I Don’t Know Why…

I don’t know why…
God didn’t stop the bullet that took the life of a seven-year-old girl in Chicago last weekend;
God allowed for miraculous births in the same weekend in multiple hospitals around the world.

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I don’t know why…
Hundreds of people flocked to my hometown to defy social distancing measures and put others at risk of COVID-19 so they could drink and splash around in the shallows of a small lake. I don’t know why they left garbage and excrement in the lake and in people’s yards and in the high school parking lot.
Thousands of men and women risked their lives to maintain order and serve the public–donning their uniforms and braving the heat and the chaos to serve people who despise them, spit on them, defame them, and vilify them.

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I don’t know why…
God made snakes. And mosquitoes. And moles. And giraffes.

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I don’t know why…
On some days God feels so distant and silent; and other times He seems to be surrounding me and permeating me and holding me tight. I don’t know how His word can sometimes feel stale and sometimes cut right through me. I can’t fathom how God can be everywhere—every-when! That He knew me before all the history books and ancient empires and cities and shipwrecks and wars and all the stories I take for granted were even imagined…that He knows me now– every thought; every cell; every hair, every breath…that He knows me a million years from now. I don’t know why He chose to make me, and preserve my life, and bless me with days and hours, with friends and family, and teachers and tasks, challenges and changes.

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I don’t know why.
I don’t know how.

But praise God, I know WHO.
I know who made me. I know who holds me. I know who has the power to make good come from even the worst circumstances. I know who wins the ultimate victory over death and sin and disease and destruction.

And He walks with me and He talks with me—And He tells me I am His own!

These Three Remain.. Hope

I have to start this by saying I don’t feel particularly hopeful right now as I look around and hear all that is happening. There are a lot of reasons to be discouraged, even depressed. Riots, plague, disasters, anger, death, and evil surround us at nearly every turn. I can say that my Faith sustains me, and it does, but I still feel beaten down and exhausted by all the chaos and hurt and anger and misunderstanding.

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In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul talks about things that are temporary– possessions, knowledge, gifts, prophecies– and three things that remain: Faith, Hope, and Love. Last time, I wrote about Faith. But Hope is a more difficult and more nebulous concept. The writer of Hebrews defines Faith for us– “the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But there is no substance or evidence for Hope. Hope is not an anchor; it is not a realization. It is a wish, a dream; at best, it is an expectation. Yet Paul says it “remains,” even when other things pass away.

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How is this possible– that a Christian should Hope after all else has been lost, abandoned, or destroyed? Isn’t Faith more solid, more important, than Hope? Aren’t knowledge, obedience, and perseverance more important and more tangible? Isn’t hope wispy, fleeting, and conditional? Lately, it sure seems so. I say that I hope we all get through these tough times; that we will come through all this stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more just, more prepared, etc., but what am I really hanging on to? Where is my Hope?

My Hope DOES have substance and a sure foundation–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I may have wispy dreams and half-formed wishes of what I would like to see in my life or in the world around me tomorrow, or next year. I may have dreams and visions of what Peace and Justice and Health look like– and I may never see them materialize in my lifetime. I may have to adjust my vision within the temporary world of possessions, and gifts, prophecies and human systems of government and society. But I can remember the life of Christ; in spite of His circumstances, He remained true to His purpose. In His death, He remained compassionate, humble, and loving toward those who hated Him. In His resurrection, He brought eternal Hope to all who choose to trust Him. I can Hope because He brought Hope. I can be inspired by the dreams and hopes of other Christians throughout the years, even if their dreams have not been realized. I can be inspired by the prophecies of others, even if they don’t match my visions. And I CAN see beyond the darkness of the moment (or the year) to see that people (even I) can change; situations can change; circumstances can change; rhetoric and tone can change for the better. Painful valleys and unexpected upheaval may not be what I would want, but sometimes, it serves to clear out the “sinking sand” where dream houses would otherwise be built.

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And Hope is necessary to Prayer– Faith tells us that God hears, even when we can’t see Him or hear His answer. Hope tells us that God cares. He is not aloof in hearing our prayers. He doesn’t answer us out of some worn sense of duty or obligation. He doesn’t just give us His law or even His forgiveness– He gives us restoration and Hope and abundant life! Hope for change in our own lives; hope for progress and healing in our world; hope for victory over sin and evil. Most of all, hope for eternity. God is just and merciful, but He is also gracious and loving beyond all measure. I can cry out when all other hope is gone– His Hope Remains! His Hope is a Solid Rock. His Hope comes with an eternal guarantee.

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Beyond Our Anger, Lord, Give Us Resolve!

There are a lot of angry people out there. They have ample reason to be angry. The world is filled with darkness, injustice, pain, sickness, violence, oppression..the list goes on. Such things should make us angry. Such things are wrong. They are destructive. They are evil.

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But anger, even justified, cannot heal. It begets more anger, and yet more evil in the name of vengeance. Anger alerts us to evil, but it cannot be allowed to fester and corrode all that is good.

God created us with emotions, like anger, but He desires us to bring them under His discipline to become instruments of good. All the way back in Genesis, God cautioned Cain in his anger https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4%3A1-16&version=NIV God did not condemn Cain for his anger, but he warned him not to be mastered by it. Cain did not listen, and in his anger, he committed the first murder. God’s wrath against Cain was swift and terrible– God cursed the ground, so it would not produce for Cain; He drove Cain to wander in the barren wilderness. Even so, God put a mark of protection on Cain, and promised His own vengeance on anyone who would try to kill him. God’s mercy overwhelmed simple retribution. God had the power (and the right) to strike Cain dead. He chose to let Cain live with the dark consequences of his anger.

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God understands that we will get angry– He gets angry, too! But God sees beyond anger, beyond the immediate pain and rage that we feel when confronted with evil. God’s ways are eternal and Holy and right.

If we turn to God in our anger– if we cry out to Him and wait for His wisdom, He can turn even our anger and bitterness into something far better– resolve. We can resolve to bring good out of tragedy; we can resolve to work, and sweat, and pray, and stand firm in the midst of the storm. If anger is like fire– swift and destructive, then resolve is like a mountain–enduring and offering shelter, protection, and a fixed reference. Fire can scorch the mountain. But it cannot move it or destroy it.

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We are living in uncertain and evil times. Let us acknowledge it; even be angered by it. But then, let us bring our anger, our pain, our confusion– and our hope–to God. As God warned Cain, if we do not do what is right, sin will be crouching at our door, desiring to have us; to destroy us and drive us away from God’s presence. If we deny our anger, if we push it down and pretend that it has no power to touch us, we are playing with fire. But if we bring it to God, acknowledging the struggle, crying out in our pain, God can turn our anger into resolve– steadfast through fire and storm and wind and time. Solidly committed to what is good and right and truly just.

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Anger, violence, vengeance–all promise easy justice and powerful change. But once the fire of emotion and action has passed, we are left with ashes and death. But on the mountain of resolve, even the ashes become mixed with the good soil underneath to produce new life and growth. The good endures. The good resolves to endure. Goodness is eternal. Let us seek the good, and seek that God would, beyond our anger, grant us resolve.

“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

Why “Good” Friday Matters

Good Friday is a stumbling block for many people who would be Christians.  Some get angered at the mere mention of “Good” Friday.  They see nothing good in it, and no reason to celebrate.  They mock Christian celebrations and practices throughout Holy Week.  They ask, “What could be good about being arrested, beaten, tried in an unfair court, mocked, and condemned to death?”  “What could be good about celebrating someone’s final meal, and following the gruesome details of his humiliating crucifixion?”  “Why remember someone being tortured by his enemies and abandoned and even betrayed by his friends?”  I know someone who uses the crucifixion of Jesus as “proof” that God is neither omnipotent, nor holy.

Yet the Bible chooses to focus time, detailed description, and several varying viewpoints to make this the pivotal event (along with the resurrection) of history.  The Crucifixion does not come as a sudden and inexplicable episode in Jesus’ ministry. He predicts it; not just once, and not just in one account–he doesn’t hint vaguely at some “future trouble,” or potential danger–he gives a detailed description of what will happen to him:

Mark 10:33-34 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

33 saying“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be [a]delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will [b]hand Him over to the Gentiles. 34 They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”

Luke 24:6-7 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

He is not here, but He has [a]risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”

Why do we need Good Friday?  Why, my acquaintance posits, does a loving God make salvation contingent upon the death of himself in human form?  Is it that God is incapable, or unwilling to offer “unconditional” grace?  After all, does he not offer “unconditional” love?  Why must salvation be achieved only by the unjust death of a perfect being?  Why must reconciliation and new life be forged in suffering and death?

These are not unreasonable questions, but I think they miss the broader picture.  Before the cross, before the scourging and the betrayal, let’s look at the life of Christ.  Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the author of creation, could have stepped out of Heaven at any moment, and arrived in all his glory, surrounded by angels, to walk in pomp and dignity through the world he created.  He could have swept the entire Roman Empire off the face of the planet, healed every disease with a whisper, and lived in the Temple in Jerusalem as the Ruler he is.   Instead, he came as a helpless child, born to a teenage mom and her fiance during a grueling tax season.  He grew up in relative obscurity, never attended college, and is lost to history until he begins his second career as an itinerant rabbi at age 30.  He never held political office, never owned a home of his own, never wrote a book, or produced a piece of art work, never led an army into battle, never married or had children, never became wealthy, never did anything to make himself famous by worldly standards.  He was not crucified because he posed an actual threat to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, but because he was accused of blasphemy by not denying claims that he was the promised Messiah of Israel.  His only “claim to fame” was that he was a dynamic teacher and had performed miraculous healings.  By almost every worldly standard, his life was a failure and a lesson in wasted potential.

His death is in keeping with his humble life.  It strikes us as a failure– humiliating, unjust, anti-climactic.  A life of servitude, poverty, being misunderstood, and making all the “wrong” friends and enemies.  Why would God live such a ridiculous and unfulfilling life?  Except he didn’t– it wasn’t a failure; his life and death stand as examples of how to live at peace, and how to change the world!  Hundreds of people flocked to hear him teach; hundreds more to see him heal the sick and raise the dead.  But he never charged a single coin, never demanded accolades or even thanks.

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This is the paradox of the Gospels.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His humiliating death on the cross was necessary for the ultimate triumph of the resurrection, but it was more than that– it was a vindication of justice over injustice and service over selfishness.  Good doesn’t always triumph over evil in a power play.  God has the power to obliterate every one of his enemies, but more often than not, he causes them to fall by their own arrogance and blind ambition.  The Chief Priests, the Roman Soldiers, the agony and torture of death– they were no match for God’s love.

Good Friday showed us that God can ALWAYS make even our most difficult circumstances, even the worst situations, into something VICTORIOUS.  Jesus still had to suffer and die, because we will still have to face betrayal, hatred, injustice, unanswered questions, and even taste death.  An Easter without Good Friday is a happy ending without the story.  Only an omnipotent God could have given us the triumph; only a loving God would have walked the Via Dolorosa to fight in the trenches with us.

 

Making Waves

Yesterday, students across the nation walked out of class to protest the school shooting that took place a month ago in Florida.  Many have hailed this as the beginning of a new movement; others have decried it as a stunt.  I’m not here to debate the merits of this particular action or even what it may or may not represent.  What I do want to look at is how and why groups are using various methods to “make waves” in our world.

What does it mean to “make waves?”  According to the online urbandictionary.com, it means:  to cause a disturbance, or to create a situation where chaos or controversy will surface

The underlying assumption is that there is a deceptively calm surface that requires a disturbance– that chaos or controversy are already present, and bringing them to the surface is necessary to prevent more tragic results.

If you live near a large lake or the ocean, you may have watched waves in action.  Waves can be powerful, and even tragic, in their own right.  Storm surge waves and tidal waves have been known to decimate coastal areas; even normal wave action can erode shorelines and pull unwary swimmers under the surface.  But waves also serve good purposes– they polish the stones and wash up treasures onto the beaches.  They prevent stagnation.  They help move small creatures that dwell in the sand and shallow waters.

One thing about waves that sometimes passes unnoticed– waves may change in size or power, but they are constant– rolling in and out unvaried in their rhythm from day to day and year to year.  In this sense, no one “makes” waves, except the creator, who started that rhythm and set the boundaries for the lakes and seas.  Instead, we attempt to create bigger, more powerful waves, or make waves where none were before– puddles, or swimming pools, perhaps.  At some point in our lives, we WILL make waves– but what kind, and to what purpose?

waves

My point is not that we shouldn’t try to be agents of needed change in our world– but we should examine the positive and negative consequences of our wave-making.  Are we pushing something to the surface that needs to be seen or discovered?  Are we pulling something under the surface to drown it out?  Are we eroding a foundation, or carving out a new coastline?  Also, are we being consistent in our wave-making?  Are we hoping for a single tidal wave of chaos, or a constant churning action that brings lasting change.

Of course, since this blog is about prayer, I would suggest that prayers are also like waves– each one breaking in its turn, but constantly rolling, churning, and moving forward, bringing things, both large and small, to the shore.  Prayers have a constant rhythm and a subtle roar that masks their full impact.  Prayers, like rolling waters,  intermingle, push each other forward, dance, and rise, and fall with the winds and storms of life, and roll back to rise up again.
Not all prayers are like waves– not all waves are like prayer.  but  shouldn’t we want to make waves in tune with God’s purposes?  Waves answer to God– he can both calm them, and stir them into wild fury; walk on them, or hold them back.

I pray that our prayers and our actions would be consistent with God’s rhythm; that we would embrace changes and actions that bring him honor.

Praying for Peace

A few years ago, I was introduced to a man from South Sudan, who had come to the U.S. for a missions conference.  Earlier in the evening, he had shared a report on conditions in his region– all the horrible details you dread hearing–displaced families, homeless refugees, orphaned children, shortages of food, clothing, shelter, blankets, and medicine, constant fear of being attacked by one side or another in the ongoing conflict.  Throughout his report, he emphasized the sovereignty of God, and his hope that he and his team could continue to help those most in need.  As I got a chance to speak directly to “Robert” *, I told him that I would pray for peace to come to his region.  I was shocked when he stopped me.  “Please don’t pray for peace,” he told me.  “Pray instead that God would give us the resources and the strength to be faithful and to keep helping.”

south sudan

Then he explained.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want peace to come, but he wanted me to pray for whatever God willed for his region.  The Kingdom of God, not earthly peace, was his highest priority and his greatest urgency.  Because of the circumstances of war, people were desperate.  Their world had been turned upside-down, and they were in great need.  But war had also opened up opportunities– not only opportunities to help those in need, but opportunities to show the Love of Christ as it had never been known to the people there.  The people who were coming to refugee camps were meeting, sometimes for the very first time, people from other villages, other cultures, and other faiths– people they had considered enemies.  Suddenly, they were seeing these enemies as fellow sufferers, fellow human beings with the same injuries and losses, needs and longings as themselves.  They were also “seeing through” some of the lies they had believed about “the others” in their midst.  Their circumstances were desperate, but their biggest need was for hope and help.  Help was coming from around the world– United Nations’ agencies, The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and several Christian relief and medical organizations.  These groups had been kept out during peacetime and even in the early stages of fighting.  Not only were they able to help with immediate relief; they were able to provide medical care for victims of AIDS, and childhood diseases, care that had long been denied.  Along with practical help, though, these groups were providing hope– hope to rebuild, hope in the midst of despair and chaos, hope of eternal life and a relationship with God.

“Robert” was not saying that he didn’t long for peace, or that peace would be a bad thing for the people of South Sudan.  Of course not.  But the greatest need was not for an immediate end to fighting– it was for the kind of peace that only God can bring.  As far as I know “Robert” is still working with refugees and displaced families in South Sudan.  The work is difficult and often heartbreaking.  Resources are stretched, and chaos still haunts the land.  But progress is coming– slowly, but surely.  Lives are being changed, reclaimed, and renewed.   And I pray that he and his team are being strengthened and encouraged even as their circumstances continue to be desperate.

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I share this story because I am still learning that Prayer isn’t about what I want or think is best; it isn’t about getting my way, or asking for the easy “fix” or the happy ending.  It’s about seeking God’s will, His way, His answer, His timing, and His grace.  Suffering, whether we are experiencing it or hearing about it, reminds us that we live in a fallen and dying world.  We long for peace.  We long for healing.   We long for rest and comfort and happiness.  But in this world, there will be trouble and injustice, death and disease, pain, suffering, betrayal, and unanswered questions.  We don’t understand God’s timing, his plan in allowing innocent people to suffer the cruelties of war or poverty.  And if we are living in peace and comfort, it makes us feel guilty and even fearful– why them and not us?  When might we face unexpected hardship?  So we ask God to remove all the discomforts, the struggles, the pain.  It is not wrong to want healing and peace and all the other good things– we should seek justice and mercy and peace and joy.  But we also need to recognize that God may choose to bless us in unexpected ways through our hardships and agonies.  And he may be calling some of us to take action– to be His hands and feet– to reach out with the resources he has given us to help others.  He doesn’t love those others less; he doesn’t love us more– he loves to see us love each other in His name!

God’s ways are not my ways; his timing isn’t the same as mine– it is better.  It is perfect. In the end, there will be peace in South Sudan.  There will be Peace on Earth. There will be healing and justice, and peace and joy.  There will be answers for all the questions, and happy endings.   But in the meantime, may God give all of us the strength and resources to help those in need, the faith and discipline to keep going in the midst of chaos, and the wisdom to make peace and spread love wherever and whenever we can.

 

*Because “Robert” is a Christian worker in an area of intense persecution, his true identity is being protected.  Please pray for all those who are risking their lives and livelihoods to live, work, and worship as Christians throughout the world.  And be thankful if you live in an area where you risk little or nothing to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

In This World You Will Have Trouble…

When will the violence end?  How long, O Lord, must we wait for justice?  Why did you allow this to happen?

I was overwhelmed yesterday– news of yet another violent shooting at a school, followed by angry rants and follow-up tidbits of information– the name of the shooter (his full ,, three-part name, with corrected spellings, etc.), his family history, educational history, social history, medical and mental health history, recent FB posts, criminal record, and so much more.  I saw reports naming his state legislators and how much money they have received from the NRA. There were statistics about the school, and its security measures– other schools, and how many school shootings there have been so far this year.  Reports about AR-15 rifles and other guns–how many are sold each year, how many are used in violent crimes, and which states and countries have the toughest gun control laws–with differing sets of statistics, opinions, and conclusions.  And, once again, I have seen quotes and posts, and accusations posted by people like me– ordinary people living hundreds of miles from the scene, who never met either the shooter or his victims, and, in most cases, have no personal connection with the horrors faced by these students, teachers, guards, and their families.

Senseless violence, natural disasters, sudden tragic circumstances, still have the power to shock us, overwhelm us, shake our confidence, our composure, our beliefs.  Most of us want to believe that we live in a predictable world, a safe and orderly world, a world that has been tamed, and groomed, and civilized.  And we don’t want those beliefs shattered with the truth– life is unpredictable, filled with tragedy, evil, and danger, and it will end in death.  I’m not saying this as a cynic or a pessimist– life is also wonderful, filled with love, laughter, achievement, delight, and eternally precious.  But why are we so deeply disturbed to face the truth about our troubled world?

I believe it is due, in part, to the recognition that this is a fallen world.  It was not made for evil and tragedy and death, but every tragedy reminds us that the whole earth groans for restoration to what it was always meant to be.  The echo of Eden, and the hope of Heaven live in us, and the reality of our lost state cannot be denied when tragedy strikes.  The pleasant facade of the triumph of reason and humanity cracks, and we are forced to see that evil resides next door, down the street, across town, perhaps even in our own hearts and minds.

I love the movie “The Princess Bride” (ask any of my friends–I can quote whole scenes!), but when I first saw it in the theater, there was one line that struck me like a punch in the stomach.  The Dread Pirate Roberts (a.k.a. Westley) kidnaps/rescues Buttercup from her original captors, and after she tells him of the pain and desolation of losing her true love, he doesn’t comfort her by revealing that he is, indeed, her own sweet love, still alive and well.  Instead he says, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”   Wha-what?!   What kind of lover, when confronted by that kind of tragic outpouring, says something so callous?  To quote another line from the movie, “Why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?”  But Westley is not heartless.  The line is memorable, both because it is jarring in its context, and because we recognize that it holds a truth.  Anyone who tells you that this life will be free of pain and suffering IS selling something.  In the movie, Humperdink is “selling” the idea that he is going to make Buttercup a princess and marry her, and they will live happily ever after; all the while planning to kill her.  In today’s world, there are people trying to sell us ideas– that they “have it all figured out”; that truth and justice and morality  and even a person’s worth and value are all relative; that God doesn’t exist or that he doesn’t care; that evil is a figment of our imagination, or that human institutions can create a perfect society and “save” the planet from other human activities and institutions.

Jesus tells us in John 16:33 that in this world, we will have trials, trouble, tribulation, and/or suffering (depending on which version you read).  Not because God doesn’t care; not because he is incapable of stopping tragedies, but because we (humankind) have turned away from God, and the consequence of our rebellion is tragedy and death.  He doesn’t tell us this because he is callous or insensitive or cynical.  In fact, in the next phrase, he tells us to take heart, and to be of good cheer, for he has overcome the world.  HE has overcome the world, and in doing so, he has given us hope, and peace, and strength– not to avoid or deny tragedy, but to overcome it, and to triumph over it.

How does this relate to the pursuit of prayer?  Prayer is not a magic panacea in times of trouble–  it isn’t a chocolate-coated miracle pill.  Prayer (and sharing thoughts and prayers with those who are suffering) doesn’t make the suffering disappear– it doesn’t lessen the horror or the evil of an event, and it doesn’t guarantee that future hate, violence, injustice, or tragedy will disappear or even diminish.   But prayer reminds us that evil will not always triumph; that it need not overwhelm us, paralyze us, or defeat us.  I believe it can bring us from being “mostly dead” in despair, fruitless rage, divisive finger-pointing and fault-finding, “inconceivable” arguments, vengeful fantasies, and conceited self-indulgence, back to abundant life in Christ, and renewed courage to do what is kind and loving, even in the face of evil.  Prayer should also restore our focus on what is good, and noble, and true, so that we can be equipped to fight for what is right, instead of just ranting against what is wrong.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.– Philippians 4:8

I pray, in the wake of this newest tragedy, that God would show me where I am wrong in my thoughts and actions toward Him and toward others; that he would surround those who are suffering pain and loss, giving them comfort, strength and renewed purpose in the days ahead; that he would lead us to have the tough ocnversations, and take the right steps to bring renewal, restoration, hope, and healing to our communities and our land; and finally, that we would listen to, and acknowledge the truth, and take heart as we focus on the One who has overcome the world.

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