Suffering, the Surprise That Isn’t

A friend/co-worker/person smarter than me because I get to call her doctor recently posted this video of Tim Keller talking about his new book, Walking With God in the Midst of Pain and Suffering. I’ve been thinking about some of his points regarding pain and suffering. Why, you ask?

Because life gets hard.

I am not in great emotional pain at this point in my life. My husband is human, but a pretty rockin’ one. My health is adequate and I have all my limbs. I haven’t lost my parents, and I haven’t lost my job. It’s not that I don’t have problems and questions I’d like answered: I just don’t have anything in my life that is likely to send me to despair.

But I see pain around me. I listen to my friends talk and I ache. I watch the news and it is hard and horrible and hideous. There is so much suffering around the world (at least if you read/watch BBC or any other non-fluff site), and it’s not easy to see or live through.

Even with my small issues, I find myself living as a martyr. The husband didn’t unload the dishwasher…again! I’m running late to work and there’s a traffic jam…oh, despair! (Please imagine my most dramatic voice while reading these.)  How dare I have to stay at work an extra hour? What the? Pain in my back? This must stop!

Apparently, I’m not alone according to T.Kizzle (my new rapper name for Tim Keller, although my husband says that a name “T. Kizzle” hasn’t been a rapper-type name since 2007 and that I am sadly mistaken). T. Kizzle (because it’s fun to say) stated that our western world really struggles with suffering because we are surprised by it and that those in the eastern part of our globe aren’t surprised and therefore handle pain better. It’s this part of his interview that really grabbed my attention. I’ve been puzzling over why there’s a difference in our part of the world – is it our consumer-driven mindset, our culture of instant gratification, our relatively pain-free life due to medical advancements, electricity, Walmart??? Why? And why my own personal shock? After all, I’ve been through hard times.

As I was thinking about it, I realized part of my problem is that at some level I do not believe the Gospel. Oh, yes, I believe the good parts about Christ’s love for me and His death on the cross being sufficient for my salvation. I even believe that in response to His love I should be motivated to love others. Yes, yes, yes. What I do not believe, based on my surprised response to hurt or discomfort, is that sin entered the world bringing death, pain, and suffering.

If I believe that sin came into the world and ruined everything, why am I so shocked when things go wrong? Death, loss, pain, and all the rest of sin’s nasty little children (shout-out to James 1) should be expected. It’s the natural result of a ruined world, and I have failed to grasp the deep gravity of the consequences sin brought to this earth. Still, even when I intellectually understand this and even feel the weight of creation groaning, I still find myself buying into the idea that I, out of all the people in the universe, am somehow above painful experiences.*

Why do I think I should get a pass on suffering? Have I found the Christian cheat code that allows me to skip to level 14 and bypass all the hurt in life? I have this sneaking suspicion that my belief in the “rightness” of my comfort has more to do with the idea that I deserve a comfortable life.  In fact, I would go as far as to declare that believing I should be exempt from all pain is a way of saying that I don’t need a Savior, because I am clearly not part of this messy, broken system. I am perfect. But that’s not how God works. He’s a God of redemption, not exemption. So, He will use the dysfunction of the world to chip away at my dysfunction and make His glory known. Against this black backdrop, how can He not shine a little brighter?

I am not saying that pain is always a result of our sin, just that it is an evidence of sin wreaking havoc in the world. I am also not saying that we should not hurt or cry or be honest about how deep the wound goes. God is honored with our vulnerability and if He didn’t want to hear our brokenhearted wailing, I doubt He’d have inspired Psalms. I also think that He gave us the church, His body, to walk with us through these times. We need to be each other’s cheerleaders. (For a well-balanced view on suffering check out this post from Jen Hatmaker, who writes amazing good stuff.)

What I am saying is that I no longer want to be surprised at suffering in my life or in the lives of others. I want to be waiting not for the pain to come or go, but for what God will do through it. Suffering isn’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t. God can reap a harvest from even those seasons I don’t want: I’d like to see what He does.

*Disclaimer: I am not perfect. Just ask anyone who has ever lived with me, talked with me for more than ten minutes, or ran into me at the grocery store while I was scowling and mumbling to myself like a crazy person.

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To Do or To Do Not

Last week, my brother called and ask if he could quote his memory verses to me. For some reason, I imagined him going to a grown-up version of Awana’s and instantly agreed. “Go earn that badge!” I said in my heart. For those of you who never attended Awana’s, you missed out on an indie-fundie mainstay.There were strange creatures from another planet – Sparky, anyone?-, games I’ve never seen repeated anywhere that involved a strange circle/square thing, team colors, and beanbags, and LOTS of Scripture memorization. But I digress…back to the phone call. I assumed that he would repeat a few verses and then be on his way. No. No, he did not.
As I walked through Walgreens and rented my movie from Redbox, he proceeded to recite the majority of Colossians 3, seventeen verses in fact. That’s right, gentle reader, s-e-v-e-n-t-e-e-n. Five verses into it, I thought, “He just called me to show off. Jerk.” Followed by, “Stop judging him, you pagan!” (But seriously, I would have felt better if I’d had a Bible and could have corrected all his mistakes. ‘Cause I’m a big sister and that’s what we do.)
When he finished his masterful recitation, we chatted about his memorization of it and why it was that passage (this is not because we’re so godly ,but because after thirty conversations involving unrepeatable bathroom humor, we were due for an actual adult conversation). He called Colossians the foundation of Christian ethics and talked about how the book applies to life. Like most of Paul’s books, the first part addresses doctrine and the second, which starts with chapter 3, addresses Christian living. Being not just disciplined but honest, he mentioned that the hard part about chapter 3 wasn’t all the “do not’s” in verses 5-9, but the “do’s” in verses 12-17.
Isn’t that all of us, bro? (Yes, he will hate me for saying “bro” – ha!)
I am really good at obeying the “do not” list. I can tell you all the things that I do not do (not to say that I’ve never done them). I run away from some of them harder than others. I am aware enough of my frailty to know that if I do certain things, it will run me headlong into the “do not” list rather quickly. But in getting the “do not’s” out my life, I have not really pursued the “do’s”. This has left somewhat of a void.
Voids must always be filled. (suck)
I have filled my void with Martha-like busyness, comfort-seeking, numbness, coffee, perfectionism, and TV. I have passively checked out instead of actively obeying. I mean, let’s be honest, it is a lot of work to “put on love”, “be thankful”, “forgive”, and “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” And let’s not even talk about “teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” It’s much easier to just drift.
And yet, if I were pursuing the “do’s”, if I were trying to not just not live as Jesus doesn’t want me to, but to live as He does want me to, there would be less occasion to slip back into the “do not” list and more to live a truly alive, fulfilling life. We are always chasing something, and it’s not more Christlikeness, if it’s not more of what He has to offer, then it’s never going to be enough.
I don’t think being a Christian is just about what we do or don’t do, but our actions are a part of who we are. Our choices matter. What we pursue shapes us and if I am not pursuing Christ, then I am allowing my selfish nature to shape me. I don’t know if you’ve ever met my selfish nature, but I wouldn’t want to be it any more than I have to. Allowing Him to shape me, to give me the strength to do what I’m incapable of doing on my own is a much better gig. So here’s to my to-do list (yes, I made that corny joke- I couldn’t help myself): loving my neighbor as myself, caring for the least of these, being thankful, and on and on.

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Please Don’t Take Me To Grumpyville (but I’ll probably be there again soon)

The last two days I have experienced serious frustration. If this frustration were put into a mathematical equation it would look something like this:

(small incident x overblown response) + frustration at overblown response = Cindy careening of the rails into Grumpyville

If you’ve never visited Grumpyville, I’d advise you to stay away. It contains lots of strained smiles, hot tears, and sullen moods. There is very little sunshine in Grumpyville.

As I’ve thought about these moments, I’ve tried to figure out what I could have done better….okay, okay, I’ve tried to figure out who else I could blame. It has not gone well. To my dismay, I keep coming back to an unsettling conclusion. Sometimes, I just want what I want and when I can’t have it all, I have a big, ol’ pity party. In short, I sin.

Well….darn.

I’d like to think these times are few and far between but as I pondered my scowling face this evening, I realized that they aren’t as infrequent as I’d like to believe. I want the world to conform to my desires. Fortunately, I’m not a world leader so I have to narrow my world to getting home on time, being able to drive fast without anyone knowing who I am*, and never having to deal with interruptions. NONE OF THOSE THINGS HAPPEN ALL THE TIME!

It turns out the world does not bend to my whims. It does however bend to the whims of the One I claim to trust (although I don’t think He has whims). So, will I trust that He is working these things for my good? Will I submit my desires, small as they are, to His greater plan? Will I be grateful for what I have rather than what I didn’t get? Will I believe that He still loves me despite my stinky-faced attitude?

Let’s hope tomorrow, when His mercies rise new with the sun, that the answer is yes.

*My wonderful husband works for a ministry that has a spiffy little cross in their logo. I can neither confirm nor deny that I got frustrated when he put one of their bumper stickers on the car I drive. Why? Because I realized people would know I was a Christian and I would have to drive the speed limit (horrors!). And then I got frustrated because I was so selfish. And then I got over it and wrote this post. The end. Also, my husband is a patient man. The end for real.

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A Little Lewis

I’ve been relishing Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis lately. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read it before, but such are the facts. Let me go on record as saying “I WISH I’D READ IT SOONER!” So, if you haven’t read it, go, go now and read it. Seriously, stop reading my blog and go read it. Okay, maybe you can keep reading my blog, but hurry.

Many of his concepts or ways of framing Christianity are not new to me because I’ve seen them fleshed out by more contemporary authors and speakers. I appreciate his view of God as a person and personality beyond our understanding who is Goodness Incarnate and sets rules in place not to burden or afflict us but to give us the freedom to live as we were meant to. God is not a cosmic killjoy, but the quintessential answer to every longing of our heart. In Him, we are whole.

Still, some of what he writes is new to me. Yesterday, I read his chapter on God existing outside of time. I believe God exists outside of time and I’ve heard some of it before, but there is one passage I’ve been thinking about since reading it. I’ve found it comforting.

“You cannot fit Christ’s earthly life in Palestine into any time-relations with His life as God beyond all space and time. It is really, I suggest, a timeless truth about God that human nature, and the human experience of weakness and sleep and ignorance, are somehow included in His whole divine life. This human life in God is from our point of view a particular period in the history of our world (from the year A.D. one till the Crucifixion). We therefore imagine it is also a period in the history of God’s own existence. But God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it had already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future): in fact having nothing but the tiny little present, which has gone before you can speak about it. God forbid we should think God was like that. Even we may hope not to be always rationed in that way.” – C.S. Lewis

You may be asking yourself at this point, “Huh?” Or perhaps, “why is this comforting?” Or you may be right there on my geek bandwagon jumping up and down (welcome aboard!). Either way, let me gush a little about this as soon I pop in a disclaimer. Lewis at the end of the chapter says that this view of God as outside of time is not stated in the Bible, so I would not consider any of what I’m writing absolute truth. So, disagree with me! I don’t care. It makes sense to me and I think there is some support for it historically and maybe a little biblically, but if it doesn’t for you that’s totally cool.

One reason that I love this excerpt is because it means I am not alone. Let me explain. When I go through a trial, I feel the pain of it keenly in the moments when the trial is present. As I move further away, my pain is replaced by my memories of the pain. These memories, because I am human, become skewed, lessened, and fuzzy as I move farther away from the moments in which the pain happened. (The same holds true for happy moments as well.) If Christ, living outside of time in His divine nature, experiences all things all at once for all eternity, then when I hurt, He is hurting with me, not in memory alone, but in actuality.

The second reason I love this is because it means that Christ’s love is more vast than I realized. He loved me enough to make the sting of His people’s rejection, the suffering of every whiplash on his back, the discomfort of living as a human in a (let’s face it) third world environment, and all the baggage that comes with being a human part of his very nature for eternity. E-T-E-R-N-I-T-Y. And He made that pain part of His nature so that we could experience the joy of being in relationship with Him, the comfort of knowing we have hope. As II Cor 1:5 says “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (I’ll admit to reading that verse a little differently now.)

Whether or not, this concept of God outside of time is “spot on” the fact remains that there are two essential truths that are always true.

We- me and you- are not alone.

We – me and you – are loved infinitely more than we realize.

May those thoughts bring you joy, friends, and a deeper love for Him.

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Love is Work

My sister came to visit me a couple of weekends ago.  It was GLORIOUS!  We only had a couple of days together, but time with my sister is always appreciated and never dull (even when one of us is sick and we don’t leave the house except to stuff our bellies with delicious Memphis food).

I loved being around L.S. (L.S. for Little Sister since her real initials are somewhat scandalous).  Her visit was super special.  She is one of the most amazing women in the history of the planet – a sort of hybrid of Mother Teresa, Amy Poehler, and Martha Stewart (minus the jail time) – and she understands me on all sorts of levels (and still likes me!).  Plus, L.S. managed to keep her impending visit a secret and get down here all the way from Wisconsin.  That’s right, she lives in the frozen wastes of the north and took time off of school and work just to spend two days with me.

And then she cleaned my kitchen while I slept in the next morning.  That, my friends, is love.

I once heard a very wise man say that time equals love, because our moments are gifts and the more moments we give to someone the more we not only show love, but the more we grow to love them.  I think this is true, but I don’t think love is just time.  I think love is also work.  I think love requires thought, effort, and energy.  It isn’t all spontaneous feelings and laughing over YouTube videos (although L.S. and I did plenty of that); it’s also planning and energy and, well, cleaning your sick sister’s kitchen.

Work has gotten a bad reputation.  It’s a pre-fall invention that wasn’t intended to cause misery, and while that has changed for multiple reasons, I don’t think the work of love has to be intense drudgery.  There’s joy and satisfaction in denying the easy choice in pursuit of the best choice, especially when caring for someone else.

Still, I think the notion that love is always easy and that it requires minimal investment is a destructive lie.  When I enter into a relationship expecting love, affirmation, and energy from the other party without planning to do some work as well, then I set both of us up for heartache.  On the other hand, the relationships that have blessed me the most are the ones where both parties have worked at love.

My amazing, awesome, talented sister and I went through some work the first summer she lived with me.  Two weeks into having her at my house, I was irritated at having someone share my bathroom, put my spoons into the wrong drawer, and generally be in my space (irrational, but true facts).  It was selfish and petty, but it was what I felt.  She just needed to be…different!  In reality, I just needed to get to work.  We talked through some of our issues (because everyone loves hard conversations), I decided to get over myself, and we had one of the best summers ever!

In contrast, the relationships I’ve messed up the most have been the ones where I shied away from the hard thing, from investing in it when I needed to most.  I’ve hurt and almost lost friends because I didn’t want to address issues, and I’ve let friends slowly slide away because I didn’t feel like expending the energy required to call them.  Obviously, there are seasons where one cannot be as connected, but I know when I’ve just been selfish and loveless.  I’m ashamed of those moments.  Thank goodness for grace.

So, here’s to working at love.  Here’s to thoughtfulness and notes and phone calls and doing the dishes, to cooking meals and babysitting and giving hugs, to letting someone else pick the movie and checking the unkind words, and here’s to choosing to make someone else’s day rather than waiting for them to make mine.  But above all, here’s to remembering that the love we give is nothing compared to the Love we’ve been given…and that makes it all worthwhile.

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It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Today, I heard bad news about some dear friends.  Their son has been hurt, badly hurt, and while he made it through last night, it’s a scary and heartbreaking situation (prayers are greatly appreciated).

Things are not okay.

I feel sad for them, but I certainly don’t understand what they’re feeling.  In fact, it’s the kind of situation I assume will never happen to me.  I’ve experienced pain, but once I’d gone through it, I assumed it was all over.  I have had my quota of pain, and will now live a charmed existence.  After all, everyone else does, right?  I go to church, to work, to the grocery store, and while I may not always see happy faces, I certainly don’t see pained, sorrowful faces.  My “How are you?” is typically greeted by the standard “Fine” or “Okay.”

The problem is that sometimes things are not okay.

Sometimes things just aren’t okay.  We struggle, we sin and feel ashamed, we experience loss and change and hurt.  Even when we’re not in outward crisis, we may very well be experiencing some inward dilemma.  This last year, I’ve found myself tense and worked up as I navigate this new thing called marriage.  My poor husband has seen my fear of him leaving come out in some crazy ways (thank you, God, for a patient husband).  And yet I find that instead of admitting those feelings and allowing them to  drive me towards God, I choose instead to do whatever it takes to be “okay.”

I eat chocolate, I watch TV, and I clean my house like I’m trying to pass white glove inspection at college (.25% of the American population will understand that reference, holla’ PCC grads!).  I do whatever it takes to avoid feeling what I’m feeling.  And in the process, I discount what God is trying to work out in my life.

Stuffing down emotions and pretending everything’s okay doesn’t make my problems go away.  I’m essentially living in denial, which as one of my favorite definitions of denial states, is “valuing the appearance of reality rather than actual reality.”  Choosing to respond this way just makes my feelings, and more importantly, my underlying issues harder to face in the future.

I’m not saying that wallowing in self-pity is the way to go.  I’ve been down that road, and it’s both untrusting of God’s goodness and destructive to my heart.  Still, I think there are times when feeling sadness, fear, pain, or guilt is not only okay, but necessary.  Why?  Because while feelings shouldn’t dictate our actions, they are often an indicator of something significant happening in our lives.  My sadness when I lose someone is indicative of how important that person was to me.  My guilt over sin reflects the brokenness in my relationship with God and other people.  Feelings scream what my heart is whispering.

The tricky (and often frustrating to me) part is that I can’t always solve the issues driving my “not-okayness”.  I can’t fix the rift my sin causes.  I can’t raise the dead, heal the sick, or move friends back to me.  I can only acknowledge that these losses have occurred, that this pain is real, and that I need help.   It is in that place of complete helplessness that I best understand the Gospel.  I am lost, without hope, and desperate, but in all my weakness and depravity, God loves me.  He can and will save me, heal me, and walk with me.  When I am truly honest about my pain, I find that it drives me to the arms of the Savior every single time.

David wrote a gazillion (a very academic theological term meaning “a lot”) of his Psalms because things were “not okay.”  He struggled, he cried, he despaired, but he always came back to the place of trusting what God would do.  I think his trust was all the more beautiful because he had courageously faced the circumstances that required the trust.  He was okay with not being okay, because he knew that in the end, God would come through.

So, here’s to not being okay.  Here’s to being messy, broken, hurting people who know that joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of our Savior through the pain.

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Hearts and Kisses!

After work, I stopped to see my husband at his job.  While I’m still independent and fine on my own, I found myself missing my husband all day.  I’d like to say it was because I’d been shipwrecked, stranded on a deserted island for the last month or because I’d been backpacking across Europe for three months, and I was just desperate to see his handsome face again.  In reality, I kissed him good-bye this morning (ooh, the kissing!).  For no particularly good reason, I just missed him.

So, dear readers, you get to listen to (read) some ooey, gooey ramblings about my beloved husband.  If you are opposed to mushiness, stop reading now.

It’s taken me a while to write about him.  For so long, our relationship seemed too precious to share.  It almost seemed too precious to feel.  I never thought I would meet this man, this man kind enough to shelter my fearful heart, strong enough to match my stubborn streak, patient enough to stand with me through my crazy spells, and silly enough to join me in said crazy spells.  I vacillate now between taking him for granted and feeling overwhelmed that I am actually sharing my life with someone who treats me well.

I did not expect him to come.  It took me several years to even hope that he existed.  Even with hope, I clung firmly to the belief that it was better to believe I’d be single forever than to waste my days pining away for someone who might never come.  (For the record, I think this is a pretty good way to handle single life – with some modifications, perhaps, but that’s a post for another time).  Still, I wanted him.

But I wasn’t looking for him exactly.  I assumed that if someone came along he would look…different. He would wear plaid, live in the woods, and compose soulful lyrics while singing in a deep, throaty voice and strumming a guitar.  He probably wouldn’t watch sports.  Basically, he’d be some Ray LaMontagne/Donald Miller hybrid.

My hubs doesn’t do the plaid thing – he wears Ecko and Sean John.  He doesn’t play the guitar and he LOVES, LOVES watching sports.  He is not what I thought he’d be….he’s so much more.

He is one of the kindest people I have ever met.  He cares for his family, supports his friends, and invests in Memphis in incredible ways.  He doesn’t brag about it, but he spent six years living and working in a small urban church for no pay, working part time just to feed himself.  He works hard now to make the ministry he’s a part of a place that runs well, provides a safe place for the kids of his neighborhood, and glorifies God in every facet of their work.  He is an introvert, but he spends thirty minutes after every church service saying hello not just to his friends, but to all the new people who don’t know anyone.  He has a heart for the underdog and strives to look out for the person no one else sees or likes.

And then there’s the way he loves me… He sends me texts with encouraging/affirming words, not because he likes to, but because he knows that words go right to my heart.  He prays for me and with me.  He does the dishes so I don’t have to.  He hugs me close and tight.  He listens to me.  He tells me not to walk the dog across the street at night and asks me to come home before storms because he wants to protect me.  He sometimes watches girly movies with me.  And when I am grouchy or unreasonable, he doesn’t hold it against me.  This man knows all of my deep, dark secrets and still thinks that I am the best wife in the world.  He teases me, laughs with me, and sometimes, he shoots me with his Nerf gun.  He’s perfect for me.

Best of all, he doesn’t ask me to be his whole world, and he doesn’t expect to be mine.  He knows that both our hearts belong first to the One who brought us together.  I can trust him, because I know he’s following Jesus.  He’s a safe place for my heart, and I’m so grateful God gave him to me.

Disclaimer: Our marriage is not perfect, because we are NOT perfect.  We fuss, get into funks, and sometimes smell bad.  Still, he’s pretty freaking awesome.

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