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How Do We Respond When Bad Things Happen?

The human condition is marked by suffering. To catalog all of the bad things that can happen to any one of us would take a lifetime and I’m not sure even then it would be complete. Everyone suffers. Some more than others. Some much more than others. And there is an overwhelming temptation to ask why. We are not going to do that today. First, because you would expect me to say something profound but I don’t have the answer. Second, because even if we could miraculously divine that insight that so many have sought and missed over the centuries, it would not make one speck of difference. We would still suffer.

Today we are going to talk about how we respond to suffering: our individual response to our own suffering, our individual response to the suffering of another, and our congregational response to the suffering around us. Let’s start by watching 99 Balloons:


99 Balloons is all about suffering and how people responded to it. I have been preaching now for almost 10 years. This has been the most difficult sermon for me to prepare. For those of you who have heard me speak previously, you know that this always ends up being a very personal experience for me. I have said before that my sermons are almost always a message to myself and that I’m just blessed to have you to go along for the ride with me. But this one is so hard. When I watched 99 Balloons… then watched it again… then watched it again, all I could think of is that I could not do that. And I honestly have felt the same way every time I read Job too. So how on earth am I supposed to talk to you about how you should respond when a bad thing happens to you when I don’t believe I could follow the example I am holding out to you.

But I am at least fortunate in that 32 years ago God gave me a pretty direct line through which he sometimes speaks to me —- she’s sitting over there —- and my wife Kathy observed that I am intimidated because the video really does not show much suffering. It shows tremendous acts of faith and is wonderfully inspiring, but the suffering is minimized. We project how we would feel and do not know that we could respond as those parents did in giving birth to Elliott knowing he would die, in celebrating all aspects of his life, and in praising God for the wonderful gift found in his life. But at the same time, there is a sense that they just conquered suffering with faith way more easily than we ever could. They just have greater faith than us. But you know, the very answer to how to respond lies in the perspective.

When I watched the video, I did what most of us do when a bad thing happens to us. We immediately react with regard to the impact on us. And more often than not, we turn inward and become focused on our self and begin to pity ourselves. Elliott’s parents may not have done that, but I would be greatly surprised if they did not. The first thing that Job did was to tear his clothes in grief and shave his head.  That is the natural human response…of Job, of Elliott’s parents, and of us all. But what Job and Elliott’s parents did do was choose not to stay there. Job praised God and did not blame him. Elliott’s parents chose to focus on how they were blessed in sharing life with Elliott and to celebrate that blessing daily alone and with others. They suffered, and that suffering did not vanish, but they reached out to God in thanks and praise and in so doing opened themselves to his healing power and mercy. We cannot find God when we are turned into ourselves. It does not take great faith, just faith enough to allow God to conquer your suffering rather than trying to do it yourself.

One of the greatest witnesses I have ever seen in the midst of suffering was Bob Dickover, Paul Dickover’s father. I had worked with Bob in several different groups here at TUMC and never viewed Bob as a particularly spiritual man. He was absolutely committed to our ASP ministry, among other passions, but did not wear his spirituality on his sleeve. Bob was diagnosed with cancer and was advised it was terminal. He did not hide the deadly nature of his disease, but honestly it was difficult to see how it impacted him. As the disease progressed he became weaker, but did not seem to change in attitude at all. His perspective on suffering was not focused on himself. I cannot recall the context, but I was with him one time when someone asked him how he was dealing with his fate. I also cannot recall his precise words, but clearly recall the meaning: Bob said that he just saw it as another opportunity to witness to the presence of Christ in his life and would show folks how a Christian dies. And he did. No doubt he suffered, but Bob still saw his impending death as just another reason to praise God. Job would have recognized Bob Dickover.

There is another important message in 99 Balloons though. The parents neither suffered, nor celebrated, alone. Other people were always there for them. People were there to support them, share with them, listen to them, and love them. We do not know how much they overcame their suffering through these other people, but I expect that the support was a significant factor. Our reading from John tells us that others will know Christ, and know we are of Christ, only by the love that we show. And it is when people are suffering that we are called by Christ to show them his love. Our passage from Corinthians tells us that we can be gifted in so many ways to serve in the church, but if we do not love our service is worthless. We are called to love actively. Doing so is the absolute essence of faith in Christ. Just as the response to personal suffering is reaching outside ourselves to find God’s love, so is our response to the suffering of others: to reach out to them to be Christ’s love. Loving presence is the key.

Stephen Ministry is about showing Christ’s love to those who are suffering through offering them Christ’s love in our presence with them. The ministry equips us with skills and knowledge to be present with, listen to, and provide spiritual support to people who are suffering through a broad range of life’s hurts. We learn among other things what to say and what not to say, and when to pray and when not to pray. I am excited that, although we are still selecting the candidates for our upcoming training, God has touched the hearts of 8 or more potential Stephen Ministers to begin training. We are beginning caring here at TUMC in a very intentional way now. We still have a long way to go, but TUMC has taken the first steps to broadening our ability to love the suffering.

But trained or not, we cannot forget that caring for the suffering is not something someone else does. It is not something that just pastors do. It is not something that just Stephen Ministers do. It is something that every Christian must do. You cannot follow Christ and ignore your brother or sister who suffers. You cannot come to church on Sunday and sing praise, but then go to the fellowship hall and ignore the visitor. Jesus is very personal to us and expects us to be very personal with one another. We may not all be called to be Stephen Ministers, or be gifted or talented in ways to provide purposeful caring on an ongoing basis, but we can reach out and grasp a hand in fellowship or a heart with a phone call, greet each other with the love of Christ, ask how the other is, and really listen to the answer. In short, we can care for each other and we can care for those in our community. And that means personal involvement, not just a financial contribution to a charity. It means showing that Christ cares through you. He will if you permit him to do so, but he cannot do it when your perspective is on yourself.  If you don’t think you can do that, I challenge you to ask Christ to help you. Confess to him that you need a more caring heart, admit that you need his help, and ask him to fill you with his loving spirit. But don’t do it unless you are ready for his response. Jesus has a funny way of accepting us at face value and putting us in motion whether we expect it or not.

And that brings me to the final response to suffering….how should we as a congregation respond to suffering?  Well the first is obvious. We have to be a congregation of individuals committed to showing the love of Christ individually. If we are not caring people who reach out as individuals to those who suffer, we will not be a congregation that does that. We as a congregation must have a congregational perspective the focuses the love of Christ outside ourselves. And that starts just with listening, with paying attention to what other people are saying, what other people are feeling. If we do not see suffering, we cannot love those who are suffering. And we will not see suffering when our focus is on ourselves.

Stephen Ministry transforms congregations as it transforms people. For although the ministry trains individuals to care for individuals, the effectiveness of the ministry depends upon you. It is a congregational ministry and requires a congregational commitment to caring for those who suffer. It requires you to listen with Christ’s ears and heart and recognize those who are suffering, in our church and in our community. Remember….everyone suffers sometime. The person sitting next to you right now may be suffering. The person standing in front of you in a check out line may be suffering. Pay attention to them. They can only find Christ’s love through us. And this is critical to Stephen Ministry because when you find someone who needs more regular caring than you feel you can provide, refer them to Stephen Ministry. Stephen Ministry relies upon the awareness and referrals of a caring congregation. Stephen Ministers are not the people that you can rely upon to begin caring. That has to start with you. Stephen Ministers just extend the caring that you start.

The final thing that we as a congregation can do for those who suffer is to establish ministries within our church and within our immediate community that draw those who suffer to TUMC and through us to Christ. We live in a sea of suffering inside our church and right outside our doors. It is a good thing to reach out with support to ministries that go to the ends of the earth to alleviate suffering, but do we as a congregation have ministries that touch the individuals in our church, or right down the street, that are suffering? In Matthew 25: 35-36, Jesus gives us the plan:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Now to be sure, we do that. We donate clothes and food to Sharp Street. We send ASP teams to Appalachia. And on and on. But how many of us really come in contact with those who are actually suffering through those ministries? And how many people do those ministries bring to the doors of this church where we can share in the suffering, help them through it, and bring the light of Christ to another person in our community? I’ve heard it said that there are not enough people in our community that need help. To that I answer that there are not enough of us listening. For I was hungry…we have people attending this church who do not have enough to eat. If that is news to you, you need to take our litany response to heart. “Yes, God I hear!  I will listen to another.” For I was a stranger…we have new faces come to this church and to our fellowship hour and no one speaks with them. They may not look just like us…oh we’re sure we are a caring congregation…we think we don’t need to do that…someone else will speak with them…and it does not happen.  “Yes, God I hear!  I will listen to another.” For I was in prison….yes, even that suffering touches our congregation. We have even recently had people attending this church facing prison. But do we really want to associate with people like that? “Yes, God I hear!  I will listen to another.” If we already have such suffering in our church, how many people do you think are suffering within a couple of miles of this church and no one cares? If those suffering souls were to be drawn to this church for care, can you imagine how the spirit of Christ would move through this church? For Christ lives in the moment he passes from one person to another…in one moment of caring. So if we want Jesus to really be alive in TUMC, we must be very intentional, individually and as a congregation, about listening for those who are suffering and extending to them the love of Christ.

So let us begin. This morning as you pass the peace of Christ, I want you to be very intentional about doing that. Don’t just greet the person next to you, but give them the peace of Christ and really ask them how they are doing and listen. Remember, everyone suffers. Ask them if you can pray for them. Because immediately after that we are going to have intercessory prayer. But today it is going to be a time of silent prayer where you pray for the person you greeted in Christ. And if you find that it is difficult to focus on the other person and pray for them, then when you pray put yourself in Jesus’ hands and ask him to open your heart to others. Please pass the peace of Christ to your neighbor.


  1. Marilyn on September 20, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Tom,
    enjoyed this entry. I think I saw this clip once before. Did you know that Rick Santorum’s youngest child (of 7 or 8 ) has Trisome 18 also. She must be about a year and a half now. Last i heard, she was doing pretty well, but they too, see each day as a miracle gift. Her name is Bella.

  2. Pam Bowers on September 20, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Once again, your words speak across the U.S. to this Texan. Awesome sermon!

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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