Wednesday, April 24, 2013

community in suffering

When I was 15, I traveled to Manila, Philippines for a week for a missions trip.  We did medical clinics in poor areas, checked blood pressure, and played with kids while they waited to be seen by the mission doctors.  Once a day, one of the missionaries would take one of us to deliver powdered milk to the very poorest children in the neighborhood.

The day it was my turn, I followed a missionary woman through tiny pathways in a shanty-town village.  The homes were made of plywood, with tin roofs.  As I peeked around the doorway into one home, I saw a crude table, a small cooking area, and a sleeping area made out of dirt.  There were no couches, no blankets, and nothing that spoke of comfort and home.  If extreme poverty is a type of suffering, then these people were suffering tremendously.

And yet, as I was leaving this same shanty-town, located just outside a dump in Manila, I saw a group of kids playing with a dirty, tattered soccer ball.  There were probably 15-20 kids, and one ball.  Their clothes hung off them like rags, and they clearly had no possessions to their name, yet they kicked and ran and played joyfully.

I remember clearly wondering what gave them such joy in the midst of such suffering.   And I remember realizing that their joy came from their relationships with one another in the midst of the daily difficulties of life.

There are a lot of problems with a collectivistic culture, yet one thing that those kids had that I knew even then that I didn't have, was a strong and deep bond to the community around them.  They were connected to their families and their neighbors--connected in a way that you can only become connected in life when you are facing adversity together.

Community is one of the greatest gifts that suffering can bring.  I know that it has been so for me--that the people I have walked through the last 10 years of life with are the ones that I see as my strongest advocates and my closest friends.  And the depth of the bond that you have to forge with the people who are sharing your journey is not even comparable to the surface relationships that make up so much of our western, comfort-filled lives.

But suffering can also isolate.  As we suffer, sometimes we become so inwardly focused that we are no good to anyone within our community.  Sometimes we lash out from a place of pain and cause pain to others.  Sometimes we simply allow our own suffering to prevent us from joining the community that's around us.

What do you think the difference is between building strong community in the midst of suffering versus allowing suffering to cause division and strife?  I know this is an issue that my new book's characters are going to have to work through, so I'd love to hear from you...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

abundant life

When I was little, I dreamed of being an elementary school teacher.  I imagined that I would teach children, have a nice home, a husband, a family.  I imagined that my life would be insulated from trouble and heartache, life would be an adventure, and I would be comfortable, secure, and happy.

When I read Jesus's words in John 10, where he promises abundant life for his followers, sometimes I picture abundant life like that--a warm, safe, vibrant life where there are no worries and there is no pain.  And an expectation creeps in that my life will look like that and feel like that.

But as I've studied the stories of Jesus over the last couple of years, I've come to believe that this abundant life is eternal life.  And eternal life is not just everlasting life--the life we have with God after we die, but the life with the Eternal One that I have right now if I follow Jesus and allow him to transform me.

Life with the Eternal One is always abundant life--it is always the life we were meant to have and the fullest that life can possibly be, no matter what the other circumstances of our lives.

But the way to this abundant life is not what I would expect.  It's not seeking after safety and security and comfort.  It's seeking the kingdom first.   And it's not seeking the kingdom only when it's convenient for me, it's seeking the kingdom though it costs me everything.  Jesus called us to death, just as he died.  He said,  "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it."  Mark 8:34-35.

As I've pondered this juxtaposition of abundant life and self-death this week, I've been amazed at how a change in my thinking about suffering affects my feelings about it.  As I've meditated on Paul's statements in Philippians 4 about being content in all circumstances, I think this is the secret that he mentions.  Abundant life is life with God.  Period.  No circumstance, pain, or suffering can take his presence away.  And his presence and communion is what makes life abundant.  A living, growing relationship with the Eternal One is the goal and the reward of life surrendered to Jesus.  Whether I have money or power or family or friends, I know that I belong to God and he is walking with me.  This is abundant life.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The God Who Sees Me

Hagar was an Egyptian slave.  Her owner, Sarai, struggled with infertility, and as was the custom in that place at that time, Sarai offered her slave to her husband to bear her children.  The children would be treated as Sarai's even though she did not bear them.

When Hagar got pregnant, there was a not-so-subtle shift in power.  Now Hagar had something over her owner, and she started to look down on Sarai.  Sarai immediately fought to preserve her power over Hagar by complaining to Abram about Hagar's behavior and abusing her.  So Hagar ran away.

She ran to the desert, found a spring of water, and sat down.  What must she have been thinking and feeling in that moment?  The injustice of her life must have left a bitter taste in her mouth.  She'd run this far, but where was she to go next, as a runaway slave?  How would she care for herself and her baby?

It was there that an angel of the Lord found her and blessed her and promised that she would have a son because God heard her misery.  And she named God the God Who Sees Me.

Human suffering can be so isolating, particularly in a culture so bent on comfort that any mention of a hurt is met with attempts to problem solve or an immediate aversion to further conversation.  No one wants to reflect on suffering or to think it might happen to them.  It's a rare person who can simply sit with one who is suffering and empathize.  So those who are suffering are often left without community to walk with them through it.  We often feel alone and forgotten. 

Leaving aside for a moment the questions of why (like why does God allow suffering at all, or why did he provide relief for Hagar but not for me [my friend, my relative]?),  I find great comfort in this story.  It says something about the character of God, the infinite God who at this time was focused mostly on a guy named Abram to achieve his redemptive purpose for the entire world.  Still, he saw and cared for an Egyptian slave in the midst of her mistreatment.  He saw and ministered to her at a personal level.  Although he didn't fix her situation, indeed, he sent her back to the place she would be mistreated and told her that her son would have a hard time with his siblings, he demonstrated that he was with her even in that difficult place.

God is still the same today.  Even though there are all kinds of human calamities.  Even where there are millions of people suffering at any given time.  Even while God still has a redemptive purpose that is bigger than any one person.  When there is nothing else to hold on to, God is still the God Who Sees Me.