Category Archives: Suffering

What does JOY look like in a suffering world?

ORLANDO CANDLES C0014124821--720160614231037000Last Sunday’s services followed the 6.12.16 shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. We began a new teaching series, The Heart of Worship, a bit different than originally planned. The music and liturgy reflected our collective lament and our common humanity. You can listen to the sermon here. It’s called, Worshiping in a Broken World.


We explored 3 facets of JOY, which are at the heart of Christian worship based in Hebrews 10:11-25:

“Joy because” which is rooted in the assurance of our Faith;
“Joy in spite of ” based on the  confession of our Hope;
“Joy against” motivating our Love in action.


You can listen to a moving song called “Pulse,” written after the shootings, along with the pictures of those who died.

O Lord, Hear Our Groaning!

15-11-08 -Lament2-Lam a-Groaning.013An acrostic poem with Lament in its name; that groans off the page with agonizing intensity. That would be the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Our series, Lament: Talking with God through Pain and Suffering continues.  We ‘tag-teamed’ this sermon, with Cheryl Lavornia giving us the gripping context of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and the importance of  giving lament the silence and attention it requires. Listen to the sermon here. It was also a poignant reminder for Sunday’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

I shot this phone video of a beautiful song led by our music team as part of the service. Listen to the song. (Here are the words:)

Your Hands
by David Heller, JJ Heller, and Katie Herzig

I have unanswered prayers,
I have trouble I wish wasn’t there.
And I have asked a thousand ways
that You would take my pain away,
That You would take my pain away.

I am trying to understand
how to walk this weary land.
Make straight the paths that crooked lie,
O Lord, before these feet of mine,
O Lord, before these feet of mine.

When my world is shaking, Heaven stands.
When my heart is breaking, I never leave Your hands.

When you walked upon the earth,
You healed the broken, lost, and hurt.
I know you hate to see me cry,
one day You will set all things right,
One day You will set all things right.

When my world is shaking, Heaven stands.
When my heart is breaking, I never leave Your hands.

Your hands that shape the world are holding me,
they hold me still.
Your hands that shape the world are holding me,
they hold me still.

When my world is shaking, Heaven stands.
When my heart is breaking, I never leave Your hands.


Joy amid Sorrow & the Atheists’ Dilemma

light_splash“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian!” (G.K. Chesterton) In a sermon, Joy amid Sorrow – in our Advent series at Christ Church – I began by quoting Philip Yancey’s introduction to Chesterton’s famous apologetic work, Orthodoxy. You can listen here. I suggested 4 “Disciplines” that cultivate JOY. Here, I want to provide the full quotations that deserve rumination.

“It struck me after reading my umpteenth book on the problem of pain, that I have never even seen a book on “the problem of pleasure.” Nor have I seen a philosopher who goes around shaking his head in perplexity over the question of why we experience pleasure.”

“Yet it looms as a huge question – the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians.”

Christians have an easier time on this one. “It’s natural that a good and loving God would want us to experience delight and joy. We start from that assumption and then look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. But should not atheist have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world (they insist is) full of randomness and meaninglessness?”

Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided .
The mass of men have been forced to be (happy) about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless… it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, (humans are more humanlike), when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude,…praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.
Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed – joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.
“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan – is the gigantic secret of the Christian!…
Jesus chose to conceal something about himself:
(Chesterton says it’s not his tears – or his anger)
“He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His MIRTH.”
(NOTE: by ‘Mirth’, Chesterton means His overflowing gladness and joy.)

Let me throw in some C. S. Lewis from Reflections on the Psalms:
But how can we exult in a world where there is so much to lament? Where can we find joy in a world where hate is strong, as Longfellow has written, and mocks any expression of peace on earth and good will to men? In the “jocund” Psalms—where music, festivity, and agriculture are not things separate from religion, nor is religion something separate from them—Lewis claims, “I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.”

(BONUS: a recently discovered letter by C.S. Lewis gives another window into understanding of Joy. Read about it here.)

Will we Suffer Well?

cairns -sufI preached on  Suffering Well last Sunday.  I later heard that upon hearing my sermon theme, my daughter whispered in my wife’s ear, “Wow, ‘Suffering Well‘ – –  Happy Mother’s Day!”
Suffering is indeed part of the joy of Christian Discipleship. It is, as Luther said, a way we grow – along with the Scriptures and Prayer. One essential for that growth to take place, is saying to the Lord with an open heart:
   “What do you have for me in this (present suffering?)”
   “Help me to see not only the END of my suffering, but the ‘END’ for which this  suffering may be USED in my life.
Simone Weil wrote, “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” (Gravity and Grace)
Scott Cairns, closes his small and beautiful book, The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain, with this quote and a poignant benediction:
“May our afflictions be few, but may we learn not to squander them.”
Q – Are you and I ready to ask what God has for us in times of trouble and suffering?

Making Sense of Suffering?

On vacation, I was getting ready to add some resources to the sermon on the Tough Questions of ‘Suffering’ when the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy hit the news. The question sadly rages again as we groan and weep and pray.

Here are some important resources from the viewpoint of our Christian worldview:

Some books I often recommend:

Philip Yancey has written extensively on this issue. Where is God When It Hurts is still among the best.

Tim Keller’s book covers several tough questions: The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Jerry Sittser is a more personal testimony of God’s help and grace.

C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is a classic and helpful as ever.

Christopher Wright has written The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, that has a helpful study guide.

Finally, David Bentley Hart, editorial writer for First Things, wrote this article in 2008 at the time of the Asian Tsunami. It is not easy vocabulary but worth the work. One of his statements is rich with insight: “…(our faith) has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead.”

Tsunami and Theodicy

No one, no matter how great the scope of his imagination, should be able easily to absorb the immensity of the catastrophe that struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas this past year; nor would it be quite human to fail, in its wake, to feel some measure of spontaneous resentment towards God, fate, natura naturans, or whatever other force one imagines governs the intricate web of cosmic causality. But, once one’s indignation at the callousness of the universe begins to subside, it is worth recalling that nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware. Continue reading Making Sense of Suffering?

Poetry Monday – Lament and Peace

A Psalm and a poem by Wendell Berry in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.

from Psalm 5 (NIV)

Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.
For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
with you, evil people are not welcome.
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord , detest.

But I, by your great love, can come into your house;
in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple.
Lead me,  Lord , in your righteousness because of my enemies—
make your way straight before me.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Surely,  Lord , you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:1-12 NIV)

The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

NOTE: A Boston band, Crooked Still, put this poem to music that you can listen to here.

Poetry Monday – Jesus Loves the little children of the world

Poetry has a way of capturing what can’t be easily put into words. Here are two poems that give voice to the voiceless children of poverty; children loved by Jesus. One is by a poet, the late Anne Porter.  The second is by one of our church elders, who doesn’t often write poetry, but was moved to verse after his second trip to South Sudan.

A FAMINE CHILD, Anne Porter (see her bio)

You had no food today
And may have none tomorrow
Child whose ribs are showing
Under your dark skin

Unwilling to be wounded
By the sight
Of so unjust a hunger

Or to confront the anger
Of the Lord who made you

We look away
We turn away our faces.

African Kids, Mike Galdonik

Why should I care?
They’re over there.
Why should I care?
They’re just a bunch of kids.
They’re far away,
I don’t have to see them.

So what, they don’t have a home.
So what, they didn’t eat today.
So what, they don’t have a father to sing them a song.
So what, they don’t have a mother to love them.
So what, there’s a sick girl…
is she alive any more?

They’re over there,
why should I care?
They’re over there,
but they’re in my mind.

Did God put them there?
But they’re over there.
Did God put this tear in my eye?
They’re over there,
why should I care?
They’re over there…
God put them there.

See here, to learn more about Covenant Kids Congo, our denomination-wide movement for child sponsorship through World Vision.  Go to our Christ Church website to listen to the teaching at Christ Church on “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World.” 

Poetry Monday – Praise, in spite of…

Adam Zagajewski, is one of several great Polish and Russian poets who have written and lived courageously pushing back the darkness.  The New Yorker printed this poem right after the 9/11 attack.  He uses “praise” like so many poets over the centuries in a way that helps us hold onto hope when the fallen world would tumble us over the cliff of despair. It’s not praising evil or the “bare world,” but praising in spite of the broken world.

Try to praise the mutilated world

Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski

From the issue of September 24, 2001
Poem translated by Clare Cavanaugh, C.K. Williams and Renata Gorczynski  published in Without End – New and Selected Poems, 2002.

Here is a commentary and reflection on this poem and biographical info by Richard Osler.

How do we ‘make sense’ of suffering?

Suffering is one thing we have in common with all humanity.  But can we make ‘sense’ of it?

We not only suffer and often have compassion on others who suffer,  but we also suffer from what Scott Cairns calls “the disturbing pieties that swirl about in the aftermath of suffering and loss, most of which strike me as being, at best, the unfortunate hybrids of good intentions and poor theology.” (The End of Suffering) 

The biblical book of Job helps to answer some poor theology. (Examples are in the book itself – in the speeches of Job’s friends! The Bible contains or rather records some bad theology!) Job is the antidote, e.g., to the ‘health and wealth’ Gospel and any other system that wants to contain and control God.

In Narnian words, the Lion (the King) “is not safe…but He’s GOOD!”  (Click here for the background and theology of C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia on this point.)                   

The only New Testament reference to Job focuses our attention on God’s goodness and purpose, and on Job’s endurance:

“Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”   

Note: My sermon, “JOB: How To Make Sense of Suffering” is posted on the Christ Church website.

QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: What struggles with suffering do you wrestle with?  What helps you to ‘make sense’ of suffering?

How to Pray for the Persecuted Church

Each second Sunday in November  is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The recent attack in a Baghdad church is a brutal reminder that there have been more religious persecution deaths in recent decades than ever in history!  Here is the update from Open Doors.

Two Sundays ago, as faithful Christian believers gathered at church in Baghdad to worship, Al-Qaeda attacked and took about 120 worshipers hostage, beat and killed three priests, and detonated explosives moments before Iraqi security forces stormed the church in a rescue attempt. At least 64 people, mostly worshipers ––including a 3-year-old–– were massacred and an estimated 300 wounded….. Al-Qaeda’s Iraq splinter group, was responsible for the attack and threatened more attacks against Christian centers and organizations.  Here is a video report.

How do we better pray for and care about our brothers and sisters around the world who are facing such great opposition and oppression? Two resources:

1. A wonderful short article by Al Janssen called The Persecuted Church Taught Me to Pray.

2. A major paper from the 2004 Lausanne Meetings in Thailand that is a comprehensive presentation of the issue from a biblical, historical, contextual, and advocacy perspective.

I’ll close with a quote from Janssen’s article:

The persecuted Church needs our prayers. But we also need their example. Often, they have told me that they pray for the Western Church—that we will be faithful to Christ in the midst of our materialism and the numerous temptations of our culture. We need their prayers, not least because they need for us to be strong in our faith in order to stand with them. Together we are one body—suffering together and rejoicing together.