Life as Art

Milwaukee Art
Cornelia Parker’s “Edge of England” in the Milwaukee Art Museum

Art, as I would define it, is the creation of something beautiful and/or meaningful through imagination and skill.  This definition is broad enough to encompass everyone as an artist.  Each person mirrors the Divine Artist in some unique or special way through the ways in which they imaginatively and skillfully live their lives.  Where there is no art, there is no hope.  Where art exists, there are possibility and life.  None of us could have made it this far in the process of our jobs, our families, let alone in life, without making great art.  Art is how we make sense of things and form our views of the world.  Art is both subject and object – being both formed and forming us.  Life cannot exist without art because we as people are both created and creative in all we think, feel, and do.

I say all this mostly because recently being at my local art museum helped me to remember how vital it is to be an artist, and that there is no other artist like me (or you).  The museum enabled me to reconnect with the vast imagination within, as I was reminded how large the world of Tim is and how much that inner world has always sought to make beautiful and meaningful connections with others – to make a difference.

I was also reminded of the ways in which art impacts us.  What is beauty to one is disgust in another; and, what is repulsive to one is awe in the other – and everything in between.  Yet, in every work of art we are likely to find both charm and ugliness.  That reminder helps me to reflect on a recent patient visit I had in the hospital.  His story was not too pleasant to me.  I was repulsed by many of the patient’s decisions throughout his life.  Yet, in the moment, I chose to embrace the whole painting in front of me – which included the beauty and awe of his desire for connection, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  At the time, I wasn’t sure I was doing much of anything – my own art seemed rather imperfect and unseemly.  When the visit came to an ending, the patient remarked, “Thank you for reminding me of my God and bringing me closer to him.”  Into the mix all along was the Divine Artist, creating something gracious between us.  If this was to be depicted in an actual art object, that object would include both strange beauty and repugnant representation.  The question is: Will the eye of the beholder see only one, or see both?  The answer to that question is the answer to whether we are willing and able to see the full scope of any person in front of us.  And, like an art object, we could likely sit for hours staring and observing, finding new awareness and insights, and, thus, new meaning – in both of us.

A teaching I appreciate from my Orthodox Christian friends is that every person is a “living icon,” that is, everyone is a hand-crafted image of Christ.  Even more than that, everyone is still being formed by God into a unique and special icon.  In this view of Christianity, a person’s highest calling is to simply cooperate with the Divine Artist – God is the Potter and I am the clay.  I would describe our part as being “actively passive.”  We neither act as we see fit and just trust God will direct us, nor do we sit and simply wait for God to do something.  Rather we are actively passive.  An artist waits for inspiration – and in the meantime he/she intentionally pokes around for ways to be inspired.  And when the inspiration comes, the work ensues – with a rhythm of action coupled with taking time to step back and see the big picture before engaging again.

What I am suggesting is that God has divine actions and divine reflections in a rhythm of formation and transformation of all human creatures.  God has both given us everything we need for life and godliness in this present age and is continuously weaving life-giving grace into the fabric of our everyday lives.  We are icons, and we are being crafted into icons.  To put it another way, we are human beings and are continuously being made into humans.  The care we receive is the care we give.

Before We Chose God, God Chose Us

living bread

“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever….  For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” –Jesus (John 6:57-59, 65, NRSV)

It would be weird if someone insisted that they chose to be born.  I think most of us would respond something like, “Um, wait here just a moment,” then go and call the local psych ward.  That’s because we have no problem understanding that well before any of us were born, the love of two people conceived us.  Our choices within our family of origin are ours to own.  Yet, the initial choice to be a person on this planet was not ours to make.  We, rather obviously, are delusional to think otherwise.

The same is true on the spiritual plane.  Just as life is a gift given to us, so to be born again and have eternal life is a gracious grant given to us by God.  Yes, if we are Christians somewhere along life’s journey we chose Jesus.  Yet, long before our own individual choices were made, before the foundation of the world, God himself conceived of us and decided to give us the gift of faith to believe.

Before we get in a huff about the perceived lack of control on our part, stop and consider what a crazy hot mess of an apocalypse there would be if you or I were in charge.  Whatever issues people might have with God, having someone else in the driver’s seat is a bit like putting Homer Simpson as the sentinel guarding the donuts.  Probably not the best of ideas.

I would rather stick with Jesus, even when his words seem edgy and scandalous.  After all, telling folks they need to “eat me” could really go sideways in a hurry.  It’s no wonder that the early church often got accused of practicing cannibalism at the Lord’s Table.

God in Christ chose us so that we could enjoy an incredible restored relationship with our Creator.  Jesus, the Jew that he was, often spoke with deep layers of meaning.  What on the surface might seem super-strange is meant to convey things in a much richer and fuller way.  If it confuses some people, then maybe we need to sit with Christ’s words for a bit before simplifying them into some mish-mash of blither that ends up having no real meaning at all.

Beyond the sheer literal description of eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood, and merely flattening it out to mean Christian communion with wine and wafers, it could just be that Jesus wanted us to grab hold the grace of discovering the following five realities of his merciful passion up close and personal.

  1. Participation

To ingest Jesus is to participate in him.  It is to have a close, intimate connection and union with him.  Jesus identifies with his people so closely that it is as if we have absorbed him into our very being as much as any food nutrients.

I once lived near an old fence line.  The fence was long gone but one lone fence post remained.  A tree had grown up alongside and then around the post.  The post remained because the tree assimilated and engulfed it.  The only way to remove the fence post would be to cut down the tree – they were that much a part of each other.

We are in union with the Lord Jesus.  No one is snatching us out of his clutches.  We participate in his life.  We live because he lives.  We make choices because he first chose us.

  1. Provision

When we eat, what we eat, how we eat, and whom we eat with are anything but ancillary issues to the ancient Near Eastern mind and practice.  Food is a gift, a gracious gift given to us by a merciful Father who has our best interests at mind.  At the very heart of God is a hospitable bent that invites the misfit person, the misunderstood, the misanthrope, the miscellaneous, and any other “mis-sed” person into his wonderful provision of food.

Eating meals for most people around the world isn’t just about food; it’s about offering the acceptance of hospitality and communicating encouragement and recognition through lively conversation with the dignity of listening to another.  We severely truncate the power of meals when food is just gobbled quickly down alone by ourselves to satiate our growling stomachs.

Christ’s words about himself being the living bread that comes from heaven is chocked full of meaning.  On the heels of just having fed the five-thousand with bread, Jesus not only connects himself with the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert, but also lets his followers know that he is the only provision that will truly satisfy the most intense hunger.  “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he explained in his greatest Sermon, “for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6, NIV).

Through the provision of food, God invites us into his life.  What’s more, we are ushered into the realm of those who are recognized, seen, and accepted – regardless of our glaring warts, quirky idiosyncratic ways, and shadowy sins.  That’s because when God creates, he provides.  And when he provides, he graciously gives his blessing.

  1. Protection

Maybe it goes without saying that, by now, God will protect those whom he engrafts into his very life.  Yet, it still needs to be said with deliberate unction: God protects his own.

Getting back to the food thing, God’s meal-deal includes a generous portion of protection.  To come under a person’s roof to enjoy a meal together is to come under the owner of that home’s protection.  God never intended to save us, feed us, and provide for us without giving us everything we need for life and godliness in this present evil age (2 Peter 1:3).

All the implements we need to both defend ourselves and move forward with offense are graciously given to us.  The helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the shoes of peace, and the sword wielding Word of God are all for our protection.  We only need to put them on, pick them up, and use them (Ephesians 6:10-20).

  1. Profession

The nub and the rub of Christ’s discussion about being living bread is that people need to eat him, that is, him only.  In other words, you only get to God through Jesus.  Period.  No exceptions.  Understandably, this was a hard teaching.  It was so hard that, when his followers grasped what in the heck he was saying, a big chunk of them left.  They didn’t sign up for this kind of exclusive rhetoric and crap about only being one real bread.

It has always been the scandal of Christians throughout the ages to insist that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).  But there it is.  And no amount of watering it down makes it go away.

I love and adore a variety of people.  I have many friends from different faith traditions and belief structures.  I would die for every one of them.  I would come to their side at any time they call me.  And I believe they need Jesus.  I believe everyone needs Jesus.  I understand that not everyone wants Jesus, or acknowledges him, or believes he is who he claims to be.  Nevertheless, to try and mitigate or diffuse or minimize Christ’s very hard words is doing a disservice and an injustice to what Jesus was truly saying and claiming.

To profess Jesus as Lord and Savior is a gift that is being received from a gracious and merciful gift-giver, who is God.

  1. Perpetual

The simple observation about eating is that you don’t just eat once, never to eat again.  Nope, we continually eat every single day, most of us doing it multiple times in the day.  We in the West have refrigerators full of food, some of which ends up getting moldy and no good.  Maybe we stockpile food because we don’t connect it with Jesus.  If God is the One who truly gives the grace of a decent meal, perhaps we would feel less prone to buy food and eat it like it’s going out of style.

We are to eat Jesus.  Not once.  Not twice.  But continually.  Every day.  Christ is the perpetual feast.  We are to come to him day after day, receiving his gift of sustenance for us in every sense of the concept.

We can choose to come to Jesus because he has first given himself to us.  Before we chose God, God chose us by giving us deliverance from our misguided ways through the merciful work of Jesus.

Why I Do What I Do

Kierkegaard on life

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard

Motivation matters.  What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day.  The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life.  It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.

As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope.  The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).  Therefore:

All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. 

People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride.  Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).

I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus.  In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism).   Therefore:

My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace. 

I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me.  My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.

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Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus.  As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him.  For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver.  He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch.  Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).

This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me.  I am human, a creature.  God is divine, the Creator.  I do not have the role of God.  Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry.  I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.

It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence. 

In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21).  I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit.  I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.

Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name).  Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance.  When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for.  I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.”  A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther.  No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her.  Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.

The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.”  I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18).  When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor!  A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room.  That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man.  You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.”  And she began to break down and cry.

In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. 

Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.

Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love. 

Christ with others

Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).

The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking.  Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.  Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other.  In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.

Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey.  Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift.  This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.

Abide with Us

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“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me….  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” –Jesus (John 15:4, 7)

Today, as I look out of my office window, there are the signs of life everywhere.  A gentle rain is falling; the earth is slowly drinking the water; the flora of elm, maple, and oak trees support an animated fauna of robins, finches, squirrels, and the occasional white-tailed deer.  Evidence of the night stalking of raccoons, skunks, and possums are left in the soft mud.  Beyond what my eye can see, I also realize there is a vast unseen world of organisms thriving within that small patch of nature.

The ecosystem outside my little world is connected to the much larger world of massive earthly movements of seasons, weather, and people.  They are all connected in this immense and vast place we call “Earth.”  When we live and move and have our being in alignment and connection with God and his big world, we are truly blessed, enjoying God’s stamp of approval.

Perhaps we all feel some connection to this world because we originally came from the humus of the earth’s dirt.  In an impressive display of creation, God breathed into the people he made and they came alive to their Creator and the creation which surrounded them.

We were born for connection.  Inherent to our very design and nature, God made us in his relational image and his communal likeness.  We exist to have meaningful and enjoyable connection with God, his creation, and his people.

Yet, the world, as we also see evidenced in innumerable ways, is fundamentally broken.  Separation and anxiety rule far too many people’s lives and infect all kinds of human systems of institutions, corporations, and governments, and even families.  The current separation of immigrant parents and children on the U.S. border is not only reprehensible and morally repugnant, but serves as an overarching metaphor for a world that experiences a profound disconnect with their Creator.

The work of Jesus on this earth was to reset the brokenness; restore the dignity of humanity; renew and revive body and soul; and, redeem lost persons from the bondage of misguided ways resulting in agonizing separation, division, and disunion.  In short, Jesus came to heal his treasured people through helping others to reconnect with God.

To abide with Jesus is to remain with him, to be present with him.  God took the initiative to foster healing by sending his Son to this earth.  Jesus, in close connection with his Father, enabled and established a vital re-connection with God.  The Father and the Son graciously sent the Holy Spirit to help us abide with Jesus and know the joy of genuine healing and spiritual health and vitality.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” (John 15:16)

Think about what you need most today, perhaps even this moment.  Give some feeling to what they world is in desperate need of.  Maybe you are in physical pain.  It could be that your heart is broken over a severed disconnected relationship.  Perhaps someone is abusing you verbally, or neglecting you.  You might be separated from a loved one through geography or death.  Or, you might just know in the depths of your soul that something isn’t right – that your banal mundane existence in the daily grind lacks any real meaning or connection to the earth and its people.

Peace in the world, if and when it ever gets any traction, is little more than two groups of people not verbally decapitating and/or killing one another for awhile.  The earth is sick with dirty water and soil erosion, mirroring humanity’s erosion of internal virtue.  Love is sought in all the wrong places and lands lonely people into spiritual brothels of pain and disappointment.

In all kinds of ways, we each experience some sort of issue(s) that are askew, askance, and twisted.  We long for the ability to be a human Gumby who can bend back into some kind of normalcy.  We hunger to be noticed in a world of division that seems to notice nothing.

The good news of Holy Scripture is that the satisfaction of basic human needs will come through abiding with Christ.  Remaining with him enables one to ask and receive because God has conspired within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit to grant us deliverance from disconnection, and establish a loving kinship with those who have experienced the unlovely and ungracious elements of this world.  Jesus said:

“You are my friends….  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is laboring behind the scenes to make things right one human being at a time.  We look for miracles, yet the work of God is mostly to be found in the spiritual flora and fauna of the unseen ecosystem of the soul.  There, in the depths of our heart and our gut, the Lord does a wondrous work of connection which heals and restores to life.  In turn, we become Christ-like, being a mini-Jesus who points others to the re-alignment of body, soul, spirit, and all creation.

Based upon how Jesus interacted with others, and how he deals with you and me, we are to bless the individual who is right in front of our face in three simple ways:

Acknowledge the person through being fully present with them.

God blesses us, and we bless others when we affirm the sacredness of the people around us.  This enables us to provide focused and curious attention to the person God has before us.  We are to be “present” with them, giving our full devotion to listening, asking thoughtful questions, and being okay with hearing their musings on life.  As we abide with Christ, we learn to abide with one another.

Affirm the person’s inherent worth of humanity through validating their feelings.

Emotions are emotions.  Feelings are feelings.  You will not find an account in the New Testament Gospels of Jesus dismissing another’s feelings and telling them they shouldn’t have certain emotions.  To invalidate someone’s feelings is to shut them down and create an even wider disconnect and separation from the source of Christian healing and wholeness.  Instead, the human virtue of compassion sinks-into an abiding relationship when we affirm feelings as windows to the soul.

Act with the love and grace of Jesus toward the person through giving them the gift of fellowship and friendship.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, people just want to be heard.  They want to know that someone is listening.  They don’t want to feel forgotten, neglected, or dismissed.  They want a friend who will give them the time of day.  We all need friends.  We all need love.  The problem comes when too many persons have such a severe love deficit in their lives that they can’t give anything to anyone.  When we are all just trying to take, we are on survival mode and we end up hurting others instead of healing them.

One of the reasons we have burned-out people is because too often 20% of the people are doing 80% of the relational work.  Proper boundaries and a greater awareness of self and self’s needs is a much needed discipline today.  Spiritually healthy people bring hope and healing.  Spiritually sick people trying to do more is only a recipe for more separation, division, and disconnection because they’re running their engines with no oil of blessing on what they’re doing.

Abide with Christ.  That is our first and foremost task.  It isn’t our job to fix or save the world; that’s God’s job.  Our work is to remain in love and obedience, and simply point others to the vine of life through the blessing of respectful acknowledgement, emotional affirmation, and gracious action.  When our desires align with God’s desires, prayer becomes an organic response to basic human need, and those prayers will be honored.  The garden of the soul can hold and sustain life.  When it is shared with others it brings integrity and joy to all creation.

How to Overcome Suffering

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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.

Luke 1:68-79

            When I was in graduate school at a public university some years back, I was describing for my class a New Testament view of Jesus and the church’s consistent historic teaching about him.  One of my classmates spoke up and said to me, “But you don’t really believe all that, right?”  Well, actually, I really do believe all the things concerning Jesus accounted for us in the Gospels.  Why?  Because I have found the historicity of Jesus from an objective ground of evidence as reliable, as well as a subjective witness within that resonates as true.  Christians call this witness within the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
 
            Old Zechariah experienced this firsthand.  The Holy Spirit came upon him and he uttered some objective prophecy over his newborn son, John that rang exultingly true within his subjective hopeful soul:  “You, my son, will go ahead of the Lord to get everything ready for him.  You will tell his people that they can be saved when their sins are forgiven.  God’s love and kindness will shine upon us like the sun that rises in the sky.  On us who live in the dark shadow of death this light will shine to guide us into a life of peace.”
 
            Indeed, this is exactly what John the Baptist did in his ministry.  When the Spirit resonates with us and testifies to the truth of Jesus, we can find genuine deliverance from sin, death, and hell, as well as have the confidence to proclaim the name of Jesus as Savior and King.  The objective and subjective aspects are both needed:  objective evidence alone is really nothing more than facts; subjective witness alone without evidence is just gut feeling; but the objective and subjective together presents the person and work of Christ with truth and grace, fact and flavor, mind and heart, in a compelling blend of Christianity for all people.
 

 

            Praise to you, Almighty God, because you have come to save your people.  Thank you for delivering me through your Son, the Lord Jesus, and giving me your Holy Spirit.  May the confidence I have with faith, hope, and love be used for your glory and honor.  Amen.

A Short Primer on Christianity

 
           It perhaps goes without saying, but, nevertheless, really does need to be said explicitly:  Christianity is and revolves around the person of Jesus Christ.  Anything less is not Christianity.  Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the triune God, with the Father and the Spirit – three persons, one God.  God the Father determined that in all things Christ would have preeminence (Colossians 1:18).  Therefore, the equal and full realities of Christ’s humanity and deity are of central importance.
 
            Christ’s humanity should not be suppressed, ignored, or diminished in order to protect his deity.  Christ’s deity must never be marginalized in order to bring his humanity to the fore.  Both the deity and humanity of Jesus must be carefully maintained at all times.  To do less is not Christianity.
 
            Only through this God-Man, Jesus, could redemption from an empty sinful way of life be accomplished for us.  This union of humanity and deity in Jesus alone is able to secure a new and fresh relationship with God, and do away with alienation, hate, death, and eternal torment.
 
            Jesus Christ is the ultimate prophet.  He has revealed to us the will of God for our salvation.  Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).  Jesus has promised that the truth will set us free (John 8:32; 1 John 5:9-13).  Freedom involves knowledge, honesty, and decisions of faith, hope, and love whereby the truth is applied in one’s life.
 
            Jesus Christ is the ultimate priest.  He is the once-for-all offering as a sacrifice to atone for our sinfulness, to reconcile us to God, and now continually makes intercession for us (Romans 5:8-10; Hebrews 4:14, 5:6, 7:23-27, 9:11-12; 1 John 2:1).  As our representative, and the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3; 2 Peter 1:3).
 
            Jesus Christ is the universal King.  He is the rightful Ruler of all things (Matthew 21:5; John 18:36-37; Ephesians 1:20-23; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 1:5).  Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, and is Supreme over the Church.  He is able to make all things work together for good in life of his people (Romans 8:28-29).
 
            The church, therefore, is to do everything by completely wrapping herself around the person and work of Jesus Christ.  We are to continually unbend ourselves to conformity with prevailing cultural mores, and, instead, be thoroughly transformed through the complete renovation of our minds (Romans 12:1-2).  Our true spiritual act of worship in the church is to exalt the name of Jesus, praise Christ’s holy name, and enamor ourselves with his incredible grace, mercy, and peace.
 
            What this means, then, is that Christianity is not about being a particular nationality or ethnicity; is not merely a belief system; and, is not only an assent to certain facts and knowledge.  Rather, Christianity is a living relationship with Jesus, our Savior, Lord, Teacher, and Healer.  Christ scandalously died through an instrument of torture, the cross, which has become for us, ironically, our badge of honor and identity.  In short, since Jesus lived, died, and rose from death, we, too, as Christians, die to ourselves and live into a new life secured for us by Christ.  Through faith in this very unique God-Man, we are saved.
 

 

            This makes the church the Community of the Redeemed, a special people who are different than all other people because our lives are totally centered round Jesus.  Anything less is neither church, nor Christianity.  Christians are people secure in their identity, bold in their witness of Jesus, and concerned to serve the world in the words and ways of Christ, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  May it be so.