Monday, June 22, 2009

Staying Up When Down

Staying UP when all the chips are down

What do you do when the wheels roll off the cart? We stop. What do you do when the doctors tell you some grim news from your medical report? We pause. Where do you place your feelings when things turn tragic? The first thing that most people will do is stop what they are doing. The shopper will stop pushing the cart to look for the wheel. The concerned patient will stop to take in the news while the doctor waits with sensitivity. What about the one who experiences tragedy like never before? How do we stay up when all the chips are down? It is very hard. Tragedy makes it only harder.

As bodies continue to be recovered by authorities combing the Atlantic Sea, the recent Air France tragedy (June 2009) reminds us how fragile life can be. As usual, there are those who ‘thank God’ that they missed their flight due to some last minute changes. In that same light, what about those who happened to be on the flight at the last moment? I echo what M Scott Peck writes in the beginning of his classic work, The Road Less Traveled, “Life is Difficult.” Life is truly difficult.

In the bestselling novel, The Shack, written by William P Young, the beloved little daughter of the main character Mack was brutally murdered and the body found in an abandoned shack in the wilderness of Oregon. When Missy, his daughter mysteriously disappeared during a camping trip, Mack saw his emotions making a painful journey from hope to hopelessness; from worry to despair; from faith to utter bitterness. Fighting all these conflicting emotions rendered him numb. His path back to normal living is filled with pain and haunted with questions nobody can answer. After all, life can never be normal anymore. After filling his own buckets with pain and anger, he felt a deep and profound sense of emptiness. If you are like me, you will most likely ask the famous interrogative pronoun: WHY?
- Why must it be Missy?
- Why must it happen to my friend, my sibling, or my loved one?
- Why me?

Such questions provoke many negative thoughts but bring few positive answers. In times like these, often the best approach to take is to lament. The Psalms remind us of King David who was besieged by enemies all around him:
They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.” (Ps 17:11)
Dealing with our Doubts
It is difficult to grapple with setbacks. It is more difficult to deal with it ALONE. This was exactly how Mack felt when he received news of Missy’s murder. For him, everyone including God has deserted him. No one understands. From sorrow come doubts. From doubts come despair. From despair comes absolute emptiness surrounded by doubts. He doubts his ability as a father. He doubts his willingness to live. He doubts his faith. He doubts God. During such times, questions like: “How can a good God ever allow evil suffering to take place?” pops up at every corner, every turn and every angle of one’s journey through that painful reality called life. More often than not, it remains unanswered. Bible thumping advocates only scratches the surface with responses that are at best, feeble. Suffering is that one formidable force that exposes every theologian’s weakness and challenges every philosopher’s pet viewpoints. In suffering, believers doubt God, non-believers doubt life. Some escape into the realm of virtual reality. Others creep back into their shell of insecurity. The deeper one’s degree of affection, the more profound one’s depth of affliction. CS Lewis in the Problem of Pain, describes such pain eloquently as:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 91)
In the silence of pain, one hears the booming voice of suffering. So how can we stay up when all seems down? In pain and suffering, it is very hard but not impossible. There is a way forward but first let me deal with three alternatives which I deem inadequate.

Dealing With Our Actions
Some motivational speakers will bravely tell their supporters something like: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” They grit their teeth. They tighten their fists. Their body posture comes in congruence with the challenge: “Bring it on, O evil!”

Followers of Friedrich Nietzsche can easily conclude that ‘God is dead.’ The idea of pain and suffering deals a deathblow to any universal notion of a God who is good and loving. Life is thus subjective and reality is only meaningful when interpreted according to one’s own perspective. Such a fatalistic philosophy issues a blanket challenge to any theologian who tries to defend a Benevolent God.

Many Christians will attempt to try and explain for God during tough times. Let me suggest that you don't do it. In fact, during times of suffering and pain, any philosophy and theology should be placed on the backburner. Put the books of explanation aside and sit beside the person in pain or suffering. Chances are, your right answers in the head will only rub the wrong ends of the heart in pain. Put them all away. CS Lewis puts it well:
"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don't understand." (CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, HarperSanFrancisco, 1961, p25)
Do not try to explain religion in the midst of suffering. Experience the reality of suffering without the need to explain religion. Let me suggest that the key to staying up when we are down lies not within ourselves but only in the comfort of God. If our first step toward pain and suffering is either dealing from our thoughts or from our actions, let me say that neither of them will be helpful. It must begin from the heart.

Dealing with our Heart
For the suffering Christian, grappling with any loss or setback is hard. Trying to defend God during such circumstances seems bizarre. We should not use God to interpret our suffering. Instead, we ought to let our suffering draw us closer to God, the Great Comforter. Let me suggest that the we deal with our heart by dwelling in the Source of All Comfort.

The 20th Century hymnwriter, Frank Graeff, went through great suffering himself, and the stanzas reveal a personal flip-flop of emotions, swinging from despair at one end, to struggling to hang on to hope in Jesus. Each stanza expresses his pain and grief, followed by a refrain of hope and trust in God.
1) Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
As the burdens press, and the cares distress
And the way grows weary and long?


Oh yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.

2) Does Jesus care when my way is dark
With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades into deep night shades,
Does He care enough to be near?

Refrain: Oh yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.

3) Does Jesus care when I’ve tried and failed
To resist some temptation strong;
When for my deep grief there is no relief,
Though my tears flow all the night long?

Refrain: Oh yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.

4) Does Jesus care when I’ve said “goodbye”
To the dearest on earth to me,
And my sad heart aches till it nearly breaks,
Is it aught to Him? Does He see?

Refrain: Oh yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.
This is precisely what Christians CAN do. They can express all manner of grief and pain through stanzas 1 to 4. However, at the end of each stanza lament, do a determined refrain to get back to the anchor of hope, the Author and Finisher of our faith: Jesus Christ. That Jesus cares.

How then do we stay up when everything around us are down? The simple answer is: alone we can never stay up. Plugging ourselves into a community can last us a short distance. However, any journey of suffering and pain is often a marathon that can neither be completed by sheer personal will or community strength. True survival must be based on Christ. Any personal will needs to be anchored on the Word of God. Any community support spokes will require centering on the hub in Christ. Then and only then, can the wheel of faith be turned to spur one on. In times like these, I assert that the WHO we know becomes more significant than the WHYS that we do not understand. In other words, God is not comprehended simply by interpreting our pain and suffering. We can only make sense of our suffering when we let God interpret the circumstances surrounding our sufferings. Toward the end of the novel, The Shack, Mack heard this revelation from God:
“Mackenzie, religion is about having the right answers, and some of its answers are right. But I am about the process that takes you to the living answer, and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside.” (200)
'Changed from the inside' is exactly what happened for Mack. In fact, Mack’s road to recovery did not come from having all his questions answered. His healing begins at a relationship level. Firstly, his relationship of faith and trust in God was restored. This leads him to the second step, that in his heart to learn to forgive the murderer. Subsequently, his restoration leads him toward reassuring loved ones that whatever that has happened is not their fault. Indeed, many things in life that is tainted with pain and suffering needs to be addressed that way. Sometimes it is plainly nobody’s fault. Replace each “We could or should have….” With “It’s ok. It is not your fault.

In summary, we cannot stay up by ourselves. We can only remain in Christ, and only in Christ we can find the comfort. Learn not to blame anyone, oneself included. Whatever has happened has happened. Instead learn to cling on to Christ. Experience the deep comfort when we hide in the shadow of God’s mighty Wing.


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