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How long, God? The waiting is killing me!

how long?Pain can feel eternal. Suffering slows the clock to a crawl.

In the hospital where I work, I see people in deep pain on a regular basis. Physical pain that so fills the senses it’s hard for the patient to think about anything else. Emotional pain as a loved one lays in bed, unresponsive, with tubes and monitors all over the place, and going downhill on a slow but definite angle.

We humans know suffering of unlimited shapes and sizes. To have a body is to be vulnerable to pain. To have relationships is to potentially have your heart ripped out. And it happens to all us eventually. In fact, I read somewhere that at any given time 80% of the people you know are in the middle of some kind of relational pain. I don’t know how true that statistic is, but I’m guessing that if any of us would take stock of our lives, we’d find something significantly broken.

Sometimes, the pain just won’t quit. Sometimes, there’s a waiting that goes beyond normal waiting. It undermines our sense of justice in the world. It wracks our bodies. It sends earthquakes through our relationships. It undermines our faith.

There are times when we’ve hung on for so long, we’re on the verge of giving up and letting go.

“How long?” is a cry of desperation. It’d beyond a cry for help. It’s a cry that follows many, many cries for help. It’s a final cry.

Psalm 13 is one of our “How long?” psalms. It begins with four salvos of “How long” questions.

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

As a kid, I waited for my Mom a lot. She was always busy, running from here to there. And there were so many times I was left alone and waiting that we came up with a deal. For every five minutes she was late, she’d owe me a pack of Star Wars collector’s cards. The original Star Wars movie had come out recently and I ended up with the biggest collection of all my friends. Hundreds of cards, thanks to my forgetful mother.

But she didn’t forget me forever. She always showed up. Eventually. There were times, though, when I would get so mad at her for it, feeling so abandoned the Star Wars cards didn’t make up for the hurt I felt. It’s the same way my kids have felt when I’ve forgotten them, too.

To be forgotten is to feel worthless. I’m not even worth a thought. I’m so insignificant, I don’t even register.

Paired with this feeling of being forgotten by God is feeling as if he’s hidden his face. This doesn’t refer to our inability to see God. Rather, it’s a feeling as if God has turned his back on me, that he’s intentionally looking the other way in order to avoid me.

Where being forgotten is to unintentionally turn me into a nothing, to have God hide his face from me is to intentionally turn me into a nothing. A less than nothing. An anti-something.

After the initial questions aimed at God, David the psalm writer, turns a question toward himself and another toward his antagonist. And there we have the three sources of suffering: God, ourselves, and others who are out to get us. I find David a keen observer of his own soul by including his own wresting with his thoughts and his sorrows as a source of suffering.

But once he’s asked his questions, David states his demands to God. He lays down two imperatives.

Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

If God’s face is turned away, he’d better turn it around and look at me. If he’s giving me the silent treatment, he’d better cut it out and start talking. I need a new spark or else I’m dead. Not only will God’s silence kill me, it’ll give my enemies something to cheer about. Injustice will be complete.

Then comes the Gospel word: But.

The word “but” is one of my favorite words. It speaks a new story into one that’s gone spinning out of control. It’s speaks the possibility of something other than my pain.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

The “but” is a present hope for a future outcome, based on a past experience.

In the middle of pain and a feeling of abandonment by God, David remembers what God has done for him in the past (“for his has been good to me”).

Memory of past goodness is essential to a hopeful imagination. It pulls the mind out of its present pain and its cramped imagination that has shrunken down to the size of its suffering. I’m reminded that the bad I’m currently experiencing isn’t the only thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve known God’s goodness in the past. And if I’ve known it before, I can know it again.

David turns his memory into trust and that trust into rejoicing. This isn’t a snap-of-the-fingers thing, but the psalm’s brevity contracts time to show us it’s possible.

God’s love has never failed and will never fail. And even though it feels like it’s failing now, I will trust in it anyway. And this trust leads to a rejoicing in a salvation that hasn’t yet happened.

This is Paul and Silas singing in their jail cell. This is the blind, mostly deaf, and seriously ill man I met in the hospital who longed to go to church, “So I can say thank you to God.”

This is down-payment praise. Salvation hasn’t yet taken place. Pain is still keen. But even so, I start to rejoice with faltering lips and a weak heart, knowing the day is coming when I will be able to let loose with power and passion.

In six short verses, David has mined the depths of his pain, not minimalizing or marginalizing it with a brave face and an “I can handle this” through gritted teeth. No. He faces God, himself, and his antagonists head-on but refuses to get stuck in his suffering. Instead, with intense resolve, he stirs up his memory, which fortifies his weary heart.

This is a psalm to keep in a back pocket for easy and frequent access, because pain is never far away.

Questions for consideration

Where are you waiting for God?

What hurts most: God’s silence? Active hurt caused by others? Constantly reviewing the pain in your mind?


Lord, come quickly! Delay no longer. Break your silence and turn your face toward me. Ease my pain. Straighten out the path in front of me. End the opposition I face. And turn my mind away from withering replayings of past hurts and toward memories of your good and loving presence. I want to replace my sorrows with songs of joy. I want to live resurrection. Amen.

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True fans & true disciples

A friend of mine went to Washington State University and has been a fan of their historically terrible football team ever since. This year, they’re having a remarkably successful season, but that hasn’t been the case for a very long time.

Steve was telling me about alumni gatherings he’s been to where year after year he’d hear long-time alumni telling stories about the incredibly cold weather they endured as they watched the Cougars lose to this team and that team. “Who did we lose to that time?” one would ask. “How much did we lose by?” another would query.

What I was hearing Steve say was Cougar fans are a fellowship of hardy souls who are well-acquainted with suffering. In fact, it is their shared suffering that has cemented their bond to one another and to the football program.

And with the Chicago Cubs’ come-from-behind World Series win, ending 108 years of futility, I’m reminded of when I lived near Chicago in 1989. The World Series drought was only 81 years long back then. I was assistant editor for a magazine there and had an employee named Doris Gillespie who came in twice a week to update our subscriptions database. Doris was well into her 70s and listened to Cubs games as she updated addresses of subscribers who’d moved. And I kept thinking, this woman has been a Cubs fan her entire life and they’ve rarely had winning seasons, much less a chance at the sport’s top honor, and yet she is relentlessly faithful and hopeful.

These are true fans. These are fans who feel all the pain of adversity and yet remain faithful. Suffering is felt deeply, but it’s not rejected out of hand. Rather, it is expected and endured with persistent hope.

The opposite of these are the bandwagon fans who show up during banner years and find other favorite teams during slumps. And then there are Alabama fans whose team always wins, because coach Nick Saban is obviously a time traveler who knows what other teams are going to do before they do it. They’re not real fans either.

Real disciples are similar to real sports fans. Their commitment is determined not by current circumstances, but by a last loyalty that is deepened and strengthened by the fires of suffering.

This doesn’t mean that suffering isn’t felt and struggled through. It is. All of it. And painfully so.

Knowing this long-suffering faith from the inside out, Peter writes:

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-8).

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Cold nights out on the Palouse of eastern Washington, watching the Cougars lose yet again, revealed the depth of love those WSU alumni have for their team and for one another. The same is true for followers of Jesus.

We were not promised an easy ride or a winning season. On the contrary, we follow a crucified Messiah who calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. In other words, we were promised suffering. We were told to expect many losing seasons followed by the greatest and sweetest win of all at the end.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-9-49-03-amWhen the Cubs finally won, Doris is the first person I thought of, knowing that she had lived a long life and yet hadn’t lived long enough to see the Cubs pull it off. She had lived with what’s called an eschatological perspective — she lived through season after season of defeat, knowing that victory would someday come, even if she didn’t live to see it.

Hebrews 11:13-16 puts it this way:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

This is true discipleship. We are to be the community of those who live faithfully and missionally through adversity in light of what God has done before and what he promises to do in the future.

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Where suffering & glory meet

We all know people who tend toward the pessimistic. These gloomy Eeyores are realistic about the hardships of life, but seem to see only obstacles and no opportunities.

We also know people who tend toward the optimistic. These perky Tiggers are ever bouncing toward the next adventure, but their lack of discernment has us wary of following their lead.

We all have a sense that both of these approaches overplay their hands.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of the prophetic imagination as being one of hopeful realism. It’s realistic, because it sees all that is wrong with the world and ignores none of it. It’s hopeful, because it believes in God and sees his redeeming hand graciously at work in all times and at all places.

Where I see this imagination at work in ways that have challenged and changed my own imagination for how the world works and how I live in it is in the New Testament letter of 1 Peter. (And, yes, sharing a name with the author, I have an affinity for his perspective.)

Peter and Silas (who most likely did the actual writing of what Peter outlined) do a fascinating job of tying together two words that we would rarely if ever put together: suffering and glory.

Suffering and glory seem like incompatible experiences. But by looking at the Jesus story, 1 Peter ties them together as inseparable experiences.

The means by which Jesus is glorified is by walking the path of suffering. His suffering is not an accidental thing. Neither is it unavoidable on Jesus’ path to glory. It is as essential as it is undeserved.

No suffering; no glory.

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe to describe the sudden shift from suffering to glory, from tragedy to happy ending. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he write:

But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

And in what is referred to as Letter 89, Tolkien also writes:

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

For those of us who follow Jesus, we live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, which Tolkien above calls the greatest eucatastrophe possible as we live in the greatest Fairy Story possible, God’s history-long act of defeating evil and death and lies and restoring his broken creation. And the eucatastrophe of the death and resurrection of Jesus is itself a downpayment on the deaths and ultimate resurrection of all of his people.

This is why Peter wrote the following passages in 1 Peter (notice his emphasis on present suffering and future glory/inheritance):

This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1 Peter 1:4-6).

[The Spirit] predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow (1 Peter 1:11).

Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:21).

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 2:18).

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed (1 Peter 5:1).

And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (1 Peter 5:4).

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time (1 Peter 5:6).

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast (1 Peter 5:10).

This is a mere sampling. Suffering and glory are woven even more deeply into 1 Peter. But these are the obvious ones, where the Jesus story of suffering and glory are referred to over and over again while reminding us that our own personal stories of suffering will be completed in future glory.

What Peter wants for his readers of 1 Peter and what I want for myself is the ability to live a eucatastrophic life — I want to live a life that is so shaped by the Jesus story that I am not surprised by any suffering, but am able to entrust myself and those I love and the whole world to the God who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him above all.

Paul put it this way: I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).

The author of Hebrews puts it this way: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. … And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:1,6).

Belief that God exists is not enough. We must also believe he is a rewarder.

To miss out on this is to get God wrong. He is gracious. He is generous. He is faithful. He is unshakable. He is mighty. He is loving. He is good. His commitment to us is rock solid. His adoption of us is absolute. His victory is assured. His promises are unquestionable.

If we are his children, it is his fatherly pleasure to not just save us, but to glorify us. Similarly, if we are his children, it is our children’s place to obey him as he leads us into redemptive suffering and to trust him as we wait for the glory yet to be revealed.

It’s this dual belief — that God exists and that this God is a rewarder — is what gives hope to each of the people listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. All of them suffered in the light of a God-promised future glory that they only glimpsed from afar and endured because of it.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

I want this eucatastrophic approach to life to affect my parenting, my politics, my marriage, my neighboring, my bank account, my body image, my career, my everything. I want to face the suffering in each and every one of these aspects of my life with hope, knowing that the one who leads me through suffering is the same one who leads me to glory.

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Honoring politicians we don’t like

“Honor the emperor.”

Those three words hang by themselves in 1 Peter 2:17. The verse makes four imperative statements, the first three being pretty run of the mill for the Scriptures, until we get to the fourth:

Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

Honor the emperor? Really?

Earlier in the paragraph that the verse concludes, we read: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right (1 Peter 2:13-14).

There’s a sense here that just as governors are an extension of the emperor’s authority, so the emperor is an extension of God’s authority. The basic purpose of these human politicians being to punish wrong and commend right.

Peter’s basic idea, starting in 1 Peter 2:11 and extending all the way through 4:19, is that those who follow the crucified and subsequently glorified Jesus should be willing to suffer in light of future glory/inheritance/commendation from God, making sure in the meantime our suffering isn’t for doing what is wrong and thereby damaging the reputation of Christ.

So, since human authorities are established by God to punish wrong and commend right, we ought to honor them. For they ought to be commending us (and, by extension, Jesus) as we continue to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.

That sounds pretty logical, right? There’s just one catch.

The emperor Peter was writing about was a certain caesar named Nero.

So, the emperor Peter was calling on the early church to honor was the guy who burned Christians dipped in tar in order to provide light for one of his parties. He didn’t just mistreat innocent people, he specifically mistreated followers of Jesus because of their faith.

Perhaps that hadn’t happened yet when Peter wrote this. We don’t know exactly. But we do know that Peter did write this in the verses following his “honor the emperor” statement:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21)

Ouch! “To this you were called.” Really? We were called to suffer? Yep. And the suffering we were called to is unjust, undeserved suffering. It’s not a far stretch, since it’s the kind of suffering Jesus endured. But that doesn’t make it pleasant or welcome. Still, Peter wants us to make sure we’re not surprised by it.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

Even though he doesn’t have a section in the letter about suffering at the hands of the emperor’s soldiers, I find it telling that Peter begins his dive into undeserved suffering immediately after his “honor the emperor” command. It’s as if he wants those words to be ringing in our ears as we read on about unjust suffering but doesn’t want to implicate the emperor directly to avoid any charges of treason if the letter were to land in the hands of the authorities.

What confirms this to me is the location of the letter’s writing, it’s provenance. In the second-to-last verse of the letter, Peter writes, She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings (1 Peter 5:13). The “she” is the local church and “Babylon” is code for Rome itself.

Peter is writing from Rome, the seat of the empire, and making a jab at this arrogant human institution, comparing it to the land into which God’s people had been taken into captivity during the Exile. (Remember, Peter starts the letter by writing to Christians throughout the empire whom he calls “exiles.” See the connection?)

Peter wants his readers to honor the emperor, with his God-given authority, while not growing cozy with the empire, with its God-defying arrogance. This is the tension we live in.

We are to live as exiles in the land we dwell in. This is not our culture. These are not our values and ways of living. So, by embracing our alien nature, we retain our distinctive identity as God’s people, refusing to lose ourselves to the pressures and lures of the dominant society around us.

At the same time, we are to live as almost model citizens, obeying laws and honoring our civic authorities, not because we’re in collusion with them, but because we don’t want a collision with them to damage the reputation of our Lord.

It’s a tough tension and one that Peter says we should be willing to endure as it is played out against us, even as we continue to choose to do what is right and lawful. It’s a tension we fail to maintain far too often.

I cringe whenever I see on Facebook or hear elsewhere Christians who bad-mouth our civic authorities. Too often, I’ve heard said, “I respect the office of the President, but I don’t respect the person in it.” Too often, I’ve heard Christians whining about those in office and how bad things are for us because of them. Stop it! It’s disrespectful to our leaders and disobedient to God.

In his call for us to suffer like Jesus, Peter wrote: When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). But what do we do? We insult. We retaliate. We threaten. We grumble and whine and rant. In doing so, we take on the nature of our American culture, which was founded by a bunch of people who whined about their king, instead of taking on the nature of Jesus and entrusting ourselves to the God who judges justly.

As we head deeper into election season, let us commit to “honor the emperor,” especially when our leader is one we don’t like and don’t trust. And let’s just be thankful it’s not Nero.

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What pain reveals

I keep finding that I know myself less than I thought I did.

I don’t remember who said it first, but our hearts have reasons that reason knows nothing of. And I find that to be true in myself.

I am a mystery to me.

But struggle is a clarifier. When I exercise, I find a desire to quit and yet a perseverance within me, both of which I hadn’t realized were there before. When I come up against relational

When I exercise, I find a desire to quit and yet a perseverance within me, both of which I hadn’t realized were there before. When I come up against relational conflict, I find an anger and stubbornness that makes me shake my head and yet I also find a remorse that won’t let go until there is reconciliation. When I struggle vocationally, I find both a fearfulness and a prayerfulness that have both been there all along but which were less close to the surface.

But God has known these things all along. He knows my quality: what is true and what is false; what is fool and what is gold. But he shows me myself in my struggles that I might look to him to refine and purify me into what he knows I can become.

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God thinks you’re more resilient than you do

God has a pretty high view of you. Sure, he knows you’re a sinner. He’s pretty aware of that fact. But he’s also got a pretty high view of what you can handle.

He’s fine with the suffering you go through, knowing it’s something you can handle and something that will work for your betterment and for the salvation of the world. He also has a pretty high view of your ability to withstand temptation.

No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it (1 Corinthians 10:13, The Message).

If you’re experiencing temptation, it’s because God thinks you can handle it. So, I guess that means you can handle it. Because, well, God’s not wrong.

So, whatever test or temptation you’re facing, remember this: You can handle it, no matter how tough the struggle. God wouldn’t allow it if you couldn’t handle it. And he’s right there as you slog through it. That doesn’t make it any easier. But it reminds me that whatever I’m up against, God knows that things will ultimately be OK and he is with me in the midst of it, guaranteeing things will be OK.

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Pain gives definition to life

I celebrate the anniversaries of friends whose marriage survived the dark and harrowing days after his infidelities were discovered.

I celebrate the birthdays of the son of friends whose asthma has almost taken down to the grave many times over the past two decades.

I celebrate the graduation from college of a kid I worried would never make it through high school.

In each of these cases, real pain has threatened the marriage, the life, the education that I thought would sink it. The struggle offsets the success like the night sky offsets the moon’s brightness.

Now, pain is not essential. It is possible to celebrate a marriage that hasn’t been threatened by divorce, a life that hasn’t been threatened by death, an education that took work but never veered from high marks. Struggle is common, but it isn’t required.

But even if it’s not required, pain and struggle create a depth that those who skate on the surface or bail out when the going gets rough just don’t experience to their own impoverishment.

A trip to Disneyland is nice and all, being all about thrills without risks. But the trip to Disneyland won on a radio contest by a friend’s father just months before dying of cancer is an experience with a whole new depth of meaning to it.

At the end of his novel Miss Wyoming, Douglas Coupland wrote:

He looked at Susan’s reflection in the black window glass. John remembered once yelling at a cameraman on a film, whom he was convinced was color-blind. During a break John went off to props and brought back with him a piece of shiny black plastic. He gave it to the cameraman, and the cameraman asked him, “What’s this for?” and John said, “It’s something Impressionist painters used to do. Whenever they were unsure of the true color of something, they’d look at its reflection in a piece of black glass. They thought that the only way they could ever see the true nature of something was to reflect it onto something dark.”

We see the true nature of our friendships, our marriages, our faiths, our families, our vocations, our nations, our churches, our souls by how they stand out against the darkness. Do they get lost in the muddiness? Do their true colors reflect back?

But before I even get to those questions, I have to answer these questions: Am I willing to stick it out through the pain to get to the point where I can see my true colors for what they are against the darkness? Or will I call it quits and wonder why life seems to lack the depth I think I want?

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Living in a world with teeth 

God is not afraid of danger, pain, or death. And he’s not afraid of seeing his loved ones on paths that will lead us through all three. In fact, he guarantees that every one of us will experience danger, pain, and death.

This is the kind of world God created. It’s the kind of world that shapes our souls. It is the crucible that refines us.

The creation story itself includes elements that its original readers would have recognized as dangerous or chaotic.

Before God starts speaking his creation into being, two things that ancient world would have agreed upon as chaotic and dangerous already exist — the dark and the deep (Gen. 1:2; Gen. 1:1 is a summary of all that follows). Darkness has always been the region of the unknown, the criminal, the nocturnal predator, the unseen stumbling block, the monsters of our imaginations. The watery deeps of the seas and oceans are untamable and were especially dangerous before modern ship building, sucking sailors to their deaths and avoided by the rest.

Rather than banishing these chaotic elements, when God does his creating, he does two things to both of them. He names them and he limits them.

There is no creating of the darkness, but it is called “Night” and is bounded by light (Gen. 1:3-5). Likewise, there is no creating of the deep, but it is called “Sea” and is collected and bounded by sky and land (Gen. 1:6-10).

I find this theologically and practically significant. God doesn’t create these chaotic elements in the world. But neither does he banish them. Instead, he incorporates them into his creation and uses them throughout his story of salvation.

The Flood story is a case of the dark and the deep breaking through their boundaries with God’s permission only to be bound up again at the end of the story. Similarly, in the Exodus, when the children of Israel escape the clutches of Egypt, there is darkness as they go through the sea … on dry ground and led by a pillar of light. Evil is behind them and chaos all around them, but God and his boundaries are victorious. And the chaos rebounds on evil, swallowing it up.

At the end of the Scriptures, when the new creation dawns, these two pre-creation elements of chaos are eliminated, their purposes complete. This is why there is no longer any sea (Rev. 21:1) nor night (Rev. 21:25), at least metaphorically.

One other note from the creation story is the inclusion of the sea monsters (Gen. 1:21). The taninim were anti-creation monsters in the myths of surrounding cultures. But in Genesis and in Psalm 104:26, they are created for God’s pleasure and purposes. They are dangers that bring dread on humans, but they are intentionally included by God in his very good creation.

(I will leave the sticky issues of the satan and the unclean spirits aside for now, though I do want to acknowledge them as part of this conversation.)

We can see that God is comfortable with the chaotic and the dangerous. In fact, he has intentionally and purposefully woven them into the fabric of his creation. They serve his purposes and move them toward his goals. They may seem to stand against God from our perspective, but they don’t.

When Jonah gets tossed into the dark and raging sea and is swallowed by a sea monster, all three of these chaotic elements serve the God of creation in his salvation of Ninevah.

When Jesus falls asleep in a boat and a storm arises, he calms the wind and the waves with a simple rebuke, revealing his true identity.

When the apostle Paul is being transported in chains over the Mediterranean, God warns him of the impending storm and saves him from it, showing his power and the truth of Jesus to all the survivors of the wreck.

Creation has teeth. God has armed his world with dangerous weapons. And pain and destruction and death are never far away. But it’s always mixed with the good.

We see this practically in a kinds of things that can be turned to creative or destructive ends.

Alcohol, which can clean wounds and make the heart merry, can also destroy homes and careers and lives. I know its teeth. I have a sister who was killed by a drunk driver.

Sex, which can bind husband and wife together and bring children into the world, can also rip apart marriages by being turned inward in selfishness or by being turned outward in adultery or by being turned off. I know its teeth. I am close to and impacted by all three.

A gun, which can put food on the table and offer sporting play in controlled settings, can also start wars and kill the innocent. I know its teeth. I know too many whose military services have been needed and we’ve seen the horror of guns being brought to schools.

Computers and phones, which can connect people across long distances and provide digital tools to enhance our lives, can also suck away our lives in video games, sex sites, cat videos, Facebook posts, and endless email. I know its teeth. I have wasted too much of my life in empty digital pursuits.

Cars, food, TV, music, money, drugs, and on and on. Each of the things that adds to us also takes away from us at some point. Always.

This world is a dangerous place. We play with snakes. Every day is a danger. Pain is never far away. Death hangs over us at every step. And God is fine with it.

Thankfully, God doesn’t set us on this path alone. Not only has he given us one another to walk it, but he has walked it with us. And Jesus bears the scars of nail wounds to prove it. He knows the danger, the pain, the death from the inside like we do.

But that isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

God also has his purposes in mind at all times.

Pain has the ability to wake us up to things we need to avoid and to things we need to embrace.

Pain has the ability to refine us, burning away what is excess and harmful.

Pain can hone us, exercising our bodies and minds.

Pain reminds us that we don’t know everything and inspires us to learn more.

Pain can stop us from doing serious damage to ourselves.

Pain can force us to reconsider our circumstances and move toward needed change.

Pain points out the significance of a situation.

Pain can remind us of all that is right and good in our lives by highlighting what isn’t.

Pain can bring clarity to what is important and what isn’t.

Pain reminds us that we aren’t immune or immortal, that we don’t have what it takes to do this like on our own, that we need God.

And our dislike of pain points to a future beyond pain that we were created for and hope for.

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Finding the purpose in our suffering

Pain is one of the most personal things any of us ever experiences. Whether physical or emotional, pain has the ability to focus our attention unlike almost any other human experience.

This past week, I spent time in the dentist’s chair having a root canal done and my wife will be having one done herself in a few days. While the days leading up to mine were uncomfortable enough that I was looking forward to having it done, the days leading up to Charlene’s are being excruciating, making it difficult for her to get work done and making us willing to spend extra money just to get it taken care of sooner. Even though we are having similar procedures for similar dental problems, our personal experiences are vastly different.

Our sufferings may be similar, but they’re not the same.

Because of the differences in experience, I can’t say I “know” what she’s going through. I can’t brush off her pain and say, “Oh, it’s not big deal. I just had a root canal, too, and the discomfort is minimal at best. You can handle this. Just suck it up.”

Because of the similarities, though, I have a good sense of what she’s going through — not the extent of it, but the shape of it. In fact, as she goes through her pain, I can almost feel it in my own body, since I retain the memory of my own discomfort. And that, I believe, is what gives purpose to the pains we each suffer.

The fruit of suffering is compassion, an ability to understand the pain others are going through by remembering the pains we have gone through ourselves.

This isn’t an “I know exactly what you are going through” attitude that reduces the experience of others to what I experienced myself and is really more about me than about them. Rather, it is a redemption of what I’ve experienced by enabling me to know how others might be suffering and caring for them in the midst of it.

If suffering doesn’t make us tender, we’ve wasted it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by a certain kitchen tool. It was a wooden mallet with a bumpy metal end. My Mom didn’t appreciate it, but I’d get it out and play with it on a regular basis, brandishing it like Thor’s war hammer, Mjöllnir.

Then, one day, I saw my mother use it as it was intended, pounding a piece of beef in preparation for cooking it. The mallet, she said, is a tenderizer, a tool for softening tough meat and bringing out its juices.

A tenderizer. That’s what suffering is. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be for. It’s purpose is to make our tough parts softer, to bring out the flavors hidden within us.

Now, pain can do just the opposite. It can close us down and turn us inward. That’s generally the case when we’re in the midst of it. But it can also be the case afterward, as we toughen ourselves up in self-protection, trying to make sure that we never experience that pain again. Instead of becoming softer, we armor ourselves. Instead of becoming sweeter, we become bitter. Instead of turning outward, we turn inward.

This is where our choice comes to play. We get to decide whether we will become tender or tough, sweet or bitter, outward or inward. The same pain can have incredibly different results, depending on what we choose to do with it.

This is where prayer comes in for me and where suffering shapes the quality of my praying.

Generally, when I am in the midst of suffering, my prayers are all about me and getting me out of the pain. I just want it done, and I want God to rescue me from it as soon as possible. Yesterday would be best.

Those are the initial prayers and I believe they’re appropriate. A cry for help when drowning is always appropriate. But it needs to go beyond just me. To continue the drowning image, if I’ve been saved from drowning, I ought to express my gratitude. But once I am beyond my own trauma, I need to turn toward the water to see if I can aid anyone else who might be drowning as well.

Let’s go back to my root canal story.

I can pray my way through the pain, go to the dentist, be done, and never think about it again. Or I can go through it and then turn my prayers and attention toward my wife and others who are going through similar pains. Teaching me how to do the second option is the purpose of pain.

Every time I suffer something new, I become aware of that form of suffering in the world and am given the choice of become a person of compassion toward others suffering from it or of walling it away and trying to protect myself from feeling that awful pain every again.

If I stub my toe, I become aware of all of the stubbed toes out there in the world. If I get my heart broken, I become aware of all of the broken hearts. If I get fired from a job, if I have my home burglarized, if I get a cold, if I am betrayed by a friend, if I am audited by the IRS, if I have a root canal — if I experience any kind of human pain, I am put in the place of choosing whether to let it make me bigger or smaller as a person, whether to let it make me cave in on myself or turn outward toward the needs of others, seeing them clearly for the first time.

Suffering should soften our hearts and open our eyes.

Suffering should spur us on to prayer and service for others who suffer similarly.

Suffering should show us the heart of God, who loved us so much he entered into the pain of this world, willingly suffered along with us and for us, and is moving all things toward a day when suffering will cease.

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Welcome to a post-Christian world (it's not as bad as it sounds)

We Westerners live in a post-Christian world. But don’t worry. It’s not what it sounds like.

What it means is that Christianity as a cultural force is no longer the power it once was. What it doesn’t mean is that Christianity itself — the global family of those who follow Jesus and love the world he loves — is dead. On the contrary, getting past the protection of power and privilege is a healthy thing for faith.

While I am no Flannery O’Connor scholar, the sharp-penned Catholic writer is one of my favorites. Her stories are witty, poignant, and shockingly violent. By using violence in surprising ways, she jars her characters out of well-constructed and self-satisfied approaches to the world. Thus stripped, they become vulnerable not just to suffering, but to God and grace.

The Church is always at its best in its Flannery O’Connor moments. Shaken from our false self-sufficiency and open to grace is when we are stripped to the simplicity of following Jesus.

That simplicity is reflected in Paul’s first letter to the the Thessalonian Christians, the first of the New Testament books to be written. In 1 Thes. 4:1-8, Paul writes that these new followers of Jesus should live lives characterized by a holiness — an otherness — that is distinguished by the holiness of God and not conditioned by the lives of their neighbors. And then he writes this:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders …. [1 Thes. 4:11-12]

It’s not the noise of our protest that leads others to respect us. It’s the quality of our day-to-day lives that earns respect.

Thankfully, the initial outrage against Starbucks’ Christmas-free red cups has led to a surprising response: No Christian I know feels that outrage. Rather, I think we’re starting to come to terms with our post-Christian context. And that means engaging in our faith in a way fairly similar to those Thessalonians in their pre-Christian context, but without the blank slate those early Christians had.

Where those early Christians had neighbors who knew nothing of the faith of this brand new Jesus community, our neighbors often have negative baggage associated with the way Christians have practiced our faith over the centuries. And similarly, those of us who are Christians have our own baggage associated with expecting a certain degree of respect and privilege within our culture. These are messy slates, but neither are impossible to deal with.

The rejection of the red cup outrage, as I mentioned above, is a step toward accepting our post-Christian reality. Unfortunately, the initial outrage reinforces the current stereotype of Christians as angry people who want to suck the joy out of life, especially the joy of people other than ourselves. But hopefully, the rejection of that outrage helps undermine that stereotype.

Sometimes, living the quiet lives Paul called the Thessalonians to isn’t enough. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor knew, the quality of our characters as we suffer reveals a surprising measure of hope that our observers don’t expect from anyone. Peter points to this in 1 Peter 2:11-3:18.

In 1 Peter 2:12, he writes, Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

He continues (when talking about how we deal with government authorities) in 1 Peter 2:15 — For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.

And when dealing with unjust masters/employers, he continues, For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. [1 Peter 2:19]

And since the early Church included women who followed Jesus and remained married to harsh husbands who didn’t follow Jesus, Peter points to the quality of their character under unpleasant circumstances as more convincing than their words (1 Peter 3:1-7).

All of these quiet lives in the midst of suffering leads others to question what it is that keeps us going, which Peter addresses in 1 Peter 3:15-18 —

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

Notice in all of these passages a call to “live quiet lives,” “live such good lives,” “doing good,” “bearing up under the pain of unjust suffering,” no retaliation, no threats, purity, reverence, being considerate, repaying evil with blessing, “eager to do good,” gentleness, respect, and good behavior.

These are the qualities that were required of followers of Jesus in a pre-Christian world. And they are the same ones required of us living in a post-Christian world.

In Flannery O’Connor’s stories, she takes aim at two kinds of self-satisfied snobs. The self-righteous Christian and the contemptuous progressive each looks down on everyone around them, believing that they are the best kind of person. But through violent circumstances, the hypocrisy of each of them is revealed. The Christian is shown to be hardly Christ-like at all. And the progressive is shown to be a self-deluded fool. By being so unmasked, the Christian is given the opportunity to become truly Christian instead of living with the facade of Christianity, and the progressive is given the opportunity to become a lover of all people instead of a lover of his or her superiority.

This move into a post-Christian context is Flannerian, violently stripping away the facade of Christianity and giving us the opportunity to discover the simplicity of following Jesus.

May those of us who follow Jesus find ourselves exhibiting the characteristics called for from us in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Peter. May we actually live our hope and do it so thoroughly that it surprises our neighbors, who feel compelled to ask us about it and give us the opportunity to answer with gentleness and respect.

It will probably be painful, but this new post-Christian era has a good potential upside.

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Justin Bieber and what it means to believe

A few years ago, Justin Bieber came out with an album called “Believe.” (Yes, I’m writing about the Bieber. He’s made some very interesting comments about his own faith recently and has a new album ready to drop soon, so I’m glad to give him a bit of attention.) The album title wasn’t a major stretch, since his fans call themselves Beliebers.

As I’ve thought about Beliebers, I’ve realized that they’ve got a lot to teach me about the nature of belief. Because there is so much in what they live out in their belief in the Biebs that exceeds my lived-out belief in Jesus.

To believe is to worship. It should be obvious that Justin Bieber is a poor divinity. He sings about relationship, but he offers none. He is handsome but aloof. But the beauty of his voice and face are enough to draw in devotees, and his fans offer him their adoration.

All true believers are worshipers. When we believe, we exalt the one we believe in. We offer our money, our time, our devotion. We offer the very substance of our lives — our souls — to the one we believe in.

To believe is to identify with and suffer for. We call ourselves by their names. We suffer ridicule for associating ourselves with them. And believe me, Beliebers name themselves as such and suffer for it. The attempted shaming that other kids tried to heap on my daughter and her friends for their allegiance to the Biebs when she was in middle school was horrifying in its scorn. But here’s the amazing thing: They endured it gladly and without turning away from it.

True believers find that mockery only sharpens their adherence to the one they believe in. To suffer for the Jesus who suffered for us creates and even tighter bond and we become that much more closely identified with him. The earliest Christians picked up the name “Christian” not by their own choosing but because they talked about and were so identified with Jesus the Messiah (Christos or Christ in Greek) that people began calling them Christians or Christ-people (Acts 11:26). And they actually thanked God for considering them worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

To believe is to immerse in. We read about them. We talk about them. We sing about them. We are baptized into them, immersing ourselves into a world shaped by them.

My daughter put posters of Justin on her walls and surrounded herself with his music. She kept up with the latest news on him and her phone was filled with screen shots of the elfin lad.

True believers are literally baptized into our faith and we metaphorically rebaptize ourselves through a continual immersion in prayer and Scripture and mission and gathered worship with other believers. There is a sense that our whole lives are soaked and drenched with our God.

To believe is to orient toward. We turn our backs on all kinds of people and things whether we do so consciously or not. But believers orient our lives toward the one we adore. We move in their direction.

Part of this orientation is repentance. To repent is to change direction. To change thinking. The direction of our lives and of our minds points toward the one we believe in like a compass needle toward the north.

In the old video game PacMan, you played the game by gobbling up little yellow dots with your large-mouth circular game figure. Beliebers similarly orient themselves toward and gobble up any new bit of Justin that is set before them. And new song. A new interview. A new tour. A new article, even if it isn’t flattering. At the same time that they’re consuming all that is Bieber, they’re not doing the same with others. There’s only so much time and mindspace and the more we devote to The One, the less we have for others.

To be a Christian is to be a Jesus follower. That means an orientation toward and a movement in a Jesus direction. This also means a rejection of anything that moves us away from Jesus, which is the meaning of repentance. With every Yes said to Jesus, there is an equal No said to anything that would move us away from following him. To look at him means not looking elsewhere.

One of my favorite biblical stories is Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). His focus is so intent on Jesus that he’s able to do what Jesus is doing, the otherwise impossible. But when he turns his attention away from Jesus, he begins to sink.

Yes, true belief loses its focused orientation from time to time, but it always turns it back to the one it adores and is lifted up again.