Here’s the transcript of my thoughts I shared at “The Service of Hope” held on December 16th, 2018.
I’m here this afternoon because like many of you I have experienced the loss of someone significant in my life. My father passed away in 2005 and my mother in 2016. The pain of loss is real and no one is immune to its effects—even those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus don’t need to apologize to anyone for their pain and sorrow in that regard. One of my favorite passages of scripture is the 11th chapter of John, which gives the account of the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. In that story Jesus is moved by the sorrow of Mary and Martha as they mourned the loss of their brother. The words, “Jesus wept,” serve to remind me Jesus knows and understands the pain and sadness we feel when we lose someone we love.
Dad was 69 when he died of prostate cancer. Growing up I idolized my father. By the time I graduated from college he didn’t seem that important to me. I had a life of my own. Yes, we gathered together at family functions but I wasn’t that connected to him anymore. When I reached my 40s, having established my family and a career, an unexplained desire emerged to get to know dad better. Looking back I see it was God who gave me that desire and I’m glad I acted on it. I recall praying God would show me something we could do together to connect with him.
Family genealogy turned out to be the vehicle that joined us together. Dad and I quickly became hooked on it. My wife Patty and I made a number of trips together with my parents to Pennsylvania as we researched our family tree. Not long after we connected dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It turned out to be the aggressive sort and 9 months later he died. I believe God wanted dad and me to be together as he struggled to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. When he could no longer pray, I prayed for him.
God prompted me to do something else when I learned dad wouldn’t be with us much longer. He inspired me to write down my thoughts as dad and I walked through this ordeal together. Perhaps some of you have read these thoughts in the book, Junior’s Hope. It was a book that almost wasn’t published. I figured it was my therapy, you know, something to help me cope with losing a father, my namesake and friend. I wanted to chronicle my life with him and create something to remember him by. But as time passed after his death I believed my writing had served its purpose and it didn’t need to be printed. Then one night, which happened to be exactly one year to the day after his death, I saw my father in a dream. In that dream I saw dad as a healthy man in the prime of life. We exchanged a few words and then he was gone. The dream was so real it filled me with hope and inspired me to get the book published. I remember thinking, okay Lord you made your point.
My life changed after dad passed away. I now had one more person to care for, mom. While I deferred to Patty to take care of mom’s physical needs, I focused on helping mom with whatever else she needed. As it turns out the book I almost never published became a source of hope for her. She was so proud of me that she had to tell everyone she knew about it. We can never fully understand the purposes of God. He accomplishes them on so many different levels.
Mom lived 11 more years without dad. Family, friends and Christmas were the joys of her life. During her life, mom dabbled in writing poetry. I usually don’t dabble in poetry but the time I spent with her inspired me to write a handful of poems on her behalf. When I showed them to her she’d say, “Bill that’s exactly how I feel.” One of the shorter ones is printed on the back page of your bulletin.
During the closing months of her life we liked to exchange a couple of phrases. I wanted to reassure her she was truly loved so I would say to her, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” To this she’d reply, “I love you, I love you, I love you more!” The second exchange came about out of her concern as to how tired I looked attending to her various personal effects and financial affairs. She’d say, “Bill you don’t have to come see me tomorrow if you’re tired. Stay home and rest.” To this I would say, “I’ll rest when you rest.” We both knew what I meant by her resting. Mom passed away in the summer of 2016.
The pain I felt when dad and mom passed away was so overwhelming it’s hard to put into words. I miss them very much, especially at Christmastime. I have so many Christmas memories.
The reason we gather for a service such as this one is to hear how others have found hope in dark places. I’d like to spend the rest of my time with you talking about how I found hope in a dark place.
I have learned a few things as I struggled to cope with the loss of dad and mom. The first thing that became apparent to me is there is a strong relationship between hope and faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I hope you don’t mind me repeating that verse. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I wear a pendant I found in mom’s jewelry chest to remind me true hope can only be found in Jesus. Inscribed on it are the words, “In Christ alone my hope is found…he is my light, my strength, my song.”
Following the death of my father, I vowed not to be mad at God; I did not want to blame him for my loss. If there was one person who could help me, it was God. I found a scripture verse to remind me that God is always working on my behalf. Romans 8:28 declares, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Instead of being mad at God I chose to embrace him.
I think it was my widowed neighbor that first shared with me the significance of frog. Do you know what F. R. O. G. stands for? I didn’t. It means Fully Rely On God. Someone who fully relies on God is better able to stand on the promises of God with both feet firmly planted. So when a wave of despair wakes me up in the middle of the night, my soul can sing with all its might, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”
The last thing I’ll share with you is something I found in the book of Joshua as I was preparing to lead a study on the book Sunday mornings this past fall. Joshua was in the same boat I was in. The beloved leader of the Israelites, Moses, had just died. It was up to Joshua to pick up the pieces and journey on without him. God tells Joshua in chapter 1:8, “Be strong and very courageous!”
Brushing aside my first thoughts that this had something to do with physical strength and metal toughness, I believe God was telling Joshua that hope could be found in strong and courageous faith. God goes on to tell Joshua, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and later, “Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” With my whole being I believe these words to be true. God will not leave me and he will not forsake me in my hour of need. He will be with me wherever I go. He will do the same for you. Faith in God is a true source of hope.
In closing, I would add these words penned by the Apostle Peter:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 1 Peter 1:3-6
“Tis the season of hope!
Walking to work the other day, I spotted an old tree that captured my attention standing against the backdrop of the breaking dawn. I couldn’t resist snapping a picture. Later, I felt compelled to garnish the image with a few inspiring words.
The tree in Me
I stretch out my arms,
lifting them to the sky.
Even as events happen
I don’t understand why.
Aging boughs creak, groan,
swaying in an angry wind.
Hope arises in the morning
when the sun warms my limbs.
Continuing with my mediation on the word trustworthy, I see tension in this image. Can you? Some embrace the message, in God we trust, while would rather rely on the currency itself. But which offers true security? Which one is worthy of our trust?
What is it about God’s Word that the psalmist is so enamored with? Answer: he has a personal relationship with God. If we were to characterize this relationship as a two-way street, one side is the psalmist’s side of the street lined with worldly buildings and distractions, and the other, God’s side of the street. So what is it about God’s side of the street that makes the psalmist want to cross over and devote himself completely? (Hint: did you have a best friend in your youth? Was being able to stay at their house the best and most exciting thing ever?)
These three stanzas of Psalm 119 highlight the importance of finding time alone with God in prayer and Bible study.
(97) Your law – The God given Law is found in the Old Testament. God have us his son, Jesus, in the New Testament. The Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). (98) Makes me wiser – the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). (99) I have more insight – those who sit at the feet of Christ often have more insight than Doctors of Divinity (Charles Spurgeon). (100) I have more understanding – Trust in God with your heart and don’t rely on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). A regular time of private devotion also yields guidance (101), learning (102), and a hunger for more (103); an example being to your favorite food that tastes so good you can’t get enough of it.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. Psalm 119:105
In the next stanza God’s word lights my path (105), preserves my life (107), is my heritage (111), and gives me hope (112). If so much joy and happiness can be found spending time alone with God, why would we ever want to return to our worldly side of the street? Spurgeon reminds us that, “We are walkers through the city of this world, and we are often called to go out into the darkness; let us never venture there without the light-giving word.”
The third stanza uses language one would find of a war being carried out in enemy territory. (113) I hate double-minded people (frivolous, indulgent, worldly thinkers). (114) God is our refuge and shield. We must remember to wear the whole armor of God against the enemy (Ephesians 6). (116) God’s word sustains and upholds us and is proven. (120) He alone is the right (true) one to worship.
Matt Chandler offers three points for those who have a relationship with God, addressing our need to find alone time with him. (1) Staying connected carries us through life’s ups and downs. (2) When we remain near to God, it leads to a sustaining love. (3) We produce fruit when we stay connected. Staying connected allows us to be transformed by him (Romans 12:1,2) and enables us to make a difference in the world in which we live (our side of the street).
“We are walkers through the city of this world, and we are often called to go out into the darkness; let us never venture there without the light-giving word.” C. Spurgeon
What do you do when a trial or threat you are facing wakes you up in the middle of the night? Your mental, physical or emotional stability is hanging by a thread. Do you get up out of bed and go to your safe, pull out a stack of bills and start counting your money? Does that give you comfort? Do you pull out a prized collection and handle the objects of your desire for relief? Or, do you close your weary eyes and sing with all your heart, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” What, or who, do you place your hope in?
This stanza appears to describe one of the psalmist’s seasons in the life; he is in a place so dark and desperate, a place where none of us wants to go, let alone think about. My soul faints (v81); my eyes fail (v82). Whatever it is we put our hope in better be big enough, sure enough, true enough, strong enough, to bring us back from the brink. (Remember: God is my portion in Psalm 119:57)
(v83) Wineskin in the smoke – Empty wine skins were strung up in tents. The fire in the tent turned the skins black and sooty and caused them to wrinkle and shrivel, rendering them useless. Are there times when you feel useless?
(v84) How long must I wait – We need to remind ourselves that God never tires of us asking him (Isaiah 40:28-31).
(v86) Your commandments are faithful – unlike the society in which we function, we don’t have to learn some new software or worry about something we learned being obsolete. God’s truth is able to meet any present or future need.
(v88) The word of God is a life preserver – the living word of God speaks to us when we need it. Jesus has saved us by the power of the cross (John 1:14 the word [of God] became flesh and lived among us).
If the previous stanza portrays the psalmist as being at the brink of ruin, this stanza is filled with great certainties. Derek Kidner reminds us that God and his commandments extend beyond the limits found in the world in which we live.
(v89) God’s word is eternal; (v90) he is faithful; (v92) your word saved me (don’t forget to stand on the promises found in scripture).
(v96) There is a limit to perfection we see in our world – a confusing verse but consider that in any situation we deem “perfect” such as witnessing a perfect sunset or a picturesque fall day, there will always be a limit to how long it will endure. Contrast this thought with: But your commands are boundless – There is a spiritual (eternal) side to everything we experience that can only be truly be satisfied by God’s word (a.k.a Jesus Christ)
Matt Chandler in his video series on Psalm 119 stresses that there is hope found in God’s word. It is a deep hope based on God being enough regardless of life’s circumstances. Hope is not crossing our fingers, it is placing our trust in the God of the universe. Finally, rejuvenation can be found for those who place their trust in God.