Reformed worshipers don't like to focus much on suffering. The Psalms are full of lament, yet we move uneasily over those verses that echo our own unanswered questions. Yes, we love to sing that "praise" song, "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee" (Psalm 42:1). But would we embrace it with such warmth if the text had included the words of lament that follow: "My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'" Are we permitting our people to lament during worship? Giving them permission to weep and wonder, Where is God?
It had been a painful and anxious year for our church: one staff member had resigned; the other pastor on staff was hospitalized in critical condition. Each Sunday it seemed the ushers were bringing me more and more prayer cards laden with serious concerns. I and my people were suffering. What to plan for Lent? As I turned to Scriptures that comforted my own pain, the following series on suffering emerged.
Each week, along with the Scripture texts, I printed one verse in the bulletin for the congregation to read in unison and memorize as a useful tool in bringing comfort to themselves and others during times of suffering. We printed them in calligraphy as loose "bookmarks" to be taken home and taped on refrigerators or bathroom mirrors. (I still see these bookmarks when I call in members' homes.)
Two praise songs enhanced the Lenten liturgy each week: "I Will Change Your Name" (D. J. Butler), as sung words of assurance, and, after the sermon, Graham Kendrick's "O Lord, Your tenderness, melting all my bitterness, O Lord, I receive Your love."
People learned to bring Kleenex to church with them. And I began to hear comments such as the following after the services: "There are still things I may not understand about my painful situation, but your sermons have helped so much in moving me beyond the pain into a place of peace." It was a very healing Lent.
LENT 1: HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ME?
(Job's Lament) Job 3:1-3, 11, 20-22; (God's Response) Job 38:4,12,13,16, 18; 40:3-14
Verse to memorize: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (1 Cor. 10:13).
Many people are incensed that suffering happens to people who try to be good, to do the right thing. Why couldn't God have allowed this suffering to fall on someone who deserves punishment? In this introductory sermon, I laid out the idea that brokenness happens. Because of sin, we live in a broken world. Sin hurts the just and the unjust. When someone is suffering, offering nebulous explanations about why doesn't bring comfort. The knowledge that God is still God does.
I filled in the sermon with ideas on how Christians can comfort those who are suffering—and how not to do it, based on the mistakes made by Job's well-intentioned close friends.
The apostle Paul, who suffered much, concluded that "God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength but will also provide the way of escape." What ways of escape does God provide for us?
LENT 2: RASH VOWS AND SUFFERING
Judges 11:1-3; 30-40;John 14:1-3
Verse to memorize: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me" (John 14:1).
Making promises hastily, more out of self-cen-teredness than other-centeredness, leads to suffering. A father promises to do something special with his child, then finds he doesn't make time to do it. A woman who is sick bargains with God: If you'll just heal me ...
Jephthah had a chip on his shoulder. The son of a prostitute, he had to prove he was worth somethingómuch like many young people today who join up with gangs. His aggressive reputation earned him a status he didn't want to lose. So he bargained with God: "You help me win this one, and I'll sacrifice to you whatever greets me first at the door when I get home." He won—but in the end he lost: his beloved daughter was the first to greet him. How do we deal with rash vows that cause another to suffer?
The theme for the service can be enhanced by using as the Affirmation of Faith Q & A 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism: "What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I belong—body and soulónot to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. .."
LENT 3: THORNS IN THE FLESH
2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Matthew 26:36-46
Verse to memorize: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:8).
A thorn in the flesh does not destroy, but it sure irritates and distracts. What are the thorns in our lives?
The question is not if suffering will strike, but how we will we respond when it comes. Paul suffered much—from bodily ailments to beatings, from persecution to being shipwrecked. But for him the question "How could God let this happen to me?" came with at least one answer: "To keep me from exalting myself." This sermon explores how at times we may witness to God's glory through the way we deal with our suffering—a witness we would not be able to offer if God removed the suffering from our lives.
LENT 4: CARRYING WHAT CARRIED US
Verse to memorize: "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isa. 43:19).
This sermon on the paralytic lowered through the roof to Jesus by his friends focuses on support. The support of the faith of friends carries us when we seem to have none of our own left. Are we desperate enough to seek creative means to carry our friends to Christ for healing?
When Jesus heals, he instructs the one who had been paralyzed to get up and carry with him the pallet that had once carried him. The healed-over scars we carry can help us become healers of others who are wounded.
LENT 5: LIFE AS A CROSS-TIAN
Galatians 2:20; John 12:12-36
Verse to memorize: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:19-20).
In the Hungarian language, the words for "Christ" and "cross" are so similar that the word for Christian could actually be translated as "cross-tian." The cross is not a piece of jewelry people wear around their necks; it is an instrument of torture. Would we follow Christ if we knew it was going to lead to suffering?
Jesus asks us not simply to take up the cross, but also to follow him. How do we follow someone? Closely! If you don't follow, you'll lose sight of him.