Pain Isn’t So Bad

A thought trend I have been hearing lately from many sources, both religious and secular, has been to point to suffering as being the ultimate evil. Secular morality, it seems to me, is built on the idea that suffering is evil and pleasure (even simple comfort) is the greatest good for humanity. From this comes the idea that euthanasia, abortion, and intense military action is completely justified – because all of these seek to end or avoid suffering.

It seems odd to me, though, that a country claiming to be built on Christ’s example would be walking down a path of avoiding suffering. Jesus himself was no stranger to suffering: seeking refuge in Egypt from an unstable ruler, facing intense hunger during fasting, facing the whip for the accusation of being apolitical dissident, and finally facing the traitor’s death at the hands of an oppressive government. Paul, also no stranger to suffering and who made his point clear while listing off his suffering like a list of prestigious degrees, continually called churches to task in order to stand firm and prepare for the worst. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “[…] We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope.” (Romans 5.3-4 Kingdom New Testament)

The Jewish people, God’s chosen, themselves have suffered immensely over the years, steeling themselves to live under the weight of oppressive regime after cruel tyrant. They, who wandered in the wilderness, faced their own trials and testing in the desert, who poured out their hearts through the prophets and psalmists, were no strangers to suffering. These are the people who treasured Job in the list of sacred texts, a book that answers few questions, but instills hope.

So why pain? Well, first, consider that a person who feels no pain or who is incapable of feeling emotion does not gain the title of “human perfected” but instead is often diagnosed with some kind of disorder. Why is that? If avoiding pain is the greatest good, why would people incapable of pain not have reached the pinnacle of humanity?

Perhaps it is that, deep down, we understand the necessity of pain and suffering. Pain often brings wisdom. Suffering often leads to understanding and sympathy. Comforting someone becomes much different when we have lived through the same traumatic experiences as another. We often learn the correct and incorrect ways of living and acting through the pain caused by our own choices. Do we think of others on the other side of the globe when things are going well? Or do we only focus on those places of poverty and destruction when the suffering of those people finally reaches the light of a camera on our televisions or laptops?

Not to say this is the way things should be. God hurts when we hurt, but how often do we as humans need pain to learn and grow? My own scars, both physical and mental, are a list (always growing) of lessons learned and mistakes made. Are they all my own mistakes? No. But have I grown because I have accepted what happened and decided to make a change or become a more caring, understanding individual? Yes.

I think maturity involves coming to grips with human suffering. Many great minds, much more adept than mine, have delved into that dark pool to search out the bottom. I have not had such great suffering as they, but their insight into humanity’s heart and mind have come to shape the way we live and think. James, Jesus’ brother who ended up becoming one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem, wrote: “My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience.” (James 1.2-3 KNT)

This may be why the early church, after the great persecutions ended, sought out monasticism and voluntary fasting. Perhaps there was a sense that suffering, while an unpleasant part of life, helped to remind us of the important things. Loss often leads us to cling tighter to those important people in our lives. Destruction strips away our trust in physical resources. Suffering reminds us that our own bodies will fail.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentioned that a  proper Jewish story begins with suffering or sorrow, and ends with hope. That is also the story for Christian people, for all people – our sorrow can be turned into joy, our crying to laughter, and our pain to celebration. We have a God that is working, even now when we may not be able to perceive it, to set things to rights. We are sitting in the “now and not yet” waiting for the full realization of the victory already achieved through Jesus, as NT Wright would say.

Hope is what we have to hold on to. Hope keeps us strong in the midst of suffering. As we learn and grow, slowly and painfully, we have hope that God, who is ever faithful, is working in every situation to bring about the final victory.

How do discussions about suffering go at your house? How are you using every opportunity to instill hope in your children? What ways have you found to help children find understanding in hope even in difficult situations?



Identity Crisis

(Insert probably needless hedging statement here about how this is an observation and generalization that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. And as you read, you’ll realize just how oddly appropriate this is. Skip to the bottom for the too long; didn’t read summary.)

Recently, I have noticed more and more that language is beginning to get rocky as more and more things are considered problematic to say in public. Pronouns, opinions, and jokes are getting tossed aside left and right in order to create safer communication where no one gets offended. And, yet, I see people getting offended at trying not to offend people. And then people getting offended at those people… And you get the idea.

So what’s the issue? One part of the issues (because, I’ll say the unpopular, “There’s never just one thing wrong or an easy fix,” that news sources and a lot of popular writers conveniently ignore) stems from a severe lack of identity. I’m noticing more and more that the word “identity” is coming up more, but losing its meaning. The question, “Who am I?” continues to be muddied as people seem to be increasingly dependent on one aspect of who they are to define their entire reality.

If that happens, then some people can quickly devolve into shouting matches when they feel their identity is threatened… and I see this happening with lots of different people. Gun rights advocates, sexual identity, Republicans, Democrats, and even Christians.

Why does this happen with Christians? Why, all of a sudden, did Christians flip out because of a Starbucks cup or over saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays?” It may, in part, stem from an identity issue.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, begins with the Beatitudes, a list of individuals who, according to some, would be ineligible for the Kingdom, but Jesus is letting them know that regardless of who they are, they can be a part of God’s family. He’s effectively saying, your identity is based on me and what I am doing instead of anything this world has to offer. In other words, “Find your identity in me, the one who loves you unconditionally, and you’ll have an identity beyond questioning.” (Don’t misunderstand this as being someone who never has doubts, but rather someone who knows who they are.

People who find their identity in Christianity (or a particular way of practicing their belief) get offended just as easily as those who find their identity in something like their physical abilities or beauty, intelligence, charisma, shrewdness, or sexuality. Take a few minutes on your Facebook wall and notice how many fights Christians get into on the internet – especially in the name of “defending Christianity.” Honestly, if they wanted to defend it, they’d get out of the way and let their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control do the talking and allow Jesus to work through that. Normally, though, frustration, anger, contempt, fear, and reflex take over and that doesn’t leave Jesus much to work with. The problem here is that Jesus, for Christians, is God. If he is God, then we don’t need to defend him. Read Revelation 19 sometime and note who actually gears up for battle. (Spoiler: It’s not Jesus’ followers. We stand by without so much as a Christmas wrapping paper tube to swing while making light saber noises.) Or read Luke 9:51-56 and see how Jesus himself dealt with people who rejected him.

If our identity truly is in Jesus, then mean words and phrases don’t mean quite as much, because we are loved by the King. If we mess up and lose our cool, we can humbly ask for forgiveness because we are loved and forgiven by the King. If we see someone with amazing talents and gifts, we can rejoice with them because we are loved and cherished by the King.

If our identity is anywhere else, we lose the ability to not get defensive and protect our ego. If our identity is in Jesus, we’ve already faced the idea of handing over our ego (day after day). And, if he’s holding it, then it’s protected.

This isn’t a quick-fix that will make every day sunshine and roses and fluffy clouds and unicorns. It’s a day-to-day, minute-to-minute decision to find our worth, our hope, our trust, our identity in the one who created us. It’s not easy, and it might hurt a little at first. Doctor’s visits rarely end with me saying, “Boy, howdy, that was fun!” Instead, they end with me rubbing a sore spot or puncture wound saying, “Well, at least I’m getting better now.”

TL:DR Summary:

If our identity is solidly based in the fact that the King of the Universe, the Creator, loves us, then we can stop ourselves from getting caught in the cycle of endless offenses. It’s not easy, and may hurt at first, but it’s a necessary part of being transformed into the image of Christ.

Where is your identity? Ask yourself truly… Who or What would make you angry, or disappointed if it didn’t meet your expectations? What’s the one thing that’s hardest to give up or let go? What is it that causes you to get offended most often. Why?

He’s Not Correct, He’s My Brother

I love humor, maybe more than most people. In fact, as unhealthy as it might be, it’s one of my coping mechanisms. I am a believer that in difficult circumstances, we have two main options, laugh or cry. Now, some people fall along the area between those two, but I prefer to laugh. My love of humor and comedy have been a point or disagreement between my wife and I because she tends to shy away from pure comedy movies and shows, while I tend to gravitate toward them. (However, if we can find a show/movie that has a few laughs along with a good number of explosions, we’re both happy for the most part. And, yes, she’s the one that needs the explosions and action.)

I have noticed a growing trend

I have realized more and more that Christians have a tendency to rib one another from time to time… forcefully… with verbal knives… to the heart… And I have grown to have some issues with this. Yes, there will be brothers and sisters of ours who have their differences and particular beliefs and practices that we disagree with, but we’re still siblings.

“That’s all fine and dandy,” I hear some say, smugly, with a cheeky grin spread across their faces, “but we can’t all be right!” The assumption here being that these smugly smiling siblings are correct… And, no, I’m not going to preach about which group is most inherently correct on a particularly minute theological point that seems so insurmountable compared to the resurrection and subsequent Kingship of Jesus Christ and His command and prayer for His people to be one as He and the Father are One – Oh wait, that tiny point doesn’t seem so massive anymore…

We can all learn from our fellow believers. We can learn a sense of awe, wonder and reverence from the Catholic and Anglican liturgies. Lutherans’ focus on grace is exceedingly admirable, as is the Reformed traditions reliance on Scripture. We could all benefit from having at least one Charismatic friend, because, goodness knows, we don’t talk about the work of the Holy Spirit much in most groups. And we can certainly learn something about fellowship from Baptists. (I know there’s so much more to each of these groups, but if I kept going, we’d be here… well… longer than I care to type today.)

So instead of constantly putting down our siblings, why don’t we work together? First, let’s start with our commonalities (Jesus being the primary one) and work out of the command to be unified and take care of others. And, second, if we must deal with our differences, let us learn from former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and use those differences to better define our own beliefs. Hearing how someone else believes can certainly allow us to think through our own belief and explain to ourselves why we believe the way we do.

So, Internet (I’m looking at you specifically Facebook), let’s show a little more grace toward our fellow Christians. If you truly feel someone is wrong, maybe go to them in person, or with a phone call – public debates don’t usually end with the statement, “I sure am glad you called me out in front of the entire Internet, my mind is completely changed now!”

I seem to recall Jesus saying something about this… *cough*Matthew 18:15-16*cough*

Working with kids, this is especially important. Kids will pick up on prejudice very quickly and often in shocking ways. The way we talk about other believers in our homes and in our churches will impact the ability of the next generation to look at a fellow Christian and see Christ instead of an enemy.

How do you talk about other denominations in your home? What were you taught about other denominations? Do you know anyone from another Christian denomination?

(Full Disclosure: Being from the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ [Stone Campbell Movement] means that my own group’s biggest focus is… wait for it… unity. Also, if anyone has any Stone-Campbell movement jokes and would like to share, please do. I’ve heard so many about other people’s groups, but never about my own… We might have more jokes if more people knew about us, but that’s ok, too!)

The Dad Dilemma

This may say more about me than I would really like, but this is what comes to mind when I hear people start talking about what it means to be a man.

We're men! Men in tights! Yes!

We’re men! Men in tights! Yes!

That odd reference aside, the idea of being a father and being a man have changed in the past few years. And from what I’ve heard, one day that men cringe at over others (at least when it comes to sermon topics and speeches) is Father’s Day. Ah, the grand day when men are told to “get off your duff and go be a dad.”

Often times, when I hear these speeches from presidential podium, pulpit, Senate floor, or otherwise, the phrase, “go be a dad” is often shouted, but the “how?” question is rarely answered. How many men have been shown how to be a dad by the time their own kids enter the world?

The bygone days when a son would take his father’s occupation upon himself are mostly gone, so the apprenticeship model isn’t there to fall back on anymore. More than ever, men are expected to work long hours because competition for jobs is fierce and the corporate world can often be cutthroat. We’ve all seen the portrayals of the hard-worked father having to choose between keeping his job and providing for a family and attending some sporting or artistic event.

In fact, the whole concept of what it means to be a man is different now than it used to be. A man is no longer defined primarily by his position, occupation, and station in life. Ask any two people what being a man means, and you’ll more than likely get different answers.

So, the answer to “how do I do this dad/man thing?” ends up pretty open-ended. So here’s what I learned from my dad, and maybe it’ll help.

Being a dad/man means…

following Jesus and standing up for what’s right.

respecting others, caring for the hurting, and seeking out justice for those not receiving it.

caring for the earth, sometimes with dirty hands, and sometimes simply separating the recycling.

having curiosity and seeking out answers to deep question, and trying new things.

using your skills and talents to benefit others and looking out for their best interest over your own.

really, being like Jesus.

Being a man doesn’t take proficiency with weapons, driving a stick, owning the most camo or even having the widest swagger. Interested, hobbies, and particular skills have nothing to do with it. And being a dad is similar, from what I’ve seen in my own father.

Be like Jesus. Play. Laugh. Love. Cry. Wrestle. Discuss. Encourage.

I can’t think of a single better compliment to a dad than to hear their child say, “My dad shows me Jesus.”

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:

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?

Hard Truth in the Wake of the Recent Ruling…

In light of recent legal proceedings and rulings, it is about time we stopped and thought about the acceptance of different kinds of people. I encourage you to read to the very end before leaving this blog or making a judgment call.

As Christians we are called to love others, especially those who are outcast in our own society. In the very earliest days of Christianity, the church came under a lot of fire for accepting those that society had demonized and ostracized. The church suffered persecution for threatening the established order of things, and yet the church continued to work toward acceptance and reaching for equality among its members, whoever that might be.

In the earliest days of the church, it was an inclusive group of people who loved one another and enthusiastically welcomed new members in the name of the Lord Jesus. Despite pain and threat of death, more and more people flocked to the church for its simplicity of life and doctrine. “Lay down your burdens and find rest,” the church said to those weary of the way things were, tired of having no voice.

In the modern church, we have become closed off, exclusionary. We want people to have everything put together before they walk through the doors, instead of anticipating their pain, struggles, doubts, and insecurities and being ready to meet them with comfort, peace, and love at the door. Through the years of looking toward our own personal salvation, we may have missed the message of Jesus when he said, “For God so loved the world…” Jesus sought to establish a kingdom, here on earth, and we are his ambassadors carrying on that mission to establish God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, in the light of all that I have said, I would ask you to look toward and accept into your churches and hearts those who have been truly persecuted and oppressed for so long…

The poor. The orphans. The widows.