This year on December 26th – the day after Christmas – will mark the 15th anniversary of the great Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This ranks as the third-largest earthquake ever registered and the deadliest by far in human loss, due to tidal waves impacting high-density populations along coastlines – the death toll approaching 228,000 people. Over 1.5-million people were displaced.
Among the 14 countries affected was Thailand, where we have our missionary friends Dean and his wife. And as the news of this disaster was reaching the USA, we were gathering for church on a Sunday morning. I remember speaking of it to the congregation and praying about it, particularly remembering our friends there. Before long, we heard that they were safe, though their ministry lives were immediately changed.
Dean is from the Harrisburg area and was a great wrestler – going to Penn State University to compete, and it was during this time he came to know Christ. His father was involved with the leadership a community college in a big way; and from age 15, Dean was forced to work every summer and all holiday breaks on maintenance at this local school. He said …
We were paid less than minimum wage and I complained a lot. From age 15 to when I got married at 24 years old (with the exception of two years with Campus Crusade in Asia after college) I worked my butt off to please my dad. I did learn a lot of cool stuff from the senior maintenance guys and my dad. They all liked me and tried to teach me stuff. I learned a lot about small engine and car/truck engine maintenance. I learned to drive a Bobcat and operate a small dump truck. I learned to weld, pull electric wires and hook them up. I learned all about paint, both water-based and oil-based. I learned all kinds of wood shop and carpentry skills. I even learned how to mix and pour concrete with rebar.
But Dean totally hated everything about it. He was wanting to move on in life to his God-calling as a missionary, which at last happened at age 29. He and his wife served in both the Philippines and Thailand, planting churches and training local leadership.
But he often looked back and wondered why God delayed getting him started into that work and wasted all that time doing those irritating and menial tasks. It did not make sense; he was trying to get out, move on, and get to work doing the stuff that lasts for eternity!
But when the tsunami happened, everything changed. He helped form the Thai Christian Foundation and contracted with the Thai government to rebuild 92 houses in two villages. Dean was in charge of the whole thing – mixing cement with rebar columns, making wood forms, welding steel roofs together. And just as in his past, there was a Bobcat and dump truck involved! He supervised 50 Thai workers along with 800 volunteers who came from around the world.
Over those 18 months, the best thing was also to begin two churches in those two villages. How was he able to accomplish these huge tasks? It was because of the many, varied skills he learned over those presumably wasted years with the community college maintenance department. God knew what He was doing – imagine that. Dean said, “God knew I needed all that and made sure I got it without me knowing how practical that seemingly wasted experience would prove to be in my 40s. At the time, I hated that job and considered it beneath me, especially the pay.”
Yes, God knows what He is doing. He has the bigger picture of our lives than we do. He is able to see what is, for us, the future; and He is faithful in light of that to superintend our present … all for our good and His glory. But on the flat and linear plain of this life, it may not look that way to us; in fact, it may look just the opposite.
The theme this week is: Theme – trusting God through disappointments and periods of waiting. And the summary statement is: God tends to burn my dreams in front of me before giving them back to me in the precise way He desires them to be expressed.
I told you a story about one of our missionaries – surely for him, it was the one time in particular where he has seen this happen in his life. And additionally, I know I am repeating a story I’ve told probably two other times in sermons, even as recently as two years ago, I think. But these are my reflections, and the following was a big teaching moment in my life.
I had mentioned in the first sermon of this series that it was not my idea or chief desire in life to go toward church ministry and the pastorate. The door most open to me as a high school senior was to pursue music education at a Christian college, so I committed that far only. And I can remember very clearly one day where it hit me that this could lead to a church ministry/pastoral profession. It was on the par 3, third hole at the Washington, NJ country club; and I remember thinking that there was little else I wouldn’t rather do – how that would be such an awful life!
And then there was the prescribed program at my college – it was a five-year, double major in Bible and music … not four years. Already my life was looking to be taking on an extra year in the start-up phase … ugh! But I did get a wife at the end of the fourth year!
And I was surprised in college to find that I liked the Bible and theology departments more than the music major, but I knew that somehow the music thing was still going to be a part of my future. But I applied to the premier grad school that was respected by my college – Dallas Theological Seminary – and was actually surprised to get an acceptance to this selective institution. And a year later, we were living in Texas.
Our move to Dallas was quite an adventure! We shipped some of our things by a freight company, but we were so broke that we moved a bunch of stuff ourselves. My father-in-law pulled a trailer behind his van, and we drove our packed-out 1968 Rambler Rebel station wagon. The trip was treacherous. The trailer broke loose at one point (in Winchester, VA) and actually passed dad’s van while sliding down the road. It also had multiple hitch and tire problems. So many things went wrong in transit that, when we at last arrived in Dallas at our destination (briefly living with some family who were already there), I completely broke down into tears from the stress of it all.
But God got us there … to begin ANOTHER four years of school! Clearly it was where we were supposed to be. The first year there involved some wild jobs at crazy hours. Diana was a Christian School first-grade teacher with a starting salary of $5,600 … whoohoo! I worked for UPS and cleaned swimming pools. We were scraping by, just barely.
At the very fine Bible Church we were attending, a position suddenly opened for a part-time minister of music. It was perfect for me! It paid more than I was making at other jobs, and it was in ministry – in an area that I had already given five years of education, including a one-year internship in such a position at a small New Jersey church. Clearly, this had to be God’s plan. It was awesome! I interviewed in confidence.
A few weeks later, after a Sunday evening service, the Pastor pulled me aside to say that they had decided to hire someone else. I even knew the guy from a distance and could see that he was bad news – which he proved to be over the next year.
I was so angry as I drove home that night around the Dallas beltway (Diana was at home and not with me that evening). “Are you kidding me?” I screamed toward the heavens. This made no sense at all! I recall yelling at God, pounding my fist on the steering wheel and lamenting … “So what were all those years of music education about? Why’d you put me through all of that … for nothing? Here I am, ready to serve! And you KNOW how much I needed this position to pay to live and get all this additional education! And where is that going to lead? There is NO JUSTIFICATION for this; there can be NO explanation! This is totally wrong!”
I calmed down after a while and followed my advice from the first sermon – just sit in the saddle and do the next faithful thing. I finished the school year, and then for the summer went home to NJ to my home church for an internship. Yes, it was nice to be home, but I did it as much to fulfill another requirement on my seemingly dead-end educational career.
So, there at my home church, where I was known mostly as a music guy from their experiences with me, I spent the summer preaching and teaching instead. I did no music at all … the pastor had been killed the previous autumn in a car crash, and the church was in recovery. My role in that season was to bring the Scriptures to folks. And it was a good summer … without the music, surprisingly.
As September approached again, I returned to Dallas with the spiritual experience that it was OK if I never got to do music stuff again. I would be fine with however God wanted to use me; and apparently it was not going to involve worship ministries. That dream was burned.
I had barely been back in Big-D for more than a few days, preparing for yet another fall semester, when a Dallas church called me and asked me to come be their minister of music. It was a much larger church than the one that rejected me, and it was in every way a far better opportunity. Through it I was exposed to the most amazing people in Christian ministry, both in Dallas and from throughout the country and world. It turned out to be my richest experience in Texas – beyond the seminary education, as good as that was. And those next three years of amazing ministry with wonderful people totally set me up for all the good things that came afterward, step by step, including ultimately ending up here in Maryland for the last 25 years.
Yes, as our title today says, God burned MY dreams, until He gave them back to me the way that HE wanted them. The closed door that looked so wrong led rather to an open door that proved to be so right and so much better. God proved to be totally faithful, even when I couldn’t see it.
And these two stories today are illustrative especially of the overarching truth I’ve shared with you over this series … What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. It’s not a trick. God wants us to learn to instinctively look quickly to Him in every circumstance, especially those that don’t make immediate sense.
Sorry about the two long, too-long stories, but I thought they might resonate with many of you and encourage you in whatever season of confusion you might have right now … times perhaps when it feels like God has you in an extended waiting period, an interminable holding pattern.
Let’s turn again today to another portion of the story of the man known as the father of faith, to that of Abraham & Isaac, picking up the account in the fabulous 15th chapter of Genesis.
Genesis 15:1-6 … After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
By the time we get here to chapter 15, recall that Abraham had uprooted his life and moved away from the accumulated successes of his world, and toward a place that God would later reveal to him. He was promised that he would be blessed personally, that he would have blessings extend to generations of family, and that all people would be blessed through him.
But now, none of this seemed to actually be coming true, especially in the area of family. He and Sarah were childless. And by the traditions of that day, the steward of his household – an Eliezer of Damascus – appeared to be his heir. But God again reiterated that his own son would be his heir, with family as vast as the visible stars of the sky.
And rather than be doubtful, it says that he believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness. This was the content of his saving faith.
But more time passed, and Sarah was getting impatient about this situation …
Genesis 16:1-2 … Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.
Sarah presumes here that God needs some help. And again, an earthly custom of the time was to have a surrogate womb bear a child. And her idea was to use a servant woman named Hagar. For some reason, Abram listened and complied, and then …
Genesis 16:15-16 … 15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
So, catch the age … 86. And now, turn the page to the next, immediately following text in Scripture in chapter 17, and you see that 13 years pass between these chapters.
Genesis 17:1-2 … When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”
So what was Abram doing these 13 years? Mostly playing with Ishmael! And God says AGAIN that Sarah will bear a son to Abram…
Genesis 17:16-19 … I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.
Abraham laughs. He looked in the mirror and wondered how such a young man got stuck in a body like that! But the problems appeared even greater when he looked toward Sarah. And then Abraham displays his immense pleasure with his son through Hagar by asking that God bless him and work through that young man. But God has a different plan … and now Sarah does as well.
Genesis 18:11,12 … Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”
In every situation, God is the giver of life, and He does indeed bring a child through her …
Genesis 21:1-3 … The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.
Okay, cool. So now all the craziness was behind them. Now they could anticipate the normal stuff to happen – like that of a child growing up in their household to fulfill all the promises. Smooth waters ahead! But in a few years God visits Abraham again …
Genesis 22:1-2 … After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
You know the story … of Abraham and Isaac traveling to this place of sacrifice. And you likely also know that this is believed to be at the very spot the true and better Isaac – Jesus – would give his life as an atonement for sin. At the moment when Abraham is to plunge the knife into the son of promise, a ram is heard to be caught in the bushes nearby, it becoming the substitute sacrifice instead.
And it is over in the New Testament that we get an explanation as to what Abraham was reasoning at this juncture …
Hebrews 11:17-19 … 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
Yes, God had a plan. It took a while for it to be fulfilled with lots of twists and turns, but at last it did come true. Abraham’s dreams were often delayed extensively or burned in front of him. He was not perfect, but he did – bottom line – trust and believe God was going to make all of this to work out in some way.
Jesus spoke to this attitude of faith when sharing the following parable …
John 12:23-25 … And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
This is essentially saying that our dreams and aspirations are like grains of wheat, useless unless they fall into the soil and die. But then they come to life, they grow and produce much fruit.
TRANS>> You can clearly see a number of the themes about which we’ve been speaking in this story. But let me list some for you as our major takeaway applications …
- God is the source of genuine dreams and aspirations, as well as the resource for their fulfillment.
We can have dreams and desires for things that are merely the fleshly stuff of this world. But the genuine aspirations for things tied to God’s divine purpose for us are sourced in Him. It says in Scripture that God is at work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure. And beyond that we have assurance that God is at work in all things for our good. I like those promises!!
- Our God-given dreams inevitably go through a variety of delays and revisions before fulfillment.
It might be more accurate to say that it “appears” that our dreams go through delays and revisions – because we just don’t know God’s timetable for us. Little in life works out just as we expect it will. We are simply not capable of successfully making all the right decisions at the right time. We will make foolish mistakes. For God to let us have the ultimate power in planning the details of life would be about like letting our elementary children manage the family budget. Wrong priorities are inevitable without the activity of divine guidance and management.
- The delays and revisions of our dreams are the loving gifts of God to make us better people.
Again, turning to another family illustration, we allow our children to have some tough times and experiences for their educational good. We don’t just solve their every problem and give what they want exactly when they want it. We have a bigger picture in mind for them, and we want to help them get there on a schedule that is appropriate and for their best good. And so it is that our heavenly Father superintends our life events, with wise delays and revisions.
- God is as interested (or more interested) in the process as in the result.
God does not need any of us to get anything accomplished. Again, what he wants from us more than anything else is not what we achieve, but rather that we display our faith and trust in Him by resting in Him completely.
- God is always faithful, and His way always proves to be the best way.
The individual is yet to be found who regrets trusting God, even when doing what was confusing and unclear, and sometimes even when it seems the opposite of what you would expect or immediately desire. Later in this series we will work our way through the 73rd Psalm, where the writer admits that he struggled to maintain faith when it appeared that the evil people of the world were the truly prospering ones. Hindsight is always 20/20 when looking at the good hand of God in our lives. He is indeed always faithful, and it is often totally amazing, even miraculous.
- Our sinful nature will draw us to desire to seize control at various times.
It is difficult to wait, especially over extended periods of time. There is an Evil One who wants to put doubts in our minds as to the genuine goodness of God. Remember, that’s what he did back in the garden of Eden … “Has God really said …?” We need to be mindful of this dark influence – not just from outside of ourselves, but also of our own sinful propensity to want to take control and appease immediate appetites.
- The reward is always worth it all, even though it may be different than the original dream, or even less than complete.
God’s best for us is exactly that – BEST! And it is never going to look exactly like you thought it would be at the beginning. It is going to morph and change and have unique surprises. But you’ll be satisfied in the end by trusting Him daily in the small things of faithful living – staying in the saddle and doing the next thing of obedience. It all adds up in the end, and you look back with amazement. It is better than if you just did it yourself. And even where it is less than complete or as awesome as you might have hoped, you discover a strange satisfaction and contentment with where it is at – because He gave that serenity to you as well.
Though there are applications in this theme today for every one of us at any age, I can imagine a number of categories of folks today where it might especially apply…
The single young adult – There you are, truly an adult for a while now, and on your own for sure. You’d like to find and know that person with whom you can walk through life. He or she doesn’t need to be a total hunk or the epitome of babe-dom, but you want them to love and serve God. But where are they? You’ve been praying about this … and waiting and waiting. There are opportunities to take matters into your own hands, and that is a temptation during the times of silence. Is God hearing? Is He engaged in this at all?
The childless young couple – This is just not working out. You’ve prayed; your parents have prayed; friends pray … but nothing happens. Doesn’t God love children, especially in the households of His own people and servants? But the heavens are silent, and the years are passing.
The graduated college and grad student, looking to start a career – There have been so many false starts. You can’t seem to find a job with a long-term future that pays enough right now to get to that future. Why isn’t this working out? You were told this is a lucrative field of endeavor, but where’s the start-line?
The person stuck in a difficult job situation – There you are, working overtime again, but will anyone notice? And then you just can’t get away from working weekends, and it seems like whenever the kids are home, you’re at the job. It’s long past time for that mirage called a “promotion” to have happened. You’ve told God about this, over and over, especially when clocking in and out. But God doesn’t seem to care that you even end up missing church frequently because of this rat-race you’re stuck in.
And there are so many other applications …
- The unbelieving spouse.
- The wayward adult child.
- The weirdness of living without a relationship with a parent – whom maybe you don’t even know.
- The person with the chronic disease that constantly prevents living a normal life that would include serving God so much better.
To you all … God knows these things. And even in your weakness and waiting, He’s gotcha! There is a divine plan, and it is true that you can’t see it. But the day will come when you look back and see it clearly; and wow, it was His best for you and for living His life through you!
Trust Him today, as even the torched dreams and empty hands have a purpose!
Week Five Items for Discussion
Do you feel, looking back over your Christian experience to this point, that you have had torched dreams and the empty hands of unfulfilled expectations that you believed to be godly and wholesome?
Are you able to recall situations in your life where you faced delays and morphed plans that seemed wrong at the time, but you see now were God’s best for you?
Do you find encouragement in the story of Abraham? He is a mixed back of incredible faith, along with several failures as well. But at the end of day, he trusted in God. Did Abraham live to see all the promises come true? Can any of us expect to see everything come true of our aspirations?
How might this entire discussion affect your prayer life? How might it affect the way you calibrate your expectations?
How can you encourage others who are facing some of the issues mentioned in the applications: singleness, delayed careers, childlessness, etc.?