Category Archives: ON SUFFERING

“Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.”

I risked making a category for the theme of “Suffering,” even though I know that many might avoid learning about it as much as they (we) try to avoid experiencing it. So, unless you’re in a season of suffering right now, or know someone who is, you’ll probably be apt to skip these posts altogether. On the other hand, if you’re reading this, it means you’ve at least clicked on the title, so you must have some sort of interest (whether a personal or compassionate one).

Before I had a “dark night of the soul” season myself, I had compassion for sufferers, but didn’t really know how help them. I pastored three churches for about 30 years, and as I look back over my file of messages on this theme, I realize that though I taught biblically, engagingly (if I must say so myself), and compassionately – I really had very little idea of what I was talking about. I think it was all pretty much biblical but not very personal. It’s different with me now.

Now when I hear or read someone’s thoughts on suffering I wonder if they’ve felt significant pain in their own lives or not. If they haven’t, of course they’re not disqualified from teaching others about it, it’s just that there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom, the latter coming from experience.

I’m not claiming to know everything there is to know about physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual misery; but I have lerned a few things since I’ve wept through a night or two and have also seen the joy that comes in the morning.

Making My Mind, Mind

angstTo make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. Henry David Thoreau

In my darkest years, I was harassed by voices that accused me and terrorized me with memories of excruciating incidents. The voices jeered: “You’re alone, sick, and broke. God is mad at you. You’re a loser. Don’t get back up; you’ll only get knocked down again!”

The most difficult time to corral those renegade thoughts was when I was trying to get to sleep. Most nights, sleep eluded me. I would try to wear down the night by watching the clock. While drifting off, my mind raced like a nervous greyhound around an oval track, chasing a mechanical rabbit, and I struggled to drag them away from that track. Continue reading

Losers Make Some Of The Best Dancers

snoopyYou turned my mourning into dancing. Psalm 30:11

If you ask me, a lot of Christians worship the idol of “Positivity.” They’re afraid to grieve and are self-medicating on happiness. Though I advocate no grim view of God or the practice of sour spirituality I just think that in our effort to avoid despondency, we have mislaid the healthy art of lamenting our losses. We pretend they’re not losses after all or that God’s perfect will is always done or that if we just wait long enough we’ll see the good in everything.

Mourning is nonnegotiable. It can’t be avoided in any life fully lived. The healthiest thing to do after losing something – and we all lose things – is to grieve. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge and grieve their losses – the small ones and the large – is drowning in a river of denial, and you can’t dance while drowning. Continue reading

Alcoholics Know How To Pray

large_prayer-for-beginners-g13leaizI recently ran across a copy of the prayer that Alcoholics Anonymous groups use in their meetings. The first stanza is the most familiar to the general public, but the whole prayer, originally written by Dr. Rheinhold Niebuhr, has become a salve to my chapped soul. I have used it repeatedly in my own conversations with the Father in the last few years. It’s not in the category of the Lord’s Prayer, but it sure does cover the basics for how frail followers should pray.

The whole prayer goes like this:

God grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it:

Trusting that He will make all things
right if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen

Along with Scriptures that correlate with each segment of it, I’ve also used it in preaching on the street in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. Though most of our friends in “the TL” are addicted to something (alcohol and crack are their most common inebriants of choice), there are a few who aren’t. But all of us are hooked on one form of self-indulgence or another to one degree or another. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t turned myself in to Jesus as a teenager, drugs and alcohol would’ve devoured my life altogether. Thank God he gave me an alternative – himself! Continue reading

God, the Traffic Jammer

mad driver in a car

In two recent posts I suggested that we might think of the Creator as sort of like a “Traffic Engineer” who made a system that works for our maximum safety and minimum disasters. I qualified my remarks by admitting that God’s system doesn’t rule out traffic jams and accidents caused by freeway blowouts or wrecks at the hands of reckless drivers. You know I’m using this as a metaphor to describe a God who exercised his sovereign prerogative to invent us with the frightening freedom to choose. Right?

But to take it a little further, let me propose that sometimes he even sovereignly creates traffic jams ahead of us for any number of reasons. Maybe he wants to put us into an inconvenient delay that requires us to develop that dreaded quality called “patience.” (Personally, I’d rather learn it another way.) He might decide to “jam us up” so that we’ll be somewhere we wouldn’t otherwise have been in order to help someone else. I have a friend who got a flat on the highway and led the tow truck driver to Jesus!

I have no doubt that God plans certain gridlocks in order to protect us from accidents ahead or to transport us to certain divine appointments that we didn’t have on our calendars. But I am not at all convinced that he controls everything in his world in that same manner. Some things he “engineers” beforehand (as the Traffic Engineer) and at other times he does his after-the-fact providential thing where he “works in all things for the good of those who love him.”

But that’s not the same as saying he planned everything ahead of time. After we’ve been delayed by roadwork or were rear-ended by another car or experience engine trouble, he may – or may not – step in with a “Plan B” of sorts. His Plan B will at the very least tide us over until Plan Z when he takes us home. Continue reading

God, the Traffic Engineer

mad driver in a car

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” Job 38:4

I left off in a previous post on “Stuck in Traffic” with a description my near apoplectic plight while stuck in an interminable San Francisco traffic jam. If I’d been driving a Sherman tank I might have been able to clear a path and get to my appointment on time. As it was, in order to keep from getting out of my tiny economy car and leaping atop the cars like they do in the movies, I was forced to stay belted repeatedly reciting “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want!”

That sinking feeling of, “What the *&%$ is going on up there?!” gives way to the point when you don’t really care what’s causing the holdup. You just want it to clear up so you get where you’re going! Nevertheless, I’m the sort that requires, if not a solution, at least some kind of explanation for what’s holding my life up. Where is God when I’m trying to get someplace, especially a place he told me to go? Continue reading

Stuck in traffic… “What’s going on up there?!”

mad driver in a car

“We are not intended to understand life. If I can understand a thing and can define it, I am its master. Logic and reason are always on the hunt for definition, and anything that can’t be defined is apt to be defied…” Oswald Chambers

I don’t believe Christians – even real good ones – are exempt from suffering. Neither do I believe that God plans all our trials for some sovereign purpose of his. I’m not saying that he never providentially prevents our sufferings or that he never miraculously intervenes to alleviate them. There’s no doubt that he does those things – sometimes. In the following post or two (or three) I propose to illustrate my point with a simple metaphor.

I was stuck in some jaw-clenching urban traffic recently. It looked more like a parking lot than a street and I had places to go and people to see. The traffic is always bad in the City. Just in case you ever visit, that’s what we call San Francisco – never “Frisco” or “San Fran.” But this day the traffic was beyond bad. It wasn’t just that everyone in the City decided at the same time to take the same route to Target. There was something more going up ahead. “What’s the hold up here?” I screamed loud enough to make own my ears ring, but with all my windows closed, no one answered back. I’m not usually one of those manic horn honkers, but the connection between my brain and my honking hand was temporarily severed. I joined in the fruitless, albeit emotionally satisfying, chorus of horns, as though the guy ahead of each of us were at fault for the jam up. Continue reading

Sometimes You Just Gotta Go Ahead And Cry!

Let the tears roll like a river, day and night, and keep at it—no time-outs. Keep those tears flowing!” Lamentations 2:18 (The Message Bible)

weeping

A friend of mine had just come from visiting a church’s worship service when I asked him what he thought. He was complimentary of the gathering as a whole but made one provocative comment that I haven’t been able to shake now for weeks. He said, “The theme of all their songs was happiness and triumph. Whatever happened to the lament in worship?” He went on to say that he wouldn’t vote for doing away with songs of joy and victory in our worship then added that he has observed a distinct dearth of the dirge in our modern way of relating to God.

I think the reason it stays suck in my craw is that for months now I have been studying the book of Jeremiah and his follow-up acrostic poem called “Lamentations.” That’s right, there’s a whole book in the Bible about lamenting! Its author, the “Weeping Prophet” routinely wailed over the spiritual and social condition of his people, conditions not at all unlike those of our own day.

The sin of the people, the cruelty of the wicked, the giddy indifference of the everyday crowd-all this was a deep wound in Jeremiah. He hurt because he cared. … He felt in his own being all the aching hurt of unrequited love. God’s message, he also felt the rejection in every bone and muscle. Their blasphemies cut him; their clumsy rebellions bruised him; their thoughtless rituals salted his open wounds. Eugene H. Peterson in Run With the Horses

Continue reading