“Why, God!?”

why god

“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

woman at the well

The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.

The Desert

 

footprints in the desert 2

Every one of us must take this journey.  No one is exempt.  It is a pilgrimage that takes us into uncharted territory.  Lack of certainty, the unknown, and mystery are the companions along the way of this nomadic travel.  The harrows of this trip might seem to be the outward troubles and circumstances which surround you, but the real test is the journey within – it is the walk across the desert and the aridity that seems to exist in the soul, as if there are no familiar resources to draw from.  There is only one way, and that way appears so fearful that you and I try and avoid it like the plague.  But we cannot.

When times are tough, and when we find ourselves in the midst of circumstances that we didn’t see coming or have no desire to experience become the desert journeys which both demonstrate and define who we are as people.  The rock hard vicissitudes of this fallen world are no respecter of persons.  They come to all, whether rich or poor, black or white, privileged or underprivileged, introverted or extroverted, hard working or the just-getting-by, as well as the young or the aged.  What truly separates one person from another is how they handle the inevitable desert journey with its dryness of soul and seemingly endless barrage of trouble.

You cannot avoid it.  Eventually, someone you love will die – maybe even several of them in a short amount of time.  If not now, there will come a time when your financial budget will no longer budge and you’ll wonder what in the world you are going to do.  Even if you have never known poverty or want, the prospect of what will happen in the future might occur, with its lost investments and/or the slow erosion of economic resources because of circumstances out of you control.  There will come a time when you will be betrayed, become the victim of a verbal hate crime, or lose your reputation.  If relationships are presently serene, there is coming a day when it will not always be this way.  Strained friendships, difficult relations with co-workers, marriage troubles, and family squabbles aren’t just things that happen to other people.

Perhaps at this point you no longer wish to stick with me on this journey of words.  It’s a downer.  Maybe there isn’t enough positive thinking and you’d like to break off this train of trouble.  That is your prerogative.  But it doesn’t negate the fact that there is either right now something going on under your nose that you’re ignoring or in denial about, or a turn in your life that is coming down the pike.  Then what will you do?  Will you have the inner resources to face it?  Is your soul in a state that can sustain a loss, even a minor one, tomorrow?  Are you ready for adversity?

If you have ever felt alone, lost, hopeless, empty, and in the dark, as if you are sinking in quicksand, I want you to know that this is a journey that we all must undergo.  It is tempting, when going through such a time, to look backward and long for the good ol’ days.  But those days are gone.  They aren’t coming back.  What worked for you back there probably won’t work for you now.  So, here is the thought that I’d like you to think:

The desert is the perfect place for transformation; the wilderness journey is the means to a new and better life.

The ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt, hard pressed and in agony.  Through a series of miraculous events God redeemed them out of that place and sent them on a journey… into the desert.  Yes, that’s right.  It might have seemed to the Israelites that they were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Here they were out in the middle of nowhere without water, food, and basic necessities.  It’s endemic to the human condition to complain and seek to blame someone for your trouble.  Moses took a lot of crap from the people.  Yet, God had his own purposes and plans for the inner redemption of the people as well as outward freedom.

God put his people squarely in a place where they could not go back, couldn’t go around, and most definitely could not stay put where they were.  Nope.  They had to go through the desert.  There was no other way.  Moses made it through those years of living in the desert by reminding the people that there was a future for them, a better future than Egypt or the desert – a hope of the Promised Land.  God also shaped the way they were to think about the past through an annual rehearsal of the deliverance out of bondage, the Passover.  For the daily and ever present activity of desert living, God enabled Moses to delegate the practical situations of being together in a desert situation by gifting others to help and walk with him.  And this was all formed through the covenant experience of Sinai – the giving of the Law, the Promise that God would always have his loving loyalty upon the people.

Going through your own desert journey will require the same resources of Promised Land, Passover, and the Law of Promise.  That is, viewed through the lens of the Christian, God is forming within us a deep spirituality based in the promises of His Word, the sustenance of the Lord’s Table, and the confident expectation of Christ’s return and the hope of His reign to be manifested in everything from small family structures to large corporate systems, and humungous governments.  In short, the kingdom of God is near – if we have the eyes of faith to see and the ears of belief to hear.

It is imperative that you and I connect with Holy Scripture in a healthy and consistent rhythm of hearing God and responding back to him.  It is most necessary that our perspective of both the past (Christ’s cross and resurrection) and the future (Christ’s return and reign) is formed through regular spiritual practices which remind us of what is most important in life, not to mention how these spiritual resources can sustain us through dark times.

To survive the desert, one must walk through it – not around it, not going backward away from it, and not sticking our spiritual heads in the sand.  To make the trip, we must deliberately walk with others who will remind us of healthy ways of seeing ourselves, our past, and our coming future.  Faith, hope, and love are the practical necessities which need to be in our backpacks as we go forward.  They will be our food and our drink.

Travel well, my friend.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you as the Spirit hurls you into the desert to experience the love of God in new and profound ways.

The Power of a Name

jesus and mary magdalene

It is more than ironic that one of the most powerful emotions on the planet is a feeling that is simply overlooked and often not recognized: the sense of being forgotten.  I’m not talking about rejection, but just being looked past by another, neglected, or an afterthought.  The sense that you are on no one’s radar can be more than disappointing – it can be devastating and destructive.  Yet, there is a way in which you and I can push back on this reality for the benefit of others and ourselves.  And on the other side of it, there is immense joy and satisfaction.

Notice that I didn’t mention the feeling of rejection along with the sense of being forgotten.  Rejection is certainly something you don’t like to experience.  It’s not a pleasurable emotion.  But it isn’t the same as being overlooked.  At least with getting a repudiating brush-off you are acknowledged by another.  That is, someone noticed you enough to even give a rebuff your way.  But with being neglected and forgotten, there is nothing.  If you have ever gotten the silent treatment from a parent, a co-worker, or a parishioner, then you likely know that getting any kind of words, even harsh ones, can seem better than being ignored altogether.

Sometimes neglect is a life and death issue.  There was an occasion when Greek-speaking widows in the book of Acts were overlooked.  They were not given their share when the food supplies were handed out each day (Acts 6:1).  When this came to the Apostles attention, it was a serious enough situation to warrant a major overhaul to the ministry system.  Deacons were formed, roles were clarified, and a group of women received much needed food.  In our society today, elder abuse is real.  Sometimes we might forget (again with the irony) that leaving senior citizens alone and ignoring them is also a potent form of abuse.

Then, there is the situation of Mary Magdalene.  She had a “past.”  This Mary was immoral and influenced by the darkness (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2).  She was only a nameless person to be used for the benefit of others.  Then, she met Jesus and her world changed.  The darkness turned to light.  Jesus treated her like no other before.  Mary was as much a follower, maybe even more, than the twelve disciples.  It was she who poured the expensive perfume on Christ’s feet and applied it with her hair and her tears (John 12:1-8).  If there was anyone who loved Jesus, it was Mary.

So, you can imagine Mary’s grief when she saw her Lord tortured, crucified, and dead.  The one person on earth who looked at Mary and saw something more than an immoral woman, who looked beyond the infiltration of demonic influence and observed a woman who needed to be seen and truly loved was now gone.  But the story doesn’t end there….

“Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.  The angels asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’  She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni’ (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, ‘Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the Lord.’ Then she told them what he said to her.” (John 20:11-18, CEB)

Take note of how Jesus dealt with Mary.  He asked her two questions: “Woman, why are you crying?” and “Who are you looking for?”  Jesus didn’t ignore Mary.  He didn’t immediately get on with the business of prepping for ascension and overlook her grief.  Jesus also didn’t talk down to Mary.  By asking questions, our Lord entered her grief and was present to Mary in her sheer lament over not knowing where Jesus was.  What Jesus did instead is, I believe, one of the most powerful things which can happen and is clearly the antidote to all feelings of being overlooked, forgotten, and neglected.  Jesus said one word: “Mary.” He said her name.

Nameless people are forgotten people.  But those with names are real.  Saying someone’s name acknowledges, recognizes, and even validates another person.  That’s why when we are upset and mad at someone, we often don’t like to say their name.  Instead, they get referred to with some other moniker such as “his mother” or “that pastor” or “some guy.”  But when we use a name, it opens to us all a realm of grace, love, and compassion.  It’s easy to ignore another if they have no name.  Knowing a name and using it is the secret superpower which is available to everyone.  Even those without academic degrees and special training have ability to change the world with only the knowledge of one word: a person’s name.

Mary’s immense grief was turned upside-down in a moment to exuberant joy – through the power of her name being spoken by the Lord who cared enough to say it.

Jesus knows your name.  What’s more, he is pleased to say it.  Even now, Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven interceding for you by using your name.

If there is a skill which is worth developing, it is the ability to know people’s names and to say them.  Sometimes folks remark to me that they can’t believe my memory with names.  Um, not so much.  My memory is not really very good anymore.  It’s just that, if I want to know someone’s name I use it as often as I possibly can without sounding weird about it.  Repetition sinks it into my pea brain, not intelligence or some gift.

Which gets us back to the feeling of being forgotten, unnoticed, and/or ignored.  Acknowledging a person through using their name shoos away those negative feelings for others as well as helps give us connection with others.  In other words, it’s more than good sense to use people’s names – it is the very stuff of healthy relationships.  Relations don’t sour because of differences; they go south when we stop using given names.

Those who care don’t have a special caring gene.  They just know the power of a name.  And it matters to them to liberally validate others with the grace which comes with knowing and using another’s name.  And speaking of names, the Scriptures tell us that there is only one “Name” under heaven by which we are saved: The Name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).  There is such power in naming, that it is truly a life and death affair.  In the name of Jesus Christ there is no overlooking, no neglect, no being forgotten.  With Jesus, there is connection, relationship, attention, and remembrance.

Discovering Yourself in the Bible

Elijah

The Holy Scriptures are timeless.  All kinds of people throughout the ages have been drawn to discover it.  One of the reasons we are interested in the Bible and become tethered to its contents is that we often resonate deeply with many of its characters.

A good and healthy spiritual exercise is to connect and project yourself into the pages of God’s Word.  To relate, express, and find a common human condition with ancient believers is a means of strengthening your faith, uncovering your own spiritual journey, and paying attention to the soundings of your soul.

Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about through speaking of my own life and the life of a famous biblical character….

I feel like Elijah.  Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who acted with unusual faith, single-handedly took on the ungodly Queen Jezebel, sparked a national revival, fell into a dark depression, allowed God to extend him pastoral care and comfort, learned to not journey alone in his faith through mentoring another great prophet of Israel, Elisha, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

As far as prophets go, we have a great deal of information on Elijah in the biblical accounts.  Our introduction to him goes as follows: “Elijah was a prophet from Tishbe in Gilead.  One day he went to King Ahab and said, ‘I’m a servant of the living LORD, the God of Israel.  And I swear in his name that it won’t rain until I say so.  There won’t even be any dew on the ground.” (1 Kings 17:1). And it happened just as Elijah said it would.

I’m a believer in making simple observations of the Bible.  What stands-out to me foremost is Elijah’s solitary behavior.  He initiated and acted alone.  Elijah saw the systemic evil of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign in Israel and he boldly spoke truth to power.  Whether Elijah had thought through the consequences of his words or not, we don’t know.  But we are aware that this was understandably not received well, at all.

If Elijah was alone before, now he is driven to a life of solitude with only ravens for company (1 Kings 17:5-6).  I resonate deeply with Elijah on this.  I tend to think in organization and order.  When I see systems in place which oppress, hurt, and damage people instead of helping them to succeed, thrive, and flourish, it disturbs me.  Elijah was a solitary kind of guy, that is, until a system of injustice was in power.  Then, he used his speech to agitate for what is right.

In many jobs I have had throughout my life, I’ve had a kind of “Elijah” experience.  I see systemic issues which keep marginal people on the outside. Meanwhile, those on the inside enjoy the perks of power.  Sometimes I’ve been fired for calling-out corporate owners and vice-presidents, church elders, and denominational leaders for their exclusive policies and procedures which only benefit themselves.

This might sound commendable, except for the fact that I almost always acted alone on my own initiative without building a coalition of other concerned people.  Instead, I tended to think that I was the only one who cared and stepped forward, making myself a target that people couldn’t miss.  I wonder if Elijah, like me, was thoughtful and introverted with a close relationship with his God, yet with a fear of human relationships.

The event in Elijah’s life which defined him as a great prophet was the showdown with the four-hundred fifty prophets of Baal, of whom the Israelites had religiously prostituted themselves.  You don’t get any more John Wayne than one person versus four-hundred fifty.  In one of the best sarcastic statements you’ll find anywhere, Elijah said to the prophets of Baal who spent the entire morning trying to get their god to respond: “Pray louder! Maybe Baal is daydreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere.  Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.” (1 Kings 18:27, CEV)

Elijah on Mt Carmel

Elijah statue on Mount Carmel

Sometimes, for me, it seems easier to confront four-hundred fifty people than have an intimate encounter with one person.  I often find it more effortless to preach to thousands of people (of which I’ve done many times) than to connect meaningfully with one of them.  To me, Elijah sometimes seems like a contradiction, having within himself a great capacity for faith along with an equally large expanse of fear.

This bundle of contradiction is seen in the aftermath of the national revival Elijah helped to spark.  Through a miraculous display of the living God responding to Elijah’s sacrifice, the prophets of Baal were done away with (literally) and the worship of Israel’s God was immediately returned.  Queen Jezebel, the chief architect of establishing Baal worship in Israel, was not having this revival of Israelite religion.  A deeply symbolic heavy rain came with it, ending three years of drought, which only made Jezebel angry and on a mission.

Jezebel got a message straightaway to Elijah: “You killed my prophets.  Now I’m going to kill you!  I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.” (1 Kings 19:2).  The prophet who took on an entire establishment and saw the miraculous done right in front of his eyes had this response to the wicked queen: he was afraid, ran away, and said to God, “I’ve had enough.  Just let me die!  I’m no better off than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah was, in contemporary terms, burned-out and exhausted – and he became terribly depressed.  It’s as if Elijah had identified himself with taking down the establishment for so long that when it happened, he was lost.  Who was he now?  The scaffolding of prophetic witness was gone, and Elijah was left face-to-face with his naked self.

I feel Elijah’s pain.  I know the sense of laboring to do good and being spiritually and emotionally spent to the point of just wanting to die and be done with all the brokenness of this old fallen world.  I have felt the awkwardness of identifying with a role, and when that role is gone there is only my true self and the God I serve.

But God, the ultimate spiritual caregiver, sent his angel to help Elijah in his broken state.  He fed him, let him sleep, and sent him on a sacred journey to growth as a transformed person.  Rather than exhort Elijah in his penchant for solitary action, God simply asked him a question: “Why are you here?”  After listening to Elijah express his narrow thinking on how the world works, God simply asked him again: “Elijah, why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:9-14)

That simple question lingered with Elijah and changed him.  From that point forward, Elijah seems to move with a quiet confidence that doesn’t come from a place of acting alone.  He doesn’t carry the world on his shoulders.  He isn’t quick to identify himself as a prophet.  His zeal for God remains yet is focused into including others.  Elijah goes from his sacred encounter with God and finds Elisha, who, by all appearances, is just a plain non-descript Israelite farmer.  No longer does Elijah walk alone.  His protégé, Elisha, is with him until the end of his life here on this earth.  And when Elijah is gone, Elisha inherits a double-portion of his mentor’s spirit and goes on to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was, after going through a debilitating depression, I made it my aim and goal to mentor others in the faith.  I never went for a solo pastorate, always looked to build into the lives of younger ministers and found the value of traveling with companions in my pilgrimage of faith.

Unlike Elijah, I’m still on this earth and not likely to be swept up in a chariot of fire anytime soon.  I’m still figuring out who Tim Ehrhardt really is underneath the academic degrees, ministry successes and failures, and all the roles and responsibilities in my life.  There’s both faith and fear wrapped up in it all.  I still struggle with the old lies that my identity is in what I have, what I do, and in the attention and accolades of others.  I continue to wrestle with the compulsion to reform church and society and find it difficult to savor what is already present.

I see Elijah as a prophet with a deep faith that influenced everything he said and did. Yet, at the same time, he was a flawed man who was often characterized and paralyzed by fear and maybe acted from a place of self-righteousness more than he realized. What is clear to me, however, is that Elijah saw himself transformed as he allowed his God to care for him in ways that changed his life forever.  And that is the kind of spirit I’d like to inherit from my spiritual ancestor.

Crisis Caring

black valentine background, black and white starburst with heart

Here are just a few of the people I’ve encountered in the past week….

A man who went for a routine doctor’s visit was examined, then rushed to the hospital where he had his left leg amputated….

A woman who witnessed her son attempt to kill his wife by stabbing her multiple times….

A pastor’s wife who is overwhelmed with the depth of human need and emotional trauma she sees every Sunday in her urban congregation….

A man who is bitter and hard-hearted, refusing any sort of spiritual care or assistance in the face of death….

A family who watches on, while their beloved mother and grandmother is slowly slipping into eternity….

A pregnant mother who is on total bed rest, downright frightened by not knowing what will happen, and if her baby will live or die….

We live in a fundamentally broken world.  Everything is askew and awry, with people feeling the brunt of the things which are neither right, nor fair.  The examples are all of good people who have found themselves in the crosshairs of circumstances beyond their control.  Their situations left them feeling a range of emotions: abject horror, terrible sorrow and sadness, shocking denial, sheer panic, and crippling shame.  The sense of confusion, fragility, and powerlessness are palpable.

So, what in God’s name do we do when we are faced with trauma, either in ourselves or in people we care about?

A crisis or trauma turns our world upside-down.  It is a turning point.  Things will never be the same again.  Yet, it’s a unique opportunity for healing and growth.  Whether you care for someone, or need care yourself, there are three questions that have arisen for me as I have gone through my own crises and talk with folks facing trauma.

Who are you?

A crisis situation turns everything on its head.  It’s only human to question who we are.  Who is a man if he doesn’t have a literal leg to stand on?  Who is a mother when her son commits an atrocity?  Who is the pastor’s wife when she seems unable to meet needs?  Who is the bitter man when his expectations are not met?  Who is the family when their matriarch is gone?  Who is a mother if she doesn’t have a child?

It’s not a simple question.  It can’t be quickly answered.  Trauma throws doubt on who we thought we were before the crisis.  It can expose the shadowy parts of our lives we didn’t know were there, or bring light to the reality that our lives were built on things which don’t last.

Suppose you are a caregiver, trying to offer help.  If you’re goal is to make the person feel better, you’ll quickly find out you are not God.  You don’t fix people’s pain.  Who are you if you can’t repair broken people and solve their problems?  More than once I’ve felt like I’m in a Star Wars movie saying, “The compulsion is strong in this one.”  Until we learn to let go of trying to “force” others to feel better, we shall not be offering anything of genuine spiritual care.

What do I do?

Indeed, what do you do?  If you are a caregiver, you take action – not by changing feelings – but through attending to the basic needs of the one in trauma.  A crisis situation isn’t the time to explore emotions; it’s the time to feel them.  While a person is experiencing grief on a monumental scale, offering thoughtful assistance with decision-making, organizing the mundane things of life, and handling necessary details for them can be a loving way of bringing care and concern.

For those of you facing trauma and/or crisis, please hear me when I say:  Your task is to grieve, period.  Let compassionate people do things for you. You have no need of offering an apologetic for your emotion, tears, and trouble.  If you have been the kind of person that has been there for others, let them now be there for you.

How can I move on?

We move on through hope.  We continue the journey of life with the confident expectation that it can be good again, even though it might not look like it now.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell
with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. (Revelation 21:1-7, NRSV)

We offer hope.  And it must come from a place of genuine care and not from the posture of trying to hurry a person along in their emotions because we are unsettled with their grinding grief.

Some people are very uncomfortable with seeing their loved one or friend in a state of extreme vulnerability.  So they withdraw, or try and get them to short-circuit their grief and get over it sooner than they really should be doing.  There is strength in weakness, and power in vulnerability.  True love is a mystery.  Sometimes we must all give up our analysis of events and people, and simply appreciate what is right in front of us.  Letting go of control can open to us a whole new world of possibility, creativity, and hope.

Faith is the ability to look ahead and see hope on the horizon.  When a community of people strengthen faith in one another through the spiritual means of listening, prayer, active compassion, thoughtful words, and healing presence, then that group of persons has discovered what it means to share the human condition.

Keep It Real

take up your cross

Keep it real.  The only true path to Christian discipleship is through being a real person.

You know the disingenuous type.  The dude who sits in the church pew looking like he’s never passed gas in his life.  The lady who can purse her lips so tight she looks like her head’s going to implode.  The poor kid who wants to break it down in the church aisle, but Mom and Dad are so into how it all looks that they shush him like a steamroller over marshmallows.

Then, there’s the pastor.  Sometimes he (it always seems to be a he, not a she) is either so stiff and bashes on every people group on the planet except his own that you wonder if the guy’s ever been seen in public without a chaperone, or he’s overly trying to be hip and cool to the point of looking like a hippo stuffed into skinny jeans.

C’mon, man, let’s just keep it real, okay!?

How about we drop the pretense, the preening, the posturing, the positioning, the pedigree-ing, and any other p-word we can come up with?  Let’s try on something else on for size: humility; vulnerability; authenticity; genuineness; and, being real.  That’s the cost of discipleship.

Let’s consider Jesus for a minute.  I just can’t bring myself to ever picture the Lord of the universe looking like any of the dubious aforementioned persons in the church.  But I certainly can envision him just the opposite of them all.

I’m not trying to make Jesus in my image.  I’m just attempting to gain a glimpse of the unfiltered Jesus, minus the weird white-European-I’m-stuffing-all-my-emotions-down-to-my-intestines Jesus.  The unvarnished Jesus we see in the New Testament Gospels is a God-Man who gets angry at injustice, cries with others over a death of a loved one, has unbounded words of grace for marginal people, heals those who know they need it, and has no problem knocking down proud Pharisees to size, instead of cuddling up and trying to make them happy.  The Lord I see is a complicated bundle of emotions, paradoxes, seeming contradictions, and eagle-eyed and laser-focused on doing his Father’s will.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be like Jesus, not anybody else.  I want to learn to love with abandon, teach like I mean it, be secure and confident in my own skin, and constantly commune with Father God.  I want to get rid of anything that gets in the way between me and doing God’s will, and to speak with authority without being a jerk about it.

Maybe you, like me, are concerned for all the “none’s” out there, that is, the persons who don’t affiliate themselves with any religion, much less Christianity.  I feel like I understand them.  In a way, I feel like I’m one of them.  I find myself having a zero tolerance for pretentious “Christians.”  The fact that I keep sensing the need to put adjectives in front of the word “Christian” tells me that something is terribly awry in the church – “real” Christians, “fake” Christians, “authentic” Christians, “Pharisaical” Christians, “grace-filled” Christians, “legalistic” Christians… on-and-on ad nauseum.  Sometimes I get fed-up with the adjectives and just want to start labeling myself a “fartknocker” Christian just to keep everybody on their toes.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’m finally going to get around to quoting some Scripture.  Jesus said:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25, NRSV)

“I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62, NRSV)

“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22, NRSV)

“Those who serve me must follow me. My servants will be with me wherever I will be. If people serve me, the Father will honor them.” (John 12:26, GW)

And the Apostle Paul said:

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NRSV)

“You imitated us and the Lord. In spite of a lot of suffering, you welcomed God’s word with the kind of joy that the Holy Spirit gives.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6, GW)

Christians are people who follow Jesus, period.  They live into the words and the ways of Christ.  Many of the “none’s” just can’t reconcile their experience of church and their observations of Christ, so they jettison the church while finding Jesus compelling.

But what if they found church compelling, as well?  What if, instead of seeing pursed lipped women, uptight men, and restricted kids they instead found a bunch of fartknockers just trying to discover Jesus and live for him?

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, or perhaps I’m ruffling some peacock feathers.  It could be that I’m being too banal with sacred things, like some cornfed yokel.  But it might be that I’m not being hackneyed enough and need to go further into the ordinary.  Maybe we have come to the place of so much bromide religion that we are left with a vapid soul.  In short, we’ve lost our way.

Well, if that’s the case, Jesus is the only person who’s going to save us from our humdrum life and platitudinous pandering of kitschy Christianity (there I go with the adjectives again).  It’s likely high time we leave it all behind, get real with ourselves and follow him.  Wax figures sitting in pews can’t follow anybody – only real blood and guts people with actual insides can do that.

Lent is almost over.  If you haven’t gotten around to reading one of the Gospels, hurry-up!  Get to it!  Okay, I’ll throw you a bone: The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four.  For the compulsive overachievers out there, Luke is the Gospel for you.  Whether you need to get up earlier or stay up later at night, I encourage you to make it happen.  I’ve never known anyone who has read an entire Gospel in one or two sittings and not walked away profoundly changed in some way.

If you do it, come back and tell me what it was like to read a Gospel. I’m curious and wonder what you get from it.

And give it to me straight.  Keep it real.

How to Overcome Suffering

bear

There is a way to overcome suffering.  There’s a path that you can follow which will lead to the overcoming of your struggle against sin; your dealing with the meanness of others; your chronic physical pain; your continual facing of financial trouble; your estranged relationship(s); your past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present; your constant feeling of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems; your Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression); and, a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world.  The road ahead, however, will be completely counter-intuitive to how you might currently be thinking about overcoming suffering.  It might be so far off your radar that you might just discard what I’m about to say to you.

Before I get to that, I’ll just say first that suffering is endemic to the human condition.  Everyone suffers.  Since we live in a fallen world, there is not one person who hasn’t suffered in some way, whether it is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional.  None of us will ever be immune to affliction.  There is no way to insulate yourself from pain.  If you are not currently suffering in some way, it just means that you are either coming off a time of hardship or are about to enter a new period of distress.

Holiness and godliness don’t keep suffering at bay.  In fact, the Lord Jesus himself promised us that following him will involve a kind of suffering that those who are not Christians will never face.  “While you are in this world, you will have to suffer,” are the blunt words of Christ to his disciples (John 16:33).  The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand this reality.  “Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire.  Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered” (1 Peter 4:12).  Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Master.  If Christ suffered, his followers will suffer, as well.

James, the Lord’s brother, understood that everyone faces difficulty.  But he wisely discerned that suffering can become a teacher for the Christian.  “My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble.  You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested” (James 1:2).  All the adversity the Christian faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.

The Apostle Paul, a man who was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus in history, had this to say about all those terrible circumstances: “Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others” (2 Timothy 3:12).  “We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure.  And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5). “God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake” (Philippians 1:29).

The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it.  Yes, we will have to suffer.  It’s part of being in the world.  Yet, Jesus said, “but cheer up! I have defeated the world” (John 16:33, Contemporary English Version).  Or, in another translation, “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world” (Common English Bible).  Yet another translation, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (New International Version).

Now, let’s wheel back around to the overcoming of suffering.  Here is the truth and the practice we must adopt when it comes to suffering:  the truth about overcoming suffering comes not from us, but through Christ; and, the practice of overcoming suffering doesn’t come from fighting against it but by sitting with it and learning from it.

Okay, let me state this again in a different way.  Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension.  On the cross, he has absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone.  Your suffering, then, might hurt and it might be senseless, but no matter it’s source, that suffering will always rule over you unless you invite it to take a seat with you and have a conversation with it.

Let me say it another way, and to the point: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.

In other words, your suffering is trying to tell you something.  But if you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you and never topple.  You can’t beat suffering.  You can only learn from it.  And you’ll only learn from it, even overcome it, when you embrace it.  So, here’s the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural practice that you might not like and might think I’m off my rocker for suggesting: Submit to suffering.  Yes, I will say it again: Submit to suffering.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying.  I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles, adverse circumstances, or even your terrible trauma.  Evil is evil, bad is bad, and no amount of saying otherwise will change the leopard’s spots.  However, only through submitting to the process of what suffering teaches us will we ever have power over it.

Perhaps an illustration is in order.  Let’s liken suffering to encountering a bear in the wilderness.  The National Park Service gives us this advice if facing a bear while out hiking:

“Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, these strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating.

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.”

Fighting suffering is about as useful as taking on a bear.  Bears, like suffering, can be dangerous.  We don’t blame bears if they act like bears.  Likewise, we ought not to be surprised when suffering hurts.  But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for it’s large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.

I suggest we treat suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble.  Calmly identify yourself.  Talk in low tones to your suffering.  That’s right, speak to it.  Remember who you are.  You belong to God.  Treat suffering as if it is curious about you.  For God’s sake, stay calm.  Doing the big freak-out is only going to encourage suffering to do damage.  If you’re alone, that’s not good.  Walking with others in Christian community is one of the best practices of the Christian life.  Suffering is intimidated by groups of people encouraging one another and showing hospitality to each other.  Keep your eye on suffering.  Don’t ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there.  Don’t run.  Face suffering.  Keep it in front of you.  It will pass, but you must be patient and calm.  Once it is gone, then you can reflect on what happened and debrief with others about the experience.

The path to overcoming suffering is to acknowledge it, respect it, submit to it, and let it pass.  Then, you will be able to consider “it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

Stop fighting.  Start maturing.  Stop going it alone.  Start living in vital and vulnerable community.  Stop being a martyr.  Start letting the martyrdom of Christ be your center of life.  Stop talking.  Start listening.  Stop treating your suffering as an adversary.  Start talking to suffering as a companion to learn from.