Category Archives: pain and suffering

“What do you do when your friends are rapists?”

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“What do you do when your friends are rapists?”  Is a question I ran across in a blog post written by Shane O’Leary on Theology Corner.  I have to admit to being both intrigued and horrified by what I read.

Shane does an excellent job of describing the inner-turmoil that everyone goes through when they’ve learned that someone they’ve known and trusted is accused of (or confesses to) something as heinous as rape.  The swirling fog of dissonance is real and it’s difficult to shake off and gain clarity.

I commend him for putting it out there, really – it’s an honest and accurate depiction of the wrestling match that goes on inside a person’s head.  “What should I do???”  But I was deeply saddened that he never answered his own question.

Shane offers three scenarios (I don’t know if they’re real recollections of actual events or if he made them up for the sake of the piece). Regardless of whether or not these particular stories are real, they are indicative of the kinds of real life scenarios that ordinary people might run into in the course of their own friendships.  Three women in three different settings are devastated by what “good guys” have done to them.  Three women’s lives are forever changed by the actions of “friends.”  Three moral dilemmas that Shane – and maybe you – faced where doing the “right” thing is eclipsed by doing the expedient thing, doing the loyal thing, or in fact, doing nothing at all.  In each of the three cases, Shane knows the rapist as a friend – not as a rapist.  The grappling with the truth of that horrible reality while at the same time trying to figure out what he should do in the face of it all (if, in fact, he should do anything at all) is the whole of the post.  I recommend reading the post yourself.  If nothing else, I hope it makes you think deeply about the times you’ve been faced with (or will be faced with) doing the right thing when it might cost you dearly.

I don’t know this author.  I’d like to think that his choice of leaving the questions unanswered was a stylistic decision purposefully used – to make his readers think, perhaps, or make them uncomfortable enough to ask the questions in their own circles of friendships or colleagues to try to find answers.  But it has become painfully clear that in the face of crisis, most of us don’t know what to do.  We might wrestle with the questions, but often we wrestle long enough that the opportunity to do anything at all passes and our de facto decision to do nothing has been made for us.  These are matters too serious to leave hanging in the thin wisps of theory – we need to start actually offering some concrete solutions to one another.  We need to be prepared for the day when we’re faced with this heavy responsibilities.  We need to know what we will do.

In response to Shane’s repeated question, “what do you do when your friends are rapists?”  I’m posting my response.  Hopefully this at least gets the conversation started:

Dear Shane:

I deeply appreciate the honesty that you share here – the wrestling and the fog are real and you describe them well. I hope these things represent the real inner-turmoil you have had if these are true stories. They are for me.

As a victim I will offer my suggestions – I’m not a therapist, I’m no expert, I have no formal training to say this is what one “ought” to do. But since you ask the open-ended question with such eloquence, and seem to be genuinely asking, I will offer a possible answer.

You do the right thing.

You put yourself in the shoes of the victim and do the right thing. The protective thing. The honorable thing. The God-glorifying thing. You imagine that these girls are your sister, your mother, your close friend if you have to, but you do what Jesus did – bend low, serve the needy, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the wounded. You lift up, you rescue, you resuscitate.

You go back and admit where you’ve failed – where you’ve retreated from standing firmly against sin and shrunk back as a coward hiding behind ignorance. If you’re not guilty of these crimes yourself (and everything you’ve described is a crime) you ask the victims if they want help in reporting the crimes. You ask them if they need help in finding help. You tell them you believe them. You tell them that what happened to them was not their fault. You offer to walk with them through the ugliness of the pain and the torturous path of healing and you keep that promise no matter what.

You do what the Good Samaritan did and set your life aside for a time to help the battered and bloodied victim of criminal activity survive and heal. Oh God! What will it take to wake us up? You do the right thing, Shane. You do the right thing.

Regarding your friends who are rapists? You let the consequences of their criminal activities have their full (hopefully redemptive) effect. You report them. You call them out. You risk the relationship for the sake of righteousness if that’s what it costs, but you do the right thing here, too. And then you walk with your friends, if they’ll let you, through the pain and the ugliness of harsh discipline by a loving Father who loves them too much to let them continue in the paths of wickedness without calling loudly, “Come home! Come home!” If they are really your friends, you will love them too much to let them continue down those roads, too.

It’s not that knowing what the right thing to do is that hard. It’s doing it.

Do the right thing, Shane. Please, do the right thing.

Humbly,
Laurie

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Enough with the #MeToo stuff already

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jilbert-ebrahimi-33575Enough with the #MeToo stuff already, right?

It’s not going away, is it?  Every week more men are being confronted and exposed by angry women.  Enough already, right?

Christian women are among those reporting, too, however, we, the church, are very uncomfortable with angry people.  We want things quickly tied up into neat theological packages.  We think that because we can read from the “angry” parts in our Bibles to the bits that talk about settled trust in God’s righteous dealings with wrongs in the space of (maybe) ten minutes or so, that our anger, grief, or pain should be dealt with in about the same amount of time.  Sometimes we’ll give it a week or two, but that’s about our limit.  We know that’s silly, but still, we recoil when we hear someone express how the crimes of those in power have impacted their lives and made them angry.  So enough with the angry women and all the tiresome dredging up of old wounds.  Just move on, right?

Beloved church, it’s time to wake up.

John 13:35 says that people will know we follow Jesus because of our great love for one another.  But the very, very sad truth is that a woman can call a Domestic Violence hotline and get more care and compassion than she can from far too many churches if she tells someone there she has been victimized.  They believe her story – we want her to prove it.  They listen to her halting, disjointed words that are almost impossible for her to get out – we get frustrated because she doesn’t make sense.  They ask questions that help her think – we don’t say anything because we don’t know what to say.  They offer real and material assistance to help her get safe and get out of the destructive relationship – we debate whether or not she should go.  They follow up with her to make sure she is stable and safe, they offer counseling, and make sure her children are ok, too.  We… usually don’t.

We have no excuse.  We are wrong to ignore this – painfully, willfully, persistently wrong.  We can no longer claim ignorance.  #MeToo won’t let us – neither will the statistics that reveal the church has the same problem the rest of society has.

When the #MeToo movement hit social media I wondered what the response in the church would be.  To my great disappointment, it has been largely a continued silence or a collective whine about how angry all these women are.  (Individuals are crying out for justice, but churches are not.)  There was even an article touted by people I respect called #MeToo, But God, which was a call to neatly (and quickly) tie up the package of pain that these women bear into tidy theological boxes that make us feel more comfortable but actually increase the pain of the already wounded.

I think that a part of our problematic response is that things like #MeToo lump all manner of sexual misconduct into one complaint.  We publicly agree that all sexual misconduct is wrong, but we privately acquiesce to some of it.  Sexual innuendo in the office doesn’t really seem that bad to some.  “Harmless” touching doesn’t seem like something to really get that upset about – women have been dealing with that sort of thing for millennia, right?  Well, I would argue that is part of the problem.  But even if you think those sorts of claims can hardly be categorized as “sexual harassment” please be careful of your blanket responses to the “lumped together” complaints, too.  Many of the #MeToo participants have been attacked, abused, and treated as worthless garbage by those who exercised positions of power or authority over them or were supposed to love and care for them.  They have been traumatized and typing six characters on a social media post is the closest they’ve ever come to telling anyone.

These are your family

Beloved church, we cannot continue to have so callous a disregard for the broken and the suffering in our midst.  We must learn what we need to know in order to come alongside the hurting in a way that actually offers comfort and care.  These women are our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.  They are sitting in the pew next to you.  They are teaching your children, holding your infants, and helping you love Jesus.  They are your family.

I agree that the only hope in all of this is God’s redemptive work, but I also know the desperate struggle of wrestling with the dual realities of the abuse of power and God.  The agonizing wrestling that seeks to reconcile a good God knowing about the abuse and him doing nothing to intervene is not as simple as adding ‘but God’ to the end of ‘me, too.’  Think about how difficult it is to get to the place where you might be able to say, “I was molested, but God,” or, “he raped me, but God”… Try to fill in the rest of that sentence  “… had a perfect plan for my life that included violence that radically changed everything and distorted all that I believed before”??  While this might be true, I hope you can see that it is an intensely difficult truth to grapple with – one that requires a great deal of wrestling with God over a long period of time.

Adding, ‘but God’ will make you, the listener to the story feel much better. But it won’t help the woman in your church fighting for faith.

Grieve with those who grieve without insisting they say things in a way that helps you feel more comfortable with their pain. If you can do that, you may indeed comfort them and eventually have the standing in their lives to help them discover the ways they can include the, ‘but God’ parts – when they’re ready to do so. Taking them there because that’s what you want to hear is neither comforting nor helpful. You end up being like Job’s friends and have the potential to add more pain and do significant damage to an already wounded person.

Let them be angry if they are angry – you probably would be struggling with anger, too.  But don’t stop there – ask them if they would be willing to tell their story, then listen way more than you speak.  The story may come out in bits and pieces, it might not seem to make much sense, it may be fuzzy and unclear (kind of like the #MeToo narrative) – listen anyway, and don’t draw conclusions about where you think she ought to be. Just be there and listen, and try to imagine the gravity of what she is telling you.  She has witnessed evil incarnate and that is no small thing. Please be gentle.

Redemption will be revealed, but not by you

There is redemption to be revealed in every one of these stories, but the victim needs to uncover it.  But listening (or not) will reveal something about us, too.  Standing with someone in pain is also painful. None of us wants to stand there for very long without relief.  Your presence in their pain communicates a great deal.  Do not underestimate this.  But ignoring it communicates something, too.  It communicates that their grief does not matter to us, that their painful wrestling with God is not significant, and that what we value most is theological accuracy and not the human being wrestling with it. I have been blessed by a few faithful comforters along the way.  But I have encountered far too many who have lacked the strength and courage it takes to walk alongside suffering well.

This coming Sunday is Right to Life Sunday.  It is about the dignity and value of each life.  It is not essentially about life vs death, but it is about the inherent value and worth of each human being made in the image of God.  Sexual trauma shatters that image for each victim.  We see ourselves as worthless, invisible, and discarded.  And part of that message comes from being silenced into obscurity.  You can help restore it if you simply listen and seek to understand.

Jesus showed us how when he entered into the grief of, and wept with, Mary and Martha over the death of their brother, Lazarus.  He went to them, and he wept with them, knowing full well that the very next thing he was going to do was show them, ‘but God’…

Being a Neighbor to those Deeply Suffering

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Being a Neighbor to the Deeply Suffering

The shock of it all was numbing.  My mind – every ounce of energy I tried to find to think – was flailing to make sense of anything at all.  People were talking at me, but I couldn’t mentally connect one word to the next much less understand what they were saying.  I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  My world was collapsing around me and no one could tell me why.  My chest ached with a pain I had never experienced before, and I struggled to breathe and simultaneously try to hold back the sobs that shook me despite my inner protestations for them and everything else around me to stop!  Just stop!

When deep suffering strikes people are left incapacitated.  Whether the blow is physical, emotional, or something else, it knocks us breathless, so that even gasping for air feels like more than we can bear.  An indescribable, wordless, whirlwind of unanswerable questions and unidentifiable emotions flood over us until we feel, often, that we’d rather die than go on.

Do you know what to do to help someone in that state?  Do you know what to say – or sometimes more importantly, what not say to them?  Do you know how to be bodily with them in a way that is genuinely helpful?  How do you find what you need when someone else’s pain threatens to drown you, too?

These are questions I have asked and been asked many times in recent months.  They come from genuinely concerned people whose deep desire is to do something that will help, but whose experiences don’t come close enough to know what that kind of suffering is like.  “What can I do?” isn’t a question that is only asked of the sufferer – it’s one that helpers ask of themselves as well.

Suffering is something that every believer will experience – we are assured of this in scripture.  (1 Peter 4:12) But suffering is not something we are particularly well prepared for.  We live our lives as if suffering only happens to other people, or, more insidiously, less faithful people.  But that is not what the Bible teaches.  Instead we can bank on suffering if we’re Jesus followers.  And since this is the case, we ought to be prepared both for the suffering and the sufferers.  But it is all too common for those surrounding the sufferer to stand by helplessly asking the person whose world has just been torn apart, “What can I do?”  It’s not only not helpful, it’s insensitive and sometimes cruel to ask them what they need.  But what can we do?

Fortunately, Jesus has offered some very practical instructions to all of us who want to comfort people in their distress.  We can be prepared, at least to some degree, to be genuinely helpful in the face of unimaginable pain.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus does far more than instruct us on who are neighbors are.  He instructs us on what loving our neighbors looks like, too.  I think if we’re willing to pay attention to the details of the story, we will see some intensely practical concepts for walking with those who are unable to bear the burden of suffering alone.

Know that suffering overwhelms

The first man in the parable was traveling and was attacked by robbers who overwhelmed him.  They stripped him of everything, wounded him severely, and left him for dead.  There are many things that we encounter during the course of our lives that are difficult – really difficult.  They test our strength and stamina, they push us to our limits, and they sometimes make us want to give up.  That is not the kind of suffering we are talking about here.  Sometimes those things are not suffering at all.  Those are hard things, and sometimes we need help, but we use the resources God has given us and we get through.  Deep suffering, however, overwhelms our normal abilities to cope.  Deep suffering renders us helpless – stripped naked of all the resources we had.  You’ve no doubt heard people say things like, “I felt like I got hit by a truck,” or “I felt like I was drowning,” or some other iteration of being swallowed up, buried, or overcome.  All of these kinds of expressions try to articulate the sense of encountering something beyond our ability to cope.  People in these situations don’t just want help, they need it.  They are desperate for it.  Deep suffering overwhelms and renders us helpless.  Those suffering before you don’t just feel like they are drowning – they are.  Physical and emotional pain can render us deaf and blind to everything else going on around us.  Don’t expect much of anything from a traumatized sufferer – they are incapable of directing you.

Respond with compassion

The Priest and the Levite in the parable saw the helpless traveler and did nothing.  We don’t know what they were thinking, but we know from the story that they saw the man, that they made sure they were on the other side of the road – close enough to see, but far enough away to stay uninvolved – and we know they continued on their way.  But the Samaritan saw him and had compassion.  Unless there is something incredibly hard-hearted about a person, it is normal to have compassion on someone who is in distress.  In my experience, and from listening to many other sufferers, many people feel compassion toward a suffering person.  Lots of people say with sincerity, “I’m so sorry.”  It might be easy to take this for granted, but it must be recognized as the necessary first step in being a loving neighbor and actually helping someone who is suffering.  Compassion literally means with suffering (from the Latin, com – with, and pati – suffer).  It is a picture of entering into the suffering of another.  It starts with a stirred heart that is troubled by the pain of another, but real compassion – Christ-like compassion – cannot be satisfied with emotion only.

Move toward the sufferer

In the parable, Jesus said the Samaritan went to him.  We might overlook this because it seems so basic, but the Samaritan didn’t stay safely on the other side of the road and yell, “Hey buddy!  Let me know if you need anything, OK?”  He went to him.  He stopped what he was doing, changed his direction, and went to where the man was lying in the aftermath of what had overwhelmed him.  There is no way to make an assessment of need without going to the sufferer.  This means that we will encounter a bloody mess sometimes (both literally and figuratively!).  It means that, depending on how overwhelmed the sufferer is we will likely need to move toward him or her without an invitation, without instructions, without knowing what we are getting ourselves into.  Yes, it’s scary, but this is one of the hard things that will stretch you and increase your capacity to deal with the stuff of human existence.  The sufferer you’re looking at didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not to be overwhelmed.  Go.

Skillfully dress the wounds

The Samaritan saw what had overwhelmed the traveler and took action.  The traveler was bleeding.  He was in pain.  He was naked.  He was alone.  Most sufferers are all of these.  Their wounds may not be visible, but they are just as devastatingly raw and exposed.  As a former cardiac nurse, I can tell you that pretty much nothing else matters if your patient is bleeding out.  The hemorrhage has to be stopped or all will be lost.  After that, nothing else can be addressed with a patient if they’re in intractable pain.  Measures need to be taken first to soothe the excruciating.  Healing has to start to happen first, then the patient can begin to engage.  The Samaritan skillfully applied life-saving measures by stopping the bleeding, cleaning out the wounds, and preventing infection from setting in.  We can help suffering people by skillfully taking measures to protect them from further injury while they are incapacitated and defending them while they recover.  Sometimes this will be as simple as shielding sufferers from insensitive comments or questions.  Sometimes we will need to guard the door (or the phone) so that they are not repeatedly overwhelmed.  Sometimes we will need to hold their heads while they cry or vomit out the unbearable thoughts and emotions that have swelled to flood levels decorum can no longer contain.  It’s going to be messy and ugly.  Do whatever needs to be done with sensitivity and care.

Use your resources

The Samaritan put the wounded traveler on his own animal and transported him to a safe place.  We may not need a donkey, but we may need to use our cars and other resources to get the sufferer to where he or she needs to be.  Sometimes they will need to be transported to a hospital and sometimes they will just need to be taken away from their environment for a little while so that they see that there is life outside of their misery.  We may need to drive someone to a safe house, or to a cemetery.  Or we may need to be willing to bring them to our homes where they can sit in quietness and safety from further threats.  We may need to use our time or money or efforts or comfort or ease as we love our suffering neighbor, but we will need to use what we have.  If we’re willing to help sufferers we will be called upon to use our resources.  It will be costly, and inconvenient, but it will be worth it.

Take care

Most Christians are fairly willing to do all of the above.  We are willing to jump into action when called upon, and graciously use our resources when a need pops up.  We make meals, clean bathrooms, drive, and even pay bills.  But here, right here is where we tend to fall down.  We’re busy.  Our schedules are full.  We have things we were planning to do as well as people waiting for us to do them.  We don’t have time to take care of suffering people.  Taking care of someone – tending to their wounds of body and soul – however, is a slow process that takes great quantities of time and patience.  But we are not a patient people.  We want things to be cleaned up quickly and we want the sufferer to be able to tend to his or her own needs without too much delay.  We tend to lose resolve around the two-week mark, but deep suffering often takes months – or years – to traverse.  Not surprisingly, those who look back on their suffering point to the people who were willing to be with them and take care of them over the long haul as the ones who got them through and helped them the most.  The reality is, the sufferer sitting before you in bewildered confusion at all that has crashed down on them doesn’t really expect you to be able to explain the inexplicable – they just want you to be speechless at it with them.  They want to see you in the room, not leaving but staying.  They want to hear your breathing (and occasionally your voice).  They want to feel your hands, your hugs, and even your heavy sighs that mirror their own as you hold them tight as if trying to hold them together while they feel like they’re flying apart.   Be willing to spend time with the suffering and take care of them.

Enlist others and support them, too

The Samaritan in the parable was on his way somewhere.  He put everything on hold to help the suffering traveler he found.  It was not what he had planned – no one can plan when suffering will strike.  But he was willing to do all that needed to be done to ensure that this man in desperate need was cared for.  We must be willing to do the same.

But no one can put their life on hold forever.  If you’re walking alongside the suffering, you will get to the point where the sufferer’s needs are greater than you can handle on your own.  You will need to do as he did – enlist others and then give them what they need to aid the sufferer.

Jesus said, “And the next day he [the Samaritan] took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”  There is so much packed into this sentence.  When the Samaritan could stay no longer, he enlisted the innkeeper, gave him what he needed to care for the traveler, and promised to return.  He made sure that the innkeeper knew that both he and the traveler would continue to be supported.  In telling the story this way, Jesus shows that the Samaritan was not only willing to help the wounded traveler, but the innkeeper and anyone else the innkeeper needed to employ as well.  Jesus knew that helpers often need help to be able to help effectively.  Many times deep suffering requires a team of people.  It is profound and overwhelming to the sufferer and to those helping as well.  Following Jesus is a group activity, and this is one of the many reasons why.  Be ready as a church to help the deeply suffering.

Don’t say much

One final note of instruction that is easy to miss unless you’ve spent time on the sufferer’s side of all of this is to not say too much.  The Samaritan didn’t say much.  In fact, he didn’t say anything at all to the suffering man – he only spoke with the innkeeper in the parable.  Sometimes arguing from a position of silence in scripture is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) position to take.  But having been in the position of the traveling victim, I’m standing firmly on this one – don’t say too much to someone in deep suffering.

Words are inadequate to describe the indescribable.  Explanations are ineffective for the inexplicable.  And asking someone who is in agonizing pain to tell you how they feel is a bit ridiculous, really.  Let them talk if they want to.  Ask a question or two so they know they can, but mostly, just be with them and listen to their grief.  Let them cry, or sob.  Let them sigh, or moan.  Let them speak inarticulately or not at all.  When you must speak, use short sentences and small words.  Use gentleness in your tone of voice – even when they rail at their circumstances.  Job 6:26 says, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?”  People who are suffering say things they wouldn’t normally say and don’t really mean.  Just let it go, remain calm, and remind them that you’re still there, you’re not afraid of the mess, and you’re not going to abandon them.  The pain of suffering becomes bearable when there is someone to endure it with you.

Conclusion

Beloved church – we must not be surprised when suffering comes, either to us or to those around us.  We must, instead, be prepared for it to happen.  Our own suffering proves whether or not we have faith – when everything is stripped away and we are wounded and exposed we find out quickly what we really believe.  If we are running to God – even in hurt and anger and disbelief – the proof is there.  It might be weak faith, it might be trembling faith, it might be doubting faith that says, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”  But that is faith that is proven, and that proof is a gift, that we will be thankful for eventually.  But we must also be prepared to care for the suffering in our midst.  We must be willing to put our own things aside – our schedules, our priorities, our expectations – and bend low enough to stoop down to help the wounded soul who has been left decimated by the side of the road, helpless and desperately needy.  That’s actually what Jesus did for each of us.

My path of deep suffering is not over – I am very much in the raging waves and tossing winds of it.  Some minutes are good – most are a black, confusing, thick fog.  I am part of a great church with a kind and loving pastor and we are struggling together to learn how to walk this road with integrity – learning from and teaching one another as we figure it out by trial and error.  It’s hard to be both sufferer and tutor at the same time, but I’m convinced that God is teaching me even this so that I might be used to help others as he builds his kingdom.  Until then, I pray for strength to continue to walk one painful, faithful step at a time.  Learn from those who do this well.  Teach those who don’t.  Walk together with the ones who are suffering deeply.  You will bless them, of course, but you will be blessed too, for you will teach, and you will learn, a great deal about your Savior.

Christmas Letter to My Kids

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Christmas Letter To My Kids

This was a hard, but beautiful Christmas in our family.  Heartache causes us to reflect and to look for beauty that will come out of ashes.  My kids amaze me with their grace and their capacity to love through all of it.  I could not possibly be more thankful for each and every one of them.

The following is a letter I read to them Christmas morning.  I know many people have to look for good through the lens of suffering and this time of year intensifies that.  I hope this will encourage others as well.

Two Strange Passages for Christmas

To My Beloved Children:

I want to read you two passages from the Bible which, at first, might not seem appropriate for Christmas, but I think you’ll understand why I chose them by the time I’m done.

The first is from the book of Genesis – from the story of Joseph.  This is near the end of Joseph’s story – after his brothers had been so wicked and envious of him that they plotted to kill him, sold him into slavery instead, lied to their father and told him Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal, and Joseph had suffered years of slavery, loneliness, unjust imprisonment, and through a myriad of sovereignly appointed events, had risen to enormous power in Egypt.  These years had shaped Joseph and had put him into a position to organize the Egyptians to store up vast amounts of grain during years of plenty because he knew that years of famine were coming.  But Joseph’s family didn’t have such stores.  Their father sent all but one of his sons down to Egypt because they heard there was food there.  The story is a little long, so for brevity, I’ll tell you that it had been many years since Joseph had seen his brothers and when he did, he was both relieved and filled with apprehension.  He remembered all they had done to him.  When he saw them after all those years, he recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him.  He decided to test his brothers to see if they had changed.  If you read the whole story, you’ll see that they had changed… some.  Joseph brought his entire family to safety in Egypt where they stayed and flourished, but when their father eventually died, the brothers revealed that they had not ever really reckoned with what they had done.  Here’s what they said:

“It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’  …  Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Genesis 50: 15-20

Nothing Wasted

The point of the story is this:  God used even the evil that Joseph’s brothers had committed for good.  He used it to accomplish his good purposes.  Through all the hard and painful events of Joseph’s life God made him into a humble, powerful leader.  He used it to save the lives of millions of people by giving Joseph the wisdom and strength he needed to rule well.  And he used the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers to save them too.

Nothing is wasted that God ordains.

The second passage I want to read to you is from Matthew 23.  Jesus was talking to a large crowd of people who had gathered to hear his teaching.  The crowd consisted of people who genuinely wanted to follow him, some people who weren’t sure what they thought, and there was also a group of men called Scribes and Pharisees – religious rulers who were supposed to lead the people in all God’s ways.

But there was a huge problem.  The religious leaders – the ones who had full access to the scriptures and knew all the things God had told his people, were using their positions to fleece the people.  The  truth was so mixed up with lies that it was impossible for the people to know what God really required.  And they had become harsh and cruel.

Jesus said:  you say one thing, but do another.  You’ve played games with peoples’ souls and they follow you to hell – becoming even worse than you!  You’ve made it appear to those you should have been caring for that you were being faithful, but really you were feeding your own greedy desires at their expense!  You’ve neglected and taken advantage of the ones you were supposed to protect and care for!  You do not examine your own hearts but cast judgement on others!

But after he brought all these charges against them he mournfully cried out, saying,

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Matthew 23: 37

Freedom to Grieve

So – why did I choose these two passages?

First, these have been a huge comfort to me and I wanted to share that with you.  This is a hard time in our family and it would be silly to try to act as if it were not so.  But I am convinced that God is working – even through all these hard things, and yes, even through the wicked things that have been done against us – for good.

Second, I want you to know that it’s ok to grieve over the way things should have been.  I’ve often asked, “how does one grieve over something one has never had?”  But then I remembered Jesus’ lament.  The Scribes and Pharisees were terrible leaders.  Their indifference to the suffering they caused was wicked and cruel – they should have shepherded, but didn’t.  That caused Jesus to grieve deeply.  We can grieve, too.

But very shortly after Jesus lamented over this, he was taken away, beaten and tortured and hung on a cross to die for them – for us.  He wept over the way things were, and then laid down his life to change that.  He might have wept bitterly, but he did not become bitter.  He loved.  We can do that, too.

That’s why he came.  That’s why we have Christmas.

I love you guys.

Mom

Fight for joy…

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Jim Winn winter painting image

James Winn (acrylic on paper)

Fight for joy…

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass might be green, the humidity and temperatures high, and flip-flops the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My fear of what might be, based on what has been, wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.  Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.  Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.   That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My fear of what might be based on what has been wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  The world may look a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfect.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all, ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.

Yet…

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abigail-keenan-27297

Yet…

These familiar verses have been spoken many times to me over the years, but I have only recently begun to understand their beauty – and their weight.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls

yet

I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Habakkuk was facing no small thing – the enemies bearing down on his people were ruthless, merciless, vile perpetrators and the terror they induced was real and justified.  He was not exaggerating in his complaints to God, and it is perfectly understandable that he would want God to intervene.

He called upon the character of the God he knew – the God he served and trusted – but who seemed silent and distant in the face of unimaginable horrors and carnage advancing upon him.  You can almost hear him pleading, “I know you’re there – where are you?!?”

Mercifully, we have the record of God’s response.  But when we already know the outcome of a story, it’s hard to absorb the weight of how it unfolds.

Habakkuk is bewildered why God isn’t doing something to correct the evil of his own people – the evil God abhors and he knows needs to be corrected. Bit why, he laments, can’t God just take matters into his holy hands rather than putting them into the hands of ruthless, vicious men? Couldn’t he do something a little less destructive to call his people back to living the way they should have been living?  Why did it have to be so unbelievably severe?

God reminded Habakkuk of who he is.  He reminded Habakkuk of his character, justice, power, and might.  He reminded Habakkuk of his promises and of his faithfulness.  He validated that the desolation that Habakkuk saw coming was accurate and true.

And then he did nothing.

Absolutely nothing changed… except Habakkuk.

Like Job, Habakkuk meets the God he loves and trusts in a way that knocks him off his feet and back to his knees in wonder and praise.  Like Job, Habakkuk realizes that there are many, many things about God and his purposes that he cannot begin to fathom.  And like Job, Habakkuk shows us that we need to encounter God the same way.

The terror was real – the nation that was coming for them was despicable in every way.  The destruction of everything they knew was bearing down hard on them and there was nothing Habakkuk could do about it.  And now he realized that there was nothing God was going to do about it, either.  It would happen, as God said it would, and that was that.

But knowing the character of the God behind all the carnage made Habakkuk praise him anyway.  How could this be?  How could someone clearly see destruction and waste just ahead of him and yet… rejoice?

The answer, of course, is that he was able to rejoice in God – not in his circumstances or even in what they would produce.  Habakkuk laid out all the impact that was coming – no food, no income, no provision at all.  And said, “yet.”

I might lose everything, yet

I might be starving, yet

Everything might look hopeless and desolate, yet

I know you, God.  I trust you.  You have proven again and again that your faithfulness is unbreakable.  You love your people.  You will do right by them.  These circumstances are terrifying – they’re dire – and yet…

I will rejoice in YOU.

I will take joy in YOU.

YOU are my strength.  YOU are my provider.  YOU will offer defense.  YOU will raise me up and I will live with YOU forever.

Habakkuk got to the place of not only knowing that he should praise and rejoice in God in the midst of pain and fear, but why he could.  We all need to get to that place, because that is where we plant our feet squarely on the rock-solid foundation of faith and realize that it is strong and secure.

We are blessed when we are able to join Habakkuk (and so many other faithful saints who have gone before us) in saying,

“Even when everything around me looks utterly hopeless and there is nothing about my circumstances that points to deliverance, yet

“Even if all the gifts you’ve given are taken away, yet

“Even if I have no idea how this will all work out – or IF it will all work out, yet

will rejoice.  I will take joy – in YOU, God, who are my strength.  In YOU who are my defender.  In YOU who are my fortress and strong tower.

Even if everything around me points to destruction and desolation, if You give me YOU, all will be well, for I will have everything.

 

God is doing more through your circumstances than you can possibly know…

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debashis-biswas-197401 (1)You cannot know all that God is doing…

There are events and circumstances being woven together in and around and through your life that you cannot possibly fathom.  That is the truth.  Encounters, trials, illnesses, conversations, music, traffic and every single little thing that happens is purposeful in setting things up to be as they must be in order for other things to happen.

These are the kinds of thoughts that can make our heads spin, but it’s important to give them consideration, at least for a little while every now and then.

I’ve been thinking about this lately – mostly because there is so much in my life, and in the world around me that is not the way it ought to be.  Sin – my own and the sin of others – ruins things.  It distorts and twists into unrecognizable forms the beautiful, good, and true.

We need to see the design – we need to see past the distortions and defects.  In Jon Bloom’s excellent book, Don’t Follow Your Heart (see ch 3) he lays out 46 sovereignly appointed details that were necessary for the “saving of many” through Joseph’s life described in Genesis.  He helpfully demonstrates how seemingly inconsequential details – like the forgetfulness of Pharaoh’s cupbearer – each had monumental impact on the lives of millions of people.

But Joseph didn’t know any of that.  And he couldn’t have known any of it.  He grieved painful losses, endured unimaginable cruelty, languished in unjust slavery and imprisonment, and on and on.  I’m certain (because Joseph was a human being) that he cried out for his circumstances to change.  But they did not.  The reasons they did not are myriad, but most importantly, they are good.

Consider Rahab, too.  Joshua tells us that she was a prostitute in Jericho.  Stop and let that sink in.  No child – regardless of how poor or uneducated – grows up thinking, “I’d like to be a prostitute when I grow up.”  What happened in Rahab’s life that got her to a place where she felt like that was her only option?  Who let her down?  Who failed to protect and provide for her?  Who profited by her misfortune?  How many took advantage of her vulnerability in life?  And what did all of that really look like?

I’m certain that she, too, cried out for her circumstances to change.  But they didn’t either…

And yet, we learn that neither Joseph’s nor Rahab’s circumstances are pointless wastes of human suffering.  God had immeasurably good purposes for them.

Through the tapestry of millions of details working together at just the right time and just the right way, Joseph was used to save the lives of millions of people.  And in doing so, he was used to preserve God’s chosen people to ultimately bring salvation to the world.

Similarly, the same tapestry of woven details intertwined and looped together to not only bring Rahab into the world of prostitution, but also into understanding of the world around her, to keen perception into the intricacies of human nature and behavior, and to equip her with the wisdom necessary to do the right thing in the face of incredible risk.  God used a prostitute to accomplish his plan for his people – but God also orchestrated the millions of details in every moment of her life leading up to the moment she hid Joshua’s spies… including all the painful life circumstances that drove her to prostitution.

It’s hard – so hard – to see the goodness of God in painful circumstances.  We rail against them, and in our pain and anguish, we beg for God to take them away.  But if we can step back a bit, and see the character of God in the midst of our suffering, we catch glimpses of the possibilities of the good that he is weaving together in this tapestry of human history and divine purposes.  Romans 8:28 is often thrown out as a “band-aid” verse at suffering and sufferers, which is unhelpful and, truthfully, unkind.  But there is truth there that is worth getting past this tactic for.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to right the wrongs around us.  We should.  But when we have done everything, and our circumstances persist, we can trust that God has good for us through them.  How do we know that all things will work out for our good?  Because we get a glimpse into God’s character by seeing how he worked it for good for the likes of Joseph and Rahab.  And he is the same yesterday, today, and forever more.

Joseph saved his people from starvation, and through that preservation, God significantly shaped the people he was calling to himself.

Rahab, a prostitute, gave Joshua’s army victory over Jericho… and through aligning with God’s people she became the great-grandmother of David.  And out of the house and lineage of David a Savior was born, who is Immanuel – God with us.

We can praise God for the circumstances in Joseph’s life that led him to saving God’s people from starvation.  We can praise God for the circumstances in Rahab’s life that led her to being a prostitute who hid spies, which then led her to being part of Jesus’ family tree.  And because the story isn’t finished yet, and we are part of that story, we can praise God for our circumstances, knowing that even though we cannot possibly know all that God is doing in them, or through them, he will work them out for our good.

Be encouraged.  Don’t give up.  He is doing more through your circumstances than you can possibly know.