Tag Archives: Suffering

Christmas in Connecticut: Touching the Pain of the World

When the original Christmas story happened, three magi, or magicians came to help tell the story. Which is interesting, because the Israelites disdained magicians. They were evil and wrong, but God used them in ways that no one could have predicted.

And so in that spirit, I’d like you to watch the above video.

Whatever you think about Stephen Colbert, I think you should watch this clip. It was from this past Thursday night episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen is interviewing the Catholic Nun Simone Campbell…and it’s incredible.

For those of you who don’t know Stephen Colbert is actually a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school every week at his local church. I know the character he plays can be incredibly offensive and off-putting, but he’s speaking the very specific language of satire, and satire is not for everyone.

But I don’t want to defend Mr. Colbert here, I just want to show you (in case you missed it) what aired on the cable network of Comedy Central this last week, the day before the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. This Sister is pushing against the modern conceptions of American Christmas and trying to reframe what the real Christmas story means.

And if you don’t watch the video, here is what I want you to hear her say, “Christmas is touching the pain of the world, experiencing it as real…and then choosing to have hope.”

That’s what Christmas was.

That’s what Christmas is.

So for our brothers and sisters in Connecticut trying to explain this evil to their children.

To the husband holding his wife’s hand as she slips away into the age to come.

To the senior saint who’s sitting at at a table for one this Christmas eve.

To the woman in the Sudan who prays for someone to send her children food.

Christmas doesn’t turn a blind eye to you.

Jesus entered the world in a time when Herod was committing genocide on children. Christmas doesn’t skip this tragedy, or any tragedy, it runs into it.

Christmas calls Christians everywhere to touch the pain of the world, experience it as real, and then to hope.

Or in the words of Mrs. Campbell, “Jesus invites you to the manger.”

Inspi(re)ality #8: Funerals and The Gift of Empathy

 

This is another post in a year long series about both the nuts and bolts of practical ministry and how it relates to the reason we got into ministry in the first place.

The first time I ever spoke in front of an actual crowd it was for a funeral I was doing.  One of the members of the 10 person church I was growing up at had died….and it was obviously a big deal for us. We’d just lost 10% of the church. So I stood up in front of a couple of hundred people and talked about Frank and how much he meant to us, and about death and resurrection and grief and hope.

And I was 14 years old.

Which means I actually didn’t write the funeral. Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church I grew up at did.

Which was meaningful, because Frank was Foy’s brother.

Looking back on it, I can’t imagine the courage that took to allow some punk teenager to speak words in one of your most tender moments. But that’s exactly what he did, and thanks to Foy, I’ve been doing funerals ever since.  There is a weight to this part of ministry that is really hard to explain. And the temptation will be for us to not fully enter into it. If I could give one piece of advice when it comes to helping the grieving family, it would be this: Don’t jump to the resurrection too soon. Stand with people when they grieve. Jesus wept, and he didn’t just believe in the Resurrection, he was the Resurrection.

If this was your dad or spouse, how would you want the minister to enter into this?  Be present and listen, the most important things that people tell you might not have anything to do with what they say. The word for this is Empathy.

I have one suit that I wear for funerals. And in the coat pocket of that suit is the funeral program for Bro. Foy.

The person who taught me to do funerals.

The guy who is the reason I’m a preacher today.

And before every funeral I do, I look at that program. Because I love him. And I know that there are people who are gathering now who love the person who died the same way.

That’s why Empathy matters, that’s why funerals are more than just a task or a necessity for ministry. They are ways of facilitating and helping grieving to happen.

And with that in mind I’d like to introduce you to someone who is very gifted at empathetically entering into these worlds of grief. I’ve asked my friend Randy Piersall to write for the next couple of weeks, about best practices that he’s seen from ministers in funerals.

Randy is a local funeral home director and one of the best people that I’ve seen at entering into people’s grief and standing with them.  And today I’ve asked him to introduce himself, and share a bit of the story behind why he is a funeral director, and why what ministers do in funerals matter.

Meet Randy Piersall Continue reading Inspi(re)ality #8: Funerals and The Gift of Empathy

Memento Mori

So when I was a junior in college, Leslie, some friends, and I got a chance to study in and travel around Europe. One of the last stops on our trip was in Rome. It’s by far my favorite city in the world, it was like stepping into a giant museum that doubled as a city. Everywhere you went there were places that were rich with Christian history. Catacombs that the earliest Christian martyrs were buried in. Great statues, that were hundreds of years old, done by incredible artists littered the street. St. Peter’s and the Vatican had the Sistene Chapel and the bones of the man who walked on water with Jesus.

But by far, the most disturbing, and memorable stop in that city was the Capuchin Crypt. It was a monastery that began in the early 17th century. And it was filled with art, but the art was made of the bones of the monks who had died there.

It was a little dark.

Actually, it made Saw IV look like Bambi. And at first we didn’t get it. It was so morbid and disorienting. Our tour guide explained that after a monk would die, they would keep his body buried for 30 years, just long enough for the body to fully decompose. And then they would exhume him and use his bones to add to the sculptures. And the question we were asking was, “Why would anyone ever do this?”

It was by far the darkest hour of our time abroad…and we had toured Aushwitz. Toward the end of the tour we came to a room filled with 3 very dead, yet fully dressed monk skeletons, and there was a placard right in the center of them. It simply read, “What you are we once were, what we are you soon will be.”

Needless to say, we chose not to buy anything from the giftshop.

So we are entering into the end of Holy Week. It’s the time when Christians all over the world are remembering what Jesus has done and is doing in the world. When we remember that Jesus laid down his life on the Cross. It’s when we remember when God died.

And the temptation, like always is to rush ahead in our minds to Easter, to try and push ahead past all the grief and suffering that we try to ignore so much. But historically the Church has refused to let us do that. Throughout the ages, the Church hasn’t just celebrated Easter, it’s also emphasized Good Friday. It’s forces us to remember that death is also a part of the story of God. It’s just not the final chapter. Continue reading Memento Mori

The Victory of the Lamb

One of the surprising things about the book of Revelation is what doesn’t surprise us. Maybe it’s because we have been too busy paying attention the cryptic numbers, or the dragons and the locusts, but one of the things that is central to the book of Revelation is the thing that should actually shock us the most. And we just read over it like it doesn’t matter.

This is what I’m talking about.

All through Revelation, John talks about victory. Now the word victory for the little churches that he’s writing would have been a loaded term. It was after all more than just a result or an idea. It was a god. Literally, they god’s name was the Roman god Nike. The Romans worshipped victory. She was portrayed as a winged goddess, and her image was on the shield of Roman soldiers. There were statues of Nike with her foot on the globe (a symbol of total world domination). Her image was often on coins reminding people in the marketplace that Rome was victorious.

On the arch of Titus, from 81 A.D., gives us a look into how they used Nike to tell their story. It was right after the Romans had crushed the Jewish people and for their propaganda they set up an Arch (which makes us rethink St. Louis). On one side, it showed the battle that they won, and on the other side of the arch, it showed the goddess Nike putting a triumphal wreath around Titus’ head. They had a theology of military victory (that everyone would have known about), that was reinforced with every victory parade, every time you bought or sold with Roman money, or whenever you went into town. You would see Nike.

Nike was a winged symbol that showed everyone who saw her that Romans always win.

Take that Michael Jordan.  Continue reading The Victory of the Lamb

Painting in Black

So last night at Highland we observed Ash Wednesday, it’s my second time to participate in something like this, and my second time to speak at something like this. One day I look forward to going and getting to hear someone else do it. But I love doing things like this. It’s no secret that the younger generations appreciate more and more the ancient aspects of our faith, but it was a joy to watch people from all generations participate in this ancient tradition. And so, in that spirit, I’d like to post some of the thoughts from last night.

Now I know for some of the readers of this blog, Ash Wednesday may sound a bit too Catholic. And I totally get that, growing up, I was under the impression that all things Catholic were suspect. My parents wouldn’t even let me be friends with girls named Mary.

But Ash Wednesday is different, because it was going on a long time before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It is profoundly ancient and biblical. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed every year, for thousands of years, just like the people in the Bible like Job or the King of Ninevah. We put ashes on, and mourn. We mourn our brokenness and the brokenness of the world. We remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return.

And there’s a reason why we need cadences like this in our lives.

God knows us, he knows that we can try to trick ourselves into believing that death isn’t going to happen to us.The world doesn’t know how to respond to our mortality. And the symbol of ashes is a powerful reminder of our weakness, morally and physically. We are broken creatures. And the ash reminds us of what we tend to forget. That we live under the shadow of death, the grave will not be denied.

We don’t know what to death, The Cosmetic Plastic Surgery industry will make somewhere around 18 billion dollars this year. Think about that number…We have made an industry out of pretending that we don’t age, that people don’t die. So we get a tuck here or a lift there, and underneath all of it is this inability to talk honestly about the way things are. About the way we are. Continue reading Painting in Black

Naming The Loss

Sothis past Sunday I was able to share publicly for the first time about what happened with our little family last year. I’ve been inspired by Mike Cope’s blog over the past two weeks, and the way he’s been able to create a space for those with similar experiences, so I decided (with permission from Leslie) to share our experience on here as well.

Sometime early last August, Leslie and I had discovered that we were pregnant. We had been “practicing” for quite a while and so we where very excited to add another baby to the Storment’s family. After the first trimester ended, we started telling people, and picking out nursery color schemes. But when we went to the Doctor sometime late December, well into the 4th month of pregnancy,  we discovered that the baby had stopped growing a couple of weeks earlier. And that she was never going to be born.  We went into the hospital the next day, and began the long journey toward picking up our lives and finding a new normal in a story that would feel a bit incomplete.

It’s interesting that in the Garden of Eden, God allows Adam to name the animals. From a purely linguistic standpoint that is a actually a really big deal. To name something is create categories for it, it is to help shape the way that reality is experienced. The same is true for pain. The problem with a miscarriage, and with losses like it, is that it is a unique kind of hurt. One that is hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. In some ways, you wonder why it hurts so much.And the temptation can be to believe that it really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But for those who have experienced it, you know differently. There’s something wrong that you can’t even put words to. But you must try. We must name our pain.

Now I believe that God is one day going to set the world right, and that means we will see our baby again. But all Theology must begin with the facts, and the facts are often bleak. To shy away from naming them isn’t making you more spiritual, it only makes us less honest. Tomorrow, I’m going to continue the series on Revelation by tying this in somewhat.  But, ever since this experience,  the #1 comment Leslie and I have had since sharing our story is “Me too” I thought it might be helpful to post how we named our loss. For those who have gone through something similar.

Because the emotions swirling around inside me were so hard to define, I sat down a couple of nights after we got the news and wrote a letter to Mary (our little baby who would never be born). I never planned on sharing this publicly, but I am doing so in hopes that it might bless others who are going through, or have been through, similar situations. Here’s how we named our loss. I hope this helpful to some. Continue reading Naming The Loss

The Tears of Christmas

It’s been one of those weeks. The kind that come along every now and then in life, where creation seems to be screaming more than groaning.

This week, a child with Leukemia who we’ve prayed and fasted for, has taken a turn for the worse. A friend and co-worker at Highland just had his mother pass away, and for reasons that I am not ready to go into today, Leslie and I spent a good part of this week in a hospital room, grieving our own personal stuff. It’s was just us and the sounds of an occasional intercom and much waiting.

As a pastor, I’ve spent a lot of times in Hospitals, and a few of those times it was due to something personal, sometimes those are great joys and sometimes they are not. This time was not.

I’ve referenced over the past couple of weeks that USA Today said that, on some level, a fourth of Americans battle with depression around Christmas time. It’s when our American expectations for a happy life are amped up and we find the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. So we think about lost dreams and hopes, what our lives could have been, and then we look in the mirror and realize what they have become.

Or maybe it’s for more than that. Maybe this is the first (or fifteenth) Christmas without her. And that inside joke that you always shared together, just isn’t possible any longer. And that table that you’ve shared for a lifetime of celebrations now has an empty chair.

On the front cover of a National newspaper a couple of weeks ago, there was a letter to Santa written by a 10 year old boy. But this letter wasn’t for the latest PSP games, or a new bike. It was for his dad to get a job. The article went on to say that this year more than any other there will be present-less families because there are job-less parents.

I was talking with someone a few days ago about some of the personal stuff that I am going through right now, and as I talked I had this profound realization that perhaps this isn’t actually that bad of timing. If the Jesus story is true, than Christmas is actually the best time to suffer. Sure it might be more difficult because all of the lights and smiles seem to ignore your pain. But the one who we are actually celebrating is the one who knows what Christmas means the best.

God enters the mess. Continue reading The Tears of Christmas

Christians and Pleasure

So I love this picture. It’s from the prohibition era, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s iconic for what I believe many people think of when they think of Jesus followers. We don’t cuss or chew, or go with girls who do.

In her book, “The Kindness of God” Janet Soskice writes about how when women have their first baby they tend to feel guilty about the amount of affection that they feel toward their child. They’ve never had an experience quite like this before and so sometimes they will struggle with guilt.

She wrote about how one woman found her devotional life in ruins after her first child. So she went to three different churches because she worried about her lack of time with God. One preacher told her to get up an hour earlier than the baby to pray with God, another preacher told her to have her husband watch the baby three times a week so she could make Mass, and another told her, “Don’t worry about that right now, the church is praying for you.”

All of that sounds like decent enough advice, but…

The problem is that none of it takes into account that perhaps the best way that this woman might experience life with God is through her baby.

Did you know that when a woman nurses, her body releases doses of oxycotin? So God wired mothers up, to where when they nurse their newborn it gives them neurochemicals that produce feelings of intimacy and deep affection. So much so, that in tests on rats, mother rats choose their newborns over cocaine.

Here’s the point…we have been taught to think of pleasure has something that we should feel guilty for, but God wired us up this way. Now there are ways that we can and have abused pleasure, it can, of course, make a great servant and a horrible master. But we must never forget pleasure was God’s idea.And if we let it, it doesn’t point away from Him, in fact, it does the opposite.

Here’s a question for you to chew on for a bit: Do you think that Jesus enjoyed life? I know that it was said the Messiah would be a man of sorrows, and certainly Jesus practiced heroic ways of withdrawing from the world as well. But the question remains: Did Jesus enjoy life? Because your answer to that question, as a follower of Jesus, will shape the way you approach your own. Continue reading Christians and Pleasure

The Art of Lament

(or Why I don’t like Christian Fiction)

We live in a culture where to be unhappy is a thing of treason. After all, the pursuit of happiness is literally on our charter. And after a while that stopped just being a line on some document in a museum, and started to become our lives’ mission. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for happiness. I love to celebrate, and I think the Christian faith should be pioneering the way in showing the world pure joy. But….

I have talked a lot previously about how I tend to not like a lot of things that our Christian sub-culture produces. There are a lot of reasons for this, I think Christian is a good noun and a bad adjective (thank you Rob Bell). I think that creating Christian ghetto’s that avoid rubbing shoulders with the broader culture goes against the grain of the gospel. But my deepest reasoning is probably best summarized by Hank Hill (of King of the Hill).

His son Bobby had just joined a Christian Rock Band, and Hank tried to talk him out of it. This is what he said, “Bobby, can’t you see that you aren’t making Christianity any better? You’re only making Rock n’ Roll worse!”

My deepest reason for not liking most Christian sub-culture stuff is that a lot of the time it isn’t good.

Now, before I get into this, let me say…The other day I was riding with some friends who were playing a Christian radio station, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Several songs came on in a row that were artistically well-done, poetic, and had some good theology mixed in there. So maybe I just am overly-critical of this genre. But here is why I don’t think that’s the case. Continue reading The Art of Lament

The Groans of Creation

Last week, I drove by a bunch of  protesting college students. They were on a main road, next to a particular Christian college, and they were holding up signs for Haiti. The signs were basically saying, “Remember Haiti’s not better just because they are no longer in the 24 hour news cycle.” My immediate response was to think, Haiti? That was 3 natural disasters ago.

But they are right. Haiti hasn’t just magically improved because our cameras stopped filming. A huge portion of the Haitian population still sleeps outside. Their infrastructure is still badly damaged, only now there aren’t major celebrities pleading their cause on national television.

Haiti is so 2009.

Because now we are seeing the pictures of the devastation that Japan is suffering from a massive earthquake and a subsequent Tsunami. And if we have any kind of heart, we find ourselves asking new questions…that feel awfully familiar to ones we’ve asked before.

I still remember what it feels like to find a pair of kids shoes buried in rubble from the Tsunami of 2004 (see above picture). I remember being angry with God  for allowing it to happen. It was 3 months after the Tsunami when it stopped being a abstract problem and started being one that I was holding in my hands, but the anger was fresh for me. It’s what happens when ideas become personal. Non-profit leaders have long known this, if you give someone a statistic about suffering there isn’t a compelling tug to do something, but if you show them a face…if that number is connected to a person, then there is a much greater chance that you might just engage the problem.

Bono, the lead singer of U2, once said, “15 thousand people are dying needlessly each day from AIDS, TB, and Malaria. Mothers, fathers, teachers, farmers, nurses, mechanics, children. This is Africa’s crisis. That it’s not on the nightly news, that we do not treat this like an emergency…that’s our crisis.” Continue reading The Groans of Creation