Sunday, 20 April 2014


We arrived at my friend Bryn's (he is a boy) parents' house on the thankfully-warmer-than-expected Easter Sunday afternoon, ready to carpool out of state for an Easter dinner. Bryn and his wife were housesitting for his parents - and somewhere in the house there was a surprise, an Easter basket his parents had left for them. Bryn's wife, Mollie, was determined to find it. Most of the house had been searched twice, and desperate text messages back to mother-in-law had afforded a few clues. But it was nowhere to be found. As we drove to New Hampshire, a creeping pessimism lurked and we joked that maybe the basket didn't really exist; this alone would explain its complete impossibility to locate. Seeing how preoccupied Mollie especially was with finding the basket, I made it my mission to bring it up throughout the day, just to annoy them both. That is, until I began to worry that the threats to make me walk back to Massachusetts were serious.
Credit: Ronnie44052 on Flickr

I live most of my life somewhere between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism. There are surprises I look for in my life, and the longer they don't show up, my dual emotions of pessimism and optimism become more intense. I begin to doubt that the surprise will ever come, yet my longing continues to occupy my mind without fail. I fear, I hope. But the further they push, the more they they morph into nothing more than an obsessive disappointment. I keep longing for something I don't believe, deep down, I'm going to find.

But my Easter weekend was filled with lots of little surprises.

On Saturday night, I felt the emptiness of not having had the opportunity to go to any worship services throughout Holy Week. A surprising impulse overwhelmed me. Seeing as it was going to be a clear, star-filled, night, I suggested the organization of an impromptu Easter vigil under the stars with seminary classmates. I don't typically expect my whimsical ideas to become reality. I hope for them to, I long for them to, but I also realize that many of my spontaneous ideas are often unrealistic. But, to my delight, a faithful gathering of willing guitar-players, Scripture-readers, and worshipers, materialized. And we had a beautiful evening. I began to feel hope in my bones for the first time in a long time - hope for the sins, failures, burdens, I'd been carrying and had begun to feel so heavy. We celebrated the power of the resurrection breaking in the midst of darkness, and I remembered that this dead-filled life could know surprise. Surprise.

I made another spontaneous decision. I said yes to an invitation to go to a sunrise service on the beach. At 6 AM. The churches sponsoring the service were local churches I had never heard of, from denominations that are more-often-than-not quite liberal, especially in New England. But we sang simple, beautiful, hymns full of Gospel truth. The sermon was given by a woman. And despite my rather outspoken opinions in favor of full equality between men women in ministry, I often ashamed to find an old unfair bias that a woman, especially from this particular denomination, was likely to be quite liberal. But she preached forcefully and with conviction about the necessity of believing that Christ had truly risen, that the miracles of Scripture are trustworthy, and how this reality must radically transform our lives. Here in 'liberal,' 'godless,' New England, from the mouths of pastors not on the unofficial list of churches part of the Evangelical culture surrounding my school, I heard the Gospel preached. Surprise.

I don't usually have many friends to sit with at my church. The church I attend here in New England is small, and reeling from a severe split several years ago that left it pretty shook up. For a variety of reasons, it's hard to get to know people there, and only one or two friends from school go to this church, and we usually don't go to the same services. Today, my carpool buddy had to work in the nursery, so I expected a lonely Easter Sunday. To my great delight and surprise, my friend Julie on staff at the seminary (a fellow Tennessean who glows with all the southern goodness I miss from home) decided on a whim to visit my church. It was nice to have someone to share Easter service with. Surprise.

There are many surprises I'm looking for in my life, and I wonder when I'm going to find them. I wonder when Saturday will turn to Sunday. This weekend, I had a few very quiet, simple, tiny, reminders that surprises happen. Hope peeks its head around the corner from time to time, from places we don't expect. There is a God who loves to fill the world with surprises.

And because of these little surprises, my heart was softened to ponder anew the great surprise of the resurrection. The great surprise that death turned to life, that God has come to put everything to right again. And because of this surprise, I can have hope in all the surprises I'm looking for but haven't found yet.

There are so many tombs inside of me. Tombs of my own past, my own present, my fears for the future. Tombs of my desires for other people or other parts of the world - for friends who are suffering, or countries filled with war. When will anything come out of those tombs? Are there any Easter baskets to be found here? I hope for a yes, and I fear a no. But I look to the resurrection, and hope bursts up from the ground again.

I would be remiss if I did not note the fact that this is a rare occasion in which the Eastern and Western Easter days fall on the same Sunday. I hope so much for a Church more truly united. I'm pessimistic about this hope, but I desire it so badly. But I am reminded, that if God could raise a man from the dead, He can unite His Church by the power of that same resurrection. I hope and pray that our shared commitment to the resurrected Christ could lead us on side-by-side. We share one joy, one victory, one baptism, one Spirit, one Father, one Risen Son  - the world needs the Gospel we proclaim, much more than it needs our fighting and our disagreements. May the necessary humility start with me. May the Lord surprise us all. Because He is risen, I believe it can happen.

Children dying, families breaking, diseases ravaging, sins enslaving, Satan scheming, lies persuading, wars raging, wicked prospering, and the innocent losing. Truth is silenced, and enemies kick the innocent while they're down. I have hope, and fear. Optimism and pessimism. I want to find surprises, I want to find Easter baskets, I want to find resurrection in these things. In me, in others, in the world. But I lose my hope. I lose my wonder. I stop believing that the Easter basket can be found, that the dead could walk with life.

But because He lives, I can face tomorrow. And I believe that, somehow, someway, somewhere, that darned Easter basket will be found. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in this life. But there is reason to hope. Because He is risen. I'm ready to be surprised. I'm ready to drop these obsessive pessimisms and live with hope. To believe in miracles. To walk with the freedom of hope. To believe that I will rise out of the grave, on the other side of all my fears and failures. That the love of Christ will never let me go, and I will rise into the air with Him, and my feet will never again set foot on the cursed ground from whence sprang all our angst and pain, but walk in a new heavens and a new earth with my risen Lord.

"O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."

St. John Chrysostom - Paschal Sermon

Oh love, don't let me go
Won't you take me where the street lights glow?
I can hear rain coming like a serenade of sound
Now my feet won't touch the ground

Gravity, release me
And don't ever hold me down
Now my feet won't touch the ground

Friday, 18 April 2014


I hate conflict. I hate honesty. It hurts too much to receive someone's true feelings. And it's scary to dish it out to others: The other person might get angry. They might leave. Openness, and vulnerable honesty, in relationships frightens me. I think it frightens a lot of us. 

But relationships without honesty, openness, expression of anger and hurt, are bound to whither and spoil. 

The same is true of our relationship with God. God desires open honesty from us. And if we are honest, we will admit that there are days where we are confounded by Him, angry at Him. There are days when we want to scream at Him. 

When we bury those feelings deep down, we lock ourselves away from the open, honest, gracious presence of God and we retreat further and further from Him. The inability to tell God how we feel, even (especially) when we are angry at Him, is the first stepping stone to smothering our relationship with Him.

Of course, I don't buy the relativistic lie that whatever we feel is right is right, but there is a reality to 'subjective truth,' - that is, a truth to how we feel and perceive. God's desire for truthfulness from us requires telling Him how we really feel, even if deep down we know that our feelings may not be based in 'truth.' He wants real honesty, not forced honesty, a forced adherence to some external concept that has no reality for what we actually feel or perceive. 

That is not to say that God does wrong. When we put Him on trial, He will come out above reproach. 

But when you ignore pain, when you ignore ‘evil’ (whether objective or subjective - whether real or perceived), in a relationship - the relationship dies. Sometimes that can’t be helped. An abusive individual may not be able to accept honest accusation and the relationship must end. But when this is the case, the one who is abused must still be able to name and identify the evil, to name and identify the pain. Or else they continue to be abused internally - closed up, cut off, unable to have relationship with anyone else and susceptible to be used by others. Honesty about what we feel and have received and have experienced is necessary to be a whole, mature, human being - able to live and have freedom and relationship. But in good relationships, real or perceived misdeeds, real or perceived concerns and pains, must also be admitted, and ideally - communicated, or else true relationship withers and dies. True love wants the other person to be free, independent, whole. Someone who doesn't just see things our way because we tell them, but who can be their whole selves, honest and independent with us. That's the riskiness of love. And that's the love God wants with us. 

Christian psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend write in their acclaimed book Boundaries "In our deeper honesty and ownership of our true person, there is room for expressing anger at God. Many people who are cut off from God shut down emotionally because they feel that it is not safe to tell him how angry they are at him. Until they feel the anger, they cannot feel the loving feelings underneath the anger." God doesn't want a passive recipient who has no sense of self, no independence. He wants us to stand up as whole, independent, people so that we can embrace Him with all the real love and real, free, relationship that He created us for in the first place. God takes the risk of us getting mad at Him in order to have a real relationship with Him. He doesn't want us to just accept things as passive, weak, slaves, but as whole people who can relate to Him and love Him freely and authentically. 

And you know what? The bizarre and liberating thing is that God doesn't necessarily disagree. We do face injustice, His ways are confounding, there is evil that seems to have no valid explanation. When I am honest with Him, He never tells me to be quiet. Maybe He will after a while, as He did for Job, but He gives me my 30+ chapters of ranting first. 

He just suffers with me. He just walks this earth with me. He just dies for me. He just walks my journey with me, and becomes a victim right alongside of me.

I identify so well with Moses, when he stands on the mountain shouting at God: 'Take my soul but do not punish Israel!' He desperately wanted God to be merciful, and was incensed, angry, despaired, that God might not be merciful to Israel (who certainly did not deserve it!). When a tsunami kills tens of thousands of people on the other side of the world and my theology suggests that these people are all in hell, how can I be at peace? How can I not yell. How can I not plead God to be merciful: 'Break Your own rules! Be unjust! Isn't Your mercy greater?!'

Some tell me to sit down because 'God is God and He gets to do what He wants, and He is perfectly just and cannot contradict His justice, just be thankful that you get saved, because you don't deserve it.' And I guess there's something to that. God told Job that at the end of the day, He is above reproach. 

But I look at Moses on the mountain, and I know he knows what I'm feeling. And so does Job when God lets him shout 'it's not fair!' And Habakkuk reeling: 'why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer!?' And, Abraham when he tries to bargain with God to leave Sodom alone for the sake of the handful of good people who might be there.

That is the confounding thing about God - the more He teaches us to love, the more hurtful and the more confusing is the evil in the world, the more He confounds us. But this is the reality of the journey of faith. Indeed, I believe He wants us to be incredulous and to shout back, so that we might really feel His mercy for ourselves, to be incredulous at what seems like a lack of mercy. I imagine God looking down at Moses and smiling:  'now you get it, kid. Now you get it.' 

Until I have screamed at Him 'Break your own rules! Remember mercy!' I haven't really felt love, or desired mercy, like He does. 

Yes, that awful thing you experienced was wrong. And yes, you were horribly abused. And yes, you grew up in a terrible, underprivileged, broken, community that you didn't choose to be a part of. And And the holocaust happened. And I find myself prone to sin when I didn't choose to be a sinner, I was just born this way. But He didn't intervene into these things. And that's enraging. That's confusing. And just as the abused person cannot be whole and complete without being able to identify evil for what it is, God doesn't want us to ignore the pain or the evil we see or experience. Yes, God will come out above reproach, but He lets us scream and question and blame. We can't understand evil, we can't understand love, we can't understand mercy, until we have been free to feel these things for what they are. 

Indeed, Jesus knows too. When Martha accuses Him: 'why weren't you here to save Lazarus?' Jesus doesn't rebuke her, he just breaks down and weeps.

And on that cross, he shouts with us, as one of us: "Why have you forsaken me!?" He shares in the words of David in his fear, anger, confusion when God seemed to abandon Him.  The shouts of anger and incredulity across the centuries all get summed up in Jesus on the cross. He doesn't just say 'well this is the way things are - sucks doesn't it?' He screams NO. This is not the way things are supposed to be. Evil is evil, tragedy is tragedy, wrong is wrong. 

And as one who believes in a real Satan, a prince who ruled this world in death until he was defeated in the resurrection, God shouts a resounding NO at his rule, at his power, at his order. God doesn't just stand off disconnected as a sovereign who knows nothing of what it's like to be one of us, who toys around with us like puppets and tells us to just swallow that this is the way things are, but He comes in as the rebellious warrior against the kingdom of death, who says NO to the present order. God shouts NO with me at brothels, tsunamis, hell, judgment, sin, and abuse. I'm not told to just accept these things and get over it, but to reel, scream, condemn, and say NO. He says NO with me. 

We are so prone to shut down our own feelings in the name of 'faith.' We tell ourselves that our feelings are invalid since, after all, we have all these theories and systems and apologetic answers for the problem of evil. Yes, indeed, our perception of evil and injustice is really just a misunderstanding of God's sovereignty, etc. etc. etc. but if we just read a couple more C.S. Lewis books (see A Grief Observed for Lewis at his most honest), we can bury those feelings away and get over it. What a pathetic god. A god who needs us to fashion a theological system to justify Him. 
Credit: Don McCullough on Flickr

Our faith should not rely upon a system. Our faith does not hang upon a theodicy. I don’t believe we can ‘justify the ways of God to man,’ as Milton attempted. We can think through logical quandaries, we can play around with answers, and maybe come up with something sufficient for us in different ways and at different points in our journey, but they are not ultimately sufficient. We cannot prove God’s case for Him. To do so is to trust in a philosophical system, not the Living God. That’s a God we can predict and control and put in a test-tube. A computer program. But no. He’s wild, unpredictable, remarkable. The Judge: all reason, all answer, rests with Him. Not with us. And because of that fact, we are free to be open and vulnerable before Him. To be ready to be put in our place, indeed, but not to put Him in place for ourselves. He's got that covered. And as long as we put Him in place for Himself, we have made Him distant, disconnected, uncaring for our feelings and patronizing. 

But that's not who He is. 

As Barth put it, He is not just the Judge. He is also the ‘Judge, judged in our place.’ The One who gave up all rights to defend Himself, to take ‘responsibility' for all the evil. To take the responsibility for it all: Both our own mistakes, and for the very kingdom of Satan itself. He fulfills Satan's claim upon us. 

'God, get down off your throne and rescue the girls who are in brothels being raped!' 

He doesn't say 'get over it kid, you just don't get it. If you'd just let me explain, you'd understand that this is the best of all possible worlds. . . '

He might tell me to be quiet. He might remind me that I was not there when the world was made. I cannot tame Leviathan. There are days we need humbled. 

 But he also whispers, I know.' 

His voice wanders through the streets and somewhere in the quiet sobs of a 13 year old girl who has had all innocence stolen from her you can hear the echo throughout the ages of that first Good Friday: 

'Why have you forsaken me!!!!!?' 

And broken, weeping, with the Comforter by my side, groaning in and with and through me, I look up at the cross. I see blood and tears. I see tsunamis, and suicides, and brothels. I see a God of remarkable humility, remarkable grace, remarkable power. I don't know how it all fits together, I don't know how He's going to pull it all off, but I know He feels anger and pain and love, more painfully and more powerfully than I do. I can't justify Him, I just gaze at the cross. And after I've had it out, after I've done my part to put the nails in, I fall down and know I am forgiven. In awe. I know I am heard. I know somehow that His love will work all these things out. I can have faith. 

Somewhere in the darkness and the screaming and the forsakenness, I know that Sunday's coming. I did not know how to hope for it until I had known despair.