Friday, March 30, 2012

The Age of Loss

"I cannot and will not believe in and worship a God who could create cancer."

We can say all day long, as Christians, "Well, God didn't create it... He allowed it..."  We can come up with all kinds of answers, but the basic implication of these wounded skeptics is that if there is a God, a God who has enough power and transcendence to create the entire physical universe and everything in it, and with it all the non-physical entities and forces, then He is transcendent enough to know what He is doing, what He is creating, and what will happen if He "allows" certain things to happen.

And the commonality among all of us, sooner or later in life, is the wound.  Many skeptics are "wounded" skeptics.  Some are bitter and angry skeptics -I will NOT believe in a God who could let those things happen to me and those I love.  They have intellectual reasons for their skepticism, but usually there is a personal reason embedded within it.  Someone died.  Loss happened.  Cancer ravaged someone they loved, and they watched them suffer and die before their eyes.  An accident struck.  A natural disaster took everything they own.  The life they grew into, with their relationships, is a broken shell compared to what they had hoped and dreamed for -broken families, broken marriages, broken children.  Neglect.  Abuse.  Mental and emotional illness.  Disease.  Disaster.  "Freak" accidents.  The list goes on and on.

For a God who supposedly doesn't exist, those folks sure are angry at Him, if you peek beneath the covers.  That I get it.  There is an anger about it.  There is deep pain.

"God, I don't understand how you could be "God" and be a "good" God and have the world be this way, so I will refuse to believe in You."


"God, I don't understand how you could be "God" and be a "good" God and have the world be this way, so since you seem to not care about suffering, about my suffering, why should I care about following you?  If you don't care about what I care about, why should I care about what you care about?"

Pastor and author Timothy J. Keller has been helpful on this front somewhat.  Intellectually, there is one thing that is true:  If God is transcendent enough to be angry with for allowing the world to be the way it is, for not stopping that cancer or that abuse or that tragedy, then He is also transcendent enough to have reasons for allowing it which we do not know and cannot grasp.  You can't have it both ways.  Transcendence is transcendence.  We accept quickly that God must be transcendent over evil and calamity, being ready to blame Him, yet we want to break into the throne room, assuming our own transcendence and right, so that we can look over His shoulder at the game-plan and pass judgment.

Shouldn't that Transcendent vs. creature relationship hold in both cases?

Logically it should.  But logic isn't really the driving force.  Two things are.  First, it is in our nature as corrupted human beings to want to climb the ladder into heaven, to break through the clouds, to storm into the throne-room, and to want to take it over.  We take our natural, God-given power of reason, our desire to understand and know this universe we have been given, and we want to use them to storm the heavens and tell God, with our very limited minds and information, that He's doing it wrong.

And second, which I already mentioned, is the pain.  It isn't just that bad things happen.  It is that bad things have happened to us.  We've cried and begged and pleaded for help, for something to change, for help to arrive, and nothing happened.  No rescue.  No God.  No "help in the day of trouble." 

"Where were you, God, when I called to you for help?  Where were you?!  Where are you now?!  You know how I suffer, and yet nothing happens.  You watch as everything I love crumbles before my eyes."

It is true.  But it is a sad fact of reality.  In this life we will experience loss.  Even if none of our relationships ever ended by betrayal or rejection or contention, they would still end through death.  Loss is an inevitable part of this existence.  And it hurts.  You can't avoid that.  So, to say that God should have the world be different is ultimately to long for a world that has no loss in it.

In light of all of this, I submit the following to you.  If you give up God because of evil and calamity in the world, you give up too much.

First, you give up the very basis for something being "wrong" versus "right."  If it is merely your opinion, that doesn't form very much of a ground for feeling justified in being angry about it.  Why is a world with loss in it "wrong?"  Just because you don't like it?  Upon what grounds?  If everything is a product of material and chemical chance, then so are my emotions.  Upon what grounds can I really make a moral or value judgment and have it mean anything at all?  Giving up God means that my feelings are meaningless and have no basis other than the temporary feeling I get when certain chemicals surge in my brain.  Why do they surge?  I don't know.  Maybe it is about species survival.  Yet, I don't know where things like compassion for the weak and sick fits in with "survival of the fittest."  Oh, that's because it doesn't.

Second, you give up the framework in which the pain of loss makes any sense.  The thing which helps us get through pain and loss is knowing that our feelings matter.  Letting our feelings matter means letting the person or thing that was lost matter to us.  If your spouse who passed away matters to you, your pain will be great.  To dismiss the pain as nothing does not honor the value of that beloved person to you.  Feeling what you feel honors their memory.  The pain matters because they matter.  If there is no God, a God who created us as relational beings, made to live in relationship with Him and with others, then why does it hurt so much when relationships are severed by loss?  Please explain that to me from a naturalistic, atheistic point of view.

Imagine your mother dies.  You are crushed.  You feel so much sorrow.  You feel reget.  The grief, the pain of loss, is unbearable.  So many memories flood to your mind.  Can you imagine dismissing those as insignificant?  That would be like dismissing the loss of your mother, itself.  You might want to run from that pain in various ways, but you can't change the fact that your mother meant everything to you and now she is gone, and that kills you inside.  If there is no God, the God who made us this way, then relationships and community are purely a functional necessity for the survival of our species.  But if there is a God who created us to be relational beings like He is (in a Trinity), then now it makes sense why relational loss is so devastating.  It makes sense why there is a very real, non-tangible, non-physical bond -a bond that has now been broken, bringing anguish to the soul.

I remember seeing a television program about a mother who lost her children years ago, yet she still keeps their rooms vacant, arranged just as they were when they lived there.  It is plain that she does not want to let go of them.  She is trying to keep them alive, to hold on to them, because facing the pain of the loss is too much.  Over the top?  Crazy?  Self-destructive?  I don't think that is the point.  More like hurting and not wanting to face it because she loves her children that much.  "Good-bye" are two words she does not want to say, even if she knows within that it has already happened.

The pain of "good-bye" only makes sense if the rest about God, and how He created us, is true.  So while it may seem easy to dismiss God because of the presence of evil and calamity, we cannot dismiss Him for our pain to matter -and we know it does.

But God does one more for us.  He does not give an exhaustive explanation for why He allows another day to pass in the world the way it is.  He again disappoints our human sensibilities by coming into this world of evil and calamity and suffering under it.  What is that all about?!  He came into the world as the man Christ Jesus, He grew up in a small town, living in a people who rejected Him, living in a people who were oppressed by the Romans.  He was betrayed by His friends.  He was abandoned.  He was beaten and tortured and killed.

Why did He do that?  The Bible tells us that He did it as a way to deal with this problem of evil and calamity, all of the things that belong to this fallen age we live in.  To us, that sounds utterly defeated and stupid.  "You're God... just snap your fingers and change this crap!"  But instead He chose to come down and subject Himself to it and die under it.

But it doesn't end there.  By His death He died to sin, for our sins, so that we may be reconciled to God.  And then He conquered death by rising from the dead.  By His resurrection, He became the first of something new -a new creation.  Isn't that what we want?  We want something new to come?  We want an end to the evil and calamity and something new to come.  Just like a mother with a baby in her womb, the time has not yet come for the birth of the new age to come.  But it will come.

In other words, God is not silent.  He did answer our cries.  He came and dealt with the problem, and He gives His promise that a new age is coming, a new creation -His Kingdom- is coming.  Whether we are part of that kingdom depends upon if we believe in His goodness and what He has done, if we trust.

Could it simply be that God does not deal with things in the way that we like, and that is what makes Him God and us not?  And could it be that God actually does answer all of our longings?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Love and Logic

There are so many struggles as a parent. We want them to do what we tell them. We want them to learn. We want them this way and that way. We want these certain results. We have battles for control, and our children are often very adept at figuring out how to get what they want while we lose our cool, grab control with an iron first, and then just feel guilty after.

Recently, I've been going through a Love and Logic course. Through my experience, the goal of Love and Logic is to teach parents to be the kind of parents we want to be. What we really want is what? Fewer head-to-head battles, no more yelling and spanking, and a way to effectively teach our children, while remaining "on the same team," so that they can grow up into responsible, self-thinking, inner-directed adults with good values and love for others.

We know the things that don't work, yet we still do them because we don't know what else to do and they seem, sometimes, to produce some kind of desired response (though perhaps out of fear or utter boredom). Lectures don't work. Yelling doesn't really work. We might get our kids to do what we want by using force and fear, but as soon as the fear of punishment is taken away they will do what they want. They aren't learning values for themselves -they are learning how to avoid punishment. And they aren't learning to think for themselves. And the attemps to force them to do things, the "I told you so's" when they screw up, and the battle for control produces a very unwanted result: they see us as against them rather than for them. The whole focus is put on our angry, controlling, lecturing reaction to their problem.

Love and Logic seeks to correct these parental problems by offering a few core principles, a basic pattern to follow, a number of practical tools, and a litany of examples.

If I may try to summarize the basic principles, I would say they can be listed as:

1. Children learn from the experience of their own consequences for their mistakes and failures much, much better and much deeper than through things like parental lectures and anger. Through this process they instill values and an inner-direction, an inner-voice, which helps them make their own wise decisions in the future.

2. Therefore, the goal of the parent is to facilitate this process and get out of its way. This means that that the child has the problem, and the parent's job is to make sure that the child's problem stays his problem. When the parent makes it a battle of wills, butting heads with his child, the child's problem has now become the parent's problem, and the parent mistakenly feels like it is his or her job to fix it. No, the child has the problem and mom and dad can help them solve their own problem or learn from their mistakes.

3. Therefore, rather than obsessively trying to keep the child from making mistakes and screwing up, the parent wants to facilitate the learning process by allowing their children to make small mistakes now, and learn from the consequences, so that they will not have to make the big mistakes later.

Next, the basic method of Love and Logic goes something like this:

1) Give an instruction to the child, something you know they are capable of doing. Maybe have the child describe in their own words what it will look like when the task is finished.

2) Hope that they screw it up. This does not mean eagle-eyeing them so you can put them down or mock them or attack them for not listening to you. It means you are thrilled that their failure will provide a real learning opportunity for them.

3) Use empathy and allow the consequences to teach, not your anger or your blabbering mouth. When you make it about you, you put yourself against them. When you use empathy and allow the consequences to teach, you get to still be on their side while allowing them the benefit of actually learning for themselves. Always deliver a strong dose of empathy before delivering the bad news about consequences (if necessary... some consequences are natural results and take no parental intervention). As it says in the workbook, "Empathy or sorrow reduces the chance that the child will spend time thinking about the adult's anger. The child's attention should be on his/her own life and decisions..."

4) Give the same task again. This implies to the child that they, like all people, can make mistakes, learn from them, and get back up and try again. "Failures" are ok and are simply a part of life.

Here's a fictitious example.  Your child wants to have a friend come over.  You tell him (once) that he needs to clean his room first before he can have any guests.  You talk to him like a human being and make sure he understands what that means.  Hours roll by.  He gets a snack.  He stands at the couch, watching television on his way out of the kitchen.  He sits in his room with the door shut, playing with legos.  More time rolls by.  Now, it is late.  You call him down for dinner.  At the dinner table he asks when his friend can come over.  You ask him about his room.  He confesses that although he started to clean it, he got side-tracked and it isn't done.  You take a peek into his room, and it looks like a bomb went off inside.  You say empathetically, "I'm sorry, buddy.  He won't be able to come over today."  "But, but... I can clean it up really fast!  I'll go up and do it right now!"  You reply, "No, that isn't going to happen tonight, because there are other things that need to be done now, too.  Ya know?"   "Like what?!"  "Well, you tell me... do you have any other chores you normally help us with?  What about things you have to get done for school?"  Again he sighs, "Yeah..."  "Ok, well we can try to have him over tomorrow."  "He can't.  Only today."  "Hmm... I'm sorry.  That stinks."  That night the boy ends up staying up late because he has to do dishes and homework.  Did he learn from this for himself?  I hope so.  If not, he will in time.  But he probably learned much more than he would have if you had nagged him or picked at him all day about all the time he was wasting.

Notice what didn't happen.  No getting angry.  No repeatedly checking on him to see if he is cleaning his room.  No nagging him over and over to "get it done."  No, "I told you so."  And no lectures about being responsible.  The boy, hopefully, gets to see, with as little interference as possible, that doddling and delaying his responsibilities means that he loses out on what he wants to do.
The goal is for the child to take ownership of their problem, for control to be "shared" between parent and child, and for the child (not the parent) to have an opportunity for thinking and decision making.

Here are some of the practical tools that I have really enjoyed:

1. Giving your child choices that you can live with. Give them options and let them make the decision. A side-benefit of this is that you can "cash-in" on bigger decisions. For example, if you've been letting them make the choices all day, even for minute things, you can cash in later and say, "Ok it's bed time." When they whine say, "Hey, you've been making all the choices all day long. Don't I get a turn, too?"

This tool is helpful is a number of different situations. The other day, we had chicken for dinner and my child did not want to eat her chicken. She wanted ice-cream, because she knew we had the option for dessert. The fussed and complained over and over. I said to her, "Honey, there are two things you can do here. You can finish your chicken and then have a nice bowl of ice-cream afterwards, or you can skip your chicken and wait to eat again in the morning when you have breakfast." She thought for a second, picked up her fork, and said, "I'll eat my chicken," and finished it, followed by a bowl of ice-cream.

To use another example, the other day the same little girl came into the office demanding that I get her a snack. You would think she was dying of starvation. She was nagging, and it was making it very hard to work. I started with an open statement about my feelings, "Honey, I'm working on something at the moment, and I would be much happier about it if you would leave so that I can finish." She started to walk out but then came back and nagged me some more. I then gave her a choice, "You have a choice. You try to argue with me and nag at me, and I'll still have to finish this after you are done, or you can leave and let me finish this now so that I can get up and get you a snack after. What do you think is a good choice?" She left.

Many times, this tool is great for just giving the child a sense of his own responsibility. "Would you like to brush your teeth now, or would you like to brush your teeth after the bed-time story?" "Would you like to get dressed now, or would you like to do it after you eat breakfast." Both options are things you can live with, and they learn to make decisions for themselves and see which one works better. Maybe brushing after the story isn't a good idea because you get too tired. That is something they can learn for themselves.

2. Using enforceable statements. Rather than doling our commands about what they should do, an enforceable statement is about what you, the parent, will do in some circumstance. Instead of, "You better clean your room!" an enforceable statement would be something like, "If your bedroom isn't clean by dinner time, I will not pick you up any dinner. I'm not cooking -we're having take-out tonight." It is similar to giving the child choices in that they really do have two options. One of the options, however, involves a consequence they will not like... something you will do. And because it is about what you will do, you can enforce that. You can't control another human being, but you can enforce your own words with your own actions.

3. Giving them something good to live up to. Instead of, "You had better be good for the babysitter while we are gone," how about, "Bye, honey. I know you'll be extra-sweet and good for the babysitter tonight." It makes a difference.

The content in the course is no "formula." It needs to be applied with wisdom. Other factors always need to be looked at. For example, if the child receives zero attention from mom and dad, then obviously they may be acting out just to get some. These techniques and tips are not a substitute for real time and one-on-one connection with the child.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Faith as a Partnership

What is faith?  How can we understand what it means to have faith?  How are we saved by faith?  These are questions that many spend countless hours milling over.

One of the biggest issues I see when it comes to folks who struggle is that they try to "get faith" or "keep their faith" because they rely upon it as that which saves them.  They are constantly looking back upon themselves, attempting to measure themselves to see if they have faith.  "If I know I have faith," they say to themseles, "then I can know I'm safe."  The navel-gazing doesn't end there, for if they cannot convince themselves that they have "faith" just by looking at themselves, they must go to the next level and preoccupy themselves with a measurement of their "Christian-looking-ness"... only to conclude, worriedly, that they must be inferior to other Christians or not making the mark.

This misunderstands what faith is at its very essence, for faith is not something you offer to God in order to secure His salvation.  It is not just another "good work."  It is something wholly other.  Faith means seeing your lack, your spiritual bankruptcy, and leaning you weight on Christ and all that God's grace has accomplished in Him for you.  Faith does not lean on, or look back upon, itself.

At the risk of sounding utterly synergistic, faith recognizes a "partnership" of sorts.  I am a creature, dependent on my God... on His mercy and His provision and His goodness, which He has proven is abundantly there in Jesus. The "partnership" of living by faith is that I do, on earth, my earthly things, living in the restful embrace and mercy and grace and care of my God who came down to meet me here. It means I can't save myself, that I leave that to Him. It means that I can't perfect myself, that I leave that to Him. It means I don't know all the answers and don't need to, that He is big enough for them all. It means that I can't control, that I leave that to Him. It means that I leave all of that to Him, recognizing my full dependence, and then I concentrate on my earthly things with rest because He is God, *this* God who has taken care of my biggest problem so that I can come back down to earth.

My salvation, forgiveness for my sins, grace for today, my faith itself, providing for me, being Lord and Master, being my Father... these things are His department, His side of this "partnership."  By His grace, I relinquish my control of these to Him.

Coming down to earth and dealing with my earthly things, doing the things He has given to me and no more, is my side of this partnership.

That is faith.  It means that I recognize that He is God, the only Savior, and that I can now stop trying to climb the ladder, I can give up control of His side of things, and I can focus on living as a man here on earth, loving others, and "tending the fields" so to speak.

And consequently, anti-faith, or the spirit of the "Old Adam" in us, seeks to destroy this partnership.  It seeks to steal God's side of things, to overtake it for ourselves, to control it.  It is not content to just be a man and to just mind our earthly things in the garden.