Why Do The Righteous Suffer?

Creativity, Imagination, Ministry, Prayer, purpose, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, Uncategorized


“When I looked for good, then evil came unto me;   
and when I waited for light, there came darkness.” ~~ Job 30:26

Easter morning may not be bright and sunny; at least the Weathermen aren’t predicting that this weekend. However, for Christians today, we can celebrate because we know the rest of the story. That first Easter morning, while it was still dark, the disciples were holed up in the Upper Room for fear of their lives and only Mary Magdalene was out in the darkness of the garden.  Wandering in her grief and pain, she came upon an empty tomb. Thinking that Jesus had been stolen in the night, she raced to bring the disciples to confirm this. After they left, she stayed behind to mourn (John 20).

Mixed Media Icon of the Cross

Mixed Media Icon of the Cross

On that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene might have been thinking, “No good deed goes unpunished. Why do the dogs bite the hand that feeds them? Why do the righteous suffer?” We aren’t unlike our first century cousin, for we ask the same question when bad things happen to good people. In fact, for most of us believers and non-believers alike, we aren’t thrilled when suffering comes into our lives! Most of us adults are like Job, the uber-Father: he offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his children just in case they fail to fulfill their responsibilities of faith (Job 1:5). We too try to keep our children free from suffering, and then when we or they suffer, we wonder why the righteous have to suffer when we too have been the protector of widows, orphans, and the weak (Job 4:5-6). Unfortunately, suffering is a fact of life, even of the blessed life, as Job was to discover. If we read the final chapters of the Gospels, the histories of the letters in the New Testament, and the stories of the lives of the Prophets, we will discover that those who are called to the God life are not immune to suffering.

Some strains of Christianity practice “Happy Face Theology,” but this is just the wearing of a mask to hide the inner struggles of our truly human suffering.  “Jesus suffered on the cross to take away our suffering, their theology says, so have faith and be happy.” Unfortunately, this notion denies the believer the crucial struggle with reconciling contradictory ideas and emotions.  It keeps the believer from building a rigorous faith that will stand up to the winds and turmoil that come from the storms of life. In the darkness we don’t need a shiny happy faith; we need a strong, deeply rooted faith, even if it can’t be seen above ground.

Another tradition of this Christian Feel Good Message is that those who do good will be rewarded and if we do wrong we are punished.  Christ’s death on the cross gets complicated for this theology: here the good person gets punished, but then gets rewarded in the end.  Suffering can have a purpose, if it’s for God. This opens up a whole bag of negative implications from permitting spousal abuse, sexual harassment, or accepting corporate child punishment “because the Bible has a text supporting it.” The Bible also has texts supporting slavery, eating only kosher foods, not wearing clothes made of two kinds of cloth, marrying more than one woman, and handling poisonous snakes during worship.  Most of us ignore those things, much to our credit! Jesus said we aren’t punished for our misdeeds by God, but God wants us to repent and live a new life (Luke 13:1-5).

Riches and honor, long life and good health are also promised blessings of this tradition in Christianity that we know as Prosperity Theology. It’s belief is that salvation’s blessings are to be found today’s world, which is attractive to people who are attached to this world.  Of course, the one who died on the cross and lay in the grave for three days said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). We are like King Solomon of old, and the Wisdom Tradition that was popular during his kingdom. We are in love with wisdom/reason, foreign gods/idols, power, and we care for ourselves rather than the poor of the land. The kingdom of Israel doesn’t survive this second king after David, but splits into a northern and southern territory. The Promised Land doesn’t hold together when humanity choses to place the love of earthly riches and power above the love of God.

When the dark days of despair come into our lives and we are wandering and grieving around in a garden, perhaps we even ask if God has abandoned us.  We wonder if we lost the last coin in our pocket for the magic vending machine in the sky that has produced all the goodies we have been used to receiving just by dropping into church on a regular basis or by offering up prayers.  Now these words go out to the emptiness and our coin drops back with a depressing clink. What we forget to do is to read the Bible for ourselves. Preaching is for encouragement, so it usually is upbeat. Reading the Bible will give us the whole story. In the Bible we discover that faithful people suffer as often as they have joy. The blessings of faith aren’t for our enrichment, but to glorify God and build his kingdom. We are meant to spend ourselves and be spent for God’s kingdom: to give the best of ourselves to the least, to the last, and to the lost.

Salmon swim upstream against all odds to spawn to create the next generation, even though for some this will be the last act of their lives. This is an act of suffering and sacrifice for the good of those who come after them. We want to have our faith and keep it for ourselves.  We don’t want our young to suffer in any way possible, yet discipline is a mark of a faithful Christian. Are we different from the world, which chases profit, prosperity, security, social position and pleasure over pain? What marks you as one that swims upstream?

As a spiritual exercise, draw or photograph your idols: perfection, pure health, freedom from pain, wealth, security, or what ever you have made into your own little god.  Next to this draw a rectangle:  This is the void into which God will write the words and show you how God wants to use you.  Use this as a meditation time this week. Don’t feel rushed to write on the first day. Write whatever comes into your mind, individual words or images day by day. May this be a New Day for you!

Advertisements

Dream, Explore, Go

Creativity, Food, home, Imagination, mystery, photography, purpose, renewal, Travel, Turkey, Uncategorized, vision

Sunlight in the Pines

Sunlight in the Pines

“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it,  for I have given you the land to possess.”  ~~ Numbers 33:53

I overslept this morning, a behavior that seems more common lately. I did make to church yesterday. It was a grand day at Bristol-Baby! Even watching on TV, it had the makings of being there. Wrecks that took out the leaders, who would have expected that? Kyle winning, again. Joey Logano getting into a fight: the older he gets, the more his testosterone kicks in. Everyone will be glad to go to next week!

I am reading an ancient book THE ODD WOMAN, set in the early days of the women’s movement. In early industrial England, women of certain classes had limited choices: marriage, teaching, clerking, governess, or unwholesome occupations. The primary characters either ply these trades or have the economic means to live off the income of their estates. Two are out to change the world by teaching the shop girls how to type so they may move up a class and gain better working conditions.

Then last night I woke up several times with a very dry mouth. In between, I had several dreams, only one of which I even recall a fragment. As I slept, dogs and I spoke together as if we understood each other perfectly. Perhaps I need to write a book, DREAMING WITH DOGS!

As I made my morning ablutions, this verse popped into my mind, “You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” I had been thinking of exploring beyond my memoirs of Turkey and Greece, and what it means to be an explorer who never leaves home. How can one be both a settler and an explorer at the same time?

Settlers and explorers don’t share the same skill sets.  Nor do they share the same callings. If they were sailors, settlers would hug the known shores, while explorers would follow a star until they discovered an unknown land. Explorers want to try the new restaurant in town, while settlers feel secure ordering from a known menu and eating a familiar repast. I suppose this is why when church people move, they look for a place that feels like home and a church that feels their home church. These are settlers. Explorers, however, lead them, for the clergy are always moving into a land “God has given us” by virtue of our appointments. I grew up in a big church, thought I was getting a small church experience in seminary, and learned that there are still even smaller churches out in the world!  Culture shock is the sure sign of being out of your comfort zone, and a pointer that you travel not in the shallow waters anymore. John Wesley identified the explorer DNA of the Methodist clergy when he told them to be ready at a moment’s notice to “pray, preach, move or die.”

Agoraphobia–the fear of open spaces–affects nearly 1.8 million American adults (.8% of the population). Xenophobia–the fear of strangers– affects more of us, sometimes in subtle and unrecognized ways. The “other” is the one we fear because they aren’t like us. The tension this sets up between their settlement and our settlement constructs a “no man’s land” across which neither of us can transit. So we both lob bombs of hate, suspicion and denigration across into each other’s territory. US vs. THEM is our tribal rivalry, our devotions to our pack, and our adherences to our specific creeds.

The other race, immigrants, the poor, the rich, the educated, the ignorant, the churched, the unbelievers, and all other contrasts of our world, such as those that shop at Wal-Mart and those that wouldn’t be caught dead in the parking lot.  All of these are “strangers who live in strange lands.”

Sometimes we artists, creative people, and persons of faith think we must leave home to find the new experience that will open the eye of our imagination and set our creative juices flowing. We believe that only by traveling can we find the novelty that will awaken our senses that have been jaded by the constant bombardment of repetition. What we fail to do is to be explorers at all times, even when we return to the same address and the same bed each night. I have a set of coffee mugs for DST and for CST. I get bored drinking from the same set all year round and begin to miss the spring colored ones. These then are too bright in the fall and winter, so I bring out the deep colors and snow scenes. Monet painted his backyard many times: think Water Lilies!

Sometimes I feel the need to rearrange my 768 square foot condominium: then again, I decide to rehang the artwork to give myself a fresh look on the walls. Buying a new rug in Turkey was my big redecorating project for a while. I will change the cover on my bed according to the season, just to keep the room fresh. I am thinking of redoing the valence in the bedroom. I could still add crown molding and baseboards to the rooms, but I won’t do that until I change the floor covering. These projects are all worthy, but they take away from true creative pursuits. They are just signs that I want to strike out in a new direction, but I am afraid to leave the shore.

“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” This word is for the explorers who yearn to be settlers also, for the Hebrews had been wandering for a long time in the wilderness when they heard this promise from God. For them, the land would be new, wonderful, exciting, full of surprises, and an explorer’s delight. Only later would they be a settled people, forgetting how God fed them daily in the wilderness, and instead trusting their own labor to wrest a crop from that land. They would forget as they sat at their looms patiently weaving that for 40 years in the wilderness, their clothes never wore out and their saddle leather never failed. As they became settled, they trusted themselves more and depended on God less.

The explorer, however, is always going into the unknown, so trusting God in all things is a highly developed characteristic.  “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8).  This is what the Hebrews were told crossing into the Promised Land, but within a generation they began to trust themselves and other gods. The explorers still trusted the same God who had been with them in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.

“Where is my next meal coming from” is the same question as “from what source is my next creative idea or expression?”  How can I make ends meet is a question both settlers and explorers ask. Settlers will tie themselves to a plot, whereas explorers will find a way to live off the land. The same God provides for them all. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6.26:). I think we would all be improved by trusting God a little more, by risking entry into the unknown land where God resides, and opening our hearts and minds to the other.

Perhaps that is why we travel, to discover amidst the uniqueness in others an essential humanity. I would be sad to think that some folks traveled hoping to discover the unusual, but yearned for only the familiarity of home, but then they would be settlers. People who travel looking for home, who spend time comparing their experience to home, and talk about how glad they will be when they get home have missed the joy of traveling! Why did they spend $4000 on a grand tour of the holy places when they could have stayed home and complained!? They may have just needed a change of scenery or the weather was poor at that time of year. I too can find a growl bear mood, but when this happens, I like to take my iPhone out and wander about to photograph the common scenes of my everyday life.

Taking photos that are interesting and might be useful for a painting requires me to pre-compose or imagine the image through the lens. Then I brighten and/or use one of the Instagram filters before I share it on Facebook or twitter. I will put the camera inside the flowering bush, lie down on the sidewalk to shoot upwards (just because I’m a granny doesn’t mean I can’t get up again!), or bend down to get eye to eye with a low subject. People’s photos often fail because they aren’t close enough, the light is from the wrong direction, the viewpoint is ordinary, and the subject or photo itself lacks contrast. In other words, they are safe, shore hugging pictures. Explore what your camera can do. Take it for a ride out on a big wave out beyond the breakers.  Feel the exhilarating breeze upon your face as your bark rushes over the tops of waves that have yet to break! You are flying! This is art! This is fun! You can bring your ship home anytime you want, but you’ll never be the same again. You are now an EXPLORER.

This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but it hasn’t been found in any of his writings. It still speaks the truth to all of us:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines, Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”(—attributed in error to Mark Twain, first found in H. Jackson Brown Jr.’s P. S. I Love You (Rutledge Hill Press, 1990). Brown’s book is a collection of quotes and maxims attributed to his mother.)

Exploring New Lands

Creativity, Imagination, Prayer, purpose, renewal, Uncategorized, vision

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” ~~ Genesis 12:1 

All Women Are Flowers--Sign in Turkish Public Restroom

All Women Are Flowers–Sign in Turkish Public Restroom

Finding a restroom in the States is pretty simple. Most of us eat in “box” restaurants, not that we always eat fast food. Every chain restaurant is built according to the same design, so the one in which I eat in my hometown is the same as the one on either coast of these United States.  We may be divided in our politics, but were united in our affection for the Cheesecake Factory, the Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden, and PF Chang’s China Bistro (Forbes, 2011: Ten Best Casual Dining List).

In a foreign country we are bereft of these common designs as we travel. Each day presents a new challenge, a new place, and new discoveries to be made. Travel can be exciting or overwhelming. Take the matter of finding the restroom in a foreign country. Will you understand the directions if you ask “WC?” and suddenly a rush of many words flood from the native mouth? If they point, how far is it and will it be one of those clean modern facilities or a stand up primitive lavatory? Some folks just decide to let the more adventurous do the discovery work and report back.

Some in our small band seem to have difficulty finding the restrooms without these common cues from home. They don’t ask if they don’t see the signs. The signs are hard to pick out among all the items offered for sale in every place that we stop! (Maybe they don’t play the hidden object games on iPad: today there were 591 results for hidden object games!) Perhaps because I am a firstborn child, I am a natural explorer. I just follow my nose because I “know it is there or I will walk until I find it.” Nothing will get between me and a bathroom break, for I am a woman on a mission when I have a need.  Then again, I am a mother and have had a small child who loved to visit every bathroom in every facility she entered.  I learned quickly to pick up on the cues for location of restrooms in every type of building you can imagine.  We explored some interesting places! I can still see the look on that precious face that said, “Now! Mom! Now!”

“To go” now is implied in God’s command. To make a clean break from his country, his kin, and his family is a big deal. For Abram, for any of us, to turn our backs to all that we have ever known and loved would have been heart wrenching. If we are uncomfortable finding the WC in a strange land, we probably aren’t the type of folks who would chuck it all as Abram did.

I have met families in my ministry who have four generations living within a half mile of each other. My own family is spread across the entire USA.  Perhaps my family has the type of faith required to “go to a land I will show you” rather than stay put among the known and the secure.

In this “journey to the unknown land,” faith and art have much in common. In art, we work from an original design idea or concept, but any piece that doesn’t grow beyond that initial premise hasn’t been fully developed.  The same goes for our faith. If it doesn’t grow beyond our childhood notions of “being nice” and “Jesus is my friend” then we won’t have a robust or rigorous enough commitment that will help us stand our ground when the trials and tribulations of the road we travel assail us.

Insipid works of art, as well as faith that has lost its saltiness, aren’t worth much. I bought a painting for $10 at the Habitat Restore. The clerk said, “you got a deal.” Yes, I said. The frame is worth more than $10 and I’ll use the stretcher strips with new canvas and make my own new painting. The raw materials alone are worth $60. It’s a good buy, but it isn’t a good painting. Our faith can be like this painting: it looks pretty to someone without the ability to discern what is true and real, but it is only meant for destruction (Matt 5:13).

To turn our backs on all that we are and to go out to become some new creation is the very essence of faith. This is called “regeneration” or rebirth/new birth.  It is the state of the believer who becomes a “new creation in Jesus Christ “(2 Cor 5:17).  We are able to live a new life in Christ, to live as Christ, and to live sustained by the Holy Spirit. We will not live it perfectly at first, but we will grow into increasing holiness of heart and life over time.

So why do so many artists and people of faith hit a comfortable spot on their journeys and fail to move beyond it? Artists get comfortable with a style and recreate new works in the old style for commercial success.  In faith, we get to the point where we don’t want to be challenged anymore, and we switch to cruise control for the rest of our lives, as we say, “I’m good enough; God will complete the rest.” Are we afraid to push beyond our small success? Do we think God isn’t big enough to take us farther? Or do we fear going too far away from “home?”

To discover the answers to these questions, draw your artistic and spiritual maps. Are they going to a land God will show you, or have you been taking the well-worn paths near home? Are you listening to the call God has placed on your heart? This may be the week to try a new medium just to shake out the cobwebs and to give you a challenge in your studio.