Joy Deep As Sorrow

The slaughter of 20 innocent first-grade children in Newtown, Connecticut last week sickens and disheartens us all. There is some pathos that the tragedy occurred the day after I sent out my meditation “I’m dreaming of a safe Christmas” dedicated to vulnerable children. That it happened during Advent season, when we are re-reading wondrous Christmas stories that always crash headlong into Herod’s terrible slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, makes both incidents all the more poignant.

At times like these, people often look to spiritual leaders for answers. I’m sure some of these “spokespersons for God” are feeling great pressure to find meaning in the senseless violence, feeling a need to defend God’s reputation.

I was talking with a friend today who told me she’d just seen one of the popular television preachers on a major network morning show. The primary question that the host had was, “After a terrible tragedy like this, how would you reassure our viewers that God exists and that God cares?”

My friend felt the clergyman had done a fairly good job of empathetically providing the explanations most of us, if we’ve been people of faith for some length of time, have heard repeatedly in one form or another:  reminders about man’s free will and assurances of God’s compassion for the victims.  Without question, this is a tough circumstance in which to be an apologist.

But as she was talking, I put myself in the place of this “man of God,”  and I realized that I no longer feel it’s my responsibility to “apologize” for God, to defend God in times like this. God is perfectly capable to defend God.

That sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Somehow we’ve all been indoctrinated that this is our job.  We’ve had our gospel sales training and we walk around feeling great pressure to help get God off the hook. 

If there’s good news in that gospel, I don’t see it.

I even think we can do a disservice to God in trying to use reasoning that we humans can understand.  It implies that I can understand God and you could, too. In truth, If we could understand the mind of God, God would not be God.

As we discussed it further, I was reminded of an article that was written over 20 years ago to World Vision staff. It was written by a staff psychologist before PTSD was a household term. He was offering empathy and an explanation of our colleagues who work in relief camps or other difficult settings surrounded by misery and pain, who then come back and would worship with us at World Vision’s weekly chapel service. The counselor counseled the rest of us not to be concerned that these wounded warriors were not being demonstrative in chapel or singing praise songs with great gusto. Don’t think they’ve lost their faith in God, he advised us. Rather, they continue to believe in a loving God despite the evidence to the contrary.

I’ve remembered that article for over two decades and I especially appreciated that he inserted the word “the” in the phrase “despite the evidence.” It acknowledges what we all know is true yet are usually afraid to admit—that there is evidence, compelling at an emotional level at the very least, that argues against belief in a loving and all-powerful God.  So, to hold our own subterranean fear of unbelief at bay, we do all we can to defend that God, “our God”.

As I’m writing this, my wife just sent a text with the disturbing news that a former church member and acquaintance died yesterday of complications from a terrible motorcycle accident. Frank has been a well-known radio host at a Christian station here. What will his family go through?  What words of comfort will quickly morph into fervent explanations and apologia?

Let’s face it. Life is painfully cruel; as life is unbelievably beautiful. 

My new friend bob Bennett sent me the very first CD of his new album. He burned it himself for my dying friend Mark Archibald, who passed away the next day, before Bob could mail it, so it came to me instead. The title song asks plaintively, “Is there joy deep as sorrow?” 

Despite the evidence to the contrary, the fact that the answer to Bob’ question is a resounding yes may be all the defense I personally need for God.  Oh yes, there is joy deep as sorrow. 

And for those who can open their hearts to it, this season offers deep reminders of both.  Our usual response to someone’s loss or heartache at Christmastime is, “Oh, and how terrible that it happened at this time of year, too.”  Perhaps the ultimate victory of the Christ-mission despite the river of blood from Herod’s infamous Slaughter of the Innocents requires a different reading, a different response when tragedy strikes at this very time of year.  Perhaps at no other season is there such clear evidence that joy is always comingled with sorrow, and vice versa; such a clear sign of ultimate hope, that sorrow can be redeemed. 
Redeeming last week’s sorrow is the task before us now, as well… a task we can undertake in strength and comfort, reaching out for the hand of One who also endured great sorrow while beckoning us to a Peaceable Kingdom of unending joy.
Peace on earth; goodwill to all,
December 2012

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