But, God loves us and knows what he is doing

Window Pains

Don Patterson

       I was planning to take an infrequent day off. It was early and my wife Karen and I were rushing to take our two sons to their separate schools. As I was warming up my old car, Karen appeared, making hand gestures.
       "What!?" I yelled over the engine's roar.
       "Willard's on the phone," she shouted back. "It sounds important."
       Great, I thought, bracing myself for a litany of personal woes. How right I was. Willard, one of the retirees in my congregation, was his usual slow-talking self.
       "Pastor," he drawled, "we've had quite a bit of damage done to the church building. It looks like somebody had a field day throwing rocks through our windows."
       So much for my day off. Talk about personal; it hit me hard in my guts. I felt as if this were a judgment of my entire ministry. I felt insulted, I felt angry. As I drove my older son to school, anger grew within me. I saw everything and everyone on the road as an extension of the problems at the building. Traffic lights seemed timed to intentionally delay me, and old men dawdled in ancient pickup trucks, clogging the streets. Creeping across town in slow motion, I mentally added up the possible breakage. There were thirty-four expensive panes of specialty glass, and this a small building. As I rehearsed the probable damage I could expect, I wondered how much money we had left here at the tag end of the month. My depression deepened. I thought enough gloomy thoughts to send Norman Vincent Peale AND Robert Schuller into the pits of despair.
       By the time I arrived at the church plant, I had whipped my wrath into a fine lather. Then I saw the damage -- ouch! Seven windows -- starred, holed, and just plain shattered! As my shoes crunched through broken glass, I honestly think I would have preferred to handle a family tragedy or a death. At least those are problems within my area of experience and competence.
       The windows down one side of the building had been enthusiastically, though haphazardly, attacked by a storm of throwing-sized rocks. Stones and shards of glass littered the auditorium. The panes had become mismatched as to color and texture over the years to the point that they had become quite an eyesore. Amidst the shattered wreckage a lone, rose-colored panel stood unscathed among his less blessed brethren. A workday to replace these same windows would have been cause for rejoicing. Now, however, I was depressed at the thought that anyone would do this to a church building. To be honest, my righteous indignation was not unmixed with fleshly self-pity.
       We had called the sheriff's office and the window glaziers. So, what was keeping them!? I wanted to clean up the mess. My building had been desecrated. It reminded me of the time my younger son had broken his collarbone, and I fumed over the length of time it took to relieve his pain. Finally, a sheriff's car appeared, followed presently by the glass truck. While the deputy looked around and made his report, he informed me that the vandalism of a synagogue or a church was a felony. At that moment -- God, help me -- I secretly hoped that it carried the death penalty.
       Anger was a reaction I could have anticipated. It did not really surprise me. What I did not expect was the feeling of vulnerability that I experienced. I felt defenseless. After the windows were reglazed, the floor swept, and the glass shards were vacuumed from the pew cushions, I saw my fresh matching golden windows (except the rose-colored holdout) not as an improvement but rather as liabilities. There they were -- targets; monuments to vandalism. Here I glaze mine Ebenezer. They could conceivably be shattered again -- all too easily. I found myself reluctant to leave the premises.
       Less than a week later, the same windows were attacked again. The same seven were broken, with the exception of course, of the rose-colored one. It continued to glare defiantly amidst its shattered neighbors. Perhaps grim determination best describes my reaction this time. I resolved to catch these vandals (obviously lineal descendants of the original barbarian tribe). I went to work collecting evidence. Willard took photographs of the crime scene. I measured sneaker prints in the dust. My older son identified the brand of sneaker by the tread pattern for me. I staked out the building at odd hours. I was just biding my time until they fell unsuspectingly into my trap.
       "Wise as serpents, eh?" I said to myself. "I'll show 'em."
       And then one afternoon during the last week of school, it happened. As I drove into the church parking lot I saw three boys walking across the rear of our property. They were obviously on their way home from the neighboring junior high school. As I parked the car I heard the dreaded sound of breaking glass and the internal alarm in the building began its earsplitting razz. I ran to the back of the building in time to see the boys sauntering out the other side of the lot. They studiously ignored my call of "Hey guys, I want to talk to you!"
       So what could I do? I yelled in a taunting manner, "What's the matter, scared of an old man!" (Well, thirty-six IS ancient by junior high standards).
       As I approached, I said in as friendly a voice as I could summon, "We really can't afford to have any more windows broken here. It's cost this church seven hundred dollars in the last three weeks." They responded by informing me of the fact that they had never been, were not now, and never would be involved in such a reprehensible act. At least that's the best translation I could make of it.
       There they stood: unkempt hair, dangling earrings, black Heavy Metal T-shirts, ragged jeans and expensive footwear. (I cleverly noticed that one of the footprints in the dirt matched the ones we had photographed earlier). I thought briefly of how I would like to punish these guys. What I actually said was, "I don't know or care if it was you guys or someone you know. I'm not the police. I just want to say, if it's you or someone you know, please don't do it again. If I've done anything to tick you off, I'm sorry. I'd like to apologize."
       This time the response was easier to decipher. A sullen, "We didn't do nuthin'."
       I trudged back to the building to reset the alarm. Sherlock Holms solves another case. Sure, one of their shoes appeared to match, but without the services of the FBI forensic crime lab it probably wouldn't be considered solid evidence. I didn't really want to put three more kids into the juvenile system anyway, in spite of my hard-nosed philosophy of criminal justice.
       As I was sweeping up the mess that one small rock had made, I heard footsteps. Two of the three boys had returned.
       "We're sorry," they mumbled. "We won't ever do it again."
       "Thank you," I said. "I appreciate your honesty." They turned and quickly left me alone with my dustpan, and my God.
       How do I explain what had just taken place? I didn't take the opportunity to share the gospel with them. I failed to get their names for my prospect file, perhaps understandably enough. One thing I do know, grace occurred. It happened to them. It happened to me. Forgiveness of a debt that could not be paid had once more been placed on Jesus' account.
       It has been a year, and I haven't seen the boys since. I guess they went on to high school. It used to bother me that I didn't have the presence of mind to hand them a tract or ask them Dr. Kennedy's diagnostic questions. However, I've come to the conclusion that God doesn't waste opportunities. Perhaps He was able to begin moving in their lives through a simple lesson of honesty seasoned with grace.

The Complaint of Jacob        

The Complaint of Jacob by R.P. Nettelhorst

       Jacob’s life was not a particularly easy one and his family life, both growing up, and then as an adult was certainly what would fit the modern definition of being “dysfunctional.”
       So, to say the least, Jacob was not at all happy. The one true love of his life was dead. Joseph, his favorite, the oldest son of his beloved, had been dead for twenty-five years. And now Simeon had been taken from him, and this monster in Egypt was demanding the last link he had to his dead lover. Beside himself with grief, we find his reaction in Genesis 42:36 where it all comes down to this:

Their father Jacob said to them, "You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!"

       And certainly it was the case that the circumstances of his life, from his perspective, from the perspective of his sons standing around him, made his complaint fully reasonable and perfectly understandable. And yet, the fascinating thing about his words, for those of us reading the story, is that we know that he couldn’t be more wrong, despite the fact that his words seemed so obviously true to Jacob – unassailably true, in fact. But we the readers of this little episode, know something that Jacob doesn’t: we know that Joseph is not only not dead, but he is second in command in Egypt, the most powerful and most wealthy nation on the planet at that time. We also know that there’s no way for poor Jacob to know that.
       So the reality of Jacob’s existence is that everything could hardly be better. His favorite son has done very well for himself, thank you. Good job, and great future, with money to burn. Poor Jacob simply doesn’t know this yet. His perception, his perspective of reality, is incorrect.
       And we, the readers, can do nothing to alleviate Jacob’s suffering just now. And God didn’t do anything about it either. It’ll be another year before Jacob learns the truth of what his life is really like. For twenty-five years he mourned for someone who was not dead at all. He bemoans his fate as a miserable one, though his family is absolutely powerful and prosperous. But he doesn’t know any of that; in fact, he has no way of knowing any of that.
       September 11, 2001 was thus an exceptionally bad day (to say the least) and raised numerous questions in the minds of many people about the nature of existence, about the goodness of God, about what it is really, that God wants and expects out of all of us. How do we live in a world where this sort of thing can happen? How do we face the crises of life, both small and great? Is there some key to life, some playbook we can get, some list we can follow, some formula we can memorize that will get us through life in one piece, with ourselves and our families living productive and prosperous lives? What does Jacob's complaint tell us about our relationship to God and the world?

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John of the Apocalypse        

John of the Apocalypse by R.P. Nettelhorst

       If everything in your life went wrong, wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus came and told you why? “Why doesn’t God do something?” It was a question heavy on John’s mind. He had seen all his companions bleed and die; thousands of his compatriots had been slaughtered by a brutal tyranny. It seemed such an odd way for God to treat his most faithful servants. John was just a lonely old man exiled for his beliefs on the island of Patmos. And then Jesus unexpectedly showed up with good news and an explanation.

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