Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reflections on the Question of Suffering

In my sermon last Sunday, drawing from James 1:1-8, I talked about how God can use suffering to grow our souls. My theme was that God is in the business of soul making and God uses our sufferings in the process of soul growth and development. What James says about the redemptive value of “trials of diverse kinds,” however, does not cover all forms and expressions of suffering.

There are sufferings of such tragic proportions that it is difficult to see any redemptive value at all. The atrocities committed against “the other” as we have witnessed in Nazi Germany and more recently in Rwanda and Darfur cannot be described in a redemptive way. Even the suffering that follows natures' upheaval such as we are witnessing now in Haiti seem to make no sense whatsoever.

Last night one of the “world news” programs did a piece on the humanitarian efforts of a 78 year old doctor, who is in Haiti now doing all he can to assist and comfort the wounded and hurting. The coverage showed a traumatized boy, 13 or 14, maybe older, who lost his entire family. He had nothing or no one left, except his life. He was so traumatized that he couldn’t speak. The doctor mentioned that the best treatment for him was to have someone with him at all times, someone to make human contact.

It would be hard to find any redemptive value in such pain. There is no clear answer to the suffering caused by such calamities as the earthquake in Haiti and the horrendous evil human beings can do to one another.

No one will ever be able to figure out how God’s power, God’s love, and human freedom all interact and connect. I sometimes wonder with the process theologians if God is not in a process of growth and development like the creation. The idea of an absolute infinite and all powerful God is derived more from Greek philosophy than the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel is a God who sometimes changes his mind, regrets actions, alters course, etc.(You don’t have to take my word for it, read those stories for yourself—like Exodus 32; you might be amazed at some of the things you find in the Bible if you take the time to read it)

Do I question the goodness of God in light of such suffering? I question a lot of things, but the basic nature of God’s goodness is a non-negotiable for me. I believe God suffers with the creation.

Eli Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, writes in his book Night: “The SS hung two Jewish men and a boy before the assembled inhabitants of the camp. The men died quickly but the death struggle of the boy lasted half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” a man behind me asked. As the boy, after a long time, was still in agony on the rope, I heard the man cry again, “Where is God now?” and I heard a voice within me answer, “Here he is—he is hanging here on the gallows . . .”

God is not a spectator in our suffering; God is a full participant. I believe that we have in the Christian tradition, in the suffering and death of Jesus, the resources to live and cope with suffering. On the cross we have God incarnationally present in the life of Jesus, bearing the hate and cruelty and suffering of the world.

Somehow God is large enough to know both suffering and joy simultaneously. God is able to hold these opposites together—the horrible suffering of the world and the immense beauty and goodness of the world—in ways that we cannot due to our creaturely limitations. We can rarely hold such tensions together, though I have had experiences of joy in times of trial and hardship that I cannot explain other than the Spirit of God.

I sometimes question the extent of God’s power, but I do not question God’s goodness.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Two Kinds of Evangelism

There are two vastly different Christian approaches to evangelism being practiced today. One can be described as inclusive and invitational; the other is dualistic and confrontational.

The one that is inclusive and invitational is based on the theology that all people are children of God, regardless of their religious faith or lack thereof. All human beings share a common humanity and a common identity as God’s beloved children.

Practitioners of this type do not claim to be in sole possession of the truth or that their way of knowing and serving God is the only way available to human beings. All they know is that it is the best way for them. They are growing in God’s love and becoming more compassionate, responsible, and forgiving persons by following Jesus. They are learning through their discipleship to Christ how to love well, and they are acquiring a larger view of life. They are so grateful for the abundance of life they have discovered they want to invite others to join them on the journey.

Adherents of this approach are characterized by humility and sensitivity to where other people are in their spiritual development. They have no reason to be defensive and they are willing to turn the questions others have onto themselves and their own faith system. Doubt is treated as an ally in the spiritual life, not an enemy. They see no need to push anyone who has no interest. They are able to find some trace of God in all persons.

Practitioners of evangelism that is dualistic and confrontational see themselves as the guardians and emissaries of the one, true way to God. They usually quote Bible passages like John 14:5 and Acts 4:12 in an exclusive way. They believe that their view of Christianity is the only way to find acceptance/salvation with God. So they feel they must convert others to their system of faith.

Christians who take this approach rarely agree among themselves exactly what it is that one must believe about Jesus in order to be saved. Some versions of this approach are extremely restrictive even to the point of labeling other Christians as unsaved because they do not conform to their view about the Bible, Jesus’ divinity, Jesus’ atoning death, etc.

This approach to evangelism is not doing Christianity any good. It is by its very nature exclusivistic and reductionistic. At its very best it pigeonholes God into a narrow belief system, and at its worst it is arrogant, condescending, and judgmental.

God must be larger, greater, more understanding, loving, and compassionate than these narrow versions of Christianity which see their mission as one of rescuing people from hell.

Isn’t it time we grow up spiritually? It is true that we can only see a reflection of God and know God in part, and all our attempts to grasp God and God’s ways fall short, but at the very least we can adopt an adult version of Christian faith. We can put away childish ways and embrace a Christianity that is kind, generous, humble, gracious, hospitable, and good.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Way Forward

If our Christianity does not move us beyond our particular Christian group or church or denomination, or our faith system or doctrine, to accept those who believe and practice a different faith than ours, then our faith will most likely be more detrimental than helpful to the work of the kingdom of God on earth. If we cannot embrace others as God’s children without requiring them to adhere to our faith system then we become obstacles, obstructions, barriers to the creation of God’s beloved community.

Our Christian faith should be a resource that compels us to hold our beliefs in humility, to work for peace, to listen to and treat others of different faith traditions with respect, and look for common ground on which we can stand together as children of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus. “Blessed are those who hunger after justice” (the kind that attends to the inequities of the disadvantaged).

Isn’t it ironic and sad that so many versions of Christianity today have the opposite impact and effect, causing division and promoting inequity? Instead of breaking down walls, creating mutual trust, and building friendships, some Christians who press others to conform and convert to their faith system condemn and dismiss those who refuse to adopt their Christian interpretations. Until we all put on the mind of Christ and value others as much as we value ourselves, until we stop preaching at those who are different and accept and affirm them as children of God, there will be no peace and we who claim to be in the kingdom of God will prevent its arrival.

I received an email once from someone who identified himself or herself as “O1T”—meaning “only one truth.” I’m sure this person not only believed that there was only one truth, but that he or she alone (along with his or her group, church, etc.) possessed the one truth. Everyone else, of course, who differed from their version, would need to align themselves with the one truth. This approach to faith is what makes religion destructive and deadly.

There can be no peace, their can be no beloved community, the kingdom of God will not be realized on earth until we are all convinced that every person, whatever one’s faith or religious affiliation, whatever one’s ethnic origin, culture, or social state, whatever one’s mental or physical abilities or disabilities, is a child of God, precious and loved, and that every person—wherever they live, or whatever they believe—has access to God.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, was imprisoned by the military dictatorship of Argentina and spent eighteen months in solitary confinement. As we would expect he went through periods of depression and experienced feelings of outrage, but he ultimately decided that if he were set free he would not seek revenge but work to bring in a new order, where people could live in peace and dignity and where life would be deemed sacred.

In the months after his release he struggled to live up to this vision. The words of Jesus from the cross kept haunting him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These words made no sense to him; surely, he reasoned, they new exactly what they were doing. But then it dawned on him. What did his torturers and oppressors not know? They did not realize that they had imprisoned and were mistreating a brother, not an enemy. There were all children of God and the only way he could communicate this truth would be to forgive them and pursue a course for peace.

Until we accept this basic theology that transcends all religion, nationality, and culture and seek constructive ways to embody it, it is not likely that we will make progress creating a world where there is mutual dialogue, trust, friendship, justice, and peace.