Learning to Comfort

Life has been unreasonably hard for my family as of late. We have had some of our family head home to be with Jesus, who loved them so. I am a verbal processor, so part of this is me working through that sadness and loss. Also, having been on the other side of loss and having to comfort another, I have learned a few things.

As Christians, we tend to want to put a spiritual twist on everything. Outside of grief, the statement, “God has a plan,” and “It’s for the best,” and “They’re with Jesus now,” sound perfectly reasonable and kind. Those phrases come so easily to someone who is not in the pain of loss. To a grieving mother, child, friend, or loved one, those phrases can hurt more than we know. These “kind” phrases elicit such thoughts as, “How could this be part of God’s plan?” and “It’s best for whom?” and “That’s nice and all, but I’d rather my loved one be right here, in my arms.”

Even Jesus felt the sting of loss and pain. Losing his dear friend Lazarus broke his heart. He wept, bitterly. And, unlike us, he could do something about it. He could, and did, bring Lazarus back, but even having that power didn’t stop the loss from piercing his heart.

I don’t know about anyone else, but the most helpful phrase to hear when I’m going through loss is, “That’s terrible. I don’t know what to say. I’m praying for you.” Sometimes silence is helpful, especially when accompanied by a hug, a squeeze of the hand, or an arm around the shoulder.

It’s times like these that I’m forced to face the fact of mortality, but also remember that Jesus’ ultimate goal is to destroy death. He will ultimately destroy death, disease, and pain, along with their cause: sin. When that day comes, our tears will be dried and our hearts comforted.

Until then, we’ll have to struggle along in a broken world where we grieve, hurt, and ache. We’ll have to lean on one another and prop one another up, as Jesus taught us to do. Model gentleness and thoughtfulness to your friends and family, remind hurting people that you are there, that God is there, and that it’s OK to hurt and feel sadness.

How have you been approached when you experienced loss? Was it helpful?

A Response to/from a Millenial (I think?)

Here’s the original article I shared: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2015/05/13/dear-church-an-open-letter-from-one-of-those-millennials-you-cant-figure-out/

I originally posted this article with no comment, but I was asked to better explain why I shared this article, even if I am not entirely in agreement with everything said.

So here I go:

First, as far as being a Millennial, I’m still not entirely sure of what that means. I may be one because I’m in the early to mid-twenties stage of life that seems to be the crux of adulthood now. So, for now, I’ll say I’m one.

When I see someone from my age group, unless I see them in church, I generally assume that they don’t go to church. Call me cynical or pessimistic, or judgmental. Maybe I am, but I have heard more often from my age group how they were hurt, ostracized, or bored by the church at large and why they’re seeking other communities to identify with. And there’s the key, really.

The key is that my age group is looking for genuine community. We are constantly on the lookout for people who refuse to put up fronts, even if they disagree with us. We are looking for those people who can be both strong and vulnerable at the same time. We’re constantly looking for a place where we can be ourselves, be loved, and be accepted while feeling safe enough to grow into who God created us to be, as messy as that process might be.

I heard Timothy Keller speak (podcast, working with kids on Sunday means I don’t hear many sermons live) about an Inside Out faith. No, not based on the new Disney/Pixar masterpiece. He said that religion focuses on exteriors, while Christianity focuses on the interior.

He made the point that religion sets out a list of dos and don’ts to check off before death in order to earn honor, love, and a place in a wonderful afterlife. It relies on making sure the I and me are taken care of in the long run. Ultimately, it’s a selfish endeavor that tends to leave people peevish, judgmental, divisive, and alienating.

Jesus, on the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) uses the opportunity to talk about how he desires heart change, not just behavior change. Because actions can change, even though the heart hasn’t. Try telling a child to apologize to another – behavior changes, heart doesn’t always change along with it. So Jesus says throughout his teaching there “you have heard it said” that such and so a behavior is bad. Then he takes it deeper by adding, “but I tell you” that if your heart and attitude change, the behavior will be out of the question. And when we act out of the fact that we are already loved and are forgiven, our hearts are more welcoming, forgiving, and accepting.

In other words, a good number of these young adults have found themselves at the mercy of the Christian religion when they desired Jesus. And while the flashing lights and fog machines work for a little while, what people are looking for in a church is a home, a family. And they don’t always want a home like they have at their house. They need a safe, secure place to live in community where they can heal, grow and flourish in their gifts and callings.

I will also say that many my age, myself included, are frustrated when the church doesn’t live up to expectations, but the people of God have been dealing with not living up to the mark since the time of Abraham. That doesn’t give us an excuse, but instead reminds us that God is still doing work in us to change the world around us.

Think through your child’s experience of church. Do they see genuine community, or do they see external religion? Do they feel safe talking about their weaknesses and struggles at church and at home,  or are they in fear of judgment or condemnation?

Singleness and the Church

The church has traditionally done a huge disservice to a large number of people in its own membership. That disservice then bled out into the culture at large, and has done some damage to an even larger number of people.

Here’s the myth: “Everyone is bound to get married.”

Well, not exactly. Sure, if that’s what you want, then please pursue that goal. However, if marriage isn’t something you desire, then go ahead an pass. There are requirements and consequences for both choices. But that’s what marriage is – a choice, a commitment to another person forever and a day. It isn’t a crush, infatuation, or destiny. Marriage is an oath made in all seriousness in front of God and witnesses that two people will be faithful and look out for one another. It’s a big deal and a huge responsibility.

Being married myself, I can say that it does have its perks. But my best friend at the moment is single, and can do much more spur of the moment service than I can. When two people function as one, it takes more effort and planning to schedule service opportunities. Add kids (whether married or single), and that planning takes even more effort and thought. People who don’t have those commitments can and do have the freedom to pursue different goals and can move much faster in response to God’s calling. For instance, I would love to return to China and teach English for a year or longer. But, being married means I have to take into account how my wife feels and how that will affect our family. Before I was married, I had the opportunity to spend a month there teaching English and took it. Now I have opportunities here with my wife to serve together serving children and their families, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But understand that’s where my wife and I are right now, and everyone has a different calling.

In some ways, this is where I have to commend the Catholic church for its stance on marriage and singleness. They have taken, especially in recent years, to teaching that every person has a vocation, a calling, and each person’s is unique to the gifts and situation of that person. Think about it, the vocation of a married parent will be very different than an unmarried person with no children which will be different than a single parent or a married person with no children. Both have unique places in the body of Christ that are no more or less important.

The church doesn’t emphasize the abilities and opportunities for singleness enough. When was the last time anyone heard a sermon on the virtues and opportunity of being unmarried? Now how many sermons on marriage have you heard in the past three months?

Regardless on whether you’re married, single, have kids, or have no children, you have a calling from God. Don’t let the tide of culture and the pressure from others keep you from taking advantage of the opportunities in front of you. Listen for God and where he’s leading you. Watch for opportunities to serve and take them!

(For the parents in the room: How do you show your children the benefits of your situation? How do you model marriage in a way that shows the opportunities there? How do you model your singleness as a chance to live a full life serving God and others?)

The Most Terrifying Answer to Prayer

Prayer is a concept that I think has lost its meaning over the centuries in churches. I say that as a grand hyperbole, but on an individual level, I’m certain I’ve only heard a few prayers in the past year that struck me as being truly God-centered.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that the purpose of prayer, in some ways isn’t to simply have our needs heard. As the people of God and followers of Jesus, prayer is supposed to be outward focused and centered on God and His mission. (Reminded of this by Paul Bradshaw in Reconstructing Early Christian Worship.) Sure, Jesus even instructs us to ask for the things we need, but the first thing he has us do in his example is pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we pray, do we include the homeless person right down the street? Do we include those trapped in an oppressive system of poverty? Do we include those women and men being trafficked for labor or prostitution in the US and abroad? Do we include the President and government officials? Do we include the refugees in the Middle East who remain in fear of another extremist attack from people supposedly of their own faith? Do we pray for persecuted Christians and other minorities around the world?

If you do, you’ve probably received the most terrifying answer to prayer: “Go. I send you.”  Nothing is more striking or anxiety inducing that hearing that answer after praying about the problem of poverty in our city. And yet, nothing is more encouraging or exciting than hearing that answer, either. I mean, think about it: the great God of Creation and Resurrection just hand-picked you to be a part of the mission he has of restoring the world he created. (Insert sound of mind exploding here.)

In that moment when your praying about making sure that homeless people are warm during the winter and your child says, “We’ve got some extra coats in the closet,” how will you respond? When you’ve been praying about feeding the homeless and your child points someone out, what will you do? You actions will determine how your child prays and responds to prayer throughout their life. Be ready when your family receives the most terrifying answer to prayer.

Political Headaches

So, I’ve heard that the quickest way to lose friends is to talk about money, religion, or politics. So far on this blog I’m 2 for 3 on that. And today… I’m still going to leave money alone.

Anyone else already tired of the 2016 US presidential election? I know, it’s still 2015 and there’s a long way to go, yet. The only reason I bring it up is I’m already starting to watch Christians and others separate out into their different camps to prepare for the long siege that is election season. Sure, this is a grand old American tradition where we throw verbal grenades from one side toward another, slapping one another with insults while calling it “debating” or better yet “educating.”

Be aware that children do pick up these things. I’ve heard children criticize Presidents with some pretty harsh language. I have to come to one of two conclusions about that: either these are incredibly precocious children with a penchant for detailed political analysis or they’ve heard the phrase of the day at home and can now spout it loudly and proudly.

Fact: I have not agreed with every policy choice made over the past 15 years.

Other Fact: Critical thought and careful discussion are very different than gut-reaction and bile spewing.

Last Fact: Children often take on not only their parent’s religious views but their political views as well.

So, wouldn’t it be much better to state clearly why you disagree with an elected official rather than angrily repost a meme or share the latest angry post? Or let me ask it this way: would you rather hear your child thoughtfully and respectfully disagreeing with someone, or hear them name-calling and shouting others down?

Especially in this Internet age, it’s very easy to simply forget that the Facebook pictures and posts on the screen are attached to very real people with very real emotions. Teaching your children to respond to others with patience and respect will be crucial as they become more and more involved online. The Internet’s culture as it stands is one of hatred, misinformation, and cliques. Help your children learn good skill in thinking and responding by modeling those behaviors yourself.

And, hopefully, when my children or students run across this post later in life, they’ll say, “Yeah, he did that.”