A Response to Tragedy, Part 1

How do we respond to tragedy? These are the thoughts I have been wrestling with and the string of Christian faith to which I have been clinging through my sorrow.

Recently, my sister lost her unborn child, Liam, at 20 weeks pregnant. Around the same time, my 32-year-old cousin, Ashley, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and died within two weeks. This was not my family’s first encounter with deep and unexpected tragedy. In 2002, Ashley’s younger brother, mom and unborn baby sister died in a car accident on the way home from a family vacation. This was my introduction to grief. I was nine years old. Ashley’s brother who passed, Jonah, was not only my cousin but my best friend at the time.

I remember when they told us that Jonah had died in the hospital following the accident. My aunt had been declared dead at the scene with her baby. Jonah was in critical condition but was flown to the hospital. We all had converged on my grandparents’ house to pray and comfort each other. The next morning after the accident the kids were called down to the kitchen. They told us that Jonah didn’t make it, he was dead. There was palpable sorrow in that kitchen. The bright yellow walls did nothing to brighten the pall that hung over us. The only consolation in that moment was the comfort found in my dad’s arms as I wept.

Why? At some point, the question wells up in our soul as we process our pain. If God is good, if He really loves us, then why would He allow us to experience the overwhelming grief of losing a beloved friend, family member, child…? Why would He allow the incomprehensible suffering that we struggle to understand as we observe the weight of tragedy in the world? Answers abound. Some are good and true, some are false and depressing. None are satisfying. I mean this in the way that we all know we are not yet truly Home. There is no answer to grief that satisfies in this fallen world. We must live with the tension between faith in the truth and life in the pain. Hope remains.

I have found comfort in Job, in the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, and in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. As Job cries out against the unjust tragedy in his life, God holds it not against Him, but listens and then arrives in the midst of Job’s suffering. He does not explain away Job’s grief, He does not give reasons for Job’s loss. God shows up and demands that Job trust Him. God is worthy of it all. God is over it all, His timeless perspective redeems all our pain. He sees the order of the universe and, by His very being, He defies the totality of our pain. Job’s encounter with God is enough to bring him back into trust with God. This encounter does not alleviate or take him out of his suffering, but it returns him to trust. We need to encounter God in our suffering.

At the tomb of Lazarus, we get another glimpse of God’s response to our tragedy: Jesus wept. Here we see the further revelation of God’s response to Job. He shows up in our pain and He participates in our suffering. Jesus has enough knowledge of God to know the theological answer to suffering, the idea that God is worthy of it all, the idea that God will resurrect the dead and redeem all things in the end, but he does not use that knowledge to attempt to shield himself from the reality of tragedy. Jesus responds in His divinity and humanity as we respond in the face of death, with tears of sorrow. He had felt the same gut-wrenching pain that I felt when my best friend died. But He goes beyond this and calls forth God’s resurrection. I’ve heard some great sermons at funerals. I’ve been blessed in the midst of my grief to hear from preachers who have tapped into the heart of God for me and my family in those times of loss. The best sermons share that God is the enemy of death, that God takes no glory from man in the grave. They appeal to the fellowship of Christ with us in our suffering. They proclaim that death itself has been conquered and overcome; that death is now the pathway to life; that our fallen brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters are now more alive than we can imagine as we look through a mirror dimly.

At the cross of Jesus, we get the full unveiling of God’s ultimate word on our suffering. God does not merely empathize, God enters into and transforms our suffering. The mystery of the incarnation is not merely God clothed in flesh, but the embrace of our humanity so total that it finds its truest expression in the crucifixion. The moment that the incarnation completes its embrace of humanity is in the suffering and death on the cross. By the cross, our suffering and death are transfigured into fellowship with God and with His divinity. Then the resurrection proclaims our eternal answer: All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. There is not the slightest pain or disappointment that shall not have its answer in the resurrection. God has done what God does. God has embraced our suffering in His love and has made all things new. And so we cling to the fellowship of Christ in our suffering, we glimpse the hope of time that shall lead us to eternal resurrection, and we release our need to answer the question of “why.” He is worthy of it all.

These words do not solve the problem of grief. An intellectual understanding of these concepts doesn’t go one whit towards holding our pain at bay when we encounter tragedy. We need to meet the reality of these words. Only an encounter with the God who is love can bring us consolation in our trials. The only consolation in those moments is the comfort found in my Dad’s arms as I weep.

So we live through grief. We speak with muted tones and the world looks grayer for a while. We gather and give what comfort we can (remember we are to represent Christ to the world). We avoid platitudes and answers, we listen and sit with each other. Compassion calls for silence, for diversion, for conversation all at different times. Listen, be sensitive (in the sense of the word that is closer to “be discerning”) and grieve. Never try to excuse or diminish the tragedy. It sucks. Food helps, music helps, friendship helps, hugs help, just being around people who are in it with you helps. Memories resurface and stories are told. It is good that we celebrate and honor those who have passed on. It is right that we should grieve at our separation from those we love. Throughout the process of grieving remember foremost that this is not the whole story. What looks like the end is actually a beginning. Wherever you are in the process remember: God is faithful, God is present, all shall be well.

Papu – In Honor of My Grandfather, Archbishop Adler

Today I go to the funeral of my first mentor, my first pastor, my bishop, my grandfather. Archbishop Randolph Adler began an international movement of churches, ministered in 70 countries, and pastored a church of over 300 people. His life was amazing and a full eulogy, written beautifully by his son, can be found here. This post is my reflection on his impact in my life:
Papu was my Dumbledore, he was my Gandalf. He was a larger than life person who saw me and caused me to know that I was significant. I have one of my second-grade homework assignments that asked who was my hero. “Papu” was my answer then and “Papu” is my answer now. Papu was changing the world by leading an international movement of churches and yet he spent so many hours pouring into my life.
When there was a terrible accident that took the life of my cousin, Jonah, Aunt Gina, and unborn cousin, Chloe, my grandpa was there for a 9-year-old boy. In the midst of his grieving, he helped me process the loss and changed my life.
I was always bullied in school. Papu had told Jonah to befriend me because I had been getting into a lot of trouble (almost burning down my school in kindergarten as a prime example) and Papu saw rightly that I needed a friend. When Jonah died he was my best friend and I remember being angry at God because he gave me Jonah just to take him away. But Papu gave me the Chronicles of Narnia and I tore through them. When Digory looked into Aslan’s eyes after stealing the apple of life for his dying mother and saw Aslan looking at him with lion tears in his eyes, I knew that God wept with his children in their pain. When Aslan welcomed the children into the doors of heaven and invited them “further up and further in”, I knew that God had a secret joy even in his full experience of our sorrow. I knew that Jonah and Gina and Chloe were more alive than ever.
I went to Papu’s house nearly every day that summer. I poured myself a green glass of heavily sweetened iced tea, sat in a large wicker chair that was far too big for me and talked with him on his porch. We talked about how God was like Aslan and that God saw me and loved me. We talked about how Jonah was in a better place now and that, while we grieved over our separation, we knew it was but for a little while. Papu taught me that pain is not my enemy and that God’s providential love did not scorn pain but entered into fellowship with our suffering. Papu taught me to know that God was not an angry, indifferent, or impotent God.
Papu was my Gandalf. He looked me in the eyes and called me into adventure. I was a large kid and he always said, “Jesse, act your size, not your age.” He always saw and called out the good inside of me instead of reacting to my outward rebellion. He gave me the help and the knowledge to conquer my fears. When I couldn’t ride an elevator because of severe claustrophobia, Papu took me to the mall to ride the glass elevator with me—where I didn’t feel so panicky because I could see through the enclosure—over and over again, all the while praying in tongues with me. He loved me. I know he did the same for so many people. Even as he leaves us for just a little while, let’s remember that Christ conquered death and Papu is with us still, in more than just memories and recorded sermons, but in spirit and in truth.
“All his life in this world and all his adventures have only been the cover and title page; now at last he is beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has ever read: which goes on forever and ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” – C.S. Lewis The Last Battle

Parable of the Wise Man and God’s Plan

 One day in the years before Christ birth God decided to ask the wisest man on earth’s opinion of his plan of redemption. For the sake of this story we shall refer to this wise man as Everyman. So Everyman sat down with God and God began laying out his plan. He would send his only Son to the Israelites. Immediately, the Everyman broke in, “Not the Israelites! The ones who killed your prophets, who stoned your messengers, the stubborn and rebellious people who rejected your revelation no matter how many miracles you did for them?? They are a small and backwards people. They are mere vassals of the Romans Empire and have been conquered by every major empire in the past centuries. Why them?” God smiled and said, “That’s the beauty of it. I chose them regardless of their status in the world, regardless of even their obedience to me. I want the world to know that I am a God who loves unconditionally. In worldly weakness I am strong.” He then proceeded to tell Everyman whom He had chosen to bear his child. Everyman couldn’t believe his ears, “Ok so not only are you sending Him to a lowly people but to a peasant woman who is betrothed to a carpenter? She will be stoned for adultery! Even if she isn’t, she will be an outcast in the mind of anyone who knows her. And sending Him as a baby?! Your son could die of the stress of childbirth. He would be utterly vulnerable and probably without a father once this Joseph guy finds out Mary is pregnant. You should send him full-grown into the house of Herod or the high priest with angels announcing Him to the people of importance so they may welcome Him in power!” God chuckled and replied, “In weakness I am strong. I will indeed announce His birth with angels, but it shall be announced to shepherds on a hillside and an old priest who has been waiting for Him. And for those who have eyes to see, my star shall shine in the sky and lead any who seek that they may find His birthplace. As for Joseph, I shall invite him to participate in my plan and he shall have the choice to put aside his hurt pride and accept Mary in spite of everyone’s disapproval. Mary shall also have a choice in this, my plans always come with invitation. As for surviving childbirth, He shall be born in a manger and the true danger shall be after He is born as the powers of this world seek to put out the Light of the world.” He then proceeded to tell of His son’s ministry, inaugurated by the baptism of John. Everyman was confused, “Why would He need a baptism of repentance if He is going to be perfect? Won’t the pharisees and all the people see Him as a sinner then?” God replied, “My son is the new Adam and He will participate in the repentance of sin for the world. There is no action too humble for Him. He willingly accepts the baptism as an enactment of the story of human redemption and rebirth. I shall speak over Him their and announce Him as my beloved son. This will not be for His benefit, for I will have been teaching Him from His youth about the mystery of His incarnation. This I will say for the people listening, someday they shall know that any who accept my son become sons and daughters of mine.” “Wait,” Everyman said,”He won’t even be born with the knowledge and power that is His birthright?!” “No, He will empty Himself and take on the limitations of man. He will be a child in truth and will learn from the Torah and his parents and from Me as He grows in wisdom and stature and favor with Me and man. And after His baptism He will be tempted and tested in the truths He has learned. The Accuser shall come to Him and question His identity and My identity and He shall have to choose My promises and teachings over the lies of the Accuser. He shall feel a hunger for Me in that time but I shall feel far away to Him and only after this time of testing shall My angels come and minister to Him.” Everyman considered what he heard and was silent for a while. Then he said, “So your son could embrace the Accuser? He could reject you and follow the lies?” “Yes,” God replied. “I don’t understand,” said Everyman. “Ah, the beginning of wisdom,” and God began to tell of His son’s ministry. “Why fishermen? Why a tax collector? Why not any pharisees or priests?” “The hungry and the sick are open to Me, the proud I despise. Some religious leaders will follow him but none shall be in His twelve. If He came and gathered the religious leaders as His select few, then the people would not believe Him when He said He came for the sinners and the broken. The religious elite of Israel reject Me in pursuit of My own laws. How difficult it will be for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Finally, God began to tell of His son’s death. Everyman responded at first with indignation, “I thought you were bringing Your kingdom into this world! You have subverted all that this world teaches as wisdom, now Your son (with whom You are well pleased) should rise up with His followers and overthrow the oppressive kingdoms of this world. He claims to come to set the captives free, why doesn’t He use the fervor and power He has to do so?” “So, you think He should spend His whole life and ministry subverting the world’s ways only to use its way of violence to establish the Kingdom of Peace? The contradiction would be too horrible to imagine. No, My kingdom is not of this world. He shall die. Through His death shall be the fulfillment of all of Scripture. His wounds shall cleanse, He shall bear the iniquities of them all. He shall give Himself over to the powers and ways of the Accuser and, by becoming the scapegoat, the Lamb shall conquer all. He shall take their hate and accusation and they shall look to Him and be saved from it.” Everyman wept. “This is not the end of the story though, Everyman. On the third day, I shall raise Him from the dead. I shall establish My kingdom through the risen life of My son. Those eleven who are left of His chosen few and the women who loved Him shall change the world. No doubt you wonder why He wouldn’t just go about in His risen form and continue in leading those few? My plan is bigger than that. I want My people to establish My kingdom in My power and by My Spirit. They shall make all things new. They shall raise the dead and overthrow the principalities and powers. In their weakness, even in their deaths, the world will be healed and restored. It shall seem to them at times as ridiculous and foolish as My plans do to you, but I have entered into their world as a man and I know their suffering and they shall be more than conquerors through Me. Do not despair, Everyman, ever. All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. And soon, the end shall come and the new heaven and new Earth shall be established. My bride shall be presented before me blameless and in that day all striving shall cease. There will be no more pain, but faith, hope and love and joy unceasing. This I have promised and this shall be.”

21

the ocean breeze breathes through

the march to death

the ground, sandy and shifting, beneath the knees

o, sweet earth!

Free, at last.

in the Name of Love

Rachel weeping bitterly

refuses comfort

my brother who loved and laughed and lived

is lost

a sword piercing my soul, also

“he is free!”

no bridge spans the chasm of grief

the emptiness that consumes

my God, my God…

died too, once

Jesus wept at a tomb

no stranger to grief

Comforter, comfort me

defeater of death, bridge the chasm

breathe life, set me free

Musings on Baptism and Foreshadowing

Baptism IconReading in Joshua today I noticed a trend that is repeated throughout the Old Testament: the crossing of the Jordan as symbolism of God’s salvation and His presence with the crosser. It’s been taught throughout Church history that the crossing of the Red Sea as the people fled Egypt foreshadowed our salvation through the waters of baptism. We also see Elijah fleeing King Ahab after calling down a drought on the land by crossing the Jordan. When David is warned of Absalom’s betrayal, he and his people cross the Jordan which becomes a barrier of protection for them. So we see the salvation symbolism in the crossing of the Jordan and, by extension, in the waters of baptism. We also have the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria, who comes to Elisha for healing from his leprosy. He is told to wash in the Jordan. When his servant convinces him to humble himself and follow Elisha’s instruction, he is cleansed through the waters of the Jordan. It’s amazing to me how all these stories are weaved together to provide the backdrop for the institution of Christian baptism. The final way we see the crossing of the Jordan as a symbol of baptism is in the confirmation of God’s anointing.

When Moses has died and Joshua is taking command of the children of Israel, God commands Joshua to have the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant stand in the center of the Jordan river. Joshua tells the people that God will confirm his anointing and presence with Joshua by parting the waters for the Israelites. We see distinct foreshadowing as Moses brings the people through the Jordan the first time but does not bring them into the Promise Land. Joshua confirms his anointing by the parting of the waters and takes the people into the promise land. Later in Scripture we have a similar occurrence as Elijah is on his way to be taken up into heaven. The path to this taking up into heaven lies through the Jordan and he parts the water with his cloak rolled up on his staff. Elisha asks him for a double anointing and Elijah promises it to him if he sees him taken into heaven and takes up his mantle and staff. This happens. The confirmation for the elders of Israel who are waiting back on the other side of the Jordan is Elisha’s return and parting of the waters with Elijah’s mantle and staff.

Joshua, the one who leads into the Promise Land, and Elisha, the inheritor of the double anointing, both have their ministries confirmed and began in the power of God shown through the crossing of the Jordan. John is the second Elijah, preparing the people of Israel through the waters of the Jordan for Jesus. Then we see Jesus come and His ministry is confirmed and began through a display of God’s power in the Jordan! God is a masterful story-teller.

The completion of this thematic arc is found in our own baptism. The symbolism is depended as we are told in the New Testament that we are “buried with Christ in Baptism, and raised again to newness of life.” We participate in the heritage of God’s anointing, presence, resurrection, cleansing, and salvation as we are baptized ourselves. We are embodying a mystery thousands of years in the making. Praise God!