Monday, January 9, 2012

Between the Ash Heap and the Whirlwind...

{With Lynn's permission, I am posting the sermon I shared at Mark Donihe's funeral on Saturday, January 8.}

Then Job took a piece of broken pottery
and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes
(Job 2:8)

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind… (Job 38:1)

This is the one we’re not prepared for. I’ve been forced this week to deal with those portions of Scripture that I’ve always been glad are there, but always somewhat overlooked because they’ve never quite applied to me, verses like Jeremiah 12:1, You will be in the right, O LORD, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? To put it in my own words, “In a world full of scoundrels and sinners, why is Mark the one who is taken from us?”

My own questioning brought me to these verses from Job. We’re mostly familiar with the general story: caught up in a cosmic battle between God and Satan, Job has everything taken away from him. As the losses pile up, even his wife advises him to just curse God and die. But this is the one thing Job won’t do, and so Job does what people in that day did in times like these, he went out and sat among the ashes in a public mourning ritual. No private mourning here; the entire community would know of Job’s suffering and come and share in that with him.

The next thing that happens is that Job’s friends come and sit with him for a while; together they begin to offer some explanation for all that has happened to him. For all of their good intentions, they’re not much help. After a long series of conversations back and forth where they begin to wrestle with the tempest of emotions that is within Job, God shows up in the whirlwind, and sets everything to rights. In the end, all is well.

And it will be for us one day. But we’re not there yet. We find ourselves between the ash heap and the whirlwind, owning the pain and wondering why. Living in this in-between time, where do we turn for comfort and consolation? I found some help with the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:13, and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


This verse reminds me that living between the ash heap and the whirlwind, faith is still a good idea. I was here on Tuesday evening for the prayer service, and I don’t mind telling you that standing here today I’m disappointed with God---even a bit ticked off that God didn’t answer our prayers like we wished. But even though I’m disappointed with God, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to walk out the door or turn my back on him. And in part, I am encouraged here by Mark’s own faith, which helped him weather a few storms in his own life, and continue to be encouraged to work for the spread of the gospel, that other persons might come to know Jesus like he did.

When you live on the 1800 block of Mount Vernon Road, you’re surrounded by Methodists. I feel like I know so much about this congregation through Mark that I’m practically an associate member! I remember one spring or summer Saturday morning Mark came home from a planning meeting so excited because he’d seen some statistics that gave the number of unchurched people who live within some short distance of the church. We talked about ways the church might reach those people, and that they would come to have faith in Jesus Christ and live that out here! Mark’s contagious faith and commitment to this congregation can be an encouragement to each of us. How many Marks are there at Raleigh Court UMC to joyfully live out that faith?

That same faith made him so excited to see Mollie go on mission trips each summer, and encouraged him to participate in the service at Wasena Park and help with the singing, and made him look forward to working with Interfaith Hospitality Network. One of the last times I spoke with Mark was right before Christmas as he was wrapping and preparing to deliver Christmas presents to an IHN family.

Even though we live today between the ash heap and the whirlwind, living with faith is still a good idea.

We came to the prayer service and spent time in the hospital this week hoping that Mark would be restored to us, and that hope was not realized. There was a point when Mark’s condition got to the point where there was nothing left to hope for, in terms of an earthly, physical recovery.

But here again, Mark’s own contagious, large personality reminds us that hope is a magnificent thing. You couldn’t know Mark for long without realizing how much he enjoyed children and youth---and really people in general. It was an expression of hope that he was always talking about Mollie, Hill, and Reid, their friends, not to mention the other children on the street. Mark was aware of this large number of young people---many of whom are here today---and the amazing things they do on the golf course or ball field or stage or marching band. He was amazed at the kids on our street learning to “double Dutch” jump rope or learning to ride unicycles. I would question whether or not any of us know anyone else who loved people more than Mark, was more interested in them than he was, and always saw the best in them, encouraging them and supporting their endeavors. What better expression of hope is there than wanting to see other people reach their potential and have as much fun as possible all the way there?

Even though we live today between the ash heap and the whirlwind, living with hope is still a good idea.


And finally, love. The Scripture reminds us that “the greatest of these is love.” Perhaps the hardest thing for us today is that not only are we so sad, our sadness is so out of character for Mark. As a pastor, I suppose I’m as guilty as any of taking the things of the church too seriously. But I had to chuckle the other night when in the middle of this passionate, tear-filled, serious prayer service, the candle holders had to be carried out of here on fire. And who would have laughed the hardest at that? Mark! I guarantee you that if the circumstances had been different and Mark had been here and I hadn’t been, I and all of Mt. Vernon Road would have heard about that one for years.

It’s our love for Mark that brought us here on Tuesday evening, that kept the flow of traffic coming into the hospital waiting room this week, and that has us here today. It was love that generated the response to the article in the Roanoke Times. Yesterday, 7,997 people read that article online. The next leading article had 4,600 hits---and it was about Virginia Tech football! As a Georgia Tech fan, Mark would have loved that!

And let me tell you something. Even though we live between the ash heap and the whirlwind today, love is still a good idea. Falling in love still makes sense. Loving your kids is an incredible thing. Loving your neighbor’s kids is great. Loving God and loving your neighbor is still gospel. Because even though I’m still disappointed with God about this one, even though we can look at Mark’s life and laugh and cry all at the same time, even though we have to pick up the pieces of life and move forward into an uncertain future, even though we live today between the ash heap and the whirlwind, Mark’s life is an example and encouragement to us, and a motivation for me to still follow Jesus and carry on. Our faith reminds me that as hard as this day is, because of Jesus this is not the end of our love for Mark. It is only a break until one day we are all together with Mark, with Jesus, for eternity.

Our task over the coming days will be to search down in side of ourselves and claim a tenacious faith in Jesus Christ amidst our present trial and tribulation, a tenaciousness that finds its expression in faith, hope and love. Through this, one day I believe our own whirlwind will come, and God will speak to us and our perspective of God and his work will be broadened, and we will be brought to a new place where we are once again prepared to more fully accept the full measure of God’s call to follow Jesus. I don’t know when that will be or what it will look like when it arrives, but together with the church down through the ages, I echo the prayer of the church, Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful! I didn't know Mark, but you did a great job of making it clear what a great faith-filled guy he was.


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