Out of the Silence

November 12, 2014

As I indicated in my last post on October 27, the Naegeli family is grieving the sudden untimely death of Matthew, nephew to my husband and me and beloved friend to so many. Some life experiences are simply off-limits to a blogger, particularly when one’s writing might only add to the pain a family suffers. And sometimes, there are no words.

This is my one blog out of this sad journey, about what I experienced and how the Word was brought to life during Matthew’s memorial service in Albuquerque. This was a public event, attended by several hundred mourners who filled the sanctuary of Hope Evangelical Free Church.

It is a glorious, sunny Albuquerque morning. The vistas are breathtaking at this time of year, reminding us as we walk into the church that the world and God’s handiwork is vast and beautiful and much bigger than we are. Arriving an hour early, we enter from the parking lot through the back door of the church, right into the flurry of activity by “the church ladies” preparing lunch for the reception. It has been said that one way to avoid descent into the black pit of mourning is to keep busy. These wonderful, hospitable ladies are putting their loving care into action, to facilitate a most healing fellowship that unfolds in the next few hours.

We family members are ushered into various rooms for various activities: baby care here, singing practice there, main lobby for setting up pictures and guest book . . . and “the cry room” (ordinarily for moms and their babies) where we would all gather just prior to the service. Twenty-five (at least) aunts and uncles, cousins, parents and grandma finally land for a quiet moment of reflection with the pastor.

The pastor, relatively new to Hope, looks like he graduated from college last June. (Why is it that so many pastors look a lot younger than me these days?!) He is gentle in spirit, authentic in manner, and wise in his approach to the family. It turns out he is the anchor for the service and the preacher of the Word. For now, he is the convener of a brief family meeting in which he lays out the flow of the service and prays a heartfelt petition to God that our time together would honor Matthew’s memory and demonstrate God’s goodness even in our grief.

The television screen in the cry room is transmitting a beautiful hymn medley played by a pianist and violinist in the sanctuary. I appreciate the quality of the music, and—knowing how much Matthew invested in the music ministry of this church—realize these musicians’ gifts were cultivated by Matthew’s passion for the arts in worship. With this lovely backdrop, we all stand and get in line to walk into the sanctuary and to our rows reserved in the front.

Some time between our departure from the cry room and our entry into the sanctuary, the music stops. As we enter from the back, the congregation stands in complete silence. No music to cover our steps or our sobs, just the solidarity of a dear community of faith saying with its presence, “There are no words.” I am close to losing my composure, stunned and blessed at the same time by the truth of this moment.

Out of the silence, the pastor gently invites us into the presence of God. We are urged to bring everything we’ve got at the moment—sadness, grief, tears, anxiety, whatever—with us to the place where God cries with us. He introduces briefly the gospel story he will preach later in the service, the account of Jesus traveling to Bethany to comfort Martha and Mary upon the death of their brother Lazarus. As Martha runs out to greet Jesus, the two have a brief conversation about faith and Jesus’ power to do something. But when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, he stands there and weeps. In the face of death, there are no words.

And yet, out of that silence, Jesus summoned the depth of God’s suffering and the power of God’s redemption to raise Lazarus, unbind him, and let him go (John 11).

The pastor emphasized the presence of the weeping Jesus in our current suffering and the knowledge that some things simply cannot be explained but only experienced in the compassionate presence of our Risen Lord.

As the service progresses, we hear the tributes, the funny stories, the laughter and tears of a life devoted to Jesus, to the arts, and to loving friendship. When his turn comes once again, the pastor preaches the love of God, the sufficiency of his grace, the power of the resurrection, and the genuineness of our hope in Jesus Christ. But this is no triumphalistic denial of death, rather a full-on confrontation with its rudeness and injustice in light of God’s intention for humankind, Life. Embedded here is the proclamation of a hope that some day joy and laughter will be as natural and genuine as sadness is today.

As a pastor myself, having conducted hundreds of memorial services and funerals in the last twenty-seven years of ministry, I am convicted that I have perhaps not made room for tears and true sadness. I think I have talked too much. I never regret lifting up the hope of the resurrection, because this is in fact all we have to hold onto at a time like this. But the hope shines brightly against a dark backdrop we might tend to keep safe and unseen behind a curtain. There is really no need to be secretive or embarrassed about the pain of loss; our faith fully acknowledges its existence and its source. This service taught me that for all its immensity, death is still not big enough to take away the grace and truth of the gospel: “By his stripes we are healed,” (Isaiah 53) and “then there will be no more mourning or tears or pain . . .” (Revelation 21).

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This blog series is coming slowly, as my readers can tell, because I am developing a bit of ADD over the topic. The sad thing is that there are too many “what ifs” and accounts to pore over, and it has gotten a little depressing to go there. And then, this morning, the high school shooting in Washington State puts another spin on the topic. Such a tragic waste, when a desperate, “bent” young person must shoot others before taking his own life. I’m sure I am not the first person to think, “If his real goal was suicide, why didn’t he just do that instead of take out so many others?”

But I digress.

Every once in awhile, you read about a case of “suicide by cop,” a scenario in which a person—who wishes to die—threatens violence and basically forces police officers to shoot him or her to death. The purpose of this action is to prevent the subject from killing others, an obvious obligation of those charged with public safety.

But it muddles the question of assisted suicide and necessitates more categories for consideration. Brittany Maynard’s case is a specific one: utilizing Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, she has acquired from a physician a lethal dose of medications she can use at will. She has announced that she will cut short her suffering from a fatal brain tumor by taking that dose on November 1. The specific question is whether society should sanction physician-assisted suicide (I say, No). Doctors, particularly, have taken the Hippocratic Oath and promised to “do no harm.” The only way around that one is to somehow reinterpret the situation such that what people find harmful (putting someone to death) is redefined as good (giving the patient an effective means to pursue his or her personal goal). Hence, the incredible discomfort with the whole idea, and one more biblical reason why I am opposed to it (from Isaiah 5:20-24).

So, in search of a biblical perspective on assisted suicide, the question comes up whether Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross, at the direct hands of the Romans but also through the political will of Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership, was a suicide by mob. In the interest of gathering facts, let us consider the information we have been given in Scripture: Jesus was well aware that death lay ahead of him. He “set his face toward Jerusalem” up to six months in advance of his crucifixion (Luke 9:51f). He spoke of “giving his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Could this be interpreted as a plan for suicide? Heavens no, for these reasons:

  1. Jesus’ death was not by his own hand, nor at his request. The fact that he knew what was going to happen didn’t make it happen.

  2. Jesus was God-in-the-flesh, fulfilling his redemptive purpose for all humankind through his birth, life, death, and (ultimately) resurrection and ascension. His crucifixion was death for the sake of others, for everybody but himself.

  3. Jesus chose to obey his heavenly Father, and therefore chose to cooperate with the Plan for our redemption. He proceeded voluntarily, mostly by remaining faithful step-by-step to the will of the Father, teaching and healing against the rules of the Pharisees. Yes, he chose to keep going, motivated completely by love for his Father and grace and truth for us. But that’s not suicide.

  4. Does Jesus’ sacrificial obedience give us permission to choose the time and manner of our death? No, this would be a huge leap of logic. There is not another person on the planet who has the standing (God’s Son, Emmanuel), the perfection (sinlessness), or the purpose (for the salvation of all people) except the One sent by God for the purpose of making sacrifice in atonement for human sin. None of us have the reasons Jesus did for cooperating with the Plan that ultimately led to his death.

What can we infer from Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? He was truly human, as evidenced by his physical death, and all humans will die. We have no hope of any other outcome than that one, in the flesh. Technically we are not in a position to choose death, because it is already inevitable.

What human beings seem to want is control over the circumstances of death in order to avoid the anguish and suffering that often goes with dying. Jesus actually was out of control of his circumstances, having committed himself first and foremost to run the race God had laid out for him (Hebrews 12:1-3). Yes, he could have stopped preaching and healing and thereby reduce the irritation his ministry had on the synagogue officials. But he, like us, was well aware that one can control what one does but cannot control the reactions of others. Yes, he could have taken the Roman soldier’s spear and done himself in, to avoid the agony of the Cross; but then he would not have been innocent and therefore would have been disqualified from being the perfect sacrifice for humanity.

And finally, if we are really tempted to see Jesus’ death as a model for assisted suicide, keep in mind that his suffering was not lessened by the crown of thorns, the mocking, the burden he carried, or the nails in his hands and feet. He fully lived, embracing the awfulness of that manner of death; he did not run from the suffering or try to cut it short. He was conscious, even, until the end. Why not take that courage as our model and live through the life-threatening illnesses we face? That is what his first disciples did: threatened by persecution, they persisted in preaching the gospel despite the danger, and many if not all of them counted it a privilege to die as martyrs. Peter, it is said, was loathe to experience crucifixion in the same manner as his Lord Jesus and so asked to be nailed to his cross upside down. That is not about choosing death; that is about facing death with courage, as Jesus did, “to share his sufferings becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10; see also Romans 6:5).

Somehow, a therapeutic suicide designed for comfort and ease just doesn’t feel the same.

 

Next post: a pastoral perspective on assisted suicide.

As the date for Brittany Maynard’s physician-assisted suicide looms, we are invited to reflect upon the appropriateness, legality, and morality of such an act. This is not merely a personal act, because it involves others in its execution, doctors who have taken an oath to “do no harm.” [I am not saying that a private act escapes moral scrutiny, but the picture is more complicated when an aide is required.] This particular act is a public one because Ms. Maynard is advocating for legalized physician-assisted and -approved suicide as an advancement for society. This is a false and dangerous hope in my opinion.

But as important to me as the societal implication is the morality question. In order to evaluate the morality of PAS, we must go back to the source of our understanding of what is right and wrong, what God desires for us, and how we are to live as a result. To this end, yesterday I collected data points from the Bible, including examples and teachings related to the question. Today, let’s begin to assess their meaning and applicability to the question at hand.

The one (and maybe two) incidents of assisted-suicide in the Bible, the case of Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54) and possibly Saul (if you believe the Amalekite’s story in 2 Samuel 1), were conducted to shield a wannabe king from the shame of defeat, to save his honor. From a cultural standpoint, it might have been seen as the honorable thing to do, to help the king and the nation to save face. Abimelech was identified as wicked, and Saul had deep character flaws that displeased God. Their suicides, from God’s perspective, are not lifted up as good or noble.

In the New Testament, we see Paul’s reaction to a potential “honor suicide” in Philippi (Acts 16). The prison doors miraculously fly open and Paul and Silas’ chains fall loosely from their arms and legs. When the jailer sees the jail’s destruction and that the prisoners are no longer restrained and have possibly escaped, he immediately gestures his intent to take his own life, presumably for failing to do his duty. But Paul stops him, saying, “No, no, we’re here! Do not harm yourself!” (Acts 16:28). Dare we say, from this, that God cares even for the shamed government employee, and there is no need to “save face” in such an extreme manner as suicide?

Samson’s situation is a bit different; in fact, it is arguable that his final act is not suicide. The scene is dramatic and shocking. Samson, who has been blinded and sent to forced labor by the Philistines, nevertheless seeks the Lord’s power one last time to avenge the foe. His destruction of Dagon’s temple accommodating at the time at least a thousand Philistines is seen as a heroic, selfless act, not primarily as a suicide. Yes, Samson knew that he too would fall, but the destruction of a pagan outpost was the greater good.

In today’s world, we see the “ultimate sacrifice” to save the life of another as heroism.

Moving on, to evaluate assisted suicide, we must look at the reasons for the suicide itself. Ms. Maynard’s reason for planning the end of her life is that she fears the undignified and painful course her brain tumor will take. She wants to die on her own terms and avoid the suffering her illness seems to promise. She finds it less fearful to choose her time and manner of death than to let it takes its natural course. She literally wants to take her life into her own hands.

The Scriptures tell us, however, that our hands are not big enough to carry us. We are in God’s hands; our days are in God’s hands. In fact, we are not our own:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19f)

If Ms. Maynard believes that her life is in her own hands, it is no wonder to me that she can see only one resolution to her problem. The destruction of her life on her own terms is the inevitable result of being too heavy and significant to carry in her own strength. Her own terms include her own reasons, which involve considerations of comfort and ease of dying. This is far from heroic motivation, which by definition is selfless; this is self-serving, if not actually cowardly.

She, however, sees it as her personal and unique obligation to take care of herself and how she dies: in control. The sadness of this, to me, is that in order to believe it is up to her she must ignore the availability and compassion of a great God and Savior.

We are not our own, and God proved it with his ransom of us from the clutch of despair, sin, and evil. For those of us who know we are known and loved by God, carried and cared for by our Creator, the idea of taking what is not ours is unfathomable. Suicide is theft of a body, if not a soul. The identity of the thief might vary, depending on the situation. But a premeditated, chosen, planned act by a sane and rational human being is a sad denial of God’s compassionate ownership.

 

My husband and I have been hugely entertained and encouraged by the messages received in response to yesterday’s non-rhetorical question: What if a trial attorney were to ask you, “Pastor, would you be willing to put aside your Christian faith in order to be a fair and impartial juror?” My blog today could quote them all and fill this page, and I may still before the day is over. But the question itself deserves and requires some consideration simply for what it says about our culture.

Part 1: Would I be willing to put aside my Christian faith?

I first consciously committed my life to Christ forty-four years ago, though I was raised in the faith since early childhood. My faith has been tested through many challenging periods: rejection by fellow students for being the wrong brand of Christian; pressure from clergy feminists to radicalize me; marriage and the bearing of children (Martin Luther himself called the celibate priesthood a piece of cake compared to being married and supporting a family); the attempt of “clergy killers” to undermine my pastorate; theological education, both received and taught; rejection of my orthodox/biblical arguments within the judicial process of my tribe, the PC(USA); and survival of lung cancer, to name just a few. But to quote one of Barbra Streisand’s songs, “I’m still here.”

I have had many invitations to “put aside” my faith, and so far, I have not and I cannot imagine a situation in which I would ever want to, including jury service. Putting aside one’s faith compartmentalizes it (thank you, Debbie Berkley), but my faith is a way of life and as indispensible to me as the air I breathe (thank you, Jim Berkley).

From a theological point of view, is it even possible to “put aside” one’s faith as a temporary gesture? I really don’t think so, because I am not my own and was bought with a price; my faith really is not mine to put aside because God cannot be put aside. I belong to God. My life has been redeemed by the Savior. It would be extremely ungrateful of me to set aside the gracious investment God has made in my life.

If one wants to talk about putting aside one’s faith permanently, that is another discussion altogether, and one we need not get into here.

So, my answer to this part of the question is “No.” (Thank you, Steve Niccolls!)

Part 2: Does my Christian faith make me unfair and partial?

Getting out my dictionary, a few definitions are in order:

“Fair” is “in accordance with the rules or standards; just (based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair); free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” “Impartial” is “treating all people and groups equally; not partial or biased.” “Bias” is “a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly.” Note that bias is not merely determining that a person or idea is better than others, but that it leads to treating some more harshly or leniently than others. I’ll be the first to claim that there are some really bad ideas out there, and the people who hold them may be ignorant, foolish, or malevolent. But simply holding dumb ideas is not a crime, and holding lofty thoughts does not prevent a person from doing illegal things. One overcomes bias by holding every person to the same standard of behavior, regardless of their background, race, or religious belief.

The same should go for jurors. The only time I have sat on a jury, one of the jurors declared in our deliberation that he “never believed a word a cop said, because they all lie.” It’s one thing to believe that cops lie; it’s quite another to dismiss the testimony of this police witness without running it through the same tests we do for all other testimony. That juror was showing bias and partiality. It took a full day to get him to recognize his prejudice and look at the testimony of all the witnesses consistently.

In the Christian faith, fairness is a tricky concept. We hear about it most often in our unguarded moments of claiming that God isn’t fair. This accusation is slung usually at the moment we didn’t get our own way because God somehow wasn’t treating us the same as others. But I think we can say God is fair and he is good. In fact, the Scriptures claim that God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11). God has set up the rules and applies them consistently. By all rights, God is justified in holding us all accountable for our failure to live up to those rules. The gospel proclaims that to fulfill that justice Jesus Christ took upon himself the punishment of our sin. If you want fairness from God, then you have to let go of grace, which is unmerited favor!

By “unfair” does an attorney think a Christian juror might be too soft on crime or too harsh in judgment? Or worse, that a juror might not seriously deliberate because everybody deserves forgiveness? An attorney who thinks that about Christians has already shown bias. There is nothing unsavory about a Christian’s approach to the juror’s job, which has everything to do with hearing the evidence and evaluating the arguments of the prosecution to determine whether the accused has actually committed the crime.

So, to answer the question, can I be fair and impartial? Yes, I can!

Part 3: By your question, are you saying that my Christian faith is at odds with the judicial process and the rule of law?

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

Seems to me this says that a Christian is an asset to a jury, because heavenly wisdom helps a juror hold to the belief that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty. It enables a clear eye to view the evidence, a patient ear to hear the testimony, an impartial heart that judges all people by the same standard of law, and submission to the civil authorities (Romans 13:1). And you want me to set aside my faith? I really don’t think you want that.

But, having said all that, here’s the answer that my friend Bruce Byrne would give:

“I’m not sure I could set aside my Christian faith, but if you think it would help me be a fair and impartial juror to assume that the universe (including time and space) came into existence of its own accord, that the universe just happens (against all odds) to be fine tuned for life, that life was and is merely an improbable accident, that intelligence arose from that which was non-intelligent, that consciousness arose from a complex arrangement of unconscious matter, that morality is a relic of a non-moral evolutionary process (thus making moral right and wrong not merely relative, but illusionary), that there is, therefore, no moral lawgiver behind morality, no ultimate judge, no truth beyond brute facts, no grounding for laws beyond social convention and, therefore, no basis for concluding that things like murder, theft and lying under oath are actually wrong, then sure, I’ll give it a try.”

 

Yesterday we considered the human drive toward newness. The writer of Ecclesiastes helped us to see that “under the sun,” that is, in the realm of purely human experience, there is nothing really new. People think they’ve found something new to entertain, feed an addiction, or eat; but chances are pretty good that even a primitive form of that thing has been around for a very long time.

To this restless searching, God—through the voice of Isaiah—asks the pertinent question: Why do we waste our money on stuff that does not satisfy (53:2)? God implanted in human DNA a yearning for something unreachable. Read carefully the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2). Why would God include in Paradise one lousy tree to which Adam and Eve were barred access? Note that this limitation is pre-Fall, telling me human beings were never meant to have it all.

Until Eve started conversing with the snake in Genesis 3, she and her husband apparently were fine about not having it all. Why would God have considered this limitation an essential part of his created order? Because God hoped that when human beings encountered feelings of longing, of need or expansiveness, they would turn to him! God has always been completely equipped and empathetic to give us whatever we need. Adam and Eve apparently didn’t realize that a sense of need for their Creator was something they needed! If they were to “have it all,” that sense of incompleteness or need for God would disappear, and in fact it did after the Fall.

So where does this leave us? First of all, realizing that humans of every generation have tried just about everything to feel satisfied. There’s nothing new under the sun. Second, that God is the One who can and will satisfy us at the core level, if we would turn our longing and affection in his direction. The pointed question that opens Isaiah 53 resolves with God’s declaration:

2          Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
                        and delight yourselves in rich food.
3          Incline your ear, and come to me;
                        listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 53:2b-3)

The key to feeling satisfied, emotionally and spiritually, is in our listening to God, delighting in his fare, and trusting him with our lives.

Listening to God means feasting upon his Word, “eat[ing] this book” as Eugene Peterson put it. It means seeing the world through the filter of God’s revelation in Scripture and relying on the Holy Spirit to apply it appropriately in our lives. We must be careful not to read into Scripture our current experience but to welcome Scripture to interpret our current experience instead. This is crucial to a proper exercise of spiritual discernment. If our process of figuring out what God is saying to us is unhitched from Scripture and relying on a rogue Spirit to tell us something novel and clever, we are going to end up on the wrong side of things or headed in the wrong direction.

Delighting in God’s fare means receiving what God has given in joy and repentance. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), loves us and feeds us and clothes us (Matthew 6:25-27), forgives us and seeks to rebuild our life from the inside out (2 Corinthians 3:18). The only adequate response for that is to receive God’s great gift of abundant life (John 10:10b) with gratitude and good stewardship and live a life that is ordered by God’s Word. It means being satisfied with what God gives and rejecting the notion that we can do better on our own.

Trusting God with our lives means relinquishing the right to call the shots. It means realizing that we are God’s in life and in death; and living without fear, anger, dread, or frustration is something God’s Spirit works in us. Trusting God is the fulfillment of our faith, the completion of the process that begins with knowing God, embracing to his Word, and saying “yes” to him in all things. When one puts Jesus at the center of one’s life, all the other things that have distracted or dissatisfied us no longer drive us. We are truly free to enjoy being a beloved son or daughter of God.

I hope it is obvious by now that reimagining God or reinventing the spiritual wheel are unnecessary and untoward actions for Christians to take. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God’s Word is eternal and true (Isaiah 40:8). This isn’t to say that the world in which we live, “under the sun,” isn’t changing. But because it is, we must hold tight to the One who never changes. I love the slogan that has been a part of Fuller Seminary’s ethos for years: “The unchanging gospel for an ever changing world.” Seems to me, as Presbyterians (for instance) embark upon the 1001 New Worshiping Communities journey, that we encourage a renewal of our commitment to the unchanging gospel, because that is ultimately what our culture is hungering for.

[Got sidetracked yesterday, first with Jury Duty and then with the Giants-Pirates wildcard match-up last night. Okay, I am back in focus!]

In my last post, I suggested that just because something is new or experimental, it does not necessarily follow that it is good or orthodox. The catalyst for my comments was an “outside the box” worship service conducted during the last meeting of San Francisco Presbytery.  It makes sense now to explore whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other historic mainline denominations have fallen off the deep end in their efforts to try something new. The motivation, it seems, would be to attract new people to worship, to reach the next generation, or to break through the culture’s din to get its attention.

An oft-quoted Scripture that is bent out of shape to justify all kinds of practices within my tribe, the PC(USA), is this one:

            Do not remember the former things,
                        or consider the things of old.
            I am about to do a new thing;
                        now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18f)

How is it that Christians are to be open to “a new thing” God might be doing while retaining orthodox, historic doctrine? I realize that I have framed the question such that progressives have an opening to say, “Old doctrine prevents us from doing a new thing. The new thing is more important; we should jettison the old doctrine.” The “Reformed and always reforming” crowd goes so far as to say that chucking the old doctrine is part of our Reformed Heritage! I have contested that view before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission and on committees I have served, to no avail. Some of my previously written thoughts are found here.

The present generation is restless for the new thing, intellectually and spiritually speaking. I have seen this dynamic among friends who have moved to the left on issues and practices. Their journey begins with a sense of boredom with the old ideas, an attraction to the new and novel, a lure toward creative theology. This restlessness is an almost universal motivator, as described by the writer of Ecclesiastes:

            All things are wearisome (or, perhaps, restless);
                        more than one can express;
            the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
                        or the ear filled with hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

The problem identified here is spiritual dissatisfaction. What exactly about the Christian faith is less than satisfactory, enough to cause a person to let go of the anchor of God’s Word and paddle out to sea spiritually? Does this spiritual dissatisfaction leave us open to the enticing words of the tempter, “Did God really say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1ff). I think so. I also think some people are just plain explorers by personality. They have made it a habit over a lifetime to keep moving on to new thoughts, new views, new commitments. Sometimes that has meant leaving behind treasures, like the Word of God, as eyes and ears perk up to novel new ideas that tickle in just the right place.

From an adult development standpoint, a person’s worldview naturally expands, as new experiences require new categories of thinking. What used to be a satisfactory answer to a heartfelt question is no longer adequate to cover a new, very real, often very difficult experience in life. As an example, a little girl age four loses her mother in a fatal car accident. An explanation is given that is appropriate for a four-year-old. But at twelve, that same answer simply does not address the new, expanded question in that child’s heart, and someone must tackle it at the twelve-year level. At age thirty-two that same little girl with adult questions is left dissatisfied by an answer given twenty years before. With good guidance, this woman can land in a good place emotionally and spiritually. But for some in a search for answers, paths of “healing” can go in directions that have warning signs along the way. The seeker may miss them in the pain or confusion of the moment. I’ve seen it happen, and it is very sad.

The Scriptures teach that restlessness of this kind can never be satisfied fully by earth-bound things, because nothing actually is “new”:

            What has been is what will be,
                        and what has been done is what will be done;
                        there is nothing new under the sun.
           Is there a thing of which it is said,
                        “See, this is new”?
            It has already been,
                        in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Meanwhile, in our search for what cannot satisfy (thinking of Isaiah 55:1-2), we find ourselves at a dead-end. The so-called “new” thing soon feels just as stale and ineffective as the “old.” To this dynamic, the Word of Life introduces the incarnational, intrusive, and transformative power of God, who by doing the old thing makes all things new. More on that tomorrow.

 

In earlier posts, found here and here, I shared a couple of methods for generating discussion on topics needing theological reflection. I used 4-MAT and Case Studies often in the Fuller Seminary classes I taught. Versions of both have been helpful in the church Sunday school context, but I fell upon a less formal approach that got excellent traction in the last church I served.

Years ago, I started an adult Sunday school class we called “Hot Off the Press.” The idea was to engage in discussion of world and national events from a faith perspective. My agenda was to model and teach “ordinary” Christians how to think, in a world that often values feelings more than rationality. Each week I brought a news story that begged for a Christian response. We read it together, and brainstormed the issues it raised. We then considered what God might say about the situation and what actions we might take in response. Among the many subjects we tackled, we talked about the Palestinian/Israeli question (which took more than one class session), human cloning, religion in political life, parenting issues, just war, and “What would Jesus drive?” (during a light news week).

My favorite discussion revolved around the case of a young boy attending a church nursery school, whose mother was a lap dancer or stripper at a local club. The 4-year-old boy was expelled from the school three weeks before classes ended in June, because his mother’s occupation was discovered by a church member browsing the web.

Did we have fun with that one!

Who was it that said, “Preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”? This is what we tried to do, and the engagement of faith with real life stretched us. I was encouraged by the development of these folks, who over two years’ time revealed fewer unsubstantiated biases, asked better questions, turned to the Bible appropriately, and loved each other better.

Christian Scharen, pastor friend and facilitator of a Yale study group called Faith as a Way of Life, visited my HOTP class and made the following report:

Mary ministers to a diverse crowd including typical suburban families and longtime Concord residents, faith seekers and lifelong Presbyterians Her driving goal as a pastor is to learn how to ask the right questions to help people grow in faith and to align themselves with the life of Christ. One key way she has done this is through a long-term coaching effort that takes place during “Hot [O]ff the Press” . . . The Sunday I visited, the news article was about the street protests over treatment of immigrants in France. The article, from a local newspaper, presented multiple voices, including leaders in the immigrant communities and various French politicians and government officials. We first needed to sort out as best we could what facts could be known. Mary pushed hard to separate our opinion and bias such as “The French have a sense of nationalism rooted in racial purity” and discern the actual shape of the circumstance. The interaction of the twenty-five or so participants was lively and responsive to her prodding. They clearly knew the drill, policing each other as much as Mary did regarding the effort to sketch a factual basis for the discussion. Then Mary introduced several Scripture passages, including passages from Deuteronomy on treatment of the “alien” and Galatians 3:28 regarding oneness in Christ. Mary’s clarity about Scripture’s importance for considering the issue did not collapse into any direct policy recommendations; rather, it gave way to a vigorous conversation about the complexity of law, immigration, and issues California faces that are similar to the French case.

Practice thinking about faith in relation to immigration in France teaches that faith matters in all spheres of life. Such guided conversation . . . trains Christians how to see and act with eyes and legs of faith rather than be guided by the many other orienting forces in their lives.

—Christian Scharen, Faith as a Way of Life (2008, Eerdmans), 92-93. Used with permission of the author.

As we model for others what it looks like to be a World Christian, full of compassion within the realm of Christ’s grace and truth, we need to be equipped for discussion around sensitive topics. Perhaps one of the models I have shared here at Bringing the Word to Life spurs you on to some purposeful, constructive reflection upon world events. It might even help you and yours enter into some of the controversial subjects facing the Presbyterian tribe these days. We must not lose heart, lose feeling, or withdraw our interest from the news that swirls around us. Let us hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, and stay engaged long enough to gain a sense from Jesus our Redeemer of how we can be a redemptive presence.

For further information about implementing Hot Off the Press in your church family, please see “Hot Off the Press” under Pages in the right hand column of my home page.

Unspeakable Sadness

September 22, 2014

Going back to my original list of reasons for not blogging this summer, today I address the experience of sadness. Several things piled on over time and rendered me still before God, downcast in spirit:

• my mother’s death after a sudden and short illness, in early April
• the developing news of my friend Steve Hayner’s pancreatic cancer
• actions of General Assembly, particularly regarding same-sex marriage
• the beheading of innocents at the hands of ISIS
• the escalating death toll due to Ebola in West Africa
• devastating wildfires in California, at or near some of my favorite places on earth
• the word “permanent” uttered by one of my doctors in reference to my breathing difficulties

I suppose everybody feels sadness in unique ways. For me, it starts in the sternum as an ache and rises to the throat, triggering tears and moaning. Such a feeling of heaviness comes with a sense of loss, a loss to me or a loss to humanity. It is often accompanied by helplessness, because sadness overwhelms after the checklist of “what can I do to fix this?” is exhausted.

Sadness is certainly not new to the human experience. It seems every generation has its own sad history to deal with. I think of Joe Rantz of The Boys in the Boat fame, whose family packed up the household and drove off leaving 15-year-old Joe to fend for himself. What possible reaction can a reader have to such callous abandonment! Sadness, and perhaps anger, hardly do justice to the loss experienced under such conditions.

On the other hand, sadness apart from outrage can be a powerful emotion of its own. Consider the progression of the five stages of grief: upon experiencing a loss, a person goes through denial, anger, and bargaining before coming to depression, or the experience of pure sadness. When the full reality of a loss makes its way into our consciousness, after we protest loudly (to God or neighbor), and try to work out some alternative “solution,” when all of that works its way through our system, we finally arrive at a point at which we can only say, “It is sad. It is so sad.” This is the kind of sadness that silences a person. Job’s friends would have done much better ministry if they had just sat with him on the heap of ashes and bore the burden with him (Job 13:4f).

I think it is possible for a person to be very sad without becoming depressed, but if sadness hovers for a prolonged period one should be alert to the possibility that depression is setting in. In that case, get help! It happens! Tell somebody about it; talk it through!

Even our Savior waded in deep waters of sadness from time to time:

“Jesus wept,” “greatly disturbed and moved” by the show of grief at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:35). He entered into the community’s grief and felt his own fully. This deeply emotional moment was not a sign of weakness but recognition of a friend’s death and sorrow for paradise lost. I can just hear the One who was present for the Creation protesting, “This is not the way it was supposed to be!” And yet, right at this moment, even Jesus was silent.

Sadness stops speech, but it does not necessarily stop action. In his grief, Jesus may have embraced the words of the Psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b). And in that anticipated joy, Jesus realized his life-bringing purpose and called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” For us, the action may be wordless, in the form of a hug or a card sent in the mail. Simply by engaging sadness in its most genuine form, we move through it. We have to move through it—thoughtfully, prayerfully, thoroughly—and find what we can find on the other side of it.

For people of the Christian faith, the reality and promise of resurrection goes a long way toward lifting the heaviness of sadness. We can at least become functional again. Some say their sadness never leaves them, and it may not; but eventually the One who is sad with us says, “Okay, my dear one, I am carrying this one with you, but it’s time to re-engage with the world around you.” Anyone who has lost a spouse or a child knows this. The pain is unspeakable, as is the sadness; but sometimes “exercise” helps in the meantime.

For Jesus, sorting out his situation in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was “bargaining” just one last time: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). When the answer was “No, I want you to walk through the valley of death as we agreed to do,” Jesus summoned the courage available in his being to submit to the Father and face the wayward earthly authorities according to God’s plan. Yes, of course, it led to his death. Our sadness, at a much smaller level, often involves some kind of death, too: the death of a dream, of a home, of a relationship, of a plan. With that death (or loss) comes grief; after the stillness and silence of a first response, we are encouraged by the example of our Savior to exercise our faith, walk in the light, and do our duty.

For me, now, that exercise is writing. Yes, the unspeakable must now be spoken. And in the speaking, the sadness loses some of its power to devastate and gains some power to point us to the morning, and the One who has promised:

[“H]e will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

 

 

Today I would like to develop further the idea I introduced yesterday of finding one’s voice. Isaiah 40:1-9 has spoken to me lately, and though the topic there is Jerusalem/Zion’s revival after a long season of disruption from Babylonian and Assyrian tyrants, there are parallels to today’s church and the role of prophet therein.

The passage begins with words of comfort, indicating to God’s Chosen that the worst of their captivity is over:

1          Comfort, O comfort my people,
                        says your God.
2          Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
                        and cry to her
            that she has served her term,
                        that her penalty is paid,
            that she has received from the LORD’S hand
                        double for all her sins.

Israel has been through the ringer, undergoing God’s judgment against her apostasy, her empty worship, and her sense of entitlement. But God is saying here, You have paid your debt and have entered a new season of reconciliation with God.

But now, some real work has to be done to rebuild the people of God:

3          A voice cries out:
            “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
                        make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4          Every valley shall be lifted up,
                        and every mountain and hill be made low;
            the uneven ground shall become level,
                        and the rough places a plain.
5          Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
               and all people shall see it together,
                        for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

In the wasteland of human hearts, a major construction project must be undertaken in order to welcome God back into residence among his people. Obstacles to the Lord’s full access must be removed, what is uneven must be paved level, and what is crooked must be straightened. From a spiritual perspective, what must happen is this: God’s people—including church people who have been wayward—must make preparations for another invasion. This one does not bring weapons of mass destruction but the full Glory of God’s Presence. Only those purified by the refiner’s fire will be able to withstand God’s Glory; that’s why God’s arrival is something that must be anticipated and prepared for. It is the role of prophet, ancient and contemporary, to speak the plan and call people to the work of preparation for the Lord’s coming.

There are always doubters in our midst, then and now:

6          A voice says, “Cry out!”
                        And I said, “What shall I cry?”
            All people are grass,
                        their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7          The grass withers, the flower fades,
                        when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
                        surely the people are grass.

The question is whether mere mortals can muster the courage and the skill for the assigned task. How can inconsistent, fragile, temporary people make ready for God’s Glory? This voice says, Surely people are grass, which does not fare too well in drought and wind and wildfire (don’t we Californians know this?!).

If it were only up to us to make straight and level the road of life, we would fail. But there is hope, spoken by the voice of faith:

8          [Yes, indeed. . .] The grass withers, the flower fades;
                        but the word of our God will stand forever.

It isn’t your word or my word that will carry the message of hope and restoration to exiled people, it is God’s Word! God’s is the Word that stands forever, that cannot be shaken, and will be heard (eventually) by everybody! It behooves the prophet(s) in our midst, including me, to proclaim the Word of the Lord and bring that Word to life.

So how does that translate to blogging ministry? Denominational topics? I’m not sure the PC(USA) is out of the woods, yet, of God’s judgment for straying away from his Word and disregarding his law. Our tribe is still proving the existence of “total depravity” (a Reformation-era concept). It is very possible that in our lifetimes we could see the demise of the PC(USA) simply because it redefines itself to be people who write their own “word.” For this reason, “Comfort, comfort ye, my people” may not be the appropriate message to the PC(USA). The prophet may still have to name the sin and voice the warnings. When things happen (and I have a doozy from last week), I may not be able to avoid the admonitions and exhortations that rise to my mouth! On the other hand, I would really like to be able to point to those moments and occasions when God’s Glory breaks through or when God’s Word addresses life as I am experiencing it. For you, I hope that means encouragement for your effort towards spiritual restoration and rehabilitation—making paths to God straight and level.

So this is an invitation to embark upon this as a project God has given us, to let God’s Word inform and transform us in life and in death. That means reflecting on real life—however it unfolds—in light of God’s Word.

Today as I continue exploring the implications for Jesus’ Ascension into heaven (as the Apostles’ Creed puts it), the spatial considerations are interesting and worthy of note. It turns out, referring to heaven as “up there” and distant from us is a bit misleading. Luke’s gospel (24:50) records, “Jesus left them and was taken up into heaven.” In Acts, he writes, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. [The disciples] were looking intently up into the sky as he was going . . .” The Greek translated “taken up” means to be carried off, to be removed. The “up” aspect of our translation is not necessarily a spatial reference. What was key is that Jesus was removed from their sight, obscured by a cloud. He was removed from physical limitations of space to reign alongside the Father who already transcends physical space. That means that God does not dwell in a place (that is, a physical location) but in fact fills the heavens and the earth where he always has access. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “God relates to space as we do to our body. He occupies and overflows it but cannot be localized in it. Every point in it is accessible to his consciousness and will, and his manifest presence can be focused in any location as he sees fit [as in the Incarnation]” (Divine Conspiracy, 76).

Practically speaking, the so-called ascension made Jesus available as spiritual presence to all people because he occupies all space that isn’t already taken up by something else (our bodies, all creation, etc.) The good news is that Jesus is very close, though invisible to the eye, and we are invited to relate to him, follow his lead, and summon him at any time. What I have been trying, clumsily, to describe is the immanence of Jesus Christ.

But there is still a transcendence to hang on to as well. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father to reign forever and ever! This is a spatial description of a spiritual reality that Jesus Christ is distinctly set apart from everything and everyone else, identified as “with the Father” in that unity he described in the great priestly prayer of John 17. He reigns over all and holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). This is a position of holiness, purity, and power, and no one else has it but Jesus. Our unholiness, as in “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), has separated us from God, who then feels distant and “up there.” Jesus changed that reality when he reconciled us to God and when he, by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelt in our mortal bodies by faith (Romans 8:11). But Jesus at the right hand of the Father will always be purer, higher, and greater than we are; of this there is no doubt. From this position—having God’s ear, so to speak—Jesus Christ intercedes for us to the Father (Romans 8:34). He bridges the gap of any “distance” between us, and makes known what we really need.

When Jesus described what he would be doing after his departure (I’m thinking of John 14 now), we get this sense that preparing a place for us and sending the Spirit could only be accomplished if Jesus were no longer in sight. It seems to me that Jesus’ disappearance was necessary in order for us to more fully experience the Trinity: God’s reign, Christ’s reconciliation, the Spirit’s empowerment. From this angle we cannot conclude that Jesus left his disciples but that he, in a sense, moved out of the way so that they could see more readily the full glory of God. In fact, once introduced to the “glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:6), our vision by the Spirit is now expanded to see God at work through the dynamics of the Trinity, God’s full engagement with human beings to complete our redemption.

If this appreciation for the Trinity is a sign of spiritual progress to the Christian (the crux of Teresa of Avila’s point in Interior Castle), then of course the very visible public Jesus would want the shy member of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit, in Dale Bruner’s terminology) to shine forth. And does he ever, with a lot of racket and excitement on Pentecost Sunday!

So in summary, the ascension of Jesus made possible the following very practical dynamics:

1. His disciples were commissioned to step up and participate in God’s Kingdom agenda, following closely what Jesus had taught them.

2. His disappearance made possible his immanent presence to all regardless of their geographic location.

3. We were given access to the wonderful dynamics of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit.

4. Specifically, from his position on the heavenly throne, Jesus Christ pours out his Spirit upon his disciples.

5. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, Jesus intercedes for us (as does the Spirit who dwells in our hearts by faith—Romans 8:26).