Over the last month or so, I have had the honorable pleasure of “sitting at the feet of those who have gone before me.” That is, I have taken the time to hear the stories of my brothers and sisters of the Covenant who have made a vision trip to Congo.
It seems that while I have not yet met the acquaintance of the Congolese, who I have been called to work and speak on behalf of, they have, ironically already done so much for me. Through their stories, shared with me through fellow Covenanters who have made the vision trip, I have gleaned so much for my own growth and development. Through their stories, I have taken so much that has allowed me to grow in my own faith walk. To date, they have done far more for me, and I will have to work feverishly moving forward, if I am to even the score. It is hard to imagine that a people who are said to have so little have already, for me, managed to do so much, and in the words of the poem “Yet Do I Marvel.” by the African-American poet, Countee Cullen: “I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind. And did He stoop to quibble could tell why the little buried mole continues blind, why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die, make plain the reason tortured Tantalus is baited by the fickle fruit, declare if merely brute caprice dooms Sysyphus to struggle up a never ending stair. Inscrutable His ways are, and immune to catechism by a mind too strewn with petty cares to slightly understand what awful brain compels His awful hand. Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: to make a poet black and bid him sing!” This poem clearly depicts a frustrated narrator who is dealing with the profundities of God—a speaker who, while declaring the goodness of the Lord, and while proclaiming his faith in the Almighty, is perplexed by God’s decision to allow us to exist in ways that in our own limited humanity seem opposing and sometimes downright contradictory to who God says God is. Yet does this narrator marvel at a God who in the poem allows for the torture of Tantalus and the never ending vexation of Sysyphus. Yet, does this narrator marvel at a God who has suffered him the perils of being a Black man in America in 1925 when this poem was penned, and then expected him to sing and write as if there was some necessity of jubilation in his life! Yet does he marvel! And haven’t you been there? Haven’t you at some point in your life looked at a situation or the circumstances of a loved one and marveled at the doings of the Lord? Haven’t you marveled at how or why God has allowed for calamities of the heart, vexations of the mind, and quandaries of the soul? Have you not ever looked at what someone was enduring, some kind, sweet person, and wondered, “Why them?” Better still, haven’t you ever had a “marvelous moment” in which God has allowed for some adversity in your own life, to which you have responded, “Why me?” And for some of you, even as you sit in this seat today, preparing for a journey to a distant land, one, perhaps, not yet seemingly your own, might you be marveling and wondering and asking God what God is up to…do you yet marvel? Why you, why now, why there, why them, why…this? Do you yet marvel? Well, brothers and sisters of the sojourn, I came by here today to proclaim a prophetic response to your inquisition! I came by to unveil the mystery of the marvelous! I came today to tell you, why you and why now! Why them and why this! And the answer is simple, so I will make it plain…God loves us so much that he sometimes gives us what I refer to as “the opportunity of the affliction.”…The opportunity of the affliction—I know, I know, I know…you’re saying, “Wait a minute, Preacher! This doesn’t make any sense. How is it that an affliction can be an opportunity, and why would you ever call it a gift from God? Well, let’s take a look at one of God’s supporting actors to better illustrate the point:
- In the 32nd Chapter of Job, Job’s acquaintances have spoken against God and given Job poor counsel. It is at this point that Elihu, Job’s true friend and brethren, chooses to speak truth to power and stand in the gap on behalf of his brother. Though fearful himself about how Job will respond to his prophetic word, in verse 6 Elihu admits and says, “wherefore I was afraid, and durst not shew you min opinion. I said, Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom. But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding. Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment. Therefore, I said, hearken to me; I also will shew mine opinion.” Then, in chapter 36 of the text, Elihu speaks of the goodness of God to inspire Job to hold on to God’s unchanging hand. In verses 8-11, Elihu says, “And if they be bound in fetters, and be holden in cords of affliction; then He sheweth them their work, and their transgressions that they have exceeded. He openeth also their ear to discipline, and commandeth that they return from iniquity. If they obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasures.”
Here is a perfect “opportunity of the affliction.” For it is in this experience that seems so contradictory to God’s nature—allowing Job, God’s humble and seemingly undeserving servant, to withstand misfortune of catastrophic proportion—that God stretches Elihu and Job! Elihu could have spent his time taking pity on Job and feeding Job’s problem, but because he moved beyond the marvel, he was able to speak life into Job’s situation. And because he was willing to commit himself to the courageous act, he was blessed by the encounter! Elihu was transformed by the opportunity of the affliction! He thought he was going to help Job, and in the process, ended up helping himself! He was no longer fearful of speaking truth to power! He took courage and gifted Job with his wisdom. He was liberated to be the mouth, hands, and feet of God! But we would be remiss if we did not recognize the fact that Job got his blessing, too! Job was strengthened by Elihu’s words of encouragement. Job was reminded of his place in the kingdom and God’s everlasting love. Job was reminded that God is a hedge of protection and a waymaker. Job was reminded that God would never leave him nor forsake him. Job was reminded of God’s endless grace and limitless mercy! Glory to God for a friend who will help us to remember who God is! Glory to God for the complexity of our God who will heal us and develop us through one another! I commit to you today that if we take courage and move beyond our own afflictions, there is an opportunity to be blessed just waiting on us! And the joy of the affliction is that because we all have them, daily, we present one another with opportunities of the affliction, that we can transcend the marvelous and seize the opportunity to be blessed! So my affliction becomes your opportunity to stand in the gap for me and be stretched to the blessing point, and your affliction becomes someone else’s opportunity to be stretched to the blessing point! And so it goes…the Good Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. surely recognized this phenomenon when he said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” And this “inter-related web” that King speaks of has been in existence since the beginning of time. God weaved it to be sure that we would have to be relational in order to be delivered. God weaved it to remind us that we belong to one another—all of us—together. And God weaved it to remind us that we are made in God’s image—GET THIS!!!—God is a complex God—made of Father, Son, Holy Spirit—All seeing, all knowing, All powerful—from everlasting to everlasting, Amen? And if we are made in God’s image, then doesn’t it make sense that we, too, are complex? That even as we love God, we question and ask, “Why me?” That even as we love people, we fear them and have reservations about them? That even as we face affliction, therein lies opportunity? God has crafted this complex web of humanity to bless us with one another, but also to remind us that we are the byproducts of a complex God, and as such, we should respond to one another as God responds to each of us in our complexity. This has been a true challenge of the heart for me, and when faced with a challenge of the heart, one that seems insurmountable, inevitably, I ask myself, “What can I do?” My response to this question has evolved as I have listened to the tales of my Congolese friends told by fellow Covenanters, and has become the maxim for Covenant Kids Congo: Pray. Hope. Act. As such, my work over the last few weeks has been shaped by this principal of life for Covenant Kids Congo powered by World Vision. If you have been wondering what you can do to impact children and community life in Congo, the answer is simple: Pray. Hope. Act. Visit our website at CovChurch.org/covenantkidscongo, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make your commitment and begin to move beyond the marvelous into the opportunity of the affliction and what God is doing in all of our lives, together.