Category Archives: Suffering

Christian Witness: The Memory of Hope in a Secular Time

Over all, I have enjoyed a very good life. I was raised by Christian parents in a household with two brothers and two sisters. I’ve always had food on the table, adequate health care, and I’ve been blessed with a good education. Today I am a Christian and I’ve been able to spend much of my adult life serving as a minister with local churches which is something I love doing. I’ve been able to travel both nationally and internationally, which is more travel than a lot of people enjoy. Additionally, I have been married to my wonderful wife Laura for nearly nineteen years and we have been blessed with three wonderful children. So when I come home, I can definitely say that life is good.

what-are-the-fundamentals-of-having-a-good-life

I have much to be thankful for and probably more so than I am even aware. So much that I give thanks to God each day for the life I have. Yet there have been times when life has been difficult. At the age of sixteen, I was critically injured in a car accident that should have been fatal. I was only twenty-three years old when my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive stage-4 cancer in his pancreas and died two months later. There have been times when my family and I have had very little financial resources to live on, creating a lot of unnecessary stress. However, the most difficult part of life came when my oldest son died, followed a year later by the death of my younger brother. That was such a difficult period of life and looking back, to think that I have thus survived this journey of grief I am on is sheerly by the grace of God.

In all of the ups and downs of life, I can still surely say that life is good. That doesn’t mean that life is always easy or pleasant. What makes life good is God, who blesses each day with existence and also blesses the existence of life with a future hope in Jesus Christ.

Now admittedly, if it were not for this future hope in Jesus Christ then a lot of life would seem like one big cruel joke. I say that because there is too much bad, too much evil, and too much pain that goes on and that seems especially true for people in certain parts of the world where every-single-day is a constant struggle among abject poverty, living with systematic injustices, and having the apparent the cruel misfortunes of being born the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong nationality, etc…

I can’t explain why the bad exists… Well, I probably could begin to do so but at the end of the day, all such explanations seem inadequate. So I won’t. What I will say is that despite the bad, life is still good and I believe it is so because of the promise of hope that God has made in Jesus Christ. As scripture says in 1 Peter 1:3-5:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heave for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This is the Christian difference regarding life. Life is good not because of the present circumstances, which are ever changing for better and worse, but because the future is salvation — life redeemed, reconciled, and restored.

As Christians we can’t forget this and lose our memory of hope. In this time of secularism that has become America, the secularist sees hope for the future when the economy is strong, when good paying jobs are plentiful, when the children are doing well in school and extra-curricular activities, and so forth. But as nice as that is, it could all be gone tomorrow.  As Christians though, we see things differently and must. We see through our memory of hope, recalling the story of Jesus that culminates in his crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation. Because of that, we know the future full of hope. Our memory of hope is our Christian witness and we speak of it as an invitation for our secular neighbors to discover what can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

 

This Battle Still Belongs to the Lord

The tragic shooting this past Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas has been a painful tragedy to hear of from afar. I’m upset for the many innocent lives that have been lost and hurt, and I’m angry that someone can just indiscriminately kill other people. Yet just as with the past church shootings in Antioch, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina, in ways that hit close to home, we are reminded again that churches face persecution. The question we face as the body of Christ here in America is “Now what?”

Sutherland Springs Shooting

The Battle Belongs to Who?

When I was in college, one of the popular songs during chapel and devotionals was The Battle Belongs To The Lord (if you’ve not heard the song, you can click on the title to hear an a cappella rendition of the song). It’s a song that encourages faith with lines like… “No weapon that’s fashioned against us shall stand [because the] battle belongs to the Lord.” Or, “When your enemy presses in hard do not fear… The battle belongs to the Lord.”

Yet, sometimes I wonder if Christians really believe this? Or have we so compartmentalized our faith that the battle we sing about has nothing to do with the physical life we are living? I ask that because with the news of so many mass-shootings which are now also taking place at church and other religious gatherings, the response of many Christians is not any different from the way the rest of the world responds.

For the past few days the response of many Christians on social-media was the reaction of anxiety expressed in the question of how do we protect ourselves from such harm. Don’t get me wrong! I am not opposed to undertaking measures that protect innocent people from harm but when Christians suggest that the number one concern of the church should be safety is just to lose sight of the gospel. When our anxiety about a mass-shooter coming to our church prompts us to immediately suggest locking all the doors of the church building during worship and/or encourage members to carry firearms, we are letting fear lead us rather than faith. [Whether it is moral/ethical for Christians to carry firearms as a means of personal self-defense is besides the point.]

It seems as though Christians in America have forgotten that following Jesus might mean suffering for the name of Jesus. It certainly has for our fellow disciples throughout history and even today among certain places in the world. So the possibility of suffering for the sake of Christ should not surprise us. Scare us??? Yes, the idea of having an individual or group enter our worship gathering to kill us is terrifying. The question we must ask is how should we respond?

A Christian Response

Consider these words from the Apostle Paul that have been the focus of many sermons on a Sunday morning. Ephesians 6:10-20…

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Exegeting the text isn’t the big issue we face with a text like this. In my experience as a pastor, the problem is that too often we have so spiritualized and privatized this passage of scripture that it doesn’t have any bearing on an issue like the threat of a mass-shooting. That is, we limit the “struggle” (v. 12) to the way Satan may be trying to lure us into sexual immorality, selfish behaviors, bouts of depression, and so forth. Now I’m not denying that any of those issues are real battles we face as Christians. They are real and this passage offers us sound instruction for facing those struggles. However, this text was originally written to Christians who were also facing forms of persecution for being followers of Jesus. So when we hear that a gunman has committed mass-murder inside a church gathering and realize that such a massacre could happen in our church gatherings too, this text offers us instruction for facing this struggle too.

The passage tells us how we, the church, remain strong. Our strength is in the Lord, not in our own fallibility. Putting on the full armor of God then is essentially living as the new creation we are in Christ (Lincoln, Ephesians, p 442). Of course, finding our strength in the Lord as we put on the full armor of God requires faith. That is why v. 18 says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”

When faced with any struggle, our response begins with prayer because it isn’t our battle to fight or win. The battle, as we sing, belongs to the Lord and it is a battle he has already won even though we may suffer. The promise of the gospel is not that we will be without suffering but that through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ we have a victory now that will be known in fullness when our Lord returns. So when faced with struggles, we respond by praying and lifting our petitions up to the Lord… praying that we can live as his new creation rather than like the old creation that the rest of the world is.

Through such prayers we gain the strength to remain distinctly the church. And when it comes to the threats of violence, it doesn’t mean we ignore safety concerns. What it does mean is that we will act in faith rather than with fear and that by acting in faith, we don’t not consider just our own safety but how we go about our business of embodying the gospel. That is, besides considering how we might develop a protocol for responding to an emergency such as a mass-shooting taking place, we are also resolved to keep loving others, forgive those who wish us harm, and proclaim the word of God more boldly. If our response to danger is not an embodiment of the gospel then we’re not any different from the world and if we’re not any different from the world then are faith is nothing more than empty words we recite on Sundays.

One Final Plea

My fellow Christians, I am not asking that we remain naïve about the world or just throw ourselves into danger. My plea is that we not lose sight of the victory we have in Jesus Christ and that we respond to the potential dangers we face as the victorious people of the Lord. That won’t always be easy but let’s remember… This battle belongs to the Lord!

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!

The Shack: A Story On Suffering and Hope

Last Friday evening I watched the film The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine. This film is based on the 2007 novel of the same title by William P. Young. Having read the book, I wanted to see the film too. Like most film adaptations of a book, the movie loses some of the dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie to watch.

fb-share-img

In fact, here is the little response I posted on Facebook after watching the movie:

“I just returned from watching #TheShack at the theater. Though the movie, and the novel of the same title it’s based on, is fictional, it tells a wonderful story and powerful truth about God and life, love and forgiveness, faith and hope. Having buried my oldest son, Kenny, nearly fifteen years ago, there is so much I resonate with. From the question of suffering to the hurt and anger that ultimately inflicts more harm on one’s soul to the conflict and encounter with God, I resonate. The thought I had when the movie was over was a reminder that though I have sinned in life, made many mistakes, and often judged both God and people when that is not my business, God still loves me, is at work for the good in my life, and how much I just want to love others and be a part of that Good which God is bringing about in Jesus Christ.”

As you can tell, I resonate with so much of the drama because of the tragic loss of my own son. However, that doesn’t mean I abandoned my theology hat when I watch the film. So from a pastoral-theological standpoint, I also liked the movie.

Of course, some are quite critical of the movie. Some of those critics are Christians who are concerned about the doctrine and theology of the film, like this review by Al Mohler (or for a much more balanced critique, see the review by Focus on the Family). But this really misses the point of the film in my opinion.

First, sometimes it seems like some Christians almost go looking for something to disagree with. In that’s our objective, we’ll find that something in almost everything we do. It’s even more frustrating when a minor issue is made into a bigger issue than it really is. Are their some elements of the dialogue in this film that I question from a theological standpoint? Of course, there is but I didn’t watch the film to get bogged down in little particular details and miss the major point of the film.

The beauty of this film is its journey into the world of suffering where there is brokenness and deep pain along with doubt and uncertainty that evokes a crisis of faith for anyone unfortunate enough to be on this journey. I have and still an on this journey, though I have learned how to walk along this way. This film is about the healing that everyone suffering needs. This is a healing that comes knowing that God still loves them, that the grace of God is still for them, and that they can trust in God again even though they don’t always understand.

And I’m telling you, as one who has suffered, there are people you meet every day who are dying from the inside out. Maybe they’ve buried a child, been through a divorce, been sexually abused, are drowning in drugs and alcohol… they’re the broken and what they need is not a lesson in the fine particulars of Trinitarian theology but a reminder that God the Father, Son, and Spirit love them and long to redeem them. That’s what The Shack reminds us of. So don’t get lost in the details and miss the big story, for if you can hear the big story then you just might be better equipped at helping someone who is dying on the inside find life again.

Lastly, I don’t normally recommend books I haven’t read but since I know this author and trust his judgment, I’ll recommend his book as a companion read. John Mark Hicks, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery, 2017. Besides being an apt theologian, Hicks has traveled on the road of suffering and so I believe you’ll bennefit from his perspective.

A Deafening Silence

October is around the corner and the fall season is almost here. That mean people will be buying Pumpkin Spice Lattes, apple cider from the local market, and planning for Halloween parties, all while children anticipate going out Trick-or-treating with their friends. October also means Baseball playoffs and with the Chicago Cubs having the best record in baseball, I really look forward to the playoffs this year. But with each playoff game, the fans in attendance will be asked to stand during the seventh-inning stretch for the singing of God Bless America. But maybe instead of having a nice patriotic song to declare the blessing of God on the nation, maybe the Lord has another word he wants us to hear.

The land was full of evil and idolatry, violence and corruption was everywhere. There didn’t seem to be any end to the injustice and wrongdoing taking place. All that was left was lament, to cry out to the Lord in complaint as to why he tolerates such wickedness and does not come to save his people.

So that is just what the prophet Habakkuk did. He lamented, pouring out his complaint to the Lord and so the Lord answered. The Lord said that the most dreaded Babylonians, with their strong and violent military, were coming and it would not be pleasant. Not the response Habakkuk was hoping for, so he cried out to the Lord again and again the Lord spoke. This time expressed his anger with a series of rebukes, saying “Woe…” regarding all the ways that people have acted unjustly and engaged in idolatry. But it’s the statement the Lord makes at the end of his response that should pierce the heart.

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”

– Habakkuk 2:20

And then it as if the Lord has just dropped the mic and walked off the stage. The silence is deafening, as it should be. With all of the injustice, idolatry, and corruption, along with the utter hubris that always seems to lurk behind such evil as people complain and accuse others with a pointed finger, it is as if the Lord has had enough. Now the Lord is imploring the people to look at him, to bow before him with humility and recognize that he alone is the Holy God.

That seems to be a message we need to hear in America, whether we are Christians or not. Right now there is evil and corruption all around us. There is a problem with racial injustice as, by way of example, “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers,” even when they are unarmed and appear to have their hands in the air as in the case of Terrence Crutcher or as in the case of Charles Kinsey, a therapist who was unarmed but still shot by police as he was trying to help an autistic patient. Violence abounds in places like Chicago where as of September 1st of this year there have been 471 deaths and 2,300 shootings, as well as places like Dallas and Baton Rouge where police officers were murdered simply because they serve the public in law enforcement. And with a scandal like that of the Wells Fargo scam, we are reminded that wealth and power allows for corruption to take place seemingly with impunity.

Maybe it’s time for Americans to stop singing God Bless America and instead just be silent before the Lord!

So just for a little clarification, I am not suggesting that America should do away with God Bless America for good but that given all the hatred and violence, maybe it’s time for America to be silent before the Lord for a season.

Can We Listen to the Protest?

For the last couple of weeks we all have seen the news of football players refusing to stand during the playing of America’s National Anthem. Some people have applauded while many others have condemned. This has all taken place amid a larger conversation about race-relations in America as it has become painfully clear over the last several years that racism is still a problem challenging society. How we respond, especially those of us who are white like me, will either further the divide or open a door for reimagined future where racism begins to lose its grip on society.

I’ve never known what it’s like to suffer oppression but I have experienced suffering of another kind. I’m referring to the death of my son Kenny when he was just three days old. Sixteen months later, my younger brother John died unexpectedly too. I was only twenty-nine then and only seven years removed from when I sat beside my father as he laid in bed and took his last breath, succumbing to cancer. These deaths and the suffering they trigger has had a lasting impact on my personal narrative, the story of my life. Although I have learned to live with such grief and pain, it’s still suffering.

One of the realities of such suffering is dealing with those who think they know how I or someone else who has suffered should handle such tragedy when they have never endured such tragedy themselves. I’ve heard people say things like “just got to let it go and move on” when my life seemed to be emotionally paralyzed with grief and it seemed impossible and even undesirable to move on because the only thing I wanted to do is hold my son one more time. Others said  something like “Don’t think like that… God works in all things for the good of…” (cf. Rom 8:28) when I voiced my anger as I questioned why God did not save son.

Those who have endured great suffering whether it be a serious health crisis such as cancer, the death of someone like a child, divorce, etc… understand what I am talking about. For all the suffering endured there is also the frustration of having someone who has not walked in our shoes telling us how we should handle it. And frustrating it is! That’s also why even though I have never suffered social-political oppression, I believe I can speak up for the oppressed on at least one issue: The frustration of having those who have never been oppressed criticize them and school them in a better response.

…it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest.

Right now in America there are many minorities, and particularly Blacks, who feel as if they are being oppressed. Whether the reality matches their perception does not matter, though I will say that I believe there is always some truth to the perception and that seems true in this case as well. The rest of us are not in any position judge the oppressed, especially if we cannot even take the time to be present with them first in order to listen (= listen to understand) a little. But that’s not what happens these days. Instead the voice of protest is quickly dismissed and criticized by plenty of people. Thus, as certain football players have chosen not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, choosing to kneel in order to raise a voice of protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities they see taking place in America, others have been critical as reported here and as we have all seen in our social-media feeds. Of course, if we haven’t ever suffered oppression then we have the privilege of so easily dismissing and criticizing those who do protest since we’re not the one’s suffering, but I digress!

We may dislike the way some football players are choose to kneel during the National Anthem as they protest the oppression they see but we are not the ones to judge. In fact, it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest. The best thing we can do is listen as they voice their protest. Any failure to listen and so critically dismiss such protests is itself a form of oppression. God forgive us for such a sin!

So can we listen? Can we talk to someone who is a minority living “one the other side of the tracks” in town and ask them what struggles they have because they are black, because their first language is Spanish, because they come from somewhere in the Middle-East? If we’ll listen to such people, and hear the ways in which they still struggle because they are a minority and because of some of the injustices that still occur in America, we might just learn to have empathy for their suffering. When that happen we might just discover together ways of cultivating a more civil and just society for all people. And if we’re Christians doing this in the name of Jesus, as we should, we help extend the kingdom of heaven so that the will of God takes place here on earth as it does in heaven!

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

~ Micah 6:8

Hope Remains!

Aunt PatThis past Wednesday my Aunt Pat, who is pictured on the left, took her last breath in this life. Having battled cancer for the last couple years of her life, her suffering finally came to an end. That is another way of saying that although my aunt will be very missed, her death is a relief in some manner as she is no longer having to endure the pain and suffering that usually comes with the final stage of cancer.

I don’t want to be misunderstood about death. Death is a terrible thing. Whether it comes at the end of a very long and beautiful life or it comes prematurely through tragic circumstances such as violence, disease, etc… death is still something that should grieve us. Death has grieved me and still does, from the day when I was twenty-two years old and watched my dad, who had cancer too, take his last breath, to the day when my first son, Kenny, unexpectedly died and a year after that when my younger brother tragically died. Death stings and hurts because once someone we love is gone, they’re gone.

Death also grieves God who created life to flourish rather than perish. So when we turn on the news and hear of people who were violently killed in an Orlando nightclub, or in some school like Sandy Hook Elementary, or at a movie theatre in Auroa, or even in foreign countries like the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi Kenya, God is grieved. It matters not what the victims religious beliefs were or what sort of moral lifestyle they lived, these are people created in the image of God and loved by God.

In this world of death which is also filled with much hatred and violence, it is tempting to become cynical. It’s tempting to throw our hands in the air as though life is hopeless. But I refuse such cynicism because I believe that God has become a human like us in the person of Jesus Christ and that in the coming of Jesus, God is reconciling all things through Jesus who was crucified and raised victoriously from death (Col 2:19-20). I believe there is a day coming when Jesus will come again and make all things new, a day when the new heaven and new earth will be one and death will be no more (Rev 21:1, 4-5).

So even as death seems all around us, hope remains! Until the day when Jesus returns or the day when I take my last breath, which I hope is not any time soon, and I rest in Christ while awaiting his return, I will live with faith(fullness), love, and hope (1 Thess 5:8). Let’s seek peace with each other, loving our neighbors and even our enemies, forgiving others as God forgives us, grieving with those who are grieving, and let the Spirit of God sanctify us that we may live with faith, love, and hope.


Here is a video of the choral group singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul, which I listen too frequently. I first heard this hymn when I was struggling to make sense of life and maintain my faith after the death of my son and younger brother. This hymn speaks gives voice to the grief and pain of suffering as well as the hope that encourages faith.