Jed Bartlet’s Job Moment

bartletOne of the themes on this blog lately has been the propriety – or not – of railing against God in times of distress. I tend to (surprise!) take a liberal view on this topic, that God not only can handle our complaints and frustrations but wants us to bring them to him. He made us to be emotional beings, and stifling our emotions is neither healthy nor productive.

Many Christians disagree, and I confess it’s difficult to listen when someone truly “goes off” on God – as happens in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, which my wife and I are working through on Netflix.

Below the jump, I’ll post the speech in its entirety; most Christians, I suspect, will wince multiple times. You might even be offended. But the question we need to ask is this: Are we offended because God is, or are we offended because we have been taught to be?

[This paragraph contains spoilers] The speech occurs in the National Cathedral, after a funeral for President Jeb Bartlet’s longtime assistant, Mrs. Landingham, who had died in a car wreck. The death occurred after a string of crises and tragedies – including an assassination attempt that nearly killed his deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman – that, let’s be honest, serve to make the show interesting, but would lead a normal person to consider whether she had been singled out to play Job in some sort of modern-day heavenly remake. [End spoilers]

Bartlett asks the Secret Service to close the cathedral so he can spend some time alone, and after some unnecessarily loud and echoey door slamming to let us know the cathedral has been closed, Bartlett begins walking up the aisle toward the vestibule.

Continue reading Jed Bartlet’s Job Moment

Ten Months Later, the Same Psalm

Another funeral today, another with a casket too short, another that comes after years of prayers seemingly unanswered. The sense of this psalm, written by Glenn Pemberton for Liam almost a year ago, applies equally now to Rex; his parents, Lance and Jill; and the rest of their family:

Continue reading Ten Months Later, the Same Psalm

The Betrayal of God’s Silence

Seemingly since the moment we’ve moved back to town, our faith community has been deep in prayer for two little boys fighting against cancer for their lives.

Liam and Rex. Their names were tied together for month after month. One with leukemia, the other with a brain tumor. Their stories moved people from across the city to organize vigils and cover them with thousands upon thousands of hours of prayer.

Until Liam died. We’ve talked about that.

In the months since, Rex’s battle has taken center stage. It looked like he had beaten it, thanks to surgery, radiation and chemo, but after several cancer-free months, the tumor returned, this time in a place where surgery would do more harm than good. And yesterday, an MRI showed that the last-ditch experimental treatment Rex had been taking has failed to check the tumor’s growth.

After 10 years of life, Rex has four to six months of it left.

Continue reading The Betrayal of God’s Silence

P.O.D., Christians and the F-Word

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them shit, that I may gain Christ. – Philippians 3:8

Translators are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that the Apostle Paul uses a word in Philippians 3:8 whose most accurate translation in modern English is a four-letter word. The closest I’ve seen any translation get is “dung” (KJV) or “sewer trash” (CEB). But, in fact, Paul is using a first-century cuss word, and if we were going to accurately bring his context forward to our own language, we’d say “shit.”

Alex Heath has a good explanation for why Paul would do this:

I believe Paul uses the word “shit” in this passage because he is trying to create an incredibly stark and extreme contrast between the the “things” of the world, and the pursuit of Christ. It’s serious business.

This is the same Paul (well, potentially) who in Ephesians says, “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.” But Ephesians is a boilerplate epistle, written as general encouragement and instruction to any churches who might need it (the oldest versions of the letter have a blank where the addressees should be), and so Paul is speaking generally there, whereas in a specific letter to a specific church, he uses extremely strong language because he’s making an extremely strong point.

So the lesson seems to be: Generally we should avoid trafficking in the crude language of the culture around us, but occasionally the situation might call for a well-placed profanity to get people’s attention.

I’ve been thinking about this because the rock group P.O.D. has stirred up a kerfuffle on their latest album, Murdered Love. Continue reading P.O.D., Christians and the F-Word

A Scripture for the National Day of Prayer

Isaiah 58:1-7, courtesy the Slacktivist:

Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
desiring knowledge of my ways
like a nation that acted righteously,
that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
wanting to be close to God.
“Why do we fast and you don’t see;
why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want,
and oppress all your workers.
You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
you hit each other violently with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
if you want to make your voice heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I choose,
a day of self-affliction,
of bending one’s head like a reed
and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?

A Psalm of Lament for a Boy Now Gone

If there is anyone in the world who knows about undeserved pain and inexplicable suffering, it is Glenn.

Glenn was a normal, healthy middle-aged man until a couple of years ago, when his feet began sending pain signals to his brain for no reason at all. The result, despite long months filled with surgeries and medication, is that Glenn frequently must use a wheelchair and have a constant flow of pain relievers. 

A couple of weeks ago, Glenn hobbled up the steps at the front of a church auditorium, relying heavily on a cane, placed a piece of paper on the podium and began to read this prayer during the memorial service for a 7-year-old boy. I post it with his permission and the permission of Liam’s parents.

xxxx

For Liam – January 28, 2012

Lord, you have always been our dwelling place;

before the mountains were formed

or the first stars danced with light,

from everlasting to everlasting,

you have been our God.

 

But Lord, it wasn’t supposed to end like this,

gathering to sing a few songs, tell stories,

and share memories of a little boy,

his smile, his art, and his love

for his mom and dad and sister.

 

So I hope you do not expect us to act

as if nothing has happened,

as if we are not disappointed with you.

How can we help but say,

“If only you had been here Liam

would not have died?”

How are we to get over the death of a child?

At least you got to see your son grow up.

No, everything is not okay. Not with us – or you,

not now, maybe not ever. Continue reading A Psalm of Lament for a Boy Now Gone

God’s Theodicy Problem

By some strange twist of life, I’ve been to a lot of funerals and memorial services, most of them for children, but I’ve never met a single one of the people for whom they were held.

As a reporter, especially working the night shift over the first two years, my job was essentially to cover tragedy. The young boy killed in a house fire. The teenager racing – too fast – into town to see his newborn son. A teenage girl accidentally shot in the chest by her boyfriend.

I’ve heard the wailing from a mother who could not contain her grief. I’ve heard the bitterness of a father who lost his son in a war he opposed. I’ve been lied to by a dead girl’s drug-addicted parents, who used the support offered to them to buy more meth. I’ve seen bodies on dirt roads and highways covered with blood-stained sheets amid the wreckage of automobiles and motorcycles.

I’ve watched two men die, one protesting his innocence with his final breaths, the other apologizing to the family of the little girl he had raped and murdered.

I’ve never known any of them, yet each has changed my life in ways I’ll never fully understand or appreciate. Being around that much death and suffering changes a person; it has to.

Somehow, I’d never really thought much about the theology of death. But in recent months, and certainly since Liam’s death two weeks ago, that has changed. It’s become clear that God has a theodicy problem.

I’m not sure how a person can spend years around death and not think more deeply about its existence in the face of a supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God – it’s probably an indication of how near death my faith was, as well as evidence of the survival tactics reporters use to shield themselves from thinking or feeling too much about the things they cover. That’s certainly changed now.

So here are some statements about death and God that seem like they must be true:

  • God is good, and he cares about his creation, which includes all people.
  • God does not routinely intervene to prevent suffering or death
  • Therefore, either death and suffering must be attributes of goodness …
  • … or God is not omnipotent – or chooses to limit his omnipotence, which is pretty much the same thing as far as humanity is concerned.

There are some other points to be made here:

Continue reading God’s Theodicy Problem

‘My Heart Stutters; My Strength Abandons Me’

In the end, no miracles.

A boy named Liam fought against leukemia for two years, and those of us who knew him or know his family learned yesterday morning that he lost it the night before. He had just turned 7.

Saying I don’t understand is somewhat redundant. No one understands. Even those who say they do – don’t.

Because in the end, for all the talk about tests and heaven and eventual reunification, if it had been your child or my child, none of that would make much sense. Those who think life-shattering losses can be explained don’t just insult those grieving the loss, they misread their own Bible.

Below is a new translation of portions of Psalm 38 from the first volume of Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today, which pairs new translations of the Psalms with new hymns based upon them, an effort to recover both the syntax and the poetry of the original Hebrew:

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger; correct me not in your wrath. …

O Master, all my desire is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart stutters; my strength abandons me; my sight even fails me. My friends and my companions stand away from my affliction; those close to me stand far away. …

Ah, it is for you, O Lord, I wait; it is you who will answer, O Master my God.

Ah, I said, “Only do not let them rejoice over me, or when my feet stumble they will boast against me.”

Ah, I go on limping and limping, my pain always the next step before me. …

I have so many foes without cause; so many who hate me for no reason. They repay evil for good; they are my adversaries though I pursue what is good.

O Lord, do not abandon me! O my God, do not be so far from me! Hurry to my aid, O Master, my Savior.”

Continue reading ‘My Heart Stutters; My Strength Abandons Me’

Class, Day 2: The Harrowing Narrative of the Psalms

I was disappointed last semester that we didn’t talk more about the Psalms. My professor said he enjoyed praying them, not teaching them, so our contact was limited to the required devotional time, which no one much liked (hard to be devotional when you’re being graded on the quality and frequency of your entries).

So yesterday filled in some gaps, as we discussed the Psalms, Judaism and Christianity’s oldest songbook.

The Psalms are split into five books, likely an intentional hearkening back to the five books of Torah, which are frequently mentioned and upheld. Perhaps the most important thing I was never taught about the Psalms (honestly, I’m not sure I was ever taught anything about the Psalms) is this: They are not a random collection of poetry.

“You can’t understand the collection of the Psalms except through the lens of the exile,” our professor said.

Continue reading Class, Day 2: The Harrowing Narrative of the Psalms

Immanuel

It’s been a rough week for God.

It’s certainly been a rough week for those of us who believe in a God who is both omnipotent and loving. For that matter, it seems like it’s been a rough year. Nevertheless, this past seven days carried with it some heartbreaking news about Liam, the 7-year-old son of one of the more frequent commenters here, Matt. For nearly two years, Liam has been battling leukemia, and despite a large amount of both prayer and medical effort, his battle appears likely to end quite soon.

That really sucks. I just don’t know how else to say it. My wife and I spent a good portion of Tuesday night crying and talking, trying to process how devastating it must be to lose a child.

Needless to say, this led us down a path many smarter, more thoughtful people have traveled many times before. The question of suffering, pain, prayer and the silence of a God we are told loves us.

I spent a lot of the early part of this blog’s life discussing prayer and questioning its usefulness. I feel I must return to it now. Because, look, there’s not much evidence it actually works, at least not in the way we traditionally think about prayer. I’ll let the late Christopher Hitchens explain it the way only a committed atheist can:

Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. …

The Danish physicist and Nobelist Niels Bohr once hung a horseshoe over his doorway. Appalled friends exclaimed that surely he didn’t put any trust in such pathetic superstition. “No, I don’t,” he replied with composure, “but apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.” That might be the safest conclusion. The most comprehensive investigation of the subject ever conducted—the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” of 2006—could find no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances. But it did find a small but interesting negative correlation, in that some patients suffered slight additional woe when they failed to manifest any improvement. They felt that they had disappointed their devoted supporters.

Here’s the link for that study, in case you want to check out the summary for yourself. The conclusion: “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from [coronary artery bypass graft surgery], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.“`

Continue reading Immanuel