Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes there are those passages in the Bible that I really struggle to make sense of. For some reason the way I have heard it taught or preached just doesn’t add up with who I know God to be or the experience I have had in the church. For instance, there is a passage in the New Testament that I have heard taught on in a variety of fashions. Christ is in his final moments of pain and suffering before his death and we read this in the gospel of Matthew, “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). – Matthew 27:45-46 I have heard people teach that God the Father turned his back on the Son, which really doesn’t mesh well with Trinitarian theology. I have heard people teach on Jesus quoting the death Psalm (Psalm 22) as he was a good rabbi and this is how you enter into death. But this week I had an epiphany and it has helped me to maybe shed some light on this passage a bit more.
When we speak of Jesus and his time here on earth we often refer to this experience as the Incarnation; God made flesh. Jesus entered into our experience in solidarity. He came to show us what it means to live as God intended. He experienced what we experienced, was tempted as we are tempted and entered into suffering on our behalf. Suffering is probably one of the most genuine shared human experiences. In fact, I am not sure we can say we have truly lived unless we have experienced some form of suffering. Knowing this we look at Christ’ example in the midst of his agony and suffering and we see another act of solidarity. Jesus gives us permission to question the Divine life in the midst of our suffering. In his final mortal act of solidarity with humanity he embraces suffering with us and questions God in the face of darkness, saying to us in your suffering it is okay to ask why.
As a pastor you see a lot of people going through some really rough stuff. You see marriages struggling, cancer crippling people, accidents that decimate peoples lives, abuse and pain that leave you speechless. And often times the expectation is to give an easy answer to suffering. The problem is, there isn’t really an easy answer to suffering… But the one comfort I take from Christ solidarity with us is that it is okay to ask why. It is okay to question God in the midst of our pain and frustration. Christ has been there. And honestly, because He has been there, I also believe He is there. In our sufferings, God is present. And although that may not give us comfort right now or make it easier, it does give us hope. Hope that this is not the end. The story goes on and life triumphs over death and suffering will someday be no more.
Once upon a time this morning…
At least that’s how I would like for it to begin. As is sometimes the case my daughter and I began the breaking of the day with the viewing of a Disney Princess movie. However today was unlike any other because she had made up her mind that she wanted to watch it differently. She did not want to watch all of the adversity and drama, but rather skip to the very end when the bad guy is beat (Mother Gothel) and Rapunzel and Eugene get to live happily ever after. She said the bad person would give her nightmares (although this has never happened) and she just wanted to see her “get beat”. And of course I found an excellent opportunity to argue with my 3-yr-old about the reward of seeing adversity overcome and the persistence to chase after your dreams whatever hardships come your way, but I got the feeling it was falling on deft ears. Yet I think we all kind of share my daughter’s sentiments. We all want a happy ending and if it’s all the same we would like a happy beginning and middle as well. The problem is this isn’t really life.
One of my favorite versus of scripture to see quoted is Jeremiah 29:11. And a lot of people quote it, “ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And this is great. It speaks of hope, “a future”…in essence a happy ending. But if you’ve ever read the rest of the book of Jeremiah you realize that this verse is the exception rather than the rule. You see, Jeremiah’s prophecy to Judah was of destruction. Babylon is coming and they are going to destroy you. Life for you will literally become hell on earth. And yet in the midst of all of this there is this silver lining. God promises that even though all of this tragedy is coming there way that he will never forsake them. So it kind of looks weird when we live off of the promise alone and don’t understand the circumstances out of which it was spoken.
Life is hard. Look around you. There are people dying from cancer, war, disease, hunger, etc. every day. There is poverty, violence, oppression, slavery, injustice like there has never been before. And yet, God has not abandoned us. He is actually with us in the midst of all of this. I read a quote today from Dr. King’s sermon A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart , “God is neither hardhearted nor soft-minded. He is tough-minded enough to transcend the world; He is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality.” That is the God in the midst with us. Powerful enough to give us a hope and a future and compassionate enough to walk through the tragic with us.
I hope for a happy ending. I hope for a happy beginning and middle as well. But I take comfort in the fact that even if the beginning and middle are rife with life’s difficulties that I have a God who walks with me in order to bring me into His glorious future.
I’m not sure how many of you are like me, but I love doing other things while driving. I realize that this possibly means I am placing the lives of my family, myself and countless other motorists at risk, but I can’t help it. Now I’m not talking about texting or anything that actually deters from the driving process, but rather stuff that I feel adds to the driving experience. Whether it is looking at billboards, checking out cool cars with my son or observing people’s personal habits in their “facade of isolation” known as a car, I can’t help myself. But one of my absolute favorite things to do is to read signs in front of businesses. Usually the best ones belong to churches as they attempt to post something to draw you in or give you encouragement in a quixotic little saying. But my favorite as of late belongs to an insurance agency, of all places and it reads like this, “Life is unpredictable. Plan for it.”
Isn’t that great? Plan for that which you can’t plan for by buying our product that will give you some false sense of security so you can go on living your life that will in some way continue to defy your expectations. Now don’t get me wrong; I think it’s a good thing to have insurance…especially when very few of us have the ability to self-insure our possessions and lives. The issue for me is not necessarily what the insurance does, but what it replaces. 1 Timothy 6:17-18 reads “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Before you get all antsy, let me place this in the proper context. If we were all being judged, present company included, as to whether or not we are rich based on Paul’s assessment in today’s world, we would all be considered wealthy.
And wealth in and of itself isn’t bad. But sometimes it replaces hope and trust in Him who we should have trust. ‘Life is unpredictable’ is probably some of the best theology I have seen on a sign of that nature. I think you could even go a step further and quote The Princess Bride, “Life is pain. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or trying to sell you something.” I always add it up this way: Life is hard, this world is broken, but God is good. The latter being the most important. The rub comes in when those insurances, those comforts that we set aside to protect us begin to rob us of the need to walk with God. If we aren’t leaning on Him for our security and hope on a daily basis then how will we know His goodness when hard times fall upon us? If we aren’t living out Kingdom economics and trusting in the full security of the King rather than in what we can “secure” by our own means then do we really know the King? Maybe that’s why it is as difficult as a camel going through a needle’s eye.
Life is unpredictable. May we plan for it not by our own hands by by walking hand in hand with the One who is good even in the midst of the chaos.
I have to believe that one’s writing comes best from one’s experience. And my experience as of late (while recovering from knee surgery) has been encountering pain and the cessation of that encounter through the use of pharmaceuticals. Pain is a funny little thing. A little poke-in-the-ribs (or knee) reminder that indeed we are mortal. And yet, this is something we try to escape all of the time. There are pain relievers for every little ache and pain available over the counter for $1 or less. There is a commercial on TV every fifteen minutes on how to relieve what is ailing you at that exact moment. One of the most lucrative industries in the United States today is anti-depressants. It seems we are trying to use everything we can to escape from one of the things that is a part of the natural human experience. Don’t get me wrong…I don’t like pain. I wish we were rid of it, but could it maybe serve a purpose other than frustrating the human condition?
I believe that pain creates longing. Longing, at times, for the ending of our mortality. For those of us who are in Christ, this end is only the beginning of immortality free of pain. Revelation 21:3-4, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” No more pain…No more pain…That from which we sought escape. That from which we sought relief…is gone! So maybe pain is a stimulus for something greater. Maybe it is a call for longing for that time beyond time when God will be present from man and pain, suffering and death will be no more. So now, maybe before we reach for that pain reliever or other pill to relieve ourselves of our ailments, we can pause for a moment and think about what that day will be like when our mortal pain is no more…