Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

5 Ways to Stay Spiritually Grounded When Fantasy Calls

Addiction and fantasy can often go hand in hand.  An alcoholic friend of mine will often say that there are times when he “gets stuck in his head.”  I know what he means.  While I have never craved the bottle, I know what it feels like to get stuck in my head, too.  Many of us do.

We can get stuck in our heads imagining all sorts of things, depending on our strongest attachments.  If it’s money or things, then we’re thinking about the next paycheck and how to spend it, or the dress at the mall that will make us look stunning. If it’s work or achievement, we’re anticipating the next deal or book contract.  If it’s affection from someone we love, we’re fantasizing about being in their arms.  For those of us with especially active basal ganglia, we’ll find just about anything to obsess about, whether it is the meeting with our boss or our next interaction with the guy at the gym who is always ogling us.

In such instances, when our imaginations run wild, we can find ourselves increasingly untethered from ourselves and from God in the present moment.  Because we are stuck some place else.  In a place that is not real.

Below are five tips for staying grounded when fantasy calls, inspired by philosopher Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace:

1. Recognize your thoughts as illusions not reality.  How do we do this? “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise,” Weil writes, and goes on to provide a litmus test.  “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough,” she writes.  Ouch.

2. Which leads to the next tip. If our fantasy represents an escape from something in the here and now, like pain, hurt or sadness, don’t be afraid to stay with the feeling and wait it out.  It is here, where we behold our own unfulfilled longings, emptiness, and frailty in their nakedness and in the light, that God will become realer to us.

2. You don’t have to “stuff” your fantasies but you need not indulge them either.  You do this simply by thanking God for the truths God is revealing through the needs and personal imperfections that underlie these fantasies.

3. Don’t make illusory future perfection an enemy of the present good.  In other words, whether you dream about a perfectly just society or a perfect sex life, don’t let yourself be robbed of appreciating aspects of that justice or relationship in the present moment and actively living into them.

4. Pay attention to the goodness that is real and right in front of you in the present moment.  Give thanks for these things.

5. Gently remind yourself of God’s love for you and let it be the thing that you mindfully return to when you begin to seek escape in fantasy.  “Love needs reality,” Weil writes.  To which I would add that reality needs love.  Love and reality need one another like a lover and her beloved.



The Difference Between Grace and a Sears Appliance Warranty

If you have one of these, be afraid. Be very afraid.

The $400 Kenmore Inteli-Clean vacuum cleaner I bought last year as part of a crusade on dog hair and allergens is on the fritz.  Again.  When I turn it on, it squeaks, moans, whirs, shakes and does nothing. If Jesus were here in the flesh, I would ask him to exorcise it.  Since he is not, this will be the second time in just a few months I will be trekking to the Sears appliance center for a free repair, thanks to my two-year, extended “master warranty.”

I called the store today in hopes that I might avoid the long schlep.  They referred me to a 1-800 number for folks like me whose occasional trips to the repair center are frequent enough to spark questions about whether a refund would be better. If not a refund, then at least an exchange or store credit.

When I tried the 1-800 number, a Sears customer service representative with a kind, sympathetic voice diagnosed my situation:  “we call what you have a lemon,” she said.  As if she were initiating me into an insider’s language for broken appliances.  As if I could not have told her that.

She went on to explain the benefits of my master warranty:  in order to qualify for a refund or credit, my vacuum cleaner would have to be fixed and then break down and be fixed one more time, all within one year’s time, before my warranty would expire.  “So, what you’re telling me is that I paid for a master warranty that really won’t help with my lemon,” I asked.  “I paid a lot of money for something that doesn’t really help with my problem.”

“Um, well, yes.  But you can call the store that fixed it for you and ask if you can replace it.  It is up to their discretion.”

“So, they can tell me that they won’t replace it then- if that is their prerogative?”

“Yes.”  And then, “I will transfer you over to them, but just in case here is their number.”

The same number that I started with.  The number that I had called in the first place.  Where a less kind-sounding, more officious woman had referred me to the 1-800 number.

“I just called them and they referred me to you,” I explained to the kind-sounding customer service representative.

Apologetically, “I’m sorry you’ve had this run-around.  I will call them and explain your situation when I transfer you over.”

She called.  I waited.  Then another woman answered.  “So I take it you would like your vacuum cleaner repaired but are wondering if your warranty will cover it,” she stated.

“Well, actually, no,” I said.  And then proceeded to give the explanation that I had hoped the kind-sounding customer service representative had already provided (when in fact she had not).

Thirty minutes after I had first dialed Sears I was told that I would have to bring my vacuum cleaner in on a day when the store manager- apparently the only one in the store with any authority to act outside of warranty stipulations- could either bless me with a refund, credit or exchange, or tell me the same thing.  That my warranty requires three breakdowns and repairs before any such blessing might materialize.

When it comes to our brokenness, we can sometimes treat it as if it were under divine, limited warranty. That if God is going to repair our brokenness, God will only do it at our expense.  Or will only do it a certain number of times within a certain period of time and then we’re on our own.  Or, that it is up to us and our initiative to make things better, and soon- before the warranty expires, or before God’s good graces run dry.  Other times we think we need to cajole or persuade God, like the store manager, into getting something back for the money we put in.  We think we deserve at least something in return for our inconvenience.  And we often think, if we are honest, that what we get ultimately depends on us. Our efforts.  Our strength.  Our weakness even.

Thank goodness that the grace of God doesn’t operate this way! The Good News, in spite of ourselves, is that God loves us and desires to be in relationship with us, brokenness and all.  And God finds us before we ever have to go looking for God.  We don’t have to do phone acrobatics or schlep to some heavenly appliance store dragging all of our stuff with us.

God is right here.  In front of us.  We have a direct line.  And God is offering a free, no-strings-attached, lifetime warranty on all of our broken parts.  This isn’t just any “master warranty.” You might call it the Master’s warranty.

By the way, the other day I found a vacuum cleaner that someone in the neighborhood was throwing out; since ours wasn’t working, I took it home and gave it a spin.  It worked just fine.

Wanted: A Few Salty Men and Women

“For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at  peace with one another.”  Mark 9:49,50

Julia Child doing some taste testing on her show, "The French Chef."

This passage is weird in a number of ways.  First, what does it mean to “salt with fire”?  The image that comes to mind is God in Julia Child attire, apron and all, sprinkling the disciples with flames of fire. Which begs the question: is God doing the “seasoning” here, or is someone or something else?

And then there is the issue of how salt can lose its saltiness.  I was never good in chemistry, so those of you who were can maybe explain this to me.  As incentive I’ll throw in a free subscription to Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.

And what about the whole “have salt in yourselves” command?  If someone or something or God is doing the seasoning, how do we “have salt” in ourselves?  Do we do this by being at peace with one another? Or, is the being at peace with one another a byproduct, like the finished casserole, of our having salt in ourselves?  Or, are these two states of being meant to co-exist? If so, do they co-exist in spite of, or because of, one another?

The encouraging news here is that commentators are asking the same sorts of questions.  The less encouraging news is that they differ in their answers.  But a general theme that emerges is the purifying and seasoning nature of salt in Jesus’ time.  Salt served to flavor not just hummus but the sacrifices that the Jewish priests offered on the altar to God, in keeping with the Levitical command: “Season all your grain offerings with salt.  Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Leviticus 2:13).”

To be salted in this act of worship was essentially to be set aside for God.  To be “made holy” or sanctified.  To be conscripted for God’s mission to God’s people.

And in this sense Jesus when speaking of “everyone” is directing his remarks primarily to his followers. Elsewhere, for instance, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).  But I would also add that this statement and its context can be understood more broadly, too, as part of a more universal appeal.

While the “fire” to which Jesus is referring may be the angry flames of persecution that his disciples will soon face, it could also be the hot tongues of hell to which he has just referred in the preceding verses. Hell in Jesus’ time was an actual place just outside the gates of Jerusalem:  “Gehenna” was where all of the city’s refuse went to be burned; a big, smoldering garbage dump; it was a metaphor for what happens when we reject God’s love for us.  Our lives go up in flames, with all of our “rubbish”- even our best virtues- being burned away. In times like these, God’s Spirit, convicting, encouraging, prodding, pulling us up when we fall, or giving us a good shake, can feel much like the “refiner’s fire and “launderer’s soap” of Malachi 3:3.

So it may be that Jesus is intentionally conflating several “fires” here insofar as they represent the painful clearing away of anything that stands in the way of God’s Love penetrating and transforming our lives.  The fire of persecution. The fire of hell. And, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit which at Pentecost appeared in the form of tongues of fire on the heads of the believers.  To be salted with each of these fires is to undergo a necessary and painful process at the end of which are left only the gold and silver. Those pure, precious nuggets that shine.  That tell a unique story that is necessarily “salty.”  A story that contrary to popular stereotypes of Christians these days is never boring.

I made the acquaintance of Frankie this morning at my favorite local coffee shop.  Frankie’s tattoos are like chapter markings in a book about his life.  There is the knife on his right forearm- a reminder of the time he was stabbed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while seeking shelter at the Superdome.  On his left bicep are red flames over the bold inscription, “Washed by His blood, not by water.” They describe his conversion to Christ.

In Frankie’s case the “refiner’s fire” came in the form of a Category 5 hurricane.  Frankie was at The Bourbon Pub, the gay dance club he managed, when Katrina hit. He remembers those seven minutes of kneeling on the floor as the most surreal, terrifying moments of his life. The swat team arrived within minutes, and Frankie found himself being led, wading chest-high through a river of water, to the Superdome. In the days following, this former member of the military joined the rescue squads that would airlift out the vulnerable and wade through waters to look for the stranded and lost.  It was during one of these moments that Frankie said a prayer, something along the lines of, “God if you bring me through this safely I will let you love me.”

The Bourbon Pub & Parade advertises as the "only gay pub" in New Orleans.

For many of us it takes a “fire” in the form of a cataclysmic event- if not a hurricane, then a divorce, a breakdown, or bankruptcy- to help us see that our lives exist for One greater than ourselves.  That we are not our own but belong to a Love that seeks to ravish us.  That in the furnace of hardship and suffering, whatever its source, God is refining us.  Making us into people seasoned by experience with stories to share. Each of them particular.  Each of them interesting.  Each of them with a savory message about how God’s love has found us and is wooing us.

When we “have salt” in ourselves, we are letting that salt be there.  This is a hard thing to do. Because it means that we have to get over ourselves.  We have to be willing to acknowledge the painful things that have “salted” us and how they made us who we are today. We can’t just pretend these things don’t exist somehow.  They are part of our story.  They are forming us into people who exist for Love.

Being “salted with fire” is a necessary, unavoidable thing. How we receive it, however, is voluntary. “Having salt” means letting our trials become opportunities for growth and open doors into fuller, more abundant life.  “Having salt” means trusting that not just our humanity but our personality and character are undergoing transformation for the better when we find ourselves in the furnace of trial or temptation.

There is nothing boring or replicable about a “salty” person.  They are a gem in the ruff.  A rare find. One-of-a-kind.  A real “mensch.”  They know they belong to a kingdom that is not of this world and they live like it.  If you have met such people, you can probably count them on one hand.

I’m not exactly sure why Jesus includes this final exhortation to be at peace with one another.  Perhaps he knew that too much of anything can be dangerous.  Sure, he probably didn’t know that too much salt can cause high blood pressure.  But he probably did have a premonition that if his disciples were already arguing only minutes earlier about who was greatest (Mk. 9:34), even their eventual forms of suffering could become easy fodder for more spiritual one-upmanship.  It is amazing how we human beings can find just about anything to compete about, and, if truth be told, the early church soon found itself in similar wrangles.  The fourth-century Donatists claimed that those who had fallen away from the faith during previous persecutions were not qualified to administer the Sacraments.  In their eyes, one’s level of suffering and one’s capacity to endure it were somehow a requirement for priestly ministry. Thankfully, Augustine put an end to this silliness.

“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace,” Jesus says.  Let the seasoning be there. Welcome it rather than run from it.  And don’t use it to pretend that you are somehow any better than anyone else. Understand that your salt may be different from another person’s; welcome their salt as you welcome your own, as something God is using to season the world.  To make God’s love a little more palatable and a little more flavorsome for the rest of us.




Weird Jesus Sayings Continued…

 Yes, I haven’t forgotten.  After a brief hiatus we’re continuing our exploration of the weird  things Jesus said.  And, there are plenty of them.  We’ve only scraped the surface in our big  dig.

Thus far we’ve asked the questions that we couldn’t ask in church, like, “Was Jesus racist?” or “Was Jesus crazy?”  We’ve discovered Jesus’ potential as a Renaissance Man and poked holes in  prevailing stereotypes about his manhood.  Jesus, contrary to popular opinion, wasn’t “macho.” Just really cut with great abs and still in touch with his sensitive side.  Manly but  comfortable having deep conversations with women.  A rare combination.  (What can I say?  I’m in love.)

Tomorrow we’ll look at another weird saying: “For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is  good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at  peace with one another.”  Stay tuned!

If you can put up with the cheesy voice-over at the beginning, this is one artist’s worshipful depiction of Jesus, and it’s otherwise quite moving:  YouTube Preview Image




Reclaiming Two Bad Words

Anne Graham Lotz' latest book is Expecting to See Jesus.

The other day Anne Graham Lotz spoke with NPR about her journey as a woman who has faced resistance in her vocation. The preacher, author and daughter of the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, says she is privileged to wear the label, “evangelical feminist.”

Which struck me.  These days “evangelical” and “feminist” are loaded words.  They carry a lot of baggage, and rarely do they come as a pair joined at the hip.  If anything, the “evangelicals” and “feminists” I typically hear about in the news are the last people I would expect to see holding hands taking a leisurely stroll together.

Lotz went on to describe her understanding of an “evangelical feminist”: “It’s just a woman who knows what she believes, has strong convictions and the courage to stand up for them regardless of glass ceilings or boundaries that other people may want to place upon us.”

There are plenty of biblical examples of just these sorts of women, Lotz says.  And maybe this is where “evangelical” comes more into play.  Because an “evangelical,” as originally conceived during the Great Awakening movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is someone who places a strong emphasis on biblical authority.  (How “biblical authority” can be bandied about to support various political platforms in and out of the church is another story, but a common denominator among evangelicals is this prioritizing of Scripture.)  So Lotz turns to Scripture in looking for her feminist role models.

An “evangelical” is also someone who believes in the importance of personal conversion.  Here again Lotz appeals to personal experience in recounting her own conversion to “evangelical feminism” and its impact on her parents:

RAZ: And yet, I understand that early on, when you began spreading your message, even your father, Billy Graham, and your mom, Ruth, they weren’t entirely supportive.


LOTZ: That was when I started that Bible class that I told you about. And they were not supportive. And I think one reason was because the traditional role of women in my family have been that the mother stayed at home, reared the children, kept the house so that the husband, father, could go out and do ministry, which was my mother and father’s case. And so they just felt that, you know, I had three children and a husband, and my role was to stay at home and be that traditional type of wife and mother.

So they didn’t think I should, but once again, I wasn’t living my life to please my parents. As much as I love my mother and father, I knew that I was called of God to teach that Bible class. So I’ve been teaching for about three years, and I looked up in the class one day and they were sitting in the middle of my class. I’ve been going for about five minutes, so I had to, you know, catch my breath, swallow hard, and then I stopped and introduced them and then went ahead and finished the message.

From that day to this, they did an absolute about-face in their opinion, and they saw what God was doing. They saw that God had indeed called me, that people’s lives were being changed. I was getting people into God’s word. And I’ve had no two greater supporters than my mother and father unless it’s my husband and my children.”

An evangelical emphasizes the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its transformational relevance to the world.  An “evangelical feminist” does this same thing- only within a framework that assumes God calls both men and women to serve God and God’s world, equipping them with gifts that in themselves are gender blind.  In this framework, to reject God’s call to serve using one’s gifts for preaching and teaching would be more than “un-feminist” or “un-evangelical,” although it would be both of these things, too.  At heart it would be unfaithful.

So I applaud Lotz for her courage to take two bad words that do not often belong together and reclaim them for their original meaning. It has inspired me to do the same.  From now on I will gladly be pigeon-holed as an “evangelical feminist.”  Thank you, Anne, for your bold example and the trail you are blazing for women like me.



The Spiritual Practice of Getting Lost

See more funny signs at http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Fun-Chuch-Signs.aspx?p=12

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be…mistreated four hundred years. But…afterwards they will come out with great possessions.”  Genesis 15:13-14

Have you ever been lost? If not, you may want to try it sometime.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, recommends it as a helpful spiritual practice- as one of those “ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”  An “altar in the world,” in other words.

I remember standing in the dark on a curb in a run-down section of Queens, New York.  I was twenty-one years old and preparing to start my very first job the next morning. And there I was.  Stranded, lost and feeling awfully vulnerable.

I hadn’t intended to be there, of course.  I had hailed a taxi cab with every expectation of making it to my destination.  The only problem was that my driver was lost, too.  He had started driving only a few days before.  Before that he had been driving somewhere in Africa where English is not the primary language, because he didn’t speak a lick.

When we had driven around for about an hour looking for the address scribbled in my datebook, I had finally in exasperation ordered him to stop the car and let me out.  So he had.  Right there and then.

Ten years later the same thing happened again.  With only a few variations.  This time we were in Beijing, China.  This time when my driver couldn’t find the hotel, he pretended the hotel didn’t exist, jabbered away on the phone with a friend of a cousin whose mother he had met while playing Mahjong, and then dropped me on the doorstep of that friend’s rinky-dink hotel.  Which proved to be a bit of a comedown from the elusive, four-star “Emperor’s Palace.”  I spent the night tossing and turning in a claustrophobic, smoke-stained room above a noisy street.

Experiences like these are good preparation for the times when we find ourselves really lost, Taylor writes.  And this can happen “anywhere, in all kinds of ways.    You can get lost on your way home.  You can get lost looking for love.  You can get lost between jobs.  You can get lost looking for God.”

Taylor is refreshingly honest about the times when she has been lost: “I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick.  I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. ..While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back.  I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path…I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.”

The Bible is replete with examples of how “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.”  Abraham and Sarah are an obvious one.  They set off on a journey that twists and turns.  Along the way, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, twice; Sarah passes off Hagar to Abraham so he can use her as his mistress; and Abraham passes up the prospect of seeing his son, Isaac, grow up (only to be told at the last minute that he won’t have to).  Later, Abraham’s descendants wander forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus forty days.  The take-home?  That we need to be willing to set off on a journey with nothing but God’s promises to us.  We need to “consent” to be lost, “since you have no other choice.”  This “consenting” or surrender is the practice that helps us develop a kind of “rock-bottom trust.”  Which is really a groundedness in the faithfulness of God to hold and steady us when we cannot do this for ourselves.

Here is Taylor again:

“Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.  When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces.  Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives.  And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.  When the safety net has split, when the resources are gone, when the way ahead is not clear, the sudden exposure can be both frightening and revealing.  We spend so much of our time protecting ourselves from this exposure that a weird kind of relief can result when we fail.  To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place.”

Last year I found myself there: lying flat on my face with the breath knocked out of me.  My safety net had split.  My resources were gone.  My friends had begun to fall away- or, I began to discover who my real friends were.  The way ahead was not clear, and I felt totally exposed. Which really was both frightening and liberating all at once.

In that time and since, God has met me more than in all my years of “success” put together.  Raw trust, dependency on God, humility, groundedness, gratitude, self-awareness, prayerfulness, vulnerability, honesty.  These are the “great possessions” that can emerge when we find ourselves in the wilderness without our bearings.  They can make saints and sinners alike rich in the things of God.


Great Expectations

 We all expect things out of the cards we have been dealt in life.  We expect to find  the right someone and be married for life.  Or to land the job that will finally make  us happy.  Or to live long enough to see our children grow up, go to college, and  start families of their own.

We expect things not just as individuals but as societies.  In first-world America we  expect  that trains run on time, that our grocery stores will have food on their  shelves, that  we won’t die from polio.  We expect that the stock market will one day  rise again. Or, that our politicians, however  corrupt or disconnected they might  be, will eventually do what we are demanding they do- or be voted out of office.

At heart expectation is desire.  Desire as entitlement: that what I want I deserve to have.  Entitlement insofar as “I” or “we,” the source of the desire, presume to be at the center of our universe.

Even our smallest, pettiest expectations can be great to the degree that they fill a void that would otherwise be there in the absence of our desires.  While the object of these desires can be good in and of itself, the desire for some future possession of the object can rob us from an experience of God’s grace in the present moment.  A moment in which our hearts can be free to desire God and God alone.

Only when we have been emptied of these attachments can grace truly enter in and make a home in our hearts.  “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void,” Simone Weil writes, in Gravity and Grace.

But if the void is an act of God, making us aware of our need for God and God’s grace, human will can still play a role: “we can fix our will on the void,” Weil writes.  In other words, the compulsion to buy that next cute pair of shoes online when my shoe rack rivals Imelda Marcos’?  We can choose to look beyond this desire to be well-dressed, impress others or seek escape from something else.  We can acknowledge whatever is driving our urge and then look beyond it to the emptiness this compulsion is trying to fill.

In a sense this act of the will is a bit like slaying dragons, because our expectations have taught us to believe in a non-reality.  A false mode of existence whereby what we acquire materially is what makes us lovable, worthy or significant.  When in fact nothing could be less true.

And when we slay the dragon and face the void, we can choose to sit there.  In that emptiness.  In the void.  And it is there we can wait with open arms to receive the grace of God.

Weil puts it like this:  “The extinction of desire (Buddhism)- or detachment- or amor fati- or desire for the absolute good- these all amount to the same: to empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait…Always, beyond the particular object whatever it may be, we have to fix our will on the void- to will the void.  For the good which we can neither picture nor define is a void for us.  But this void is fuller than all fullnesses.  If we get as far as this we shall come through all right, for God fills the void…The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal.  Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”

These days our nation has been forced to stare in the face of failed expectations here, there and almost everywhere.  We as individuals and families, many of us, have watched our variations on the “American Dream” fall apart.  Like little children on Christmas morning, we have run downstairs with great expectation to find only coal in our stockings.  Maybe now more than ever, we are ready to be “in the void.”  Maybe many of us are already in it.  If so, God’s grace is finding us, and may it fill us to the brim.


Injustice in Global Perspective

First world problems in global perspective, compliments of friend Michael Frost

A friend forwarded on the following letter from a leader in the Coptic church in Egypt who will remain unnamed.  Five days ago authorities killed 26 peaceful protesters, most of them Christians speaking out against a recent deadly attack on a Coptic church (among a string of attacks without impunity):

Dear Friends,

Thank you for sharing our difficult time.

We are passing through a dark tunnel of violence, feeling grief of death and injustice. The light of forgiveness is shining with a painful love. Trying to bring forgiveness and justice together is a big struggle, but we are committed to the love that never fails.

We are hardly pressed on every side, yet not crushed. We are perplexed but not lost, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. We do not lose heart and continue to work for justice to be fulfilled. We continue to love and declare forgiveness so the peace of God will overshadow all hearts. We continue to work on the healing and support of the innocent victims. And we continue to pray for the victims, for the offenders and for a better future.

Thank you all for your love, care, words and actions to bring justice and forgiveness together. 

These days when “Occupy Wall Street” is the rallying cry across my country, it is sobering to think that there are others across the globe protesting far greater injustices.  Standing up for much more basic human rights.  And then dying for it.

What Distinguishes the Suffering of a Follower of Christ?

Variations on the theme of "elephant poo."

Most of us at one point or another have asked the question, “Why does God allow suffering?”  Frustratingly, the Bible I read never gives an answer.  Suffering is simply a given.  A bit like the bumper sticker, “Shit happens.”

Except more than that, too.  Because while we as Christians do not have an answer to the age-old theodicy question, we do have some pointers on how to approach suffering from within the framework of faith.  So that our suffering becomes redemptive.

This help comes from at least one place, in 1 Peter 4:12-14:  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.  If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”

The writer of 1 Peter was addressing his letter to a community of first-century believers facing persecution.  Their suffering was of a specific kind.  But suffering can be of the more garden-variety type, too.  A spouse dies.  Or, we lose a job and find ourselves chronically unemployed.  Or, we get the diagnosis we most dreaded:  cancer.  It is still suffering.  It can still feel like a burning away of all that we thought we knew about God, ourselves and our world.  A “fiery ordeal.”

And unlike the notion in some Christian quarters that “every day can be Friday,” the writer of 1 Peter tells us to expect suffering. Christians by virtue of their humanity, and at times because of their faith, will suffer.  Suffering is part of what it means to be human. Period.

There is to be a difference in how Christians suffer, though, according to this passage.  And this is where 1 Peter offers a consolation prize that is as challenging as it is comforting.  I like to sum it up in “3 P’s”: Presence; Purpose; and Passion.

Presence.  Christians can know that God is present with them in their sufferings.  Which is not to imply that God is not with non-Christians in their sufferings.  Only to affirm that in Christ we have an abiding assurance when we go through painful trials that the Spirit of God is “resting on” us (v. 14). This is the same Spirit that like a mother bird hovers over her babies, watching, sheltering, nurturing and drawing us under her wings (Psalm 17:8).  The same Spirit that hovered over the face of the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2).  The Spirit that creates out of nothing and nothingness something beautiful.  That takes the dull, senseless matter of our hurts and tribulations and transforms it.

This sustaining, nurturing, life-giving Spirit of God is with us.  Hovering over us.  And it is, the writer of 1 Peter tells us, glorious.  It is “the spirit of glory.”  Much like the glory of God that shone most brightly on a cross, so that even a centurion standing by, one of Jesus’ executioners, could exclaim, “This truly is the Son of God!”  So, too, in our suffering, God’s Spirit hovers over us: like it did over Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, it proclaims that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.

Purpose.  Just as and because God is with us in our trials, our suffering serves a purpose.  If God’s Spirit is with us, hovering over us, then our pain and anguish are the stuff of new creation.  They are the clay that God is using to remake us.  They aren’t just crap- or if they are, they’re elephant poo. Elephant poo being recycled to make stationary.  (I really saw this the other day at The Aquarium gift store.)

Our first question can be, then, “God, how would you use this terrible thing before me for your purpose?”  The whole “Why me, Lord?” thing will never get us very far; so while our first inclination is understandably to ask this question, we thankfully don’t need to sit on this bench too long.  God’s purpose puts us back in the field to play with whatever has been handed us, trusting that one day we will understand just how our poo was used.

Passion.  Here is where the message of consolation cuts both ways.  As a challenge, it can rub us the wrong way.  We are to “rejoice” in our suffering.  Say what?

Before we jeer and boo and throw paper airplanes at the writer of 1 Peter, he gives us a qualifier: we are to “rejoice insofar as [we] are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”  Our weeping and tears over the death of a spouse?  They belong to the cries of One who like a lover came near and dwelt among us- only to have his life cut short against his will- and felt the incredible pains of separation.  Our painful embarassment over the loss of a job and inability to find work?  It takes its place within the humiliation of One who deserved the gold, gem-studded crown of a king and got one made of thorns.  Our diagnosis of cancer and all of the anguish it brings?  They are a dimension of Christ’s own great tribulation in the face of death.

Christ’s Passion for the world, in the pouring out of His life on a cross, somehow mysteriously embraces, enfolds and transforms our sufferings, so that Christ’s Passion ignites and intermingles with our passions, changing them in the process and opening our hearts to the world around us in all of its pain and beauty.  With the result being that we don’t have to walk around emotionally beaten down by our suffering.  Or cynical, checked-out and disengaged from our world because we would rather not feel pain.  We can be passionately involved in the lives of those around us and in the sufferings of our world without succumbing to despair.

Presence.  Purpose.  Passion.  These are the marks of Christian suffering.  They are what make the suffering of a follower of Christ distinctive.



“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” goes the African proverb.  I think of it every time I jog past this sign near my house.  Because if there were ever a place where many of us have felt like we must “speak softly” and “carry a big stick,” it is in of all places “church.”

Sunday mornings can quickly become our “church zone” days.  In the “church zone,” we are careful to self-edit.  We put on nice clothes to look good for others even if we don’t feel good inside.  We put on pleasant expressions to hide the brokenness underneath.  We use “Christian” language even when it sounds awkward or forced.  We follow all of the religious cues.  We pretend to ourselves and those around us that because we’re in here, “in church,” we are somehow different or better than the world outside our doors.

If truth be told, many of us who have tried to be more transparent in the “church zone” have often been hurt. When we have honestly sought to live into the biblical notion that we, the church, really are “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we have been shafted.  When we have been real about our struggles, we have been ganged up on.

Then there are those who, in seeking privacy during their times of deepest affliction, are shocked to read about themselves on the front page of the church newsletter, or become against their will the juicy subject of the next prayer meeting.  All in the name of so-called “Christian” love.  No wonder that many of us instinctively look for the “big stick,” whatever that may be: we are looking to protect ourselves from further violations.

Sometimes I meet Christians who while fully aware of the church’s brokenness would prefer to treat it as if it were a big, family secret. “We wouldn’t want non-Christians to hear these things” goes this line of reasoning, as if once a Christian, all of the mess of our lives, our sin, our imperfections, and our “issues,” should no longer exist.  As if once we step through the doors of a church building or join a Bible study, we are somehow only saints and no longer sinners.  Maybe the fear is that if we let the cat out of the bag, our lives won’t adequately witness to the transforming Good News that Jesus loves us and gave Himself for us.

This is a natural fear.  We want to believe that our relationship with Christ has really changed us.  Has meant something. And we’re afraid to look at all of those places where it has yet to.

And this fear comes from a place of good intentions.  Those of us who love Jesus want the world to know how great He is. We want our lives to reflect the difference he makes.  We don’t want the world to see how Christians, when we get together, are often just messed-up, broken people with issues.  Just another batch of shared humanity.  No more.  No less.

But the reality is that church is chock-full of sinners.  Messed-up people all of us.  Sorely in need of God’s grace each of us.  And telling ourselves or others otherwise and keeping the cat in the bag as if it were a shameful secret, is not just unhelpful.  It is bad theology.

So, while telling the truth about this reality can be hard, I suspect that in the end it is a whole lot more life-saving than the alternative. One theologian who told the truth was the fourth-century theologian, St. Augustine:  “The man who enters [church] is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers.  He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also fill the theaters on pagan holidays,” Malcolm Muggeridge, in A Third Testament:  A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, quotes Augustine as saying.  (The one thing lacking about this wonderful book is that it does not include citations, so if any of you can recall which of Augustine’s works this comes from, I’d be appreciative.)

When we tell the truth, we become free- or at least freer.  We become free to see ourselves not as Christians but as human beings desperately in need of God’s grace.  Grace embodied not just in that one moment when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and thought everything would change, but every day. Every moment.  And we free ourselves to share with others the unvarnished gift of the Good News: that Christ loved us while we were yet still sinners.  Not after we got our lives in order- because then He would have been waiting around for, literally, forever. But before then.  And always.  This is Good News.  For the very reason that it tears down our “church zones.”


If you’re up for a good laugh and some provocative theology, you can find other strange, funny and intriguing church signs here: www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Church-Signs-Across-America.aspx and http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Fun-Chuch-Signs.aspx.



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