God With Us

* This is the manuscript to my sermon from this morning. I delivered this message at my church, Chestnut Grove Baptist, for our final Advent candle – the Christ candle. I post it here for those who might be wondering, in the wake of current events, just where God is when we need Him.

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baby jesus“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” – Matthew 1:23

It has been a very long week for our country and community. Between the Newtown shootings on the 14th and the murder of Paul Sampleton on Wednesday, a whole lot of people have been asking the collective question:

Where was God?

In the face of any tragedy, this is the almost-universal human impulse; both believers and non-believers alike instinctively turn their minds to the question of, if there exists an omnipotent, omniscient God, where was he when we needed him?

Professional theologians call this theodicy; the more understandable version is the problem of evil and suffering. Whatever you choose to call it, the issue is one of the great intellectual and emotional barriers to the Gospel. It is an issue that must be addressed carefully and with great wisdom.

While I want to be brief today, let me summarize for you the basic structure of the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-good, then evil should not exist because God would have the power to stop it and the moral imperative to do so. However, based on our simple powers of observation, we see that evil does, in fact, exist. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful (meaning he can’t stop evil from occurring) or God is not all-good (meaning he has no moral imperative to prevent evil), or God is okay with evil and suffering. None of those seem like truly great options.

The rhetoric on this issue runs deep, much deeper than we have time for this morning, but I bring this up because it is such an ingrained part of our human experience whenever we encounter tragedies such as Newtown or Paul Sampleton’s death. We experience it even more personally when things in our life don’t go according to plan; whether it’s the illness of a loved one, the death of a friend, the loss of a job, or the plain reality that life is harder than we would like for it to be, we run headlong into the problem of evil and suffering at almost every turn.

In fact, if I were to take a quick survey of the people in this room, asking if anyone here has struggled with some form of suffering or evil in the past few days, I believe almost every hand would shoot up toward the ceiling and stay there. Pain, it would seem, is a constant companion.

The Apostle Matthew knew this. Being a Jew, and a tax collector at that, Matthew was well acquainted with the realities of suffering and evil. And when he sat down to pen his Gospel account of the life of Christ, he did something remarkable: he bookended the story of God’s Messiah with the generations of Israeli suffering and the massacre of innocents.

Take a quick look at Matthew 1, and you see that he begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, tracing his Jewish roots from Abraham down to Joseph. Three sets of fourteen generations, a highly symbolic accounting that pointed not only to the divinity and fulfilled prophecy found in the birth of Christ, but to the history of God’s people who suffered faithfully while looking forward to that same birth. While many modern readers would tend to skip the long lists, there is so much to be gleaned from them; not only the remembrance of the more famous individuals, but the collective perseverance on the part of God’s people. To read those lists is to face first hand the pain and suffering (much of it self-inflicted, but pain and suffering nonetheless) of the chosen people of God, a pain and suffering that the author of Hebrews said was credited to them as righteousness.

We dismiss this part of the story at our own peril. Often times, our suffering is seemingly made worse by the idea that we know/believe that God is powerful enough to end it, and yet chooses otherwise. We have been conditioned to believe that somehow, God SHOULD end our suffering because we have become his adopted children through Christ, a less-than obvious twist on the blasphemous “prosperity gospel.” History tells us, as does Jesus himself, that our sufferings are not anomalies to be quickly dispatched, but instead are circumstances in which we are to learn the character and faithfulness of God.

For a specific example, consider the apostle Paul, who, we learn in Acts 9:15-16 was Jesus’ “chosen instrument.” As Jesus told Ananias, Paul was “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So the prelude to the birth of Christ is the historic suffering of God’s people. Suddenly, after generations of patient endurance, Christ arrives and enters into history as promised.

Only he comes as a child. A tiny, defenseless infant incapable of anything more than the most basic of human functionalities: breathing, eating, moving.

To underscore this point, Matthew shares with us a second look at suffering, a foreshadowing of what awaited the infant Christ: the suffering of death. Matthew carefully records King Herod’s command to kill all of the boy children under the age of two in Bethlehem and surrounding areas. And the soldiers execute the order — and execute what many historians estimate to be around 20 small boys. Church history has rightly called this the Massacre of the Innocents, with an Orthodox day of observance on December 27/28.

Many people have rightly connected this historic atrocity with what happened in Newtown last week.

We shudder at the death of children. We consider the lost potential, the tragic cutting short of life before is allowed to blossom, and we weep for what could have been. Mostly, we think of those children to whom we are close and we despair that it could have been them. The world offers no illusions about the fragility of life; when we think of the smallest, weakest, and most innocent among us being wantonly killed for reasons either unknown or incomprehensible, we feel the world spin out of control and we ask again: where is God?

Matthew surrounds the narrative of Jesus’ birth with two accounts that ask the question “Where is God?”, and in so doing, he magnifies God’s answer: the birth of Christ. Where is God in our times of patient suffering? Where is God in the midst of our horrific tragedies? The answer is as simple as it is profound: he is with us. In our midst. One of us, inhabiting our flesh and bone and suffering beside us.

The mystery of the Incarnation isn’t merely that God became man, it’s that God chose to live among our sin and feel it for himself. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, Jesus was “tempted in every way we are, yet did not sin.” He was “a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” Yes, he came to put an end to the sin that destroys us, but he didn’t do it as we would imagine; he didn’t come and conquer the world and turn it immediately into paradise.

He was born as a baby. He had to grow as we all grow, slowly, painfully, one day, one week, one month at a time, until the time was right for his ministry to begin. Then, he still took three years to invest his life in the lives of the apostles, pouring out his wisdom and insight into men and women who were – admittedly – a little slow on the uptake. He died an excruciating public death, was buried in a public tomb, was resurrected and appeared to numerous people, all to show humanity that the faithfulness of our souls was made possible by the faithfulness of God.

In other words, nothing about the birth, life, death or resurrection of Christ points to God being in the quick-fix business. And while we know that suffering is not something that we’ll endure in heaven, it’s part of the journey that takes us there.

But if you listen to some of our most basic, everyday church language, you see that we don’t understand that idea. If you really pay attention to what we say as Christians, you will hear that we really don’t believe that hardship has a place in the Christian life, or in the immanence of God. We pray all the time for the alleviation of suffering, instead of our enlightenment through suffering. We pray for God to be with us, when he already is.

And while these heartfelt prayers don’t come from a place of malice or malevolence, they still speak to the fact that we simply do not understand some of the most fundamental truths of our faith, truths that are revealed from the beginning of Scripture and are most obvious in the life of our Savior.

If God didn’t spare his own Son suffering, but brought about our redemption through it, will he not do the same with ours?

It would be easy to go off the rails at this point and address whether or not suffering was part of God’s plan. You can chase that particular rabbit all day and never come away with the obvious answer: regardless of the plan, the reality is that we suffer.

But we do not suffer in vain, and we certainly do not suffer alone.

The birth of Christ, the birth of the one called Immanuel, wasn’t merely the ticket to eternity that we have sometimes mistakenly made it out to be. It was an invitation to walk with God again as in days of old. It was an invitation to understand anew that the Father God who made us is the Son of God who walks with us and the Spirit of God who fills us. We see this in the outpouring of support for the families in Newtown; we see it in the way people have responded to Paul Sampleton’s death. As my friend, Ayubu Hashiguchi, one of the youth pastors at Grayson UMC said, it is in our sufferings that we find God revealed through the people who come alongside to comfort, assist, and pray with us.

Where was God at Newtown? Everywhere. Where was he in the case of Paul Sampleton? Right in the middle of it. Where is God right now, in the midst of your struggle? Inside you, beside you, walking with you through every moment of pain and doubt.

Don’t mistake the absence of easy answers for the absence of God. As my friend Dawn Hood is fond of saying, “Life is hard. God is good. Don’t get the two confused.”

The Christ candle we lit today serves to remind us of the most amazing of all our theological truths: that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son into our midst, into our flesh, to show us himself and remind us that we are not alone. Ever.

God is with us. Right now.

One in the Cuckoo’s Nest

Sometimes, life imitates art imitating life.

Every once in a while, when the world seems to be spinning at a billion miles an hour and the circumstances of my life seem more than I can bear, I have this little ritual I do that helps me slow things down and take them in stride. It’s nothing fancy, really; it’s not even a ritual per se, more of an awareness that I call to mind and own and immediately feel comforted by.

I sit in my office, or my car, or wherever I may be, and I tell myself I’m crazy.

Good old fashioned Looney Tunes. Grab the straight jackets and the butterfly nets because one flew over the cuckoo’s nest, so send in the men in their little white coats because they’re coming to take me away C-R-A-Z-Y.

I admit this, and I feel better. It’s crazy. But that’s the point.

I’m all about logic and reason, normally, but sometimes I have to stop and admit that the world doesn’t really function that way. If it did, some of the stuff that goes on wouldn’t; and if you don’t believe me, go read the Freeh Report on Penn State and tell me where the logic and reason is in that situation. If, at heart, the world functioned in a way that made complete sense and fit rationally and logically in neat categories, things would be a lot different.

But things don’t fit neatly into categories. Heck, they don’t even fit neatly into generalizations. The world, despite our careful attempts at a logical and orderly veneer, is chaotic. A mess. A swirling, raging storm of illness and nonsense.

We struggle mightily to deny this, of course. We use words and trains of thought to attempt to bring order to the madness. We soothe ourselves with compassionate action and well-intentioned service. We seek the balm of Gilead in our sensitive lives, but eventually we grow tired of the pretending, we grow raw from the chafing of our attempts to force chaos into logic’s little box, and we give in.

We lose hope.

We declare that nothing has any meaning and there’s no way forward. Chaos wins. Madness reigns. And we just have to accept that reality.

On our darkest days, we are Randall Patrick McMurphy, and the world is our asylum. You can pick your own Nurse Ratched.

That’s why it helps for me to admit that, if the world is crazy, then I’m crazy too. I didn’t come into existence independent of the universe – I am exactly what the universe produces and could never hope to become different. I am crazy. Broken. Twisted. Insane. And by owning that fact, I am relieved of my guilt for not being able to change it. My burden becomes lighter because I know that I cannot do the impossible.

Someone greater than me has to do it. Someone beyond the madness. Someone who can understand it but transcend it at the same time. Point me to that person and let me put my trust in him/her; let me throw myself at his/her feet and ask to be rescued from the madness, from the darkness, from the asylum and Ratched’s too-powerful established madness of her own. I will gladly confess my insanity, my brokenness, my lack of utter ability to do anything for myself and seek refuge within the one who can bring order to bear on chaos. Let me fall on the one who said, “Come to me if you’re tired of your burden, and I will give you complete rest.”

I often forget all of this, but it doesn’t take life long to remind me that sometimes the sanest person in the asylum is the one who admits he’s insane.

My Children, My Salvation

The headstone for my first child, Ruthanne Camille Brooks. Today marks seven years since her birth/death.

I’ve been trying to think of a clever way to make this post a little less obvious, to make it subtle in its reference to the anniversary of my daughter’s birth/death.

Can’t think of anything. Today would have been Ruthanne’s seventh birthday.

It’s weird, but it doesn’t hurt today. I don’t feel like I have for the past six years: there’s no open or hidden sadness pulling on my heart, there’s no depressive episode threatening to overwhelm me, there’s not even been any tears. It’s just been a day, almost like any other, and part of me is relieved.

When you grieve for someone long gone, there’s a part of you that never truly lives. You kill off a little piece of yourself in honor of that person because you feel guilty for being able to continue on without them. I’ve seen it in my grandmother, who still grieves the loss of my grandfather, and I’ve seen it in myself with regard to Ruthie.

Only today, there is no grief. There are no tears. There is no mournful graveside vigil or teary-eyed blog posting – just the clear light of day and thoughts about Jonathan and Ella being off at the pool with Rachel. Today, my heart belongs solely to the living, and I feel like a weight has been lifted.

I think part of the reason is because yesterday, after a busy morning at the pool, Rachel and I brought Jonathan and Ella to Ruthie’s grave with us to change out the flowers on her headstone. Ella and Jon stood quietly by as we pulled out the old flowers, cleaned the urn, and put the new flowers in, and then Ella, after asking for permission in the car, sang “Happy Birthday” to her sister. Jonathan joined in.

When they were finished, Ella looked up at the sky and said, “Happy birthday, Ruthanne.”

Jonathan danced in place and said, “Ha-pee bur-day, Roo-fee.”

A year ago, I would’ve ruptured. A year ago, my heart would’ve gone into a dark place, a grief born not just of sadness for Ruthanne’s death but also of the knowledge of my own heart – that while I love Jonathan and Ella, part of me still pines for Ruthie. That was a year ago.

Yesterday, I stood there and cried, not because of my grief, but because my two kids, my two beautiful if sometimes consternating children, sang songs of innocence to a sister they’ll never know, and did it because they wanted to have a place in that part of their parents’ lives. Yesterday, my children revived that part of me I had intentionally killed off.

They saved that forlorn piece of my soul.

It’s amazing. You have children and you instinctively know that it’s your job to be their protector, to be the one that watches over their growth and development, to make sure that they turn out to be the kind of people who can not only make their way in this world but make this world a better place. You worry over the tiniest of decisions and stress over futures that may never come, all because you know that that’s why you exist: to be there for your kids. You go through all of this as a parent because you sincerely believe that you are to be a surrogate savior for your kids.

And then, so often, they turn out to be surrogate salvation for you.

There’s a line in the Psalms – You, O Lord, have redeemed me from the pit – sang out by David after a particularly harrowing experience. I feel like that’s my song today. I have been redeemed from a pit unlike any I’ve ever known, the one experience in life that has indelibly left it’s mark on me, and not necessarily for the best.

Like David, I can say that God has redeemed me.

Unlike David I can say God redeemed me through my kids.

And today is just another day because of it. Another day with my kids. Another day with Rachel. Another day, period. It is one of the greatest miracles I’ve ever known.