Facilitating Mission through Prayerful Attention to God's Presence and Action
Ministry has been the context of my life. I still remember my father
preaching his first sermon when I was eight years old. In the years of my
father being a minister and of my own education, military, and ministry, I
have lived in many places: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Japan, Viet
Nam, Chicago, North Carolina and Maryland.
The Viet Nam war was intensifying in 1968, and
due to a clerical error at the school, I was classified 1A by the
draft board, which was not reversible. Since I was a private pilot, I
chose to volunteer for the Air Force, and during my training, was married
to Myra Jane Taylor of Louisville, KY. My work in the Air Force was as a
Radio Intercept Analysis Specialist. I was fortunate not to have had any
traumatic experience in Viet Nam as so many did; nevertheless, I was
there, and I was embittered by that experience, angry at life and angry
with God. Viet Nam had not been part of my plans.
When discharged in 1974, I went to the University of Florida to finish
college. My wife and I began our lives together again, including our
church life. The Sunday School lessons were about the story of Joseph. As
I began to hear again how he was sold into slavery and later framed and
sent to prison, I really identified with Joseph. My Viet Nam experience
felt like being sold into slavery and sent to prison.
the story unfolded over several weeks, Joseph ultimately revealed himself
to his brothers and said, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for
good." I was so stunned at that! This was his chance for revenge! Why
wasn't he bitter like me? Joseph's response to his brothers consumed me.
It was the end of the semester by now, and time for final exams, but I
found myself in the library preoccupied with Joseph's story. Where did he
get his faith? How did he know that God meant it for good? I felt
desperate for answers. Finally, it dawned on me that Joseph's faith was
based on his dreams, the eleven sheaves of wheat and eleven stars. He knew
God was speaking to him in those dreams, and he never lost touch with the
vision given. God had worked redemptively through Joseph's suffering,
using it to prepare him for his place of service in God's kingdom. He knew
how to speak the Egyptian language; he knew governmental administrative
procedures from the "federal" prison, and most importantly, he knew the
way of faith.
In reflecting on Joseph's story, I realized that God loved me and had purpose
for my life as well. I didn't know how Viet Nam fit into it, or how all
the pieces would finally come together, but I no longer needed that
resolved. On a Sunday afternoon, in my living room, I knelt down in front
of my coffee table and gave my life to Christ, "who loved me and gave
himself for me." This was my adult decision of faith. My wife had come to
a commitment of her own, and we were baptized together at North Central
Baptist Church in Gainesville, Florida.
The University of Florida was my choice to finish college because of its Law
School. During my Air Force years, I had determined that I wanted to be an
attorney. Two years later, during my last semester, when it was time to
take the LSAT and make application to the Law School, I was in much
prayer about God's direction for my life. There had been such an
incredible transformation in my soul. I had been reading through the
New Testament devotionally. One afternoon between classes, I sat down
under a pine tree and turned to the next passage, which was Ephesians 3
and quickly came across these words, "To me, who am less than the least of
all the saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the
gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ." This verse was quickened to
me by God's Spirit, and I knew I was being called into ministry.
Through the Shadow of
My Journey of Grief
Janie had suffered with Type 1 (insulin dependent)
diabetes since she was thirteen. For most of those years she led a
fairly normal life, although insulin shock was never a stranger. In the
last four years, however, the demise of her health was catastrophic:
blindness, kidney dialysis, seizures, amputation of her toes and
eventually her lower leg, surgeries on her eyes, many episodes of
peritonitis, and multiple hospitalizations.
Peritoneal dialysis was begun on St. Patrick's Day, March
17, 1987. It was an overwhelming task learning the sterile procedure, which had
to be done four times daily. The overall medical regimen was consuming and felt
like it was taking over our lives. At one point when we were talking about it,
we made a covenant with God and one another that Christ was going to control our
lives, not this disease. This was one of those breakthrough moments of grace
that sustained us and gave us renewed focus and hope.
One of my prayers during this time was, "Lord, how do I
pray for her?" Over the years we had prayed in many ways. In the last six weeks
of her life, however, God gave me a three-word prayer: "Lord, have mercy." This
prayer was liberating for me. I could cry out to God without it feeling like I
was telling God what to do. It also gave me a sense of freedom because my
emotions and faith were not locked into a particular outcome.
I wanted her to be healed and whole again. I wanted our
family back to normal with all those daily routines and intimacies of life.
Overall, however, I wanted her to be relieved of her suffering. In the mystery
of life, if death was the only way for her relief, this prayer also became one
of release. "Lord, have mercy." I prayed it over and over again. It was as close
as my breath.
Janie died on September 26, 1989. We had been married for
twenty years. Our fourteen year old son, Andrew, and I arrived at the hospital
about three o'clock in the morning after a call that she had "made a turn for
the worse." We each took some private time with her to say goodbye, but it was
very incomplete. One does not say goodbye to a relationship of that nature in a
One of my first responses was relief. Her suffering had
ended. It was as one author described it, "A Severe Mercy."
Even though we had anticipated her death, we were still caught by surprise.
There was no way to comprehend the magnitude of this loss.
On the eve of her funeral I spent the whole night writing a
tribute. As a minister most people tell me they want a brief funeral service; I
never wanted it to end. It was just as she wanted. The weather was beautiful,
and people lingered in conversation. It was a surreal, but meaningful time.
One of the men in my church was caretaker for a cemetery,
and he advised me not to place a headstone until spring. The monument required a
concrete footer, and there was not enough time for the cement to cure before
freezing weather began. This turned out to be providential counsel because it
gave me the winter to think about what I was going to have engraved on her
After the funeral the depth of grief began to grasp me in
its clutches. The first routine task of normal life I did was to take my car in
for servicing. As I was waiting in the lounge, I began to have a sense of panic.
It was my first experience of real anxiety. My pastoral care professor in
seminary, Dr. Wayne Oates, said the primary dynamic of grief is anxiety. I
didn't know what that meant until now. I was beginning to engage life without
her presence, and I didn't have a map for that.
I have since described grief like the columns in front of
the Supreme Court building with each column representing a major area of life
such as employment, family, faith, home, health. When any one of those columns
is knocked out of place, it puts stress on all the others, and the building does
not have integrity until the structure has been rebuilt. That is the work of
grief, putting the structure of life back into place.
The cycle of regrets began to torment me. Why didn't I
spend more time with her? Why wasn't I kinder to her? Why wasn't I more
sensitive to her needs? They went on and on without mercy.
The God questions also began to emerge. They were
frustratingly unanswerable, but very real. It was so unfair. Why did she have to
suffer like she did? If she was going to die anyway, why did her leg have to be
amputated only six months earlier? Why the seizures? Every aspect of her
suffering replayed through my mind, and I angrily paraded them before God.
One morning as I was reading the Bible, I came to Psalm 77,
which echoed my anguished questions to God:
I cried out to God for help;
out to God to hear me.
When I was
in distress, I sought the Lord;
night I stretched out untiring hands,
soul refused to be comforted.
remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
mused, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my
eyes from closing;
too troubled to speak.
about the former days,
years of long ago;
remembered my songs in the night.
heart mused and my spirit inquired:
Lord reject forever?
never show his favor again?
unfailing love vanished forever?
promise failed for all time?
forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?"
After taking a semester's break from seminary, I resumed classes in the winter term.
My intellectual questions of God were as deep as the emotional ones. One of my courses was "The Theology
of the Providence of God", having to do with God's providential care. This
subject also covered theodicy, the issue of suffering.
The classical theodicy triangle is this: if God is a God of love, and if God is all powerful, then why does God
allow pain and suffering in the world? This question posed a formidable, almost
My professor, Dr.
Frank Tupper, whose own wife had died six years earlier, intentionally
assigned me a paper to compare two of C. S. Lewis' books. In the first book,
"The Problem of Pain",
Lewis carefully crafted a very reasoned and intellectual explanation of pain and
suffering. Years later his wife died, and he kept a diary of his experience of
grief, which was later published as "A Grief Observed."
In this latter book Lewis referred to his previous reasoned explanation of pain
and suffering as a "house of cards" which came tumbling down, and he was afraid
to construct another for fear it also would crumble. So he was content to allow
the problem of pain and suffering to remain a mystery.
As I continued to struggle with
this issue, I was led by God's Spirit to the person of Jesus Christ. Through
Scripture, spiritual reading, and theological study, I particularly became aware
of the humanity of Jesus. The Bible made statements such as, "Jesus wept," he
hungered, he was weary, and he slept. I realized I had always focused on the
deity of Christ, but his humanity was just as real and meaningful. John, the
apostle, said, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John
The redemptive path that Jesus
chose involved suffering: temptation, harassment, persecution and crucifixion.
As the prophet Isaiah had said, "he was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with
grief" (Isaiah 53:3). God the Father, however, was not a distant observer. As
the apostle Paul stated, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself"
(2 Corinthians 5:19).
The union of Jesus Christ with God was brought home to me through a book
by Jurgen Moltman, a German theologian, entitled,
"The Crucified God."
I began to get a sense of God�s identification with my pain,
that God was
suffering with me in my grief, and that God knew pain and suffering through
personal experience. As I thought again about the theodicy triangle, it occurred
to me that God does not choose to function through the power of force, but
instead God exercises power through love. This invites me to be redemptively
involved in God's
effort to alleviate pain and suffering in the world.
Through my journey of grief I
had maintained a personal time of worship each morning, which I would conclude
by committing the day into God"s hands. One morning I had a lengthy "to do"
list, and in my haste to get it all done, I jumped out of bed and began my
errands: the bank, oil change and finally the grocery store. When I returned
home, I began putting the groceries away, when all of a sudden I realized I had
skipped my time of worship. I immediately left everything sitting on the counter
went into the living room and sat on the sofa to pray.
To help me focus, I
intentionally created a scene in my imagination. God was sitting on a throne,
and the floor in front of the throne was a black and white checkerboard design.
There was a semi-circular kneeling rail in front of the throne. I knelt at this
rail to pray.
Events then began to unfold
that surprised me, which I did not manufacture in my imagination. I felt a
presence behind me and a hand on my shoulder. I immediately knew that it was
Janie. I was stunned and did not know what to do. I looked up at God, and God
said, "Talk to her." So I began telling her the things that had happened since
her death and how Andrew and I were doing. She then whirled around and began to
dance in a large semicircle around me. She was showing me that she had two legs
now. Then she stopped, looked directly at me, and said, "And I can see too!" I
knelt there and wept. She was okay now. God had made her whole.
Not long afterwards, my final
resolution of this issue came through one of Jesus' parables. It was an odd
passage that I had never before thought of in this context. It was the parable
of the wheat and the tares:
presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be
compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were
sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But
when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The
slaves of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in
your field? How then does it have tares?' And he said to them, 'An enemy has
done this!' The slaves said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them
up?' But he said, 'No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot
the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the
time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather up the tares and
bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn."
This parable was saying to me
that in creation God had planted good seed. Evil and suffering were not part of God's
good creation. An enemy came along and sowed the evil. The makeup of reality is
that none of us, nor anything, is completely pure nor totally evil, but somehow
intertwined such that for God to eradicate the evil would do damage to the good. God's response did not dispel the
mystery for me, but it did unexplainably bring a transforming resolution, that
for now the wheat and tares must grow together, but in the end God will sort the
evil from the good. Ultimately, God will deal with the evil. In the meantime I
continue to pray along with the Redeemer Christ, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be
done on earth as it is in heaven.";
In spite of her suffering Janie
maintained a rather joyful spirit of hope and faith. I was profoundly affected
by her courage in fighting the ravages of this disease. My in-laws' pastor
visited her in the hospital immediately after the amputation of her leg. He
asked her, "What would you like for me to pray for you?" She was literally
writhing in pain as he asked, and I thought the answer to his question was very
obvious, but she surprised me. Still not fully recovered from the anesthesia,
she sat up in bed and said, "Pray for endurance."
The long winter ended and
spring finally came around. It was time to place the headstone. I had prayed
about it all winter. How do you sum up a person's life in one brief statement?
Slowly I began to picture the layout of the engraving. A branch with a rose in
the upper left corner, slightly off center to the right was our long last name,
Wetherington, and then underneath, the epitaph God had given me:
Was the Joyful Presence of the Suffering God
Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY,
1977, 1980. (Try to find the hardback version.)
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Harper, San Francisco, 1940, ISBN
 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Faber and Faber, 1961, ISBN 0553274864.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, Harper & Row Publishers, New York,
NY, 1974, ISBN 0-06-065901-7.
2902 Bainbridge Dr Apt B, Durham, NC 27713, 919-564-6061
Copyright� 2001, Consultation Ministries, Inc., All rights reserved.
Photography by Larry Glover-Wetherington, Copyright� 2001.
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