Sunday, October 09, 2011

"It Is Well With My Soul"

Isaiah 66:10-13
"Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance."
For this is what the LORD says: "I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." (NIV)

Philippians 4:4-11
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. (NIV)

I can’t believe God almighty, in the Lord’s infinite wisdom, allowed this church to get struck by lightning.

But it happened.

And in God’s divine sense of humor, the damages amounted to $24 LESS than our insurance deductible.

The electronics in the organ were damaged.

The fire alarm was damaged.

And most aggravating, the Internet went off line. Now you would think that of all the damages, the loss of the Internet would be the one that was the least of our worries, but it turned out to be the most frustrating.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t check for the latest news, it was email from church members I couldn’t retrieve. The church database and directory was offline. And more than that, because of the way the Internet and the computers operate, when we lost the Internet, we also lost the ability to access computer files. Our computers could not communicate with the printers. The printer didn’t want to print more than 20 pages of anything.

We put up with this for a few weeks, and then came a couple of weeks ago when we had to put out not only the bulletin, but the newsletter as well. Try as we might, we couldn’t get the computer to communicate with the printer and finally our secretary Maryann took the newsletter files to her own home, used her own computer, ran off the master newsletter copy on her own computer, took a pair of scissors and literally cut and pasted everything, had to bring it back to the office, and even then there was a team of volunteers waiting – ever so patiently and graciously - for us to finish everything up so they could fold and stuff the newsletters for mailing.

It was an awful week. Filled with anxiety and stress.

And I got to the point that I was ready to quit Chapel by the Sea and become a Forest Ranger, an astronaut, an ice cream truck driver, or cowboy. There were times when I wanted to do those things when I grew up. Maybe now is the time.

And then just the other day it was time for me to work on today’s sermon, and since we had repairmen working on my computer one more and hopeful one last time, I had to come into the sanctuary and use the laptop computer in the media center where the sound and projectors are operated.

I’m sitting there in a dark sanctuary and I look up the Scripture for today’s sermon, and there is Paul in Philippians saying, “Do not be anxious about anything, but with prayer and thanksgiving present your petitions to God…I have learned to be content in any and every situation… Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Like that’s easy to do…

Well, we’ve all been there.

There are times when nothing seems to go right and in spite of what the choir sang a few minutes ago, “It is not well with my soul.”

In the television show THE MIDDLE, a middle class family is struggling through the years of raising three children. The wife of the family, Frankie Heck, reaches her breaking point. The oldest teenager keeps putting his dirty tennis shoes on the kitchen counter, the teenage daughter won’t get out of the shower leaving the mother to shower by using the kitchen sink sprayer, the youngest son gets into some junk mail catalogs and starts ordering junk over the telephone. Later in the day she comes home, sits down on the sofa to watch her television show, and finds a bag of chips open and laying on the sofa. And the bag is practically empty.

“I just bought these,” she shouts out, and then starts eating the tiny pieces left at the bottom of the bag.

And then her daughter comes in, looks at her mother in horror and tells her that one of the kids has put his toe nail clippings in that bag.

Mom rushes to the kitchen sink and begins to clean her mouth out with dishwasher liquid and SOS pads, and then declares, “I’ve had it, I’m out of here!”

And she leaves.

She walks out the door.

One of the kids finally breaks the silence by asking, “Are Moms allowed to do that?”

The mother goes home to her own mother who tells her, “Every woman eventually reaches the point where you have to leave the house, get in the car, drive across the state line, check into the Holiday Inn, and watch all three Smokey and the Bandit movies until you cannot stand Burt Reynolds and you finally go back home.”

There are times when it is not well with our soul.

One of the books I used to read to my son when he was a child was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”

The first page starts off this way, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

But we’ve all been there.

Bad days.

Bad weeks.

Bad months.

For all of us there are times when it has not been well with our souls.

You go to work to find that you no longer have a job.

You get a telephone call and learn that your best friend has died.

Your doctor tells you the very worst news imaginable.

You go to pay your bills and you have to decide – do I pay the mortgage this month, or do I pay the medical bills.

Bad days.

Bad weeks.

Bad times.

For all of us there are times when it has not been well with our souls.

And then you read in Philippians and there is Paul saying, “I have learned to be content in any and every situation… Rejoice in the Lord always.”

That’s hard to do.

It’s not easy.

But notice, Paul did not say, “I have been given the gift of being content in all situations.” He didn’t imply that it had come suddenly or immediately. He said “I have learned to be content.”

Learning is a process. It is often a painful one. It is often a long one. And it is always incomplete in that you can always learn more.

For example. My father taught me how to change the oil in my car. The first time I did it, I made a mess with the drive way – got oil all over the place. The second time, I did better. The third time it came a little easier. Now, decades later I know exactly how to change the oil in a car.

You get behind the driver’s seat and drive to Jiffy Lube.

OK, maybe that’s not a good example – but the point is that anything we do well in life, we do because we went through a learning process. Learning takes time. It takes practice.

And when Paul said, “I have learned to be content…” he was telling us that it had been a long process for him.

If you want to be able to rejoice in all situations, even those difficult times, you don’t learn it very quickly. It takes time.

The choir sang the anthem a few moments ago, “It is Well With My Soul.”

I love than hymn. It’s not a peppy hymn. It’s not what I would call a joyous toe-tapper.

But the words are so true and it reflects a sincere hymn of someone who has been through difficult times.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul!
There is a story behind this hymn.

It was written by a man named Horatio Spafford over a century ago. He lived a life that was at times filled with awful tragedy.

His only son died in 1871 at the age of four.

Shortly after that the city he was living in suffered a great fire – you know it as the great Chicago fire. It left him and his family financially destroyed. It took a long time to recover.

When he was finally back on his feet again, the family decided to take a vacation – one of those “dream vacations” of a life time. They were headed for Europe, and of course at that time the only way to get there was by sailing the Atlantic Ocean.

Horatio’s business forced him to stay behind and catch a later ship, but he encouraged his wife and four daughters to go on ahead as planned, and he would catch up later.

Tragically, the ship collided with another vessel and both ships quickly sank.

The mother and the four girls survived the collision and were thrown into the sea. The mother tried to keep the girls afloat, but they drowned, and only their mother survived.

Back in Chicago, Horatio received news of his children’s deaths.

He immediately sailed for Europe to be with his wife and during the voyage, the captain of the ship he was sailing on called him to the bridge. Pointing to the chart, the captain told him that they were just passing the spot where the ship with his family had gone down.

Many of us, in such a situation, would have been filled with grief and anger.

But as Horatio walked the deck in his sorrow, his faith was all that sustained him. He was overtaken by a feeling of peace that was beyond his understanding as he thought about how he would see his daughters again in heaven. As he watched the waves rolling on the ocean he recalled the words of our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah, "For thus says the Lord, I will extend peace to her like a river..." and wrote the words that have come down to us as one of our most enduring hymns:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul!

Sometimes things are not well with our souls. But with faith, we can learn the art of that sacred peace that passes all understanding. It is not always a gift given in an instant – it is more often a skill that is slowly nurtured and developed until at last you can say, as did Paul, I “have learned to be content in all situations.”

In May, 1996, I had just moved to Miami and was still living in a temporary apartment that was full of unopened boxes when I received a call from a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. He wanted me to make a pastoral visit to some of his parishioners who were in a hotel in Miami.

The day before, Value Jet flight 592 had taken off from Miami on its way to Atlanta. Moments after takeoff the jet crashed.

The two or three witnesses who had been fishing in the Everglades at the time said the plane didn’t just crash, it nose dived head on into the Everglades. They knew exactly where the plane had gone down and when rescue helicopters arrived, they found nothing but fuel floating on top of the water. The plane going hundreds of miles per hour had pretty much disintigrated when it hit the concrete-like layer of coral rock under the shallow waters of the Everglades. There were no survivors, and not to be overly graphic, but there were no real bodies left to recover.

One of the families of a victim was Presbyterian and their pastor called on me to visit the family, who had, like all the other families, gathered in a hotel in Miami. Their son was returning home from his first semester at the University of Miami. He was going home for Mother’s Day.

The mother was so deep in grief. She was unable to eat anything at all, but she said that she thought that if I would serve the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, she might be able to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

So I brought my portable Communion kit to a hotel room, and we sat around and I began the simple service.

“The Lord Jesus Christ, on the night of his arrest, took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, ‘take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.’ And in the same way after supper he took the cup and said, ‘drink from it, all of you.’”

And the mother took the bread and ate it.

She took the cup and drank it.

And others joined us.

And then I joined this family and other families for the evening update. The workers from the crash site met with all of the survivor families twice each day. They very delicately and gently went through the latest news from the search process.

It was, as the children’s book would say, “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

At one point, the mother whose son died on his way to celebrate mother’s day with her said, “I’ll never again know joy.”

Over the next few days, I met with that family daily frequently. And so many times she said, “I’ll never again know joy.”

Years later I received a letter from her.

“Dear Dr. Pittendreigh, I never thanked you for coming and being with us during our darkest hour. Recovering from our son’s death was a long and hard process. The days were filled with pain. The nights were often sleepless. You brought us the Lord’s Supper in our hotel room, and every time we celebrate that Sacrament in our church here in Tennessee, I think back on that day. I have learned through this God’s love for us was so great, he gave up his only child. I take comfort in knowing that God has experienced what I experienced, that God has felt sorrow, and that God has felt pain. And with each time I take Communion, I feel a little more love and joy, and a little less pain. I have even learned to know joy once again.”

And then she quoted Philippians, “I have learned what the Bible means when it says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I shared that story a few years later. By that time I was no longer serving a church in Miami, but was in Atlanta. One of the people in the congregation that day was a nurse named Priscilla and after the worship service she came up to me and said, “I need to share something with you. At the door of my home is a frame, and whenever I leave the house, what’s in that frame reminds me how precious life is. No matter what happens in the hospital with equipment, or cost overruns, or staff problems, or the day to day drama that happens in every work place, that frame helps me keep everything in perspective."

Priscilla went onto say that a few years ago she was having to leave Atlanta every few days to visit her mother who was at the end of her life. Priscilla said, "She didn’t even know who I was any more, and she had become very difficult. After one visit, I was so tired and so angry. I’d had it with my mother and I just couldn’t go on any more. I packed my bags and promised I’d never come back. She was going to die and I just didn’t want anything to do with it.

“I got to the airport and just as I was about to board the plane a nurse from hospice called. My mother had a heart attack and was not expected to live through the night. I was told that if I wanted to be with my Mom in her last hours, I needed to come back to the hospice.
“I left the airport, and got into a cab and rode back to the hospice, and all the way all I could think of was having to spend money on another ticket home.

“Mom died within the hour, and as I was leaving hospice for the last time, walking through the lobby, people were gathered around a television watching the news. Value Jet 592 had just crashed in the Everglades. That was the flight I missed a couple of hours earlier. I was ten minutes away from boarding the plane. I have that unused ticket on the door of my house, it’s in a frame, and beneath it, a quotation from Philippians:

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.
Sermons are available online and can be found by visiting www.Pittendreigh.NET