Church Amidst Tribulation: Just Where it Should Be

Church Amidst Tribulation

When my friend Zach asked me to join in him in a trip to Pleasant Grove on Friday, in response to the devastating tornadoes of Wednesday, a lot of things came to mind. “Sure” was the immediate answer but my motives were mixed. I wanted my 12 year old exposed to the tragedy itself as much as I wanted her to put on a servant’s heart and help those who were in the greatest of need. Embarrassed to say I even imagined a web article featuring the partnership between Bigtime Ministry here in Birmingham and Grace Community, a fledging church plant in Northeast Atlanta. To my credit, I was already having conversations with ATO’s about a meaningful way to help in Tuscaloosa just out of a Christ-like desire to serve.

When I returned from the Pleasant Grove, the photo above, the experience of the people themselves and the lectionary reading from Saturday the 30th sent me in an unexpected direction. The gospel lesson was from John 16 and ends in these words, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Tribulation? The people of Pleasant Grove, like many others in the South, know tribuation in spades. I’ve lived in one third world country and traveled to several others. I’ve walked the soil of two war torn countries, Bosnia and Rwanda. And I’ve never seen anything like this. Homesites razed as if homes had never been considered. What houses wind didn’t destroy trees and utility poles did. One man gently swept his driveway seemingly numb to the fact that 80% of his house was gone.  The people of Pleasant Grove know tribulation.

I snapped the photo above not knowing what I had taken, a metaphor for the church being smack dab in the middle of destruction. And it is right where it ought to be. We could miss that in our 20th and 21st century versions of church. So popular is the version of church that affirms our health and affluence that we’ve come to believe what Jesus prophesied is evidence of our personal failure. If someone is experiencing trouble, poor health, loss of job or 50 years of history erased by a ten minute bout with an F4 wind, their lack of faith or un-repented sin is to blame. Yes I’ve heard it on far too many occasions. Lack of health and wealth is our own unwillingness to claim the work of stripes to heal us or unwillingness to give up the vices that destroy us.

Is that what the church says to the people of Pleasant Grove? Is that what we say to the victims of tsunamis or hurricanes like Katrina or earthquakes like that in New Zealand? It is inhuman because it is ungodly. Jesus says it is the norm for this life. Saying otherwise is a luxury of the affluent like me. Frankly, such thinking and worse ministry is the equivalent of children playing with matches in a drought ridden forest.

I am sure some of the people of Pleasant Grove have un-repented sin in their lives and a few could stand to lean a bit more on God and less on self. True that! But that is what makes them like us or us like them. Their outward tribulation is different but not the condition of their souls. In that regard, they are probably pretty normal. Their tribulation is simply obvious, and those of us who lost a few limbs, or power, or live altogether blissfully unaware, is not. In my own experience as a pastor, there are only two kinds of people, those experiencing pain and those about to experience pain. Denial is used to avoid this reality. Denial is a powerful coping mechanism. We even twist scripture to bolster our sophistry. But Pleasant Grove’s tribulation isn’t due to un-repented sin any more than my godchild’s CF. And neither can be instantly erased with more faith though such faith is highly encouraged.

But tribulation can be over overcome, navigated if you will, because of the victory we  have in Jesus. The way of the world will not have the last word. With such confidence we can face such mindboggling devastation and even be people of good cheer. That is what I experienced in Pleasant Grove. People are outwardly grateful for the church amidst devastation – for food, for water, for a concerned voice and an empathetic ear. Some hammered by the unwelcome tragedy could find humor in it all. “Do you have a hot shower in there (my truck)?” One offer of food was greeted with “I like my steak medium rare.”

The Church Amidst Tribulation – Just as it Should Be. In fact we have little to do with places where is all is well. It is the sick who are in need of a physician, the unsaved in need of a savior.  The Church Amidst Tribulation – Just as it Should Be and Perhaps Nowhere Else!

4 Responses to “Church Amidst Tribulation: Just Where it Should Be”

  • Mary Elizabeth Says:

    Amazing post. I was just reading in Romans this morning the passage on suffering that I heard so often in the office with all the windows. Who are we to blame others’ sin for their suffering? Why should they have more suffering for their sin than we have for ours? Why are we so quick to ignore that Jesus says suffering “is the norm for this life”? And why do we (myself definitely included) expect anything other than suffering in this fallen world? As God’s word tells us “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world!”. God is in the troubles, and He has already overcome them for us and for the people of Tuscaloosa and Pleasant Grove and New Zealand and New Orleans. Hallelujah.

    On another note…LOVE the use of “true that”! Well done.

  • Richard Says:

    Powerful image. I guess a picture is worth a thousand words (or 828 n this case)! Good on you.

  • Gretchen Says:

    Wow, John. Great post! Perfect sermon for the first Sunday in Easter, 2011 in our Birmingham area. Well done!

  • Liz Says:

    Excellent post, John. LOVED being with you guys last night and look forward to more time with the Richardsons in ATL!

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