September 8th, 2016
Nabeel Qureshi has a story to tell.
He finds his roots in a sect of Islam mostly unfamiliar to the west. The Ahmadi Muslims took their lead from Mirza Ahmad, a 19th century charismatic figure thought to be the forerunner of the Islamic eschaton and a new era of peace and fulfillment of ancient expectations. Nabeel’s family embraced the Ahmadi way.
Qureshi’s father, who served in the US Navy, moved his family to various American locales, eventually settling the family in Virginia. While studying to become a doctor Nabeel also became a student of Islamic apologetics, participating in numerous debates with Christians on college campuses.
But in dialogue with one Christian apologist by the name of David Wood, Nabeel encountered arguments for the New Testament’s account of Jesus for which his answers proved even for him inadequate. In time Nabeel himself turned to Jesus and became an outspoken Christian apologist, eventually partnering with Ravi Zacharias and his worldwide ministry. He’s published three books in rapid succession, the most recent entitled Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, which in short order became a New York Times bestseller. Nabeel was also married and became the father of one young daughter.
His is a story worth noting.
But two weeks ago Qureshi disclosed that he’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer, the prognosis for which he deemed “grim.” To begin his equally aggressive treatment plan, he has put on hold his participation in debates, panel discussions, and Ph.D studies in New Testament at Oxford. Barely into his thirties, he now faces a storyline at best sobering and at worst tragic. But in divulging his sorrow he also reiterated his hope:
In the past few days my spirits have soared and sank as I pursue the Lord’s will and consider what the future might look like, but never once have I doubted this: that Jesus is Lord, His blood has paid my ransom, and by His wounds I am healed. . . .I have firm faith that my soul is saved by the grace and mercy of the Triune God, and not by any accomplishment or merit of my own. I am so thankful that I am a child of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed in the Spirit. No, in the midst of the storm, I do not have to worry about my salvation, and for that I praise you, God.
So Nabeel becomes an involuntary illustration (aren’t the most poignant typically that?) of what it will mean to face suffering with faith. We may never find ourselves in the same kind of existential upheaval. But we will all have something to learn from him–about the collision of the harrowing and the hopeful.
In two weeks time we will turn our attention from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to a topic we might all prefer to forego but one which we dare not neglect. Suffering, as others have summarized it, is the loss of our heart’s desire and the diminution of our capacity to flourish as humans.
It is everywhere experienced. It is part of everyone’s storyline. And while it cannot be entirely avoided, nor adequately explained, nor even easily mitigated, it may still be redeemed. That is, our inevitable encounters with suffering may nevertheless be rescued from an utter desolation that it, left to itself, would otherwise wreak. While some desires may die, not all may be lost. While our flourishing might’ve derived from one set of circumstances, a new, if at first unwelcome and painful, set of circumstances may yield another opportunity to flourish.
The redemption of our suffering does not naturally occur, in that it neither comes without cost or help from the Lord Himself. Furthermore it does not follow from just waiting for something to happen. It requires consideration. It requires a seeking after, the very exertion of which is at every moment challenged by the suffering itself.
So for eight weeks beginning October 2nd, we will survey storylines of Scripture which are all tinged with the dark tinctures of suffering. We will each week ask a question that our sufferings naturally elicit, and see what answers those stories provide:
Redeeming Suffering--a fall sermon series
|Date||The Question||The Storyline||The Text(s)|
|10.2||Why this world wracked with suffering? Where do we find the seeds of hope?||The story of creation||Genesis 1:1-5, 26-31; 3:1-23, Romans 8:18-25|
|10.9||Does God know? Does He care?|
Can He hear the words of our groaning?
|The Exodus story||Ex. 1:8-22; 2:1-10, 23,25; 3:7-10|
|10.16||What shall we do if our suffering is due to our sin?||The story of David||Psalm 51|
|10.23||How can suffering be redeemed if it makes absolutely no sense?||The story of Job||Job 1:1-21, 42:1-6|
|10.30||What of suffering for doing what is righteous?||The story of Jeremiah||Jeremiah 20:7-18 / 1 Peter 3:13-16|
|11.6||How do we face suffering knowing God could’ve done something but for some reason chose not to?||The story of Mary and Martha||John 11:1-27|
|11.13||What does the forerunner of our faith teach us about suffering before God?||The story of Jesus||passages in Isaiah 42, 53 / Matthew 26:30-46|
|11.20||How does a community suffer redemptively?||The story of Paul||2 Cor 1:1-11; 4:7-12|
We obviously don’t ask and answer every question suffering provokes, but we hope by this series to unearth a few serviceable ideas.
As you can see, the series will take us all the way to the Sunday before Advent. During that festive season we’ll take a look at doctrine of our faith that could not be more central and yet is too often ignored: our Union with Christ. The more we think about it, the more we find a seamless connection with the series that will have immediately preceded it. It’s our Union with Christ that offers us both the greatest reason for hope and the greatest impetus for asking for His intervention in our suffering. That is why our annual Liturgy in Blue will this year be dedicated to a service of prayer for healing and hope. More on that as we draw near–a lot more. For now, consider yourself apprised of the remainder of our year’s sermon series.
On a personal note, Kevin and I do not feel equal to the task set before us–any more than any of us might feel equal to the task of facing our suffering with faith. But the topic is worth our time, worth our effort and our prayer to contemplate and tease out some helpful notions.
At the end of the film version of Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis’s unexpected marriage to Joy Gresham, the director preferred to cast the Oxford Don in a particular light. Having depicted the awful and beautiful love story culminating with Joy’s death due to cancer, the film ends with Lewis as a man whose earlier answers to questions of suffering he now found inert and unhelpful. (In truth I believe the film director truncated the picture of Lewis’s learning in suffering, a point one may easily perceive just by reading his A Grief Observed; but movies always tend to take an angle.)
Kevin and I are naturally preoccupied with the prospect of conveying answers to the difficult questions of suffering that will in the end prove unhelpful. So we ask and welcome your prayers. We also invite your stories–during Q&A or by email. This will be yet another collaborative effort whereby we all might be matured in what it means to suffer with faith–acknowledging at the outset that the most potent learning is from within the experience itself.