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

Coffee Cup Theology

It has been a very long time since I've made a blog entry on "Thoughts To Ponder"! I intend on leaving this site set up for those interested in my older articles. However, I have decided to move my blogging to the following site: Coffee Cup Theology. Please be certain to check the Coffee Cup Theology blog out for newer materials!


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Suffering Revisited

Recently I have run across the title and brief summary of a book about suffering. It is called God's Problem by Bart D. Ehrman. The brief summary reads "bestselling author...chronicles Christianity's faith-shattering failure to account for suffering."

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?


How can you explain it?

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

Role Models

“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.

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 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.

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

Back from Ukraine

It has been almost two weeks since I have returned from my three week stay in Ukraine. I have been hesitant to describe my experience because it is impossible to describe adequately. No number of pictures or video clips or stories can do justice to the experience. But those of you who know me know very well I am not gifted in the discipline of silence!

My wife wondered why out of all my pictures there were very few pictures of places and locations. They are mostly pictures of people. There are a couple of reasons. One reason is I find people much more fascinating and lovely than inanimate objects. Secondly these are people who touched my life in some way.
Why did I go? Last December (2008) I was asked to consider writing curriculum for teams of Americans to use to teach values in the Pioneer Youth Camps of Ukraine. These are secular camps--at one time the communist youth camps. There are over 800 camps throughout the country and I believe 2 million children participate in them every summer. Eastern European Missions are allowed to send teams of Americans to some of these camps to teach. The camp directors ask the teams to teach values, conservation/ecology, patriotism, and American culture.

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".

I will be forever in the debt of EEM for sending me. The experience was life changing. The team I joined was well led by a couple of college guys from Lubbock Christian University named Gabe and Brian. They are talented leaders who acted like old pros at the game. I was awed by their discipline and work.

We worked with two camps. One, Camp Baby Eagle, was composed of children from a variety of backgrounds. They were kids who had families and friends. These children were as sophisticated as any kid in America. The other camp was across the road and it was filled with "orphans." The orphans in Ukraine are similar to the orphans in America. They are not necessarily without parents. Their parents may have abandoned them or are in prison or are drug addicts and alcoholics. These children are desperate for love. One little girl named Valyah attached herself to me and asked, "Can I be in your family?"

Children are children the world over. They were excited for us to be there. They were willing to get to know us, to seek us out, and to befriend us. We in turn taught two hours a day and spent the rest of the time hanging out with the kids, watching their programs, playing sports with them, and attempting to communicate. After our two week camp stay, there were not many dry eyes among campers or Americans!

For me, the closest relationships developed were with our wonderful team of translators. These young men and women worked tirelessly and did everything they could to make us feel welcome. They took their jobs very seriously and conducted themselves as members of the same team, willing not only to translate but to discuss ideas for improvement and communication with the kids. They shared their very lives with the children and with us as we talked with each other about our own home towns, families, and friends.

I felt as if I had found some long lost children. I hope they think of me as fondly as I think of them! Pictured here are the translation team. They are (front row l-to-r) Nastya, Polina, Vika, (second row) Vika, Marina, Sveta, Katerina (Kate), and Katyana (yellow shirt) and (last row) Dema, Anton, and Valya. Every one of them added their own beautiful personality and gift to the mixture. Each one was a gift to us. I hope to return next year, and I pray we will all meet again.

I just don't believe you'll find a more gifted and dedicated group of young people anywhere.

My translator, Marina (on the left), reminded me so much of my own daughter. She and her friend, Sveta (holding the flag) became my dear friends. We were dinner partners, teaching partners, even lemon-eating partners! (You'll have to ask me about that some time). They taught me so much about their own Orthodox faith and Ukrainian customs. I call them my "Ukrainian daughters" and they have graciously condescended to refer to me as their American "Papa". It is an honor I cherish. When I told my wife we had some new children her response was, "Ok. Am I supposed to be surprised?" (Too bad I don't have any sons, I would have seriously considered doing some match-making!)

The Bible was our source material for teaching character traits. Bible stories were the core of each lesson. We also gave away Children's Bibles, "Teen Bibles", and hard bound Bibles (for adults) all in the Russian language. (Any adult or teenager who wanted also received Mike Armour's book and workbook A Beginner's Guide to the Bible). The children loved their Bibles and were eager to start reading them as soon as they received them. We made certain the counselors, staff, and director of the camp received a copy of all of these materials, too.
Our ultimate hope and mission is the word of God will have its effect. So often we get tied up in trying to argue with people and convince them of our "rightness." The truth is, we could be wrong. Our opinions and interpretations may miss God's ultimate point. But the Bible, without commentary, is powerful and effective. Those who seriously search for God will find him through these pages. He will make himself available to be found. And what better gift is there to give, than the gift of a Bible?
Not all of our time was spent at the camp. The first week of the three weeks was spent in the city of Donetsk where we acclimated ourselves to the culture, engaged in "team building" with our translators, and donated ten hospital beds and bed stands to the local Pediatric Cardiac Hospital. That is a story in and of itself I would like to share sometime. But for now I am done.
My prayer is for the Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. My prayer is not a prayer of condescension as if I somehow have more knowledge or a better perspective. My prayer is for God's blessing on these beautiful people. My prayer is that God will change our hearts to recognize how we live in a world, not just a nation, of God's precious people. We are brothers and sisters. We are God's creation. There are no superiors or inferiors. We are together God's poema--his handiwork, his masterpiece.
The world is our family.

Monday, June 01, 2009

It's Better To Wait For The Conductor's Cue

Maybe The Conductor and Composer Know The Music Better Than You Do

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.
Paul, a first century writer, reprimanded a group of Christians for buying into their local pagan superstitions when he wrote to them:
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)
The theology of the body and the creation according to Hebrew and Christian writings is: all of creation is good. In fact, the creation of human sexuality is “very good” (Genesis 1). The original “not good” is human loneliness (Genesis 2).
But the other side of “the-body-is evil-and-the-spirit-is-good” coin is: what the body does will not affect the spirit or mind. So, allow the body to do what it wants. Again Paul confronts this idea in a letter he wrote to a particularly wild town called Corinth:
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)
It is unfortunate that some have been led to believe Christianity condemns the physical and especially sexual activity. The fact Christian teaching insists sexual intercourse should be relegated to marriage does not mean Christians view sex as dirty or the body as evil. Although some Christians may have been guilty of being overly repressed and silly, Christian thinking celebrates sexuality. Believing sexual intercourse should be reserved for marriage is not prudish, nor is it a condemnation of sex in general.
Paul’s argument above is a wonderful example of how sex is viewed as holy and precious. It is meant to be fully expressed and enjoyed in an environment designed to protect it from misuse and an environment that will protect the participants: a relationship bound by a solemn promise of commitment and loyalty. In modern society the solemn promise is reinforced as a binding and legal contract. Penalties for breaking the contract are set in place in order to protect all parties and to discourage divorce. Ancient societies also held marriage as something to be protected with the force of law.
This is not to say marriage is a perfect environment. Part of being human is the ability to lie, steal, cheat, and abuse. As long as humans are involved contracts and covenants will be abused, ignored, and broken. Such does not invalidate the use of contracts or covenants. The purpose of covenants and contracts is ideally to protect those who can be abused. If there are great injustices associated with divorce the answer is not to do away with marriage but to find a better way to enforce contractual obligations. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”
If the choice is to live in a society without contracts where everyone lives according to their feelings at the moment or to live in a society that demands contracts and enforces them to protect innocent parties, then give me the latter.
“Sexual intercourse: a fully human activity”
Some feel sexual intercourse has been put too high on a pedestal and that is part of the problem. “Sex is just a human thing.” Perhaps there is a danger that the pitch just can’t follow the wind up. And there are those who set themselves up with an impossible expectation only to be severely disappointed. However, labeling something as human doesn’t necessarily make it ordinary or less powerful. The day sex becomes “ordinary” is the day I’m talking with a counselor or getting medication!
If by saying sex is a human thing I justify sexual intercourse outside of marriage, then I think I’ve made a fundamental mistake. Sex is human and it is a part of life and living. However, sex is also a very canine thing, feline thing, equine thing, bovine, porcine…so what? What does that justify or not justify? And there are a lot of things which are very human too: selfishness, conceit, rudeness, genocide, and picking your nose in public. The point is simply: acknowledging something as human behavior does not validate said behavior.
Just what does it mean to be human, anyway? What does it mean to celebrate my human and natural urges? Well, I suppose it could mean to use the bathroom in my pants. Before you snigger or stand aghast at my rude analogy think about it. Using the bathroom in one’s pants is so natural that potty training is often an act of war (if you’ve never had children you cannot understand).
Here’s an alternative question: Does being human mean to be capable of self-discipline and control? Animals are generally not self-controlled. They operate on pure instinct—on their feelings if you like. Humans have the ability to be self-controlled. Is it unnatural to be self-controlled? Yes (remember potty training?). Is it inhuman? No. It represents the best of humanity (ask any artist or musician).
When I am self controlled, I don’t lash out in anger—even though lashing out feels good. When I am self-controlled, I don’t take what is not mine. When I am self-controlled I can perform acts of generosity that will not particularly benefit me—that might even cause bodily deprivation or injury to myself. When I am self-controlled I don’t sleep around with any and everyone. When I am self-controlled I can actually say: “I will wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse.
Transcending Human Behavior
Personally I want to transcend natural human behavior.
Natural human behavior is self-centered and selfish. I want to be a person who loves. Love is so complex the Greeks had four words for it: eros (sexual attraction and sexual contact), storge (familial loyalty), phileo (affection—feelings—and friendship), and agape (unselfish action towards others). I would argue one could enter into marriage without affection or feelings and still end up with a fantastic marriage where the sex actually strengthens the bond! It happened all the time in ancient cultures where marriages were arranged and the bride and groom didn’t even know each other. This is still practiced in many oriental cultures today. From my understanding the divorce rate is very low for arranged marriages. (I would add one could also enter into marriage with great affection, feelings, and sex and end up with a terrible marriage).
It’s a fiction I know: but I can’t help but think of Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof:
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 him
Fought him, starved with him.
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If 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…
What an expression of love: commitment and action.
Love is more action than feeling—in spite of our popular culture. Jesus tells us to “love your enemies” he doesn’t say “feel affectionate toward them.” Love means to live for the ultimate good of another. You seek what is in that person’s best interest: not what is in your best interest. Check out 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 as a definition—they are all actions. Are you rude to your girlfriend? How can you claim to love her? Are you self-centered when it comes to your boyfriend? Are you easily angered? Are you jealous? Do you always seek your own desires and your own ways? Do you trust your boy/girlfriend, believe him or her, persevere in the relationship? If you don’t then you’d better re-evaluate your love.
The “difficulty” with sex is it is so pleasant, so exciting, so…you get the idea…that it is difficult to determine whose best interests I have in mind; and whether pleasing someone sexually is truly in that person’s best interest. For many guys it is difficult to separate our own sense of pleasure from anything else.
In the same way from my discussions with many teenage girls (and older girls and women) there is a desire to try to do anything to please the guy they are with out of their own personal need for security, a male image (from a negative, absent, or negligent father image), or just the need to feel wanted. Is that love or self-interest? Could it be a form of manipulation in order to receive security (or whatever it is I want). Granted it isn’t as crass and cold as all of that—and I am speaking in broad generalities.
The truth is when it comes to sex we rarely step back and say: Whoa! Why am I doing this? It is so difficult to be objective with ourselves. That is why controlling one’s behavior and sexual craving is important: using our minds to discipline our bodies.
In actuality, if I value discipline and view sex as a beautiful expression of love to be reserved for the person I love enough to commit myself for life to—then I will set it as a goal and I will exercise discipline to control my natural and normal desire until I have made the life time, irrevocable commitment to my mate. Holding such values have served us well in the past and are certainly worth a try today.
Sexual compatiblity
Honestly, I’m a bit frustrated with the talk of “sexual compatibility.” Can anyone define that for me? “We need to find out if we are sexually compatible.” What does that mean? Do you honestly think the physiology of sex works differently from one human to the other? And how long does it take to figure that out: just once, twice, a year or two?
I believe this “sexually compatible” argument is a load of rubbish merely used to justify sex before marriage. Where are the studies showing sexual compatibility is truly an issue in the early years of marriage? The truth is most often everyone has different rhythms and you work that out with your mate through the years of marriage. As you get older those rhythms will change (whether you lived together before marriage or not). You won’t get to figure that out until mid-life/menopause and after!
Here’s an idea for couples who want to find out about each other…
Divorces do not usually center on sex (well there are exceptions—but they are the exceptions). Most divorces occur over money problems.
With that in mind here’s an idea: instead of moving in together and having sex together—why don’t you just have joint bank accounts and own property jointly to see if you are compatible financially? Now that would be a way to measure if you’re marriage material. Oh wait; that would be a major commitment that could cause legal issues if you try to leave the relationship… oh yeah…maybe it really isn’t about trying to find out about each other after all.
And if you really want to find out about your potential partner. Instead of moving in with each other, move in with his or her parents! How they react to people and each other will tell you much more about your partner than you’ll ever discover in a sexual encounter.
Premarital sex has little to do with discovering compatibility.
The Conductor’s Cue
I’m not a musician. But I do know some things about music. The argument has been presented to me that premarital sex is like singing your own song rather than following the norms forced upon you by society, or religion, or whomever. But the analogy breaks down. When you write your own music, you still follow the basic rules of music. You still follow a scale and a chord progression that makes sense. And, while some experiments have been called “bold” and “inventive”, for society at large those “bold” and “inventive” songs never become popular because most humans recognize discordant sounds as unpleasant, chaotic, and meaningless.
And isn’t that the point anyway? Sex or music without any form of discipline or standards eventually digresses to a state of chaos and meaninglessness. While humans can live with many paradoxes and mysteries—they cannot live without meaning.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Poets who read their own poems have other bad habits, part 2

Made For Flight

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

Poets reading their own poetry have other bad habits


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

Wendell Berry on Dualism

I ran across the following quote from Wendell Berry. Berry gives a very clear description of the Biblical understanding of the nature of man. American Christianity has been so unduly influenced by Greek dualism that we have a hard time understanding the nature of man, the concept of resurrection, and the importance of the creation in God's economy and God's eternal plans. The following comes from , Christianity and the Survival of Creation:
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.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Those Who Fear To Share

Lynn Anderson passed this you tube on to me. Check it out:

The message is powerful. But I'll let it speak for itself.