Roots

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As a young boy, my grandmother would often tell me, with her full blown mid-western Michigan accent “pick up your feet.” I would often turn around, look at her, my face becoming flush with embarrassment that I did not in fact “pick up my feet.” It was such stupid advice, common sense. A person cannot walk unless they pick up their feet. I am not sure if I was a lazy walker, wore shoes too big, or as many children was just prone to not watching where I was going, but my grandmother was correct on more than one occasion. I had stumbled many times, in her presence or otherwise, and the stupid, easy, solution to avoid it in the future was “picking up my feet.”

There is nothing like the wisdom of grandparents, and nothing like their passing, and our aging, to make us appreciate their words. Now, at 38 years old, I hear her words echo in my heart, “Nathan, pick up your feet.”
Back then, she was concerned about my physical well-being; today, her words dig a little deeper.

This week, I found myself as many of you have at least once in your life, on a narrow walking trail. It was one of those windy, bumpy, spider web riddled trails that tempt you to question why you made the walk in the first place. I have been on many of these trails, no more than 1-2 feet across, weeds infringing on the path, trees toppled over as their large root systems leave a gaping hole where the path once was. I used to walk them with my grandfather and father. I have walked them with friends. This one, I was walking alone.

This was a new path (here’s an analogy we can all sermonize over), one traveled by many but never by me. I decided to follow this trail because I needed to listen. I am not sure what I was listening for, but I needed to listen.
The path is on the property of a retreat center, a place where intentional space is crafted and fostered in order to provide the silence one needs to hear God. One of the mottos here is: Here God is in the Silence; Hear God in the Silence. The retreat space is replete with holy reminders of an All-Other that seeks to speak to us if we can be still and silent enough to listen. I had suspected earlier in the day that my soul was ready to listen, but I did not expect all I would hear.

I made my way upon the entrance to the path, and followed a steep trail down worn out wooden steps, over rotting supports that provided steps in the dirt, and through bridges slowly deteriorating. The dirt on the path was smooth and soft beneath my feet once I made it to the bottom. It was a rich, dark, top soil, that had been pressed down as smooth as pavement, and giving off a wet, earthy, mossy smell. At one point, I stopped to notice an earthworm that was crawling across the moist earth.

As the trail progressed, I came to a flat bottom just a few feet from the river. The sun was piercing the canopy of the trees, a butterfly had flown across my path, and I could hear birds sing their choruses in the swaying branches. I was almost entranced by the natural beauty of the forest, allowing myself to be lost in its system of life, until my foot hit a familiar obstacle: a root. I noticed that on this part of the trail the path was riddled with roots. With each intentional step, it seemed I had to play hopscotch with the forest root system. Some were large, some small, and some multiple, but none of them were going to move on account of me.

Suddenly I heard my grandmother say, “Nathan, pick up your feet.” A smile came over my countenance. There, in the woods, I stopped. I began to listen.

I heard a still small voice say, “In life, we can be so attentive to the good things of the world, of creation, the good things we are doing, that we can still stumble, even on a path clearly worn and already traveled…a path left for us to follow.”

Roots may be a fact of forest trail exploring but sometimes we wish we could curse them the way Jesus does the fig tree that refused him lunch. The last thing we need is harmless forest foliage to deter our progress.

I was on this trail being intentional about taking in EVERYTHING around me, not wanting to miss the voice of God, but I still had to watch where I was walking! Stumbling along the path of life can happen even as we engage in good things. The lesson was this: never take your eyes off the path, even when you have your eyes rightly on other tasks. There is a destination calling to all of us, but even as we are doing our best to get there, we can still stumble along the journey and prolong our final arrival. There could be a pesky root, sticking up in a well-worn path, waiting to break your toe even as you think you are making a full stride.

The smoothest of trails and most beautiful scenery can still be filled with silent treachery.

After having my moment, my theophany of the root, and I began to press on, thankful that I had allowed myself to be attentive. The path eventually began to wind back up the hill and along-side a small waterfall. I had made my way through the flat surface and its occasional roots without scuffing my shoes or tripping over myself. Now, as I made my way up a small ravine, the roots were larger and more damaging to the path ahead. Some of the path was clearly not a path at all. It was more a less a used to be, washed out path, that was now a hazard for elementary age school children.

I pressed on through the lost trail and noticed something different about the roots.

In the first half of the trail, the roots were hazardous. The roots were rises in the smooth path that led down a steep ravine and through a flat forest bottom. Those roots could have caused me to stumble, fall, and perhaps ruin my best pair of jeans (or worse). But then as I began to walk back up an opposite side of the hill, I noticed I was using the roots as steps. The roots here were still roots; they were still hard objects, jutting out from beneath the soil, but their incidental function was different. These roots were not hazards; these roots were helpers. The path, being severely washed out in places, didn’t have formerly man-made steps, but it did have roots that would become steps. There very things that could have once caused me harm, were now helping me get to my destination. Hegel would call these roots dialectical; I’ll just call them paradoxical grace.

Roots became helpers, coming along side me on the path, acting as stepping stones. These roots allowed me to move forward along the path.

Just two weeks ago, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was an unanticipated transition for me even a few short months ago, but in January, at the very strong leading of the Holy Spirit, I felt compelled to enter this new path. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, and therefore come from a low church evangelical background. I was dedicated, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. My roots run deep.

At the pre-confirmation meeting, the Bishop of East Tennessee met with all future confirmands and blessed our presence in this new congregation. He noted that many of us, including himself, come from other rooms in the house of faith. He equally noted, however, that something had brought us all together and was about to make us a part of a deep Anglican tradition: another strong root system. But before we would join, he said, we need to acknowledge and bless your roots wherever and whatever they are. The roots from which you came matter because they had provided grounding heretofore in our lives and they would further function as the foundation upon which this new Anglican tradition would be grafted.

In other words: roots can become obstacles, but they can also provide support for the journey ahead.

At times we may want to curse our roots, or a root system, that would just assume have us fall as have us arrive. At other times, though, we would be stuck in the bottom of some of life’s deepest ravines without the steps provided by our roots.

Roots are powerful extensions of beauty that simultaneously have the power to give life and the power to make a once well-worn path a travel hazard. Where there are deep, muscular roots, prying open a sidewalk or pressing through a forest trail, one is acutely aware that these roots are what they are because they have survived and thrived. By extension, so too has the tree connected with them.

This week, I was walking along a forest trail, uncertain of what I would find or what I would hear. I was trusting that God was here in the silence and that I would hear God in silence. I discovered that the path upon which I stood didn’t just lead me beneath a beautiful forest canopy and through the playground of cardinals and squirrels, but it was indicative of the path upon which I now travel, a path that I will only be able to walk because of my roots.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent as Re-Membering: Reflections on Luke 4

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Luke 4 is the traditional text that comes to mind when we consider the beginning of Lent: the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (Sunday celebration days withstanding) in which we reflect upon the journey of Christ into the wilderness and the temptations he encounters while there. During the season of Lent, we Christians embody some form of practice that allows us, however weakly, to walk with Jesus into the wilderness. This takes the shape of denying ourselves of something significant in order to participate in the self-denial of Jesus during this wilderness period. We, as Jesus, must rely on God to sustain us, just as we must rely upon God to save us. Lent becomes the acting out of our finitude within the context of God’s infinite redemption revealed in Easter. Thus, this is a season in which we focus on Christ’s movement toward the events of Easter and we rely upon God to carry us through the parched arid land of the wilderness, to the pinnacle of Golgotha, and toward the tenebrosity of the grave.

The wilderness period of Luke 4 functions on many levels textually and canonically but two things should be immediately noted: it connects the ministry of Jesus with the wilderness wandering of the people of God for 40 years and, consequently, connects the ministry of Jesus as the one who exits the wilderness in order to redeem the world, bringing the world safely to harbor in the kingdom of God. This is the episode upon which the Gospel of Luke moves the readers from Jesus, the one born of God, called, baptized, and properly vetted in the wilderness, into the full-blown son of God, prophet, and harbinger of the Kingdom of God. Jesus exits the river and, after a brief genealogical postlude, heads straightway into the wilderness. The wilderness, in a sense, prepares him (and us) for the ministry ahead. Ultimately, it prepares us for the Paschal events.

The biblical account of the actual time in the wilderness is short, however. The text does not tell us what happened or of the trials encountered by Christ. We learn he was tempted, but we do not know what that means or by what means. Perhaps we are to imagine similar temptations encountered by Christ as were encountered by Israel as they wandered about a lifeless, foodless, waterless landscape in the Book of Exodus . Indeed, for such a significant moment in the life of Jesus, (which is also embodied in the liturgical time keeping of the church) precious little is made of the 40 days; it gets 2 verses in Luke. The text is abrupt,

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he was baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to him…”

The most salient feature of this text is the contention between Jesus and the devil. Luke himself gives this aspect of the story the most attention. In the process, however, readers often conflate these 3 final temptations with the sorts of temptations, or the very temptations, Jesus was encountering in the wilderness. The wilderness period itself is overlooked by Luke, either unavailable to him or simply unimportant for his story.

Clearly, Jesus experiences something in the wilderness that is unavailable to us, and he survives with flying colors this period of personal wandering, emulating the wandering of the ones to whom he has been given by God. At the end of the wilderness period, after he has survived this Spirit led sojourn into the jaws of the devil, the devil arrives one final time to take advantage of the vulnerability of Jesus’ humanity.
The devil comes to Jesus and tempts him to forget the perils he has been through in the wilderness, as if to attempt one last-ditch effort to derail the ministry of Jesus. Will Jesus be like the people of God, the ones who came to be delivered through the Reed Sea yet on the other side make a golden calf to worship? Will he buckle under the weight of wilderness exasperation?

Unlike a host of prior biblical characters (many of whom are in the genealogy of Jesus listed in 3.23-38), Jesus passes this test of the devil, quoting scripture in response to temptation and remaining resolute despite his human longings for food. Jesus does not fail this test. He lives into the reality of his baptism and is apparently strengthened by this tribulatory episode. He is now ready to pursue his calling and he doesn’t waste any time causing a stir in the synagogue on the sabbath further in Luke 4.

Whoever this one is who has come out of the wilderness victorious, he is something totally other than any character to yet emerge from the annals of Israel’s history. Of course, Luke wastes no time in identifying Jesus, if not as Christ, someone like Elijah that had been prophesied from the Isaiah Scroll. Jesus emerges from the unforgiving wilderness, surviving the devil, only to be threatened with death by his neighbors. If the devil can’t single-handedly take down Jesus, it seems the characters in the story are eager to pick up where the devil left off. See Luke 4.14-30.

The exegetical issues in this text are many. There is a myriad of ways in which the scholar can move around in the text in order to capture the full scope of what is being communicated in this strange wilderness text, with very few details, and the odd verbatim discussion between diametrically opposed forces: Jesus and the devil.

Admittedly, I read this text and often come away with as many questions as I do answers, yet I always leave this text feeling more comforted. When a season of life tempts me away from who I am, or who I was baptized to be, I read this story and I am reminded of what the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15). Luke 4 demands much of readers, and our imaginations, but it remains a classic example of overcoming temptation in the face of insurmountable need and desperate relief. Despite its brevity, it remains the classic Lenten text of initiation.

But what of these final 3 temptations, the ones that we often consider as happening in the wilderness to Jesus, when in fact these happen after Jesus has exited the wilderness? As if often the case, it seems we survive times of tribulation, and then once the pressure begins to subside, we let our guards down and are defeated by things that have no business defeating us. Why do we do that? We are people that can run 25 miles of the marathon, yet the last mile finds us failing, even with the ribbon in sight. To say it biblically, we can travel the wilderness for years, and remain faithful, and then as we near the promised land we find ourselves getting mad like Moses, succumbing to temptation, and being kept from the Promised Land indefinitely. One of the many morals of Luke 4 is: be like Jesus, not like Moses.

While there is much to be said about the contents of Luke 4,  I want to focus on the progression of these final words of the devil to Jesus. Temptation is rarely linear, or to say it in Lenten perspective, self-reliance is rarely linear, but it can progressively move to higher stakes. First, the temptations Jesus experiences happen because he has already rejected temptation. He already defeated what was trying to drag him down in the wilderness…yet it still hangs around, talking to him after the wilderness period! Would that the wilderness critters stay in the trees rather than follow us home! Jesus is hungry. The text says that “when they had ended…he became hungry…” “They” refer to the days in the wilderness. The wilderness is over, Jesus is emerging, done. Temptation is still near, that stray dog following close behind, brushing up against the heals of Jesus.

The first thing to notice, then, is that these 3 famous temptations come to Jesus only after he has proven himself. He has nothing left to demonstrate, yet it seems something larger was not yet decided in the wilderness. Secondly, we should note that the temptations have a progressive nature to them. Jesus exits the wilderness period hungry, because he had been fasting for 40 days. The devil comes to Jesus at this point of departure first, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus has already gone without food for 40 days, what’s one more afternoon? Jesus replies with the same wisdom he surely used in the wilderness fasting and he quotes Deuteronomy 8.3, a reflection upon the 40 years wandering in the wilderness by Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus being undaunted, having come through much worse, deflects the devil’s stupid suggestion and holds fast to being sustained by God.

Next, the devil raises the stakes. If Jesus cannot be tempted with a primal need, perhaps he can be tempted with a primal urge: power. The devil led Jesus “up” (perhaps suspending him in order to view. The text does not clarify the “up” from which the two looked together) and showed him the kingdoms of the world (political power) and offered him dominion of those powers if Jesus would worship him. Here, Jesus is tempted with power, admiration, and possessions, all things that most humans work their entire lives for! But one who would be led by the Spirit into a vast wilderness and was baptized by one who also lives in the wilderness, has little need for such things. If a hungry Jesus won’t even turn a stone into food (recall that Moses made water come out of one) there is little chance he’ll be enticed with power. The opportunity to worship the devil falls flat in the face of Jesus’ commitment to God, the Lord of Israel.

Finally, in an act of desperation, the devil decides to move away from primal urges and focuses on the last thing Jesus has left: his identity. If Jesus cannot be tempted to feed himself or with power, perhaps he can be tempted to prove he is as good as he thinks he is, perhaps he can be tempted to prove his identity! If the devil cannot tempt Jesus away from his ministry, perhaps he can immobilize Jesus by calling his being into question. Ironically, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (the very symbol of God’s presence with the people) and gets right to it, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The devil knew he needed to use scripture against Jesus because Jesus would use it against him, and surprise, Jesus returns the scriptural favor with Deuteronomy 6, “it is said, ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Wilderness period of no avail, final temptations handily dismissed, the text says the devil then leaves Jesus until an opportune time. Jesus has withstood a personal assault by the devil and is now ready to boldly perform his ministry. The result of surviving satanic onslaught is a Jesus of whom the text says returns to “Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The powerful thing about the wilderness is this: if we can survive…we come out stronger. Jesus survived. The same spirit that descended upon him in baptism was the catalytic power that would animate his ministry.

This wilderness episode is intriguing. It is cataloged in all 3 synoptic Gospels, with Matthew and Luke sharing the most similarity and Mark simply mentioning the event with 1 verse. Under the category of multiple attestation, it would seem that this is an event so thoroughly connected with the historical Jesus that it is highly likely Jesus did in fact receive baptism by John, and then, as if to make pilgrimage with the historical people of God, purposefully went into the wilderness to experience that same journey. The event must have been so well known among the early followers of Jesus that to omit from accounts of his life would have been likely impossible, and it must have been so formative for Jesus, that each Gospel author except John found it impossible to tell their story of Jesus without including it. Such universal inclusion and divine parallelism must indicate that this is an episode in the life of Jesus that should not only be read, but pondered, deliberated, and prayed over regardless of the brevity or absence of wilderness detail. For reasons we can deduct from the text, and also reasons lost in history, the wilderness retreat of Jesus prior to his ministry must have happened and was of necessity.

Let me suggest, however, that this pre-ministerial event in the life of Jesus, and our inaugural Lenten text, gets part of its primary importance because of its ability to re-member the story of God with the world, with his people, with us. One of Luke 4’s theological tasks is to re-member two realities in the life of Jesus, and so to the life of us. First, it puts back together the historical memory of Gods people; it recalls God’s initial saving activity from Egypt. Jesus is a part of that story, a continuation of it, that will find its denouement in Easter. Secondly, it puts back together the memory God has of us, collectively and individually. The temptations themselves are curious and major parts of the story, but it is the re-membering that happens in the wilderness that is of primary importance. Before Jesus can remake history, it must be re-membered by him, in him and through him.

Consequently, this is what Lent does: it re-members for us parts of the story that have been torn asunder, parts of the story that connect God to world, God to people, God to us, our story to Gods, creation’s story to it’s Creator. Our world has forgotten its stories; they are strained and fraying from connections barely visible yet still present. In lent, we re-member them; they come back together in order to remind us who we really are, who God is in Christ, and who we can be when we put those stories back together.
It is this re-membering that Jesus does in the wilderness. The temptations matter because, ultimately, the temptations of the devil are about dis-memberment; the temptations are the devils means of having us forget our story.

First, Jesus literally remembers the Exodus with his body. He experiences the first season of Lent, so to speak. What he did those 40 days is lost, but he did it, rehearsed it, and relived the arid landscape of those who he came to serve. Unlike Moses, he will go into the wilderness AND come out of it, entering the Promised Land of new creation. Thus, Jesus lives into a biblical liturgical calendar in order to place his ministry within the context of God’s call from the land of slavery, death, and futility.

Secondly, and less conspicuously, Jesus re-members his identity in the wilderness. The wilderness was a time of introspection, recollection, rehearsal and through those things a time of re-membering what led him to the river, what happened to him in the river, and where he was being called once emerging from the baptismal waters. This stop in the wilderness was the place Jesus surely found is identity in God, solidified it, and his mission became central. Through fasting in the wilderness, he learned to rely upon God for sustenance and learned to subdue his body. With each passing day, Jesus learned his body was Gods and surely wrestled with all his inner demons that tried to make him doubt his identity and mission. The temptations of the devil at his emergence from the wilderness is the icing on the cake of an already intense time of personal spiritual questing.

The final temptation Jesus faces in Luke, after having already survived parched soil, is the temptation to forget. The devil, not able to move Jesus with primal temptations, tries to get Jesus to forget who he is, even though who he is is precisely what he would have learned in the wilderness for 40 days! Jesus did not become who he wasn’t in the wilderness. The wilderness did not make Jesus Jesus; Jesus was “made” via his sending from above and called out in his baptism. The wilderness was the time of reminding, re-membering his identity in God and identification with God’s people. One could protest that Jesus needed no re-membering at this point in his ministry, that he needed nothing to re-purpose him.

True as that may be, there is nothing that will challenge a person’s faith as fasting from food, true removal from society in order to come face to face with one’s inner demons. When Jesus decided to experience what the people of God experienced, he agreed not only to do what they did, paralleling a Sinai experience, he also agreed to be subject to the same temptations that would have been distant thoughts emerging victoriously through the Reed Sea.

It is easy to be faithful to the God that is destroying our enemies; this God is easily worshiped as Egyptian chariots sink in freshly made mud. It is quite another thing to wander the wilderness for an indefinite period, apparently led there by God, placed there because of God’s victory, but given nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and no map for directions. A faithful people can become forgetful quite easily as a simple stroll through the Old Testament will easily attest.

Likewise, we are naive to assume that Jesus, emerging from the waters of redemption like his for-bearers, would not also be tempted in the wilderness on the other side of the water. Jesus did not become someone new in this experience; he became what he already was, God re-membering in Jesus what the human Jesus may have been tempted to forget…but a temptation he needed to experience before serving the children of those recalcitrant people. We hear silent foreshadowing echoed in the words of the Devil, “If you are…the son of God…”

It is in re-membering that we find the temptations of the devil most significant because it is precisely forced forgetting that is the goal of the devil. If you don’t like “devil” language, we can appropriate the Gospel of Matthew and call it “the tempter.” The wilderness is the place we are most likely to be tempted to forget who we are and who we are called to be (has anyone read Numbers lately??!). Ironically these temptations only come to us as people who have already experienced God’s living water of forgiveness/redemption. We cannot be tempted to leave something we have never had in our possession. We cannot be tempted to forget something we have never experienced or never been.

Enter Lent. If there is a time when we will lose our way, it is in the nothingness of nothing while relying on a God we cannot see for sustenance we never knew would be enough.

In other words, if we are going to forget who we are, it is during Lent; ironically, if we are going to find ourselves, it is also in Lent. Lent does not make us something we are not; it re-members what God always holds together in his own memory about us. Re-membering is the process of putting back together what God already knows about us, for us, and calls us to live into. Lent is the process whereby we allow the spirit to re-member in us God’s predestined naming of us.

In the wilderness Jesus re-membered; In Lent, we are called to re-member. The Devil tempts us to forget our names, our identity, our mission as those baptized, forgiven, called. In Lent, God helps us remember our identity in Christ; in Lent we discover our true selves even as we are tempted to forget.

Lent is a time of preparation because if we participate in it to the extent that Israel wandered in the Sinai, and Jesus wandered in the land beyond the Jordan, then we are doing the heavy soul searching that is necessary to come out of the desert alive. Not just anyone can survive the wilderness. The biblical narrative is full of persons, examples, that entered the wilderness never to return. If, however, we place our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves in the hands of the creator, we will discover not only our true self during Lent, but that our true self is never divorced from the identity God gives to us. “Let us make mankind in our image” writes the author of Genesis. God knows and re-members that image; Our identity is grounded in God. In Lent, we are invited to re-member our names.

 

God Can’t: A Review

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“We don’t need the bible to know evil sucks,” writes Tom Oord, who has now taken off the gloves in his forthcoming work, God Can’t. In what might be his most transparently honest work to date, Tom goes after the Golden Calf of Christian theology: the idea that God Can do anything. Hang on tight because this is a ride you do not want to miss.

For people of faith, there is little more polarizing than the statement “God Can’t.” In fact, those words do not make much sense. Isn’t part of what makes God God that God can do anything? If there is something God cannot do wouldn’t God be barely more than us mere mortals? Many people of faith hold to their faith precisely because the God they believe in can do whatever he needs to, when he needs to, to make their life better or save them from peril. This idea is the great security blanket of believers, for even though God may never do the many things ascribed to “him” it is comforting to know that he could. We may never meet a divine superman, but its good to know he’s in the building just in case.

But what do we do when we run head up against the inexplicable evil of life and superman doesn’t show up? When we pray, hope, trust in God, yet nothing changes, or  worse, further bad things happen?

Does God become nothing more than the ultimate fudge factor by which we give reason for our suffering? Rather than God becoming a deliverer from our suffering, God becomes the cause and excuse of it, the way we rationalize it (“everything happens for a reason” or “God’s ways are higher than our ways” they say).

Yet, how does one make sense of God’s love, or the idea of God as a loving God, while also contending that God restrains his power to allow evil to happen to us for some “higher” purpose?

What higher purpose could come from the family whose child suffocates in their car from heat exhaustion, or drowns in the pool because the family lost track of 2-3 minutes, or allowed someone to be sold into sex trafficking and abused for a decade? Are these genuinely evil things really a part of God’s plan? Are these things that a loving God would allow if God had the power to change yet for some reason higher than human reason does not intervene?

Tom Oord’s recent book, God Can’t, tackles these tough questions with an emphatic answer: Genuine evil happens to us and there is absolutely nothing God can do about it by himself. It’s not that God chooses to not intervene or has limited his power in some way; it’s that God is metaphysically incapable of physically intervening in the world to prevent these random acts of evil. It’s not God’s choice to refrain from acting, God is limited by his nature and essential characteristics. To use Tom’s language, God is the God of Uncontrollling Love. God loves us but that love is never demonstrated in coercive ways, either for good or ill. Tom’s not letting God off the hook for bad things, he’s simply saying God was never on the hook to begin with.

In other words, there are some things God simply can’t do, but don’t lose heart because the acknowledgment that “God Can’t” do some things opens a whole host of things God can, and does, do to work in creation, it just looks different than the Godly superman we have all learned to adore.

Foremost, if one has become an atheist or left the church because of inexplicable suffering or evil that was glossed/excused by their pastor or by those who tell us “everything happens for a reason,” the goodnews that Tom presents is that you can still believe in God and love despite your suffering. You can still believe in God because God is not the source of all your suffering. You don’t have to abandon belief or faith. In fact, God suffers with you in your suffering and wishes the evil that happened to you had never occurred.

Tom’s starting point theologically, is Wesleyan, and as such his assumptions about God do not begin with the traditional categories of omnipotence, omniscience or Thomistic Simplicity. Unlike many theologians, Tom’s presupposition about God could be best labeled omni-altruistic: God is at all times, and all places, acting in love. And this is how we know where God is acting: God is present where love is found and incarnated, where creation flourishes anywhere in the universe love is found. Further, as creatures we can know what love is and need not be mystified or chalk up to mystery trying to understand evil that happens to us as God’s means of loving us.

While this may sound radical, it is a radicality grounded in experience, reason, scripture, and yes, even tradition. This radical rethinking of traditional ideas of God is staged in the Introduction as Tom illustrates for us the tensions found between believing in God while simultaneously witnessing the horrific suffering of hundreds via the recent Las Vegas shooting tragedy in which 58 people were killed and 851 others injured. Tom frames the problem like this

“Many people think God had the power to prevent the Las Vegas shooting, its deaths, injuries, and resulting trauma. They think God could have warned officials, temporarily paralyzed the gunman, jammed the rifles, or redirected every bullet flying 400 yards. They assume God has the ability to do just about anything…After the shooting, some “explained” why God failed to stop the tragedy. “There’s a higher purpose in this,” they said. Others appealed to mystery: “We just can’t understand God’s ways”

This, of course, begs the obvious question: If God is loving, and if God stands against violence and evil, and God also has the power to stop it, why doesn’t God stop it? It is little wonder many have become atheists over these questions.

What is at stake is nothing more than the morality of God.

Tom divides his argument into 5 ideas. They are necessarily disclosed in chapters but what’s really happening is the argument that God Can’t is presented in 5 clear ideas, each building on the other, until the reader has a coherent view of the Tom’s picture.

Idea 1: God cannot Prevent Evil. Tom illustrates why God can’t, rather than won’t, prevent evil and demonstrates the advantages to understanding God as one not responsible for evil as opposed to being a co-conspirator with evil.

Idea 2: God does not cause our suffering for a higher purpose or reason; God suffers with us. God does not create our suffering and God wishes it had never occurred.

Idea 3: God is working to heal us. So what of divine intervention if God Can’t? Miracles are the result of the right conditions for healing and God is always working at even the smallest cellular level to heal us and the world, but God does not singlehandedly change our biology because God’s love is Uncontrolling. You need to read this chapter.

Idea 4: God squeezes good from bad. God does not cause bad things to happen in order to bring good things about, but God can squeeze some good out of a bad situation. Many stories illustrate this.

Idea 5: God needs our cooperation. If God were all powerful in physical ways, we human creatures would be afterthoughts, hamsters on a wheel simply living out a foreordained divine play. However, since God’s love is Uncontrolling, God needs us to use our bodies to help him work in the world. The apostle Paul famously says something similar when he calls the Church the “the body of Christ.” In other words, we matter.

Of course, this thesis requires some heavy theological/intellectual lifting. God Can’t is not a heavy academic piece. It is the culmination of 20 years of theoretical work that has now taken practical shape. God Can’t is written to be widely read and is practical in its approach to the problem of suffering and evil.  Therefore, Tom’s argument in this book will not please everyone because the theoretical space from which this argument is made is enclosed in the corpus of Tom’s work for the last 20 years.

From his earliest writings nearly 20 years ago, Tom has been working on the problem of evil because it too was the problem that for a short time turned him into an atheist. Thankfully, Tom continued in his theological journey and concluded that belief in God is more probable than not. This is how he describes it,

“I realized that if a loving God did not exist, I could not make sense of my deep intuitions about love. Without God as the ultimate love standard, I could not explain what love means and why I — or anyone else — ought to express it. These and related issues led me eventually to think it more plausible than not that God exists. But I did not and do not know this with certainty.” (198)

My first encounter with Tom’s work began in his essay “A Wesleyan Process Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God” in the book he co-edited with Bryan Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. In this essay, we see early on that Tom was wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil, and beginning to re-conceptualize how God works in the world if one holds that a.) God is love and almighty yet b.) suffering and evil still occurs. This begs the questions: In what way is God Love and how is it expressed? How is God almighty if not in coercive power?

In that essay, Tom began to develop what has taken practical form in God Can’t but he had not quite come to his thesis of an uncontrolling love. At this point, he had set out the idea of essential free will theism in which creatures are essentially free (free in their essence) and God does not work in the world via coercive power, but via the bodies of others and through persuasion.

The academic theories behind these sentiments were the process theologies of David Ray Griffin and Charles Hartsthorne, the open theology of Clark Pinnock and the historical theology of John Wesley. Tom went on to express this same thesis in a book he edited for Nazarene Publishing House, Philosophy of Religion, in the essay “Divine Theodicy.” From here, the essays and books continued to take shape and be produced. Of key importance to his thesis in God Can’t is his more academic work, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific and Theological Engagement, in which he provides theoretical grounding for his larger thesis that God is a God of uncontrolling love, and therefore Can’t do some things. Of course, all of this work was brought together in his 2015 publication, The Uncontrolling Love of God. In addition, Tom has done exceptional work in the Wesleyan Theological Journal since the early 2000’s and his assorted essays here are must reads before one can engage his thesis in God Can’t with any modicum of credibility.

While there will be no shortage of critics looking to read the title of his recent release and discredit it for lack of theoretical justifications within its pages, they only do so as armchair theologians who have not engaged the entirety of Tom’s work. Their knee jerk attack will demonstrate their own amateur efforts.

Thus, what we have in God Can’t is not a knee jerk publication, a theological shock jock looking to be radical, but the practical import of years of theoretical work. Tom has produced here what all good academic work should eventually become: an honest attempt to make sense of the world around us and then offer that academic work to the every day person. Tom is not writing for the academic; he is writing, in his own words, for all of us:

“I wrote this book for victims of evil, survivors, and those who endure senseless suffering. I wrote it for the wounded and broken who have trouble believing in God, are confused, or have given up faith altogether. I’m writing to those who, like me, are damaged in body, mind, or soul.”

Upon release, this book deserves to be widely read, both for its clarity of presentation and for the ideas that could literally give someone back the God that bad theology has taken from them. It is a scary premise that maybe God Can’t, but it is also a premise, that if entertained seriously, may allow someone to believe in the God that never intended their suffering and has been weeping with them all along. I am certain there is no shortage of people who need to hear this goodnews.

Alterations of Death

The image of a blanket, woven with various patches, filled with stitching, and mended with quilting, is not one uncommon when we describe our human experience. Often have writers invoked the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the many pieces that constitute our lives.

Many of us have quilts made by mothers, or grandmothers, to which our mind immediately races when this image is invoked. We may even go to our closet, pull out those quilts, and gently pass our hands across the patches, the stitches, and the signature where our loved one’s hands had once been. Even as they made this quilt, and this quilt is a thing itself, it is not hard to imagine that that quilt can be an analogy for our lives: we are all nothing more, or less, than pieces of a whole that has been placed together by the relationships in our lives.

We are a whole quilt, but we are not whole without the many parts that make us who we are.

Any quilt, however, no matter how well made or how many times stitched, will eventually become worn if it is used. Quilts can remain pristine if we keep them in a closet and never use them, but the quilts that are used will eventually need to be repaired; they will need to be altered.

But what happens when our quilt is altered without being worn out, when something happens that rips the quilt into 2 pieces or pulls the stitching out and destroys two patches? What happens when the quilt cannot be turned back into what it once was and it has now become something that cannot be repaired? It just can’t. It has become something else.

This is what death does. Death alters the quilt and it alters it to such a degree that this quilt cannot be fixed. It turns the story of your life into another story even as it is the extension of the same story.

Some will come by and say that “the quilt gets easier to use” and that “missing piece will one day be a spot for a new piece” but all of that is crap. The quilt doesn’t get easier to use with time and it never becomes what it once was. Even if you try to repair it it can never get back to its originary state. It can be functional but even in that function it’s destruction is clear.

But why? Why can’t we repair the quilt and move on?

Because using the quilt forces one to continue looking at what it isn’t. If the quilt is in fact your life then being alive is a reminder of the part of the story that has taken an unexpected, and unnatural, turn for something that is not part of this quilt you’ve been unintentionally weaving.

Death alters our quilt; it alters us. The only way it doesn’t is if a.) that part of your quilt didn’t mean much and hence finding a new piece to fit into the torn spot isn’t too difficult or b.) we sedate ourselves from our own materiality with the allure of not death (I”ll fly away O Glory). Response “A” means that that part of your story was not consequential and response “B” means that perhaps we have not rested with death long enough to realize what it is: Death…the cessation of that which makes us alive.

It is hard to describe how death alters a person or changes our quilts beyond repair. All deaths are not equal.

I am not special. Many people have had death visit them through their family. In my immediate family, I have lost a cousin at 19, all of my grandparents have died within the last decade (I lost my first grandmother exactly 10 years ago this week), and I have experienced the untimely and sudden loss of my 65-year-old father. Going through the death of my cousin, and grandparents, did not prepare me for losing my dad; not even close.

All deaths are not equal but that does not mean we do not love all those that die. We can love them and say goodbye to them. We can see their contributions to our quilt and come to a resolution that this part of the quilt is finished but it is not destroyed. Our quilts can stay intact. But sometimes death visits in such a way that your life literally changes after it happens. Sometimes the quilt is mangled beyond repair.

We have all been to funerals, paid our respects, left, and then went about our daily lives as if we had never attended the funeral. We have all been to funerals of grandparents we mourned, yet we understood that 89 years of age is an honest age and it is part of the human condition to live, and die, in time. We hate it but accepting it is not an impossibility. We go to the church for the funeral, have dinner, good conversation, and then go to our homes…business as usual.

This doesn’t mean we are bad people; it just means that there is a season for everything and when things happen in season it is easier to accept.

When it snows in January we are fine; it’s the snowstorm in July that shakes us up.

THEN, there is that death that after it happens your life literally changes. It is not the same afterward. You cannot go back to business as usual. It alters you, sometimes physically. It destroys the quilt and there is nothing that can fix that loss. That patch is not made anywhere else and even “moving on” or “recovering” or “getting better with time” does not make the quilt what it was. It’s just irreparable.

People who have never had a loss in what I call “out of time” have no idea what I’m talking about. I have experienced “in time” and “out of time” loss and the latter is torture in its immediacy. There is something especially tragic about premature, sudden, untimely death. In this kind of death, you have the benefit of not seeing your loved one suffer, but you carry the eternal burden of no final words, no more moments, no more embraces of love. As quickly as you blink that person is gone…without warning. Depending on how interconnected your life was will determine on how this moment presents itself to you.

The quilt changes; its not the same and taking advice from people who have never had their quilt destroyed beyond repair…or living in a culture that just replaces quilts…leaves no room for the real-life PTSD that can follow death.

Death, the kind of death you feel in your bones, alters you. The quilt is never the same and it is hard to describe if you’ve never lived through the kind of death that is only beginning once you put your loved one in the ground.

I said at my father’s funeral that his death would change history. Probably not world history, but my history, my family’s history. Like Back to the Future an alternative 2017 was created when my dad died, and we have been on that alternative timeline ever since. Unlike Back to the Future, I am unable to go back to that time in history and make it right.

When I consider the alternative history, it is shocking how much has changed even though so much has stayed the same. My quilt is jacked up but places I take it are still familiar.

What alterations have happened?

For starters, and sadly, it has now been long enough for my little girl to begin forgetting her grandad. My daughter is 2 and when my dad passed those 2 were just beginning to develop a relationship. Her personality was coming out and my dad always loved the babies. He loved how the babies would be captivated with him and reciprocate his childish demeanor. First it was my 3 boys, then my sister’s girls, and my little girl was next to be the apple of his eye. But now…he is a faded memory. For a few months after she would mention that “grandad was sleeping” because that is how I described him at the funeral home.

But now? She’ll see him in a picture and ask who he is. He died just 2 weeks after her 2nd birthday. Their relationship has been altered.

My boys were 11 and 9 when my dad died. They did a lot with him when they were younger. My dad loved his boys; they were, after all, the first grandkids and twins to boot. As they got older my dad would wrestle with them, take them four-wheeling, and toss them around in the pool. He would bring them home pizza, share his A&W Root Beer with them, and teach them Karate. Two of my oldest boys have autism so they did not always reciprocate affection to my dad as he would have liked but that’s not because they didn’t love him; it’s because they have autism and relate to people around them differently than the norm. My dad struggled to understand that as my boys got older.

Now? They have no grandparent to do that with and cannot learn to develop the kind of relationship with an active grandfather that would have been so pivotal for them.

In business, changes have been drastic. After getting a crash course in self-discovery of all the things my dad never showed me, I became chief executive officer. Don’t let the title fool you; it really means I just get to do more work. My sister and I split up the office work, but I believe I may have taken any stress on myself that my dad used to carry. My work weeks went from a standard 45 hours to 60. My focus went from strictly operations to wearing all the hats one needs when running a small business. I now find myself in the sort of job that will not get done even if I work 16 hours a day 7 days a week. When you own your own business there is always something to do and you bring work home with you every day. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t have to think about when he was here. Now…I get to be concerned with all of it.

As the CEO and CFO of our company, my dad was the gatekeeper. All of the family, and even employees, could come to him in confidence with any item. Now that privacy was over. What was once hidden became transparent as I know needed to have that knowledge.

Familially, my mother, who had been married to a man that owned his own business, suddenly had to rethink her relationship to myself, my sister, the business and what it means to be a widow at only 58. She is still struggling with that transition and experts say widows can take up to 5 years to adjust to the loss of a spouse. My dad was kind of the intermediary between all of us in the family and since his death we have had to renegotiate how we relate to one another, and in many instances, discovering we do not know one another as well as we thought.

Academically I have had to put on the brakes. I had just begun my 2nd year of a Doctor Of Ministry program and was doing some intriguing research when my dad passed. Suddenly, I had 0 motivation to write and no inspiration to do so. I found myself questioning the very academic enterprise itself. If life could be snuffed out without warning, then what am I doing wasting my life writing papers no one will read and reading books that I can discuss with maybe 5 people? When I am dead I doubt anyone will recall the articles I’ve written or the books I helped edit. Most likely some poor student will come across them incidentally but for the rest of the world my meager academic contributions will be swallowed by the oblivion of academic prose.

Death caused me to question the value of everything. Those that know me know academics was a big part of my life. I love to learn, write, do research, teach. I was not a smart kid in High School but in the liberal arts I had found my passion. Suddenly my dad’s death made me question my motivations and how I spent my time. What once had supreme value became almost meaningless. I had to take an “incomplete” in the class I was taking at the time of my dad’s death and it took my 9 months to write the last two papers I needed to finish the course. It seemed like a monumental task that beforehand would have been chump change for me.

Recently I received emails about registration for classes and I had to be honest with my advisor that I am still not in a place where I can meet my own expectations. I believe I can do good work and I want to finish. My thesis project is novel and would be a fine contribution, but now I have business responsibilities that take precedent over my passion for learning and working in the faith. If my dad had not died, I would be starting year 3 of my Doctor of Ministry and probably have a few chapters of my thesis written. I would be 1 year from graduation. Instead, I have completed 1 year with nothing but academic ambiguity lying in front of me.

Personally, one of my main hobbies was powerlifting. The night before my dad passed I was in the gym prepping for a power meet in the late spring. I was weighing 180lbs at 5’7 and deadlifting 450lbs, doing sets of 315 for 10-15. My lifts were strong. I would spend about 4/5 days in the gym, getting workouts in when I could depending on work. My goal for my meet was a 400lb squat, 500lb deadlift and 330 on bench. Even if I had to hit the gym from 11pm-after midnight I would get it in.

Since my dad has passed, I am lighter than I have been in a decade. I stopped eating nearly half as much and found minimal time for the gym with my added responsibilities and lack of mental focus for heavy weights. I weigh 150lbs and have lost most of my strength gains. I have went from benching 315 lbs to having a max of 230. Now I can’t pick up 400 lbs and I used to be able to just bend down and pull that for 5 reps like it was nothing. Spending hours in the gym is no longer appealing to me. The killer mental focus I used to have for weight training is gone and I am unsure if it will ever come back.

Basically, none of my clothes fit. I went from needing XL T Shirts to now being able to wear Medium shirts I haven’t worn since 2010.

Lastly, his death altered my view of things. Things I used to enjoy buying, like vintage baseball cards, have lost appeal. The problem is that when he died all his stuff stayed here. Stuff that he loved, like his car and some of his coin collection, just sits to be eaten by moth and rust. We all know we can’t take it with us but when someone leaves suddenly, and the things they loved are left behind just taking up room, we realize that so much of what we “enjoy,” or pursue, is worthless in the end.

In addition, things usually only mean something if you can share them with others. It’s no fun to buy a car, a new ring, or even an Al Kaline rookie card if you have no one to show and share it with. Our relationships make things matter but in the end the thing is nothing more than a token that deepens the relationship.

There used to a bumper sticker that read “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” Its cliché and when I read it back in the day it seemed obvious…but when I really learned that lesson it changed how I think of things and how I spend my money. Stuff is just stuff; it is meaningless. So why do I work, if not for things? If not to have more money to buy more stuff?

Now I work for my family and for those that work in my company. I don’t work to have things; I work to make my company the best it can be to provide for my family and be the best it can be for my employees. A job well done means more to me than any money I can make from the job because that is how I will be remembered when I die.

No one will care what I had in my house, but they will remember how I treated others and handled my business. My family will remember how I put them first.

Death that you feel alters you. You don’t have to seek it out. You won’t have to wonder if this death is an altering death. You will live it and it will change you. It won’t leave you alone; you won’t get over it; you’ll basically learn to live with it even though you’ll suck at living with it most days.

The trouble with deep death is that it alters the quilt we’ve been working on and not time, a trip to Hobby Lobby, or looking forward to the final eschaton will make that better. The quilt is just jacked up and that’s kind of not fair because the ones that die don’t have to deal with death like us.

This is where death gets tricky. Only the living experience death. The moment of death is felt by the dying but only those left behind get to live through death. Those that die are relieved of that burden. The only way to live past death and avoid it is to die ourselves. Ain’t that some crap?

Death is full of irony, dialectic if you will, in that death is the only release from death; it’s the only way to save the quilt. For us unlucky ones that get the quilt destroyed without proper wear and tear we are just stuck with the reality that death alters us, the quilt will never be or feel the same, and the journey toward remaking that quilt is one that will most likely end only in the death of ourselves.

 

Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”

 

 

 

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

A Prayer of Lament &  Forgiveness 


How Lonely sits the city where silence now resides 

The doorways are clean and empty, the water basins full 

Yet, there are no ripples in the water 

No footprints in the walkways 

The corridors are silent- only filled with the tears of lament 

The joy of my heart has ceased, our dancing has been turned to mourning (Lamentations 5.15)

My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled

My heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of my home  (Lamentations 2.11)

Oh Lord, forgive us for taking this place for granted

For abusing our life with nonsense and frivolity 

Forgive us for being so sure of our life 

Forgive us for not loving one another as we should 

Shame us for our stupid arguments and selfish spirits 

For dwelling on problems rather than love 

Forgive us for valuing things over people 

Forgive us of our laziness toward one another and your world 

Forgive us for not loving you by loving to the fullest those whom you have given us 

Forgive us for not seeing our families as grace, as gift 

The gift is now gone; it is no more

You have given, You have loved

Our Father loved us as you loved us, he loved us as you loved the world 

Forgive us for thinking the city would be filled with laughter forever 

My soul has been rejected from peace. I have forgotten happiness

So I say my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord (Lamentations 3.17-18)

He has walled me in so that I cannot go out, He has made my chain heavy (Lamentations 3.7)

O God, we have taken our breath for granted

We have worshipped at the idol of invincibility 

We were asleep – we are awake – to an empty city

Our Father is gone, He is with you 

Remember what has befallen us, Look and see our reproach! (Lamentations 5.1a)

Create in us a new heart and purge us of our filthy presumptions 

Our haughty unloving selves 

Do not hide your ear from my prayer for relief (Lamentations 3.56)

Amen. 

NO! You haven’t been here: The Singularity of Grieving Loss

master-a-grief

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Experiencing the death of a loved one is not fact to be stated, a proposition that is an absolute truth.  That a loved one has died IS a fact; that one has experienced the grief of the death is not a fact; it is a subjective experience unavailable to all people except the one in grief.

It is not an experience that is shared or something with which one can empathize.  It is unique, personal, and subjective because it is larger than the fact of its happening; it taps into the recesses of the human experience that cannot be harnessed by our words or shared.

One may have in fact lost a father, a husband, a child, a friend, but the proposition “I lost my husband too” is simply that; it is a statement of fact, not a statement of truth because truth lies in experiencing the fact that was stated.  Facts have no value.  They just are.  They do not denote a common experience; they denote an event.  Since facts have no value facts do not denote the meaning of life.  Real life, what we hold dear, what we care about, resides outside the facts.  Ludwig Wittgenstein beautifully portrays this when he writes:

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value — and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.  What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.  It must lie outside the world.” (Tractatus 6.4)

Just because a fact has happened to us does not imply that we then know what that fact means for another.

Take a sunset as an example.  We would agree that we can look at a sunset and see that it is beautiful, yet we would also agree that what makes it so is different for both of us.  My impression of beauty is not imputed upon you or vice versa.  The same could be said for joy or laughter.  We allow that individuals can experience the same emotion while experiencing it differently…yet when it comes to grief we think that because we have experienced grief that you must also experience it as me.

Of all the emotions that refuses similarity, grief refuses it the most yet it is the one we tend to harmonize and try to share.

Grief is the most complex yet we have made it the simplest by the way we relate to those in it.

This is impossible.  The truth of tragedy, beauty, grief or joy is they all transcend our ability to state them as facts and that is what makes them truthful; they are the stuff of real life because they transcend what can be thought, said or expressed.  All of these things refuse thought.  They refuse analogies whereby they can make sense.  They refuse a universal experience even though they are all experienced universally.

Thus, of most human experience it is impossible to speak, to describe, to bring under the submission of our ideas.  Wittgenstein held that a logical language can only deal with what is true, and unfortunately, what is true is precisely what evades language.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

This weekend, a month ago, he was at my little girls birthday party, wearing Minnie Mouse ears and being the world’s greatest grandad.  Now, my father has been dead for 19 days.  For the first time in my life, I experienced a sudden rupture of the world; a reversal of what is normal into an alternative reality in which the tragic has defined the common place.  On Feb 27, around 5:30pm, I told my father “see ya later dad” for the final time as he left our office to go to a Karate Workout.

In the office that day we talked about what had to be done Tuesday if it didn’t rain, what the week would hold, and that I’d be able to help him with some things Wednesday.  We talked about family history briefly, talked about repairs being done, and he asked me if he should go workout given he had a sore rib.  We talked about mundane things.  Regular things.  We talked as if tomorrow was a given.

I was within minutes of leaving the office to do a monthly inventory at a store and someone stepped into my office and said “someone from Paul Huff called, they said your dad is having another episode.”

My father didn’t have “episodes.”  I had no idea what that meant but I needed to find out.

I made one call, then ran out of the office to my car and sped down Peerless Rd to the gym where my father was working out.  There, I encountered my 65 year old, 3rd degree black belt father, tied to a gurney, with a pulse and shallow breathing.  This situation did not feel right; it wasn’t good.  I was optimistic but my gut was beginning to sink knowing that the man I saw, my father, was on the edge of life…hanging on.

I grabbed my father’s bag from his instructor, threw it in my car and raced to the hospital to meet him there.  Along the way, I stopped for gas (I had been on “E” all day in town and didn’t need to run out now).  I called my wife, called my sister, tried calling my mother.  Panic had overtaken my body but I was hopeful…until the paramedic van took much longer to go to the hospital than it should have.  Finally, it appeared.  I followed it to the hospital, called my pastor as I parked, ran to the ER, and was immediately taken to Consultation Room 1.

My pastor arrived within minutes and was with me in the room when the ER Doctor comes into the room and says “Hi my name is (X).  This is not good.  I am not optimistic.  Your father is not responding to anything I am doing.  Can you tell me something about his medical history that may help me?”

Astounded at the breathtaking bluntness, I had nothing.  My dad took a small dose of cholesterol medication.  That was it.  I told him he was healthy, had a good recent physical, no known illnesses or disease.  The Dr. left the room.  I looked at my pastor and said “So, how many times have you gotten news that stark right out the gate?”  He shook his head, “nada.”  This doctor was not giving me any false hope.

About 10 minutes later, around 7:45, the Doc reentered the room, with long face and a low heart, he looked at me and said “I’m sorry, you father is gone.”  At that moment, my entire heart sank to the ground, my heart raged, my mind confused, I screamed and yelled.  I hit the wall, I fell against it and I sank to my knees as I wept for my father with a groaning and weeping I didn’t even know existed.  I hugged my pastor and I cried.  I squeezed him as hard as I could.  My mom had entered the hospital as I heard the news.  She heard me wail…and that is how she knew my dad was gone.

She entered the consultation room broken, weeping, herself in her hands.  We embraced and shook our heads in disbelief.  At 5:30 I talked to my dad.  At 7:45 he was gone.  Rupture.  Disruption.  Darkness.  Confusion.  Disbelief.  Pain.  Fear.  Loss.  Bottomless Sorrow.  What is this new world?

At 9pm we were escorted back to the room where my father lay. There, lying in a hospital bed and covered with his sheet up to his chest, was the man who only hours earlier had been with us.  Entering the room with me was my mother, sister and wife.  My pastor was also there, along with my dad’s brother and his family.

We spent 3 hours with my deceased father, not wanting to leave him.  We touched him, hugged him, we wept, we kissed him, we talked to him.  His body was still warm when we arrived but by midnight he was cold.  I walked around the room shaking my head, looking at the singularly most important man in my life, wondering how I would grieve him, how life would go on, what this new epoch would be.

How is it that MY DAD IS DEAD?!?  Death resisted, and resists, my thinking.

He was at work that morning, this Monday morning.  Everything was normal.  He said goodbye to me for the day.  I am not even sure I looked up to say goodbye, but I did look up to see him close the door behind him.  That was the last time I would see my father upright.

He went for a Karate workout.  He never came back.  That night my father died…and even as I type this I cannot believe I am typing this.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

Grief.  Or as one of my friends described it “the bastard of sadness.”  How I wish I did not understand that definition.

I have been alive for 36 years.  I have lost people close to me, particularly my grandparents.  I was lucky enough to have all 4 of my grandparents well into adulthood.  They passed at the age of 75, 83, 87 and 89 respectively.  All of them were sick, some more than others.  Some we knew they would die, others it wasn’t a surprise but neither was it expected.  For all, I wept.  For all, with the blessing of my family, I eulogized them.  For all, I knew life also meant death and all of them had lived a full, long life.  I didn’t want to let them go, but I knew I had to.

None of their passings prepared me for this.  Not even one.

My father passing suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning and without any family history of cardiac arrest, is not the same for me as losing a grandparent I knew was sick or a father that had cancer whom we knew would die soon.  Here I am, trying to process losing my father a full 24 years before he lost his!  My dad was 63 when he buried his father…he had him his entire life.  I get to have my father half of mine.

I am trying to process going to karate one minute, dead the next.

I realize some people never had a father or some may have had a father for lesser years than me.  I am thankful I had him till he was 65 but I mourn he was taken too soon…and knowing I had him 36 years doesn’t change what happened or make my situation easier to compute or accept.

Now, overnight, I’m grieving my father while sitting in his desk, going to his church, running the business he started.  I am using his pens, reading his writing daily, using the folders and notebooks he organized…using his checkbooks with his last entries directly above mine!  I do not get to evacuate his presence and go back to my life because OUR LIVES ARE CONNECTED!  I don’t get to bury my dad in his town and then go back to mine.  I have to walk the same sidewalks he walked, talk to people he spoke to, tell people who call for him that he is dead, and use his emails to conduct business!

Most people don’t have to bury a father and then do what I do every day.

No, you may have lost a father but you don’t have to wake up and wear his shoes.

This is too much!

My father dying isn’t the same for me as attending my old father’s funeral, whom I knew was sick and would die, and with whom I had time to say my last peace, tell him I love him, tell him I’m sorry for ever being anything but grateful.  This is shock.  It is rupture.  It is confusion.  It is senseless.  It is morose.

Likewise, my mother was married to him for 38 years; She was 19.  Now, suddenly, she is without him.  Overnight, her house is silent in the morning and it is silent before bed.  The garbage doesn’t fill as fast.  The dishes are only hers and the laundry doesn’t have any of his clothes.  My mom did not lose a sick, aged man, who had been dying and whom she knew she would lose.  She experienced something totally different.

She lost her world in a single day and now she lives in another one without any warning.

When I think about what happened I cannot help but feel a sense of injustice, injustice that my dad took care of his body, was wary about what he put into it, had regular physicals and blood work, had Lifeway screenings, exercised and refrained from all dietary vices…yet still died without warning while people older, sicker, and in far worse shape avoid the Grim Reaper for some unknown reason.

It rains on the just and the unjust…and this isn’t just.

I don’t really know what people’s expectation of me or my family is.  When does the world expect me to be “fine?” When should I be happy again?  When is my mind free of my father’s constant memory?

I am not sure I know the answer, but if you expect me to be fine after just 3 weeks…I won’t be.  I am not fine.  This situation is not fine.  I will look fine and I will function, moment by moment, but inside I am thinking about my father…and missing him.  Seeing my 65-year-old father in that casket 10-15 years too soon is not fine!  I will tolerate it but I am not fine.

It will be a while before “I” and “fine” are one again…and spiritual platitudes do not make it easier.

I am not an expert at grief or loss.  If I am lucky, this will be the hardest loss I suffer.  I will die before my wife and kids, and my own mother will grow old and I will say goodbye to her in our time, with time and with notice.

I am no expert but I have observed something I feel compelled to share.

It is simple: you do not understand my loss.  You cannot relate and it is not the same as yours.  Likewise, I am also removed from your loss…for good or ill, bigger or smaller…you don’t understand mine and I don’t understand yours.  If yours was easier to deal with, great.  I am glad you had that blessing.  If mine is easier, than you are in my prayers…because this pit is its own special hell and I would hate to see where you are but I’ll acknowledge you’ve been to a place I haven’t.

This is blunt: you do not understand my loss.

Losing an old, sick father, is not the same as me losing a healthy father suddenly.  The slow rupture and loss you felt as you released emotional connection to a man you knew would die is not the same as my father being jerked out of my life, out of this world, and into another.

Just because you lost a dad, doesn’t mean you have any idea how the loss of mine feels.  Please don’t compare it…and please don’t tell me you understand…because you don’t.

Likewise, you don’t understand what my mother feels.  You may have lost a husband, and you may be a widow, but you didn’t talk to him at 5:30, hear him tell you he’ll see you at 7:30, and the next time you saw him was 9pm, in an ER bed, dead.  You losing your old husband isn’t the same.

For those of you who have experienced sudden, rupturing loss, you have an idea…and you know the depth of how bad it sucks…but even then, none of us can experience the grief of another nor should any of us impute our experience of grief onto another person.  I will not grieve as you, nor you as I, so please let’s save the nicety and be honest: we don’t understand how one another feels.

All we can do is be present…and stop with the impossible empathy and reminders that God has a plan because if killing humans is part of God’s plan and “timing,” then perhaps we should revisit whether a capricious God like that is worth our attention.  I digress.

Likewise, I do not understand what it is to lose my father when he was 40, after he dropped me off at school, only to find that later in the day he will commit suicide.  I do not get that pain.  I don’t understand that…but one of my friends does.  I lost a father, you lost a father, but none of us lost a father like that!  We don’t understand her loss even though we lost the same “person.”

You may understand what it means to lose a father, but you don’t understand what it means to lose one that left this world by his own actions.

My uncle lost a son at 20.  He said goodnight to him, hugged him, told him he loved him at 9pm.  6-7 hours later police knock on his door and tell him his son is dead.  He was killed in a car accident, ejected from the back of the rear window, thrown 200 feet, and DOA.  You may have lost a son…but did you lose him like that?

I pray I never lose a child like that…I don’t understand that kind of loss…and I never want to.  Many people have lost sons, and fathers, and wives and daughters…but each loss is unique.  Yet we seem to think that because we have lost that same “person” we understand what the grieving person is feeling.

Well, we don’t.  I never understood that quite like I understand it now so I am sorry if I ever told you “I understand” when I really had no idea.

We need to stop saying it because all it does it either belittle our own loss or it belittles the loss of the other; It does nothing to comfort the hurting person.  We can never feel the grief of the other.  We are always outside someone else’s experience.

I am not writing this to negate your loss or say my loss is greater than yours…but I do believe, and psychological research reinforces this, that certain types of loss are harder to adjust to and process than others.  Loss and grief is not universally experienced.  Your loss may be greater, or easier to process, but our losses are not the same.

Your experience is unavailable to me and mine is unavailable to you.

As for my loss, I do not expect anyone to understand even though people have told me they do because they “lost a father too.”  I don’t expect empathy because my individual experience is just that: individual.

I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers and texts, but the experience of grief via the death of a loved one is not universal.  It is singular and it is experienced singularly via the relationship we had to the departed.  You losing a father isn’t like me losing a father, or vice versa…and you losing a father or husband in old age isn’t like my mother losing a spouse.

I’m sorry we can’t feel for one another but the nature of feeling refuses its synonymy.

Honestly, I feel cheated and robbed by what happened.  My father’s death not only ended his life, but it will change and shape the direction of my life, my mom, my sister, and my kid’s life…all in a way that if it had happened in a decade from now wouldn’t have been the case.  Most of all, his untimely death doesn’t allow me to be a better son, speak power into his life, encourage him when I knew he needed it but was too busy to take the time.  While I will move past those regrets, I will get to live with them.

My grief is mine.  It is not ours.  The sooner we understand this the better humans we can be toward one another when we experience loss, and at some point, we will experience it for ourselves or we will share it with others.

Not all people will go through sudden loss.

Some of us will be lucky.  We will grow old, our parents will grow old, our children will grow old…and we will bury one another in appropriate seasons.  I pray that is what happens for you.  I pray you never feel what it means for a loved one to be instantly removed without warning.  I pray you wake up each day to a familiar world with familiar people.  I pray you get to let them go gently.  I pray you are that fortunate…and I pray I am that fortunate moving forward.

Some Deserts may be traveled with others but they are experienced alone.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

 

 

 

 

My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.