What a week we have had! The county fair has been in town and we have enjoyed all the fair festivities. It was a joy to hang out at the church booth and talk with people about Messy Church and Sunday Church. I met one family who has lived in the community for six months and the mom mentioned to me that I was the first person to invite them to church since they lived here. Just a week ago, families were pouring into the fair grounds for Give a Kid a Chance. It was wonderful to see kids and adults celebrating the back to school season and receiving the school supplies they needed for a successful year.
On top of this, school started this week. It seems like yesterday that school was out for the summer, but now they are back at it. And this week will mark their first full week back at school. Meeting the teachers, teachers meeting the students. Waking up early to catch the bus or get in the car rider line. Finding out which class you like the best and which ones you would rather do without. And then one of the best things for back to school are those first day pictures. In an age when social media is filled with misleading reports and division, back to school season is wonderful because social media is filled with kids posing for their back to school pictures.
I don’t ever remember doing this as a child, but it’s a wonderful tradition that families seem to have these days. Get the kids up a little early for the first day of school and threaten their lives so you can get an Instagram perfect picture of your little angel. There might be a little yelling involved, but nobody will ever know because your picture will be perfect. Then your picture will join the countless other parents and grandparents who share the pride in their little loved ones.
You may have everything in order and your back to school schedule may be in order, but I want you to know that you might not have everythingyou need. In fact, I want to suggest to you that there are just some school supplies you can’t find at Walmart. Even though you can’t find them at Walmart, these are supplies that are essential for a blessed and successful school year.
Do you ever watch those survival shows on TV? They began in the early 2000s with the reality TV craze. You had competition shows like Survivor, but there were other shows that promised to show you real survivor situations. The host of the show was dropped in the middle of a remote wilderness, perhaps a desert, forest, disserted island, or the remote Alaskan tundra and would teach how to survive for a period of time. Most of these shows would have a camera crew attached, but I remember one of the shows where the host lugged his own camera equipment around to really be solo in the wilderness. Often these people would have nothing or very little that they would carry with them for the competition. But the key to any of the survival was being prepared.
As we start this new school year, it is so important for each person to be as prepared as possible for the challenges that are to come. Of course, we hope our students have academic challenges that will stretch them and help them grow and learn, but there are other life challenges that they will face this year as well. The same is true for our teachers, new challenges will come this year and you will have to face them. Whether you are in school or not, you are not exempt from these challenges that life will throw.
Even right now, I know that many of you are struggling with challenges. Many of you are facing surgery. Many of you are dealing with treatment for diseases, sometimes none really know what you are going through. Many of you are dealing with heartbreaking family situations, the death of loved ones, the abandonment of loved ones. Many of our younger people are struggling with decisions, and how to make good decisions as you seek to be more and more independent from your parents. All of these challenges are things that we all struggle with, but sometimes these challenges seem even more severe and can even stop you cold in your tracks.
On top of these usual struggles and challenges that many face, and that most of us will likely face if we live long enough, there are other challenges that some encounter that seem impossible to continue through. My heart broke this week as the news reported of recent immigration raids in Mississippi. On the first day of school, 680 undocumented immigrants were taken into custody, and it was reported that many children were traumatized when they went home to find that their parents weren’t there. I was moved by what the United Methodist Bishop of the Mississippi said as it relates to this. Bishop James Swanson is the is bishop of the Mississippi, but before he was there, he was our bishop.
In response to these actions and to the ensuing challenges, Bishop Swanson issued a statement where he said: “I’m not concerned with your personal political stances and thoughts on implications related to U.S. immigration, but I am concerned about the well-being and stability of families. Specifically, I am concerned about the children who suffered a sudden and traumatic separation from their families on what was for many, the first day of school here in Mississippi.”
Regardless of your politics and how you view immigration laws and, perhaps, the administration, there is no denying the heart break when children are hurt in this way. Thankfully, it was also reported that these children had been reunited with their families, but if you know anything about childhood trauma, this type of trauma will likely have lasting effects on them.
When I think about our own community, we have many families and many children that will face equally devastating things this year. Each time my kids come home complaining of another child at school I always stop and wonder what’s going on at home. When my child comes home to complain about someone being mean to them, my protective instinct raises up, but then I stop and reflect on the hurt that the other child might be dealing with right now in his or her own life. No child should have to face and struggle with the things that many of our children do.
In the midst of these situations, though, there is hope. But the truth is, there is nothing at Walmart that can prepare you for this or can ensure that you or someone else makes it through. The good news, though, is that there is somewhere you can go to get the right pack to make it through and make it out of whatever struggle you are facing. The good news is that God promises to meet you in every situation, every struggle, and every challenge that you face. When I was studying, this week, I found this promise of God in Isaiah 41.
If you read the first part of the book of Isaiah you will read about desperation and judgment. The people have been taken from their land and deported to a foreign land. While they are in this foreign land, unable to go home, they long for days to return. They are traumatized by this captivity. Surely the challenges that they face are large and real. In the midst of these challenges the people likely begin to question God. You know, God do you really care? God are you really there? God, I thought you loved me, why are you letting this terrible stuff happen to me?
In the midst of these questions and in the midst of this pain, is where we pick up with God’s renewed promises in Isaiah 41. If you have a Bible with you, I want to invite you to turn there and you can follow along with me. God speaks these words to people who are hurting, to people who are facing difficult challenges. I even think that God speaks these words to you. Here is what we find:
But you, Israel my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
offspring of Abraham, whom I love,
9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant;
I chose you and didn’t reject you”:
In this opening address, God reminds the people who they are. God addresses the people as Israel and God addresses the people as Jacob. Perhaps you remember an older story in the Bible of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. If you don’t remember these stories or have never heard them before, you can read about them beginning in chapter 12 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. But God chose Abraham to start a new nation devoted to God, and Jacob is Abraham’s grandson. Jacob was chosen by God and later his name was changed to Israel; this name Israel was then used to describe Jacob’s descendants and the people we are talking about today.
In addressing the people as Jacob, God is saying, “alright friends, I’ve loved you for a really long time, even though times are tough, I have always cared for you.” God is telling them, “I chose your ancestors and I choose you.” Even in the midst of severe difficulty, even in the midst of heart ache and desperation, God says—I am here, I choose you, I choose you, I choose you. Then God continues:
10 Don’t fear, because I am with you;
don’t be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
I will surely help you;
I will hold you
with my righteous strong hand.
I am right here, says God, I am right here with you. You don’t have to be afraid—I am right here. When you are weak, I will strengthen you. When you are in need, I will help you. When you are sad, I will hold you. And if there are other people who are the cause of your challenges. If there are people who stand against you to harm you or inflict trauma upon you, God has another word.
11 All who rage against you will be shamed and disgraced.
Those who contend with you
will be as nothing and will perish.
12 You will look for your opponents,
and won’t find them.
Those who fight you will be of no account and will die.
13 I am the Lord your God,
who grasps your strong hand,
who says to you,
Don’t fear; I will help you.
14 Don’t fear, worm of Jacob,
people of Israel!
I will help you, says the Lord.
The holy one of Israel is your redeemer.
When we think about carrying the right pack, the right survival gear, when we think about having just what we need, God speaks up and says I know what you need. It’s not so much about carrying the right gear, but it is about letting God be the one to carry you when times will turn rough and you face the challenges of health or life or job or school or whatever comes your way. In the midst of this, God speaks up and says, “I will help you; I love you; I am with you; I have always been with you; I am your redeemer.”
You can read the next two verses on your own, but then we can skip down to verse 17. Here we read what God promises to do even when you don’t see a way forward. Maybe you are facing a challenge that you can’t find an answer to. Maybe you are facing a fear that seems impossible. Maybe you can’t see a way out of your present challenge. Even if you don’t feel this way today, perhaps this year you will face something similar to this. In this midst of all of your roadblocks, God promises to make not only a detour, God promises to make a new path.
When there is a desert in your path, God promises a stream. If you are lost in the wilderness, God promises to cut a path. If there is a need or a challenge or a hurt, God will respond. This is what God gives us in verses 17-20:
17 The poor and the needy seek water, and there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
I, the Lord, will respond to them;
I, the God of Israel, won’t abandon them.
18 I will open streams on treeless hilltops
and springs in valleys.
I will make the desert into ponds
and dry land into cascades of water.
19 I will plant in the desert cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive trees;
I will put in the wilderness cypress, elm, and pine as well,
20 so that they will see and know
and observe and comprehend
that the Lord’s hand has done this,
and the holy one of Israel has created it.
Friends, as we begin exploring the 5 school supplies you can’t buy at Walmart, the most important one is to allow yourself to be carried by God. The most important supply for a successful year is something that you can’t even carry, but instead is a promise that one will carry you. I want you to know that God doesn’t bring the hurt; God doesn’t bring the cancer; God doesn’t bring the heartache; but God does promise to lead you through; God does promise to carry you through. God does promise to redeem the challenges you will face and the pain you will face and use them for good and use them for the glory of God.
Perhaps, once you have traveled this road and come out the other side you will be able to see the hand of God leading you through. The promise that God makes in Isaiah 41 is that once God leads you through, others will “see and know” what God has done for you. Perhaps, then, even your challenge can be an inspiration to someone else who is facing their own battle or their own pain. Perhaps they too can allow God to carry then and provide for them during the pain and hurt. So allow God to carry you; allow God to hold; allow God to be the one who sees you through.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.