Category: Suffering

Why Appreciate a Pastor?

I was forwarded an email yesterday about “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I think I vaguely knew that this was a thing, but I had no idea that it was upon us. Apparently, one of the ways that my church can show appreciation to me is to give me a gift certificate for a discount on books. It’s a nice gesture. But honestly the last thing I need is more books. I already have a dozen waiting to be read and I have probably reached that stage of life and ministry where I am less optimistic than I once was that a book holds the key to whatever intellectual, pastoral, or administrative deficiencies I daily inflict upon my church. But, again, a nice gesture. And it got me pondering a rather simple question: Why appreciate a pastor?
Well, the short answer is because while being a pastor is incredibly rewarding in many ways, it’s also kinda hard. Not harder than being a farmer or a nurse or a builder or a business person or a professor, I should hasten to add. Just harder in different ways. I spent some time this morning enumerating some of the things that I, personally, find most challenging about this utterly unique position that I never imagined I’d find myself in.
I want to be explicitly clear at the outset that this is not a plea for sympathy or some kind of passive aggressive dig at my church for not being sufficiently appreciative. Nothing could be further from the truth. My church is generous and supportive to a fault. But for those who only darken the door of a church a few times a month and wonder what on earth pastors spend the rest of their time doing or how it could possibly be hard to work for twenty minutes once a week (wink, nudge), here’s some of what might be going on in your pastor’s brain when they stand up on Sunday morning. It’s what’s often going on in mine, at any rate.
To be a pastor is to wonder and worry about the future of the church. It’s natural, when one’s professional identity is tied up in the ongoing existence of an institution, to feel this anxiety. Not admirable, perhaps, but natural. These are not the best of times for the church in the West. The church is (rightly and wrongly) associated with all kinds of sins, past and present. People have walked away and continue to walk away in droves. The research and the statistics show only downward trajectories. This can be a demoralizing space to inhabit. It can also be invigorating, I should add, because it can clarify priorities and sharpen theological vision. But it takes work to see the glass as half-full when the world “out there” often sees the thing that you have given your life to as irrelevant at best. And many of us, if we’re honest, have no idea how to “fix” this or turn around trends that aren’t terribly encouraging.
To be a pastor is to often feel incompetent. It’s no secret that people can expect a lot from pastors. A pastor should be a gifted orator, a compelling theologian, an efficient administrator, a sensitive counsellor/caregiver, an intuitive asker of the right question at the right time, a thoughtful event planner, a cheerful networker, a social butterfly… The list goes on and on. A friend of mine was recently on a search committee for a pastor. When I saw the job description at the end of the process, I cringed and said, “Jesus wouldn’t qualify for that job!” Larger multi-staff churches can adopt a divide and conquer approach to this impossible list of demands, but smaller churches can’t. Often it’s one or two people that are expected to cover all that terrain. And speaking personally, after ten years in this gig I know for a fact that I am terrible at some of those things. It’s easy to feel like you’re constantly disappointing some people at least some of the time.
To be a pastor is to constantly fight the temptation to measure your worth and success in the role by unhelpful (and un-Christian) metrics. How many people are in the pews? How many of them are under fifty? How much criticism or praise did the last sermon receive? How many disinterested yawns? How many programs, articles, baptisms, meetings, and pastoral visits can I point to in order to justify my position? How’s the budget looking? Who hasn’t been around in a while? Are the customers satisfied?
To be a pastor is to sometimes feel like you are having faith on behalf of others. Not only are churches emptier and older than they were a generation or two, those who come aren’t necessarily buying what the church is selling. They’re there for community or some other felt social need, but they’re not at all sure about this “faith” business. It all feels rather exclusive and intolerant. Sometimes it can feel like people are relying on me to keep a faith that they couldn’t.
To be a pastor is to often straddle the fault lines of difficult issues. Our cultural moment is dominated by a constellation of hot-button issues (race, sexuality, gender, identity, etc.). And of course, people bring their issues to church. These issues have the potential to tear families, communities, and churches apart. They have done so in the past. As pastor, people look to you to have something definitive (or at least helpful) to say. But to be a pastor is not simply to dutifully pronounce upon the correct theological conclusions about issue x. It is also to feel a deep (and appropriate) obligation to the real human lives who are wrestling with these issues. It is to know that sometimes it’s best not to have something definitive to say for the sake of preserving a relationship. Sometimes it’s best to withhold judgment. And sometimes? Well, sometimes you just don’t have a damn clue what to say. Sometimes you just don’t know. But saying “I don’t know” isn’t something pastors are supposed to say.
To be a pastor is to watch people suffer. This one is perhaps the most difficult for me. Watching people descend into the abyss of a debilitating disease, watching age steal people’s minds and bodies, listening to the heartache of parents whose kids are carving a path of chaos and destruction through the lives of everyone around them, watching marriages fall apart, watching faith and hope wither… These things take a psychological toll. Prayer and listening and co-suffering love all matter and make a difference. And to remind people of Christ within them, the hope of glory is the truest thing I will ever say. I am as convinced as I ever was that the church must be a place where human suffering can be interpreted and lived theologically, where it can be anchored in and tethered to the suffering Christ. But it’s easy to feel profoundly helpless in the middle of it all.
This has been a bit bleak, I know. I’m (sort of) sorry about that. It doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story. And it can feel kind of small and petty when set alongside the trials faced by pastors in situations of persecution and trial around the world. But I still think it tells an important part of the story at this particular time in this particular place. I know many pastors who have walked away from the role because they found it too exhausting or frustrating or whatever. I know other pastors who struggle to put on a brave, happy faithful face on Sunday morning while inside they are falling apart. If nothing else, the preceding might inspire you to say a prayer for your pastor as they clear their throat behind the pulpit next Sunday morning. Or to remember that grace is among the best forms of appreciation.

Syndicated from Rumblings

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Whose Suffering?

This is an excerpt from a sermon preached on October 7, 2018.   Job 1-2:1-10 While the question of why people suffer is at the heart of Job, there is another question I’ve been thinking about as I read the first two chapters of Job this week. I’ve been thinking about this question because our…
Syndicated from Spacious Faith

Podcast: Dear Greg: Does God Accommodate, or is God Simply Powerless?

Greg wrestles with a really tough tragedy and offers theological insight.
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There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

Another Way for week of June 29, 2018 Thoughts on Mercy It’s a song I’ve sung most of my life at church. As so often happens, I often do not really pay that much attention to the words. We enjoy the tunes and the sound but so often are minds are not open or connecting […]
Syndicated from findingharmonyblog

How the Bible Sounds in Occupied Territory

One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better, try.
 ——
It’s an interesting thing how geography and social location affects the way you read and hear Scripture. Most Sundays, I am reading and hearing Scripture as a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class Christian in a more or less peaceful country where religion often occupies a peripheral (at best) role in most people’s thinking and living. This affects how I read and hear the words of the Bible. My default, whether I want this or not, tends to be to listen in ways that will more or less endorse and validate myself and those who are like me. This is, as I said, most Sundays. Last Sunday, however, I worshiped in Palestine.
It was a tiny little Lutheran church where we gathered in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. It was a mixture of Palestinian Christians and foreigners who happened to be lingering around the town of Jesus’ birth. The liturgical forms in the service were familiar enough, even if the language wasn’t. But they had transliterated the readings and prayers and it was possible, with a bit of effort, to follow along. The Scripture readings were done in both Arabic and English. And given what we had seen and heard in the previous week about how the Israeli occupation was affecting our Palestinian sisters and brothers, the readings sounded, well, different.
Psalm 35:1-10
We began the service by responsively reading from this Psalm. I am used to reading psalms like this through the lens of either the ancient Israelites or the suffering church. But it was impossible, in this place, to not hear through the ears of those who presently find themselves on the wrong end of the score in the Holy Land—those who are harassed and harried by teenage soldiers wielding automatic weapons, those who endure endless checkpoints and discriminatory policies restricting where they can go and when and how, those who are increasingly sequestered into urban ghettos by legislation that seems cruelly crafted to drive them from their farms and their land.

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!
[S]ay to my soul, “I am your salvation…”
For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.
Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

I don’t really have anyone contending with me in Canada, no real need for a shield or buckler. But my sisters and brothers from Beit Sahour do. They long for a strong arm of deliverance from those too strong for them.
It is grimly ironic that those who see themselves as descended from the same David who penned this Psalm, those who were once the weak that needed rescue from those who despoiled them, are now the ones that Palestinian Christians are praying for deliverance from.
Luke 16:19-31
The rich man and Lazarus… One enjoyed the best things in life while the other experienced only suffering and deprivation. Both die. The rich man ends up in torment in Hades and cries out to Father Abraham, with Lazarus by his side, saying, “Please, just a drop of water for my agony!” Father Abraham says, “Well, you’ve had your good things, haven’t you? You’ve been on the right end of the score for quite some time, and now the tables are turned.”
Father Abraham.
It must be such a complicated thing for Palestinian Christians to reckon with the word “Israel” in their Scriptures. But here, Father Abraham, patriarch of the nation, speaks a word of hope to them, to those who endure water shortages and intermittent electricity in the blistering heat of summer, to those who look over the (large and imposing) fence and see their Israeli neighbours with unlimited access to water and gleaming shopping malls and newly paved freeways (that Palestinians can’t use)…
Father Abraham says, “Comfort is coming, even across this vast chasm.”
1 John 4:15-21
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
This land is often called “holy.” Everywhere you go, it seems, something holy happened once upon a time. This is the place where Abraham died or where David did this or that or where Rachel is buried or where Jesus was born or where Muhammad went on his night journey. This is where God has apparently done a great many special things for a great many special people in a great many holy books. But what makes a land “holy?” What makes it matter to God? How would we ever know?
According to 1 John, it would seem rather simple. A land is “holy” because of the presence of love and unholy where this love is absent. God abides in those who love. And, presumably, takes his leave of those who persist in enmity and strife and all manner of unlove. God has little interest in this or that chunk of dirt where this or that thing happened in this or that holy book—at least not when it isn’t accompanied by love.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Like I said, the bible sounds different in occupied territory.
——
I took the picture above at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The man in this picture is the father of the boy in the poster below the UN sign. It is his thirteen year old son who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in that exact location. The father now spends most of his days volunteering at the UN center for his refugee camp.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Pray For Me, St. Joseph

Joseph greets me with a smile and warm handshake before serving me breakfast every morning in Bethlehem. I met Joseph two years ago during my first trip to Israel and Palestine and it has been a delight to reconnect with him this week. Joseph is a Palestinian Christian and is always willing to share about his life and story. The one memory of him that stood out in 2016 was of him telling me about the hotel being shut down and commandeered by the Israeli army during one of the uprisings of the early 2000’s. For forty days, the top floor was used for army surveillance and sniper locations. Joseph was conscripted to prepare food for the army and not permitted to leave for the entire time they were there. 
This week, thanks mostly to my wife’s curiosity, I’ve learned a bit more of Joseph’s story. His family comes from the area around what is now called Tel Aviv. In 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, they were forced from to flee as refugees and found their way to Bethlehem. He and his family were given a tent and much later a one room structure in a UN refugee camp. They assumed that it would be a temporary move—that they would be allowed to return home once the conflicts settled down. Seventy years later, Joseph and his family still live in that same UN refugee camp. The camp has grown swelled and bloated over the years as many more refugees have had to leave their home and now is a congested urban jungle numbering over fifteen thousand souls squeezed into one square kilometer.
 I asked Joseph about his family. He has four children, two sons and two daughters. The oldest two have recently completed university, one becoming a lawyer, the other an x-ray technician. I wondered how on earth Joseph managed to put two kids through university given what I knew of his situation. So I asked. He smiled and paused before saying, “Well, I managed.” He told us that he would go to England once a year loaded down with olive wood products from Bethlehem. For thirty days he would set up outside churches selling woodcarvings and cooking food and collecting donations outside churches. He did this every year for the years when his kids were studying. He did this so that his kids could afford not only the exorbitant costs of tuition, but also the costs of transportation to get to and from Jerusalem each day, which is always a time consuming and expensive task for any Palestinian.
And so it went. Joseph would sell and cook and sell and cook and work, all the while doing without himself. He has no car, relying only “these size 42s to get around the city.” He has a larger house in the refugee camp now, but only because he spent years working himself into the ground so that his kids wouldn’t have to sleep “under the bed” in the one room house they were allotted. Additionally, Joseph would take time each year during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan to collect beans, rice, noodles, and other things for forty-five of the neediest families in the UN refugee camp where he lived. He still does this. I do not detect even a hint of pride in Joseph as he tells this story. A barely concealed anger, perhaps, but not pride. He is not special. Others are doing the same as him. It is what must be done given the conditions they must live in as Palestinians.
Joseph moves to clear a plate. He looks at the food remaining on it and says, “I don’t like to see food wasted. We never waste food here. If there is any left, I bring it home and give it to someone who needs it. Food is a gift from God and it is a sin to waste it.”
 As I take my leave, Joseph wishes me a good day in the Holy Land. “Don’t worry about my story, just enjoy yourself here,” he says. But I wonder if that would be a sin on par with leaving food on the breakfast plate he has prepared for me. Can I share your story, I ask. “Of course,” Joseph says. “I have nothing to hide. I want people to know the truth.” I thank him and head out into a Bethlehem day.
Pray for me, St. Joseph.
——
The image above is of the city of Bethlehem, taken from the restaurant where Joseph serves us each day. On the first day we were here, I stood with Jospeh looking out over the city and said, “It’s quite a view.” Jospeh shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not for me.” 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Somewhere to Be

I know I’m technically on a “blogging sabbatical,” but I decided to interrupt it to offer a few reflections and observations on a trip I’m presently on to Israel and Palestine. One of the things we consistently hear wherever we go in this conflicted area is, “Tell others what you have seen and heard with your own eyes and ears.” It’s a serious call, and one that I feel an obligation to respond to given the privilege that I have of being here. Here are some assorted stories and reflections from my first few days here.
At 5:30 yesterday morning we made our way to the main checkpoint that Palestinians must take to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. We were coming a bit later in the morning—most Palestians (men, mainly) arrive before 4:00 am in order to ensure that they can get through in time to get to work on the other side by 7:00 or so. After a briefing from a few humanitarian monitors of the checkpoint, we proceeded through a labyrinth of cages and turnstiles and barbed wire and metal detectors and soldiers. We wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a Palestinian for whom this is a daily reality.
But of course we only got a tiny sense of what it was actually like. It was far emptier than earlier in the morning. We got to sleep in until 5:00 am to get there rather than waking as early as 1:00 am to travel from surrounding villages to arrive at the checkpoint by 4:00. We had no need to consider if our employer would be waiting for us on other side, no cause to worry about a medical appointment we might miss, no anxiety about whether we might be turned back once we finally got to the Israeli soldiers, often for reasons as simple as expired paperwork or the fact that there were reports of someone in our village who threw a stone at an Israeli vehicle. Or less. We didn’t have a hard day of labour in the hot sun to look ahead to once we made it through the lineup (which can take anywhere from half an hour to two hours, depending on how many metal detectors they decide to open at any given point of the day). We didn’t have any anxiety about whether we’d even have a job waiting for us on the other side nor did we have to struggle with the grim irony that surely must accompany the common reality of Palestinian day labourers building helping to build Jewish settlements on what is supposed to be their land. We didn’t have to think about doing it all over again tomorrow morning. And the morning after that. And the morning after that… We got through with barely a disinterested glance at our passports and made our way back to the hotel for hot coffee and breakfast.
At one point when we were walking along the long walkway that felt like a livestock chute, an older Palestinian man said to me, “Welcome to our checkpoint, what do you think?” I shook my head and mumbled something like, “I don’t quite know what to say when I see something like this… What do you think?” He just smiled and said, “Every day,” before hurrying off past me. I suppose he had somewhere to be.
We spent part of Sunday touring through the Old City of Jerusalem. At one point, my wife and I wandered down from the Al Aqsa mosque toward a lookout point that faces over toward the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives. There was a structure there and I offhandedly asked the guy beside me if he knew what it was. He proceeded to summon his Holy Land tour leader to come over and answer my question. What followed was some interesting theology.
“Well, you see, this is the East Gate but the Muslims have walled it off and built a cemetery on the other side… And of course we know that when Jesus returns he will touch down on the Mount of Olives and make his way over here to institute the new temple… But he can’t set foot in the Muslim cemetery, of course (of course?)… Luckily, it was recently discovered that there was a fault line on top of the Mount of Olives… And of course (of course?) we know that this fault line is designed by God to literally split the earth in half and pave the way for Jesus to triumphantly reenter Jerusalem. My face must have looked rather blank as I pondered this image of king Jesus parachuting down from heaven onto the Mount of Olives to be ushered via earthquake through the remains of a Muslim cemetery to reestablish a Jewish temple. An interesting eschatological path to take for the Prince of Peace. Jesus, too, apparently, has somewhere to be.
As I reflected upon these two experiences, I wondered what might happen if the Holy Land tour guide I met would walk through an Israeli checkpoint. I wonder if he might get a glimpse into the grinding, soul-crushing daily reality that his theological fervour feeds into for ordinary human beings. Would he pause to wonder if his need for the nation state of Israel and Jerusalem in particular to be a staging ground for his particular version of eschatological pyrotechnics legitimates the kind of struggle and suffering for ordinary people that is obvious at the checkpoint? Would he soften his position in any way? Would he think twice before mapping out Jesus’ triumphant (and violent) return to Jerusalem for eager tourists every day? Or would he only see tens of thousands of potential terrorists being daily herded like cattle through a maze of steel and barbed wire?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. Obviously. I don’t know the answer to very many questions when it comes to this part of the world. But I do know that if this land is ever going to turn into somewhere to be for both Jews and Palestinians, it is going to require a determination to imagine things from the perspective of the other and to at least try to see a human being where it’s so easy to see only an enemy. It’s going to require Jesus-y things like forgiving what seems impossible to forgive, in turning cheeks that have been stung too many times with violence. It’s going to require walking miles that we have little interest in walking to places we would rather not go because we’re convinced that there has to a better future around the bend.

Syndicated from Rumblings

I Wanna Open My Heart

His eyes rarely leave the floor, even as he’s baring his soul. He’s young, tough-looking, brown skin marked with tattoos, black hair slicked back over the middle of a mostly shaved skull. It’s the first time he’s showed up at a group I participate it in at the local jail. He’s looked wary about the whole thing since he walked through the door. But he mustered up the courage to begin a sentence like, “I think I wanna say something…” And the story comes pouring out. 
He tells of growing up on the streets of Winnipeg, raising himself since he was eleven year old. About a mom and dad who seemed not to want anything to do with him. Or couldn’t do anything with him. Of falling in with some violent people doing violent things. Of substance abuse and confusion and of neglect. Of coming out west and meeting a girl who loves him and who he loves. He calls her “my girl.”
He’s heard about God, he says. There’s never a shortage of words about God out there, after all. And he believed, he said. He really did. But then his girl got pregnant. And miscarried. And then again. And again. The last time he even saw the stillborn body. And something snapped inside of him, he said. He descended into a spiral of rage and alcohol and hard drugs that landed him here in jail. He struggles to sleep he said. He can’t get that image out of his head.
He’s still looking at the floor when he says that well-meaning people in his life—aunties, case workers, maybe priests or do-gooder volunteers like me—have always told him to believe in and pray to God. “The thing is, I prayed and I prayed, but I never heard from God. And how could God take our kids like that? What kind of God… That was my child, my little girl…” His voice trails off.
The room is dead silent. There’s no more flipping through pages or smart comments or bad jokes. We know that there is something sacred about a moment like this. We know that souls aren’t easy to bare, particularly in here. Finally another guy looks up and says, “Brother, thank you. If you ever need someone to talk to, just come find me. I’m usually in the laundry room…”
He doesn’t look up, but he nods. He sniffles a bit and says, “So, I been here for a few months and I’m feeling a little less angry. I try to pray. I took one of them bibles and I read the whole things in four days. I think I get it, or some of it, anyway. It kinda makes sense. I don’t know if I can believe in God. I guess I’m kinda on the edge or the outside. But I guess I wanna open my heart.”
There’s an easy narrative out there that gets plenty of traction. The jail is full of bad people who did bad things and need to be punished. This script demands very little of us. Labels are affixed. Categories are preserved. Everything stays in its place. But I think the gospel of Christ compels us challenge the easy scripts that we choose or inherit—scripts that keep our lives and our view of the world mostly untroubled. This is particularly necessary when it comes to something as precious as a human life.
What I saw in this young man today was not a rough twenty-something year old addict who had broken the law, who needed to clean up his act. That’s an easy story, but it’s not a true story. Not true enough, anyway. What I saw was a little eleven year old boy who never had anyone to love him well, who was the product of a toxic, racist, and dyfunctional system. I saw a little boy whose heart was broken because he wanted to be the kind of dad that he never had and felt like that possibility was ripped away from him—by God, by circumstances, by who knows what. I saw a little boy that wanted to believe in God but was honest enough to say that sometimes it seems like bullshit. I saw a heart struggling to stay open when it had every opportunity to slam shut.
During worship yesterday, I invited people in our church to the communion table with these words:
This is the table,
not of the Church, but of the Lord.
It is made to be ready
for those who love him
and who want to love him more.
 
So, come,
you who have much faith
and you who have little,
you who have been here often
and you have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow
and you who have failed…
Those who love him and those who want to love him more… you who have much faith and you who have little… you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
These words came back to mind as I listened to this guy’s story today. It’s funny how the same words can sound completely different in different contexts. They sound one way coming off the lips of a “religious professional” in a church sanctuary full of people who are often well-practiced in hiding (from ourselves, from each other, from God). They ring a bit different in a room full of guys in blue coveralls who have done a lot of trying and failing… and whose failures are a lot harder to hide than the rest of ours.
I’ve often heard people say that places like AA meetings or support groups in the jail are more honest than any church service. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But I do know that the church ought to be a safe place for those who have tried and failed, those who can’t quite believe, those whose faith feels week, those whose hearts are struggling to stay open. Which is probably all of us at various points along the way, if we’re honest. And I hope that if one of these guys ever shows up to worship once they’re out that they will be able to take their place alongside all the other saints and sinners trying to keep coming to Jesus. I hope the church can be a place where hearts that wanna stay open can find refuge.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Podcast: Does God Actively Discipline Those He Loves?

Greg on God’s role in suffering.

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Sparrows

My wife tells me that I shouldn’t read the news because the news makes me sad. Or angry. Or confused or helpless or despairing or apathetic or cynical. Or some toxic combination of all of the above. She’s probably right. She’s right about a lot of things.
This September has seemed like a month where a whole bunch of bad things got together in a kind of global committee meeting and decided to all happen at once. The names and the places are familiar to us. Irma, Maria. Mexico, Puerto Rico, Florida, Cuba. India, Nepal, Bangladesh. British Columbia, southern Alberta. Earthquakes, wind, rain, fire.
I read the news this morning and came across an article that talked about a little girl who was wiggling her fingers in the rubble of her Mexico City school. She’s still alive, apparently, although who knows for how long. Her name is Frida Sofia. My eyes stopped on that sentence. Amidst all of the statistics and official calculation and quantification of the destruction of this latest calamity… One name. One girl. I thought, as we inevitably do, about my own daughter. I thought about what it would be like to be Frida Sofia’s daddy, watching helplessly as people tried to dig my little girl out of a pile of metal and rock. I thought that those wiggling fingers would probably drive me mad with rage and despair and hysterical hope.
From a purely rational perspective, these bad things are not catastrophes at all. They are utterly normal meteorological and geological events that have been happening for countless millennia on this volatile planet. The devastation that they visit upon human subjects is as much a function of exponential population growth and unsustainable urban planning and development as anything else. If we wanted to be really crude and calculating about it, we could even say that these “natural disasters” do our planet a kind of (surely inadequate) service in population control. And even leaving aside these political and sociological factors, on an existential level, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about men and women, boys and girls being crushed in falling buildings or swept away by the storm. Human beings suffer and human beings die. It’s been happening since, well, forever. It’s part of the human condition. Nobody gets out of here alive. Life is harsh. The world is not a safe place.
But we aren’t really capable of the detached rationality that we flatter ourselves with, are we? We see little girls named Frida Sofia with wiggling fingers under the rubble and we rage against God or the cosmos or climate change deniers or Trump or whatever. We forage around for someone or something to absorb our righteous blame because we believe, deep in our bones, that things like this should not be. We don’t always have particularly good reasons for this belief, especially if we are convinced that the universe is just impersonal matter in motion, but we persist in it nonetheless. Frida Sofia should be safe and sound in a peaceful, orderly school, cheerfully becoming all she can be. She should not be wiggling her fingers under the rubble.
In Matthew 10:29-30, Jesus says the following to his disciples.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

When I was young, I read these verses as saying something like, “God won’t let bad things happen to you. If he even cares about a couple of birds, he’ll surely protect you from harm.” It’s bizarre how quickly we human seize upon interpretations like this. Even as a young boy, I had ample empirical evidence that God seemed to have no particular affinity for sparrows. I had seen a dead one or two lying around the farm. And even the text itself doesn’t say that the sparrows don’t fall. Their falling is just divinely supervised, apparently. But we are experts in seeing what we want to see, in texts and in life, aren’t we?
I read Matthew 10 again this morning with Frida Sofia in my mind. I tried to imagine how her daddy might read these verses (if he was inclined to read things like verses). Perhaps he might say something like, “That’s all very nice that you have the hairs on my little Frida’s head counted, but perhaps you could do something about the sparrows’ falling part? With all due respect sir, it doesn’t make the slightest difference to me if she falls ‘apart’ from you or she just falls. The falling is the thing we could do without.”
He’d probably say it in a considerably more angry tone. I know I would.
I went over to Luke’s version of the sparrows’ falling, where I noticed some slight differences.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

The math and the economics don’t match with Matthew’s version, but I’ve never particularly cared about math or economics. What caught my eye in Luke is the second part. Not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in this world where the bad things gang up on vulnerable people and bury little girls named Frida Sofia. We are not forgotten by God. Somehow, all the suffering and calamity of this fragile little planet with its stubbornly irrational and carlessly hopeful inhabitants is gathered up into God and remembered. Literally, called to the mind of God. Which I am convinced, at the end of it all, is still the best place to be called.
Watch over us, Lord Jesus Christ. Preserve us from fear. Remember us. Your sparrows are falling.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Give Me an Apocalypse

“I think God is about to purify the world with wind and fire.” The words didn’t come from a fire-breathing televangelist but from the shuttle driver on the way home from the car dealership after I had dropped my van off for repairs. He had asked me what I did for a living. I had swallowed hard and told him I was a pastor. I’ve played the “what-do-you-do” game for long enough to know that people often choose one of two options when they obtain this piece of information: 1) shut down the conversation, assuming that you are a weird sub-species of humanity called “religious” and are therefore some combination of uninteresting, untrustworthy, and weird; or, 2) launch into the story of their lives, including whatever theological speculations might happen to be on their minds. This guy, obviously, chose the second option.
Whenever people talk about how they think the end of the world is nigh, it’s usually because they think the world is going particularly badly. Immorality is rampant, secularism is advancing, families are breaking down, natural disasters are more frequent, wars and rumours of war are everywhere, etc. Or you are in the middle of a blizzard on October 2, as we (incredibly) were yesterday. You don’t often hear people speculating about the final judgment on beautiful days when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming and all seems to be well in the world. The world is only about to end when things are falling apart.
And so it was in this case, too. Las Vegas was obviously on our minds. Also, the story out of Edmonton where another angry man turned a van into a weapon. And, of course, the earthquakes and hurricanes of September are still not too far in the rearview mirror. It’s easy to speculate on what’s going on in people’s minds in light of events like these. Criminals are getting more desperate and dangerous. Immigration policies are letting in violent terrorists. Natural disasters are God’s judgment on us for all our wicked ways. People have always struggled to cope with chaos and catastrophe and bewildering change. We have always sought a cause worthy of all these effects that threaten to break us. An apocalypse will surely do.
The more I listened to this guy’s story, the more sympathetic I became. He had lost his wife to cancer in his forties. He had been left with four teenagers on his own. He had lost two other family members almost immediately after. He had been on the point of a mental breakdown. He told me he felt like he was being “spiritually terrorized, like Job.” No doubt. I could only shake my head at what he had endured. No wonder he felt like the world ought to get around to ending. His had certainly seemed to be.
I have noticed this with others who have suffered catastrophic loss, whether of a child or a spouse or facing a devastating diagnosis. I have seen people take a strange refuge in the most wildly speculative end time scenarios. The world is going to hell, society is breaking down, God is about to visit vengeance on this or that group of people (usually our enemies) for this or that real or imagined transgression (usually the ones that don’t tempt us). The world is going to destroyed and only the righteous few will be saved (usually me and those like me). Those who are convinced that judmgent is coming (soon!) are usually equally convinced that they’ll be on the right side of it.
Earlier on, these sorts of conversations with those who were grieving struck me as bizarre. How could anyone find any comfort in these outlandish eschatologies? How on earth does the gloom and doom of an impending apocalpyse help with the loss of a child or a wife or a brother? But the more stories like this I hear, the more I think that I might kinda, sorta get it. The world is a scary, violent, evil place. Sometimes, it’s impossible to process the kind of pain that comes our way or that we see others enduring. Sometimes the only thing that will help us come to terms with our own worlds that seem to be ending is for the world itself to end. Someone needs to suffer like we do. Someone needs to pay. We can’t tolerate God tolerating all this awfulness. So we craft an apocalypse on God’s behalf. And we tell ourselves that it’s coming soon.
The shuttle driver and I sat in front of my house and talked for a bit about the end of the world. We agreed that the world has always been a bad place and that ever since the early church, Christians have imagined that the end was nigh. The bad stuff has looked different over the years. The existential threats have changed. The wars and rumours of war have migrated around the globe. We kind of chuckled, knowing that we were just the next in a long, and not terribly inspiring line of people wondering if the world had finally gotten bad enough for God to come in righteous judgment.
But still, he said, “I think it’s coming soon…”
Syndicated from Rumblings

Fifty Years

Fifty years is a long time. Enough time for a civil rights movement, a sexual revolution, a Cold War. Enough time for an institution or two to fade into relative obscurity, for a few givens to become anything but. Enough time for the Internet to become a thing. Easily. A few generations. Half a century.
Fifty years is a long time a long time to live with a hole in your soul.
His eyes mostly stay fixed on the floor as he tells me his story. And what a story. The kind of story that can send an existential shudder deep down into your bones. The kind of story that there aren’t really words for. Just slack-jawed, barely comprehending silence. The right response probably. Like Job’s miserable comforters before they got a few bright ideas in their heads about what they should say. As if words were the right kind of thing for a man in the ashes.
A man in the ashes.
In this case, a father in his late twenties. A four year old boy and his five year old sister. They walk with an older friend to the corner store on a warm spring day. Only a block away. They bend over to play in a puddle. A 7-Up truck driver looks in his mirror. Doesn’t see anything. Backs up.
 Christ have mercy.
It’s hard to even fathom the pain, the grief, the rage. We don’t have the categories. It doesn’t compute. Life and death shouldn’t hinge on things like puddles and bending over at the wrong time and blind spots in truck mirrors. How can such things be? You instinctively think of your own kids. You awkwardly wedge your own story into someone else’s to try to understand. It’s hard to imagine how you would go on.
The truck driver couldn’t. Go on, that is. He committed suicide a few weeks later. He was a friend of the father, the man in the ashes. “I told him I didn’t blame him, but….”
Christ have… Well, you know.
Fifty years is a long time to live with that kind of a throbbing ache in your soul. A long time for “what if’s” and “wtf’s.” A long time to rage against God, the cosmos, or anyone else who might be listening. A long time to drown all the what ifs in a bottle. A long time to blame yourself. A long time to, against all odds, stay married. A long time to, against all odds, beat the bottle, to have a few more kids, to construct a life out of the ashes. A long time to, against all odds, cling to Christ. Another man who knew what it was to dwell in the ashes of sorrow.
“How have you done it?” I ask him. The question seems stupid the second it leaves my lips. As if “it” is an accomplishment, a finished task, a settled reality. As if losing two young children and a friend doesn’t break you in ways that never really heal. He smiles patiently before shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know. I still think about them every day.”
He tells me about where they are buried. There are no gravestones, no names, no dates. Nothing physical to remember them by. “We couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I go back to the town but I don’t know exactly where they are.” He looks out the window.
Fifty years actually isn’t such long time at all. Some wounds stay fresh.

Syndicated from Rumblings

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