Archive for November, 2011

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A Change of Perspective

11/11/2011

I don’t know if you are like me, but nothing raises more questions about God than the vast suffering in the world. I suspect some of you have walked down a similar path as me. There was a point in my life when my eyes began to open to the immense suffering of my fellow human beings. And the more I paid attention to this expanding reality, the more I doubted and questioned the existence and goodness of God. How can a loving God allow the kinds of suffering that we see and hear about throughout history and throughout the world? That question forever altered the faith of my youth and continues to frustrate me today.

My guess is that you know what I am talking about. I hear people wrestling with this all the time, whether it is in college classes or in conversations with friends or in books like Evolving in Monkey Town (good read, by the way). The interesting thing is that this question and the ensuing doubts often lie dormant until one finally starts to pay attention to the suffering that has been around the entire time. The fact that we didn’t ask the above question before is most likely due to the fact that we ignored the suffering in the world because we were too self-preoccupied, we ideologically justified its existence, or we intentionally insulated ourselves as a way to pacify our guilt and fear. Thus, at least for me, I could hold an unreflective and unwavering certainty about God’s existence and goodness because God seemed to be treating me fairly well. (This post is not really about when one encounters great, personal suffering. That produces a different set of emotions and issues.) Thus, the view of God that I held in the midst of a “non-suffering world” could not remain intact once I discovered that, in fact, this world is full of suffering. And the questions and doubts and laments rained down.

The above question is not one that can easily be answered nor discarded as irrelevant. I carry it around like a thorn in my flesh, with it, at times, swelling to the size of a 2-by-4. And I hope that all of us are in communities that will bear the weight of this question together.

But, recently, I have begun to wonder if this correlation between an increased awareness of suffering in the world and an increased propensity to question the existence and goodness of God is somewhat of a luxury for those of us who can talk about all the suffering that is out there. I wonder if things change when suffering is no longer a notion out there but a reality, a person, a people right here. (I am not sure if this is correct since, for me, suffering is still primarily out there.)

This struck me recently when we went out to a village to visit Diow. Something happened during this rare occasion when I actually stepped outside and suffering was right here. It happened when I experienced that suffering is not some idea, but it has a face and a name and a story. And, interestingly enough, that story is not entirely defined by what I call “suffering.” During that time with Diow, befriending Diow, eating with Diow, working alongside Diow, I didn’t question the existence of a god; I was in the presence of God.

I think I’m starting to perceive something, though it’s still on a very small-scale. That is, when suffering is out there and doubt and questions rule the day, my primary feeling is pity. And while pity is better than indifference, it still comes from a place of power and privilege. And the reason it’s hard to believe in God while thinking about suffering, while standing in a position of pity for those suffering, is because God isn’t there. God is in a manger. God is touching lepers. God is on a cross. Because God is about compassion (literally “to suffer with”), not pity. Suffering, for God, is not out there; it’s right here. And in that one moment of relinquishing my pity for compassion, I saw that God had been there all along.

Because, while the suffering is still real and tragic, the potential for love, the only thing greater than suffering, is only possible when we move into suffering, learn its first name, and make an effort to help carry its weight. God experienced that on the cross and continues to work for love in that same way.

So, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t question and doubt in light of the problem of suffering. We should continue to have hard conversations about theodicy. In fact, I think it is a must because we should never feel comfortable about the pain of the marginalized, the downtrodden, the victims. But, my point is that I hope I have more and more courage to ask them their names, to sit at the table with them, to suffer with them. And may I discover that my questions about God’s existence and goodness are swallowed up by the presence of a suffering-with God.

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On Death, Resurrection, and Prayer

11/06/2011

Warning: I have been reading a lot about mysticism lately, so my existential crisis meter is rather high. Derran

I have noticed, in myself and in the church in general, that we are a people who desperately want resurrection without having to go through crucifixion first. We want to find life without having to lose it first. There are at least two reasons for this, one theological and one sociological.

First, the most common view of salvation is cross-centered, in so far as it is Jesus’ death that saves us. This gets reduced to the idea that Jesus died (past event) so that we can we will live (future event). However, the problem is that the cross becomes something only Jesus has to endure, and it is for our benefit. He gets the cross; we get the resurrection. Our view of salvation allows crucified with Christ to become nothing more than a symbolic act on our way to resurrection. No actual dying has to take place in order for salvation to happen.

Second, most of us enjoy a relatively comfortable existence where death and suffering are anomalies, not the norm. Thus, it doesn’t seem necessary to die in order to gain life. Life actually seems to come fairly easily, even to the point where we might feel entitled to it. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for resurrection to come at a minimal cost to us. It is that to which we are accustomed.

Thus we want our resurrection, hold the crucifixion.

We want our new life without death.

Victory without defeat.

Glory without shame.

Healing without pain.

Faith without doubt.

Blessing without sacrifice.

What this eventually can do is train us to think we are entitled to resurrection—it is a guarantee. We begin to maneuver ourselves in order to get resurrection. But, the Christian witness says that the only thing we can maneuver towards is crucifixion. We choose death, the way of the cross; it is God who maneuvers us towards resurrection. Like Jesus, we have no control over being raised. But, we can control whether or not we will lay down our lives with faith and hope that God will do what only God can do.

I want to say more about this as it relates to various aspects of life, but I particularly am wrestling with this in the context of the contemplative life. I have often struggled with the practice of encountering God in solitude and silence. I feel like I approach prayer and contemplation with a sincere heart, seeking the presence of God. But, it is absence that I frequently experience.

I wonder if part of the problem is that I constantly hear people talk about retreating in prayer and, sure enough, they hear the voice of God. Seek God for a few minutes or hours, and God will certainly speak up. (I am in no way saying that God doesn’t do this at times, but it may not necessarily be the norm.) The immediacy in which God apparently shows up creates an expectation, in those who hear of those experiences, for an assured appearance. We are accustomed to immediate gratification, and we often treat prayer and contemplation in the same way.

And yet, throughout the Christian tradition, exemplars of the contemplative life report of long periods of time where all they heard was silence—a dark night of the soul, if you will. It is almost as if something had to die before they heard a voice.

So, here is my question (and I really don’t have an answer yet). What is the proper posture, or mindset, or expectation when engaging in the practices of silence and contemplation? Should we approach these practices with the expectation that God will speak to us? Is that, in some way, claiming that we have some control over whether or not God speaks to us in those moments? Or, should we approach these practices with no expectation other than making ourselves available? Thus, our participation in that moment is primarily that of dying to ourselves. We will have to do the hard work of shedding all the thoughts, behaviors and concerns that keep us from sanctification. Our task is to face our demons and lay ourselves out bare. And we do this knowing full well that we could quite possibly be left there for a bit. For, once again, the ability to bring resurrection is out of our hands.

Therefore, when the periods of absence and silence and death come, we will not be anxious. Nor will we feel the need to manipulate an experience, a pseudo-resurrection. We can be non-anxious during those periods because we will get the only thing we have power to get—death. And the good news is that we will not be distracted or seduced by some “spiritual experience”, or pseudo-resurrection. We will then, when God chooses to do what only God can do, experience resurrection–that is, the real presence of the living God.

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A Wonderful Grandmother

11/02/2011

My grandmother (MeMom) passed away a few days ago, and the funeral is today. She was an amazing woman, and it is extremely difficult being on the other side of the world today. Since I can’t be there in person, I sent a short video sharing my feelings about MeMom to be played at the funeral. Here is approximately what I said. (I am posting this because I want to honor her by telling of her influence on my life.)

I am honored to be able to say a word today about my grandmother, MeMom.

I must begin by saying how much I long to be there with you, friends and family, and especially with you, DadDad, as we mourn the loss our precious MeMom and celebrate the life behind her and the resurrection life ahead of her. It is a day like today that causes me to lament that fact that I am so far away. I question why I would choose to be on the opposite side of the world and have to miss this opportunity to honor and remember my MeMom. And yet, ironically, it is because of her (and DadDad) that it is this way. Because her faith and faithfulness that I witnessed and experienced throughout the years has shaped me and called me to a life of faith and faithfulness as well.

You see, MeMom was a lot of things, but, through the eyes of this grandson, when I see her, I see faithfulness. When I would come to church here growing up, and she was sitting in that same pew next to DadDad, week-in and week-out, I see faithfulness. When she would spend hours sorting clothes at the Christian Service Center, I see faithfulness. When she had Gatorade constantly stocked in her refrigerator for sweaty boys playing basketball, I see faithfulness. When she would spend entire days going from one grandkid’s game to another’s recital to another’s meet to another’s play to another’s match, I see faithfulness. When she would make the frequent drive to Sweetwater to diligently, compassionately, lovingly care for Mama (her mother), I see faithfulness. When she spends 7 decades serving, supporting, enjoying, loving DadDad, I see faithfulness. And I am not the same.

So, today I honor her, and her faithfulness, with words. But, tomorrow, and the next, and the next, I hope to honor her by striving to imitate the faithfulness that she demonstrated to me and to so many of you.

To her church, I pray you will recognize and build upon her legacy of faithfulness that has so greatly shaped this community.

To our family, I pray for peace as we long for her home cooked meals on Hillview and grieve the loss our loved one. And for joy as we share memories of past times together and anticipate reunion on that glorious day to come.

And to DadDad, I love you.