Archives For Suffering

Though it was hard, interviews like this one make me grateful and proud to be doing the podcast with my friends. For Father’s Day, we offer you this conversation that Teer and I did with Jason Jones the author of the new book, Limping But Blessed: Wrestling with God After the Death of a Child. Listening to Jason is painful but rewarding. His story of reaching out from grief to theologians like Jurgen Moltmann is edifying.

Example: His final answer to the 10 Questions.

Q: What do you want to hear God say when you arrive in heaven?

A: I’m sorry.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

We had a great conversation with Dr. Normal Wirzba for the podcast recently. We’ve not edited the audio to post, but I thought I’d give you a peek at the video. In this conversation, Dr. Wirzba talked about food and drink as the means God has given us to experience the Triune life, sacrifice and eating, and scripture as an agrarian book.

Dr. Wirzba is a Professor of Theology at Duke and is the author of many books including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.

 

Yesterday I spoke to Dad whose 3 year old boy somehow climbed inside his truck in the Texas summer heat and couldn’t get out again. Dad was asleep taking a nap after church. Jacob was supposed to be down for a nap too.

His Dad still speaks of him in the present tense.

First, it broke my heart to hear his grief and guilt held barely at bay by the willful flat tone in his voice. Later, it pissed me off- filled me a mushroom-cloud-laying fury- to hear how the preaching and teaching of his upbringing- supposedly ‘biblical’ theology- did him damage by telling him that his little boy cooking inside his car could be chalked up to divine sovereignty.

“God has a plan” they told him.

“There’s a reason for everything.”

“Bullshit,” I told him, “a world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.”

For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world contending against God and working to separate us from him.

Calvinists of a certain stripe often exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Jacob’s Dad speak of Christians telling him to see in his son’s tragic death the ‘good news’ of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle who cautioned, in so many words: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.

Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of ‘sovereignty,’ the God who would will a little boy’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.

Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it.

Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.

The ancient Christians believed that not even God- who is goodness itself- can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character. If God wants to will the death of a little boy trapped inside a hot car, then God has the freedom to will Jacob’s death, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.

To which I say as I said to Jacob’s Dad: bullshit.

Jacob’s Dad asked for book suggestions. What theologians could he read to find a different God than the god who supposedly willed his family guilt and grief for the shits and giggles some call ‘sovereignty.’

I told Jacob’s Dad about my teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart.

In his little book The Doors of the Sea DBH recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike too many of the Christians Jacob’s Dad encountered along the way, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

In other words,

if there is indeed a reason for everything,

if there is a reason for why Jacob was lost to his Dad and his Mom,

then there is no reason to worship God.

Not because God does not exist

but because he is not worthy of our worship.

I asked Jacob’s Dad what he wanted to hear God say to him when he arrived in heaven. He paused, hedging against the hint of sacrilege, and said “I’m sorry.” Far from sacrilege, it struck me as the most faithful of responses.
Jacob’s Dad, Jason, wrote a book about his loss. You can find it here.
Look for our podcast with him soon.

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the United Methodist ‘Rethinking Church’ website. Here’s the original link.

I was in the emergency room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother who wasn’t much older than me as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

What do we do in these moments?

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end of the pool and have just come up for air. She was smoothing her boy’s cowlick with her hand. Every so often she would shush him, perhaps believing that if she could just calm him down then she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had played hooky to go to see the Nationals beat the Marlins. I still wore my Curly W Nats hat and had popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like a pastor or a priest.

The mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get hold of her husband. She left me with her boy — and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest. She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: “It’s going to be all right.”

“What the hell did you say?” I asked, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 16 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ERs and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in my congregation who’ve been told — by other people in my congregation — that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know peoplewho’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that a spouse’s or child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because when their life got sucky some Christian tried to console them with talk of “God’s will.”

Most of us don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say. We don’t know where God is when life sucks or suffering comes, so we say ignorant things or offer empty platitudes.

There’s a long folk tale in the Old Testament in which a character named Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage. Worse, he loses it all at once. His life disintegrates faster than a dream.

For days, Job is mute with disbelief. His friends show up — no small gesture — and sit with him in silence.

Until Job finally does speak. Then, his friends discover, they aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation knows the temptation to put a lid on it. And very often our speech about God is the way we put a lid on it.

Questions like “Where is God…?” or “Why is God doing this…?” can become the means by which we silence a vulnerability too harrowing to bear.

Sometimes the vulnerability we wish to quiet with questions is our own.

So we resort to clichés. But just like one-size-fits-all clothes, one-size-fits-all platitudes never fit.

For Job’s friends there’s disconnect between what they think they know about God and how Job describes his experience. So they feel the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it. They offer platitudes.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend — to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying, “God must be teaching you a lesson,” how about saying, “Tell me what you’re going through. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

We don’t need to protect God from our feelings. From the cross Jesus, the Son of God, screams at God, “Why have you forsaken me!?” And God responds to that cross, which we built, with an empty tomb. God doesn’t need protecting, especially not from our candor or feelings of forsakenness.

As much as anything, faith entails the knowledge that you do not need to protect God. We don’t need to protect God because God is not to blame.

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: “What?”

She blushed and apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said, “When his mother comes back in here, don’t. Say. Anything.”

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 long chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial — at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve stood at enough bedsides and gravesides to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain we sometimes make God an anathema, an entity of distrust and spite.

In trying to locate where God is in the midst of the suffering and the suck, we can push people away from him.

For the last two years, I’ve battled my own incurable cancer. I know of what I speak: The only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, would be to suffer without God, for God is with us in our suffering, just as we are called to be with others in their suffering.

As both pastor and patient, then, my advice: When there’s nothing to say, say nothing. Or, do as the Psalms so often do.

Lament.
Rage.
At God.

If faith entails knowing you do not need to protect God, then faith is also a kind of protest against God, who still has not yet made good on his promise to redeem all of creation.

“Where is God in the midst of this suffering?” is a question best turned around and posed to God, defiantly so. “What’s taking you so long, God?!”

Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes, even despair.

fred-schmidt-h-copyWhy preachers ought not to be prophetic.

Why Election Day Communion services are a bad idea.

Fred Schmidt dishes on this and more in part one of our conversation.

Fred is the author of the Dave Test, Conversations with Scripture, and What God Wants for Your Life. He blogs at Patheos,  and is the professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Teer and I had a great time talking with Fred and I think it shows in our conversation.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve already got in the can: interviews with Fred Schmidt, Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Kenneth Tanner, Fleming Rutledge, William Cavanaugh, Bishop Andy Doyle, and Poet/Undertake Thomas Lynch.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

When I Hate My Job

Jason Micheli —  September 26, 2016 — 5 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgI’d made it as far the Jersey line, headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, I received a text about a 12 year old in my son’s school dying (actively so) of the same two syllable word that my son still worries is going to kill me.

His is in the brain.

They don’t say dopio at Peets.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned around south down Interstate 95. Just yesterday Facebook timeline reminded me it’s been 24 months since I wore my clergy collar and tossed slow straight fastballs to the lineup on my son’s coach-pitch baseball team before I dusted myself off in the 5th inning to lead a prayer vigil at my church for Hannah Graham.

A neighborhood girl.

They found her body a few days after the game.

15 years I’ve pastored and in those years… just as many funerals where the casket measured about 48 inches.

Or less.

I fucking hate my job sometimes.

A truer, holier sentence I cannot write, for I take the suffering of children to be profane in the truest sense of the word. It’s a stain on any notion of God’s sovereign goodness and to hate my vocation from such a God, to hate it with the perfect hatred of a prophet like Amos, often seems to me the most righteous of priestly postures.

Sometimes I hate my job.

As often (or, more specifically: on those occasions) I feel just as pissed off at God. I don’t believe God is the reason behind everything. But I DO believe, as the Cause of everything, God is at the very least responsible. Morally, if not directly, responsibly.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse is written on the dry erase board. J’s bed was decorated with 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of printer paper scrawled with sharpie- written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

J wrote them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak on Wednesday. Yesterday he lost control of his eyes. Today his breathing grew as shallow as the eyes of his family gathered around his bedside.

I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny that’s due out in a handful of weeks. But I didn’t laugh today. Part of me, initially at least, wanted to take back my 70K plus words about cancer as I held J’s mother’s hand, after wiping the spittle from his mouth and helping to bath him, and traced the cross on his forehead with my other hand. This shit isn’t funny at all, I thought, while consoling and counseling and praying.

Maybe, I wondered, the premise of my book was all wrong.

Or, maybe my premise was my perspective alone. And, of course, it is only my perspective.

Except…

The comedian George Carlin in some long ago album argues that anything can be funny provided that in the story there is something that is grossly out of proportion.

Anything can be funny, Carlin asserts, so long as the narrative incident has something in it that is ridiculous and exaggerated.

J’s bedside today wasn’t ha-ha funny but something seemed out of proportion: God.

Our faith in Him.

Holding J’s mother’s hand in one hand and holding his dying body in my other arm, taking my cues from the Sharpie-scriped faith pictures around me, I prayed about God’s Kingdom and God’s Power and God’s Will-Be-Done, and I thought how our collective faith seemed pathetically disproportionate to the reality before us. Our faith, I thought, seemed at best like a mustard seed against a mountain.

My nose ran onto his blanket as I prayed.

Or, possibly the malproportioned sizing went the opposite direction. Our claims about God’s loving goodness sweep too broad, offensively so, considering the concrete reality of J’s small, shallow breaths.

Maybe, irrespective of my book, that’s what makes cancer funny- not because it causes us to laugh but because it makes us a cause for laughter.

Derisive laughter.

Maybe George Carlin is right.

Maybe all you need for (black) comedy is a giant effing gap between what is and what, in God’s good world, ought to be. Maybe that’s the gross, out of of proportion exaggeration of which Carlin speaks. Maybe this world, where children die and mothers mourn them, as measured against the naive eyes, lofty claims, and stained glass language of our God-speech is the exaggeration that should leave us red-faced and laughed at in this world.

The joke is on us who so often suppose that God is in control, that everything happens for a reason, or that God wills our suffering for some mystery that will be yielded to us in the fullness of time. Believers deserve to be the object of laughter, such laughter it seems to me is the most thoroughly Christian reaction to the lie that Death is anything but the Enemy.

People of faith deserve to be scorned with laughter and ridicule, righteously so. Unless, all the world’s bitter laughter and the pain which it occasions really is born by a God emptied of all power and pretense and poured out in suffering. As Paul all but says in 1 Corinthians 15, the joke is on us if the joke we tell is not true: that in taking on our humanity, Christ suffers in himself the exaggeration, the malproportioned gap, between what is and what ought to be and in dying defeats Death.

Most Common Heresies: #5

Jason Micheli —  August 24, 2016 — 3 Comments

heresy_GMS

I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #5: Patripassianism

What Is It?

Patripasiwhat?

I’ve given it the hump #5 position on this list, but Patripassianism definitely should be ranked #1 on the Silly Assonance Heresies list.

Here’s your clue.

Patripassianism:

from the Latin = patri– “Father” and passio “suffering”

Any guesses now as to it’s meaning?

That’s right, Patripassianism is a 3rd century heresy which asserts that the divine nature (either in the First Person of the Trinity or in the divine nature of the Second Person) can suffer.

Patripassianism = God Suffers(ed)

Patripassianism = If God Suffers(ed), then God Changes(ed)

I suspect the heretical nature of that claim is far from self-evident for some of you so perhaps an additional, foundational definition is in order.

Impassibility: from Latin

in = “not”

passibilis= “able to suffer, experience emotion”

Impassibility = God is eternally perfect and complete in God’s essence

Impassibility = God is transcendent

Impassibility = God is independent of all things unto God’s self and is not causally dependent on any other being and therefore cannot be affected (caused to have an emotion) by another being.

Impassibility = a first order, ground-level, Reading Rainbow, phonics-like theological maxim of the Church (and the philosophers before them).

Patripassianism, however, was perhaps the logical, if erroneous, fruit of the Church simultaneously contending with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. After all, if Jesus is the eternal God incarnate and Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, then does the statement ‘God suffers’ become a theological possibility?

Do the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation render it feasible to claim that on Golgotha God suffers?

Indeed can we now say, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts it in a creative, poetic flourish that remains nonetheless stale, slipshod heresy that from Good Friday Eve to the dark night of Holy Saturday God is dead?

Or to give it a postmodern spin (that for its use of ‘I’ as a starting point remains hopelessly ‘modern’ and Enlightenment-bound) can we claim that on Christ’s Cross we see God suffering in solidarity with us?

Who Screwed Up First?

While the lineup of heretics is long in this instance, credit goes to Sabellius, a priest who insisted that the Trinity was ‘economic’ alone; that is, rather than the Trinity being comprised of 3 distinct ‘persons,’ the Trinity named 1 God who acted in time in 3 distinct ways (as Father, Son and Spirit).

Sabellius’ (mis)understanding of the Trinity is a heresy for a different day, but suffice it to show how Trinitarian doctrine is often the keystone for every other Christian belief.

Get the Trinity wrong and it’s easy to wind up with a Son who can’t save you and an angry Father from whom you’d rather be saved.

Because Sabellius misconstrued the Trinity, he was victim to further misconstruing the divine nature, seeing in the Cross the suffering of God.

Following Sabellius, well-intentioned 5th century doofs like Peter the Fuller and John Maxentius held that in the Passion both Christ’s human and divine natures suffered.

Into the late 19th and early 20th century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the father of ‘Process Theology,’ postulated that God- likes his creatures (if you’re not an assbackwards creationist)- evolves over time as God interacts and relates to his creatures. God changes- ancient heresy wrapped in flattering ‘modern’ garb.

Another Patripassian is Jurgen Moltmann, a post WWII German theologian. In the wake of the holocaust, Moltmann felt convicted that the only plausible Christian confession was that on the Cross we see the eternal God shedding himself of eternity to suffer in solidarity with his oppressed creatures.

An understandable, humane, empathetic but ultimately ill-conceived conjecture about the Cross.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you read the Bible’s descriptions of God’s anger, wrath and changing dispositions towards his People as literal rather than as part of Israel’s and the Church’s testimony to their relationship with and experience of God and thus figurative descriptions, then you’re a Patripassian in the hands of an Angry God.

If you think of the Trinity in terms of Nouns and Attributes (Father who is Sovereign, Son who Redeems, Spirit who Anoints) and you do not think of the Trinity in terms of Verbs (God who is eternally ‘fathering’ the Son in the friendship of the Spirit) and thus you forget that there was NEVER a time when God was NOT like God-in-Christ, then you’re a Patripassian who needs to memorize the Nicene Creed.

If you assume that for God to be ‘loving’ God cannot be ‘unchanging,’ then you’re either a Patripassian or poor philosophy student who’s confused dispassion (as in transcendence of) with unpassion (as in lack of).

The former is the only news good enough to pin our hopes, the latter is nothing. Literally nothing.

What’s more, if you assume a loving God must change then you’ve not taken the next logical step to realize that God must also then be affected by sin, suffering and evil, which opens another morally revolting can of worms (more below).

If you, like Calvin before you, posit that God planned the ‘Fall’ in order to reveal God’s glory, then you’ve introduced deficiency or ‘need’ in to God’s essential nature and you’re a Patripassian who needs to reread Colossians 1.

Likewise, if you think, like the other JC before you (Jean Calvin) that God requires suffering and death in order to manifest certain of his attributes then you’re a heretic who has forgotten the most basic of Trinitarian beliefs: that God is eternally, perfect and complete unto himself and doesn’t ‘need’ to do anything to reveal anything ‘more’ about himself. He is now, forever will be and always has been already ‘more.’

If you believe that God changes as a result of his everyday interactions with us, then you’re not far from asserting that God is the direct, efficient cause of every moment and event in time- that ‘everything happens for a reason.’

While this might seem romantic on the set of Lost, it can develop a nasty aftertaste when you realize you’re on the same logical ground as Pat Robertson holding forth in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Like Pat,  you’re suggesting that every innocent’s suffering, every misery, every cruelty in our world in some way furthers God’s good, redemptive ends in history, which may give you a morally intelligible universe but it comes at the expense of a morally loathsome God.

You apparently believe in a God whose nature is established not eternally but in time through commerce with evil, and that doesn’t sound like Jesus.

Better just to admit you’re a heretic and repent.

If you need an anthropomorphized God rendered on your own terms and insist that, like any good boyfriend or girlfriend, any God worth loving would change as a result of his relationship with you, then you’re a heretic who would make God more determined by possibility than by actuality.

That is, you’ve not quite comprehended 1 John 4’s proclamation that just IS LOVE.

Fully, completely, essentially, perfectly.

God doesn’t change because, unlike your boyfriend or girlfriend, God doesn’t need to change. Doesn’t need to become more perfect or more loving.

If you think that Jesus had to die in order for God’s wrath towards sinners to be ‘satisfied’ then you’re really suggesting that Jesus’ death on the Cross effects a change in disposition in God towards humanity.

You’re suggesting that the Cross changes, the otherwise eternal, God’s feelings.

God’s affected by something we do, kill Jesus.

So even though you’d likely think yourself more orthodox and definitely more biblical than the lot of us you are nevertheless a heretic, tripping over the most elementary of ancient principles: God’s apatheia.

Impassibility.

For, as David Bentley Hart likes to argue and the entire Orthodox tradition with him:

A God who suffers or otherwise changes can never be a God who is love, even if at the end of the day, God proves to be loving.

Only One who is already eternally and fully within himself ‘love’s pure light, who is in and with all things but remains above and free from all things, only that One can be considered a God of Love.

With a capital, uneraseable L.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Emergent Christians

Tony Jones

Process Christians

Mainline Pastors Preaching Funerals

Liberal Christians

John Piper

Mark Driscoll

Neo-Calvnists

Everyone After Any Death, Accident or Tragedy

Joel Osteen

Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters

Home Remedies

Memorize the Nicene Creed, especially the ‘true light from light’ part.

Look at a picture of Jesus and say out loud: ‘God has always been like Jesus.’

Vow. Promise never to say again:

“God did this…”

“This happened….”

“___________ died, got cancer….”

“….For a reason.”

Instead remember: God would never do that because God has always been Love.

 

Hot in my Inbox:

I received a message from someone whom I do not know- but the fact that they still have a hotmail address tells me plenty about them- who felt compelled (called, really: ‘God laid it on my heart…’) to tell em that God gave me cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.’

And no, the email was not from Donald J. Trump.

It’s an outrageous, offensive comment, but it’s the sort that’s really not distinguishable from John Piper’s contention that the 35W bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, killing 13, was “merciful” display of God’s sovereignty. The only difference is that Piper’s perspective bears the sheen of authority when delivered from the pulpit , his weathered edition of Calvin’s Institutes in his righteously angry hand. If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then how is God wreaking havoc in order to punish his sinful creatures any different than God doing so to display to his sinful creatures his awesome and manifold sovereignty?

My initial response to the message, which I will argue with anyone was the most authentically holy and Christian response, was to snarl in disgust at my inbox: ‘F@#% you.’ 

My second response, after I dug my finger nails out of the wood of my desk, was to think of the Gnostics, those most sympathetic and substantive of the early Christian heretics.

In an earlier post I ventured that Piper’s steroidal strain of Calvinism, which insists on seeing direct, causal 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every contingent event on earth, as a form of pantheism, for it renders the world nothing more than what it appears. Everything in the world, supposedly, in part and in toto, every tumor and every tragedy and every fortuitous parking spot and inexplicable story of survival, is the direct expression of God’s SOVEREIGN will. This is a kind of pantheism, I suggested, in that it collapses the will of God into the world so that they’re now inextricably linked and necessary for either to be intelligible, making creation no longer a gratuitous gift and God no longer good.

What’s remarkable, truly, about this dread sovereignty is the incredible distance which it has traversed beyond the the vision of the New Testament.

A world where every contingent event is the direct outworking of God’s will is, necessarily, a world exactly as God would have it be. In such Calvinism, then, there is no already/not yet gap of eschaton for if everything is God’s will everything is already already.

Quite apart from Piper’s rabid strain of Calvinism, both John’s Gospel and Paul’s corpus see with the Gnostics the world (cosmos) as it is as in captivity to the principalities and powers. The world, as both the Gnostics and the New Testament see it, is not as God would have it. They world is fallen, though Sin and Death have been defeated the vestiges of their power remain. Humanity, though redeemed and freed, lives as that old guy from Shawshank, still in rebellion and alienated from God. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

How odd then that John Piper et al would attribute the misery of this world to the dread sovereignty of God rather than, as the New Testament does to the fallen cosmos in thrall the (defeated) principalities and powers. How odd that heretics like Gnostics understood, to an extent too far for orthodoxy, that the world of tumors and tragedies and bridges collapsing is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ direct sovereign will but a world still alienated from its redeemer, groaning in labor pains, insisting against its new birth.

Morgan, Teer, and I discussed this and more in our latest Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast.

13346437_10209369411854505_4864009143172195653_n

For our latest Crackers and Grape Juice installment, Morgan, Teer, and I discuss and debate the latest Gospel Coalition video in which John Piper et al exult that God ordains tragedies in the world in order to manifest his sovereign glory. What an awesome god. Psych.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

Podcast with Todd Littleton

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2016 — 1 Comment

patheologicalbannerappendTodd Littleton is a thoughtful pastor and blogger in Oklahoma who was kind of enough to invite for a conversation on his podcast recently. I look forward to building our e-relationship into the future.

I certainly don’t deserve them but Todd writes:

From the time I heard Jason Micheli‘s voice on a podcast I determined I needed to hear what he had to say or read what he had to write. Discovering his blog felt like reading Anne Lamott.Traveling Mercies served for me to be one of the gutsy honest books that one rarely ever read growing up in an extremely conservative Christian enclave. We did not know to call it a subculture back then.

Jason writes with a wit and honesty that opens you up and then stings you. Rarely does a pastor gain the privilege to write, much less speak that way. Received like a sucker punch I read Jason’s news that he was battling Mantle Cell Lymphoma. His recent check-up revealed he was cancer free. The point from then to now is littered with gut wrenching pain without the loss of his penetrating insight.

Todd blogs at the Edge of the Inside, and I’d encourage you subscribe. Here’s the original post he has about the podcast, with the original audio link.

You can listen to it here below:

 

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 27-28

I. The Father

27. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then what is evil?

There are two kinds of evil: evil suffered and evil done.

To evil suffered we give the name ‘creation.’

To evil done we give the name ‘no-thing.’

Evil suffered is what comes to a creature from outside it, the evil that happens to a thing for which it is not itself responsible.

Evil suffered is relative in that the suffering of one creature comes about by the flourishing of another; for example, when a lion eats a lamb the evil suffered by the lamb is real but it comes about by the lion simply fulfilling its lion-ness.

Evil done is particular to responsible beings, as in, wickedness.

Evil done is ‘nothing,’ meaning it’s an absence or privation within a person.

A wicked person does not possess within them something called wickedness. There’s no such thing as ‘wickedness’ in and of itself. Rather a wicked person is someone with an absence of good, a person who fails to be fully human.

If we were ‘free’ in terms of being independent from God, then evil suffered would present the only problem of evil, for God, having no control over our free actions, would not be able to prevent evil done.

However, since God is the cause of all things, both evil suffered and evil done present problems for believers in God.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”    

– Matthew 5.45

28. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is God responsible for evil and suffering?

Responsible? Yes.

But guilty? No.

If God is the cause of all our actions, even our ‘free’ acts, then God is the cause behind both evil suffered and evil done in that God has created all things in the world and continually holds all things in existence.

In the case of evil suffered, God has created and continually holds in existence a world in which the flourishing and fulfillment of one creature leads to the suffering of another. A tumor flourishing as a tumor leads to the suffering of the person with cancer.

A lion fulfilling it’s lioness leads to the suffering of the lamb.

So God is responsible for much of the evil suffered in the world, but God is not ‘guilty’because there is not another kind of world God should have created. A world where God stops the lion from eating the lamb, for example, would be a world where God prevents the lion from fulfilling its lioness. In other words, a world of machines rather than a world of creatures.

In the case of evil done, God has created and continually holds in existence every person who commits evil. Even as those people commit evil, God holds them in existence. Their evil acts are never ‘free’ in the sense of being independent from God so in this sense God is responsible for evil done.

However, God is not ‘guilty’ of evil done for evil is not a thing which God has created. Evil is a privation, an absence, identifiable only in relation to the good God has made. Evil is a defect, the failure of people to flourish and fulfill their humanness.

Whereas there does not seem to be another world free of evil suffered that God should have created, it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.

That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.21

photo-300x3001This reflection is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Ministry Director:

Driving down the GW parkway, I make sure it’s dark enough outside so drivers next to me won’t see the tears streaming down my face. The car is my only refuge; the only place to let my emotions out without fear of my someone seeing the complete despair and pain on my face.  The sobs continue.  My shoulders heaving up and down.

Pain reaching down to the same place in my body where life was once growing, and then, pulled out of me during childbirth.  If only I could pull this pain out and discard it forever.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Heartbreak is one of the strongest emotions we can experience.  Whether losing a loved one or a relationship, heartbreak strangles your core and refuses to release it.

The tears flow so consistently that I must pull over to avoid an accident.  I pull off the road to a parking lot that faces the Potomac River.  Luckily, no one else is around.  I search the radio stations for my favorite Christian music.  Nothing seems to comfort me.  I pray, actually beg, God to take this pain from me.  I promise to be a better person, a better mother, a better disciple.

Why me?  Why ME?  Lord, you promise not to give me more than I can handle. I can’t handle this.

I come across a gospel station.  I hear the song, “Take Me To The King,” by Tamela Mann.  I love the repetition of gospel music.  I hear again and again the words “Take Me To The King.”  The intensity of the singing touches me.  The desperate need to have God’s healing speaks to me.

A small voice inside me says:

“I am here.  Reach out to me.  Give it to me.”

I want to, really I do, but I don’t know how.

Then I remember scripture and the words Jesus promised: Have faith.  I’ve over come this world.  I love you.  I will lead you.

I start to feel better.  The spark of hope slowly begins to burn brighter and brighter inside me.

I cry out:

“Okay Lord. I’ll give it to you. Please take it.”

Months later, I reflect on that night.  I can still taste the tears.  I can still recall the sorrow I felt during that time.  But I also know that pain doesn’t last forever.  Joy returns.  Smiles and laughter will come again.

I remember participating in a women’s bible study years back and hearing someone say, “I welcome trials in my life.  It strengthens my faith.”  I also remember silently thinking, “What? Are you crazy?  Not me.  I don’t pray for any hardships.”

While I still don’t pray for hardships, I better understand what she was saying.  During trials, our faith is strengthened when we rely on God and His healing.

When I was distraught, I read my Bible every day, listened to Christian music consistently, and prayed about 4-5 times a day.  I wasn’t being “extra-religious.” I was desperate.

It was a special time with Christ.  And yes, over time it did strengthen my faith.

Unfortunately, we ALL will have trials and adversity in this life.  That’s a given.

How we act during these times is the key.  It’s the key to recovering and it’s the key to learning about God.

I’m not saying you will instantly feel better.  You may only have one good hour, or one good day.   But think of this time as an opportunity to grow closer to Christ.  Rely on His strength.

One of my favorite Christian songs speaks to this message:

Bring The Rain – Mercy Me

Bring me joy, bring me peace

Bring the chance to be free

Bring me anything that brings You glory

And I know there’ll be days

When this life brings me pain

But if that’s what it takes to praise You

Jesus, bring the rain

 

 

 

Slaughter of the InnocentsI started this blog six months ago and the first post then was about another mass shooting. The one in Colorado.

I was in Guatemala until the Sunday before Christmas. I missed both the media coverage and the national grieving that occurred after the Newtown shooting- though I was greeted at the Guatemala City airport with a copy of Prense Libre, the Guatemalan newspaper, whose cover story reflected on why American culture is unique in producing spree killers.

Because I away before the holiday, and missed whatever grieving and theological wrestling my congregation did while I was away, it felt a little odd to return to church on Christmas Eve and celebrate.

I’m only now processing it.

Here’s a theological reflection from the NY Times by Father Kevin O’Neil, Maureen Dowd’s, priest:

When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:

How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?

The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.

They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.

Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

 

 

Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Job. Two notes so this makes sense. I’ve always thought the beautiful poetry of the Book of Job hides the scandal of Job’s emotions and masks the piety of his friends. For that reason, in this sermon, I rewrote the friends’ dialogue to make it sound more contemporary. Additionally, I asked two actors to reenact the dialogues during the course of the sermon. Thanks to Bailey and Elliott!

—————————————————–

Many months ago, around supper time, I was in the Emergency Room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother, who wasn’t much older than me, as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end and have just come up for air.

She was smoothing her boy’s cow lick with her hand.

Every so often she would shush him, as though if she could just calm him down she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had gone to see the Nats lose to the Braves.

I still had my hat on and popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like pastor or a priest.

So when the mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get a hold of her husband and left me with her boy and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest.

She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: ‘It’s going to be alright.’

‘What?’ I said, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 11 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ER’s and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in this congregation who’ve been told- by other people in this congregation- that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know people here who’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that their spouse’s or their child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because some Christian tried to console them with talk of ‘God’s will.’

Most of us- we don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say.

Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage.

For days Job is mute with disbelief.

But when Job finally does speak, his friends aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.

 

 

Job:

“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born! My life would’ve been better if I’d died in my mother’s womb. Why did God give knees for me to rest on or a mother to nurse me if God was just going to do this to me now?”

 

Anger is almost always what follows grief’s numbed silence.

Yet, ironically, anger is probably the most taboo emotion among Christians.

Because anger doesn’t just claim that this situation is painful, anger claims that this situation isn’t right– that what has happened should not have happened.

That kind of anger can be frightening because it calls our assumptions about God into question.

So when we’re confronted by that kind of raw, righteous anger very often our reflex is to make it stop. To silence it.

That’s how Eliphaz reacts to Job.

Eliphaz:

I’ve been praying for what to say to you, and the Lord finally put the right words on my heart.

Have you forgotten everything you used to tell others?

You were the one to encourage people in grief. You’re the one who talked about comfort and hope. But now it’s your turn, now you’re the victim, and…what?

That’s not you. Where’s your faith?

I know you think you’re a good person and you don’t deserve what’s happened to you, but remember what scripture says: ‘we’re all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.’

I understand how you feel, but this isn’t like you: to be angry at God. Have you listened in on God’s calls and come away with his plans? What do you know that we don’t?

You know what scripture says: “God’s ways are not our ways.”

God works in mysterious ways. We can’t understand why God took them from you; we can only take comfort in knowing your kids are with him right now in heaven.

Remember what Jesus says: ‘I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.’ Maybe…maybe it was just their time to go home to HIM.

Don’t throw away your faith now when it could really help you.

If I were you- I’d put that anger into prayer instead. Throw yourself at God’s mercy. Look to him for help and he’ll answer all your prayers. I know it.“

Job:  “If my sorrow were put on a scale, it would outweigh the sands of the ocean. And now you have turned against me too.

My anguish frightens you. But show me how my feelings, MY feelings, can be wrong? Can’t I tell right from wrong? If I’d sinned, if I’d done something to deserve this, wouldn’t I know it?

God has broken my heart and now I can’t even speak honestly with my friend.

You’d rather argue away my despair. I’ve heard enough of your ‘consolations.’

 

Eliphaz is genuinely concerned for Job, but at the heart of what he says is fear. He’s afraid not just of what’s happened to Job; he’s afraid of Job.

Part of what’s troubling about Eliphaz is how it’s not clear at all who he’s trying to comfort: Job or himself.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation, knows the temptation to put a lid on it.

Because Eliphaz is so uncomfortable with what Job says, he presumes to speak for Job. He puts words in Job’s mouth and tells himself he’s just helping Job find his true voice.

Eliphaz reminds Job of who Job used to be, the beliefs Job used to have, so that Eliphaz doesn’t have to deal with who Job is right now.

The words he puts in Job’s mouth are cliches. Platitudes.

Whatever your intentions, when you speak in one-size-fits-all platitudes, when you say:

God has a plan.

God’s ways are not our ways.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

With God all things are possible.

God must’ve needed him or her in heaven.

It’s going to be alright.

When you speak like that to someone who’s suffering, what you’re really doing is signaling to them what’s out of bounds:

what they can say and what they cannot say

what feelings they can express and what they absolutely must not express.

You censor their grief, and you make it worse.

And so when there’s nothing else to say, do not resort to one-size-fits-all platitudes. Because just like one-size-fits-all clothes, they never fit.

Bildad, Job’s second friend, is less concerned about finding words that fit Job’s situation and more concerned with fitting Job into his belief system.

 

Job:

“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!

Bildad:

“Be sensible. Stop. Stop ranting and stop filling our ears with this nonsense.

Should the laws of creation- the laws of God– all be changed for your sake?

God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked. The bible said it; I believe it, and that’s that. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe you don’t deserve the pain you’re in, but can you really be sure that your kids didn’t do anything to deserve what they got?

Look, I know it’s terrible now. But if you just give it over to the Lord, commit yourself to HIM, you will get over this. God never gives us more than we can handle.

In fact, you should use this as an opportunity for the Lord to teach you something. It’s like the bible says: ‘we should rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.’

See this as a chance to grow closer to God. That’s what will get you through this- not shaking your fist at the sky.”

Job:

How kind you are to me! How considerate of my pain! What would I do without a friend like you? And the good advice you’ve given me?

Who made you so tactful? And inspired you with such compassionate words?

I know: God’s workings are mysterious. But don’t make my suffering worse with your beliefs.

Tell me, who’s done this to me if not God? Why do you have to hurt me now too with your answers?

You honestly think I’ll get over this? I’ll get past this?

You want to know what really makes me shudder? That you don’t understand me at all and aren’t willing to try.

You can say whatever you want to excuse God, but I will never agree with you.

 

It’s easy to write Bildad off as insensitive.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad is the only person to believe that there’s a reason behind our suffering.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad’s the only person to assume that God causes our suffering to teach us a lesson or to punish us.

And Bildad is hardly the only person who would back that up with scripture, chapter and verse.

But hear me: to think God causes suffering to punish you for your sin does in a very profound way nullify the cross.

Because in Jesus Christ we see that the way God punishes sin is to suffer it in our place.

It’s true that you can learn and grow from suffering but that is not the same thing as saying God makes you suffer to teach you a lesson.

When St Paul writes that “suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” that’s Paul reflecting on his own experience.

That’s different than taking Paul’s words and imposing them on someone else’s experience.

For Bildad there’s a disconnect between what he thinks he knows about God and how Job describes his experience.

So Bildad feels the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend- to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying ‘God must be teaching you a lesson’ how about saying ‘You have something to teach me. Tell me what you’re going through. I want to learn what you’re feeling. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me.’

Zophar, Job’s final friend, has a certainty that masks a possibility too frightening to consider.

 

Job:

“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!

Zophar:

“I’ve heard enough.

How can you be so blind? You say you’re innocent. You don’t deserve this, but how can you understand God or fathom HIS wisdom?

We’re finite and HE’s infinite. We can’t see things the way God can see them.

I know how you feel now. But you’ve got to believe God has a plan, a plan for every one of us.

I know it can be hard to see now, but everything happens for a reason. God’s behind everything. Nothing’s accidental. Nothing’s random.

If I were you, I’d open my heart to God and trust that one day you’ll understand why God’s done this.”

Job:

“It seems you know everything. It must make you feel better for there to be an answer for everything.

But I’m not an idiot. Who doesn’t know such things?

Even a child knows that the whole world is in God’s hands.

But your comfort is hollow. Would you say anything to get God off the hook? Is your piety more important than your friend?

Don’t think God won’t judge you for your empty lies.

If God has a reason for what’s happened to me then I deserve to know it. God may kill me for my words but at least I’m speaking the truth.”

 

I’d bet 3/4 of you at some time or another have said something like: ‘God has a plan for____________.’

And even if you’re never uttered that at the wrong time, you believe it. You think it’s true- that God has a plan for each of us.

Notice, both Job and Zophar think its true.

Both of them believe Job’s suffering is a part of God’s larger plan. Zophar just assumes that means Job deserves what’s happened to him and Job knows that he doesn’t.

But both of them assume a world of tight causality, a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will.

And maybe Job and Zophar (and you and me)- maybe we assume that because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question ‘Why?’ has no answer.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us with out warning, for no reason and from which no good will ever come.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, (as though we were characters on Lost) but the logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster.

Pay attention. Write this down.

God doesn’t have a plan for your life.

You’re not just an actor in a life that’s already been scripted.

God does not will suffering in your life because it fits into his cosmic blueprints for you.

No.

Because God’s Plan, what God Wills, is for you in freedom to choose to love God and with your life give him glory- which you could never do if every moment of your life was predetermined and micromanaged.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say God has a plan.

Try saying ‘there’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.’

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: ‘What?’

She blushed and apologized. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say’ she said.

But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said: ‘When his mother comes back in here, don’t. say. anything.’

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse, and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial- at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain sometimes we push people away from God.

And I’ve stood at enough gravesides and bedsides to know: that the only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, is suffering without God.

And for that reason, here’s my last piece of advice: when there’s nothing to say, say nothing.

 

 

 

 

This coming weekend we conclude our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, with the theme of Suffering.

The author of the book whence we got the idea for this series argues that Christianity’s unique claim is that ‘not all suffering is bad.’ I’ve already mentioned how I think this book is crap (yes, it seems you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover). I’ve come clean about disliking this book but this week it’s different. This week I find its positive treatment of suffering to be both morally repugnant- and the god implied therein- and a profound misunderstanding of the Gospel, in which Death and Sin are the enemies God battles and Christ’s cross is the ‘sacrifice to END all sacrifices.’

The author’s clumsy, tone deaf theology reminded me of an analysis that is the exact opposite in sensitivity: The Brothers Karamazov.

In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering. He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering. Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun; Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’