Last year, I wrote about my journey from forcing joy to finding that love is what is everlasting, not joy — that we sometimes hear and believe that Jesus only lives in the places of our lives where we recognize him with joy. But that that is not true.
And so, almost as an afterthought, I've been thinking lately of other ideals that Christians hold as truth, somehow in the process giving a lifeless principle more weight than a Living Christ who reveals himself beyond what can be wrapped up with words and smacked with a theological bow.
Like the concept of Presence.
We know and rest our restless hearts in the idea that Jesus is with us always, lo, even unto the very end of the age. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. And this is good. We sing songs and pray prayers and feel goose bumps and know that it is true … at least in those moments.
But what about the God who seems to be known by God’s absence as much as by God’s presence? What happens when we don't feel God’s proximity uninterrupted?
The world of Christian theology has seen its fair share of writings that address horrible suffering and the confusion about God’s character that it causes. The question has been on my mind in light of the Philippines’ calamity. Although satisfying answers are difficult to come by with a topic like this, I offer a few insights that have helped me to continue to trust God’s love. The biblical character of Job shows us how, as believers in a loving God, we should regard and respond to suffering around us.
It no longer surprises me when I hear people express cynicism and doubt about a caring God — I sometimes wonder why more Christians have not done so. Whose faith can remain undisturbed when Typhoon Haiyan kills 5,000 Filipinos and inflicts misery on thousands more? I recall a photo of a woman weeping by her child’s body inside a damaged church. Who can imagine her despair? Can we conceive of the hell endured in the same region by enslaved women and girls who are raped and degraded every day, every hour?
As the U.S. Catholic bishops began their annual fall meeting on Monday, they were directly challenged by Pope Francis’ personal representative to be pastors and not ideologues — the first step of what could be a laborious process of reshaping the hierarchy to meet the pope’s dramatic shift in priorities.
“The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., told the more than 250 American churchmen as he recounted a personal meeting in June with Francis.
The pontiff, he added, “made a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology,” Vigano said. That message was seen as an implicit rebuke to the conservative-tinged activism of the bishops’ conference in recent years.
Almost since his election in March, Francis has signaled that he wants the church to strike a “new balance” by focusing on the poor and on social justice concerns and not overemphasizing opposition to hot-button topics like abortion and contraception and gay marriage — the signature issues of the U.S. bishops lately.
The plight of Job is one of the most familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible. Many of us know Job’s suffering and the tortuous advice of Job’s “comforters.” The experience of suffering is universal. In the midst of our suffering, we seek to understand, to process, to comprehend. For individuals of faith, events of radical suffering plunge us into a theological crisis. Where is God? Is God causing this to happen? Is God allowing this to happen? Why?
The crisis deepens when we realize that the suffering does not match our preconceptions of how the world should work. We seem to think that if we output positive vibes into the world, the world (or God) will reciprocate. That would be fair. That would be right. That would be just.
However, in the reality of human experience we recognize that great fortune sometimes falls on the underserving, while horrible events beat down the most innocent among us.
Perhaps this is why so many of us can relate to the book of Job. Here we have a character who does everything right. From the first verse, we know that Job is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). In fact, these characteristics draw God’s attention and praise.
Sarah Decareaux was lying on the cold, concrete floor of a barn.
She closed her eyes, curled her knees into her chest, and told herself that what was happening wasn’t real.
She felt claustrophobic. She was having trouble breathing. Her vision tunneled, the same way it had when she’d been in labor. She could see only a few feet in front of her.
Memorial Day is a day to remember. A solemn holiday, it reminds us of the men and women who have died serving our country. Wreath-laying ceremonies and concerts fill the weekend, along with the placing of 250,000 American flags on the graves of Arlington National Cemetery.
Decorating graves is the oldest of Memorial Day traditions. In fact, the holiday was originally called Decoration Day and honored the soldiers who died during the Civil War. Flowers were placed on graves every year on May 30, and after World War I the holiday expanded to include soldiers who died in any war. In 1971, it was moved to the last Monday in May to create a three-day Memorial Day Weekend.
And that, writes Everett Salyer of HEAVEmedia, “is when all hell broke loose.” For many Americans, the holiday became a celebratory weekend filled with grilling meat, drinking beer, splashing in pools, and watching stock car races.
In Christianity’s passage through Holy Week to Easter Day, a moment of truth will arrive.
Every detail is well known, thoroughly studied, and dramatized by Hollywood and homespun pageants — and the familiar story will reach across the divide and touch, or try to touch, every person who is listening and watching.
Many will get it, especially if they live in circumstances where people get falsely accused by the self-righteous; where the weak and vulnerable get mistreated by the powerful; where physical suffering is a daily occurrence; where death seems like the only next option.
That audience could well comprise the bulk of humanity — those who endure poverty, starvation, and violence of epic proportions, those who live in more prosperous lands and yet are the oppressed, the ignored, the expendable.
For that audience, the Gospel message is profoundly good news.
Yesterday, I was walking through Dolores Park and heard a street preacher, saying "If you've ever stolen a stick of gum, then you are guilty of sin! If you've ever looked at Facebook at work, then you've stolen from your employer, and that's sin!"
Of course we all know where he was headed: If we have sinned—even with a trivial infraction like a stick of gum—then God who is holy must punish us for all eternity in Hell unless we accept Jesus right now.
I mean, seriously, gum? Why can't God just get over it? Is God less moral than all of us are? This is not a picture of holiness, it is a picture of a petty tyrant. Aside from the horrible picture of God that this gives us (and honestly, who could ever love, trust, and feel safe around a God like that?), what this ultimately does is trivialize sin. It makes sin into a petty infraction of little consequence.