Just when you think you have seen evil at its worst, man at his most depraved, you see something like Sandy Hook and you realize, no, there’s further it can go.
For the past five years, we’ve been involved in a little house church experiment called Catalyst here in Lawrenceville. We will be bringing it to a close at the end of this year, on Sunday, December 28, to be specific. It certainly has not been a failure or disappointment. Over the years, we’ve grown into a solid faith community that supports and prays and cares for each other. We’ve been able to reach out with support to people who’ve needed money for medical procedures, lost a house to fire, needed shelter, or suffered injury. We even celebrated a wedding in our midst. But there comes a time, especially for a smaller, more intimate group of people, when life change happens and people need something different. Perhaps we have become a bit of a stagnant pond in need of some fresh water. It is time for a new thing. We all feel it. But this morning, we did what we still do best. We came together to talk and laugh and weep and pray with each other. It is hard to celebrate Advent in the midst of such senseless and unexplainable tragedy. My friend Chris wisely said that a thing like this either proves that there is no God (who would allow such a thing?) or that there must be a God (there has to be a meaningful flip-side to such meaningless evil).
If there’s anything for us to take out of this, maybe it is the reminder that Christmas is not about warm, fuzzy feelings and lights and gift exchange. At its core, it is about a dark and fallen world crying out to a silent, unseen God. It is about God hearing that cry and entering that world to redeem it, announcing a new way, a new love, a new kingdom. We can forget that when everything is going rosy and we get lost in the rush of holiday busyness. But a thing like Friday stops you in your tracks and causes you to reassess.
In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, they don’t sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. Before then, they only sing songs of longing. “Joy to the World” has less meaning when you haven’t spent time lost in despair and trial. Put another way, you can be joyful when you wake up in the safety of your bed on dry land. But how much more joyful are you when a lifeguard plucks you out of the raging sea? I would argue that the joy is greater following the despair. Jesus has come and gone, but we still cry out for His kingdom to come. And in the meantime, it is through each one of us that He longs to shine His light in the darkness. It is in the community of loving and caring for one another that God shows Himself. In that vein, these are the Scriptures we read this morning. They may not mean anything to you, but as we read them and talked about them, God seemed to minister to us.
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
“Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us.”
― David Richo
I’m thinking a lot about God and prayer and healing this week. I know, why can’t I just read a People magazine and start worrying the Kardashians for a change? I hear ya. So, maybe I ought to get all this out so that I can move on to the more mundane matters of life. Here’s a quick update from last week.
Yes, that’s Emma, 48 hours after brain surgery. Seriously, I was expecting her to be unconscious, head shaved and wrapped in gauze, with beeping machinery. You know, like in my medical training from Grey’s Anatomy and ER. But no, there’s Emma, feeling as good as someone with a spinal scar on Percocet can feel. Today, she’s home. Going home meant a decrease in meds, so there is considerable pain with every movement but there is also recuperating at home in one’s own bed. Recovery will be a long road with progress measured in baby steps, not huge leaps. Still, many of those at the hospital–from the neuro nurses to the brain surgeon–say they’ve seen few patients recover so far, so fast.
For me, that photo will forever be a reminder of the power of prayer. Our little faith community has been praying for Emma for four years, ever since her original injury. For four years we prayed–and nothing happened. Emma made no improvement. The pain remained intense and debilitating. I could sense people’s unease in the community. Here we were, faithfully praying, and nothing was happening. It’s like it made God look bad. It was bad PR for the big guy. Oh, but we are a silly species that is only able to believe what we can easily see, aren’t we?
In talking to Emma at the hospital, we heard a bigger story. I’m sure we don’t know the half of it, but what we heard was an intricately weaved web of stories that began with a doctor in New Zealand who had an idea for a study. He connected with another guy at CMU who said come on over to Pittsburgh. Another woman went to work raising millions of dollars for the study. Other med professionals joined the study. One of them was a cousin/acquaintance of Emma, who called Emma’s mom to tell her of the study. Emma’s mom had seen the study highlighted on a local newscast but thought nothing of it. After talking to the cousin, the date of the accident made it seem as though she wouldn’t qualify for the study. But people went to bat for her. Finally, she was accepted and went in for brain scans. The scan was normal for a study that was investigating brain mapping. But the scan found something else in Emma’s head. Turns out, her condition was visible in a scan from two years earlier, as well, but it took a specialist to see it, I guess. Suddenly, Emma was no longer a participant in a study but a patient headed for brain surgery.
Hippocrates once said, “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Emma received her opportunity to heal. So, while we were praying and nothing seemed to be happening, all these connections were going on behind the scenes. If any of these connections had failed, Emma would still be suffering without hope. If that New Zealand doc had gone to the Mayo Clinic instead of to Pittsburgh, Emma wouldn’t have been involved. All this stuff had to happen. Did it happen because people prayed? No one will ever know. No one can ever prove that it made a difference; no one can prove that it didn’t. All I know is that people prayed, and this impossible combination of circumstances—of opportunity—was erected like a Rube Goldberg science machine.
Now, the tough question is this: would God have brought this all together for Emma if we hadn’t prayed? You know, why couldn’t God have just done all this Himself because He loved Emma, instead of waiting for all this prayer to occur? Why did it have to take four years? All those are interesting questions but they are beside the point. In fact, I’m not even sure that healing is the point.
Prayer is a funny thing. It’s talking to someone you’ve never seen and never heard speak as if he is sitting there in the room with you. Even the various branches of Christianity don’t fully agree on what prayer is and how it works. Some shout it; some whisper; some speak crazy gibberish; some do it in complete silence; some fast; some dance; some use beads; some raise their hands. Praying for healing is particularly touchy. Some Christians believe that God heals every time, every day, and if He doesn’t, you either lack faith or you’re doing it wrong. Others, called Cessationists (note: I mistakenly referred to them as “Dispensationalists” originally. Big theological mistake, there. My apologies to all you Dispens out there), believe that miracles, including miracles of healing, went out with the apostles. Their take is that the early church needed miracles because they didn’t have a Bible, but now that we have the Good Book, God doesn’t work that way anymore. The rest of Christianity is found at various spots along the continuum between those two stances.
All I know is that Jesus told us pray, so it must be important. He didn’t say “if you pray,” he said “when you pray.” Thus, for some crazy reason, God wants us to pray. Think about that, in the midst of the hubbub and chaos of the universe, God wants us piddly human beings to mumble our requests and praise in His direction. And He hears it. Or at least that’s what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible shows us that prayer can change God’s mind (see Sodom and Gomorrah). The Bible shows us that prayer can heal cripples, lepers, the blind, the deaf, and the dead. But it isn’t a light switch that we throw and God is not a trained monkey or genie who performs tricks at our beck and call. So how does it work?
And what do I tell the couple in our community who are praying for a young mother and pastor’s wife who suffers from multiple forms of cancer that has spread throughout her body? For her, the clock is ticking and the prognosis is not good? Do we pray for a miracle? Of course. But why does God seem to move in one case and not another? Seriously, a lot of superficial answers have been dreamed up to address questions like that. And I’m sure that many people think Christians cherry pick results in a manner that looks something like this:
All the good results become proof positive that God is good and prayer works. Then we mix the unanswered prayers and bad results into a murky area called “the will of God.” As in, hmmm, that must not have been God’s will. I know! I hate that. It totally lets God off the hook with a shrug and a “What are ya gonna do?” It turns God into this arbitrary puppet master who wants one person healed and the other person to die.
Read the Gospels and you will see that sometimes Jesus healed everyone in the room and other times, like at a healing pool surrounded by the lame and suffering, only one person walked away healed. What’s up with that? When Jesus healed people, he often told them to tell nobody else. As strange as that sounds, I think Jesus knew how easy it would be for his mission to become all about healing. And that’s not what it was about. It was about bringing a lost and broken humanity back to God for eternity. Healing is always a temporary fix. The last time I checked, the death rate was still 100%. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead after three days in a tomb, eventually went back into that tomb. Healing is always temporary. This is not our final home. So, to make healing the total focus of Jesus’ ministry would have been to ignore His more eternal message.
When it comes to God, I always go back to the picture of a young child and a loving father. The father doesn’t fulfill every request of the child. Sometimes he says yes; sometimes he says no. To the child, the father’s answers may seem arbitrary and confusing. But the father sees a bigger picture and has his reasons. And the father’s love for the child never diminishes whether the answer is yes or no. Even when his answer is no, he still wants that child to continue to ask for the things he wants. He wants to stay in close, intimate communication with the child.
So, I ask God for the desires of my heart because that’s what He wants me to do. Sometimes, God jumps on His own. Other times, God jumps when I ask Him to jump. And still other times, God jumps even higher when I ask Him to do so. And when I am disappointed with His answer, He continues to love me, He offers me strength and comfort, and He can even use the most painful hurts and circumstances to achieve good in my life and the lives of others.
Maybe, to you, this still seems like a lot of crap and arbitrary rationalizing. I wish I had a better explanation. This is the best I’ve got.
I pray for Emma (still) and I pray for that pastor’s wife. Who knows what comes of it? Do you have an impossible situation you are praying for? All I can tell you is this: Don’t ever give up because it’s too hard or it’s taking too long. Don’t ever think that God is tired of hearing your request or that He is ignoring you. For me, I will always have that photo to remind me of how God was working during those four years I prayed. Let me know what you are praying for and I will join my voice with yours, at least this once.
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
In India, a Hindu boy approaches a young Christian missionary and pleads with her to pray for his mother’s healing. She lies in a doorway nearby, weakened and ravished by AIDS. In his desperate need, this boy is not particular about which religion heals his mother. He is covering all his bases. The woman prays, hoping that her own wavering faith does not doom this woman’s fate.
Once the type of Christian who staunchly believed in black and white doctrine, she now finds that her faith has faded into differing shades of gray. No longer is she as certain on matters such as salvation, hell, sin, creation, and scriptural infallibility. She does, however, still believe in the love and mercy of God. So, she prays.
As she returns to the states, she is struck by the dichotomy that her home church is also praying.
They are seeking God for an extra few thousand dollars for a black top parking lot that will better hold the SUVs and other shiny cars without causing dings from the gravel. She thinks to herself, If prayer makes any difference at all, it must be more important that Kanakaraju [the little boy] have a mother than that my church have a new black top.
A few weeks after leaving India, the woman receives an Email saying that Kanakaraju’s mother has succumbed to her illness. Kanakaraju is struggling to accept his mother’s death and cries for her every night.
Not long after that, her pastor announces that God has provided the funds for the new parking lot. “Isn’t it amazing how God blesses His children?” he asks.
This story is a paraphrased excerpt from an amazing book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans. (She also blogs!) The book’s rather unfortunate title suggests a debate between creation and evolution. This book is not that. Rachel grew up in Dayton, Tennessee. If that town sounds familiar, that’s because it hosted the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925—a showdown between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan over a science teacher who had the audacity to break the law by teaching evolution in his classroom. I guess the town is still jokingly referred to as “Monkey Town.”
This book, however, is about how God doesn’t change but our understanding of Him and our faith in Him must. It always has. People of faith should not be afraid of facing a “Galileo Moment.” Admitting that the universe does not revolve around the earth will not make God cease to exist. We can change. Our faith can change. And we move on.
Pardon my donning of the pastor hat for this post, and those that follow, but I write this because Facie, one of my good readers and commenters, brought up the question of God regarding my post about the famine in Somalia. Here is her question:
I find myself wondering why we, in the US, in general, have it so good. In all likelihood, we will never have to worry about all five of our kids dying from starvation or disease, half of our relatives and friends killed by suicide bombers, or even how we are going to stay cool in 100-degree temps without shelter and clean water. I don’t want to “blame” God for this, but why do those people have it so much worse than we do (again, generally speaking)? Can you please help a sister understand?
I’m going to resist replying with a pat answer or knee-jerk defense of God. Like Jacob in Genesis 32, I want to wrestle with God on this one, holding on as long as I can even if, like Jacob, I walk away with a limp.
I know I’ve got all sorts of readers out there: devout atheists, lapsed Catholics, red-state Christians, reformed Jews, hedonistic agnostics, and who knows what else. (Can I get a whoop-whoop from my wiccan friends out there?) Let’s have a little “cyber church” for caring, thinking, respectful adults who don’t all have to agree, who don’t impose their views on others, who don’t necessarily even know what they believe, and who don’t mind opening up their minds to the possibilities. Don’t worry, there will be no hymnals, pot-luck dinners, or collection plates. (I will, however, be wearing an ice cream-colored suit and huge hair!) Realize that I am a pastor who cringes when I even type the word church. I am well aware of all the collateral damage that religion has perpetrated over the centuries. Yet, I still do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. (Because that would be an abortion?) I am convinced that it is not God who gets it wrong; it is me and my brokenness. I’m always up for a Galileo moment. How ’bout you?
So, with your confidence in my credentials fully intact, let’s wrestle!
What is the motto of the United States of America? Should be an easy question, right? Except, who really knew that the country had an official motto? Was I taught this in school? If we have a motto, you’d sort of think that, as educated citizens, it should not be far from our minds. After all, dictionary.com defines motto as:
1. a maxim adopted as an expression of the guiding principle of a person, organization, city, etc.
2. a sentence, phrase, or word expressing the spirit or purpose of a person, organization, city, etc., and often inscribed on a badge, banner, etc.
Our motto should express our “guiding principle” and “the spirit or purpose” of our nation. So what is our motto? “E Pluribus Unum” (Our of one, many)? Nope. “And Liberty and Justice for All”? No, but thanks for playing. In fact, you see our motto every day when you take out any denomination of currency:
“In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. currency during the Civil War but did not became our official motto until after the passage of an Act of Congress in 1956. It is codified as federal law in the United States Code at 36 U.S.C. § 302 , which provides: ‘”In God we trust” is the national motto’. I guess I am most surprised that I am surprised by this. Can you honestly imagine a time when the political climate in Congress would make this even possible? Look, it was obviously during the Cold War. We were fighting godless Communists at every turn. Obviously, Congress felt that a statement was necessary to differentiate us from THEM. Today, it just seems different. I’m no atheist. As I’ve mentioned before, I once worked in full-time ministry, but this motto makes me a tad uncomfortable, and I’m still working through why.
Maybe it’s because the first amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Technically, I guess mentioning God in your motto does not “make a law respecting an establishment of religion,” and it certainly does not prohibit “the free exercise thereof.” Separation of Church and State folk often blow this one up into what it’s not. I don’t think you can read that and come away thinking that the government must treat religion like it’s radioactive. It just shouldn’t be making laws about establishing one religion above others. Does mentioning God in the official motto do that? It’s really hard to be unbiased about that one.
I think what really bothers me is that I believe it be a lie. Trusting in God is not our “guiding principle” or “the spirit and purpose” of our country. Nor, I think, should it be. The guiding principle of our nation should have to do with justice and freedom and liberty and democracy. In carrying those out, I happen to think it’s a fine and helpful thing if citizens also feel strongly about trusting God. After all, as I see God, He or She is really more interested in us as individuals and not in our institutions, borders, and governance–unless those things infringe on the freedom and well-being of others. (At such times, I believe God will then side with the victims and not the guns and badges.)
Not sure why this is on my mind today. Not sure that it even matters in the day-to-day. But at a time when we are spewing oil into the oceans like a fire hose, when we are playing games on Wall Street with other people’s money, and when we are criminalising immigrants without giving them a reasonable and feasible path to joining us as citizens, I’m not so sure we as a nation are that concerned with trusting God. Who’s supposed to be doing all the trusting? Our government? Our President and Congress? Our Supreme Court? The DMV? The state liquor store? Our just us pions, the citizenry?
Perhaps we need a new motto. A more accurate motto. A truthful motto. “Looking Out for Our Own Best Interest Since 1776!” “We’re Number One.” “Just as Long as We Are More Prosperous than You.” “From My Cold, Dead Hands…” “U.S.A: We’ve Got Garbage on the Moon, Bitch!” “Nukes: We Can Have Them; You, Not So Much.”
I don’t know. I just don’t think the one we have applies anymore.
“For the Lord himself will send his personal curse upon you. You will be confused and a failure in everything you do.” (Deuteronomy 28:20)
Asked what it will take for him to play again this season, Polamalu said, “A whole lot of feeling. A whole lot of prayers. God willing, hopefully, I’ll be able to play. We’ll see what the doctor says.”
Dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN! Smitten with a curse. A personal curse of God no less. Troy can do all the feeling and praying he wants, but it doesn’t sound like he will be playing any time soon. And Stilladog’s observation at Steel City Slant is correct: Was Troy really necessary on the field goal unit? If losing him is going to reduce your season to post-apocalyptic devastation, was that a risk the Steelers really needed to take?
Still, there is no doubt from whence this dastardly curse cometh. It cometh from thee, EA Sports. It cometh from thee, John Madden!
For a decade now, Madden’s football game cover curse has supplanted Sports Illustrated as the most diabolical, the most crippling, the most evil curse in all of sports! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present as evidence:
Madden 99 — Garrison Hearst (suffers a broken leg next season)
Madden 2000 — Barry Sanders (retires abruptly before next season, obviously paralyzed by the curse’s power)
Madden 01 — Eddie George (production next season drops off the charts)
Madden 02 — Daunte Culpepper (season ending knee injury)
Madden 03 — Marshall Faulk (leg injury)
Madden 04 — Michael Vick (Preseason broken leg giving him more time to do things with his pets)
Madden 05 — Ray Lewis (injuries limit him to 6 games)
Madden 06 — Donovan McNabb (season ending sports hernia)
Madden 07 — Shaun Alexander (broken foot, production drops and has never returned)
Madden 08 — Vince Young (loses confidence and is benched for a year)
Madden 09 — Brett Favre (goes to the Jets, stinks up the joint, tears bicep, and contemplates retirement… again)
Madden 10 — Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald (Troy injures both knees. Fitzgerald currently quivering in a closet somewhere.)
Troy thought he was bigger than the curse. Pittsburgh thought he was bigger than the curse. What we didn’t realize was that this is a Biblical-plague-of-locusts-three-rivers-of-blood-frogs-in-your-pantry-rath-of-God kind of curse. You don’t wish that away. You don’t play through it. You nod your head at the Big Guy and say, “Touché, compadre. You win this round.”
Then you send a message to Cedric Benson, Drew Brees, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning saying, “If Madden calls you next summer and offers you the cover: Go for it!”