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All Things are Yours

"… whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present, or the future— all things are yours, but you are Christ's…" (I Cor 3)

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love

Coping with Pain, Theological Preferences

A few years back, when a tornado ripped through Oklahoma killing a bunch of elementary school children and others, John Piper famously came under fire for tweeting a verse from Job about Job’s children being suddenly killed.   The outrage over his tweet, and how insensitive many viewed it to be, took the internet by storm in hours – to the point where Piper himself uncharacteristically deleted it.

As a somewhat neutral observer, I thought then and have chewed on it fairly often since then, that it was interesting to see how people cope with loss theologically – and what ways they are offended theologically at the same time.   The wild thing about it is that it is really completely DIFFERENT from one person to the next, and from one subculture to the next, how we want to, and don’t want to, see God’s role when we suffer.   It’s almost like a love-language thing.

For some people, from some backgrounds, there is nothing more comforting when going through trauma than the idea that God has a plan for it – in fact, that God even sent it.   While I don’t hear this view as often as I used to, it’s still firmly held by many as their source of strength when something goes terribly wrong.   A few years back, some friends of mine were in a horrible car accident and their infant child was killed.   In the days and months following, they spoke passionately about being comforted in knowing that God was sovereign, and that He had a plan for this.   For them, the theme of TRUST in a God who knew what He was doing in the midst of tragedy – either by causing it or allowing it, helped them get through it all and get back on their feet.

For other people, however, the idea that God could behind such a thing, whether actively or passively, just shatters any sense that they have that God is trustworthy at all – so they just don’t go there.   For these folks, if someone attempted to comfort them in a time of tragedy or loss with the words, “God has a plan in this,” that person bringing that word might have to duck and cover.   So where do these folks see God in pain?   More likely, they see God as their ally against the enemy that caused it – whether they perceive the enemy to be a personal enemy, such as satan, or a generalized enemy, such as “the randomness of life and nature” or “the corruption of the Fall.”  For them, God is there as the One who we can take our pain to and find perfect sympathy and encouragement through it.   For these folks, the universe is not operating according to a sovereign plan of God, but it is either broken, or if not broken, just not quite tame – and thus bad things happen that are really no one’s fault.   Yet in the midst of that, God understands our loss – He is there to lean on, and to comfort us as a good friend or parent might.  He is there to help us have the strength to get up, dust ourselves off, and go on to conquer the challenge that the trauma has thrown us.

moore-112783_1280The wild thing is that people usually don’t realize that their agitation at how other people make sense of trauma and tragedy is a preference.   Wars could be (and have been) started over this stuff in theological corners – because there are Bible verses that can be lined up and used to bolster either of these positions against the other.   But I don’t think that’s what this is really about – this is about what makes people feel loved by God.   We tend to cling to the Bible verses that resonate most with our understanding of what love looks like – love either means to me, He’s working everything out even if it doesn’t look that way, OR, love looks to me like He couldn’t possibly plan something awful in an “ends justify the means” sort of way, but His love is there for me to face whatever crazy things come our way.

You can go to war about this with someone and tell them that their understanding of God’s love is lacking and unenlightened compared to yours – and maybe you are even right.   But if you step back for a moment and look at this, the reality is – everyone is trying to understand God and this crazy universe in a way that they can handle.  And what some people can handle ends up being the exact opposite of what other people feel they can handle.   Someone who trusts that God is behind everything would feel very unloved if they suddenly found out that God isn’t controlling the details of their tragedy – it helps them to trust that He is.   And someone who sees God as their ally against freak tragedies would feel very unloved to think that God had actually sent the tragedy to them – it helps them to believe He was not at all involved, and is even upset at what happened to them.   And, the wild reality is that the Bible provides enough material to support a variety of viewpoints on the topic, even as we change and grow through out lifetimes – strangely enough.

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A Tale of Two Tables

During the course of one week: two different US states; two completely different groups of people.   I was there, and I saw the same thing happen in both places and thought, “This needs to be talked about.   WE need to talk about it.”   So I’m writing, and blogging, and talking about the stuff we get afraid to talk about – because let’s face it, nobody wants to be the whistle-blowing whiner.   (Oh alright, I’ll take the job this time. )

At the first event, I was with a fairly large group of people who had gotten together to do some Christian-ey stuff… and afterward, we headed to a restaurant together.   The waitress pushed a bunch of tables together, creating not one, but two long tables.   Most of the people in our group were in the 20’s to 30’s or even early 40’s range; most were stylish and attractively dressed.   There were a few people though that didn’t fit the profile.   There were several severely overweight women, there were a few people that could be considered elderly, and a few people that were somewhat socially awkward for whatever reason one might construe.

And it happened.   I watched it happen – one thing that I am fairly certain should not ever happen in a group of people who are claiming to be following in the way of Jesus.

All of the young, vibrant, happy people sat with their friends.   At one table.   And the elderly, the broken and awkward, and yes, the extremely obese were left to sit at their own table.

I suppose we aren’t supposed to notice these things, much less discuss them.   After all, elderly, obese, and other generic forms of socially awkward and/or excluded people really prefer each other’s company to that of vibrant, close-knit, fashionable and youthful people.   Of this I am quite sure.   Well, almost sure.   Almost as much as I am sure that vibrant, youthful Christian people do not choose the company of the elderly, obese, and awkward ones over their more fashionable and interesting friends.   Yes, sadly – of that much I *am* really sure.

Why is this?   It is, after all, “normal.”   Which is the very thing, that I think, Christians are not supposed to be.   Well, I know Christians are not generally “normal” in their views on social issues if those issues are say, political.   In that degree, many Christians are eagerly “not normal.”   But what about the kind of “not normal” where we actively choose to build our social lives and social networks in completely confusing ways to the average human – deciding instead, in fact, to fully befriend someone who is obviously not a highly sought-after person in social circles [unfortunately even in our church groups] as our PREFERED way to live, prefered especially over just being cliquey teenagers in grown-up skin?

(Side note: of course, it is thought I think that there are no outcasts in our church groups, because after all, once we’ve found an outcast and they’ve prayed the prayer and started coming and doing the Sunday service thing with us, they’re no longer outcasts at all, right?  And our job is just to get them into our church – but we all know we have too many friends to add someone… ‘else’ …to our busy lives. It’s not our job, we know that.   Besides, these people are not like… us.  They want to be in their own category, apart from us… don’t they? )

Well, anyway, that was one restaurant – two tables.    But I have found that it is easy to smile and greet someone during worship.   It’s easy to lay hands on them and pray – to even see their broken hearts and call them out and notice that they are lonely people – heck, to share ‘prophetically’ with them that they are lonely and that God wants to heal them of this – but then, when it comes time to go out to eat together, we all too often leave them sitting at their own table again.   Alone.    Just… like… the… ‘word of knowledge’… or word of comfort… or whatever it was that WE shared with them and told them it was time for them to be free from.   We do this in plain view – and I can’t help but wonder, what happens when they are out of view?   What happens when they are sitting alone, at home, and we are planning a get-together to go see a movie, or go shopping, or play a sport, or workout – whatever it is we do with our church friends when it’s our real life and not a church get together…does anyone invite the fat or old or weird people in the group to come do real stuff too?  Do they ever get to be known as real people, enough to really know who they are and not just give them a ‘word’ about who they are – in our lives?  I guess I have a hard time believing that they do, when they sit at their own table during our after-gathering meals.  We only want to sit with the people we enjoy, the people we have real friendship with – and sadly, that’s never really going to be ‘those’ people.  They have their life, and we have ours.  Besides, at their own table, they are reaching out to the other outcasts, and that’s their calling, or something – something like that.

“It shall not be so among you.”  Jesus pointed out some things about how social rules work outside His Kingdom, in everyday life – and He said, “It shall not be so among you.”   I know in some places in the body of Christ, people want to learn how to do the amazing miraculous stuff that Jesus said His followers would do – “even greater works than these” is what He said His followers would do.   But I have to wonder which is the greater miraculous feat His followers might learn how to execute: is it to heal the sick and raise the dead, or would it be to learn how to love people and bring all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t like each other together, just like Jesus Himself did?

But this was a tale of two tables – two times over.   Because later in the week, I was at another restaurant, with another group of people.   And once again, a waitress pushed tables together for the large group I found myself with.   I had to use the restroom when we first arrived, so by the time I came out, almost everyone had seated themselves.   And this time, there was one guy without a seat – looking over the long table where everyone had assembled.   Did it have to be so obvious, as the table was filled with ‘on-fire’ young worshippers in their 20s and 30s again, that this man who had been worshipping with them, walking with a slow gait as he had recently had chemo and cancer in his 60s, was the one person standing there longingly looking for a seat among them?   Someone tried to ‘help’ him (I guess) by recommending he sit at a nearby table just as I was walking in and saw that my fate also, a relative newcomer to the group, would also be to the exile table to sit with the lone older man.  This story had a silver lining though – in that a young woman there named Rebecca instantly got up from the table and all her friends and said to me, “I’ll sit over there with you.”  And she came and sat with us.

Rebecca’s actions were a spark of hope to me – to see a young follower of Jesus so eagerly and without any outward sign of remorse, eschew her peers and friends to sit with the old guy and the new [almost middle aged] woman,  Her heart was a spark of glory and goodness the ‘people of God.’   But I also reflect that too often, to love those different than the mainstream, means going alone, and leaving one’s friends behind, and for Rebecca that day loving me and the other guy meant so doing.   I am dimly hoping for the day, for the people, who will not have to make such sacrifices – because while such sacrifices are worthy and worthwhile to make, they should be unnecessary, and I do not believe they are a representation of the best the body of Christ could be.   What I want to see is groups of friends learning to include, integrate, and love people outside their peer group together – so that the lonely outcast person doesn’t just sit with the one young sacrificial lamb who is torn between her friends and him or her, but so that the formerly socially unwanted person gets WELCOMED, integrated, brought into a circle where he or she truly becomes one with the circle.   Where the whole gang wants to sit with the elderly ones, and learn from them, or the overweight ones, and look past their figure to their real mind and heart, or to the awkward ones, so they get to learn what normal relationships are like.

Because, I know that if we have two tables, there is one that Jesus is sitting at.  If there’s an outcast table, He’s gonna be there – and one way or another, we’re all missing out.   He’s missing the fellowship of the young and trendy, and we’re all missing Him in each other.   I’d rather we all had Him, and the demonstration of His kingdom among ourselves, so that we can experience a joy that is more than ‘normal’ humanity – but is something truly from Above.  Because after all, in the Kingdom, there really is only ONE table.

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