Last night at open house and small group I was overwhelmed by the deep love and compassion my neighbors have for me and my family. It is a real gift to know that my neighbors felt concern and fear right along with us when they first heard about dad’s stroke. My dad is Santa to my neighbors, and they adore him with the same love children have for his fictional counterpart. I felt keenly aware that the way I framed the experience of my family would reflect on their own lives. The most obvious being that two of our community members lost a parent in the last two years. In our community the depth of the pain and suffering is unreachable and often unspeakable. The following are reflections from our talk as a community last night.
Every year my dad and mom travel to JUSTembrace and we host a photo shoot with Santa for our neighbors. The photos have become precious memories of those we’ve lost.
When people are in pain, bad theology abounds. Whether we really believe the things we say or we have been conditioned to say things that we do not really mean, I’m not sure, but I want to clear up a few things:
We lost Melvin after a year-long battle with cancer.
The tempting half-truth: “God is Good!”
The full truth: God’s goodness is neither inceased nor lessened by the degree of our pain or our joy. God is good because God’s very essence is love.
Out of his love, God is just and righteous and holy. God is good when we experience the joys of his plan to restore all things in a decaying world and God is good when we suffer greatly as we are bound to this not-yet-fully-restored reality. God is good because God’s plan is to restore all things. So when we experience a moment of restoration – yes, God is Good! But when we suffer God is also good because our pain and our suffering are not the end of the story. God will restore all things. Often, when we proclaim God’s goodness in our joys, we are promoting an untruth about God – that his goodness is tied more to our experience of momentary restoration now than to the promise of full restoration to come.
Our precious Guy went to the hospital with a cold and died unexpectedly the next day.
The tempting half-truth: “God was with him!”
The full truth: God’s presence is not concentrated where we see good things (like a hopeful prognosis).
Perhaps we are more inclined to be made aware of God’s presence, but God’s presence is unleashed on all of creation. It is our opportunity to not only see God in the good times and the times of celebration but to find God’s presence in the darkness. In fact, I would suggest if we only are able to celebrate God’s presence in our “phew!” moments, then we might be missing out on the fullness of God’s abiding presence that saves us in the depth of our brokenness.
A serious bout with pneumonia led to a heart attack that left our dear Carey with severe brain damage. We were gathered by his side for his final days and breaths.
The tempting half-truth: “What a blessing it wasn’t worse!”
The full truth: God’s plan for of the follower of Jesus is not to avoid the pain and suffering of our broken world, but to enter into it and reveal the restorative power of God.
My father’s stroke was not a “near-miss” or a “close call” and we are not “blessed” that it was not worse. It is a lie that the Church in America has bought whole heartedly that the Gospel is meant to save us from harm and pain. The good news is not news of safety or deliverance out of pain – but of the eventual restoration of all things that we get to participate in now!
Let me be fully transparent here. My heart is naturally inclined to celebrate that my father’s stroke was minor and that he is expected to recover fully. All of those half-truths above are on the tip of my tongue too! I do not think that it is wrong to celebrate a wonderful prognosis, but I long for myself and the Church to have a deeper, sustaining theology. I want to avoid allowing lies to comfort us instead of the much larger truth of who God is and what God’s plan is; a truth that will still be true when the inevitable inevitably happens. My time with my father is limited. I am determined to allow the truth of who God is today prepare me for the God I will trust when I eventually lose my parents.
Gentle Warren died suddenly alone in his room from a heart attack. He was 61.
So why do I feel compelled to “clear up” these wrong thoughts about God? When we misunderstand God’s plan for us as one to save us from earthly pain and sorrow, we not only further marginalize the most vulnerable but we distance ourselves from the depth of the Good News that we will eventually long for when we can no longer avoid the sting of death. If we live our lives claiming God’s plan is to help us avoid pain, our despair is eminent.
What I have found is that those who have embraced suffering have found the presence of God sustaining them in the fullness of their reality. It is these people who are most capable of showing up in the pain and suffering of others. As Christians, we must put off the half-truths of God’s gracious love being meant only for our momentary salvation, but root ourselves in the fullness of Christ’s saving love that is eternal and complete.
A quiet soul, Jeff died suddenly from a heart attack in his room across the street from our home.
Today I am thankful that I live among men and women who suffer daily the consequences of a horribly sinful world, yet display the power of the resurrection through simple things like smiles, admiring a garden, or petting a puppy. My neighbors are forced to find the power of the resurrection in the most basic things because superficial salvation is not accessible to them. They cannot pull themselves up by their boot straps and praise God for providing for them. It is through entering into the suffering of the cross that they find access to abundant life even as they suffer.
Jesus said that he came to proclaim the Gospel to the poor…. I wonder if that isn’t exactly where we are to embed in order to hear it today. The pain and suffering in our lives are gifts that open the path to the fullness of God’s restorative power if we lean into the Spirit that will guide us into a deeper place of rest and peace come what may.