Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dare We Doubt Together?

Nine years ago Jennifer delivered Leah stillborn. The next Sunday her congregation sang, “God is so good.” The words caught in Jennifer’s throat, and she could not sing. Instead she found a place to weep alone.

“I’m dead inside,” Becky says. Her church, shepherds, family and friends had begged God for sixteen-year-old Joshua. But Jeff’s and Becky’s only son died as a result of surgical complications nearly a year ago. “How, God, can this be the reality of my life?” Becky asks.

Though for six months Liesa had requested special prayers for her only son, 23-year-old Chad died in a car accident one year ago. Feeling the overwhelming shock and loss, Liesa, along with her husband Ted, struggles to find the heart to worship.
Like Jeff and Becky, we also named our only son Joshua with the prayer that God would make him a leader among his people. He lived sixteen years before his weak body lost its long struggle with a genetic disorder two years ago.

Since October Becky and Jeff, Liesa and Ted, and Jennifer and I have met twice a month to share our hearts and thoughts. We cry and pray together. We study Scripture and discuss the twists and turns that happen in our lives. We vent our feelings and hurts.

Grief has not created intellectual doubt within our group. We believe God is there, but we do wonder why God is not here. We believe God exists, but we wonder why he permitted such horrendous loss in our lives. Like C. S. Lewis, after the death of his wife of three years, we are not “in much danger of ceasing to believe in God” as much as “coming to believe such dreadful things about Him” (Grief Observed, 5).

Grief has not attacked the intellectual dimensions of our faith but did create an emotional distance between God and us. We do not doubt God’s reality, but he feels so distant. We feel angry. Did God not hear us? Did he forget us? We hurt. Did he decide to leave us in pain instead of continue our joy? We feel betrayed. Did God give us such wonderful gifts of life only to, as Job says, take them away? (Job 1:21). We even sometimes feel abandoned.

The lament Psalms ask similar questions. “Why do you hide yourself, Lord, in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1b). “How long, O Lord…How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1a, 2). “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old”? (Psalm 89:49). “Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” (Psalm 74:11).

We discovered that our relationships with God enabled total honesty with him. In grace we are free to be honest—-to pray what we authentically feel. Before God and with each other we are able to be who we are rather than pretend who we are “supposed” to be. We bonded as a group because we shared the same journey in our lives. Indeed, through the journey we have experienced God’s presence through confronting him with our hurt and anger.

Most—-perhaps those who have not lost a child—-would be appalled at the words we speak. Many would not understand, and some might condemn. We do not expect everyone to understand. Perhaps without experiencing loss of this magnitude there is no genuine empathy or understanding. We feel safe in our little group because of our shared experience. We verbalize our feelings, confess our ignorance and wrestle with God together. It is our “safe place” to express our faith through doubts and questions. All grievers need a “safe place.”

Can faith doubt and question? The doubts and questions are real, but it is faith nonetheless. Genuine faith perseveres and is sustained through faithful lament. Without lament emotional doubt would eat away faith like a cancer, but through lament faith speaks to the one who alone can heal that emotional pain and close the distance. God, we are confident, will hear us and comfort us through our lament. God will draw near even as we at times feel so distant from him. He will carry us when we cannot walk and he will be present even when we are angry.

Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

Originally published in New Wineskins (May-June 2003)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Kingdom Come

Text: Luke 17:11-37

Journeying to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border of Galilee and Samaria where he encountered ten lepers outside a village. This kind of scene is becoming familiar in Luke. Jesus meets, in the course of his daily existence, the social outcast, the disenfranchised, the broken people of his world. He moved in circles and places that offered opportunity for redemptive engagement with the “poor” of the land.

Responding to their cry for mercy, Jesus sent all ten to the priest and as they went, they were cleansed of their skin disease. Only one, however, returned to thank Jesus—and that one was a Samaritan. Luke calls attention to it—as narrator he identifies his ethnicity and the words of Jesus refer to him as a “foreigner.” He alone, apparently, is grateful and “saved” (NIV says “made well” in 17:19).

A Samaritan Leper! Ethnically, socially, religiously, ritually unclean! He was made pure (cleansed of his impurity), healed (of his disease) and saved (forgiven of his sins). Luke uses all three words to describe his redemption—his salvation; wholly saved—in every respect.

The kingdom is present. The fallenness of the world is reversed. The sick are healed, the polluted (ritually, socially) are cleansed, and the lost are saved. This is Luke’s story—the presence of Jesus is the presence of the kingdom of God. Through him and in him, the future has arrived in a way that reverses the curse and turns the world back upside right.

But some cannot see it. The Pharisees—even with all they have witnessed, though they may not have seen the leper miracles Luke positions before their question—ask, When will the Kingdom of God come? The kingdom was present before their eyes, and they were blind to it. They were looking for the wrong thing.

They sought cosmic, cataclysmic signs. They thought it would come with the defeat of the Romans, perhaps at the time of the Passover. They imagined a nationalistic renewal of the Davidic kingdom as the Messiah took up his rule in Jerusalem. They thought the kingdom would be detected by observation, that is, by rational scrutiny, deductive logic, scientific analysis and visual assessment. They would identify the kingdom by their own criteria.

And they missed the kingdom before their eyes. They missed how the dead are raised. They missed how the blind see. They missed how the poor are included at the banquets. They missed how women were part of Jesus’ entourage—they were disciples too. They missed how the kingdom of God is evident by the redemption of a Samaritan leper!

The kingdom of God is not a matter of political maneuvers and the defeat of the Romans, but rather the presence of the future where renewal reverses the curse. The kingdom of God is not a psycho-analytical, mystical presence within the human soul (as the NIV translation might intimate), but is rather the dynamic activity of God to redeem what is fallen in the world. The kingdom is present in Jesus. The kingdom of God was "among" them, not "in" them.

And yet to affirm the presence of the kingdom in the now—even in the ministry of Jesus—is to create a tension in the lives of disciples. The “now” does not always look like the kingdom. Fallenness still exists. The poor are not honored in culture; the leper is still ostracized; ethnic groups are still divided by hatred; and many do not see the kingdom and have lost their way.

For this reason, I think, Luke continues his narrative with Jesus' instruction to his disciples. While 17:20-21 is directed toward the Pharisees, 17:22-37 is directed toward his disciples. The disciples need the hope that this world—in its present fallen state—is not the fullness of the kingdom of God. As wonderful as the ministry of Jesus is, and as wonderful as the present experience of redemption in the family of God is, this is not the final chapter in God’s story. There is yet another chapter to be written.

The day or days of the Son of Man are coming when the fullness of God’s reign will be made known (revealed). It will be sudden but decisive. It will be redemptive but also destructive. One will be taken (saved like Noah and Lot) but another will be left (lost like the flooded Noahic world and Sodom and Gomorrah). It will be a cataclysmic event on the style of Noah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That day has not yet arrived, but it is coming.

Life goes on. People eat, drink, marry, buy, sell, plant and build. This is the world in which we live. There is nothing evil about these activities, of course; they are the stuff of life and they are sanctified activities.

But they are distracting. They become the focus of human existence. They become the raison d’etre of human existence. We seek our satisfaction there; we come to believe meaning is found there. We try to “keep our life” there and preserve the meaning we have created for ourselves. We lose sight of the kingdom of God. We no longer “watch” for the kingdom and embrace its meaning for our lives now. We seek to keep our life rather than lose it for the sake of the kingdom.

When our life becomes so valuable that it is exchanged for life in the kingdom of God, then we are like Lot’s wife who valued her life in Sodom more than the kingdom of God. When we absorb the values of this life, this fallen world, then we lose the kingdom. When we value our ethnic, nationalistic or religious culture more than we value the kingdom, then we become like Lot’s wife.

Jesus reminds his disciples to “lose” their life in his kingdom in order to find it because when we seek to find our life in this world we will lose the life God intends for us.

How could the Pharisees have missed it? Was it not obvious? How can we miss it? We invest in buying and selling, in planting and building as if this is where we will find the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is revealed when Samaritan lepers are redeemed!

Are we truly about kingdom business in this church? It is so easy for us to lose sight of the kingdom because we are seeking to find our lives.

Luke calls us to discipleship in the kingdom of God in the present as we wait for the full revelation of the Son of Man in the future. It is Luke’s way of saying, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).