, sometimes for complete strangers. Their heart is so big that even you couldn’t crush it.
There are people whose lives you cut short who had (such) a great impact in their time here on this planet that it cannot be measured. We know we can’t get them back but in losing them, we impact someone else going through life with you. Let me tell you a little secret: We serve an awesome God! He can open doors He wants open and close doors He wants closed. I don’t understand why He lets you move in with such great people. I don’t understand why He calls some people home to Him and leaves others here longer to deal with you.
The Stephen we heard about in our reading this morning is considered the first Christian martyr. That brings up a question I've wondered about for a long time; why do some people have to die for their faith? And that “why” question is a part of every story I've shared. And all I can say is that God can open doors and close doors according to God's good Word. We very seldom see the “why's” answered in this life. I have a two line statement that helps me, and I've shared it before but it says so much about our topic today: “Not everything that happens is an act of God, but God acts in everything that happens.”
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The promises and assurances of Jesus are what we can hold on to through the why's of our lives. No matter what issue you and your loved ones face today, God is acting. Like Stephen as he faced his enemies, look up and see the glory of God and Jesus, the Savior who is with you. Amen.