Thoughts to Ponder
Thoughts to Ponder are my musings regarding community, things of the Spirit, and living as a Christ-follower. I don't offer the words of a professional or an expert; just a fellow traveler and explorer. Please don't take my musings more serious than I do. I've discovered a long time ago that I do not hold the keys of knowledge or wisdom. If I did, I misplaced them somewhere...typical.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Thursday, June 03, 2010
In all fairness, I cannot critique the book because I have not read it. Nor would I lightly enter into a debate with someone as highly credentialed and educated as Ehrman. So please understand this is not an overt criticism of the book or the man since I am unqualified to offer either.
However, the idea intrigues me. (And please, forgive me--I am "thinking out loud"). Is suffering God's problem? And is Christianity required to account for suffering? Is Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Atheism required to account for the existence of suffering? Do these worldviews offer a better explanation than Christianity or Judaism?
When I finally obtain a copy of the book, I will be interested in whether Dr. Ehrman addresses Eastern European, Indian, Asian, or African Christian approaches to suffering or if he merely deals with American Evangelical Christianity's attempt to explain suffering. To be honest, our grasp of suffering seems a bit sheltered: perhaps American Christianity does not have the most mature perspective on the topic. If his critique is centered on American Christianity then he may have a good argument. Of course, if that is his approach then it wouldn't be quite fair to label this as "Christianity's failure"--the brush would be too broad.
I think the problem we face is this idea that somehow we are obligated to explain suffering. Perhaps this is part of our Greco-Roman-Western-Modern mindset that seems to demand we wrap everything up in a neat package that can be categorized and explained. Suffering will not allow such attempts.
The writer of Job presents us with a cosmic bet between the satan and God. But Job is never given an explanation: only questions from God. (Questions, I might add, that subtly hint at God's love for all of his creation). Qoholet the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that life from our perspective under the sun is quite meaningless. Time is monotonous ("a time for this, a time for that, a time for this, a time for that..."), injustice occurs, we get old and die, we are forgotten, and even our heirs will sometimes waste what we've spent a life time to build. Rather than explain it all he simply says: visit the house of death often, work hard, enjoy life, trust God.
One thing we do know from the biblical text is that suffering rarely has to do with whether one is pleasing to God or not. In fact, the text clearly tells us even God suffers and is grieved. We see this ultimately played out in the suffering of the Messiah.
God suffers. We suffer.
Is it fair? No. Not in every case (although we all know of individuals who suffer from their own foolish choices--so, yes, in some cases suffering is fair).
Do the unjust seem to win?
Do those who refuse to trust in God, who cheat and steal, who unjustly oppress others enjoy wealth, health, and prosperity?
I can't. But neither can other world religions or world views--at least not with any satisfaction.
Some world views suggest there is no such thing as suffering. All is illusory.
Right. (So how does an experience that is apparently universal and common equate to something illusory? The fact we experience, discuss, and struggle with something we label as suffering indicates its existence.)
Others suggest evil and good are merely two sides of the same coin. So, in fact, there is no such of a thing as good or evil. So, again, suffering is somewhat illusory.
That really helps.
Some religions suggest God judges evil and those who sin with suffering and rewards the righteous with health, wealth, and prosperity.
That fits with reality, doesn't it?
Atheism says we're all just animals anyway. Suffering just is, there is nothing you can do about it. The best you can do is just try to enjoy life as long as you can before you can't anymore. There is no justice, no injustice, no good, no evil because there is no ultimate source for determining good and evil (except for the biggest baddest man who is running things at the time).*
I feel better already.
But then the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures comes in the middle of suffering--he does point to the existence of evil as central to the problem of suffering, but not in a simplistic way. Ultimately he enters into suffering in the person of Jesus and says: "Trust me. I will walk you through this. I have experienced what you experience. I know what pain is. I also know what it means to trust in the middle of pain. There is a new day coming. All wrongs will be righted, creation healed, and the world set to rights."
Perhaps that isn't very satisfactory for some. But honestly, I can't think of any worldview that offers a better approach.
*I find it fascinating that while Atheism cannot point to objective good and evil (if there is no ultimate standard, how can there be objective good or evil?) and yet some atheists are quick to point to suffering and the existence of evil as "proof" that there is no God. They judge some things as evil and as atrocities and unjust, but to label things thus require an ultimate, objective standard.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
“What a great thing that could've been for the world to have. Too many times, a gifted person comes along, and we automatically make them a role model. Inevitably, they end up doing something to let us down. The truth is, though, that those were never the role models we needed. The role models we need are the people who let us down first, and then show the strength and character to fight back from that.I am sick and tired of hearing about Tiger Woods. Refreshingly the quote above was not particularly about Tiger Woods but about the untimely death of Chris Henry, the 26 year old wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sooner or later, we're all going to let somebody down. We're all going to screw up. But life is about how you come back from it, how you learn from it and how you use it to make yourself a better, stronger person.” –Matthew J. Darnell, sports blog writer Shut Down Corner (Yahoo Sports Blog)
I know nothing about the young man except that for most of his life right up to this year, he was a rogue and everything but a role model. However, from what I've read, he was trying to get his act together and walk a different path. Whether he was actually progressing isn't really the point. And the truth is, we will never know.
Sports writer Darnell makes a well timed observation during the current circus surrounding Tiger Woods and his infidelities. To those who placed Tiger on such a pedestal and now are lining up to attack and shake their heads in disappointment: Why did you ever place him so high to begin with? Have we forgotten Magic Johnson? Or Wilt Chamberlain? Or any number of bad boy sports figures and entertainers who follow their own whims rather than society mores?
How many people react as strongly when they hear about the latest Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan escapade? Do people raise their eyebrows much when a Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie misbehave?
"Well what do you expect? They're entertainers."
Very good. So is Tiger Woods. So are all sports stars.
The problem is not so much with the bad behavior (which, don't misunderstand me: is bad behavior--I have no sympathy for Tiger's predicament: he brought it on himself) as much as it is with our mad dash to place people on pedestals so quickly. Tiger Woods is an amazing example of discipline in the area of hitting a little white ball with a stick. Why did we ever equate that with a high level of moral standards or integrity?
Our problem is our own idolization of celebrities and success.
How many of us idolize the little old man down the street who did his job every day, sent his kids to school, and remained faithful to his wife for over 50 years? How many of us idolize our fathers, or mothers, or uncles, or other significant adults who have shaped our lives in so many profound ways?
Those are the ones who belong on pedestals. Not because they looked good or became famous. But because they worked their way to the top of that column by loving the people in their lives, treating others with respect, and maintaining dignity.
Not that they were perfect. No one ever is, as Darnell so eloquently put it. But they got back up and they kept going. They got upset with their spouses, but they made up and kept going. They sometimes made great mistakes as parents, but they did the best they could and kept going.
These are our heroes, our mentors, our celebrities. They deserve it, but they are rarely recognized for it. Instead, they hear us go on about the latest sports hero or entertainer as if he was the greatest human being alive. They smile to themselves and keep on going, doing what they've always done: lived good, decent lives.
Thank you to my mentors: My 90 year old father who spent his life caring for his kids and other people and in the final years of her life, my mother. Mrs. Lillian Cohagen, my old drama coach and English teacher who showed me what excellence was and encouraged me like no other teacher. Lynn Anderson, a mentor who showed me that caring for people was more important than any success. My friend and mentor, Gary Ealy who taught me how to serve people and really study the Bible in such a way that made sense. These are just a few. There are too many to name. Who are those role models worth following in your life? If they are still alive, tell them "thank you"!
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
The 2009 curriculum was finished in February. In June I received a call to go to Ukraine and experience the camps first hand. Eastern European Missions (EEM) wanted me to write the 2010 curriculum and they felt it was important enough for me to see the work "on the ground".
Monday, June 01, 2009
Throughout the years sexuality has been fearfully suppressed and recklessly expressed by extreme groups. Some very prudish religionists and philosophers have insisted the body is evil and therefore it should be deprived and otherwise punished for being such a bad kid. Pagan and Christian groups have fallen into the trap of seeing the body as a wild thing needed to be whipped into shape and deprived of basic desires.
Since you put off the spiritual forces of the world by dying with Christ, why do you continue to submit to its rules as if you were still part of that system: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules are part of a scheme that is destined to perish—they are based on human wisdom and commands. Such rules seem to be wise with their self-imposed worship, false humility and harsh treatment of the body—but they really are useless when it comes to restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23, The Message)
You know the old saying, 'First you eat to live, and then you live to eat'? … that's no excuse for stuffing your body with food, or indulging it with sex. Since the Master honors you with a body, honor him with your body! … remember that your bodies are created with the same dignity as the Master's body. You wouldn't take the Master's body off to a whorehouse, would you? I should hope not. There's more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, "The two become one." Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never "become one." There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for "becoming one" with another. Or didn't you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don't you see that you can't live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body. (1 Corinthians 6:13-20 The Message)
Do you love me?I’m your wife!I know, but do you love me?Do I love him?For twenty-five years I've lived with himFought him, starved with him.Twenty-five years my bed is hisIf that's not love, what is?Then you love me?I suppose I do.And I suppose I love you, too.It doesn’t change a thing, but even so,after twenty-five years,it’s nice to know…
Monday, May 11, 2009
You feel the earth beneath your feet.
It gives you comfort, not like the silver
cigars in the air. Oh, you know
the odds. But just the same, you like
the feel of solid ground. And that
is who you are.
sun baked face, dirt under nail,
lungs that fill with the sweet musty smell
of pine and manure
Those cracked, calloused hands
have seen enough abuse for ninety
years, but not so much they cannot
gently cradle a grandchild's hand
as you wander the fields together, or mend
the broken wings of those made for flight.
Poem by Darryl Willis in honor of Park Willis
Thursday, April 30, 2009
IT IS A GOOD THING to learn early that God and suffering are not opposites but rather one and the same thing and necessarily so; for me, the idea that God himself suffers is far and away the most convincing piece of Christian doctrine.—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
A THEOLOGY that embraces the idea that God cannot suffer has to answer the question: Can God love? Abraham Heschel rightly said that the essence of Hebraic prophetic faith is that God takes the people of his covenantal love so seriously that he suffers for their actions.—Dennis Ngien, in Christianity Today
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND suffering. My experience of suffering is limited in the extreme. I have lost grandparents, a parent, and some close friends. I have watched my father suffering in trauma ICU and I have wept for months, so afraid that he would never be able to care for himself again, that he might become incapable of memory or understanding. I have lost jobs twice. I have gone almost a year without a job and wondered if I would lose everything. I have been insulted by people about whom I cared little. I've had my share in back stabbings from people I thought I could trust. I have been in far too many arguments with my wife and we have hurt each other with our words.
Even so, these experiences do not count to me as suffering. I have sat with parents who have had their hearts broken in two by rebellious children. I have sat with teenagers and children as they cried over the death of a parent, a nasty divorce, or as they struggled with self-destructive impulses. I have performed funeral services for children. I have sat in the hospital while friends went through incredibly painful and dangerous procedures. I have drank coffee with people who were fighting for their very lives against the cancer that was eating them from the inside.
But these have happened to others, not to me.
I do not understand suffering, and I have so much to learn. At times I feel strangely removed. And yet, and yet--I know I will not escape the bone crushing and chilling grasp forever. I am human and I am all too aware of my destined embrace with this spectre.
So I am reluctant to speak of suffering since I have been so sheltered. I know advice and cliches are easy to dispense but worse than useless--they can be downright harmful.
What I have discovered in my reading of the Bible is that God offers no answers, either. He never explained to Job why he suffered. Naomi never was given a satisfactory answer as to why her husband and sons had to die in Moab.
God never tells the Israelites why he allowed them to stay 400 years in Egyptian slavery. In fact, for most of the first two chapters of Exodus, representing 400 years, there is little mention of God.
What he does say to Moses is: "I know their suffering."
This is the word yadah--a word which means intimate experience. In the old King James Version you may remember statements like: "And Adam knew his wife and she conceived..." It is the same word.
Interestingly enough the first two chapters of Exodus poses an unvoiced question: "Where are you God? Who are you God? Do you even care?"
By the end of the book the questions are answered in quite mysterious ways. God tells Pharaoh through a series of plauges (three sets of three with a tenth plague that stands alone in its fierceness): "You will know who I am. You will know I am in the land. You will know there is no god like me." At the end of the book we see the elaborate plans for a tent that is to be erected in the center of the Israelite camp where this God will dwell. We are also confronted with the presence of this God in the form of a cloud-pillar by day and a blazing fire by night leading the Israelites on.
All of this to say: "In this symbolic representation of fire, cloud, and tent you will see me where I have always been: in your midst. Do you want to know where I've been during your suffering? I've been right in the middle of it all of this time. I know your suffering because I've suffered it with you. I've walked with you.."
This same language is used to describe the coming of Jesus in the gospel of John: "He made his dwelling among us" is literally "he set up his tent, he 'tabernacled' in our midst." In Isaiah: "He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief." In Hebrews: "He learned obedience through the things he suffered."
He does not tell us "why". What he does tell us is: "I am here to suffer with you."
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I am called, today.
The sun lights your kindness in the sky.
I praise you, my Father
and lift your name on high.
Your mercy and your love
lights the hope within my eye—
O holy One
O blessed Son
You are the One who gives
the sunshine and the darkness in my life.
But even in the night-time
I know I cannot hide
from your mercy and your grace
and the care that you provide.
The life you give:
a gift to live.
I place my life, my all—
body, soul and spirit in your hands.
I’ll live for you, my Father
and follow your commands.
A full, self-sacrifice
is all that grace demands.
To die for you
is life anew.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
I have been talking, of course, about a dualism that manifests itself in several ways; it is a cleavage, a radical discontinuity, between Creator and creature, spirit and matter, religion and nature, religion and economy, worship and work, etc. This dualism, I think is the most destructive disease that afflicts us. In its best known, its most dangerous, and perhaps its fundamental version, it is the dualism of body and soul. This is an issue as difficult as it is important, and so to deal with it we should start at the beginning.
The crucial test is probably Genesis 2:7, which gives the process by which Adam was created: "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul." My mind, like most people's, has been deeply influenced by dualism, and I can see how dualistic minds deal with this verse. They conclude that the formula for man-making is: man = body + soul. But that conclusion cannot be derived, except by violence, from Genesis 2:7, which is not dualistic. The formula given in Genesis is not man = body + soul; the formula there is soul = dust + breath. According to this verse, God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; by breathing his breath into it, he made the dust live. Insofar as it lived, it was a soul. The dust, formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul. "Soul" here refers to the whole creature. Humanity is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discrete parts temporarily glued together, but as a single mystery.