Tag Archives: Suffering

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 3 – Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 69:1-16

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When things are going well – when “life is good” – it’s not hard to come up with the language we need to describe the way we look at the world or the way we feel about God. The words of wisdom and praise that we’ve looked at over the past two weeks, epitomized by Psalm 1 and Psalm 113, come easily to our lips, and we find little difficulty lifting our voices to rejoice in the God who has created us to enjoy a world of beauty and joy and abundant life. We can talk with some confidence about how the righteous are blessed and the wicked are cursed, about how great God is and how God is worthy to be praised.

When things fall apart, however, we often find it hard to speak. In part, that’s because the experience of trauma and pain and sadness deadens our minds. Even if we have something to say, it often takes more energy than we can muster to bring those words to the surface. There’s more to it than that, though, and it has something to do with a problem that I identified last week. We have a problem talking about suffering. We have a problem, in large part, because we’ve bought into a whole pack of half-truths that have left us paralyzed when the tough times come. Everything happens for a reason. God never gives us more than we can handle. He or she is in a better place. This must have been God’s will. I call these half-truths because each of them comes out of a place of sincere wrangling with the character and nature of God, and because in some circumstances they might be comforting to people. Perhaps you’ve found solace in one of these expressions during a time of trouble. If you’re anything like me, however, these well-meaning words have brought more harm than help when I’ve faced the reality of suffering and pain.

In the fall semester of my senior year of seminary, I was just getting up from my seat to enjoy a break in class, when I received a phone call from my father that shook me to the core. My cousin, Kenny, had been out jogging along the road near his house, training for his next weekend of duty with the US Army Reserve, when he unexpectedly collapsed and died on the spot. He was 21 years old and in peak physical condition, and yet in the blink of an eye he was gone. Katie and I packed our things and made the drive home to Michigan for his funeral service, which was going to be held on the following Monday morning. At the service, as I sat in the front row with the rest of my family, I was hoping to hear something – anything – that spoke to the unimaginable grief that we were experiencing, and I suspect that others may have heard what they needed, but I didn’t. Instead, the pastor’s sermon was filled with well-worn clichés about how it was Kenny’s time to go, about how God needed Kenny in heaven to play goalie, about how God’s will was unsearchable and unknowable. Maybe I’m just nit-picky. Maybe I was alone in being incensed at what I was hearing. But I don’t think so. I think I was dissatisfied with a message that failed to reckon with the pain, the anguish, the incomprehensibility of it all. I was missing the language of lament.

Save me, O God,
     for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
     where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
     and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
     my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
     with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3, NRSV)

Last week, I mentioned that the Hebrew name of this collection of songs that sits in the middle of our Bible is Sefer Tehillim, or “the Book of Praises”, and that this communicates a profound truth about the collection as a whole. Alongside that truth is a fact that you might find surprising, and that fact is this: at least one-third of the Psalms have been identified as psalms of lament, intended to express feelings of despair and longing, of anguish and pain. One-third of the psalms contain the words of individuals and communities struggling to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves, and crying out for deliverance from the God who has promised to be with them and see them through. Often, the language is stark: in various psalms the psalmist asserts his innocence, accuses God of being responsible for the pain and suffering that he is experiencing, and demands that God make things right today, if not yesterday. This is raw, honest, deep human emotion. These are words that take the promises of God seriously and don’t shy away from calling God to hold up God’s end of the deal.

We do ourselves a disservice, I think, when we tell ourselves that this kind of language isn’t appropriate for the believer. We have this idea that we are supposed to passively accept what happens to us, that God has a plan for all of us, and that if we can’t understand it we’re just supposed to grin and bear it. If that’s how we’re supposed to approach times of suffering – if that’s what Scripture is supposed to teach us about the relationship between God and the believer – then I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with stuff like this:

O LORD God who delivers me!
     By day I cry out
          and at night I pray before you.
Listen to my prayer!
     Pay attention to my cry for help!
For my life is filled with troubles
     and I am ready to enter Sheol.
They treat me like those who descend into the grave.
     I am like a helpless man,
adrift among the dead,
     like corpses lying in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
     and who are cut off from your power.
You place me in the lowest regions of the pit,
     in the dark places, in the watery depths.
Your anger bears down on me,
     and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah)
You cause those who know me to keep their distance;
     you make me an appalling sight to them.
          I am trapped and cannot get free.
My eyes grow weak because of oppression.
     I call out to you, O LORD, all day long;
          I spread out my hands in prayer to you.
Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead?
     Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? (Selah)
Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave,
     or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?
Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region,
     or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?
As for me, I cry out to you, O LORD;
     in the morning my prayer confronts you.
O LORD, why do you reject me,
     and pay no attention to me?
I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
     I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.
Your anger overwhelms me;
     your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long;
     they join forces and encircle me.
You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance;
     those who know me leave me alone in the darkness. (Psalm 88, NET)

God invites us to call out in our time of need, not with platitudes or half-truths, but with everything that we have and all that we are. That includes our questions and our doubts, our fears and our concerns, our anguish and our pain. It may be that we can look back on our experiences and discern the hand of God. It may be that we can look back and see, alongside the tragedy and the grief, something that has made us stronger. But in the moment, in the midst of the pain, we are not weak or faithless if we shout or scream or wail. If anything, in moments like that we are truly ourselves: people of God who trust that God can bear our pain and, in time, transform it.

Brothers and sisters, today we hear the unbridled language of lament. If you find yourself in a situation of pain or anguish, may these words free you to bring your whole selves before God and to know that God hears all of our prayers, draws us to Godself in the midst of our grief, and promises to bring us through the pain into a new day, a day in which the language of lament becomes the language of trust and hope. Amen.

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 1 – Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sunday’s Theme/Reading:
Introduction to the Psalms – Psalm 1

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When I was in college, I spent my summers working as a cabin counselor at Stony Lake Lutheran Camp in West Michigan. Every year, in late May, the staff would gather from all over the state (or in some years from across the country and around the world) to spend two weeks getting ourselves prepared for the task of carrying out that summer’s programming. One of the most important aspects of that preparation was immersing ourselves in that summer’s theme, the set of big ideas that would tie the week together and provide the structure for each day’s activities. One particular summer, I remember struggling mightily with the theme that had been selected for us by our leadership staff: Life Is Good!

On the one hand, it was a great theme for a summer camp, right? I mean, we were out in the woods of West Michigan, in a place that we as staff loved more than pretty much any other place on the planet, and we were working with people that we loved and respected and doing work that was meaningful and joy-filled and life-changing. Most days, when someone else on staff called out the question – How’s life? – it wasn’t difficult to give the standard response with enthusiasm: Life is good! On the other hand, of course, there were those days when the campers had kept me up late, or the weather had been particularly awful, or we staff people were getting on each others’ nerves after being together for seven weeks with very little break, or I’d gotten bad news from home, and it was really hard to hear that question – How’s life? – and even harder to respond, Life is good!

As we begin today’s six-week series on the Book of Psalms, I have some similar feelings. Psalm 1, which most commentators believe is placed at the head of the book of Psalms because it summarizes the outlook of the whole collection, is a sort of Life is good psalm, isn’t it?

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall be destroyed.
(Psalm 1, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Psalm 1 represents the conviction that God has ordered the world well, and that God has given God’s people a great gift in Holy Scripture, specifically in the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah. For the psalmist, those who heed the teaching of Scripture will be happy, fortunate, joyful, because they have committed themselves to a life of beauty and peace and wisdom and self-control, a life that accords with God’s desire for us and the whole creation. Conversely, those who refuse to adopt this way of thinking – the wicked – can expect to receive the logical consequence of their choice.

As with the whole life is good focus above, there are times when we can look at our lives and see in them the truth of this psalm: God presents a way of life that is good and pleasant and beautiful, and we can acknowledge God as the source of the happiness and joy that we are experiencing. We may indeed feel like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. But the opposite is also true. We have all experienced times in which we feel like trees planted in the middle of a desert, dried and withered, with leaves that rustle and crack in the wind, times in which nothing seems to go right, times in which the next person to ask you “How’s life?” is liable to get more than he or she bargained for.

So why start the book with this psalm? And why begin a series on the psalms with a passage whose truth might be perfectly clear one day and shadowed by pain and struggle and confusion the next? I think we start here because there’s something important in casting a vision of how the world should be. That’s precisely what’s happening here; the psalmist is encouraging those who sing these songs to orient themselves to a particular way of life, and to recognize that when things are going well, it is because of the gracious gift of instruction that aligns us and our lives with God’s purposes.* Alongside Psalm 1, of course, are the psalms of praise, songs that give us words to honor and glorify God for being holy and majestic, for creating a world of order and beauty, for choosing to dwell with us and bless us with the promise of grace. Next week, we’ll look more in depth at one of these psalms of praise, and consider how it helps us to see the world with eyes wide open to the power and presence of God being displayed throughout the earth.

Obviously, we can’t stop there, though many people would like to do so. I’ve mentioned many times before that we suffer from a spiritual malady in this country. We have a problem with how we look at (or refuse to look at) the reality of suffering. On the one hand, we have this tendency to take the logic of Psalm 1 and employ it in ways the psalmist never would. So, for example, when things go wrong for others, we assume that they haven’t been faithful, that there’s something about them that has brought God’s disfavor upon them. Similarly, when bad things happen to us, we are often overcome with guilt and shame, wondering what we’ve done to deserve it. If I had just had more faith… if I had just prayed more… if I hadn’t been so weak… none of this would have happened. When we do this to ourselves or others, we fail to recognize that we live in a world that is broken, and that good and faithful people often find themselves suffering just as much as the wicked. The psalms of lament give us language for expressing our despair, for bringing our lives in all their brokenness and pain and longing to the one who has promised to be with us. If Psalms 1 and 113 serve to orient us to a particular way of looking at the world, then the psalms of lament and trust – like Psalm 69 and 27 – serve to help us when we get thrown off balance, when suffering and pain disorient us and make us question whether or not God really has our backs.

After things fall apart, we also need handles to help us put our worlds back together. I feel confident in saying that all of us have come through suffering at one time or another and found ourselves drawn to new understandings of what it means to live with God. In some of the psalms of thanksgiving and praise – like Psalms 40 and 146 – we find language that speaks to a reoriented life of faith, a faith that knows the reality of suffering and loss and can speak with a new-found confidence in God’s power and presence in our lives.

These stages – orientation, disorientation, and new orientation – are not linear. We go through them in different times and places in our lives, and there’s no guarantee that we will move easily from one to another. But they do represent authentic expressions of what life with God looks like, and so the psalms help us to express our joys, our sorrows, our longings, and our gratitude amid all the peaks and valleys of our existence. Wherever you find yourself, it is my prayer that in the Psalms you will find language that speaks to you, that gives you comfort and hope, and that draws you into deeper relationship the God who has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Welcome to the journey. May we be nourished by the honesty of these songs as they echo through our lives in the days and weeks to come. Amen.

*This way of looking at the Psalms through the lenses of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation was treated at length in Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, part of the Augsburg Old Testament Studies series. I am indebted to Dr. Brueggemann for his insight into the psalms and their relevance to our lived experience of faith in God.

God’s Love Poured Out (Sixth Sunday of Easter) – May 10, 2015

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 11:28-30
Preaching Text: Romans 5:1-11

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When we last left Paul, our intrepid apostle, he was introducing himself to the Christian community at Rome, asking for their support, and trying to talk sense into a church divided by tension between its Jewish and the Gentile members. In short order, Paul undercut the smug superiority of the Gentile Christians, who believed that their remarkable faith had been confirmed by the expulsion of the Jewish people from the city of Rome, as well as the Jewish Christians who believed that their heritage was a guarantee that God loved them more. It only took a few verses for Paul to put the entire community of believers at Rome on a level playing field, reminding both Jews and Gentiles that it was the good news of Jesus that freed them from their old lives to live for him, and that all of them had fallen short of the glory of God and been found guilty of relying on themselves rather than on Christ, whose faithful and obedient death made their renewed relationship with God possible. This is the background as we encounter today’s preaching text from the fifth chapter of Romans.

Paul begins this section by stating clearly that the source of salvation and favor for everyone who believes is the love of God made known to us in Jesus. Because of this truth, we Christians have no grounds for boasting about our own faithfulness or our own goodness. Instead, we are called to recognize that the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts in Jesus is the driving force behind God’s activity in the world, and that we have the potential to be witnesses to that saving love by the way that we live in relationship with one another and with God. As a sort of general statement about the Christian life, that’s all well and good. But then Paul hits a little bit closer to home. He tells his audience (and, by extension, us) that far from boasting in himself, he boasts in suffering, because he recognizes the hardship that he has experienced as an opportunity for his trust in God to be deepened and strengthened.

I think this statement needs a little bit of unpacking, because it’s easy to get the wrong idea about what Paul is trying to say here. These verses are not designed to explain the source or goal of suffering. Paul is not claiming that God looks down on us and makes suffering happen as a means of testing or trying us. Rather, he believes that God can use the brokenness of our world – brokenness that in large part he simply takes as given – to bring us to deeper faith or deeper trust in God. We do well to recall that when Paul writes about his convictions that suffering produces endurance, that endurance produces hope, and that hope does not disappoint us, he doesn’t do write from a position of comfort or ease. Paul’s ministry was carried out in the trenches, in partnership with people who had experienced unbelievable suffering at the hands of the authorities, just as he had. At various times in his life, Paul was bruised, battered, and lashed, arrested and imprisoned, and on at least one occasion was nearly stoned to death for preaching the good news about Jesus. As one who faced many trials for the sake of the gospel, Paul reminds his readers that it is God’s love which makes it possible to overcome the trials that we will undoubtedly face as people who live in a broken world. This love has been poured out into our hearts, bringing the possibility of peace, hope, and joy to all who have been beaten down by their experiences. To be clear, we don’t receive those gifts because of our own striving to move past suffering, and the reception of those gifts doesn’t justify the pie-in-the-sky claim that Christians shouldn’t be upset when suffering happens. Paul’s message here is a profound statement of trust in the one who is able to bring healing and wholeness through even brokenness and messiness – like the lack of unity between Jewish and Gentiles Christians in Rome, or the anger and despair that is a fact of life in many communities around our nation, or the hardship suffered by countless brothers and sisters around the globe who lack access to the most basic necessities of life. Into all the situations of pain and suffering that befall us, God’s love is poured out, and because of that love we have the hope of healing and renewal.

What makes this love so extraordinary is precisely that we don’t do anything to earn it, that it comes to us even before we ask, maybe even before we know that we need it. This is so important, because we are conditioned to look at our lives through the lenses of cause and effect. When things are going well, we imagine that we’re riding high because there’s something remarkable about us as individuals or as a community that makes us worthy of the good things that are coming to us. When suffering does come, we have this tendency to believe that we are suffering because we deserve it, that God brings misfortune on us in order to teach us something about ourselves or our need to amend our lives. The truth is, brothers and sisters, that the love of God that is ours in Christ is a pure and unadulterated gift. It comes to us without our knowing, without our asking, without our striving, and it comes to us precisely so that we can persevere through suffering and shame and loss. This is the love that led Jesus to take on the pain and shame of the cross in order to destroy everything that draws us from God. This is the love that led Christ to endure the grave so that death’s hold on our world might be broken by the power of Christ’s resurrection life. This is the love that comes to strengthen us in our weakness, calm us in our distress, and bind us ever closer to God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, today we rejoice in the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. This week, it is my prayer that you would experience this love being poured out anew in your life, that you would know the peace of God that surpasses all human understanding, and that you would be renewed in hope as you go out to serve God and one another today and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Crucifixion (Good Friday) – April 3, 2015

Friday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Psalm 22
Preaching Text: Matthew 27:27-61

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

We gather again this night to hear the story of our Lord’s final hours. We hear of his brutal torture by the whole cohort of Roman soldiers, possibly as many as six hundred strong.  We hear of the mockery to which they subjected him when they clothed him in crude military dress, gave him a crown of thorns and a limp reed for a scepter, and knelt before him while parodying the greeting that rang in the emperor’s ears wherever he went: Hail! Hail! Hail, king of the Jews! We hear the derision from those who passed by, using his own words and his position of utter powerlessness to ridicule him. He saved others! He cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel? Come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him! We hear his last words from the cross before he gave up his spirit: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? We hear of the tremors that rent the earth, the temple curtain, and the disbelief of those who had nailed him to the tree. We hear of his burial in a brand new tomb, and of the women who kept watch over his grave until the guards arrived.

Whether you’re hearing this story for the first time or rehearing it for the hundredth time, it is a truly remarkable narrative. Matthew includes so many little details that give us pause and help us to find something new and powerful in the tale, like the fact that Simon Peter – the chief disciple who recognized Jesus as the Christ and vowed never to leave him – is nowhere to be found, and so the one who was called to pick up the cross and follow Jesus is replaced by a stranger with the same name. Or the fact that Jesus was crucified between two bandits who may have been Galilean revolutionaries from the same gang of rebels as Barabbas, the one who was released by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the religious authorities and the crowds who gathered for Jesus’ trial. If that’s the case, then Jesus, the Son of God the Father was likely crucified in the place of Jesus Barabbas, whose name also means “Son of the Father”. Or this strange scene, recorded only in Matthew, of the graves of the faithful dead being opened, so that God’s power over death might be shown forth by their sharing in Christ’s resurrection on the third day.

On its own, this is an incredibly moving story, both in its broad sweep and in those seemingly small details that open up new worlds of meaning. But as Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other important theologians in our tradition have stressed throughout the years, what makes this story even more compelling is the act of pondering what it means for you and me and for the world. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus lays out his mission, his purpose for being born among us, living among us, and dying at our hands: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28, NRSV). The goal of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was not to be glorified for his own sake, to be remembered as a powerful preacher and teacher and healer, but so that our relationship with God, broken by our human propensity to live for ourselves, to injure and demean others, and to ignore our Creator, might be renewed and restored. The events of this day happened for you and for me, a thought that surely inspires profound and heartfelt gratitude in each of us.

But what happened on the God-forsaken hill called Golgotha outside the city walls was even bigger than you and me. Paul later writes that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) The Lord who taught his disciples of God’s care for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air hung on the cross to restore the whole creation to God – everything that has ever been made, that exists now, and that will ever exist.

This is love, brothers and sisters; love so deep, so wide, so high, that it encompasses all things, seen and unseen. We gather this night to remember the cost of that love, and to give thanks for the amazing grace that has found us all in Jesus and kept us in communion with God the Father. We gather to pray for God’s grace to continue to come to us, to inspire us to acts of greater love and service to others, and to make the light of the Gospel known throughout the world. In closing this evening’s reflection, I’d like to leave you with these words, part of a fifth-century hymn about Christ’s life, death, and rising for us:

Because for our sake you tasted gall, may the Enemy’s bitterness be killed in us.
Because for our sake you drank sour wine, may what is weak in us be strengthened.
Because for our sake you were spat upon, may we be bathed in the dew of immortality.
Because for our sake you were struck with a rod, may we receive shelter in the last.
Because for our sake you accepted a crown of thorns, may we that love you be crowned with garlands that never can fade.
Because for our sake you were wrapped in a shroud, may we be clothed in your all-enfolding strength.
Because you were laid in the new grave and the tomb, may we receive renewal of body and soul.
Because you rose and returned to life, may we be brought to life again.
[Early Christian Prayers, ed. A. Hamman, trans. by W. Mitchell (Longmans, Green, and Co.: 1961)]