grey and white nimbus cloud with lightning

Responding to Life’s Thunderstorms

I preached this sermon yesterday at The Fountain UMC in Suwanee. Georgia. Some of it is a reprise of a sermon I preached years ago and some is new. Our pastor and I agreed that our congregation is ready to take a next step as individuals and a church in the focus of this message. I hope it reaches you too. If the video link does not launch you may find it on YouTube.

Summer produces wonderful gentle rains that nourish life. Those rains can also come as not so gentle thunderstorms with wind, hail, and flooding that disrupt life too. And sometime they come as tornados that take life. Similar to the range of summer storms that we experience, we also experience a range of personal and spiritual storms from gentle to severe that disrupt our lives. Today we are going to look at those storms of human suffering and how we, as Christians, can respond to the suffering in our lives and the lives of others. We will start with a short video “99 Balloons.” It has been available for a few years so you may have seen it previously. It is a hard depiction of the suffering of a young couple, yet uplifting at the same time.

 99 Balloons

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. Christians and non-Christians suffer. Some occasionally think that Christians suffering is abandonment by God, the failure of our faith, or even that it proves that our faith is false because God would not permit suffering to those he truly loves. And there is an overwhelming temptation to ask why. We are not going to do that today, because even if we could answer the question it would not make once speck of difference. We would still suffer.

We rarely can control the causes of suffering. All we can control is our response. Today we are going to talk about how we as Christians can 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.

The 99 Balloons is all about suffering and how Christians responded to it. I have been preaching now for almost 20 years and have touched this topic once before. But it is a very difficult topic to address. 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. 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.

When my wife Kathy saw the video, however, she 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 Eliott knowing he would die, in celebrating all aspects of his life, and in praising God for the wonderful gift found in his life. 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 looked at the experience and filtered it in the same I do when a bad thing happens to me. My hunch is that is what most of us do. 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 and doubt our faith. Eliott’s parents may not have done that, but I would be greatly surprised if they did not. In that way, they are pretty much modern examples of Job.

The story of Job is found in the Old Testament book that bears his name. We are told that Job was a “blameless and upright man” who nonetheless experienced a number of terrible storms of life that brought him to ruin. The greatest literally was a wind storm that killed all of his children. 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 Eliott’s parents, and of us all. In Chapter 6, Verses 1-3, Job laments:

If only my anguish could be weighed and my misery be placed on scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas

Can there be a better description of a person suffering the weight of emotional and spiritual pain?

But what Job and Eliott’s parents did do was choose not to stay there. We cannot choose when we suffer, but we can choose our response. Job praised God and did not blame him. Even though his wife and friends encouraged him to abandon God, Job remained faithful. Job said of God in Chapter 37, Verses 21-24:

Now no one can look at the sun bright as it is in the sky; After the wind has swept them clean. Out of the north he comes in golden splendor; God comes in awesome majesty. The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;  In his justice and great righteous he does not oppress.

Job tells us at first that after the wind had swept him clean he could not look at God; that is, he turned away from God. But that was not the end. Listen to the last verse again: In his justice and great righteousness he does not oppress. Job understood that God does not bring suffering to us, but rather that he is with us through suffering.

Job would have recognized Eliott’s parents. They chose to focus not on the tragedy that they experienced in the loss of their son, but rather on how they were blessed in sharing life with Eliott and to celebrate that blessing daily alone and with others. They undoubtedly 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 and away from him. It does not take great faith, just faith enough to allow God to conquer your suffering rather than trying to do it yourself.

There is another important message in 99 Balloons though. The parents neither suffered, nor celebrated, alone. Other people were always there for them and they allowed those people to care for them. People were there to support them, share with them, listen to them, and love them. We do not know how much God overcome their suffering through these other people, but I expect that the support was a significant factor. When we are suffering God can touch us directly, but God really works through other Christians when we need care. I suspect that Eliott’s parents found the caring touch of God through the others we saw with them.

As Christians were are called to care for, and receive care from, each other. We must answer both sides of that call. We are not expected to suffer in silence. Indeed, Paul reminds us in second Corinthians that we are all part of the body of the church and that the health of the church depends upon us being concerned for each other. If no one is willing to ask for or receive care, however, we cannot care for the emotional and spiritual health of the church. Trying to bear your suffering alone then not only harms you, but it also harms the church. And guys this is not just for the women of the church. Yes, I know we are raised to “tough it out” ourselves and not get into any touchy-feely stuff with each other. But once we sign on to live in the Kingdom of God we are called to live differently and that means giving and receiving care when we are hurting.

Caring one for another is the essence of Christian life. In John 13 we find the following command from Jesus:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.

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 particularly are called by Christ to show them his love. It is when people are suffering that they most need to find the love of Christ through our caring. We are called to love actively. Doing so is absolutely essential to a living 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.

Christian caregiving is about showing Christ’s love to those who are suffering by offering them Christ’s love through our presence with them. Our presence with those who suffer brings them into Christ’s presence. And we cannot forget that caring for the suffering is not something someone else does. It is not something that just pastors 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 out and ignore your neighbor in pain. Jesus is very personal to us and expects us to be very personal with one another. And that is not an easy thing to do because we become vulnerable when we open ourselves to another’s suffering at a personal level by being with them, listening to them, and perhaps praying with them.

We are a society with great emphasis on addressing suffering, but it is far too often at an institutional level, such as the government, a charity, or even the church. Christ calls us to go beyond that to very direct, personal, one-on-one caregiving. To be a caring Christian, we have to be purposeful and intentional about discerning the suffering of others. 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 through your heart in tune with another that Christ cares through you.

So what does that mean practically? First, you have to choose to care. Caring is an intentional act. You may feel that someone needs care, but that feeling does no good if you do not act. Second, you have to listen…with your eyes as well as your ears. We tend to think of suffering as the result of something significant happening. Yes, people suffer with the death of loved ones and serious illness in themselves or others. But even the lesser events of life such as the loss of a job, stress at work, injuries, failures of many types, strained or broken relationships, and even a move or something else the disrupts the routine of life can all cause physical or emotional suffering and stress even the strongest believer’s faith. Yet people so often mask that pain to others and do not let people in. So we have to look for what’s behind the words we hear or the behavior we see to know when a person needs care. When people tell you of something happening in their life, if you think it would disturb you if it happened to you, then there is a pretty good chance that the other person is suffering in some way by that event. It may be no more than a worry, but they probably need support.

The final thing that a Christian then brings is presence. That presence can be as simple as in the moment to make eye contact, and listen. It can be to hold a hand, and listen. It can be a visit, where you devote yourself to the sufferer, and listen. Caring does not mean solving a person’s problems. Too many people avoid caring because they think they do not know what to do to help make things better. It also does not mean if the person does not know Christ your goal is to witness to them. Your goal is to care for them. If telling them about Christ is a natural part of the conversation then certainly do so. In caring though you are just opening their hearts to the comfort of care. Remember you are part of the Kingdom where what you plant may be watered by another. Caring means walking beside and supporting the sufferer; nothing more but nothing less either. We care. Christ cures.

A caring Christian is a compassionate heart committed to being with a person who is struggling to deal with one or more of the many ways that life can burden us, listening with understanding but without judgment to the fears and concerns that the person expresses, praying with the person when asked but always praying for him or her whether or not asked, and when appropriate sharing how faith in Christ has helped through difficult times. If you permit, Christ will transform all of your experiences of loss, loneliness, and suffering, and the comfort in Christ that you have experienced during your grief, loneliness, and suffering, into empathy and understanding that Jesus will use to comfort others. Not only will you comfort others, but you will find meaning in your past suffering. In the words of the author Henri Nouwen, we become “wounded healers.” If you doubt you can do that, I encourage you to watch for suffering and ask Jesus to use you to help a specific person. Put yourself in Jesus’ hands and ask him to open your heart to others. You may be surprised to find that you are also a “wounded healer.”

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, however, must have a congregational perspective the focuses the love of Christ beyond just ourselves here at The Fountain, but to all we meet. 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. Then we can transform those responses into ministries that drive us as a congregation.

How Christ calls us to live in his Kingdom can be stated succinctly: become caring Christians. A purposefully caring congregation transforms the church as it transforms people. You can commit to become a purposefully caring Christian individually, but when we unite as a congregation committed to caring for those who are suffering we will see the power and love of Christ at work in our community in dramatic ways. 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. 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. If those suffering souls could first see Christ in us and then 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 the spirit of Christ that we already feel at The Fountain to become a wildfire in this community, 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.  A caring Christian is a powerful Christian. A caring church is a powerful church.

So let us begin. Remember, everyone suffers. This week watch and see someone who is in emotional or spiritual pain. Really ask them how they are doing, make eye contact, and listen. And as you listen let your presence in that moment bring them into the presence of Christ. Amen.


  1. Marilyn Reed on July 3, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    Very good. Poignant story. Reminded me of the miracle child…youngest child of Rick Santorum, Isabella, who has Trisomy 18 and is now 9 years old.

  2. Marilyn Reed on July 3, 2017 at 7:49 pm

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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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