Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Job and Jesus at the Dump: Suffering Part 2

There's an epic moment at the end of Toy Story 3. (Don't judge my current movie and media references, I have young kids, my wife is pregnant, and I now drive a minivan.)

Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and their entire network of toy heroes are about to be consumed by a fiery furnace at the local dump. While at the top of the trash heap, they brace themselves for inevitable destruction on the heals of their greatest adventure to date.

They no longer speak.

They have surrendered their visions of some sort of dramatic escape.

They know there are no plans for Toy Story 4 and so have lost all hope.

As their garbage pile moves closer and closer to the edge, the friends silently link arms, grasp hands, and gaze into each other's eyes as a final digital display of solidarity.

A pretty dark and dramatic moment for a kid's flick.

It's also what came to mind when I thought of another story whose characters suffer in silence upon different trasheap of despair:

"Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes...Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering."

Job 2:7-13 (The Message)

This ancient story reminds us sometimes there are no words in the face of death, dying, and human suffering. While we may be tempted to promote our carefully crafted theologies, unleash clever Christian cliches, and defend God and all related God speak we have been taught since childhood, there are moments when silence is best.

I only wish Job's friends would've stopped there. I wish they would've ended with their decision to dump dirt on their heads and practice the presence of the God who hears more than speaks. I wish the three ancient theologians would've been willing to bypass rigid quests for certainty and reason and embrace mystery in the midst of a friend's misery.

I wish they would've remained silent.

But I'm glad Job didn't. I'm grateful for the pages that turn rather quickly as Job confronts the very God who has apparently permitted his agony, which will never sit well with me. I am grateful Job gives vocabulary to the emotions I have felt in moments of anguish. Job even permits us to challenge God's (lack of) involvement or concern. I am grateful Job freely vocalizes his rage. I am grateful God listens, too.

I am also grateful for another dump of despair outside Jerusalems city limits:

"The soldiers brought Jesus to Golgotha, meaning "Skull Hill." They offered him a mild painkiller (wine mixed with myrrh), but he wouldn’t take it. And they nailed him to the cross. They divided up his clothes and threw dice to see who would get them...At noon the sky became extremely dark. The darkness lasted three hours. At three o’clock, Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Mark 15:22-24, 33-34 (The Message)

We frequently look to the cross as a symbol for the sin of the world. We see the crucifixion as synonymous with other words like forgiveness and atonement.

But what about the cross as a witness to a God who not only saves but also suffers and dies? What about Golgotha, a trash heap on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as another Job-like encounter with the garbage of death, dying, and a world caught within the grips of evil and injustice?

What about the cross as a grand mystery that dares us to sit in silence and ponder the meaning of the Messiah's most difficult question, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

There are enough people ready and willing to respond to a suffering world with pat answers, carefully-constructed statements, and well-intentioned theological systems. But I wonder, are there even more willing either to sit in silence alongside those who grieve, crucifying a lust for controlled rationale or still more faithful enough to venture alongside others who suffer in silence and pray for someone to speak up as advocates for their deliverance.

Teenagers seem to have a knack for this sort of ambiguous confrontation with pain and heartache.*

Maybe that's because they have a hunch that this is what the cross is all about. Maybe they know this is what it means to carry one in a world with more than a fair share of Golgothas.

Still, Job and Jesus at the dump are not overcome by darkness. If we linger in the story long enough we encounter a God who carries and buries the sufferings of this world in the cross of Christ. God doesn't bury our suffering so to dismiss, hide, or increase divine apathy and ignorance. Rather, like a careful and confident gardener, God plants the seeds of our sorrows in the soil of God's promise with full awareness that in time new life can and will sprout.

This will be true for all of us, indeed true of all creation.

But until that day, sometimes all we can do is sit by the dirt and quietly wait.

Or get our hands dirty and plant seeds of justice and peace.

But we clasp our hands and wait nonetheless.


Related Links and Books

On Job by Gustavo Gutierrez

Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain by Frederick Buechner

Is God to Blame? By Gregory Boyd

Why Does Life Hurt So Much Sometimes? Suffering Part 1

*"Let me suggest with total inaccuracy that the word adolescent is made up of the Latin preposition ad, meaning 'toward,' and the Latin noun dolor, meaning 'pain.' Thus 'adolescent' becomes a term that designates human beings who are in above all else a painful process, more specifically those who are in the process ofdiscovering pain itselfoftrying somehow to come to terms with pain, to figure out how to deal with pain, not just how to survive pain but how to turn it to some human and creative use in their own encounters with it. Thus adolescents, as in the official etymology, are ones who are growing to be sure but who, in terms of my spurious etymology, are growing in this one specific area of human experience."

Frederick Buechner, "Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain"

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why Does Life Hurt So Much Sometimes? (Suffering Part 1)

My dream snuffed out again. The 30-plus year wait prolonged for at least one more.

Swept away were my hopes and visions of a much craved celebration with friends and family.

That's right, baseball season came to an abrupt conclusion when the chirpy Royals took four straight from my beloved Orioles.

My suffering as a lifelong and borderline idolatrous Orioles fan continues and I often wonder if my mourning will ever turn to dancing.

That last line was a little over the top. You can even say it may be insensitive and trivialize real suffering.

But it did hurt to see my hometown team go down the way they did.

But it didn't hurt in the same way as so many other bouts with suffering and grief.

Not even close.

While I could begin to craft an endless blog about real experiences and periods of suffering and despair, a post that would look more like a theatrical monologue cleverly crafted so to tug at your heart strings, I'm not sure that would be helpful. I have all-too-often been frustrated by the overdramatization of human experience in efforts to generate intended human responses, or worse, religious encounters and confessions.

But what I can say is that whether it's been conflicted relationships, death of loved ones, financial strain, vocational uncertainty, or bleak personal health diagnosis or the same of family members- even a child diagnosed with a chronic illness- suffering has not escaped me.

That said, I have had more than enough walks in parks and spur of the moment car rides when I have hashed it out with God. Just ask the trees in Goose Creek Park or the steering wheel of my Honda CR-V.

Yes, this youth pastor has had more than one verbal sparring match with the One who made all things. These are the moments when my faith is not so much strongest, but certainly most raw and honest. These are some of my purest, albeit colorful and brash, prayers. And what I love most about these encounters is how God doesn't respond to my rhetoric with ridicule or reason, explanation or false hope. God lets me go, cry, scream, and even accuse God of not responding. God listens and God hears when I can't stop asking, "why does life hurt so much sometimes?"

What we are really talking about when we ask this question is suffering. We are talking about death. And not only being buried kind of death. I read this the other day,

"If death had a Facebook profile its interests would not only be putting people in the grave but also killing their dreams, their loves, their peace, their dignity." (Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair xii).

Death is not only about being six-feet under and in a box. Death also lurks around in the forms of life sucking experiences of sorrow and despair. Death shows up when we feel alone even though we are surrounded by peers in the school cafeteria. Death shows up when a kid is given a sudden nudge in the hallway as a reminder that his or her classmates don't really value who they are. Death shows up when we have more than we can handle with schedules, exams, pressures of academics and athletics, even church, making us feel like we are never doing enough. Death shows up when we read about wars and disease, from Isis to Ebola. Death shows up when kids are diagnosed with both curable and terminal cancer. Death shows up when we lose our jobs and can no longer pay the mounting medical bills or student loans. Death shows up when we fight with parents, children, spouses, or closest friends. Death shows up when our dreams for ______ fail to come true.

Death, yes, also shows up in dying and the loss of loved ones.

You could say death not only has a lot of Facebook interests, but also a lot of friends and followers.

So life hurts sometimes. A lot. And when it does, the tired cliches and Christian catch phrases are no help. At least not for me.

"God let this happen for a reason..."

"God is trying to teach you something through this."

"You just got to pray harder and trust stronger."

"God has a perfect plan."

"God is in control."

There may be some truth to some of this, although I struggle with most if not all of them, but when we are face to face with the monsters of death and despair, in any and all of their ugly forms, religious cliches and photoshopped memes don't offer much hope. They actually dismiss suffering and become toxic distractions. They are like drugs that give us a cheap and false high that pulls us out of real life, even for just a moment, only to be let down when we come out of it.

So what does the Bible have to say about suffering, despair and death? Better, what does the Jesus story tell us about how God responds to the monster of despair and dying we face all too often?

I think the Lazarus story is one of the best places to look in John 11.

"This illness does not lead to death...but so that God can be glorified." Jesus' initial response irks me. I think it bothered the disciples, too. Did God allow the death of a friend to happen for some sort of narcissistic reason to affirm God's insecure status as king of all kings? Doubtful. I wonder if Jesus is merely reminding us that even the worst of suffering God can and often does redeem and birth new life. Jesus may be able, unlike this blogging youth pastor and all my fellow humans, to see both the forrest and the trees.

Still I don't find this particularly helpful and, when I was told my three-year-old daughter has juvenile arthritis, talk of God's glory was not where my brain or heart went.

It probably will never go there.

But I don't doubt that somehow God is and can be glorified in the midst of suffering like this. I just believe God's glory comes not through sadistic divine and predetermined plans but through varied forms of a chaotic and redemptive nevertheless.

"He stayed there two days..." Why the delay? It's no wonder the disciples were confused, but Jesus knew despair is not and would refuse to be the end. While I wish God worked on my clock, God doesn't. But that doesn't mean God is not still working. God is always on the move and especially laboring for the sake of all those who suffer. So while God may appear slow, and frankly you can't convince me otherwise, we trust that while two days of waiting for our own Lazarus deliverance may be long, the third and fourth days are coming. Both the resurrection of Lazarus and the empty tomb of Jesus are reminders of death's great eviction notice. The stench of despair will soon be no more and the world will be delivered and once and for all restored.

"But let us go to him..." Jesus enters into the suffering of others and runs towards those who are caught in death's grip. We are to do and be the same. While we may be tempted to buy bigger rugs, so the hurt and pain can be more easily tucked away, Jesus lifts up the dusty throw and shakes out the grief. God's people are even dared to expose all forms of death and dying as we carry our cross alongside those who lay in the wake of destruction, despair, oppression, conflict, and shattered dreams.

"I am resurrection and life..." The reality is that Lazrus did eventually die, again. I am not sure what would've hurt worse for his sisters, Lazarus' first or second final breath. It probably doesn't matter. What does count is the promise, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Death is not God's final word. Grave clothes are not our final attire. The stench of decay will eventually be overcome by the fragrance of a feast and the scent of celebration. Life will win out in the end, and not just for Lazarus. And if Jesus is the resurrection, we are to be those who point towards it and practice it as we follow him in a world with more than enough reasons to grieve.

"Jesus began to weep." God is not beyond empathy and feels our sufferings alongside us. God is not immovable and out of touch. As Andrew Root writes, "God knows death from the inside...God works life out of death; God brings possibility out of nothingness." (The Promise of Despair 86). God, much like a good friend or parent who has been there before and yet does not rush towards answers, reasons, or cheap religious cliches, when we are in our darkest hour, Jesus wraps his arm around us and cries with us. It's not right. God knows it's not right. And God refuses to quit acting until all is right and good again.

"I know that you always hear me..." God hears the prayers of suffering people. So while we may find it difficult to pray, Jesus has been praying with and for us and the broken world we inhabit. And when our prayers are raw, honest, are borderline disturbing and more accusatory than filled with gratitude, God hears them, too.

"Unbind him, and let him go." We are called to enter into the suffering of others, weep alongside them, and work towards their deliverance, too. Lazarus will die again, which means the mission of the church is to work towards his unbinding until the return of Christ and the whole world's liberation. The mission of the church is to share this news with the whole world, and sometimes the best way to share the message is not by words or kitschy cliches but to simply shed tears, too. After all, that's what Jesus did.

If I am confident of anything it's this: God does not cause suffering for some sort of sick and twisted plan to teach us a lesson or strengthen our faith. No. God enters into suffering and cries right alongside us, whispering hope and comfort until the day comes when there are no more reasons to weep, mourn, grieve, or lament.

Sometimes the best news to hear, or maybe feel, is that in Jesus God weeps. God cries. That's because God also feels and hears our prayers of pain and anguish.

That's the greatest message of the Lazarus story. It's actually the message of the cross of Christ. Jesus goes to the cross as a reminder that God never, not for one second, runs from human suffering. No. When we are at our darkest hour God dives in and weeps with us, sings alongside of us, and tilts our head upward to a cross and tomb both empty and a promise for resurrection and healing just over the horizon.

That's what keeps me going in the midst of so much suffering. That's what gives me hope and faith when life hurts so badly sometimes. That's what allows me to comfort others in their sorrow, too. A simple message, God is with you. God is here. Jesus, who was crucified and burried, who suffered and died, is the resurrection and the life.

The monsters of death and despair are not the end.

So, why does life hurt so much sometimes?

I don't know.

But it won't hurt forever.

But my longing for a World Series Championship, now that's another story.

Related Post:

Is God to Blame by Gregory Boyd: Unpolished and Unrefined Reflections

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reverse Mission: Real Mission Partnership Creates Opportunities to Flip the Script of Hospitality and Service

This past summer, we were in the backyard of Marlon and Diana's Guaimaca home when I experienced one of the more precious demonstrations of hospitality. The youth and leaders from our church were invited to lunch in their garden as Marlon and Diana's young son walked by me with his t-shirt curled into a pouch filled with fresh-picked starfruit. With eyes wide and grin even wider, Marlonito approached the table and unfolded the bottom of his shirt as starfruit rolled across and off the foldout tables. Our young host remembered from the previous summer how much his American friends enjoyed picking from their trees and tasting the best of Honduras' produce, so he was more than prepared for our visit this time around.

Hospitality and welcome was offered by the next generation of missional partnership.

Then there was last Monday. The dream had been realized of reversing mission and welcoming our friends from Honduras into our community as we were gathered in my living room. While we were chatting about this growing partnership, my son and daughter desperately wanted to take all of us out and show our guests around their stomping grounds. So like little pilgrims, my son and daughter lead us on one of their favorite adventures, briskly walking about twenty yards ahead of us and towards the creek behind our townhouse.

Noah and Lily had made their way into the woods, briefly out of sight, although their tiny footsteps and voices were sure to be heard in the neighboring town. As Marlon, Alex, and I drew closer we encountered a familiar display of hospitality and welcome. Noah's shirt, much like Marlonito's this past summer, had been curled up and filled to overflowing with gifts. But due to the lack of suburban vegetation, instead of starfruit he delivered walnuts. Noah had gathered as many of these "walnut balls" I recently introduced him and his sister to and handed them out, one-by-one, to his new friends from Honduras. "One for you and one for you and for you," he said to each visitor. Then he showed them how to throw nature's baseballs into the creek, each toss met with a jubilant "yes!"

I froze. I am pretty sure a few tears welled up and trickled out of my eyes. My son and daughter understood partnership. They understood friendship. They understood one of the most basic elements of mission and discipleship: sharing the joys, gifts, resources, and discoveries with one another. Marlonito knows this simple truth quite well, too.

Our children no longer knew Daddy's friends as abstract people. Honduras was no longer somewhere Daddy went every summer an airplane ride away. Honduras and the people who lived there were now their friends and family, too. Actually, my daughter claimed two of them were "her girls."

If I have learned anything from the Honduras Youth-to-Youth Missional partnership it is this: mission must be reversed if ever to become true partnership. If the church desires to move beyond paternalism and less-than dignified attempts to love and serve our neighbors in other parts of the world, we must be willing to extend invitations to our friends in these communities to serve and explore alongside us in our cities, neighborhoods, communities, and churches. We must be willing to return the favor of hosting and become recipients of those who are rarely offered a chance to visit where their American brothers and sisters practice the mission of God and witness of the church.

Real Christian mission must be willing to flip the script and exchange parts if partnership is truly the desired goal. Failure to do so will only further the "us and them" mentality. That's something neither I nor Marlon want for our children. Thanks be to God we have been able to expose them them to something different. I only pray our kids will one day be able to meet.

After all, they seem to understand partnership best.


I could write endlessly about our extended weekend together, which is no doubt a highlight of my 12 plus years in youth ministry. But I think the only way to come close to capturing the joy is through selected photos:

Samy, who has liked every youth event on Facebook, finally gets to attend!
Our youth greeting friends from Honduras at airport.

Hanging out with fellow youth leaders from Honduras, Alex (left) and Marlon (right)

Friday Night High School Football Game

Yes, they wanted to see the Rocky Steps

My son thinking he's just another Honduran teenager.

Serving at Broad Street Ministry

Alex sharing that our Souper Bowl Sunday Fundraiser has helped provide meals to over 350 families during a major drought this past August.

Participating in worship and signing a two-year covenant of partnership

Hanging out at my house

Apple picking at Highland Orchards

Click "Honduras Tab" for other related posts, most notably "Declaration of Interdependence" and "The Kingdom of God is Like Mango Trees in Guaimaca."