Journeying the Unknown

I don’t necessarily like New Year’s resolutions, mostly because I think the growing process and the urge to better ourselves is a constant, always-changing process that requires focus, attention, and discipline more than just one time each year.  The calendar changes once a year, but that doesn’t mean that our internal forces only shift once a year.  I can remember some definitive moments when my heart or my mind have been transformed. I find myself feeling like the wind; a slight change in my inner compass changes my path in life, and I’m suddenly agreeing with something I never thought I would or taking a liking to an idea I’d promised never to consider..

However, there is one “resolution” I made last year and am continuing this year.  There is a site called ‘myoneword.org’.  Many church circles and non-church circles alike are using this idea in place of resolutions.  The idea is simple – choose one word for the new year that defines something you want to change, something you want to experience, or a word that will transform your relationship with God.  Last year, I chose the word (a phrase, really) “godly spirit.”  I come from a past of unfortunate losses, negativity, pain, and battle scars.  It is so easy for me to worry, fear, and become anxious about my circumstances that I find myself in that place without even noticing.  So, last year I really wanted to experience the “peace that passes all understanding.”   I wanted to be generous and loving without hidden agendas.  I wanted to really know patience and grace.

In 2013, my “first pet” died in a horrific dog park attack.  I watched the entire thing and continue to replay those moments in my head.  It was like the cloak was removed and hell came to visit my world for those horrifying 4 ½ minutes.  I say “first pet” because she was just the first dog I owned all by myself.  I got her for my 18th birthday and high school graduation and she traveled with me, moved into my first apartment with me, sat beside me when I cried in depression, and leapt for joy with me when life was blissful. She was my little companion and nothing hurt so bad as the day I lost her.

Also in 2013, my husband and I tried to start a family (2 legged) with no avail.  We bought our first home, we shared a few fights, and we survived another year of marriage.  Actually, this second year of marriage, in 2013, we thrived a little more in marriage.  (The first year was unexpectedly difficult, and my negative self handled that very poorly). In all, 2013 was like every other year.  We had bumps and bruises, and great memories with laughter and hope.  However, even in those bad times, even when Phoebe died, I found I was growing deeper into a person who had immovable faith.  I more openly extended grace and forgiveness, and I was more often peaceful and hopeful.  My “one word” was seeping into many areas of my life.

This year I decided my one word should be “trust.”  Last year, in the midst of my growing, I still held tight to those things I thought I could control.  I don’t understand it, really, but we humans like our control. We like things that we think we can handle—things that are less unpredictable and more moldable.  I thought I had control over my 7 pound puppy, control over my body and pregnancy, and control over a lot of things in my life.  Perhaps one of the scariest things to me last year was seeing how little control I have in this life.

~~~~~~~~

I’m also turning 26 this year, in just a few days.  At the beginning of the year, I received a list of all the books that will turn into movies this year.  The book Wild by Sheryl Strayed was one of them.  Sheryl was 26 when she decided to solo hike the Pacific Coast Trail.  Her mother had died and her marriage had ended.  She stumbled across this idea to take 100 days and journey across an unknown terrain, trusting in her own abilities—physical, emotional, and spiritual abilities.

I just liked the idea of another 26 year old woman journeying into the unknown, trusting that she could endure.  I also liked the thought of a person willing to try something new, simply to be better. So far, I’m enjoying the tale.  Sheryl is 100% human—no super woman here—who cursed in frustration, cried in desperation, and struggled to find hope or light in the circumstances of life.

~~~~~~~~

Each new year, any given week or day, is an unknown journey with God.  With our lack of control, we become completely dependent on God.  In fact, He asks us to do so.  Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me,” John 14:1 (NLT).  God doesn’t push us in the deep end and say, “good luck!”  God says, “I know you can’t do this alone, so trust in Me.”  This struggle, though, isn’t new.  Our struggle for control and dependency has been raging through humankind since the beginning.  Even the Israelites fought for control and feared the unknown journey;

The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place. In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go. Deuteronomy 1:30-33.

Regardless of what your calendar says, each day is a new journey and, typically, an unknown one.  Whether you are a 60 year old male, a 26 year old female, or a family or tribe, the journey is daunting.  Trusting in God is our only hope, but it’s a good one.

This year, what will you learn?  What will you learn about yourself, your strength, your God?  How will your life be transformed by the goals and journey set before you? All you have to do is look through a few news articles and you’ll see an inspiring story.  Maybe it’s the man who cut off his own arm to survive.  Maybe it’s a fireman who saved a young child from the flames.  Maybe it’s a random citizen who helped out a mother in need.  We are destined for greatness and our days are not numbered simply by the dates of a calendar.  Follow God on the journey He has set before you, so you can do great things for Him, and don’t be afraid to lose control but grow to trust more deeply in the One who makes you capable.

Why the Church Will Always Fail You

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This Sunday, after sitting through yet another sermon that left me feeling guilty and inadequate and worn out rather than refreshed, loved, and encouraged, I just wept. Our church of four years preaches social justice while neglecting the gospel, leaving a hollow shell of a community, rife with burnout, bitterness, and false piety. I was angry, but more than that I was just sad. Sad to see yet another church community fail to embody the truth of the gospel, the love of God.

It wasn’t the first time. When you’ve been a Christian and a part of Christian communities for as long as you can remember, you begin to rack up a significant list of the times the church has failed you. Personal sleights, leadership failures, organizational crumbling, members giving themselves over to sin. My heart breaks when I say that I’ve seen it all.

And like every other time I’ve been disappointed by my church community, I feel terrible about feeling this way. I mean, who am I to tell a church that they’re doing things wrong, that they’re missing the mark? For a long time, despite my previous experiences, I’ve been unwilling to admit that my current church has its problems too. People smarter and more spiritual than me have to be in charge, and they know what they’re doing.

But yet again I have to acknowledge the disappointing truth: the church is imperfect.

And I have to ask myself: why haven’t I just left? Why haven’t I given up on this project altogether? I know plenty of people who have left, who have rejected God because of His people. And I’ve heard it over and over again from people who have heard my war stories: “I just don’t see myself staying in the church after something like that.”

So why have I stayed?

I can narrow it down to a few foundational truths.

1. God is not people, not even church people.
The goal of the church is to be a community that embodies and reflects the heart of God through love, worship, thanksgiving, and service. In an ideal world, in which we do not reside, the church would be a perfect and accurate representation of God’s character. However, in this world, full of sin, trying to see God in the church is like trying to see an image in a broken mirror. We do our best, but because we bring our sinfulness with us into the community of the church, this community of people will never be a perfect reflection of God’s character.

This is why I have difficulty with the idea that I should have left God because of the ways I’ve seen church people fail. I admit that I have felt the temptation in my pain and disappointment to equate God with those who have hurt me or the community. After all, people are right in front of us while God is invisible, and sometimes it’s just easier to believe that how people treat us reflects how God feels about us. But in these moments of despair, I have to come back to the truth of God’s Word: He loved us enough to die for us, and He had to die because humanity is enslaved to sin. God is perfect love, and we are broken. Was God the pastor who had the affair? No. Was God the person who said something about me behind my back? No. God is Himself, perfect and blameless and loving and forgiving. People may fail in their attempts to emulate God, but this does not change God’s character. Our failure to embody Him does not make Him any less of a perfect model. God is not people.

2. The church is a community of sinners.
Though this was already touched on in the first point, it’s worth its own mention because it’s a truth so often forgotten. We would all like to think that when we go to church we are somehow escaping the evils of the world, that we’ve found a safe haven where we never have to worry about conflict and temptation and difficulty ever again. We want to feel completely safe, isolated from the sin we know lurks around in the world outside. In principle, this isn’t a bad desire. We are longing for heaven, and in its attempt to bring heaven to earth the church should look brighter and more heavenly in comparison to the rest of the world. But the church is not heaven. Its members are not completely sanctified, washed clean from all sin, except in the sense that they have been forgiven of those sins through the blood of Christ.

We all bring our sinful selves with us to church. In fact, that seems to be the point. In seeking out a church community, we seek out brothers and sisters who can help us combat our sinful desires in order that we may live closer to the holiness God desires for us. An acknowledgement of our sinfulness, then, seems a necessary first step for a healthy church community; unless we recognize sin in the church, we can’t do much to work on it, much the same as how an individual must recognize their sinfulness before God before they can receive forgiveness and salvation.

Bonhoeffer discusses this “necessary disillusionment” at length in his book about church community, Life Together. He insists that “only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.” In other words, Bonhoeffer argues, a church can only truly begin to understand God’s plan for community when it comes to terms with the reality of its own brokenness, when each individual member realizes that their church is not perfect, but rather a place where imperfect people have come together to strive toward holiness. To believe in the perfection of the church is to hinder its progress toward that holiness. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself,” Bonhoeffer insists, “becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

To avoid in the first place the illusion that the church is a perfect community, it helps to remind myself who I am. I am a member of the church, and I am not perfect. I am a sinner. Everyone else in this endeavor with me is a sinner. Therefore, why should I expect the church to be perfect?

So what do we do when the church disappoints us? Every time I’m disillusioned with the church yet again, I come back to this critical decision. It’s never an easy situation to face. But in addition to remembering the two most important points above, I try to determine the source of my disillusionment and my response to it by asking the following questions:

1. Is my disillusionment being caused by the church community as a whole or just one person?
Though it seems silly, this is an important question. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know for me sometimes a person just ticks me off, and instead of dealing with my feelings towards this individual, I start lashing out against the community within which I am forced to interact with them. We might have been spurned or judged or rejected by one person, and yet we point to the music or the sermons or dissatisfaction with the children’s programming as our contentions. And we leave. As I’ve already beat to death, people are sinful. There will always be individuals or even groups of individuals who we don’t get along with at church, whether because of our sin or theirs or both. I have learned not to blame the church for the sins of individual members. Dealing with sinfulness is just a part of being in a community.

There are, however, also those times when we realize that our church is not theologically sound, and that is a more serious issue. Rather than our frustration being centered on the unavoidable sin of other church members, we realize that the church as an organization is not following the direction of God’s word. I won’t tell anyone what they should do in this situation. Certainly, discussions with pastors and elders about your concerns are a good, though difficult, first step. Sometimes, as hard as it is, this problem might even require leaving to find a different church community. But the first step is just determining whether this is actually the problem, or whether we are simply frustrated with the reality of the sinfulness of fellow members.

2. Is this a me and church problem or a me and God problem?
Sometimes church rubs us the wrong way because we just don’t want to hear what the community needs to say. For example, that annoying tithing sermon. Or that sermon that tells you that you shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage, but you just really want to stay with that person you’re living with. Or when the pastor talks about the end times again. Some subjects of the Christian life just aren’t comfortable for us to hear. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to hear them. If I’m sitting in church and find myself getting angry at the pastor and/or the church I have to ask myself: Am I angry at the church because they’re making me feel guilty over something I should probably feel guilty over? The converse also needs to be asked. Am I angry because someone is making me feel guilty over something I don’t need to feel guilty about? This is an important question. In these situations, I take the time to search my heart and look to Scripture, godly advice, and what I know of God’s character. Sometimes we get angry at the church because we feel convicted, and that conviction is a good thing. But if a community is making us feel guilty in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s Word, we need to take a second look at what is being taught.

3. Is this something I can fix instead of just complain about?
This question always kicks me in the gut. It’s really easy to complain, but much harder to be a part of the solution. But the reality is that if no one in the church actively seeks to improve the community, then nothing will ever change or progress. If you see a visitor alone in a corner, don’t just get angry that your church doesn’t have a better greeting ministry. Instead, remind yourself that you are the church, walk over there, and say hello. Better yet, talk to your pastor about setting up a greeting ministry, so you can recruit more people to help you out in your goal. A handful of pastors and elders can’t be all things to a church. So if you see a place where your community is falling short, step in and fill up the gap.

These truths and questions can help us consider wisely our place within a Christian community and the reality of disillusionment due to sin. Just because we accept disillusionment as a part of the project of the church, however, does not mean that we should not also mourn whenever it occurs. When yet another sex scandal breaks on a church like a storm, we mourn. When someone we trusted as a fellow believer betrays that trust, we mourn. When we are unnecessarily hurtful or unkind toward one of our brothers or sisters, we mourn. But in our lament over our sinfulness, we should also look to God and His plan for the church in hope. No, this community is not perfect. But the fact that it exists, that God is moving it toward perfection, and that we have each other to lean on as we limp slowly toward that glory: this is a gift and a mercy on which we should never give up.

Truth and Comfort in the Wake of Tragedy – repost

I originally wrote this post in the wake of the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy in October of 2012. But yesterday, I received news that the daughter of the man I mention in paragraph six had not woken up. She’s with her dad now. So I’m re-posting this in hopes that it might bring some sort of comfort to those who are mourning the loss of our dear, sweet Kaylee. Please remember as you read that the original context of this post was Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. When I mention justice and evil, I am in no way insinuating that Kaylee’s death is in any way a result of her own sin or that of her family. Those portions deal specifically with tragedy that can be traced directly to the actions of individuals, as was the case with Jessica.

*****

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. – C.S. Lewis

Five times I’ve been shocked out of my routine by a phone call telling me that someone I loved had died, and strangely, all five times those calls have come on a Saturday.

The first call came during the summer between my first and second years of teaching. A student who had been in my class – my first class – had fallen out of the back of a truck and died instantly.

He’d approached me halfway through the season the previous year to ask if he could join my football team, but it was too late for that season. He’d have been a great addition to our team, but we told him he’d have to wait until the next year.

He didn’t make it to the next year.

The second call came while my wife and I were out on a photo shoot – she was taking senior pictures for one of my students. The father of a beloved family in our community had not woken up that morning. He left behind a wife and four children who still needed him. They still need him now.

The third call woke me up early to tell me there had been a fatal car accident only a few blocks from my house. We found out later that day that one of the people killed was a teenage girl who had been in my Bible class for several months during her sophomore year of high school. When she arrived at our school, she didn’t own a Bible, so my wife and I bought her one to use in my class. In the days following her death, her mom told me how she’d been baptized in the ocean in the Philippines, the home of her ancestors, and I gave her parents a letter she had written to herself about what following Jesus really meant to her. I had planned on giving the letter back to her later that year.

The fourth call interrupted a drive home from a youth retreat to tell me that another of our students, a precious, joyful, intelligent little girl who had been a light every day she walked through the doors of our school had finally lost her battle to the brain tumor that had been ravaging her body for years. She never made it to her sixteenth birthday, and though it was “expected,” her death was no less tragic for not having been a surprise.

And the fifth was the worst of all for me personally. The fifth was the closest to home, because that call woke me up to tell me that a young man who had been in my class for four years, who I had seen on weekends at youth group, who had been to my house to record a video project for my class, who had shared with me some of his deepest pain and the dreams closest to his heart, and who had once helped me push a car out of the snow for a person neither of us had ever met, was dead.

He was strong. So strong, in fact, that I called him a rhinoceros when he walked by my classroom. He was young and healthy, and he loved God. But one morning his heart just quit working.

In April of my Junior year of high school, two students at Columbine high school took the lives of thirteen of their classmates and teachers. When baseball practice started that day we didn’t know the extent of the massacre, but we brought a radio to the field with us and listened to the news as we took batting practice. But when we started hearing about bodies being carried out of the school, we ended practice early to go home to our frightened and weeping parents.

I remember seeing an interview of a student who was wounded in the shooting. He was a baseball player – a pitcher, just like me. We played Columbine the next summer, and even though it was months after the massacre, seeing him walk on to the field that day was surreal. It’s not easy to play a baseball game against a kid who got shot in his school cafeteria.

About two and a half years later, my college classes were cancelled when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

A few months ago a highly-anticipated movie premier turned horrific when it was interrupted by gunfire.

And over the past two weeks our community has ridden a roller-coaster of shock, fear, hope, and horror as the details of the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl have come to light.

In each of these situations, in addition to dealing with my own grief, I’ve been the recipient of countless questions about God’s goodness and power, and particularly about how that goodness and power can still be asserted in the midst of such unthinkable evil. I’ve been a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, and pastor when these events have taken place, and I’ve learned over and over again that much of the real work of healing takes place in the aftermath, when the wounds of the past are re-opened by the death of someone else’s dad, or son, or brother. And in those conversations, the ones that take place a year, two years, or five years down the road, I get to see the real impact of the answers we give on days like today, when the questions are fresh and the wounds open for the first time.

A number of responses to such tragedies keep popping up in my conversations with people far removed from their own tragedies and still trying to heal. They’re answers that have been given by well-meaning, wise people who have a deep concern for the hurting. They’re given in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort and understanding in the midst of confusion and pain.

The problem is that they’re just not true.

At least not in the ways they’re received by a person who is overwhelmed by pain and searching for answers.

I don’t pretend to have answers that will bring healing to the hearts of those who have been directly affected by tragedies like the ones I listed above. No amount of truth will ever “fix” a tragedy, nor should we try to make it “fix” a person who is hurting. Often, our biggest mistakes in situations like these come from trying to explain away someone’s pain, or from trying to convince them that they should be “ok” by now. Let’s be clear that grief doesn’t work on a predictable timeline, and the acceptance of truth about a situation does not remove the emotional fallout of encountering evil.

But if we’re going to give answers (and we are, at some point, going to try to give some kind of answer), let’s give answers that will help rather than hurt. And let’s remember Jesus’ claim that the truth sets us free.

If our responses to tragedy result in more bondage and guilt than freedom, then we need to honestly evaluate whether or not those responses are true, both propositionally and systematically.

Here are a few examples of responses that, when given without explanation or clarification, I’ve seen do a great deal of damage in the lives and hearts of the hurting:

1. “God has a plan.”

Is God in control? Absolutely. Does He have a plan? Undoubtedly. But in the midst of severe emotional pain, the distinction between God’s plan and his desire becomes quite difficult to keep straight. Telling a hurting person that God has a plan is roughly equivalent to telling the parents of a stillborn child that God wanted their baby to die because He didn’t have any better ideas about how the day might go. We present God as the kind of dad that throws a four-year-old boy into the ring at a UFC fight to try to make a man out of him and then yells at him for crying about his broken leg.

What we’re probably trying to say when we give this response is that someday, somewhere, God is going to sort everything out, but in the moment it tends to feel like telling people that God is an abusive monster who they should trust just because He says He loves them. There’s really no other way to hear this one than “God wanted your dad to die, and if you can’t accept that, then you really don’t have much faith.”

2. “God will bring good out of this.”

Often, this response quotes or nearly quotes Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The principle of the verse is, of course, true, and we must always assert God’s omnibenevolence – all things He does are good and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrendous evil. But as we saw above, the application and interpretation of truth must be tempered by wisdom. And in the wake of tragedy, telling people that God brings beauty from ashes sounds more like excusing a cosmic villain than explaining the actions of a benevolent God.

Here’s a rough translation of what this response sounds like to a hurting person – “I know you’re hurt by the fact that your baby only lived for three months, but now you appreciate your other kids more, so it’s ok.”

Please forgive my bluntness – I know that we’d never say such things, especially to parents who have just lost an infant, but when we tell them that “God is going to bring good out of this” in the midst of their pain, how can we expect them to hear anything else?

And where in the world did we get the idea that if good comes from tragedy, it justifies the tragedy?

I can think of a few people in history who have acted out a belief that tragedy was worthwhile if the end result was good. The most famous one is Hitler, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting his name on the same list with God’s and pretending that, even though their methods are the same, God is good and Hitler is evil.

Let’s keep Romans 8:28 within its context of an ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things through the redemption of both human beings and the creation itself and not try to make evil look like good just because God doesn’t give up hope when bad things happen.

3. “It was their time to go.”

This oft-repeated response to death has a measure of truth to it, because God certainly knows the exact time and location of every person’s death, but in the moment it can come across as more than a little trite. The primary weakness of this response in tragic situations is that it tends to completely ignore the glaringly obvious element of human choice by reducing the complex web of the divine-human relationship to “God’s timing.” And in the case of suicide, for example, such a response comes quite close to a deterministic justification of evil by implying that, had the individual in question not taken his own life, he would certainly have died that same day and time by some other method. Thus, the means of death becomes meaningless, and we become pawns in God’s cosmic game of chess.

So how do we respond when evil interrupts our lives? What can we say to people who have come face to face with the unthinkable and are unable to reconcile an unstoppable flood of despair with the claim that God’s goodness has invaded our world and forever transformed the human experience for all of us?

The Bible teaches us a few truths that, though not so “tidy” as those above, may in the long run prove much more helpful and effectual for those who must certainly face tragedy again.

1. God hates death.

It has for some time been my conviction that the primary reason for Jesus’ tears in John 11:35 was His deep pain over the presence of death on Earth. We say that death is simply a part of life, but it was never meant to be. In the perfect world that God created in the beginning of all things, there was no death, no pain, no suffering. Its presence among us now is a constant reminder that we are not home, that things are not as they were meant to be, that the very foundation of our existence is broken and torn.

In Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb we see God Himself mourning the pervasive consequences of the sin that He warned Adam and Eve to avoid. And though God is unceasingly joyful, He is also unceasingly aware that the great pain of the human condition and the immeasurable devastation of sin in the lives of every man, woman, and child who has ever been born never had to be. Had we trusted Him enough to choose His way in the beginning, no one would ever have died, and our intimacy with Him would have remained unbroken from the very first day of our existence.

From Abel forward, every death that has ever taken place has been a reminder that the very best plan of God existed in reality only until Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the serpent instead of the voice of God.

Every death is a reminder that, by default, we are at war with the God who has loved us enough to shed His own blood on our behalf.

We do not mourn like those who have no hope; nevertheless, we do mourn. We must, for our pain need never have been possible.

2. God is making all things new, but He’s not finished yet.

We simply do not have to act like we’re already at the end of the story. God has won, but the loving law of God does not yet fully reign in our cities and towns. The blood of Jesus has torn the veil of separation between God and man and in so doing has forever conquered the power of sin and death, but God’s choice to be a benevolent King rather than a tyrant guarantees that so long as men choose to rebel against Him and He chooses to delay His return to earth, we will continue to experience the devastating consequences of sin.

The refrain of the Psalmists – “How long, O Lord” – can and should be our cry as well when we experience the evil of a broken world. And the presence (in various forms) of such a refrain throughout not only the Psalms but the Scriptures as a whole should tell us that God not only understands but commends the kind of honesty that says, “God, I know that you’re going to fix all this, but I can’t help but wish the fixing process was over, because the pain I’m feeling right now seems like it’s going to paralyze me forever.” God asks us for faith, of course, but He also asks us for honesty. In the midst of our own tragedies, let us join with the Psalmists in crying out to God, full of honest pain and full of faith that the long road He has chosen is the best road possible, even if we can’t see around the next bend.

3. God brings beauty from ashes, but the ashes are still ashes.

I think the book of Lamentations may be the most comforting book in the Bible, but most of it is spent in meditation on suffering, and a basic reading could easily leave us with little hope for the future. But right in the center, in the section that the structure of the book points us to as the central and most important passage, we read these words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

For his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Lamentations never ignores the ugliness of the ashes that Jeremiah sits in while he writes the book. But it doesn’t let him (or us as we journey through the book with him) stay in those ashes.

The point is this: We shouldn’t mourn forever, but we don’t have to lie about the devastation we’re facing. And sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, I hate this.”

Jesus wept. And then He woke Lazarus up and told him to get out of his grave. Let’s join him in both.

4. God is able to simultaneously seek both justice and forgiveness.

Understanding the theological paradox of God’s simultaneous desire for both justice and forgiveness will help us avoid the kind of false dichotomy that says we can either forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us to do, or we can hope for the perpetrators of great cruelty to be caught and punished.

The truth is that God wants justice more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone has felt and experienced every detail of the suffering of countless victims of countless tragedies stretching back to the beginning of human history.

And He wants mercy more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone knows the crushing weight of guilt experienced by those who bring horror into the lives of others.

We need not try to choose between justice and forgiveness.

Tragedy, and our ability to deal with it honestly, proves the necessity of hell, and the necessity of the horror of the cross for its escape, for only in the cross do we fully see God’s simultaneous passion for both justice and mercy. Only in the cross is there any hope of forgiveness for the grievous evil that invades our lives, and for the grievous evil that we ourselves commit. And only in the cross do we see a God that does not keep Himself distant from our pain, but chooses instead to join us in our deepest tragedy and our deepest mourning. Not only does He join us there, but through the cross He conquers that pain and that mourning so that someday we will never have to face death again.

5. God will never lie to us, either by word or by experience.

God’s primary method of teaching us truth is His Word, but He has designed our universe to teach us truth as well, and when appropriately interpreted, the events of our lives, and the consequences of those events, can be trusted to tell us what God is really like.

He does not deceive us, and there are many things that we desperately need to know.

We need to know that evil is real, and powerfully destructive. For God to soften the effects of our sins or the sins of others would be to lie to us about the true ugliness of rebellion against His laws.

We need to know that the consequences of some sins are permanent and irrevocable. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of sin here on earth. It never has, and for God to make it otherwise would be to deceive us.

We need to know what a world without His moral guidance actually looks like. Despite the pain we must experience in learning what happens when we live our lives in rebellion against God’s intended way of living as expressed in His moral laws, and despite the pain that He experiences when He sees us rebelling against those laws, God chooses not to stop us from living as fools. He chooses to let us see what happens when we reject the moral truths He has so graciously revealed to us.

And finally, we need to know that the consequences of our personal sins are never only personal – they will always impact those we love, those we have only just met, and those we don’t even know. We cannot escape the communities in which we live our lives, and for good or ill, our actions affect those communities. As we are confronted by the suffering and horror one person can cause by evil deeds, let us remember also the great good that one person can do by righteous deeds.

6. There is no good that can make a tragedy “worth it.”

We know that God can redeem even the worst of circumstances. We know that He brings good out of evil. But no amount of good can justify tragedy – and God never attempts to justify tragedy.

After 9/11, our nation came together in unity in a way that I had never seen. After Columbine, students cared for one another in ways they never had, and they joined together to pray for each other. During the search for Jessica Ridgeway over the past couple of weeks, countless parents (including me) have renewed their commitment to love their children well, and an entire community has left aside its many political, religious, and socio-economic differences to join together to look for a lost little girl.

These are all good things. They’re things we should be thankful for, and I believe with all my heart that they come from God.

But they don’t justify the evil.

They don’t erase the terrible things that have taken place among us.

God does not send tragedy so that we will grow from it. He does not beat us up so that we’ll get stronger.

Good comes out of evil because God doesn’t get discouraged and give up when sin seems to be winning. And good comes out of evil because we carry His image, and deep down, we know that evil can never win.

The question is, will we allow the tragedy to continue to triumph in our lives by allowing it to paralyze us, or will we take our places as God’s image bearers and, like Him, work to bring beauty from ashes?

Will we move forward in a way that honors the lives of those we’ve lost, or will we spend our days in a disheartened stupor and effectually make ourselves one more casualty?

“Why?” will never yield a satisfactory answer, because even the best answer will never bring back what’s been lost. But if we’re honest, and if we’re courageous enough to move forward into hope, we’ll honor both those we’ve lost and the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I had the privilege of attending Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. Among the many things I experienced was a profound sense of hope, not particularly because of anything that was said, though the things that were said were stunningly powerful and captivatingly true. I felt hopeful there because, though the evil we remembered last night was gruesome, it was hidden in shame and darkness, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and His great love for His children were proclaimed in the light among a crowd of thousands and were broadcast to countless more.

You see, light never hides.

Truth never flees in fear of evil.

Good never shies away from a confrontation with evil.

When good men and women stand together in unity under the authority of a good and strong God who refuses to lie to us, who refuses to let the story end before the good guys have triumphed, who refuses to take shortcuts to avoid the pain and struggle of justice, evil slinks away in inglorious defeat.

So God, let us not lie about the pain and evil we experience. Give us the courage to stare long and hard at the bleeding wounds we carry. And give us the hope not only to stand in your truth, but to move forward as you encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even carry us, knowing that the wounds are real, but knowing also that in the light of your profound goodness and grace, those wounds shrink away to shadows and dust.

May we stand with God in triumph, not because we’ve excused away the pain of our tragedies, but because we’ve taken them to Him and let His strong and gentle hands heal us. And because the future is worth it.

It’s Gonna Find You

A few months ago, my friend Aaron Espe posted a video of a song from his new project, Bombs Over Nowhere. It’s been rattling around in my head ever since. This one doesn’t need much comment, but I’d humbly suggest you watch it at least twice. The first time, just soak it in. The second time, pay attention to the details of the story.

I’m guessing I won’t need to suggest that you watch it again tomorrow.

Enjoy.

Grace for the Privileged

I know a girl who calls someone racist, in public, about once a week, and means it. Almost everyone my age writes angry blog posts about fundamentalists. I glare at small children who stare at the disabled, and then follow up with withering disdain for their parents . . . not to mention how I roll my eyes over students who ask to miss class for their frat-boy shenanigans. The internet gives all the marginalized and/or opinionated  a place to stand and voice their grievances, pointing fingers at what is flawed, short-sighted, and unjust.

This is good in so many ways; we keep people honest (Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism, anyone?) and find community outside the limits of our local church–often a necessity for Christians who love the arts, but live at a distance from like-minded community.  However, on a most personal level, I’ve found that an internet platform allows me to flaunt my “outsideness” and “marginalization” like a bully-stick, and shake my head at those who are “privileged insiders,” who dare to neglect, misunderstand, or frustrate me with their ignorance and embarrassingly flawed worldview.

Now, I want to be very clear here: those who have been intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or physically abused should be able to speak out, honoring their formerly-suppressed voices and counting all grief as joy when their stories create community and healing with other walking wounded. But how often do we–do I–join the ranks of bullies by misrepresenting “the privileged” as deliberately cruel, or evading any claims to empathy with the “insiders”? Are we honestly certain that the privileged (whether of intellect, education, race, or religion) have no sincere or good-hearted motives for their errors? Are we certain our motives are sincere and good-hearted when we publicly (and often gleefully) denounce our opposition?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about grace, and my own personal prejudice of distributing it. Students with good attitudes and pleasant smiles might fail my English class if they skip all the time, but I’ll wish them well, and wave hello in the hallways. Students who try to scam me, but forget to change the date and teacher’s name from their unchanged (and absurdly irrelevant) high school essay? Busted, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy laughing at the silliness of it all. The same goes for my most personal hatred: those who fear or mock the disabled, and especially those who claim to have a special knowledge about the disabled, but instead propagate offensive and infantilizing ideas in the guise of kindness. However, a few months past, a friend showed me my own thoughtless hypocrisy with gentleness and compassion. I spoke in naivete and privilege, but she, in person, and not on the internet, responded without rancor or judgement.

Here are the main facts of this conversation:

1) I’m white; my friend is Native.

2) The time was Thanksgiving, which I presumed she would be celebrating.

This would have been a good time for someone to call me out as thoughtless and racist, and I know lots of people who would have cheerily done so, had they been around for the pleasure. But such blows are cheap, and while it’s satisfying to see the accused crumble up into discomfort and unhappiness, we also become cheap in our enjoyment of it. Maybe we have more fun calling people sexist, racist, and insensitive than we would if everyone spoke in perfect harmony, never slipping from the currently-acceptable terminology for difference and diversion.

And yet — my friend did not take that opportunity. She simply remarked that she didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but was glad for time with her family and friends. Then our conversation continued, comfortably, and the matter has never been addressed again. That was that. No history lesson needed, no snide remarks about smallpox blankets, and no righteous stink-eye . . . just a soft reminder that not all people are like me, and the inevitable occasion of carelessness does not require policing as much as understanding.

After going home that night, I imagined the situation reversed–perhaps I’d be responding to people I consider to be “aggressive Christians,” prone to Facebook squabbling and street evangelism, or the people who stare at/are shocked by disabled adults. I’ve often presumed that as long as I am aggressive in defense of the weak, then I am doing well. But I think I sometimes misjudge the type of strength needed for an effective blow. I do believe in hard, fast rebukes for deliberate cruelty and small-mindedness; little can be said about those people except that it is better to have a weak mind than a stunted soul. Still, I am not all-seeing, and no-one can fully perceive the spirit’s intent. Maybe we should give more grace to the ignorant by teaching with gentleness and love.

It makes me remember this quiet truth: being in a state of grace is the true, paradoxical state of privilege, and we are thus positioned to give grace to others.

I’m not saying to sit down and watch the weak be oppressed. The weak need protection, from both physical aggressors and the loud voices who would seek their harm. But I am saying this: instead of always adding to the vast sea of pointed fingers, let’s share grace–yes, even with the accidentally cruel, or the unconsciously racist, or the misguided fundamentalists promoting sexist ideology. It’s a lesson Jesus taught us many times: be strong, and flip money-changing tables. Or, break bread and speak soft words to a tax collector. What does that mean for us as bloggers and readers and commentators in an easily-offended age? Maybe breaking bread with a pharisee means considering with all seriousness and respect the argument of someone whose opinion annoys us. Or, instead of looking for occasions to find the error in someone else’s thinking, keep in check our own error of philosophical vigilantee-ism. And, lastly, we should remember this: we, too, will give offense, and have given it. Give thanks for the people who said nothing, in grace, or responded in kindness. Because although we cannot always see the heart of the person who frustrates us, we can pray for open hands of kindness and grace . . . no matter the person’s earthly privilege.

When Glory is Inglorious

You probably know the story of Simon and his fishless fishing trip. After repeatedly, fruitlessly casting his nets into the waters of Lake Gennesaret, the weary fisherman is about to call it quits. Then, as Simon cleans his nets near the water’s edge, he meets the Christ. When Jesus asks him to sail into deeper waters to fish, Simon replies:

 “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5, NIV).

Simon’s discouragement is an apt illustration of what I felt like in the winter months of 2013, when The Glow 5K, a fundraiser for the pregnancy center I work with, was nothing more than a castle in the sky – grand, but with no viable foundation.  Often, I offered up Simon’s words as my own in prayer: “Jesus, we have worked hard all night and caught nothing.” Those were the easiest to get out – the admission of failure, weariness, and frustration. The next words, not so much. The call to obey, to let down the nets yet again – but let me explain:

My husband (Co-Race Director) and I spent the better part of January sponsorship hunting for the newly minted The Glow 5k, the 1st run/walk fundraiser of its kind in our small community. It was an exciting time. The event would raise awareness of our ministry, which assists local mothers in need of pre-natal counseling, nurture a community mindset, promote fitness, and help in the center’s ever-present need for cash. The work the center does is incredibly worthy – no mother or father is turned away, and counselors are often able to build long-term relationships with clients. Our volunteers focus first on providing material and educational help (cooking classes, diapers, formula, etc.), knowing that alleviating practical needs allows clients to begin contemplating moral and spiritual realms.

So, our dream race began to take shape. We had recently acquired a fresh website and, miraculously, a prime race location at The National D-Day Memorial.

What we didn’t have was money.

Hopeful, armed with sponsor letters and thick coats, my husband and I drove the cold streets of our small town only to hear:

“It’s a bad year for us.”

“We have a pregnancy center?”

“Why can’t these women help themselves?”

Essentially, the word on the streets was a resounding, “No.”

Honestly, it was a bit like a scene from “A Christmas Carol,” but in 2013 Central Virginia rather than 1801 Victorian London.

We drove back home thousands short of our goal, dreading the next trip out.

If I could label the experience with one word?  Humbling.

Allow me a second. Inglorious.

I knew Christ was present in this particular creative act, but there were times when I felt taken in. Duped. My adolescent teachings were filled with the glory of the Christian – David slaying Goliath, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s heroic resistance during the Third Reich’s terrorization, Elisabeth Elliot’s mission to reach the Auca tribe after they murdered her husband. These gloriously valiant acts imprinted themselves across my mind, and for good reason. These people are stars in the heavens of our faith, for they looked into the oppressive eyes of evil and persevered through Christ. But fundraising? Begging for money? Surely, this wasn’t glory. This task was monotonous, ordinary. Furthermore, the search for funds was beginning to feel quite removed from the center’s main goal: saving babies and empowering women. And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of blushing transparency, I really didn’t want to sink other people’s money into an event that nobody would show up for. Public humiliation is nothing if not a wonderful motivator.  

And so, after this particular day, I sought the Lord’s face for reassurance (or, more honestly, permission to quit). What I received was conviction – the story of Simon and his tired compliance to someone greater than he was. His words rose from the pages of scripture and into my uneasy heart: “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Obedience. This is what Jesus Christ wanted. And wants.

So, we aimed our boat toward deeper waters.

Race Day – April 27th, 2013:

A few numbers for you:

·         136 – the number of runners  that showed up to run for life. We had (quite daringly, we thought) prayed for 100. We would have been elated with 75.

·         5,000 – the number of dollars that went into the center’s bank account to help the women and babies of our county. We had hoped merely to break even with the money we had raised through sponsors, enough to establish the race for future years, but not enough to “pay the center” much.

·         12+ – the number of volunteers who gave up their Saturday morning to serve others.

·         53 – the number of fresh pizzas and donuts that were donated that morning by local businesses to feed racers and  volunteers.

Are there pro-life races with much larger dollar amounts and staggering participation? Yes. But for our tiny community, it was an unbelievable day. For me, it was an exercise in faith.

And there are many stories to tell. Stories of anonymous checks and surprise discounts, of the elderly struggling for 3.1 miles because they believe in life, of the young running to win and discovering a worthier reason to race, of a German officer who heard about The Glow, sent in his race fee, and ran alone through the streets of his neighborhood in Heinsberg – beautiful stories, all.

“When they had [let down the nets], they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. . . When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5: 6,8, NIV).

Like the end of Simon’s fishing story, Jesus burst our nets. His glory was on display in our small community and we were in awe of His radiance. We caught nothing ourselves; He did everything for Himself. However, let me be clear: the nets would have been burst even if none of the above numbers had happened. For you see, the glory was in the obedience, not in the success. The glory was in embracing the fact that He is worthy simply because He is I AM, whether He chooses to bless us or not.

For me, that April day was the piped icing on a beautiful cake, the elaborate flourish of an expert calligrapher. But those weeks in January, those days in the mines, were where I beheld my Father’s face and learned the glory of ingloriousness, the beauty of the mundane at my Savior’s knee. 

A Kingdom of Comfort, Part 2

I often encounter a single passage of scripture that, simply put, wrecks my entire day with its implications. It’s a good kind of wrecking, though, like when you wreck the deceiver’s plans or when your plans fall through only to allow you to hang out with a friend who really needed someone. This time, the passage is Genesis 24:67. It’s the very end of the discussion of Isaac and Rebekah. There’s a sentence in there that simply blows my mind: “So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

WHAT?

You think that’s epic? Check out 2 Corinthians 1:3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (ESV)

Clearly, from these passages, there is more to our healing and comfort than simply God healing us through the Holy Spirit. We know that our salvation comes with a call to action, and we know that the Gospel was never intended to save one soul; it was intended to be spread. But how amazing is this? Seriously! So that we might be able to comfort those who are in any affliction…

In the realm of relationships, God must be our primary healer and comforter. When we find that our love for someone has been rejected, or gone to waste, He is there to comfort us…and yet, I wonder if one of the beautiful things about the marriage relationship is its amazing ability to show us the closest thing to a divine relationship as we are likely to see this side of the Parousia. There is a certain type of redemption that a new relationship brings – the chance to not make the same mistakes, the chance to honor someone the way we were meant to. This is a rather exciting thing! I think we get way too wrapped up in being “in a place with the Lord” where we are somehow mystically able to date, as if we could somehow correct the problem of our disordered loves by a simple matter of will, once and for all, and never have to deal with such a problem ever again. I think this equates God with a level-up system in a video game, as if at some point we are suddenly able to date, so long as we’ve trained to Level 80 and mastered casting fire spells. Rather, I think God places people in our path for very specific reasons, at a very specific time, regardless of our perceived “readiness” or not. He then prepares us as we walk forward in faith. This is not to say that we date every single person we encounter and are interested in. Rather, it means that, if we find ourselves attracted to someone, but are afraid of our past hurts or failures getting in the way, we trust the Lord to deal with such things, and pray to know His will on how to act. For all we know, He could be preparing to use a new relationship to bring healing for the things that hurt us in the past. I have experienced this, as have many of my friends, especially my friends who are married.

Ultimately, when we come into such a place, we must remember two things: first, that it is about learning to love, about making love a verb that we act on, not about being loved and seeking our own good. And second, it is about approaching every relationship from a standpoint of seeking to glorify the Lord and not ourselves. For all we know, the Lord could be leading us to pursue someone in order to accomplish His will for their lives, or to give them a better understanding of Him. I had an experience like that a number of years ago, where I felt called to pursue a girl, only to realize that my purpose in her life at that time was not to be in a relationship with her, but to encourage her that she was still WORTH being pursued, even after a painful breakup. Since then, my affection for her has been strictly platonic, and that was my call, because that is where I felt the Lord leading. However, had I held myself back from acting on my attraction to her, who knows if she would have remembered how precious she was to the Lord?

Every relationship consists of two people who are broken, regardless of how recently the breaking took place. Besides that, automatically holding ourselves back from a relationship simply because we fear we are not in a place for it is, to a certain degree, a potentially selfish act. If our outlook is about receiving, then this makes sense; however, if our standpoint is to love someone else, then our focus is removed from our own hearts. We must always ask, “Lord, how am I to best represent You in my relationship with this person?” Ultimately, that is the point: incarnating Jesus in each of our relationships. I think it’s very clear from the story of Isaac that, in some circumstances, God provides us with relationships in order for us to be His arms for one another. In this way, we spread the Kingdom of God: not the Kingdom that will come at Parousia, but the one that has already arrived, and is continually arriving – a Kingdom marked by mercy, comfort, and fresh starts. Few things are as powerful for the Kingdom of God as the love of a righteous, God-honoring marriage.

Obviously, all this comes with a very special qualifying statement: this is an observation, and we must be exceedingly, exceedingly careful with our hearts and with the hearts of others. We must always consult the Holy Spirit and trust His leading when it comes to our relationships. This is not at all meant to justify every dating scenario, nor am I trying to claim that this is primarily meant for dating. This all plays itself out in friendships and other platonic relationships in exactly the same terms, and can be interpreted exactly the same for such situations. We also cannot assume that we are always in a place to date, for we often are not; and if you aren’t, don’t try to be in one! This is something that you have to take to the Lord and trust His leading for you individually. This is merely the thoughts of a 22 year-old male, and I am by no means the wisest 22 year-old that has ever lived. Far from it. I simply find that this principle could radically change our attitude about dating relationships into something more resembling bold trust in the Lord and a desire to love others as He wishes for us to.

So we see that God uses others to comfort us, both in romantic relationships and in platonic ones. We were made for one another. God is eternally in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our humanity emboldens us toward community with one another: between male and female, as both friends and also as marriage partners; and as the same gender, as brothers (or sisters)-in-arms for the sake of the Kingdom.

But does God heal us fully?

Let us examine that and find out for ourselves in part 3!