The very first imperfect witnesses

The very first witnesses to the resurrection were afraid and joyful. If he could them, he can use me even if I'm a hot mess.

Our small group spent some time studying Matthew 28 last night: the dramatic account of Mary and Martha trembling before an angel dressed in lightning. They had been looking for Jesus’ body, and the angel comforted and redirected them: “He is not here. Come and see where they laid him. Go and tell the others and tell them to go to Galilee.”

Matthew tells us that the women ran: afraid yet filled with joy.

A few verses later, having heard the women’s account and traveled up to Galilee, Jesus appeared to the 11 disciples. Matthew tells us that when they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.

Had you noticed this before: the very first witnesses to the resurrection were one hot mess of emotion: fearful and yet overjoyed. The inaugural words of the Great Commission were spoken to a group with decidedly mixed responses: some all-out worshipping, but others seriously questioning.

I am so struck by this thought – that from the very first, the gospel was entrusted to individuals and groups who were a bit of a tangled mess. They didn’t have it all together. They had mixed motives, lots of questions. The Lord’s angel didn’t say to the women: “now calm down and let’s be reasonable – and once you have it all figured out, then I’ll entrust you with this change-the-course-of-history message.” No, the angel, knowing they were still tangled and terrified, still entrusted the message to them.

Jesus knew that in his group of disciples, some of them were having a worshipful “aha!” moment, while others were still very much on the fence.. and yet he didn’t limit his commission and say “Now, those of you who are doubting – these words are not for you. Not yet, anyway.” I am struck that he commissioned them all anyway, knowing that they were not the first (not would they be the last) to feel both faith and uncertainty at the same time.

And it occurs to me that if He didn’t require the very first witnesses, and his very closest disciples to have it all together in order to be entrusted with the Most Important Message Of All…

… he doesn’t need me to have it all together in order to use me, either.

We can be both anxious and joyful, worshipful AND doubtful, – and still be witnesses.

“I do believe, help me in my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

“Not that we are competent in ourselves… but our competence comes from God.” (2 Corinthians 3:5)

Help, I’m asking the question I’m not supposed to ask.

20131129-104201.jpg“Dear Bronwyn,
I’ve been in the church long enough to know I’m not supposed to be asking this question. I feel a HUGE amount of guilt about it, but I have to ask: “Why?” Life is ridiculously hard sometimes. Why doesn’t God save us and bring us home to him? Why doesn’t he just get us out of here? He can do it. He is able. He already knows the end of the story (who will come to him or not) – so why doesn’t he just make it happen? I know I shouldn’t be asking this question, but my soul is crying out for an answer, and every pastor I hear speak on this seems to be giving a cop out answer. I’m not asking why bad things happen – I know we live in a fallen world. I am asking why we have to live here in the first place when it’s so awful. My non-believing friends ask me this question and I think “hmm, good point” and give them the cookie cutter answer I know I’m supposed to say. But I’m sad, and confused. Maybe I’m just weak.
– Signed, Judge Me or Judge Me Not.”

Dear JMoJMN,

I cannot judge you, and I cannot answer your question either. Why God allows suffering at all, and why He allows it to continue, are questions which fall into the “I don’t know” category. With tears and sadness, I’m sorry to say I don’t know either, and say that cop out answers make me angry too. We cannot explain the purposes and mysteries of God, and while He has given us some clues as to why suffering sometimes happens (due to sin, discipline, disobedience, or even because he has some glorious purpose to work out, like when he let Lazarus die so he could raise him again) – the fact is He almost never tells us which of those reasons (if any) applies to our particular situation.

I don’t know why He allows it, and I don’t know why He hasn’t come yet – but as with so many things in my faith, I find myself faced with a choice when I feel like despairing. I have to choose to cling to the little I do know, or to walk into the great and painful void of things I don’t know.

When I’m hurting and praying for things to resolve, these are some of the verses I cling to:

“The Lord is near to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34:18)

“But as for me, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 55:23b)

“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, therefore your servant loves them.” (Psalm 119:142)

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

“and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

But I hear you: in the midst of clinging to those promises, sometimes my heart breaks that the pain still continues for now. However, I don’t believe you are a “bad Christian” for asking these questions. Indeed, the first century believers repeatedly prayed “Maranatha! COME Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 16:22)” a prayer for speedy deliverance if ever there was one. To beg God to make it end quickly, and to despair over the brokenness of the world is not a sign of being a bad or faithless Christian – it seems to me to be a deeply biblical response.

But it’s hard. It’s oh-so-hard. I find myself coming back to two stories in the gospels again and again when I find myself bewildered by the lack of answers. The first is in John 6, when Jesus had been doing some hard teaching. His disciples challenged him: “This is a difficult statement; who can understand it?” (verse 61). In response to his answer, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (v66). John tells us that Jesus then asked the twelve: “You do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

The second account is in Mark, where Jesus comes down from the Mountain to find the disciples floundering after failing to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The father of the boy asked Jesus for help, saying “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And immediately, the boy’s father cried out “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

I come back to these passages often. I find myself bewildered and hurting and wondering if I can accept the answers I’m hearing, or if God can do anything about it and have pity and help us. My words are the disciples’ words, the boy’s father’s words. And I hear Jesus’ gentle answer to me: “IF I can do anything? Are you also going to walk away because this is hard?”

In those moments, I have to reply with those first believers: “I do believe, but HELP me in my unbelief. And besides which, where else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I cannot even begin to tell you how often I’ve come back to these two stories. I don’t know the answers, but I know enough to know I have no better option than to lean into him when I’m hurting.

It’s okay to not know. We are called to be witnesses to what we know, not what we don’t. Over the years, one of my favorite hymns has become the Celtic classic “I cannot tell” (to the wondrous Londonberry tune – lyrics and music video below), which makes this point most beautifully: there are so many things we don’t know and understand. So many things that hurt and confuse and overwhelm us, mysteries beyond us. There are things we “cannot tell”. But then there are the things we do know, and it is those we cling to and sing of and in which we place our hope.

I’m praying for you, friend. Armed with an “I don’t know” for the mysteries, we cling to that which we know. We DO believe, may He help us in our unbelief, and comfort us as we wait.

I cannot tell why He whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and labored,
And so the Savior, Savior of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
When He the Savior, Savior of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Savior, Savior of the world is King!

Photo credit: scripturelady.com

To be or not to be?

20130530-075913.jpg

I had to read Shakespeare at school. I could understand enough of it to vaguely track the plot and appreciate the occasional wordy insult or clever pun, but not much more.

But Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech kept running through my mind as I was preparing a talk on Philippians 1, and it was serendipitous to look it up and find that for the first time in my life, I could really appreciate Shakespeare on my own. And what’s more, it turned out to be both educationally and spiritually encouraging as I compared Hamlet’s speech with Paul’s writings in Philippians 1 – as both of them wrestle with a choice to live or die.

Both are famous passages. Both deal with life and death. But the differences are significant too. In Hamlet’s speech, he is debating whether or not he should commit suicide. On the one hand, he is tired of the pain of living: being subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to“. And so he longs for death to end it all: he wants to “sleep“. But, on the other hand, he says if he were to die, there is:

the dread of something after death.
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know not of.

And so Hamlet chooses life because, he says, “conscience makes cowards of us all“. He longs to die but is afraid because he is not sure what comes afterwards. For Hamlet, to be or not to be is a lose-lose choice which he ultimately decides as a coward.

Paul, on the other hand, sees the choice between life and death as a win-win choice. In Philippians 1 he boldly writes: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body…”

For Paul the choice is not, as it is for Hamlet, between painful life and uncertain death. For Paul, the choice is between a fruitful life knowing Jesus now, and eternal life with Jesus beyond death without any of the nastiness of this life. His choice of the latter is a no-brainer, but he chooses life because he still has work to do here.

But here’s the thing which got me excited about comparing these two speeches. The big difference between Hamlet and Paul’s outlook is their view of the afterlife. Hamlet talked of a hope of “sleep, perchance to dream“. Life after death was wishful thinking at best. He describes it as an “undiscovered country“, and laments that “no traveller returns” from there to assure him of what it is like.

Aye, there’s the rub.”

But the difference was that Paul had SEEN THE RISEN JESUS. He had met that one traveller who had travelled through death, who had not only discovered but conquered that “country”, rising again to proclaim that for those who know Him, death has lost its sting. Paul knew that beyond death there was resurrection life to be experienced with Jesus. And so for Paul (with apologies to Shakespeare),

There is no dread of something after death.
The eternal country from whose bourn
Jesus has returned, delights the will,
And makes us bear the ills we have today
’til we rest in bliss we know not yet of.

(reposted in honor of Kathi, who did not lose her battle against cancer so much as triumphantly gain eternal life. “For I am convinced that whether in life or in death… We are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”</em>