Archives For Suffering

On March 31, 2015

How to Die

A good death depends upon a good life. -St Robert Bellarmine


I’m starting a new sermon series this week at the Highland Church of Christ called “How to Die” It may sound like a strange series for Easter, but I believe this Sunday is the best day of the year to talk about what we are the most tempted to ignore.

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was burying my grandma. I’m not talking metaphorically, like I attended her funeral, I mean my grandma’s funeral plot was dug and covered by her siblings, kids, nieces, nephews & grandkids.

My mother comes from a line of people who dug wells for a living and when it came time to dig a grave we just did it ourselves. Looking back I realize I was one of the lucky ones who was able to say goodbye to someone they loved back before we stopped doing it in a way that would get our hands dirty, back when death was more a part of life.

The Denial of Death

Remember this prayer?

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the LORD my soul to keep, but if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Did you know there was another verse?

Our days begin with trouble here, Our life is but a span, and cruel death is always near, So frail a thing is man.”

Millions of children used to pray this. Parents wanted their kids to know that life, as they know it, is not permanent, that we have a soul, and that God can be trusted with it.Prayer for Children

These days, we lean more toward the “Goodnight moon” route in our kids betime, but there was a reason that parents did this. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago there was a NY Times Op-ed piece written by a parent lamenting the fact that it was so difficult to talk to their kids about death.

I get it, I’m a father of 4, and I don’t want to go back to the “cruel death is always near” with our 4 year old, but people of the past were on to something that I think we need to revisit.

The best kind of life starts with a deep awareness that life is a gift, and it is a gift that one day will come to an end.

In 1974, Ernest Becker wrote his watershed book The Denial of Death. That was a significant year for Becker because it was  the year that he found out that he had cancer, it was the year that he died. It was also the year that Becker turned to God.

Becker’s work has been so significant because he shined a light on all the ways that we try to avoid the most obvious truth. We will die. No matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many Twitter followers we have, or how big our house is, we will die, and Becker’s question was, “Why does every human culture try so hard to pretend that this isn’t true?”

If that sounds a bit too philosophical for you, try this on for size. Why is  cosmetic surgery  a multi-billion dollar industry? Why have we so thoroughly removed death from our society?

Last year, the well known actress Frances McDormand noticed in an interview that this fear of death had developed a “perverse fixation on youth” in how Hollywood told stories:

There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45—[in terms of dress, cosmetics, or attitudes]. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.

Actress Frances McDormand

Actress Frances McDormand

The Art of Dying

Ernest Becker saw all the ways we were marginalizing death and recognized it was a way we were lying to ourselves:

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not control our lives, that we always rely on something [an institution, our job, our family] that transcends us.”

So we collect trophies, we put overwhelming amounts of pressure on our families, careers, and status to prove to ourselves that we matter, unaware that we aren’t even really in control of our pulse.

This is the Denial of Death, and it should be particularly troubling for people who are followers of Jesus.

Jesus talks about his death a lot. A whole lot. His death was something that his whole life was oriented around, and he had this strange notion that his death had something to do with every other persons death who would ever live. But Jesus doesn’t just talk about His death,, he forcefully insists that people who would follow Him would willing face their own mortality, as if that would help them become fully alive.

This week we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead, but we also acknowledge that he died the worst kind of death.

Think about the life of Jesus, he never turned anyone away, he-little by little-poured out his life for the people who needed him the most and stood against the people who would diminish them, and then He asked them to do the same.

And this is, of all the world religions that Ernest Becker looked at, is the great triumph of Christianity. As he approached his own death, Ernest Becker said:

This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took…—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism

Jesus stands in solidarity with all of us who die without getting the right headlines or obituaries, he both starts and stands in a long line of nameless, obscure saints, who when the day comes where their strength fails, when the end draws close and their time is near they go home to be with God.

For the longest time, Christians took great care to die differently than the rest of the world. In the middle ages, when the Black Plague was rampant, there were books written and church classes taught on “The Art of Dying Well” They were taught to look death in the face, primarily by looking past it and seeing God.

Interesting thing about that “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. It’s origins are unclear, but many people believe it was created precisely in these moments of disease and high death rates. And the prayer has one more verse that I think is beautiful.

Wake I morn, or wake I never. I give my soul to Christ – for ever.

That’s how to live. It’s also how to die.

He who is the issue of an illicit union [ממזרmamzerwill not enter the assembly of the Lord, even his tenth generation will in no way enter the assembly of the Lord” -Deuteronomy 23:2

His glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon

Christmas PictureLast year the Huffington Post ran one of my new favorite Christmas montages. It was a collection of short Nativity Pageants that had started off with such high hopes, but had crashed spectacularly. My favorite is the camel falling into the audience. I’ve worked with animals in front of a live audience before. I know it can go bad in a hurry, but this is way worse than anything I’ve ever worried about.

I imagine the people involved trying to shake that off. Maybe they’re at a nice restaurant after church trying to explain to their friends why they have camel hair all over them and smell like Egypt.

But what I loved the most about these compilation of videos is that reality comes shining through despite our best efforts at glossing over it. The world, for most of the people in it, isn’t primary shiny and sparkly and clean and happy. Maybe if you are young and fit and have enough money you can avoid this fact for a while, but eventually each of us have to face the messy bits of reality.

Sometimes Mary falls off her donkey and no matter how hard they practice, 8 year old kids discover that the 12 days of Christmas are really, really hard to memorize.

Christmas is Messy, and it has been from the beginning.

Jesus The Mamzer

In the Hebrew language, the word Mamzer is the word for a child that comes out of a forbidden relationship. The word is flexible, it can mean anything from a child born from incest to a child who was born from a Mamzer. But almost every single time the word is used it refers to a child born from parents who weren’t married.

John Ortberg points out that every culture has a word for their mamzers, and none of them are nice.

If Joseph has been Roman, Jesus would probably not have even survived. In the Roman culture, children like that were usually abandoned in a dump, or on a hill made of dung. To this day, in many places, they still are.

This is not just an incidental detail of Jesus’ life, it is something that comes up often in the Gospels.

One time in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders of the day are arguing with Jesus and apparently they aren’t doing so well so they bring it up:

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

John writes in Greek, so the word he uses isn’t Mamzer, it’s Porneia…as in the word we get pornography from. When push comes to shove, they bring up that Jesus entered the world with disgrace.

The New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight says it this way:

“Jesus was labeled by his contemporaries as a mamzer. And such a label would have carried with it socio-religious implications with a powerful significance for Jesus.”

It was a label that would have, from the very beginning made Jesus more than just a peasant carpenter, it would have made him an outcast, excluded from social circles, religious assemblies and any opportunity to marry into a “good family.”

That’s the world Jesus was born into, and the way he was born into it.

The Gospel According to Jesus

Now revisit the Gospel. Think about all those times that Jesus interacts with labeled condemned people, and the way He does it. If you’re paying attention you begin to realize that this is the trajectory of Christmas.

Jesus seems rather indifferent to grading the kind of sin that people are dealing with, only with getting them to admit it, bring it out in the open to be dealt with.

The inner rings of the elite, seem to hold no appeal for Jesus. In fact, he seems to think that with his life and ministry he maybe able to redraw the lines of who’s considered in and who is out.

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Take for example, the story of Mark 5. Jesus is approached by Jarius, the Synagogue Ruler who has a dying daughter. The Synagogue ruler is a prestigious role in 1st century Judaism, and to be able to put “friends with Jarius” on a resume is good for any Rabbi. A dying daughter might be the only reason that Jarius would approach a Mamzer, Jesus ministry hasn’t really taken off yet, and this is a risky move by a prominent community leader.

But along the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman with a bleeding disease. As far as the social scale, Jarius and this woman couldn’t be further apart. They actually had created rules and commandments to keep the apart. She couldn’t go to synagogue, she could legally even be in public. But here she was, throwing a Hail Mary, asking Jesus if He would do for her what he was planning to do for the prestigious man’s daughter…give her back a life.

And here’s the most breathtaking, yet subtle thing in the whole story. It’s a glimpse of Christmas and the messy glory of it all.

Jesus heals the bleeding woman publicly, and he heals the prestigious young daughter in secret.

And publicly, in front of the whole community, Jesus calls this woman the only word that could heal her heart, “Daughter.”

Jesus knows a mamzer when he sees one, and takes care to let everyone know that she belongs in God’s good world too.

She’s belongs, because God didn’t just become a baby, He became a Mamzer. So that the world would finally know a community of God’s people where everyone has a place, just as God intended.

On March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday: Love Weeps

“I went back to church thinking it would be like an epidural, taking the pain away. But I realized that church is more like a midwife, standing next to me saying push…it’s supposed to hurt a little bit.” -Brene Brown

“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah” -Leonard Cohen

Man of Sorrows Stained Glass

Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, and I know for some of the readers of this blog, this may sound like a day that is just for Catholics.

But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed  for over a thousand years, where we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return.

It is profoundly ancient, biblical, and Christ-like.

Man of Sorrows

If you were just to pick up one of the Gospels and read it for the first time, one the of the more interesting things about that would stand out to you was how much Jesus talks about death, in particular how much he talks about his own death, what He thinks it will accomplish, and how intentional He was about not shying away from it.

And then you would probably notice that Jesus cried a lot.

Which is not something most of us are good at.

In Tim Keller’s recent book, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” he talks about how uncomfortable most Western people are with suffering.  At one point in his book he referred to an interview the BBC had with Robert Spitzer a few years ago. Spitzer was one of the main psychologists who worked on classifying all the various mental illness and how they should be treated.

25 years later, Spitzer admitted that, in hindsight, he believed they had wrongly labeled many normal human experiences of grief, sorrow, and anxiety as mental disorders. When the interviewer asked: “So you have effectively medicalized much ordinary human sadness?” Spitzer said, “Yes, I think so, to some extent…”

In other words, what used to be just the natural response to the valleys of life has now become a disorder. We used to cry and now there’s a pill for that.*

It seems like our world has two different options for suffering, either to medicate it or to marginalize it.

And that’s all well and good, unless you are a Jesus follower. Because Jesus dealt with death and suffering much differently than that. Jesus, the Resurrection and the life, wept when he saw a friend die, a friend who he was about to raise from the dead! He wept over Jerusalem, even though He knew there would one day be a New Jerusalem.

Blood on the Floor

So this video is from Brene Brown (famous for her TED talk on vulnerability). In a world where everyone seems to be walking away from church, Brown a secular sociologist talks about her journey back toward faith.

But why she came back may surprise you. She says that she had always thought church was a way of avoiding suffering, but as she reentered the Christian faith she was surprised to find Jesus weeping.

When Brene Brown found herself back at church she said she knew that God was love, but she discovered that it wasn’t just that God is love, but that God defines love as well.  In reality, love is complicated and difficult and sacrificial. In reality, love bleeds, and love weeps.

In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. Like our expectations of how life should turn out, or how others should have treated us.

If we got to define love it would be all about puppies and unicorns, but in reality love is complicated and difficult and sacrificial. At one point in the video Brown talks about something her new minister said that I think is fascinating. He  said, “In faith communities where forgiveness is easy and love is easy, there’s not enough blood on the floor to make sense of it.”

What an interesting way to say that.

You know, unlike other Greek heroes, or even Jewish ones, Jesus doesn’t die like some stoic hero.Unlike Bruce Willis in Armageddon or George Clooney in Gravity (I’m realizing I watch too much sci-fi as I type this) Jesus weeps, a lot. He doesn’t brave it out, or just walk it off. He cries so hard he sweats blood.

In fact, this is the one thing that sets Jesus apart about how He died.

Because Love bleeds.

Now, if you know me, you know that I am very hopeful, I’m tired of the cynicism that pervades my generation, but this isn’t cynicism. This is the other side of hope. Death isn’t right, and there will be a day when death pays back what it owes.

But that day is not today.

I like the way one Lutheran Youth Minister says this:

It appears the world has little time for the church, not because we are broken people, people seeking to be honest about our loss and yearning. The world has little time for the church because it sees it as a very dishonest place–a place where people like Ted Haggard rail against others as immoral to hide the deep (sinful or not) yearnings that live inside of them, a place where people do not see their duplicity, where people hide from reality in religion.

In other words, if the world is going to believe the Church’s Good news, they have to see us be honest about the bad news too.

Without exception in the ancient world, all the heroes faced their final hours calmly removed and dispassionate. The Jewish heroes are hot-blooded and angry and fearless, but Jesus is nothing like that. Because Jesus doesn’t want to die. He thinks that this life matters, that this world matters, and anything not in tune with God’s dream for the world is worth weeping and bleeding for.

All is not as it should be, and there aren’t enough pills in the world to make it go away, nor can you just stuff it down deep enough to ignore forever.

This is the Wisdom of Ash Wednesday. Christians for over a thousand years have recognized that we need a season to remind ourselves of the one thing we most want to ignore.

We will die.

Suffering comes to everyone, but God suffers with us.

For God so loved this world, and His Love weeps.

 *This is not to dismiss the many psychological benefits and valid causes for medication like depression.

When the original Christmas story happened, three magi, or magicians came to help tell the story. Which is interesting, because the Israelites disdained magicians. They were evil and wrong, but God used them in ways that no one could have predicted.

And so in that spirit, I’d like you to watch the above video.

Whatever you think about Stephen Colbert, I think you should watch this clip. It was from this past Thursday night episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen is interviewing the Catholic Nun Simone Campbell…and it’s incredible.

For those of you who don’t know Stephen Colbert is actually a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school every week at his local church. I know the character he plays can be incredibly offensive and off-putting, but he’s speaking the very specific language of satire, and satire is not for everyone.

But I don’t want to defend Mr. Colbert here, I just want to show you (in case you missed it) what aired on the cable network of Comedy Central this last week, the day before the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. This Sister is pushing against the modern conceptions of American Christmas and trying to reframe what the real Christmas story means.

And if you don’t watch the video, here is what I want you to hear her say, “Christmas is touching the pain of the world, experiencing it as real…and then choosing to have hope.”

That’s what Christmas was.

That’s what Christmas is.

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This is a post co-written with Randy Piersall. Randy is a local funeral home director and one of the best people that I’ve seen at entering into people’s grief and standing with them. And today I’ve asked him to introduce himself, and share a bit of the story behind why he is a funeral director, and why what ministers do in funerals matter.

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On April 5, 2012

Memento Mori

So when I was a junior in college, I got a chance to study in and travel around Europe. by far, the most disturbing, and memorable stop in that city was the Capuchin Crypt. It was a monastery that began in the early 17th century. And it was filled with art, but the art was made of the bones of the monks who had died there .It was a little dark.

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On March 15, 2012

The Victory of the Lamb

In High School when I read Revelation, I remember being struck by how violent it all was. But Revelation is doing war against violence itself. It is subverting the very thing that our human condition is built upon. Might makes right, Power is Victory. Revelation tells us the Gospel doesn’t agree, and it’s subverts violence itself.

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On February 23, 2012

Painting in Black

So last night at Highland we observed Ash Wednesday.t’s no secret that the younger generations appreciate more and more the ancient aspects of our faith, but it was a joy to watch people from all generations participate in this ancient tradition. And so, in that spirit, I’d like to post some of the thoughts from last night.

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On February 15, 2012

Naming The Loss

In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says that we should comfort others with the comfort that we have received in our sufferings. To that end, this is the letter we wrote in December, to our daughter who was never born.

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On December 17, 2011

The Tears of Christmas

It’s been one of those weeks. The kind that come along every now and then in life, where creation seems to be screaming more than groaning.

This week, a child with Leukemia who we’ve prayed and fasted for, has taken a turn for the worse. A friend and co-worker at Highland just had his mother pass away, and for reasons that I am not ready to go into today, Leslie and I spent a good part of this week in a hospital room, grieving our own personal stuff.

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