The time was coming for Jesus to be arrested. He knew it. His disciples did not. They still lived in a confused haze somewhere between offering to crown him king and jockeying to become the best friend of such a man. It was in this state that Jesus began teaching the disciples the last things he would teach them. He knew his time with them was short, and he began packing in as much as he could.
Last Words Are Important
Last words are important. During this last week or so of Jesus’ life, what did he say to his disciples? I reread John 13-17 tonight, looking for what Jesus told his friends during that period. He taught them the importance of knowing him and acknowledging him (John 12:44), of following his commandments (John 12:47 and 14:23-24, among others), and of servanthood (John 13:1-17). Not only that, but he gave them a new command: to love one another as he had loved them. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-45).
Not only did he tell them to follow his commands and then turn around and give them an identity-defining command to love one another, but he went on to pray for them and for you and me. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me…that they may be one as we are one…that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:20-23). And he goes on to say why he prayed this: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 7:23).
Unity Over Division
Most of the time, I don’t want unity. I prefer to debate, to argue, and to prove my point. I like to be right, sometimes even at the expense of someone I love or should love. But when I practice that divisive spirit, I am dead wrong. I am disregarding Jesus’ last messages to his followers, to me. I am selling Jesus for the thrill of superiority over others, often others who are just as beloved by and as passionate about their love for him as I claim to be.
Tonight I write this on the eve of the election. I still don’t know how it will turn out, but I do know this: I will work to obey Jesus’ wish for unity in his prayer for me. A political party, any political party, cannot bring about the thing that Jesus said will show the world his face. People at each end of the political spectrum think their ideals are correct, and both parties participate in slinging insults and anger back at the other. Any person can fall right into that quagmire with very little effort. It takes superhuman, Spirit-focused strength to remain in the tension in the middle, in the tension between grace and truth, with love and humility.
I haven’t been good at that. I have tried, only to fall into the quagmire more times than I can count, but I resolve to strive for that unity without compromise.
When my husband was four years old, his mother gave birth to triplet daughters. All three of the babies died within two weeks of their birth. This sent his parents on a grief-filled tailspin that still affects them, their relationships with others, and their relationship with him and his sister to this day. One painful part of that experience included facing the attitudes of their fellow believers, who all had different theories about why God had “taken” those babies from them. One woman told his mother that they must have done something wrong that made God punish them by taking their triplets. The preacher must have agreed because he re-baptized them to absolve them from whatever sins they had committed that brought God’s wrath on them in this way. I wonder how their story would have been different if someone had allowed them to feel sad and grieve instead of blaming them for the deaths.
Suffering, pain, and grief have been part of the human experience since the beginning of time, and modern people are no more exempt from it than our ancient ancestors. Human suffering takes many shapes, but no matter its form, it creates anxiety in our lives, often forcing us to question its meaning and purpose, the goodness of God, and our ability to survive it. The presence of suffering causes us to live in the tension between believing that God loves us and wondering why he does not intervene to prevent difficulty in our lives.
The burning questions in the mind of the sufferer revolve around why suffering happens. Why do babies die and children experience chronic illnesses? Why would a believer in Christ live through a painful injury or broken relationship? Behind the question of why suffering happens stands the even more critical question: why would a loving God allow it to happen? Does God bring suffering upon people to teach them a lesson or to prove something? If he does not create suffering but is all-powerful, why would he allow it to exist and allow it to plague both the righteous and unrighteous? These difficult questions do not have any immediate answers.
Suffering is a universal experience. No human being, no matter upbringing, gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, is exempt from suffering’s tax. Even those who lead relatively comfortable lives and escape physical difficulty encounter suffering in the spiritual and emotional realm. Despite the fact that verses sprinkled throughout the Bible allude to the idea that the righteous will be spared pain and turmoil, we often see the opposite play out. People reading the promises of blessings upon God’s people sometimes teach that we will be blessed, and life will go well for us if we joyfully follow God. When they experience pain, they wonder what they have done wrong to bring this punishment from God on themselves. If he blesses those he loves, does their suffering mean God does not love them or that he has turned his back on them?
In working with people whose children have died at the children’s hospital where I am a chaplain, I have been questioned many times about God’s involvement and possible orchestration of the deaths of children. As I told one grieving grandfather, “These types of events don’t line up with who I believe God is. I don’t know why he allows it, but I do know he’s here with you during it.” I can tell him that God knows more than we do, which I do believe, but that does not help him resolve the questions he has. I can tell him that God has healed his grandchild and made him perfect and whole but that we have to wait to witness that ourselves when we meet again in Heaven, which I also do believe. However, to him those answers feel hollow in a moment of fresh grief. All I can say is that God still loves him, he will always be with him, and none of us really understands the reason behind his grandson’s death.
I do not believe that God brings death and pain into our lives. To believe that makes God cruel and heartless, and I do not think God is either of those. I do believe he can and will use those circumstances to teach us about himself and to draw us closer to him and to one another. As for the misguided belief that the righteous are given blessings and that blessings indicate God’s favor, I point to the words of Jesus who said we would have trials of many kinds in this world, but we must remain hopeful for he has overcome the world (John 16:33). I remember the experiences of Paul and the other apostles, whose lives were full of trials because of their choices to follow Jesus, and yet they remained faithful because they knew that God was with them throughout.
The Easter season always casts light on the tension between suffering and restoration. We remember the suffering of Jesus as he died, the panic of his disciples during the days following, and the joy they experienced when they discovered that he had conquered death. As believers, we hang somewhere in the tension between knowing God is all-powerful and waiting faithfully for his power to be displayed. For the parents in the hospital whose babies are ill, for my own in-laws who have suffered unnamed pain for decades, and for my own painful life experiences, I pray that God works in the midst of our suffering, that none of our tears go unnoticed as we join the legions of those before us who have suffered and persevered.
I’ve always liked the book of Luke most of all the Gospels. Somehow Jesus seems more relatable to me in Luke and not as distant as he can in some of the accounts. In particular, Luke tells the story of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in a poignant way. As a Gentile and a physician, he saw the world through a different lens from that of the Jewish Gospel writers. He described Jesus’ birth plainly, with details noticed and collected by a scientific mind, apparently appealing to other non-Jewish people like me. He starts by telling about John the Baptist’s unusual conception and birth, the angel’s visit to Mary and her reaction, and Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem for the census.
A Flair for the Dramatic
Among all of those details, we find a particularly dramatic scene: a group of shepherds sleeping and watching their sheep on a hill outside town wake to a terrifying sight. A sky full of angels make an announcement. Of course, the angels’ first words are, “Don’t be afraid.” A blinding light on a dark night would frighten anyone, especially if it were accompanied by supernatural beings. The angels continue by telling the men that they bring good news. Specifically, they describe this good news as bringing “great joy for all the people.” The shepherds hurry into town to see this baby born to bring them great joy.
Old News but Good News
A lot has been written and sung and painted about these shepherds. None of the details from the paragraphs above are new to us. The story has been told for two thousand years, and shepherds are included in the telling nearly every time. We’ve probably all heard that the shepherds were smelly people, some of the lowest of society. They weren’t welcome in town, and they weren’t wealthy by any means. Shepherds were known as troublemakers, rough transients, undesirables. Think gang members, teenage guys hanging out in the park after dark laughing and playing loud music, homeless people on the street corner asking for donations to their food fund.
Or maybe they were like today’s former third world slaves who escape from bondage to try and make their way in the world. Maybe today’s “shepherds” owe more money they can ever pay back and wonder where their next meal will come from. Maybe they’re single moms with too many mouths to feed or a small family trying to put two kids through school. Maybe they’re refugees at a border or immigrants sharing a cramped apartment with two other families. Maybe they’re exhausted suburbanites working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Who would God would choose to announce his good news to first now?
Everyone is Included
One of my favorite parts of the Christmas story in Luke is how it seems tailored to highlight the inclusion of the less-than-remarkable person. The shepherds are the lowest in society. Mary and Joseph are regular people. There’s no real evidence that they were more special than any other Jewish couple of their time before their designation as the parents of Jesus. Later, at the presentation of the new baby Jesus at the temple, Anna and Simeon, two elderly people who apparently spent most of their time just hanging out there, affirm the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. All of these were unlikely characters included in the greatest story of all time.
If we’re not careful, we see the Christmas story bathed in holy light, but when we read carefully, we see that the participants, including the shepherds, were ordinary people chosen to be part of an extraordinary story. Not only that, but the very one they went to worship later identified himself as one of them. He didn’t call himself a king, although he could have legitimately claimed that title. Instead, he called himself the “Good Shepherd,” associating himself with the low levels of the social structure. That inclusion of all is something I want to be part of this Christmas and throughout the year.
Today Andrew and I are celebrating our twentieth anniversary. Our plan: taking our youngest and her friend to see the live-action version of the movie Aladdin. While that doesn’t sound too romantic, it is a bit sweet since watching the cartoon version was one of our first real dates twenty-six years ago. Not only have I been married a really long time now, I’ve recently begun to realize that at forty-seven years old, I am smack dab in the middle of mid-life. If I live as long as my grandparents, I’ve got anywhere from thirty-two to fifty-four more years left. I am at the unique point of having enough time behind me to have a little perspective but enough time ahead to implement some of that perspective and see how it plays out.
The Past Perspective
I grew up in a conservative Christian church. I went to a Christian college. When I graduated, I moved to Ukraine to be a missionary/teacher. As I got to know Ukrainians, I began to hear their perspectives on things like how American politics affected their country. I learned that many people there did not like Ronald Reagan, who was a hero in the part of the US I came from and in my own family. I had hardly met anyone who did not like Reagan at that point in my life, but when I moved to Ukraine, I learned that many of people there blamed his policies for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political chaos and extreme inflation that hit Ukraine as a result. I learned that the public sentiment toward Mikhael Gorbachev was also negative for the same reason, although people here in the US had favorable attitudes toward him.
Living in a different culture did not just lead me to question what I believed about my country, though. I attended church every week in aUkrainian church similar to my own in America, but as time went by, I noticed some differences. They took communion from one cup, which they passed from one person to the next. I often tried to sit near the front during a service when communion was served in an effort to get the cup when it was still fresh! Not only that, but they used wine in that cup, so I had my first taste of alcohol in church. This differed greatly from my church at home, which taught abstinence from alcohol so thoroughly that they used grape juice in communion. Many of the Ukrainian churches we worked with believed that women should cover their heads in worship, taking that cue from I Corinthians 11. (Look it up and ask yourself why we don’t practice this.)
Change of Perspective
Experiences like these pushed me to question things I had always blindly accepted, both politically and spiritually. If these beautiful Christian people I loved believed it was acceptable to drink wine in church and expected women to cover their heads in worship, were they right? What exactly did the Bible teach about these things? More importantly, what was necessary for me to hold fast, and which of my beliefs could I loosen up on? What was cultural and what was essential? My beliefs had not been tested much until that point since I had surrounded myself with people who thought a lot like I did.
When I returned to the US, the same process happened in reverse. Suddenly, I was bombarded by teachings and opinions that seemed mired in American culture. I saw my own people slavishly following cultural norms instead of true Christian principles. To this day, I continue to hear vitriol disguised as piety, and I live perpetually amazed at how this can happen in Christian circles. I see politics mixed so intricately with faith that it becomes almost impossible to tell them apart. I hear independence and freedom preached to the extent that we forget the value of community and interdependence.
I have spent much of my adult life trying to discern what is cultural and what is Christian, whether in my own country or another. I have struggled to apply what I do think is essential. Most of all, I have struggled a great deal to love people who do not question their beliefs, people who do not see that their culturally-defined religion often is used to bludgeon those who differ.
What is essential? The very core of my answer I take from the mouth of Jesus himself, when an expert in the Jewish law asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40).
I fear even typing this because I know there are some who will chalk me up as one of those mamby-pamby Christians who preaches all love and no truth. However, love is not mamby-pamby. It’s not weak. Love is not a cop-out. Love is fierce. Ask a mother who spends every day, all day sitting at the bedside of a chronically ill baby. Ask a dad whose girl is late for her curfew. Ask a husband whose wife struggles with debilitating depression or a wife whose husband dies unexpectedly. Love is strong; it fights; it holds on forever. Most importantly, it wants the very best for its beloved. That’s the love we need to have for Jesus and for others. That love drives the gospel. That love empowered Jesus to sacrifice everything, and that love can push us to examine our dearly held beliefs.
So on our twentieth anniversary, Andrew and I will take our thirteen-year-old “baby” to a movie and sit in comfy theater seats eating too-buttery popcorn. We will remember two much younger versions of ourselves who had much less defined perspectives on life and faith and the world and realize how we’ve grown since then and how far we still have to go. Maybe we will remember to let other people mature as well, to let them experience the love of God, the space to grow, the freedom to question, and the power that comes from the knowledge that they are loved.