My Three Lessons

when somebody goes far - bhatti | Sad Picture | Lover of Sadness
“Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” – Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965)

I ran into a friend the other day. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple years. Despite the masks and the quick interaction, it was clear to me that he was suffering. I knew that things hadn’t gone well for him lately. He was putting on a brave face as men are trained to do. To be honest, there are several of my friends who are suffering these days. It doesn’t escape any of us.

Over the past couple of years I’ve written here and there about my own experience with suffering. I don’t think I’ve put it all together like this before.

My wife and I fought cancer for several years. During her last few years this beast had traveled to her brain. That was a hard fight. Several surgeries into her brain and even carefully aimed radiation beams, all in the valiant effort to slay that dragon. Being in Houston, we were blessed to be able to have some of the newest available treatments. Her last summer was spent here in hospice. It was very difficult for all of us as she faded away. She was in peace.

That fall, after she got in the boat and left for heaven, I was back teaching classes. Then the global pandemic hit in the Spring. We all scrambled to reorganize higher education. Two years later (for me) we are all just now trying to get back to a sense of normal. Guess what? It’s been four weeks and we are all reporting record class attendance. No one’s absent?? Everyone wants to get out and be around others!

During all of this dark journey, I had tremendous support, prayers, love and lots of wise counsel (just a few crackpot comments meant to be helpful). My family, friends and support system all suffered as we helped my wife fight and then held her close while she slipped away. If I had to explain to someone else, to my friend who I walked with that hot day last week, what I now know about suffering, here’s what I’d say:

God is never surprised by anything that happens to me. Even when I’m not sure what’s around the next corner. Even when nothing goes according to my own grand plans for my life. God was and is never taken by surprise to the events that happen to me – even the awful consequences that happen because of my own bad choices. Even because of the really stupid decisions that people in charge make. Somehow, there is deep comfort in this. God remains steadfast like a lighthouse, as dark as it gets. And maybe what I need when I suffer is not an explanation, but a nearness.

God very rarely is the cause of suffering in my life. A very few of those bad words of comfort that I got during those years (and sometimes now) are all about God and control. What I always do is imagine God as a father figure. This is the way that Jesus presented him to the world. His mission was to model for us this relationship. I know some people have dysfunctional father relationships. I didn’t have one at all. But when we were suffering, as I suffer now, I don’t think of God as the cause. I’m not mad at him. It helps to have people around to talk it all out with. Maybe people who are angry at God don’t always have someone near to listen?

“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” ― Meister Eckhart (1259-1327), German theologian, philosopher and mystic

Throughout each moment of suffering, God draws near and never leaves me to walk that dark path alone. I guess because I’m not mad at God and because I know he is certain and consistent, I know he is near. Mostly he is near in the presence of others. Now, if I hole up and stay away from everyone who loves me, it’s impossible to experience this dimension of God. Right? I went back to work, I stayed near to my church family, our dear friends and family members were here and remained (still do) on top of my life, all of this is how God works. He needs me to do the same thing with other people who come across my path and look familiar. Like my friend last week.

God is also near in what I read, when I write, walks in the evening, sitting in the back garden and listening to that night bird, and being still to hear the voice of the Spirit. God is near because I expect him to be. Because he has promised to be.

And who’s to say which is more incredible—a man who raises the dead … or a God who weeps?  – Ken Gire (on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead)

Seeing is Believing

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” ― Paul Tillich

Another wonderful sermon on Sunday. We were reminded about “Doubting Thomas” who had to see in order to believe.

Faith and doubt is difficult to write about. We all believe right up until we start to doubt. Our doubts can  help us to keep a check on our faith, never taking it for granted. You can imagine the theological discussions that Thomas must have had with his fellow disciples after he declared he’d have to see to believe.   

“If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”― Frederick Buechner

Our doubts center on how far we should wade in. How much are we willing to risk by stepping out and living parts of our life according to our beliefs. Doubt describes this tension between risk and trust.

Poor Saint Thomas. More like all the rest of us than perhaps any other disciple. At least during this event. He had been left out of the visitation of the Risen Christ, off doing something else and had missed the glorious moment. What must he have been thinking, what could have been more important? He’d been left out of the big adventure and must have felt lonely, angry and/or even discouraged.

Maybe we spend too much time being miserable about our past mistakes. Future hopes and dreams can dull the here and now. We miss so many chances because we’re not living in the present. Thomas was literally absent. So to can we be absent from our faith and miss the very presence of Christ.

Sometimes God will come and get right in your face. Jesus certainly did that with Thomas.

 “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” – John 20:27

Thomas paid attention to his encounter and it changed his life forever. He was ready to believe.

“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. – John 20:28

I’m afraid that I’ve too often been looking in the wrong direction. Too often filled up with myself. Thomas put all that aside and reached out with faith and grabbed a hold of his Savior. What about you? Are you always ready to believe?

The Christian faith is a lot like that encounter Thomas had with Jesus. It’s very “hands-on.” You can’t coast along on the faith of someone else. You can’t sit in the pew for too long and hope to make it when that 800 year flood hits. You have to get up and wade into your belief.

Thomas was challenged to stick his fingers into the very side of the Risen Christ. What must he have thought as Jesus looked him in the eye and grabbed his hand? If you are going to follow Christ, you are going to have to take some risks and even get uncomfortable. Where are those boundaries in your life?

Thomas had to see with his own eyes. He had heard the words of faith for for three years. Now it was time to put it into real practice. He just didn’t realize the time was now. Everything was moving so fast. Walking in faith is often like that, it can sneak up and suddenly challenge us to get out of the boat and step into the storm.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” – John 20:29

Are you becoming one of the blessed?

There’s nothing wrong with doubts. Jesus didn’t reject Doubting Thomas, he made a special visit to assure him. God isn’t mad because we don’t believe enough, he’s instead offering so much more, encouraging us to believe more and more each day.

For we live by believing and not by seeing. – 2 Corinthians 5:7

It all makes me wonder, why am I not demonstrating my faith so that others have something more to see? What might walking and talking my faith produce?

  1. It would increase my own eternal health. Each time I take a step of faith, I confront my own doubts. I reassert in my heart and mind why belief is so crucial.  Putting faith into practice confronts my own weakness and lethargy of spirit.
  2. Instead of blending in all the time I could provide an alternative. I can live my life as an example to the unbelieving elements of my culture. My life choices can serve as a beacon.
  3. My walk of faith can inspire the faith of others. There are people in my path who need to be encouraged to live a life of faith. I can be like Thomas to those around me and demonstrate doubts converted into undying faith.

 

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky