Wisdom on Trauma and Suffering

When a friend, family member, or even acquaintance endures trauma and suffering, we want to help somehow. Yet we are perplexed about how to do so. There is a temptation either to offer trite platitudes (even spiritual ones, extracting phrases from Scripture in hopes that they will work) or to back away, paralyzed by the uncertainty of not knowing what to say and what not to say.

The New York Times’ David Brooks reflects on this conundrum in his recent column, The Art of Presence. I agree with him that we are a society more eager to fix than to heal. So, we often speak and act from a perspective of wanting to make people okay after trauma or tragedy. The language I just used to describe this betrays the folly of attempting it. A television program may need to wrap up the problem in 24 or 48 minutes, but people certainly don’t adhere to that timetable. He summarizes and comments on a recent blog post on Sojourners, a Christian website and magazine devoted to social justice concerns.

The blog post, A New Normal: Ten Things I Learned From Trauma, by Catherine Woodiwiss, is well worth your time to read, as is Brooks’ column.

I’ve begun to say often, “emotional maturity is such a significant component of spiritual maturity it can be difficult to tell the difference.” I find the Sojourner’s blog post and Brooks’ column helpful in cultivating the emotional maturity needed for a faithful, and spiritually mature, response concerning suffering, trauma, and tragedy. “Not that I have already obtained this,” to reappropriate the Apostle Paul’s words, “but I press on…”

What Big Goals Can Do For You

“Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Most of you know I enjoy running. I completed a big goal in July when I ran the Irving Half Marathon. From the time I finished the race, I began thinking about what I had learned from training and accomplishing this goal. Having reflected on it, God has used this hobby to teach me about my life in Christ.

The most important thing I learned from my race was that making a decision to accomplish a big goal had the power to make other smaller decisions for me in advance, if I would let it. Decisions about sleep, my schedule, and diet/nutrition were not always easy to practice. Yet when their alignment with the big goal was clear, it was less about me pushing myself to stay disciplined. The big goal pulled me along, keeping my eyes on the prize and helping me stay focused.

So, what’s the parallel for our spiritual formation?

The decision to follow Christ is a huge decision. And, like any big goal we aim for, it has the power to make lots of small decisions for us in advance, if we will let it. Decisions about appropriate boundaries in our marriage and relationships, honesty and integrity in our work, financial generosity, and nonjudgmental love for people are not always easy to practice. Yet when we see the impact those areas make on the goal of spiritual maturity and imitating Christ in our everyday lives, it’s less about pushing ourselves to do the right thing. The big goal of growing in Christlikeness can pull us forward, keeping our eyes on heaven’s prize and helping us stay focused on what is really most important in life.

I imagine you’ve experienced this dynamic in some aspect of life–physically, career-wise, in financial planning, etc. If you’re married, I’ll bet the big decision about dating your mate made a lot of smaller decisions for you! The same can be true in our spiritual development. Keep your eyes on the prize. Prioritize growing in Christlikeness. It won’t be easy. But let God pull you down the path.

Carving Out Space

“The king said to him, ‘Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have hear that the spirit of the gods is in you…’” (Daniel 5:14)

In his book, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, Jack Levison explores a number of biblical examples of the work of the Spirit in people’s lives. One of my favorite observations comes from the Old Testament. Daniel is a young man taken into Babylonian captivity yet groomed for leadership, having been recognized as a person of promise. His story of one of personal humility and boldness for God.

Looking at the whole story of Daniel, Levison observes: “Daniel doesn’t so much seek the Spirit as settle into the Spirit. He doesn’t crave direct and drastic displays of the Spirit’s power so much as carve out space for the expanse of the Spirit in the unseen crevices of his life. He doesn’t so much hunger for occasional outbreaks of spiritual power as for a simple life for the long haul.”

Think about that. Daniel’s life evidences the Spirit’s presence. But none of this is short-term fireworks. The distinguishing feature of Daniel’s life is a Spirit-filled “simple life for the long haul.” And the key to this “long haul” approach to life in God’s Spirit is Daniel acting to carve out space for the Spirit’s expanding place in his life.

So, how do we carve out space for the Spirit to expand in our our life? Holy habits and dispositions.

When we practice generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and simplicity, space is carved out in our spirit and in our character, for God’s Spirit to expand and have greater influence in our lives. When we practice worship, scripture study, friendship, prayer, and service, space is carved out in our soul and in our schedule for God’s Spirit to expand and gain influence in our lives.

If the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), then the soil in which this fruit can grow is the space we carve out for God’s Spirit to guide our attitude and character.

The world, our nation, and our communities need people whose lives are directed by the presence of God’s Spirit.

The Life-Giving Word

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

The verse above resonates with me because of the vivid picture of running within the path. Making the imaginative leap to our lives is not difficult. Like the conservationist carefully clearing and marking the trail or like the parks personnel diligently planning and laying the walkways, God’s Word creates a path for us to walk within. If the path seems confining, spiritual and moral wilderness is the alternative. The right path is a gift.

What I love best about this verse is how the boundaries of a path and the broadness of the person’s understanding are matched together. Other translations use images of a heart freed or enlarged. Both ways of rendering the original Hebrew phrase gets at the same idea. See the contrast? When our path has clearer boundaries, wisdom broadens. The reverse is also true. When our path’s boundaries are blurred or non-existent morally and spiritually, wisdom shrinks. Hearts are chained, not freed.

So, what paths does God mark off clearly for us as Christians? Sex is an obvious one. The traditional standard of sexual intimacy within the context of marriage is the Christian teaching. Walking terrain beyond this path fails to free hearts and broaden wisdom. Experiences? Yes. Wisdom? No. Let’s be clear about that. But let’s be equally clear that God’s path includes boundaries for stewardship and generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and compassion. Stinginess, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, and pride are at least as pernicious vices. Probably more, in fact, since their root systems are concentrated in the heart, mind, and soul. If we don’t perceive ourselves “sinning in the body,” sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t in any wilderness at all.

Yet, God does give us commands: the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, the fruit of the Spirit—most of all, the life and teachings of Jesus. Even better, God makes choosing and staying on this path possible by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in our lives.

Want broad understanding? Expanded wisdom? Strong, free hearts? The Psalmist is clear. Run in the path of God’s commands.

“Every Mile Out There Is a Gift”

When the explosions went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Amby Burfoot was just seven tenths of a mile from finishing. Burfoot won Boston, the great prize of marathons, in 1968. To celebrate that momentous occasion, he has run it every five years since. This year was the 45th anniversary of his win. He and other runners yet to complete the race were turned back, unable to finish.

Here’s what Burfoot shared in an interview a day or two after the bombing:

There was a time when my entire soul hungered for nothing but winning this race and I was lucky enough for that to happen. But now I run it with the full knowledge that every mile out there is a gift and every finish line is a gift and knowing I don’t know when it’s going to end and be taken away from me or when it will be taken away from others as it was at this year’s marathon.

“Every mile out there is a gift.” That simple line has been lodged in my mind.

Amby Burfoot’s first Boston Marathon was in 1965. Winners of the Boston Marathon are at the top of their sport. That pinnacle demands orienting one’s whole life—schedule, diet, sleep, etc—around preparation for competing to reach it.

The early followers of Jesus knew well the demands of orienting one’s whole life around a great goal–living authentically and abundantly in Christ, and making disciples of all peoples. James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

I think James would like Amby Burfoot’s words: “Every mile out there is a gift.” It’s an attitude of appreciation and gratitude. And it’s an attitude that acknowledges that, as hard as we work at life—like a marathoner’s difficult training regimen—at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, life is better treated as a gift to be cherished than a wage to be earned.

Ben Witherington on “Why I’m a Wesleyan”

Dr. Ben Witherington III is one of the most prominent New Testament scholars in the world. In this brief video from my friends at Seedbed he addresses the topic, “Why I’m a Wesleyan.”

Now, I’m a generous orthodoxy sort of Christian (before the Brian McLaren book seized upon the phrase). I believe in creedal orthodoxy, represented by the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. And I believe in a generosity about the Body of Christ: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity, as the saying goes. But I also think it’s alright to put forward the distinctives of one’s own branch of Christianity’s family tree and make the case for its faithfulness to scripture, even over against other branches of the family tree, provided it’s done in love.

So, without further adieu… Here’s Dr BW3:

The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Christmas

“the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35b)

When shopping for gifts at Christmastime, we encounter tricky questions. What is it they really wanted? What will make the kids eyes light up? What do you get for the person that has everything?

Actually this last question is interesting because the only person it could apply to literally is God. Could there be wisdom in exploring an answer to that question?

God is the greatest giver of all time. The presence of Christmas on the calendar is the result of the most wonderful act of gift-giving in history. Jesus is the greatest gift imaginable–grace for life, peace with God, salvation. Jesus is not only a gift to be received–to fill the longings of our hearts. More than that, He is a gift that compels a response: Giving our hearts and lives to him. So, what do we get the One who “has everything”? What does he want? What God wants for Christmas is you.

Here are a few tangible ways to give ourselves to him. We certainly cannot repay him for the gift of salvation, but we can get caught up in His spirit of giving. What would you add to this list?

Ideas for God’s Christmas Wish List:

  • Our Stewardship. Give, but resist the temptation to go into debt if that is a temptation for you.
  • Generosity to the Poor. Give generously, especially to those who have little. Gifts through our Angel Tree at church and through Christian organizations like the United Methodist Committee on Relief (www.umcor.org) and World Vision (www.worldvisiongifts.org) serve the poor and help advance the gospel.
  • Our Relationships. I read a good piece of advice on child-raising recently that applies well to Christmas: “Spend twice the time and half the money.” Make lasting memories with family and friends.

Rich Stearns on “The Kind of Christianity the World Responds To”

Rich Stearns left a successful corporate career to lead the Evangelical Christian mission organization, World Vision. He offers an excellent word to the church in a recent piece on the Huffington Post’s religion page.

The essay is here.

Here’s a highlight:

While symbols can be important, we have focused perhaps too much on them instead of the underlying reality they reflect. Instead, we need to go back to the basics of living as disciples of Christ, living missionally for Christ and demonstrating the Gospel in tangible ways within our schools, workplaces and communities. While I would be happy to see the Ten Commandments back on the courthouse wall, the fight over symbolic issues is backfiring, alienating people from the truths of the gospel rather than attracting them to it. The kind of Christianity the world responds to is the authentic “love your neighbor” kind. Its appeal can’t be legislated through court battles and neither can courts stop its spread.

Go check out the rest. His book is The Hole in Our Gospel.

Also, World Vision puts out a Christmas catalog each year. Get the catalog and consider making it a part of your Christmas giving. I can’t think of many gifts Jesus would enjoy more!

Hope in the Midst of Pain 2

Yesterday, I started a three-part series on posts based on my sermon last Sunday.

The first post is here. In it, I shared three ways to understand why things happen in the world.

First, deism, which believes in a god who created the universe and laws to govern it, but does not intervene. Second, determinism, which believes that everything that happens has been predetermined. For atheists, there is scientific determinism, which is rooted in physics and chemistry. For Christians (and other religious persons who believe this way), everything has been predetermined by God. God orchestrates events to occur as they do without exception.

Each of these is not without an important insight. But each of these has problems that lead me not to accept it.

A Third Way

The third way is that God allows evil and injustice, as well as natural tragedies—and the pain and grief associated with them. But he does not cause or orchestrate them. The biblical witness shows that God hates evil and injustice, therefore it is problematic to suggest that he causes those sorts of acts.

To say that God allows evil or injustice or pain is still troubling, however. It is a belief that acknowledges that God values something as good enough to justify refraining from intervention as much as we would like. Those two somethings are human free will and predictability in the natural world (including our physical bodies).

Those are two good things. We might take exception with their worth when someone’s free will is misused or when natural laws and processes run their course in a way that brings harm and pain close to us. That is a natural response.

Yet, love isn’t love if it isn’t given freely. Obedience doesn’t involved self-surrender and sacrifice doesn’t involve self-giving unless we have free will.

And the same natural laws that have the potential to take life also sustain it. Gravity keeps us from flying into the atmosphere, but it will also pull us to the ground no matter the distance from which we fall. Water is life-giving and deadly. But their predictability allows for scientific discovery as we know it. An obvious example is medical research, which allows for treatments and cures to be discovered and implemented in ways that bless many.

I heard an explanation several years ago that has helped me put this together. Perhaps it can help you. At least it will give you food for thought as you work through your own thinking on these matters.

Three Dials

Imagine three dials. Each goes from one to ten. The first is labeled “physical reality.” The second is labeled “human resiliency,” and the third is labeled “mystery.”

For any event that occurs, all three of these are in play. There are physical realities, that is, the laws and properties of the natural world. There is human resiliency, which is an incredible capacity that cannot be underestimated. And there is mystery. I’m labeling it “mystery” for everyone’s sake. People of faith would speak about God or prayer or faith or the like. Secular persons might speak of it as luck, chance, or fortune. But almost everyone seems to account for some element of mystery. For Christians, even though we acknowledge God, most of us would still admit that how God works is quite often mysterious.

Sometimes bad things happen because of our bad choices, or the bad choices of others that happen to have consequences for us and those near to us. But sometimes bad things happen simply because the dial labeled “physical reality” is turned up to high and/or too fast for any human resiliency to kick in and mitigate its effects. Yes, God could intervene (or “luck” could have occurred), but that didn’t happen, at least not in a way that prevents the outcome we really wanted.

This doesn’t sound very spiritual. I understand that. But I believe that this is how much of what we experience in life is best explained. I do believe that miracles sometimes happen (in that mystery/God category), but a miracle by definition is relatively rare. Plus, sometimes we are too quick to assign divine providence to our own delivery from tragedy while neglecting thoughtfulness and empathy concerning someone whose life is not spared the grief or pain that ours was.

Yes, this means that I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason” that God has orchestrated. However, while I don’t believe everything that happens is God’s will, I do believe (to paraphrase Leslie Weatherhead) that there is a will of God within every circumstance. That is, God doesn’t cause everything to happen, but he does have a will for how we are to respond (caring for those who are hurting, supporting those who are grieving, working on behalf of those who are downtrodden). And I believe that God takes evil, injustice, pain, and suffering and commandeers them to advance his will for the human race and for his creation.

So, what is the Christian hope? Where is God in the midst of pain? I’ve given one of my answers in the last paragraph—that God commandeers evil and pain and ultimately uses them for the cause of good. But I’ve got two more thoughts to add to that in the next post.

Some recommended resources (more tomorrow):
The Problem of Pain, by CS Lewis
A Grief Observed, by CS Lewis
Disappointment with God, by Philip Yancey
Why?, by Adam Hamilton
The Will of God, by Leslie Weatherhead

Hope in the Midst of Pain 1

On Sunday, I spoke about the difficulty of discerning where God is in the midst of pain, grief, and suffering. Said a little differently, how do we answer the questions that leap to our mind: “Why? How could this happen? I don’t understand.”

I’d like to share here, in three posts, most of what I shared on Sunday in case it can be helpful. Also, I’ll list some additional resources (and link them when appropriate).

In this post, I’d like to share three views on “how the world works” (aka “why things happen the way that they do”). In my reading, I found that Adam Hamilton nicely captured the way I understand it too, so I’m borrowing and leaning on the way he discusses it in a really good resource, chapter 14, “Where is God When Bad Things Happen?”, in his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.

Deism

This view says that a god exists who designed the universe and set in place laws to govern the processes of nature. Then that god stepped back from creation in order to let it unfold according to the laws that govern it, never to intervene in its affairs. The classic analogy is of a clockmaker who designs the timepiece, winds it up, then lets it run on its own while observing it at a distance.

A strength of this view is that it takes seriously the natural laws and processes than govern the world/universe. Therefore, it seeks to discover and understand those laws and processes in order to apply knowledge of them to important concerns (medical research is an example).

But this view is not a Christian one, because there is no room whatsoever for divine intervention in the form of miracles or divine revelation.

Determinism

This view says that everything that will occur has been planned and scripted. For Christians who believe in determinism, God is the one who has planned and scripted every event in our lives, in human history, and in the history of the natural world.

Perhaps you’ve said one or both of the following at some point: “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’s all part of God’s will/plan.” Even if you have said them (to yourself or to someone else), you may have wondered if you really believed them. Both of those statements, said assuming that God predetermines everything, mean something like that God caused or orchestrated that event, or the chain of events that led to that occurrence, and that he had a good reason and purpose to do so even if we don’t understand it.

A strength of this view is its dogged insistence that God is still present in our circumstances regardless or what we are going through. I appreciate that attitude, it’s definitely a Christian one.

Still, I think there are problems with determinism.

As Leslie Weatherhead illustrated years ago (in his little book, The Will of God), if we found out that there was someone behind the person who committed an evil act or an injustice, someone who planned and orchestrated the whole affair, we would hold them responsible and blameworthy too!

Further, if God plans and orchestrates—determines—everything that happens, then even calling something evil, cruel, wrong, and unjust seems like nonsense. If God is good and also determines everything that happens, then we can’t call anything wrong. We would have to admit that it must also be good even if we can’t see how (since it occurs as a part of God’s will). But Scripture clearly teaches God’s hatred of evil and injustice, so this seems problematic.

Another option

A different approach says that God allows, though he does not orchestrate (or cause), everything that happens in our world. This approach embraces that God has created the universe with laws that govern it, but also embraces that God does intervene with revelation and with some miracles. But events are not predetermined, as the determinist believes.

I embrace this third option. I’ll take these thoughts further in the next post.

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