Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trading my Sorrows

A few years ago, I flew across the country on an emergency trip to be with a childhood friend at the lowest point she had ever experienced (which, if you knew her history, says a lot). I arrived as soon as I could, and my friend was alternatively numb and delirious with grief and despair.

Her fiancĂ©e had O-Ded and left her with nothing but a suicide note that ended by saying “Hate me if you need to,” a little bit of debt, a small stash of “charity weed,” and a baby in her womb. My friend had nothing to hold onto but his ashes for which she fought the man’s ex-wife and two other daughters, and her enduring insistence that his death had somehow not been a suicide.

Somewhere in the darkness of the weekend, she decided to go to church with her parents. Her experience of faith throughout our lives had been colorful, to put it kindly, but there is nothing like death to make a person willing to give a discarded faith another try.

We walked into the large auditorium of the Evangelical mega-church after the worship had already begun. As we found some seats toward the back, the band was bouncing and hopping to the peppy strains of:
I’m trading my sorrows
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying them down
For the joy of the Lord

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying them down
For the joy of the Lord.
I have not been able to stomach that song since that day.

It was painfully clear that the smiles on the faces of the singers and the up-beat words they sang made no connection to my friend’s brokenness. I am not sure what the Gospel says to people in the midst of real sorrow, what kind of hope it gives to people in rubble of sin—both the sins we’ve done and those done against us—but I know it is not so simple as turning in our sorrow and receiving joy in its place (whatever that means). If Christ and the apostles did not get out of sorrow and pain, I do not understand why we would suppose we can. It is downright cruel to suggest to the sorrowful that they could.

There may be hope for people like my broken friend, for people like me as I hurt beside her, but it is through the suffering, not around it.

I don’t know about the rest of you out there in cyberspace, but I’m about ready for some Easter.

Friday, March 27, 2009

We believe...

“We also believe in Jesus,” my Muslim friend’s father explained to me as we let our cheesecake settle into our full stomachs from the comfort of his daughter’s couch.

“Do you?” I asked in genuine interest, having a vague idea of that fact but not of what it actually meant.

“Yes. We believe in his virgin birth, and that Mary is the most blessed of women. We believe in his miracles and his teachings. We believe that he is the promised Messiah. We believe in his resurrection and in his second coming.”

I certainly had not realized all that.

“It seems to me,” he went on, “we are much closer to Christianity than the Jews are. They do not believe in Jesus at all. We often wonder why Christians feel so much affinity for Jews and so much animosity toward Muslims.”

It was a good point. I saw no reason to point out that Christendom’s kindness toward Jews is a historically recent development. The thrust of his point was theological, not historical, and it was valid. Besides, I was more interested in what he had to say than in my own fumbling answers.

“So then, what are some of the important differences between Christianity and Islam?”

“Well,” he answered, evidently staying on the topic of Jesus, “we don’t believe in the crucifixion.”

I had not been ready for that answer. “You don’t? But you do believe in the resurrection?”

“Yes. We believe that Jesus died a natural death, and God raised him from the dead. We believe that they crucified another man, and that God disguised his face. God would not let his great prophet suffer such humiliation.”

It is a completely different distinction than I am accustomed to hearing, but it strikes me as profound. Indeed, I’ve grown up knowing that the holy men and women of God are up for grabs when the suffering is doled out; if anything, they seem to get an extra serving of it. Christ’s passion seems to guarantee that suffering is part of the journey, and his resurrection (somehow) sanctifies it (I think), weaving it into a story that ends in triumph and redemption.

Lent came in full force this year like never before for me, not as a contemplative time of repentance and reflection, but a time of walking beside friends through some abnormally severe suffering. Sometimes I cannot connect with a hope that their pain has an end. Let me at least believe that Christ’s passion sanctifies it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Though Grace shown to the wicked...

Once I knew a girl a Muslim girl who had been horrendously taken advantage of by an American authority-figure. The situation was despicable, and I was justifiably incensed.

Later, her father came to visit from the mid-East and learned about the situation. Those who knew about it were ready to deal with the wrath of an offended Arab father; we were seething on his daughter’s behalf, after all.

With a firm resolve, he sadly thanked the offender for the good he had done in times past, expressed regret for the situation, and forbade him from seeing his daughter again. That was all.

The American in me could have been enraged about Muslim dismissals of women. The Christian in me could have been indignant about the godless dismissal of justice. After all, if there is any situation to which I could apply our ambiguous theology of “righteous anger,” it would certainly be this one.

But instead, I was humbled. A Muslim man with every right to be angry (with responsibility to be angry, actually) had just shown me up with grace and forgiveness, and I found myself trembling the next time the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” came out of my mouth.

“But God,” I wanted to argue, “we are supposed to be angry when the powerful take advantage of the helpless, right?” Maybe. Maybe we must become enraged since we (and the Muslims) serve a God of justice. And that is why Grace is offensive, why it is unfair and may even seem evil from our limited perspective. Grace does not just apply to me; if it really is Grace, it applies to those who hurt those I love.

I pray I rarely need to muster up the magnanimity of grace my friend’s father demonstrated. But if the need arises, I pray I can find it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Notes from the Underground

Last year during Lent I posted about sin, brokenness, and finitude. But a few weeks ago as I sat in a coffee shop pondering the approach of Lent, I began to wonder if all three of those are the same word. If sin is the twisted goodness of creation, then whether I did the twisting or was twisted from the outside or was born twisted may not be so different.

There is grace in that for me, grace in looking at my sin the way I look at a speech impediment or an injured knee. The repentance that this season focuses on may be little more than an invitation to God to come untwist me.

Come, Lord Jesus.