Monthly Archives: October 2015

Sadness and Bing Bong from "Inside Out"

Hangin’ with Sadness, or, the theology of Mr. Bing Bong

A few weeks back, I got an amazing gift. Let me explain.

In 2005, on our honeymoon in Hawaii, my wife and I decided we would try to return every five years. Our lives are lives of service, and consequently contain a lot of chaos, but like Jesus slipping away from the crowds, our marriage’s survival requires some time of stillness and quiet apart from all that.

For our fifth anniversary, we actually did make it back, but this year, our tenth, things just piled up on us: there was too much going on at work, our vacation time was all used up on visiting family, we couldn’t find the money. And then, out of nowhere, my boss sent me an e-mail: he needed me to go and teach at a training event. It was being held in Maui.

Now bear in mind, eight years ago, our lives were touched by tragedy when our son was stillborn at full term (the first of six perinatal losses). Except our honeymoon, every vacation my wife and I have ever taken together has been “after”. I don’t even remember how normal people vacation. For them (I hear), it’s riding zip lines and flying over lava. For us, it’s finally having time alone with the one other person who is capable to understand. It’s finally, for once, not having to pretend.

On our way to Maui, the in-flight movie was Inside Out, about a girl named Riley and her emotions. At one point, the main character, Joy, becomes trapped in long-term memory with Sadness, and they meet Riley’s childhood friend,  Mr. Bing Bong, who is dejected about being left behind as Riley grows up. While Joy uselessly tries to “snap him out of it” by bouncing around and being goofy, Sadness just sits beside him and takes his hand, acknowledging what’s happening and savoring bittersweet memories. At first, Joy is horrified and scolds, “Sadness, don’t make him feel worse!” But suddenly she realizes something: it’s working. After Mr. Bing Bong stands up, ready to keep going, Joy pulls Sadness aside and marvels, “How did you do that??” Sadness, she realizes, is capable of something that Joy can never comprehend.

As bereaved parents, we have had many people try to “snap us out of it” or get us to “move on”. Those became people we simply had to endure. The ones who were a blessing to us, rather, were the ones who understood the biblical advice to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.You may have heard the popular quote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” We generally like to mix the last two. While in Maui, we developed one inviolable tradition: standing at the ocean every night watching the sun go down. One day we lost track of time, and had to leap up in the middle of dinner and sprint down to the beach. (We made it with about 2 minutes to spare.)

Why did that nightly ritual matter so much? I think because it was our special time to feel whatever we were feeling, without the usual processing required to filter down to what’s “acceptable”. The overwhelming beauty of the sky, aflame; the two of us, still standing side-by-side after all that life has done to knock us down; the many nights in the hospital wondering how much grieving I would have to do in the morning; the ebbing away of the day as it mirrors the passage of our lives; the power and unchangingness of the ocean; the connectedness to generations past and future, who have stood or will stand rapt in the same natural glory… in those moments I just felt connected to it all. Some nights brought tears, some simply brought wonder.

Out of all the lessons I have learned in surviving the past eight years, if one stands out, it is that my life does not have to make sense to anyone else but me. There was always one passage of scripture that used to puzzle me exceedingly, but after our first loss, I suddenly understood. “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” That’s from Ecclesiastes. To me now, its point is: not everything has a point. Some of it is just stuff that happens. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes the best we can make of it is to simply walk alongside of each other, bearing one another’s burdens. In those times, we can simply take Sadness by the hand, let ourselves abide, and wash in the salt water for as long as we need to, until we are ready to keep going.

Other recommended posts:


Doesn’t God have to do what you say when you pray?

Prayer gets a bad rap. Consider:

  • “They couldn’t be bothered to get him the help he needed. Instead they swept it under the rug and ‘prayed.'” (an op-ed piece about Josh Duggar)
  • “It is easy to prove to yourself that God is imaginary. The evidence is all around you. Here are 50 simple proofs. #1: Try praying.” (homepage of the atheist website “God Is Imaginary”)
  • “Why don’t YOU try ‘not praying‘.  Just for a change, get off your knees and do something useful.” (a list of atheist responses to things Christians say)

So to hear these voices tell it, prayer is at best a misguided waste of time; at worst, a supplanter of real action and a proof that Christian teaching is false. Are they right?

This week I prayed for those in the path of Hurricane Patricia, which had been the strongest storm ever measured but which (thankfully) weakened markedly before making landfall. Some Christians would say my prayers helped, but even I am not sure of that. You see, even among Christians, there are widely divergent views on how to pray, why to pray, and what to expect when we pray. If you want a polarizing issue, look no further than prayer.

What prayer isn’t

If you believe that the Bible teaches we can make God do what we want by means of prayer, you are going to be disappointed. Millions— Christians and atheists alike— insist this is exactly what the Bible teaches, and point to a collection of about a half-dozen verses that (viewed in isolation) support the claim. The four most clear-cut are Matthew 18:19, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:24, and John 14:13-14, the “ask me anything!” verses. Reading the entire rest of the Bible, however, it pretty quickly becomes clear that there is more to it than that.

We know about the scriptures emphasizing the importance of faith,  motiverighteousness, OK— but what about the sincere believer asking from the heart? Even in their case, scripture often records that they don’t get their way. King David, the “man after God’s own heart“, pleads for the life of his child, but his child dies. Christ’s disciples attempt to cast out a demon, but cannot. Hebrews 11 gives a roll call of heroes of the faith, yet says, “Not one of them received what had been promised.” Even Jesus himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, asks to be delivered of the cross, and then is crucified.

What is going on here? Simply put: evil happens, and God has his own ideas about how to deal with it. The four most important words on prayer in the Bible are found in 1 John 5:14: “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us (emphasis added).” Basically, a request that flatly contradicts God’s nature is a non-starter, but even in the case of the good ones, he may have other plans.

What prayer is

All of this raises valid questions: if the Bible’s overall message is that God does whatever he wants, then why include verses like, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it?” And if the only requests that God will grant are those already “according to his will” anyway, then why make us ask at all?

Ask me anything

To those who assert that the “ask me anything” verses, if true, can only describe a God who must fulfill any and every request, I would say: watch Ratatouille. In that movie, the preeminent critic, Ego, is like one of these scoffers, ridiculing chef Gusteau’s motto “Anyone can cook!” as though the only possible meaning is that anyone who reads a cookbook can become a world-class chef. In the climactic scene, however, Ego’s worldview is profoundly changed, and he reflects, “…but I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

It is just the same with the “ask me anything” verses. The prevailing focus of prayer in Jesus’ time was on blessing the Lord:

These blessings have God at their center. They contain no personal pronouns — focusing utterly on him, and not on the person praying. They are simply statements that praise God for his goodness.

Against this backdrop, the “ask me anything” verses fall into their proper place, not as counter-Biblical guarantees that God is our lap dog, but as heartfelt encouragements to break out of a too-narrow view: don’t just ask for what is “pious”, don’t just ask for what is “worthy”, it’s OK… ask me anything!

Everything your heart desiresSpeaking as a parent, my kids are not always inclined to good communication. As a teenager, my son in particular tended to assume we would say no, so he didn’t even ask, often to his great detriment and ours. We used to beg him to actually speak with us, rather than be limited by his imagination of us.  If a teenager can so badly misunderstand parents who daily occupy the same physical space, how much more is regular, unrestricted prayer a vital element in our understanding of God?

Why ask?

Next year, my daughter will be in middle school. Many of her friends have an allowance, but she doesn’t. We’d be happy to give her one— the granting of an allowance is “according to our will”— but she’s never asked. An allowance is a responsibility, and asking us will be one sign that she is ready to take that responsibility seriously. In the meantime, we’re perfectly happy to wait.

The Bible attributes this same mindset to God: “Until now you have asked for nothing in my name.” “You do not have because you do not ask God.” “Ask and ye shall receive.” I have heard these verses described as “God on a power trip”, “God wanting to humiliate us by making us bow and scrape”, “God playing mind games.” None of that makes any sense to me as a parent myself.

It is my belief that prayer is a vital and valuable part of the Christian life. If we don’t get everything we ask for, it doesn’t mean that “the Bible is wrong” or that “our faith isn’t strong enough”. It simply means that relationship with God is like any other relationship. Prayer is important because it is the cornerstone of that relationship. It is how we phone home to our father. It is transformative for us personally. It is so much more than us expecting God to do what we want.

Sun behind the clouds

But isn’t it all God’s fault…?

Where is God when bad things happen? (Third and final part in a series.)

  • Two weeks ago, we talked about mass shootings and other evil: “The message of Christ’s resurrection is that, come the worst this world can deliver, this world is not the end of the story.”
  • Last week, we talked about how to make peace with God when we are angry about the evil that touches our lives: “Christ found his way to peace with God despite the evil that befell him; so can you and I.”
  • This week, we get to the hard question: how there can there be evil in the first place if God is all-powerful, made the world, and is good? Isn’t it all God’s fault?

Remember in the movie City Slickers? That scene where Jack Palance reveals to Billy Crystal the secret of life, only he doesn’t reveal anything? “It’s one thing.” “What thing?” “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Answers to life’s hard questions are like that: regardless of what someone tells you, it’s meaningless until you find the way there yourself. Today’s posting is about my journey and some of the answers I found. The intent is only to encourage you that finding these answers is possible. I can recommend some initial approach vectors that got me partway, but in the end, you must undertake a journey of your own.

Approach #1: What we’re made for

To me, it clears God from some of the blame for making us live where evil can touch us when I remember that, according to the Bible, this isn’t really the place he designed us for.

Think about this: why does evil bother us so much? Tragedy is an everyday part of life. Why do we get so sad when people die? Death is our one certainty; why should it be such an uphill battle for us to accept it? I have read both secular and spiritual answers to these questions, and I think both have value, but if you want to know whether the existence of evil disproves the Bible, you have to focus on the spiritual side.

The Bible says we were designed to live somewhere else. All we had to do was turn away from evil, but we messed it up. Aren’t we just paying for Adam & Eve’s original sin? Nope, we’re no better. We brought this on ourselves. Think about your own life: how many of us have a life with no regrets, nothing we’ve done wrong, no act that caused pain to ourselves and others? All of that is what the Bible means by the word “sin”. If we don’t even measure up to our own standards, is it such a stretch to consider we might not measure up to God’s? I am not saying our sins one-for-one deserve our misfortunes; I know from first-hand experience that, once you’re out of the immaculate world of pure good, some very disproportionate evils become possible.

So, maybe a good God couldn’t (a) create us with a longing for good and then (b) send us to live in a world of evil to torture us. But that isn’t the Bible’s explanation of why we live here. To my mind, a good God could make us for a better place, but then when it was clear we had some growing up to do, he could hustle us out of there to keep it nice for when we’ve finally learned a thing or two and are ready for it. Meanwhile, he could send us to stay temporarily in a place where we’re going to get religion about why evil is so destructive, why turning away from it is so important.

Approach #2: “Sorta bad”? Or “Really bad”?

My son and I had a rocky time during his teenage years. He doesn’t remember it now, but I have been compared to a police state, martial law, and dictators from Slobodan Milošević to Mao Tse-tung. What was the problem? The two biggest issues were (1) limiting his Internet time to just two hours a day and (2) asking his employed adult brother to pay steeply discounted rent. He literally moved out the day he turned 18 in order to escape from the oppression.

A few years back, I related that story in a public park with a gentleman who called himself Rob The Atheist. Rob had suggested to me that a loving God cannot exist because, if he did, he would never allow the horrific evils of this world. But, I said, I am a loving father, yet I deliberately inflicted situations that my son found intolerable; after that I allowed him to suffer months of semi-homelessness. Could a loving father do that? “Those things,” Rob countered, “are only sorta bad. I’m talking about the really bad stuff.”

But I would submit that the difference between “sorta bad” and “really bad” is only a matter of perspective. Rob saw the things I did to my son as only “sorta bad” because he has the same perspective I do; whereas my son saw them as intolerable human rights violations, readily compared to acts of genocide. Isn’t it just possible that, from the perspective of eternity, the tragedies of this temporal world are less all-important to God than they seem from our current worm’s eye view?

Certainly scripture repeatedly makes that point:

  • For now we see only a reflection in a mirror… (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  • As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
  • Do not fear those who can kill the body and afterward can do no more. (Luke 12:4)
  • Blessed are those who mourn… (Matthew 5:4)
God’s problem

Finally, as to the contention that God, if truly all-powerful, should simply prevent evil: in the final analysis, the moment God gave us free will, by that act he voluntarily surrendered some part of his power. Thus, we have a God who says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” a Christ who laments over those he longs to gather together but cannot, who begs to bypass the cross but knows it to be impossible, and a Lord’s prayer that simply asks for a day when God’s will is done on Earth— unfettered, unclouded by sin— in the same way it is in heaven.

Until that day, both we and God will always have the same problem: that we live in a place where bad things happen, that we love what death can touch.




How to make peace with God after loss

Where is God when bad things happen? (Part 2 in a series.)

This week I read an article about losing faith; the problem was tragedy. After loss, there are inevitable questions: “How does this make sense? What ‘lesson’ is to be learned? What god would do this?” As a person of faith with my share of heartbreak, I can very much relate to those sentiments. There was a time when the circumstances of my life seemed so arbitrary, so capricious, so vindictive that I imagined God as an abusive father. I called him “the angry drunken God.”

On the other hand, speaking as someone who did ultimately make peace with God: there is a way through all that. There is an opposite shore. Christ found his way to it despite the evil that befell him; so can you and I.

Telling God off

The first thing to know is: God isn’t afraid of you. Let him have it. Tell him what you really think. He can handle it. As that losing-faith article put it, “Where is this fair and just God(s) I hear about? I just can’t bring myself to believe.”

Thoughts like this are common to all honest believers— the fact that we have them doesn’t somehow make us “unacceptable to God”. For me, the light went on one day, in the midst of my deepest God-anger, when I was flipping through Psalms and my eye settled on the this:

We have heard it with our ears, O God;
    our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
    in days long ago

But now you have rejected and humbled us…
You gave us up to be devoured like sheep…
You sold your people for a pittance,
    gaining nothing from their sale…
I live in disgrace all day long.

That’s from Psalm 44; it goes on and on like that. If you’re angry at God, I really recommend shouting the whole thing aloud at him; it’s very cathartic. But the point is, it’s all a 1000 B.C. way of saying “Where is this fair and just God I hear about?” It’s the same stuff that we’re dealing with today. And he got into the Bible with that action! Bottom line: God isn’t going to smite us if we wanna get real.

Not like you’ve heard

Next, don’t confuse the trivial, bland, insipid things that people say about God for what God says about himself. A lot of so-called Christians are just out-and-out wrong about Christianity. The commonly expressed notions that “you get what you deserve” or “bad things won’t happen to good people”—or perhaps worst of all, that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”— may be based on good principles, but as hard-and-fast rules, they are patently unbiblical.

The very symbol of our faith— a cross— is an instrument of torture, reminding us that the worst thing happened to the best person. That wasn’t fair. The Bible is chock-a-block with stories about people “getting more than they could handle”: otherwise, what would they need God for? In fact, throughout scripture, Christ repeatedly makes promises along the lines that “in this world you will have trouble.”

It’s not just a New Testament idea. Going back to Ecclesiastes, Solomon says over and over that what happens in this world is meaningless. It’s a fallen world: it isn’t going to be fair, it isn’t going to be just, it isn’t always intended to “teach us something”— this place is messed up because of sin and bad stuff happens here. Sometimes it’s going to happen to us.

What use is God?

So, what is the use of God if he isn’t going to keep bad things from happening to us? First, worth remembering that if God is anything like the Bible describes, then his entity isn’t really tied to his usefulness. Many natural phenomena occur without deference to our opinions of them; it is the same with God.

That said, God does make himself “useful”. As with Jesus’ crucifixion, the bad things that happen are not the end of the story. Evil happens, but God isn’t finished. Over 8 years ago, we experienced the tragedy of a stillbirth (the first of six perinatal losses). In many ways, it felt like a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from, but even then, another part of us felt like our whole lives, we’d been comfortably asleep, and had only just woken up. A lot of people in this world are suffering. A lot of good can be done for those people, a lot of kindness can be shown to them, and after loss, we have now been put in a position to be part of that. Before, we didn’t even have eyes to see them.

Again, some people trivialize this, like, “God needed you to be more compassionate; that’s why he killed your baby.” I just think that is the babbling of someone who’s never been through it, expressing their own need for an illusory feeling of safety. The person who says something like that is really just saying, “Meaningless evil terrifies me; here is the veneer of order that spares me from facing those fears.”

Whereas, the real core of the biblical message— the real “good news” that you hear so much about— is that we can live in a world like that and not have to be afraid. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This is what the Bible is about and has always been about. It is the story of a loving God, a world of rampant evil, and the untiring efforts of the one to be reconciled to the other. Those who say otherwise are simply missing the point.

Read the other postings of this series!
Part 1: Mass shooting, evil, and the end of the story
Part 3: “But isn’t it all God’s fault…?

mass shooting, police line, memorial

Mass shooting, evil, and the end of the story

A mass shooting is once again in the headlines in what has, by now, become a familiar pattern. The problem of evil is one that we want to solve, and it is right that we should try, but we can’t agree what the solution is. Here are some of my reflections on the time, last year, when it became personal. (Part 1 in a series.)

October 24th, 2014, my phone rang: my boss from church. The conversation went like this:

  • “Hello?”
  • “Hey there, it’s me.”
  • “Oh my God, I saw on Facebook. I’m so sorry.”
  • “Thanks. So I need to go home for the weekend. You can handle the service?”
  • “Yes, yes, yes– definitely. We are praying for all of you.”

Two hours earlier, in his high school cafeteria, her little brother had watched as several friends sitting at his table were shot point-blank in the back of the head, by another one of their friends. That day, a small town called Marysville, Washington became the latest in a grim litany of place names like Columbine and Sandy Hook and Aurora— places you never heard of until they became synonymous with unthinkable tragedy.

The knowledge that we live in a fallen world, that horrible things happen every day, is not new. And yet, for many, the first question is, “Why?” Why do people perpetrate such monstrous evil, and why does God allow it? We don’t all answer those questions the same way, some assert there are no answers, but the shared humanity, the innate revulsion towards evil, is undeniable. That fact— that nearly all of us are fundamentally incapable of inhabiting a worldview in which human slaughter is unremarkable— may be the first, best evidence of God’s image in us: eons out of mind, we remain better adapted to Eden than to the place where we actually live. 

At the same time, we remain fascinated with tragedy. It dominates the news and inhabits every form of our self-expression, from Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead to Madame Butterfly and Faust. We visit with evil during playtime, but are shocked when it follows us home. “Do not give the devil a foothold,” warns Christ, probably because he knew how readily we do so.

Yet Christ is unique in that he offers, not just a warning against, but a solution to the problem of evil, by offering his own life as a ransom for many. The redemption song is loud in our DNA— whether in Marguerite’s delivery from Faust’s demons or in Rick’s reunion with Judith, the voice of the angels will be heard. The power of God cannot be gainsaid. 

The message of Christ’s resurrection is that, come the worst this world can deliver, this world is not the end of the story. It is easy, on any day like this, in any place newly joining that sad roll call, to think about the lies the devil tells and the death the devil threatens. On a day like that, even as we battle to write such horrors out of the book of our public life, it is worthwhile to look inside our own hearts and remember that there is always one chapter more: a chapter all about the one who is, in the end, the way, the truth, and the life.

Read Part 2 of this series: “How to make peace with God after loss.”