Question Man

Question

“I was determined to sit in his presence until I had an answer. He said, ‘Stay my son until the questions don’t matter.'”   –John Redenbo

I have a friend who, like any good Christian boy raised in the 90’s, listened to Michael W. Smith, the most popular Christian artist of that time.One of Michael’s most famous songs said

Go West young man….go West go young man….go West young man….when the evil goes East.

This friend mis-heard those words to say

Question man, question man, question man….and then wondered “What does Jesus being a question man have to do with evil going East?” (which was a line I didn’t quite understand even with the normal words!)

I heard this story and laughed. It was almost as good as my mishearing “Won’t you take me to…Funkytown!” as “One jinx on Nixon….Funky town!”

I had forgotten the story for years but it came to mind the other day because of some of my current life journeys. Maybe the mishearing of that song was dead on, I  thought. Maybe Jesus was even more of a question man than he was an answer man.

So I decided to do some research. If you look purely at the numbers, Jesus was definitely a question man. According to Martin B Copenhaver,  in the New Testament Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 questions. He only answers three of those question with a direct answer.

Does Jesus’ lack of giving concrete answers mean that he doesn’t offer meaning and reason and hope? Of course not. It just means that he is not a God that I can put in a little box and make into my own image.

The vastness of his character and love and wisdom is so big that it enfolds eternity. No matter how much I think I know him, there is an element of unfathomable mystery. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to “figure him out” like an algebra equation.

Mystery has been a theme in my life lately. About a year ago, I went through a depression and the worse crisis of faith I have ever had. My dad had died, and I was struggling with some questions about what the afterlife is like. I had endured a string of rejections, such a strong pattern that made it made me wonder if someone was playing some kind of cosmic joke on me.

These circumstances threw me into a bout of sadness, but the sadness got infinitely worse when I started deeply doubting the goodness, even the existence of God.  Men rejecting me? It’s hard but I’ve made it through before.  A death? Also full of grief but with time it will get better.

But the thought that God I love, the one stable thing in my life, my reason, my everything….the thought that he is not good? That he might not even be there?

That was too much for me. That was earth shattering. That almost killed me.

Since I am human, I began to try to figure my suffering out. Here are some ways that I tried to put a label on my grief:

God is good, but there is sin in the world, so bad things happen. (Anger at other people ensues.)

God is good, Satan is bad. I must fight Satan! (Exhaustion ensues.)

God is good, but I have free will, so I can screw my life up. (Self hatred and fear ensue.)

My will and God’s will are constantly at odds. (Exhaustion and self hatred ensue.)

If I’m sad like this, I just need to praise God more! (Disappointment ensues.)

God is playing golf. (Anger at God ensues.)

God allows me to suffer so that I can learn. (Muffled, hidden anger at God ensues.)

God doesn’t exist. (Deep despair and meaninglessness ensues.)

Somewhere in the midst of this crisis, my view of God started changing. I wasn’t getting any more answers to why suffering happens. On the contrary I seemed to have less answers than when I started the asking.

But I began to shift my posture towards these questions. I started to try to sit quietly and reverently in the mystery of God. I slowly allowed myself to say these three magical words:

I. Don’t. Know.

I do not know why my suffering happens. I do not know why the world’s suffering happens. I probably will never know this side of heaven. Trying to get solid answers was becoming a control game.

It was time to let go. And letting go of the answers left me with two choices: giving up on God altogether or choosing to believe in his goodness even when I didn’t see empirically that it was real.

I decided that even if I didn’t understand him, I needed to choose to believe in him. Where else could I go but into his arms? A life without him would be no life at all.

I was tired of fighting Satan or myself or God or circumstances or the people that had hurt me. Battle language had been in my vocabulary for a long time and I was so tired.

It was time for me to let go, to rest in Jesus’ arms like a child. Trusting in his goodness, loving the sound of his heartbeat, cherishing the warmth of his arms around me. No more fighting. Just choosing to believe in the midst of the questions.

I am willing to embrace the mystery, if that means embracing him. I am ready to live at peace with the questions. I believe that is a mark that my faith is growing.

A quote by Donald Miller that has intrigued me lately is “I don’t know if there’s a healthier way for two people to stay in love than to stop using each other to resolve their unfulfilled longings and, instead, start holding each other closely as they experience them.”

In this season,  I have been able to turn this towards God, saying “I don’t know if there is a healthier way for me to not run away from this whole Christianity deal than to stop blaming God or Satan or myself for my suffering, but to let God hold me close while I experience it.”

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The Phantom Limb Effect

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Sorry if you have already read this…I somehow took it off my site and a few people have asked me to repost it.

Meet Ally. She was born with only one arm, She has been able to live a normal life for the most part,  but she has suffered with a condition called Phantom Limb Syndrome. 

With this condition, Ally’s brain often often tricks her into believing that her non existent arm is gesturing or grabbing something. She also feels pain in the arm that isn’t there. She will feel like she has a hang nail, like she is being burnt, or even like someone is stabbing her with a knife.

If Ally winces or cries out in pain, people will most likely doubt that she is sincere. They might think that she is only trying to get attention. How can your arm be in pain when it isn’t even there? 

But Ally’s pain is real. She hurts just as much as someone whose physical arm is being burnt or stabbed.

We could say that Ally is suffering from Disenfranchised Grief. To disenfranchise means to deprive someone of their rights. So disenfranchised grief is to deprive someone of their right to grieve.

Ally’s pain doesn’t seem real to people, so they don’t treat it like it is real. She knows that if she expresses her pain socially, people will not acknowledge that her pain is valid. Because she wants to be validated, she hides her pain.

Instead of wincing, she smiles.

I introduced the concept of disenfranchised grief in my post Singles and the Church: Why it Sucks to be Unintentionally Overlooked. I asked in the post if anyone felt like they had to hide the pain they felt over being single or that their struggles were overlooked by their church family and the church culture at large in one way or another. One hundred and eighty comments later, I realized what a big problem this is. I have never gotten more comments on any of my posts.

Over and over again in these comments, people talked about how they don’t feel like they are socially allowed to grieve over their singleness. Why? Because like Ally, the church and their community says “how can you grieve something that’s not even there?” There is much less weight put on that kind of loss than a more traditional loss, to the point of it being overlooked completely. As I said in that post:

“There are funny ways that church culture reflects most people’s unawareness of our disenfranchised loss—not in what they do give us, but in what they don’t give us. The sermons that aren’t given, the prayers that aren’t offered, the books that aren’t written. As if what we are going through is not that important.”

Unintentionally and silently, we are told that there is no reason to grieve.

When my dad died, I lost something tangible. People called me throughout the day. They held me when I cried and asked me to talk about what I was going through. They came to his memorial. It meant the world to me. I needed family around me during that grieving process.

In that case, it was like a physical arm that had been shot. People needed to come around me, take the bullet out, bind up the wounds, tell me it was going to be okay, and walk with me through the healing process. They rose to the occasion and helped me recover.

When it comes to being in my thirties and facing the prospect of not having a traditional family, though, it’s more like being shot in my phantom arm. If I were to wince in pain and cry out for help, most people would look at me and say “there’s nothing there. How could you be in pain?”

The truth is, I am in pain precisely because there is nothing there. The loss is over something that never existed, and that is what makes it so elusive. I have never lost a child but I have never had a child. I’ve never lost a husband but I’ve never had a lover.

The truth is, the loss of something that did exist and the mourning over something that never existed are both very, very difficult.

Disenfranchised grief doesn’t just happen with singleness. I have a friend who had an ex spouse die and she felt like she wasn’t really allowed to grieve because she wasn’t married to him any more.

Another friend didn’t feel like she was allowed to grieve the loss of her parents because she was adopted and should appreciate the fact that she had a family at all.

A third friend had a husband who was getting his PHD and had to work insane amounts of hours. They were on food stamps and she often felt like a stay at home mom since he was gone so much. She grieved for years, but whenever she expressed her pain to people they would look at her like she was crazy and say “at least you don’t have cancer.”

And here, my friends, is where the damage is done. We are constantly monitoring our pain and the pain of the people around us. Whose life is better? Should I be this sad over something so small? Shouldn’t I be grieving more? Why is she sad when what I am going through is so much harder?

When these kinds of rules are being followed, you can guarantee that hearts are being hidden. You can guarantee that someone is being deprived of their right to grieve.

There is one therapy that has especially helped victims of phantom limb syndrome. It’s called mirror therapy. It is very simple….the patient puts the mirror near the intact limb. They move their good limb around. When they look in the mirror, it appears as if they still have both limbs. The therapy tricks their brain into believing that their body is normal, thus allowing it to heal.

It seems like we need our own mirror therapy.

CS Lewis said “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too?’”

Maybe we could find someone that is in very different circumstances and look them in the face, like a mirror. Instead of saying “your pain isn’t as valid is mine,” we can say “What? You too?” You too are scared of feeling alone, whether you are married or single? You too are worried that you’re not valuable? You too have faced incredible trials and have come out the other side inextricably strong, absolutely beautiful?

Maybe then we can learn to grieve together, weep together, heal together. Because pain should never have to be hidden. And people should never have to walk alone.

Have you ever had to hide your own grief? What would have made you feel better in those situations?

Having Compassion….Even When It’s Not On Myself.

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Yesterday, in Mexico where I am teaching at a YWAM base, I went to a rescue home for labor trafficked girls from 6-8 years old and sex trafficked girls from about 10-20 years old for about 8 hours. Me any my team were giving a well deserved break to the ladies that worked there.

Putting these beautiful faces to an issue I have long cared about was both heartbreaking and hopeful, in that these girls still laugh and play and love despite the atrocities they have lived through.

After playing tag and cards and eating with them, they asked me if they could wash and cut my hair.

As I stuck my head under a sink with freezing cold water and had four little hands gently massaging my scalp and pouring shampoo over my head, I almost started weeping. One of these girls had burns on her arm where cigarette butts had been put out.

These hands had every right to bring violence to anyone they touched. It would be completely justified, as touch has been such a horrible part of their history.

And yet, here they were….Bringing healing with their touch. Touching each others hands as they sat and talked, their arms around each others’ shoulders. Touching my heart by welcoming me with such open arms. And then gently touching the head of a stranger as if I was their good friend.

The words from the prologue of my book came to me as I was with these girls, with new clarity:

You are stronger than you think you are. 

You, your hands dirtied with the soil where you till up the rocks of generations gone by. Your tears watering the ground, making the roots grow deep and wide while you are unaware. You labor, you dig, you claw this tiny piece of land where others buried their dreams and gave up trying. 

But not you. You keep going.You never give up. You see the tree in the seed, and you will fight until that tree is standing before you, it’s long willowing arms grasping your hope in its branches. 

You are stronger than you think you are. 

You, covered in all your scars. Where your face was grazed with false imaginings that you were not beautiful enough. Where your hands were caught in fields of cotton when you didn’t believe you were free. Where you were marked across your chest the day you thought that they left because you weren’t worth it. Look closely, love. Look closely because those scars are gilded with gold. Those scars have become your crown. 

You are stronger than you think you are. 

You, dancing there with your face against the wind. Not a pretty dance, but a wild dance. A hold on for dear life to the hope dance. An I will never stop believing in your goodness dance. A shake the sadness off your skin dance. You, with your feet pounding against the ground to the rhythm of your unsurrenduring spirit. With your knees soiled and bleeding from the prayers and the longings and the times you almost gave up. With your arms thrown up in surrender and beckoning and awe. “You are my love!” you yell, “And I will never stop believing!” There is burning against your back as you lift up your face, because your wings are returning, love. Your wings are returning.

Look at me and believe now. You are stronger than you think you are. Stronger than you think you are. 

As they washed my hair, these girls were draining the dirt off of my often apathetic heart. A heart that often only looks at pain when it is my own pain. That I often pay attention to only when it is my own small tragedy that I am praying about.

As has been pretty evident in my last few posts, I have been struggling a lot in these last few months. I have realized that I need to accept that I might not ever have children or a husband. It might not be true, but I feel like it is time to accept that it very well may be true.

But the hope of these girls, who still love those around them despite the incredible pain they have endured, is the fabric that heaven is made of. That hope softened my heart and helped me to see the power that God has to restore, to wash clean. I remembered for the first time in a while that I have a truly beautiful life, and I was thankful.

I was completely struck by this quote from Cheryl Strayed because it is so appropriate for what I am going through right now.

“Suffering is a part of life…I know that. You know that. I don’t know why we forget it until something truly awful happens to us, but we do. We wonder why me? and How can this be? and What terrible God would do this? The very fact that this has been done to me is proof that there is no God! 

We act as if we don’t know that awful things happen to all sorts of people every second of every day and the only thing that’s changed about the world or the existence or non existence of God is that it happened to us…To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs an illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion….it fails to acknowledge that the other half of rising- the very half that makes rising necessary- is having first been nailed to a cross.”

It is true: focusing completely on my pain deadens my capacity for compassion. To take on one another’s burdens like Jesus did will truly change our lives.

Today, on Thanksgiving, even though it is a lonely day without a family and is really difficult for me, I will look beyond my own pain and remember how truly blessed I am.

God soften my heart. Allow me to touch people in beautiful ways like this. Allow me to pray for pain even when it is not my own.

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Either God is Nothing Or He is Everything

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I just finished one of my favorite books for the second time, Tattoos on the Heart. You can read some of my other thoughts on this book here. I cried almost as much the second time reading it as I did the first time.

The book ends with the story of a “homie” (what the gang members call themselves) who was trying to get his life together being shot and paralyzed from the neck down until he died not too long after. Papa G, the priest who has loved these homies for decades, buried this young man and four others in as many weeks.

The night before I read this story, I had watched Million Dollar Baby which I was expecting to be a feel good sports movie. Instead, it ends with the main character paralyzed as well and dying soon after.

These two stories shook me. I was faced with the reality that there are people in the world who live like this. There are people that are blazingly, startlingly strong enough to keep on living in the midst of unspeakable pain.

The story of Papa G helping these gang members get employed and out of the gang life inspires me and tears me apart at the same time. Papa G is one of my heroes, because he lives in a duel world. He sees young people he loves like sons and daughters die on a regular basis from blind violence. And in the midst of that, he chooses and chooses and chooses to believe that God is good. It’s as if he is saying Without God, these acts are senseless. With God, death is not final. Death leads way to life.

The big book used by alcoholics anonymous says something to the effect of When we are faced with a crisis we can no longer control we have to believe that either God is everything or else he is nothing. Choose. 

In circumstances like this, we can either sayThese horrible things are happening, so God must no be good. Or we can choose to change our perspective, saying These horrible things are happening. What do I have if I don’t have God?

I have days where I don’t choose to believe in God’s goodness simply because my finances are low or my job search has been hard. Other days I struggle with God’s goodness because of more difficult things, like my not having a family or my struggle with depression or a friend having cancer.

It helps me to think of people paralyzed, chronically ill, chronically poor, trafficked, who are so strong that they keep on choosing to live. I am blown away that many of them say If I don’t have God, what do I have?” 

Oh God, I want my perspective to change. I want to believe that you are good in my limited perception. I am so tired of doubting your goodness because of the bad things that happen to me, the bad things that happen to other people. I want instead to say Whom have I but you? You bring meaning to the most meaningless things. You bring hope to the most hopeless situations.

I read a verse today that I don’t think I have ever noticed before. A vision from the prophet Zechariah…

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown, and white horses. I asked “What are these, my Lord?” Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.” And they replied to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world in rest and peace.” (Zechariah 1: 8-11.)

I love this, because it feels like the end of the end times, doesn’t it? After all the crazy weird psychedelic things that happen in Revelations, things that are awful and beautiful and impossible to understand, after all of that, what if it ends here? What if it ends with the whole world seeing all of the death and sickness and sex trafficking and slavery swept away into unspeakable, unfathomable love? A place where the whole world lives in rest and peace?

God give me the strength to believe that. Give us all the strength to believe that.