Why God Might Not Be Causing This Suffering

As a pastor, you begin to see patterns in people that reveal a great deal about the problematic ways in which we tend to think about God and religion.

One of these patterns, is the great temptation people of faith often feel to over-spiritualize life.

This may sound like a good thing, and in theory it is. When we come to believe in the existence of God, it’s understandable and even admirable that we would begin to filter everything through the lens of this conviction; that we would look to see God’s hand in it all—our families, marriages, careers, relationships, etc. But practically speaking, this can easily become a paralyzing process, as we parse out every single painful experience, every second of adversity, the smallest minutia of suffering—and try to ascribe specific religious meaning to it.

In other words, if we’re honest, it’s nearly impossible at any given moment to reliably determine the difference between:
cause and effect—and God,
bad luck—and God,
poor choices—and God,
terrible people—and God,
the simple collateral damage of living—and God.

We can drive ourselves half mad, and other people as well in the process.

And unfortunately, the Bible itself often feeds this tendency to microscopically inspect every event in an effort to interpret what God is saying. It is, after all a theological library; a series of books intending to testify to the existence, presence, and participation of God—written thousands of years ago by people who were trying (as we are today) to make sense of a loving Creator, and the living Hell (or even mild discomfort) we can find ourselves experiencing here on earth.

For example, the writers of the Scriptures didn’t have the benefit of three thousand years of medical research as they documented their spiritual journeys. As a result, when someone became physically sick, they naturally believed the afflicted person must be morally flawed; that God must be punishing them for their visible or hidden wickedness. Sin was the cause of sickness, not cancerous cells.

And without the meteorological tools we now have at our disposal, a severe weather event wasn’t the result of low and high pressure systems colliding violently, or the fact that a village was built in a flood plain—it was God’s simply clear wrath against the people. (Sadly some religious folks still blame immorality for natural disasters instead of the Jet Stream.)

When we read the Bible today, we’re spoiled because God seems to be intimately orchestrating every movement and speaking clearly into the process while doing so: allowing people to have their lives ripped apart, testing their faith with terrifying requests, punishing the disobedient with 40 years of wandering, blinding people to prove a point. Elsewhere God is bringing locusts and parting seas and destroying jails in order to deliver the righteous.

Given these documented precedents that we’re raised reading about every week as Christians, it’s natural that we’d now sift every difficult or painful experience of our lives to try and figure out what God is trying to individually tell us. But maybe that’s now how God works, at least not usually.

One of the other factors feeding this over-spiritualized existence—is good, old-fashioned ego. For most Christians, our modern understanding of faith is that it is me-centered:

God created me.
God loves me.
Jesus died for me.
God wants a personal relationship with me.
God is decidedly in the me business.

If this is how I see my journey of faith, then it’s natural to believe that God is always manufacturing my adversity to teach, punish, or stop me. In fact, it will make sense to me that God is affecting thousands of other people, just to make sure I get the point.

This self-centeredness slips in without us even thinking about it, even with perceived blessings. One Saturday this past winter I was completely worn out and I did not want to go to work the next morning. (Yes, pastors feel that way too.) When the promised inclement weather arrived and news came down that we would have a snow day, I instinctively thanked God (as if God inconvenienced the entire Tri-State area, crippling the airports along the entire East Coast—simply so I could sleep in on Sunday.)

Friend, ultimately, God may be speaking directly to you by causing you to find yourself in certain circumstances at certain times—or maybe you’ve found yourself in (or created) those circumstances, and you need to ask God where you go from here. Perhaps the better spent time, isn’t assigning culpability to God for adversity, but looking to God in that adversity.

You didn’t get that job you really wanted. Was it “God telling you it wasn’t the job for you,” as Christians often like to hypothesize?

Maybe.

Or maybe you didn’t have the right experience, interviewed poorly, or the guy asking the questions didn’t like the way your nose wheezed when you breathed. That’s far less “spiritual” and not loaded necessarily loaded with deep theological meaning, but the result is the same: you need to keep looking for a job.

Ultimately, it’s a good thing to reflect and pray and to wonder whether the difficulties we experience are indeed some personal message from God—but we need to realize that knowing for certain is a near impossibility, and we should be careful not to become frozen in the places of self-centeredness, forever asking what God is doing to me.

Far more attainable, is looking at the painful circumstances we find ourselves in at a given moment, and determining what part we played in arriving there, what role others had, and how we can and should respond in a way that affirms what we believe about God.

God may indeed be causing this suffering—or just sitting with you in it.

 

 

 

 

Hateful People Are Exhausting

I think most people in America are exhausted right now. I know I am.

Hateful people will do that to you.

You see, it’s difficult enough on our best days, to get out of bed knowing that there will be all sorts of adversity out there; unexpected challenges and unanticipated conflicts that we could never foresee or predict. It’s a Herculean undertaking just to be willing to brave that likelihood. It’s another thing entirely, to know for certain that you will experience spectacular hatred simply by choosing to participate in this current version of America. It is a given now.

When hateful people have power (as they now do), they embolden other hateful people, giving them license to unleash the God-awful things that they’d otherwise keep concealed and subjecting the rest of us to a regular cavalcade of horrors. This is what our country is experiencing in these days: a Renaissance of open bigotry—and it will level you if you have a working heart.

The other morning I saw a picture of a middle-aged man at a convenience store with a t-shirt that said, GRAB AMERICA BY THE PUSSY. My first thought was, “What on earth is wrong with him?” My immediate follow-up questions were about his wife or children if he had them; about his parents, friends, boss, pastor or church. I wondered how someone becomes the kind of man who would see a GRAB AMERICA BY THE PUSSY t-shirt and think, “This is just what my wardrobe is lacking!”

And I grew weary.

Then, I happened upon some Twitter trolls with MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hashtags, harassing a Muslim-American woman with vicious, vile messages about “going back where she came from” and taunting her with images of bombed out Syrian villages. I started to engage them, and they quickly commented that being a “filthy Jew libtard,” I should leave as well. I considered breaking the news to them that I’m not Jewish, but would feel no shame if I were—

But I just became tired.

Later I read our President’s Twitter feed; a seemingly endless parade of angry, nonsensical ramblings, wild accusations, unhinged conspiracy theories, and mischaracterizations of the Press, women, immigrants, Democrats, protestors—most of America. I began responding to him.

But I grew exasperated.

I surveyed the latest monstrosities manufactured by Jeff Sessions, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Steve Bannon, and Mike Pence; all their racism and bigotry and misogyny and warmongering. I considered an opposing response, but soon gave up.

I felt drained.

I happened upon a Facebook post from a former church friend back in Charlotte; a bitter, racially charged tirade about “lazy people living off the Government, finally having to be responsible.” Knowing he was a Christian, I started to reply with some quotes from Jesus that I wish he’d consider.

But I quickly became fatigued.

I overheard a conversation at a local coffee shop, with a woman going on and on about how much Donald Trump, “clearly loved his wife,” and how she had “zero respect” for Barack Obama as a husband and father.

I nearly went into a coma.

It was barely 11 AM.

I strongly considered going back to bed.

Lately, many Americans are enduring such days with stunning regularity, and coming to terms with this irrefutable truth: Hateful people who are bent on being hateful will wear you the heck out.

They are thoroughly frustrating because they do not respond to facts, data, honest questions, personal stories, heartfelt pleas, civil discussion, or any of the things many of us grew-up believing people wanted when engaging in disagreement. They are fully entrenched in their heavily fortified position of contempt and they are not budging. And so, even if your instinct and intention is to build a bridge or have a conversation or find common ground with them, they have little interest, if such things mean having to relinquish any of the hatred their hearts have become so set on harboring. They seemingly would rather retain rightness than entertain reality—and this is fully tiring to encounter every day.

Now three months into perhaps the most openly hateful Presidency in our nation’s history, I confess that I am profoundly exhausted these days; of lazy racial stereotypes, of alternative Fox News facts, of hackneyed narratives about Muslims and gay and Jewish and brown-skinned people, and of a President who is mortally allergic to decency. 

The Scriptures of my religious tradition often mention Jesus withdrawing to the solitary places to pray (Lk 5:16, Mt 12:15, Mt 14:13, Lk 22:41.) I imagine this is how he was able to sustain himself while encountering hateful people while not becoming hateful himself—how he was able to keep being the voice of love surrounded by so many bitterly opposing voices. I am trying to find this healthy rhythm of withdrawing and engaging, but it is hard to come by.

Like the vast majority of this country, I want it to be the place where equality, diversity, and decency find sanctuary, and though I am fully committed to the aspiration, I am feeling the cumulative weariness sustained from a small but fierce portion of the population (including far too much of its leadership) whose narrative about the world depends upon acrimony for so much of it.  I know that I’m not alone in this emotional depletion and physical fatigue. 

But it will not consume me and it will not change my heart toward the world. It will not derail my path or alter my convictions.

I will be a person of love here or I will die trying.

If you find that you are similarly weary today, be encouraged. Rest and resist and fight to remain loving.

Hateful people are exhausting—so refuse to become one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Heard My Father Laugh Today (A Grief Legacy Lesson)

I heard my father laugh today.

I was doing some work with the TV on, and as often seems to be the case—a Golden Girls rerun was playing. I wasn’t paying very close attention, but occasionally I’d lift my head from the computer long enough to catch a few moments of dialogue. One such time, something Dorothy said to Rose (delivered with the pinpoint precision and complete incredulity that Bea Arthur was an absolute master of), struck me funny and a laugh exploded involuntarily from my mouth.

And I heard it.

It was the sound of my father. 

It was the booming, buoyant, staccato noise I’d heard over the phone or across the kitchen table or from the other room for the first 44 years of my life—and all of the sudden, he was there again, sitting with me and laughing. I smiled and felt my eyes watering.

My father passed away four years ago, and one of the truths I’ve learned in that time, is that there are moments when those you love and have lost, revisit you through your very life. The way you laugh, the shape of your hands, the lines around your eyes, all become sacred places, allowing you surprise reunions when they reappear and share space with you. Your loved ones are partially resurrected in you.

More and more I’m aware of the ways that I am replicating parts of my father; as I raise my kids, move through the world, do my work, and use my gifts, there are specific pieces of him that I get to carry into the world that would be here in no other way. I am entrusted with a bit of his memory through my resemblance to him. I suppose this is how we really do become our parents’ legacies whether or not we are conscious of it. In ways we’re acutely aware of and in ways we’ll never realize, they are present here and now because we are present. We perpetuate their lives as we live, and their love outlives them through us. This is the gift we are given as we grieve: those reminders of our dear ones that we hold in our very marrow, that allow us to remember, reflect, and visit with them in ways no one else can.

One of the unique experiences of being a parent, is seeing this truth from the opposite pole; noticing the bits of yourself you start to see in your kids—physical traits, personality quirks, and behavioral tendencies. Depending on the things revealed, this is at times wonderful and other times extremely distressing. As a result, we often spend much of our time as parents, in certain ways hoping our kids will be exactly like us—and in other ways, nothing like us.

And it may sound a bit morbid, but I find something sweetly reassuring about knowing that one day I will be gone, but my children will have these similar, specific pieces of me that they will carry with them too. Hopefully many years from now, they may be watching TV and they will find themselves laughing—and they will hear me. It will catch them by surprise, and in that moment it will be as if we’re still together in that room again laughing—and they will smile and feel their eyes begin to water.

May you who grieve, relish those unexpected reunions with those you’ve lost; the meetings that come in the way you laugh, the shape of your hands, and the lines around your eyes, and may you be encouraged.

I think I’ll put down the computer and watch the Golden Girls with my dad for a while.

 

 

Hell is for Homophobes

Few things are less Christlike than Christians when they’re attacking the LGBTQ community.

There is a malice and sadism they’re capable of that simply defy explanation and fully deny the heart of Jesus. Incredibly, these folks are somehow able to simultaneously claim faith in Christ, while responding with a cruelty, viciousness, and violence that he never once demonstrated, continually condemned, and wouldn’t tolerate from anyone in his presence then or now. It’s the very kind of galling hypocrisy that is rendering organized Christianity fully irrelevant to more and more of a watching world who can see it from a mile away. I see it too—and it’s a flat-out, deliberate sin they need to repent of.

This week Christian music star Vicky Beeching, who came out in 2014, announced that she was taking a break from social media due to the relentless vile, profane, abusive attacks she’s endured from Christians.

Continual, horrible bullying—from Christians. Not Muslims. Not Atheists. Not immigrants or refugees or terrorists or Democrats. Not from any of the go-to boogeymen religious folks like to throw out there as the ever-present danger to us all.

Christians.
Self-identified Jesus followers.

Professed disciples of the benevolent, compassionate “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “Judge not lest you be judged,” rabbi, who touched lepers, fed multitudes, healed the sick, turned his cheek, and forgave his executioners.

(Yeah, that Jesus.)

The cognitive dissonance on display is astounding; that these people can manage to believe they’re actually doing the will of God or sharing the Gospel, while berating and bullying and beating the hell out of strangers simply because of how they identify or who they love. Worse still, is that these sanctimonious, high-horsed zealots will try to use the very same Bible they persecute the LGBTQ with—to glorify guns, justify war, refuse refugees, endorse racism, perpetuate misogyny, and validate Donald Trump. Talk about miraculous.

It’s an exercise in wildly selective Bible usage and self-serving theology—and it would be laughable if it wasn’t such a complete perversion of Jesus’ life and ministry.

One of the most hurtful displays to Vicky, was a meme that was shared tens of thousands of times, stating “You may be gay or you may be a Christian, but you cannot be a gay Christian. Do not be deceived” and urging her to read 1 Corinthians 6:9.

Theologically speaking such a statement is out of context, historically flawed, and exegetically lazy.
Humanly speaking—it’s a hot, steaming pile of heretical horse manure.

Nowhere in the Bible are there requirements on who can and can’t claim faith in Jesus, and certainly no permissions are given to anyone to establish such requirements for anyone else. The heart of the Gospel is that the invitation is to all, period—without caveat, exception, or condition. (That’s why it’s called Grace—at least when the hypocrites are claiming it for themselves and reprehensible Presidents they’re shilling for.)

The original sentiments of the meme itself (ones Christians so easily toss out) are patently ridiculous and those who share them, out themselves as angry, vicious people who simply want Jesus to consent to being as hateful as they are and to justify their prejudices. He does not. He never will. They need to come to grips with this.

Anyone can be a Christian. Anyone can follow Jesus. The prostitutes and tax collectors and soldiers and beggars all found home in his presence, as did the doctors and fisherman and the religious elite. The radical openness of his table was the very reason he was scandalous and offensive to the self-righteous in his midst. The idea that any LGBTQ human being needs something more to make them eligible for proximity to Christ is ludicrous. People do not require another person’s blessing or approval or permission—to declare Christianity or more importantly to be fully embraced by the love of God—certainly not of those determined to craft a Jesus in their own bitter, judgmental image.

In fact, the spectacular irony on display, is that while Jesus never mentions any restrictions on who can follow him based on gender identity or sexual orientation, he speaks explicitly and often about those who profess faith, while living with contempt for others; those who do damage and leverage power to inflict wounds, those who neglect and ignore and prey upon the marginalized, those who wield religion like a weapon. (The very kind of malignancy Vicky Beeching has endured publicly, and that millions of LGBTQ folk deal with every day in their classrooms, homes, hallways, workplaces, and neighborhoods.) If there’s anything the road to Hell is paved with, it’s bigotry and violence done in the name of Jesus.

The truth, is that an LGBTQ Christian isn’t an oxymoron, but a hateful one most certainly is. The choice to be horrible and to use religion as the reason, is a disconnect of the greatest order. The Gospel testifies to this over and over again, and we who come in love, loudly amen this—and we’re not having this nonsense anymore on behalf of our faith tradition.

To Vicky Beeching, and to the millions of people around the world who identify as LGBTQ, both those who claim faith and those who do not—I’m sorry for those trying to retrofit Jesus to their hateful hearts; for the way they twist the Bible and distort the voice of God that you hear in your head, and for the daily, living Hell you go through at their hands and words. They don’t speak for anyone but themselves—not for me, not for millions of Christians, and certainly not for God.

And to the religious who believe they can oppress and harass and insult people until they are driven to isolation or tears or self-harm or suicide, all in the name of Jesus—I’d take a good, long look in the mirror, I’d let your knees hit the earth, and I’d do some serious soul-searching.

You may be closer to Hell than you think.

You may be getting really, realy warm.