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Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for March 2017

The Blessing of Pain

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Lent 4, 5 March 2017, SJE ©2017  James 1:1-18, Ps 23, Matthew 16:25-26 (this was a hard time coming, so I’m not too sure about the flow of ideas…and my back hurts today)

This continues in our series about pain and the abundant life, today with the challenging title, ‘the blessing of pain’.

My approach to the question of the blessing of pain is necessarily contextualized in my own 18 year experience with chronic neuropathic pain – pain that ended my military career, and has continued to limit my ability to thrive and survive in terms of what employment I can tolerate, and what I am able to do for recreation.  So how is it I can speak of blessing in this situation in life?

Pastor Aiden Tozer stated that “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” This fits well with the CS Lewis quote I used in my last pain sermon, that “pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. These are challenging thoughts, as we would much rather think about our God as a God who only takes away hurts, who only makes things better, where better is something which fits our definition of better. In this it is important to distinguish between our thought, and God’s thought. How is it then that it is the blessing of pain which we focus on today?

One of the most fascinating articles I have read was written by a high-performance physician and academic about how he ended up with severe chronic pain which was initially untreatable. After seeing scores of specialists, having multiple tests run, there was no diagnosis. He was flabbergasted to experience some of the things he had heard patients complain of: physicians who give up when a diagnosis is not apparent, those who said it was purely psychological, and those who said that there was nothing which could be done, and that he would just have to learn to live with it. On the other side of chronic pain, this physician realized how poorly his profession is set up to deal with unremitting chronic pain (and probably how poorly he had treated patients although that is never mentioned).

As a chronic pain person, I can attest to similar frustration. It reflects an aspect of humanity’s response to those things it cannot control or understand, which is to minimize, moralize or to remove the reminder. You hear this in other contexts, such as friends and acquaintances trying to help you deal with your own serious diagnosis, or with the sudden death of a loved one. How many times have we heard (or said) things like, “Everything will work out for the best”, or “It is probably for the best” or “you will just have to get over it”.

There is a real danger here for Christians in communities of faith. We are fundamentally called to be a people of joy, but sometimes that joy becomes forced and then suppresses our ability to sincerely be with people who are in the furnace of trial…because of some idea that Christians are supposed to eternally happy. This is a lie of the modern world and when we bring it into our communities it can stifle our abilities to journey with those who are enduring trials. These empty bromides do far more harm than good, which is why my usual advice when people ask what they should say to a friend in trouble is simply to say nothing but to be there with them. This follows the example of Job’s friends before they ruin everything by trying to explain what’s happening. Sometimes we don’t need to do anything, but just be.

But, if we are to take James’ words seriously, what I should advise those askers is to respond with this, “You’re suffering? What a great opportunity for joy!” “You’re suffering? What a great opportunity for joy!” Rejoice, for your sickness / financial disaster / death of a child / death of a spouse / loss of job is an opportunity for God to bring you real blessings. This is exactly what James speaks about in this introductory portion of his letter. It is an interesting comment on the modern church that this passage is excluded from the normal cycle of readings, when it speaks so directly to something we all understand so intimately.

James starts with the zinger up front – “count it all joy when you meet trials for your testing produces steadfastness which, in full effect, will leave you perfect and complete” (paraphrasing). The word ‘trials’ here is the same word which we hear in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation” or “save us from the time of trial”. James tells us that there is specific outcome from the process of facing trials of different kinds, and that that outcome is spiritual maturity and completeness. This refrain will be echoed again in the 12th verse when James reiterates the blessing present for those who stay steadfast under trial who will receive God’s crown of life.

Now, this is a nice thought. But, it can easily become yet another of those bromides that rolls so easily off the tongue. One of my neighbours experienced a traumatic brain injury a few years back that left him blind and disabled – we frequently see his wife walking with him around the neighbourhood. That sort of reality, life with a chronic disabling condition, is not one that you want to speak into by saying, “as long as you remain steadfast you’ll be blessed”. I know how I want to respond to those sorts of suggestions when they’re said to me. Some future state of painlessness and blessedness doesn’t do much in the midst of the torment of trial here and now!

The fact of the matter is that life with a chronically limiting condition is not something which intuitively translates into an understanding of God’s blessing being somehow imparted either immediately or at some future point. So it is fine and good to speak about steadfastness or perseverance leading to the perfection of self, but what does that perfection look like when it exists within the same context of the chronic condition? This is such a contrary thought to the way of this world.

You can see that clearly in my earlier comment about the experience of physicians who develop a chronic health condition – I’ve not encountered one of those pain conversion stories where the physician relates how positive their encounter with the health care system has been. This is a reflection of our culture’s imperative to remove suffering as quickly and with as much finality as is possible – to deal with suffering with ‘extreme prejudice’ if you like. I suspect one of the reasons those physicians have those experiences is because once the usual suspects have been tried and failed, their peers become highly uncomfortable in the face of a condition which they do not know how to fix. We, as a culture, are pathologically addicted to the quest for a quick fix for everything, as this is a symptom of our endless quest to control everything.

Where then do we find the blessing in trials of various kinds? Let’s look at a bit more of James. If we look at life as a series of episodes of trials, instead of a single incident we’re trying to figure out, things start to fit. Perhaps the message is that a life of faith, dealing with trials as they come, in turn prepares us for later (and potentially greater) trials. Rather than one 50 metre sprint to the finish, James is speaking about a mode of living that accepts trials as a part of our existence, and sees trial as a way of training for what comes later.

So like John Wesley’s idea of progressive sanctification, our life, with its trials, becomes a training event for the next trial we must face. So the coming of a trial is an opportunity which allows us to grow in steadfastness and spiritual maturity. This highlights one of the key aspects of facing trials which James speaks of when he tells us if we lack the wisdom of how to deal with trials then we should turn to God and ask in faith. The wisdom of God is what allows those trials to be transformed into occasions of the development of spiritual maturity and steadfastness.  In this sense, the trials of our lives are like trips to the local gym with a personal trainer, each visit teaches out bodies, our muscles to be stronger, more responsive. Under the wise eye of a skilled trainer, we undertake those developments safely, in a way that allows us to avoid injury. This is a metaphor for what James is speaking of, where the gym trainer forms the fount of God’s wisdom for dealing with life’s trials, which strengthens us and so prepares us for future challenges.

It is also clear in James that this is not always a happy process. In verse 12 he states that “Blessed is the person who remains steadfast under trial.” Note that being blessed, contrary to the world’s perception of blessedness, has little to do with being happy and contented. One can be mightily blessed and yet not possess happiness. One of the reasons for this seeming dichotomy is that these words about suffering can only be understood in an eschatological sense, that is, when grounded in a reality that places Christ at the centre, and looks toward an end time when all things will reach a culmination in the person of Jesus. That we are speaking in that sense is clear through the Gospel reading, where we are called to take up our crosses to follow Christ. Jesus teaches that to save your life is to lose it; while losing your life for Christ will result in life being found. Real life, true life, abundant life, only comes through the process of surrendering that which was never ours to God. The word used for ‘life’ in the Gospel is psyuche life, or soulish life as opposed to purely biological life. We are speaking here not of finding your life in this world, but truly finding real life at the end of time when Jesus returns in glory to judge both the living and the dead. The teaching is fundamentally eschatological, that is, having to ultimately do with salvation. The answer comes in an image: Jesus riding on a white horse bringing righteousness and completion to everything.

This passage, about bearing one’s cross, has been often misused to explain why people should not take action to address injustice. Bearing a cross does not mean we accept our world as it is, and do not advocate or work to change it. We are fundamentally called to bear witness to the world, which is a radical and transformative act. Rather, bearing a cross can be seen as dealing with those trials which are not, and have never been under our control. It is also important to emphasize that Jesus is not speaking about each of us carrying the cross of Christ. Rather, the taking up is of our crosses – that is, each of us has our own trials to bear and our task is to bear those trials. This is not a passive process, but one which is actively engaged with those trials. Yoder goes so far as to state that our cross-bearing life is an active one which sees us seizing a public discipleship that contains a willingness to be countercultural and counter-state in the public arena. That is, at the heart of meaning on this question is our willingness to be humbled in many ways, including publicly, for the sake of bearing our crosses.

For many years I kept my Metis heritage secret because it was easier that way, easier because I didn’t have to reveal to people that I was one of the “them”, that is, indigenous people. About 20 years ago I realized that I was leaving most of the heavy lifting of reconciliation to others because by virtue of genetics I was able to hide in plain sight. I came to see that my public declaration of who I really am was necessary so that I could speak out against the things which continue to threaten indigenous people because it is my obligation to do so. Taking up that cross, in this case, picking sides in a painful and centuries-old colonial conflict, has exposed me to racism and hatred in ways I could not have imagined. Particularly because I look white, that public outing of who I truly am is an important witness because I can’t be categorized in the same way the culture looks on other indigenous. It also required me to embrace generations of pain and brokenness and denial as my family attempted to survive through the terrors of colonialism. This, I believe, is the essence of what both Jesus and Yoder are speaking of, a willingness to bear those slings and arrows for the sake of spiritual integrity to live into your Godly calling.

We see that question of spiritual integrity come through in James. Right after the direction to pray for wisdom in faith, James contrasts that approach with one who doubts, who is double-minded. The Greek word double-minded literally means double-souled, and links us back to the psuche – soulish life – of Matthew’s Gospel. What is double-souled? A person who does not maintain a consistency of purpose and intent, that is, spiritual integrity. The double-souled person will pray, but also work to protect themselves from the world because they expect that God will not respond to their petition. You can see in that duplicity the presence of great brokenness – I’m going to do what I should in asking God; but I know that I need to still need to stay in control because I can’t really trust God.

By contrast, a person who has a soul-anchor in Christ, approaches God with consistency and sincerity of purpose – that is with intentionality, is demonstrating spiritual integrity. This is not an unobtainable standard that places the onus for failure back in our lap because we have not achieved some absolute standard of spiritual integrity. Rather, this is a reminder that we are to approach God with singleness of intent and blamelessness in action, to the best of our abilities, and as consistently as we can (and not like a wave tossed by the wind).

What does it mean to trust God? It means an admission that it is not possible to do all things with only our power and ability, and that ultimately we are not in control of our lives. So we approach God in faith knowing that we cannot do this ourselves. It also reflects the ancient creed used by the Israelites, the “Hear O Israel”, The Lord our God is one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength. This is the first and great commandment. Loving God with one heart, and not saving part of your heart to love the things of this world.

This also contains a model for how our communities are supposed to enter into sharing of trials with each other. We do not stand on the outside looking in, offering those minimizing statements to others in order to protect ourselves from pain. Rather, we are called to be Christ-like, and to enter into the trial itself with the person who is suffering. We join together as fellow cross-carriers who are linked by the one who carried the ultimate cross for all our sakes, linked through our mutual understanding of pain and trials and our steadfastness, learned as a community over centuries of encountering suffering and pain.

So, where then is the blessing in suffering? Suffering, Godly suffering, defines us as individuals and as a community. Suffering, Godly suffering, refines us by bringing us back constantly to focus on what is important and not the distractions of this world. Refining is never a hurt-free process, as you are converting one substance into a purer form. At the end you are left with something precious. It is adversity that allows us to see what is really valuable and important because the things of this world, transient and thin, quickly fall aside when the trial begins. Suffering also allows us to better understand the trials of others: and so my trial teaches me, and I can in turn be in community with someone else in trial, and together we can offer mutual support.

Note the importance of this reciprocity of being in trial, as there is a bit of a trap here. I do not support my brother or my sister in the faith because of obligation, or because I am able to ‘fix’ their situation. This is a position the church, and clergy in particular, fall into.  I do not support you in community because I am somehow expert in facing trials, but because I come out of my trials acknowledging that I’m a broken person, and cannot do this alone.  So I offer support in community as a form of reminder: you are not alone; others see your pain; others have experienced pain like yours; others have survived pain like yours…and all this provides for a reciprocal blessing because ultimately we are here to remind each other of the ultimate sufferer, Jesus Christ.

Bringing this back to my opening illustration of physicians who become chronic pain patients, one of the dynamics that works out in their professional practice is usually a radically shifted perspective on patient pain. The one example I opened with left his practice as an internist and became a specialist in pain and addiction, and now takes the cases other physicians refuse to accept: opioid addicts with chronic pain. While his pain was resolved through surgery, the blessing of that trial was a remaking of his life, so that he is now blessing many who live with similar trials. This is the model of how trial becomes blessing in the context of the faith community: our trials transform us, so that we can in turn be transformative within the community.

This is very much the image of Christ upon the cross. It is in His person that we find the ultimate answer to the question of blessing in trial.


 

Most excellent article on pain by Ephraim Radner – certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.  Anyone talking about physician-assisted suicide should read this, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/02/15/the-craft-of-suffering/

CS Lewis’ equally excellent book, The Problem of Pain.  This, along with A Grief Observed, set out Lewis’ theology of suffering, and then how he lived it after the premature death of his wife, Joy.

Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Pillar New Testament Commentary

Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary

A book titled, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian.

This series was conceived and first preached at St Paul’s Bloor St, Toronto.  Their sermons are marvelous, preached some by our own Barry Parker.  http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermons  This particular series is available: http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermon-series/path-through-suffering Podcast subscription too.

What happens when physicians end up with chronic, untreatable chronic pain?

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1306467 Lessons in Pain Relief — A Personal Postgraduate Experience, Philip A. Pizzo, M.D

https://www.painnewsnetwork.org/stories/2016/1/6/a-doctor-learns-what-its-like-to-be-a-chronic-pain-patient My Journey From Doctor to Chronic Pain Patient, Lisa Kehrberg, MD

Miroslav Volf on how Revelation explains how all will be made right:  I was particularly interested in Volf’s discussion on violence and peace in the final chapter. He proposes that without a clear understanding of the Christ of Revelation (riding on that white horse, judging in blood), there is no way that violence can be deterred in the present. Jesus of the cross must be married with the Christ of Revelation. This is a powerful counter to the textual critics who attempt to reduce Revelation to a vague metaphor in an attempt to square the loving Jesus of the Gospels with the image in Revelation. Volf states clearly that understanding the depth of the coming judgement is the only way a Christian can understand the command to non-violence in the present.

https://sameo416.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/and-cry-to-her-that-her-warfare-is-ended/

 

 

Written by sameo416

March 25, 2017 at 7:36 pm

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healing journies

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I sat quietly in the darkness of the woods, my grandfather’s rifle across my lap, in a gentle snowstorm. As the sun came up crows began flying tree-to-tree calling to their families to join together, and the flock grew. I knew that I was sitting at one with the woods when mice came out of the leaves to forage around my boots. As a mature 8-point whitetail walked through the pasture before me, and I decided not to shoot, I realized that I was in a place which was truly home.

I was 33, and I now knew why the woods felt that way with a sense of primal rightness of presence and being. 12 years earlier, I would probably have just said, I like the woods. That was before I found out about a long-hidden part of my family heritage. We were Metis, part of the Scotch-breed community of Red River, and a part of the grand narrative of the western prairies. In a conversation about hooked roots on wisdom teeth, my dad casually mentioned our Metis heritage for the first time.

For a boy who grew up as white, in a typically white Manitoba community – meaning typically racist, this was a bit of an identity shock. Typically racist not in a mean or hateful way, but in a worse sense, where the racism is just a part of your world view. Thoughts reinforced by my mom who told me to stay away from ‘dirty Indians’ when I was young. Typically racist in the comfortable way arising out of knowing you are a part of the dominant people of your world. Typically racist in my assured perspective that others, who were not like me, were somehow lessor, somehow thin, somehow opaque, in contrast to my very present whiteness in power.

To then find out that I was, in fact, and had always been, a part of that “other” required a reworking of all I knew to be true and certain. That reworking was necessary because of the shattering of the comfortable lie of my whiteness. The irony of that unveiling occurring just metres away from the shores of the Red River did not sink in until much later.

What emerged in place of that shattered falseness turned out to be the real understanding of the why and of the what I am, and an arrival at a home I never dreamed could exist.

Whiteness brings with it a powerful disassociation of place and family. We move, we change jobs, all with the goal of progress and the collection of power. That disassociation left me separate from home, separate from a sense of who I really was, not surprising given the deep seated lies that started to come to light as I dug through the sedimentary layers of family existence.

Lunch with a cousin I had never met included his reveal that he was Metis. When I said, so am I, he was shocked. So successful had my family severed itself from its history that it was not even known within branches of the family also living in Red River. That disassociation started between the first and second rebellions (1870 to 1885), when many families retreated into whiteness for safety from the murder and rape that was brought to their community through the benevolence of the Red River Expeditionary Force – British Regulars with Protestant Orangeman from Ontario who hated all things indigenous, and french indigenous even more. My Scotch-Breed family stepped back into the shadows and became European settlers.

When I started to dig into that history, things about me suddenly started to make sense. At a weekend workshop on indigenous community a lecturer’s explanation of indigenous humour suddenly explained my particular sense of humour. Learning the teachings of the land, and of my place in reciprocal relationship with all of reality, suddenly explained why I worship best in the woods. Learning of indigenous mysticism suddenly explained my perception of spiritual realities around me. Learning of the way of the warrior, suddenly made clear why I was a veteran.

Today, 30 years after that moment by the Red River, I understand who I am in a way I never could. That is something I passed on to my daughter from her first days. That completeness and understanding is something she has always had, and it fits her comfortably in a way that mine has not. Reconciliation is made real in that generational undoing of the lie that we were that which we were not.

Written by sameo416

March 24, 2017 at 8:40 pm

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Restorative Justice through Hebrew Eyes

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Just finished a paper for a course in restorative justice. It’s pass-fail so I decided to take some risks and do an analysis of restorative justice in the context of the Hebrew concept of rightousness (tsedaka), particularly using the David-Bathsheba cycle of narrative as the interpretative foil. This is (c) 2017, your’s truly, as it hasn’t been marked yet.

It was interesting to see criminologists and sociologists attempting to use this Hebrew idea as an illustration of the different paradigm that restorative justice presents. The one author spoke of mistranslations in early bibles, but then chose to use ‘justice’ as the translation, which I think is incorrect or missing an important nuance. The word means ‘righteousness’, but understood in the context of the covenant between Israel and Yahweh – I am holy, therefore you shall be holy. Within that is based all of the need to care for those who are victims of the society, widows, the poor, orphans, those displaced or crushed by power.

But if you don’t understand all those deep linkages, you translate it as ‘justice’ and then attempt to demonstrate why it is so insightful.

What it tells me is that you need to be cautious when you appropriate terms from other fields of study, because someday someone with some formal training in what you’ve appropriated will come along and say, hey – that’s not entirely correct.

Second observation: academic writers have little problem digging into indigenous teachings. Not so much when it comes to Christian teachings. A bunch of what I’ve read are ideas out of the Christian tradition that are not credited that way. In one paper the author spoke about how we didn’t need to follow any faith tradition, and then used a quote from the Dalai Lama to support her position. Just like I often quote the Pope when I want to prove that organized religion should be abandoned. Bias is most painful when it’s not recognized! That’s the reason I’ve written soundly out of the Hebrew tradition of thought just to see what will happen.

Been a while since I wrote an arts paper – a bit more formal than I’m used to.


Introduction

Elliott (2011, pp. 51-52) cites Herman Bianchi’s work Justice as Sanctuary and in particular his introduction of the Hebrew idea of (tsedaka) as a contrast to modern, inquisitorial justice. This idea of tsedaka contains a more fulsome incorporation of restorative justice principles than modern parallels, and forms an interpretive bridge to access concepts which otherwise might be obscured by modern values and biases. It also opens up to us a rich tradition of social justice contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, referred to as The Tanakh, a compilation of historical, metaphorical and prophetic literature. The presence of restorative principles in such ancient literature reflects one reality of the modern restorative justice movement: it is not so much about developing new ideas, as it is reclaiming ancient approaches. These ancient sources, like traditional indigenous teachings, offer us the opportunity to be modern practitioners of ancient ways. To explore the foundational ideas of restorative justice and the presence of those ideas in ancient sources this paper will use the narrative cycle of David and Bathsheba contained in The Tanakh, 2 Samuel 11-12, as an interpretive framework for the course materials. This will illustrate the value in considering diverse ancient sources in the modern exploration of restorative justice.

The Value of Ancient Narratives

Restorative justice theory contains philosophies and themes which resonate strongly with traditional teachings contained in ancient cultures, but also in the wisdom passed through long-standing faith traditions. There is value in pursuing study of other philosophies as it can, “…open space for us to question some of our own basic assumptions.” (Elliott, 2011, p. 58). While there are clear parallels between restorative pedagogy and, for example, Christian or Hebrew faith teachings, this is not often emphasized in the academic works reviewed. There may be an unspoken bias against overtly acknowledging such parallels. This is in spite of acknowledgement of the benefit of making such inquiries into the “great teachings”, as Harris, citing Bo Lozoff, asserts (Harris, 2004, p. 129). One reason for pursuing a Hebraic narrative for this integrative paper is to illustrate those parallels.  For example, an analysis of the story of Omar Khadr, a Canadian child-soldier who was held in Guantanamo Bay for his role in the death of an army medic, is illustrative of the power of biblical narratives. In her application of René Girard’s theories of human violence, Zinck (2013, p. 15) makes the following observation as to the power of the Biblical narrative, “…the biblical story calls its readers to account. It forces a self-interrogation of its readers. It unmasks the effective but ultimately immoral act of scapegoating that seeks, and often secures, relative peace at the expense of a human life.”  This unmasking reveals the underlying relational brokenness which requires redress if there is to be restoration, paralleling the relational nature of restorative justice (Elliott, 2011, p. 5). Relationality is at the foundation of restorative justice, as Zehr (2015, p. 51) identifies in setting the guiding questions: “Who has been harmed? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these?” Christian and Hebrew faith teachings are similarly foundationally relational, and speak to common dynamics to those which restorative justice seeks to engage. Attention to this “network of relations and circumstances” (Harris, 2004, p. 120) should encourage us to look to any source where similar values are shared.

Similarly, the parallels between restorative justice and indigenous teachings are equally apparent, and more overtly acknowledged.[1]  Lederach (2003, pp. 15 – 22) uses the image of a person on a journey to illustrate conflict transformation through the roles of head, heart, hands and legs. His analysis echoes indigenous teachings on the integrative nature of reality: that all aspects of reality are interrelated fundamentally, and any understanding of transformation must begin with an understanding of that interrelatedness. Pranis (2007, p. 65), with many other theorists, similarly asserts an underlying assumption of restorative justice, that we live in an interconnected and interdependent universe.  This is an ancient teaching in both indigenous traditions and several faith traditions.  Lederach references a seminal work in the study of religious community system dynamics, Friedman’s Generation to Generation, so there is acknowledgement of aspects of faith traditions. Lederach’s (2003, pp. 34 – 47) conceptual work on process models for transformation bears a striking similarity to indigenous teachings around the medicine wheel with the exception of counter-clockwise rotation on page 42. The teaching of the medicine wheel is of immense value in conceptualizing the interrelatedness which underlies all restorative justice theory. We find the same idea of interconnectedness reflected in faith-based writings in the ancient Western traditions such as that of John Donne, in a famous excerpt from his Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624):

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In the analogy between land and humanity, the loss of any piece of land diminishes the land overall. So too the loss of any one person diminishes humanity as a whole. This contains, in an entirely different cultural context, a wisdom teaching that parallels that of the medicine wheel.

Elliott (2011, pp. 141-2) looks to Jane, P., Bopp, J., Bopp, M., Brown, L. & elders (2012) in an earlier edition to summarize the teaching of the medicine wheel. Harm to the individual requires attentiveness to all four aspects of the person, mental, spiritual, emotional and physical. The wheel also teaches us that there must be balance in relationship, as all things are interrelated and part of a single wholeness and imbalance in one area will impact all other areas (Jane et al., 2012, p. 26-27). This applies both individually and collectively and serves to illuminate the world view which makes restorative justice approaches very suitable for indigenous communities. The exclusion of an offender through incarceration or exile diminishes the community and so reintegration is always the first goal of indigenous-driven restoration attempts. Rupert Ross (2014, p. 232) deals with this in great depth when he identifies that all indigenous individual healing is in the context of social or group healing, with the goal of returning all people to “…useful role within Creation.”  The medicine wheel also teaches the idea of cycles of life, growth and healing and that all Creation is in a constant dance of interaction, change and development embedded in a sacred reality. This echoes Lederach’s (2003, p. 35, 42, 44, 46) models of transformation and particularly his emphasis on the progressive and cyclical nature of all interactions.[2]

The strong linkages between modern restorative justice theory and many streams of ancient teaching illustrates the value in pursuing other ancient narratives as a potential source of deeper modern understanding. That net can be cast wide geographically and temporally as both secular and faith-based ancient traditions may be sources of useful understanding. This approach is also supported by Pranis (2007, p. 67) in her statement that there is substantial agreement on fundamental values across race, culture, age, education, gender, income, geography, political beliefs and occupation. It is easy to extend Pranis’ listing to include time to see that consistency of foundational values even in ancient contexts. It also reflects the syncretic nature of criminology as a field of study, identified by Walgrave et al. (2013, p. 159) as looking critically to institutional responses to wrongdoing as a source of theoretical and methodological approaches. From the perspective of criminology this study is still in its infancy, and connection with pre-modern and pre-Enlightenment sources can only be of assistance (Walgrave et al, 2013, p. 160).  Such “institutional” responses are recorded in early historical writings such as the Hebrew scriptures.  Such benefit may be seen in the following analysis of the David and Bathsheba narrative cycle, beginning with some analysis of the Hebrew concept of righteousness.

Word Study on the Hebraic Concept of הצְדָקָ (tsedaka)

The Mosaic practice of justice seen through modern eyes reflects, “…disturbing practices that are gender-based and class-biased.” (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 644). Nevertheless, Brueggemann asserts a foundation of Mosaic wisdom is the focus on social justice and provision for support and good relationships in community. In this regard we receive these writings as contextualized by a particular place and time, without the intrinsic cultural biases lessening that value. A critical reading allows the extraction of timeless teachings, while leaving behind the dross. He goes on to note that the ultimate voice in this system was that of the prophet who conveys both conviction of those who fail to act justly, and the hope of a different future. In this tradition there are no, “escape hatches or exceptional treatments” for those who hold temporal power, for their destiny is tightly integrated with that of the entire community (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 645).  It is an exceptionally egalitarian world view. Diamond (2012, p. 103) highlights a similar contrast between Western and Navajo ideas of peace-making. The Western mind seeks to “make the plaintiff whole” through the provision of money as compensation. There is an implicit value judgement conveyed through making a being whole by payment of cash. The ancient concept, also present throughout Hebrew teachings, establishes that a person’s true being can only be conceived fully in relationship; while the Western mind conceives of being only in the calculated financial loss. The reflection of previously outlined concepts of restorative justice is plainly apparent in this emphasis of both ultimately classless consideration and the interconnectedness of individuals in community.

An understanding of the Hebrew idea of righteousness, one principle meaning of the word, הצְדָקָ (tsedaka), must be placed in the context of Israel’s understanding of the concept. Righteousness was tightly tied to the place of the king as a mediator of the holiness of their God. The idea is displayed in Psalm 72 (English Standard Version, vv. 1-2, 12-14):

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!  [וְצִדְקָתְךָ֥]
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice! […]

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.  [underlining added]

The king’s righteousness (tsedaka) is tied to the righteousness of the Creator. At the core of that righteousness is care for the weak, the needy, the poor and those oppressed or victimized by violence or power. This is distributive justice, tied into the idea of a covenant relationship between Israel and their God, which extended into a covenant with all citizens to share in the bounty of the nation, including goods, power and access to justice. This is coherent with the readings conducted in the course, as it reflects an aspect of the foundational philosophy of restorative justice, seen in the high degree of coherence with the values provided by Braithwaite (2002, p. 569). The idea of the covenant reflects a restorative justice perspective on the role of community and shared values as a path to restoration when there has been a fracturing of that covenant. “Restoration is the key objective of restorative justice.” states Doolin citing Walgrave (Doolin, 2007, p. 431). Indigenous communities operate with a similar implicit, traditional covenant that mediates relationships, knowledge and the sharing of goods and power in a fundamentally egalitarian way (cf. Diamond, 2012, p. 89).

With that context it is possible to look closely at the word in question, הצְדָקָ (tsedaka).

Use of the word is deliberate around the idea of righteousness, as the translation as justice easily leads to modern misunderstanding, for many of the same reasons that restorative justice is cautious using terminology associated with the modern legal system. This concern is reflected by Elliott (2011, p. 52) from Bianchi’s writings where he identifies that early English translations of the word confused understandings of justice, including using the word retribution. Modern translations attempt to render the word by context, using translations such as: honesty, vindication, justice, merits, rights, and righteous or righteousness. However, only in the Hebrew concept of righteousness as covenant is the full scope of meaning for the word illuminated. Looking at the lexical description (Appendix B) of this form of the word is helpful: righteousness in government; righteousness of a judge, ruler or king; righteousness of The Law (Torah); righteousness of God; truthfulness; righteousness in terms of salvation; righteousness in terms of vindication for behaviour previously thought to be unrighteous. In the specific context of the covenantal understanding of the requirements to treat the vulnerable with הצְדָקָ (tsedaka), this informs the fulsome use of the word in a restorative justice context.

This meaning resonates with Elliott’s (2011, p. 52) presentation of Bianchi’s thought. She echoes his statement that righteousness requires three criteria be met: 1) there must be a way to achieve release from guilt; 2) there must be confirmation of the truth; 3) there must be “substantiation” meaning righteousness that is known by its results where all achieve justice and peace. Peace refers to the all-encompassing Hebrew peace of shalom. The movement is from discord, through tsedaka and into the intended normative state of shalom[3]. The parallel between the restorative justice goal of real justice, lived out, is therefore synonymous with the deep meaning of the word, tsedaka in the context of the covenantal relationship between the nation Israel, its king, and its God, with the deep understanding of infused righteousness that this context brings. With this understanding, it is now possible to examine the David and Bathsheba narrative cycle as a way of exploring modern restorative justice concepts.

Restoration and Justice in the David and Bathsheba Cycle

A copy of the narrative cycle is contained at Appendix A to this paper.

In the opening verses of the story, we hear repeated violations of the expected state of shalom in the action of the person of David. First we learn that he has remained in Jerusalem, even though it is the time, “when kings go out to battle.” (2 Samuel 11:1) Something is amiss in the usual order of kingship. David spies Bathsheba and sends messengers to bring her back to him, violating her privacy and then her marriage vows (2 Samuel 11:2-4).[4] This was punishable by death for both parties under Hebrew law. In the midst there is a deeper violation, as he had seen Bathsheba in the midst of a ritual purification bath in her family miqvah (2 Samuel 11:4). This is a particular moment of sacred encounter as the Hebrew person travels from impurity back to a state of ritual purification, a key requirement to return to right relationship with community. Finally, an additional violation occurs to the integrity of Bathsheba, the result of the huge power imbalance between her and the king. In the first four verses we hear of five violations, cemented by Bathsheba’s pregnancy. That declaration is made by the now nameless Bathsheba who in the final verses is now referred to only as “the woman” (2 Samuel 11:5) or “wife of Uriah” (2 Samuel 11:26). David has systematically removed from her every aspect of her individuality, and she will remain nameless in the narrative until David has successfully murdered her husband and she is named as his wife (2 Samuel 12:24).

In light of the expectation that the king to be a paradigm of righteousness in the full meaning of הצְדָקָ (tsedaka), it is hard to conceive of a more direct and systematic destruction of shalom. We are left with the sense that the violation is worse than if this had been an outright violent assault, as the grasping king has acquired what he sought through the abuse of an office founded in a covenant idea of tsedaka. The subsequent verses (2 Samuel 11:6-27) flow quickly as David deals with his problem by ordering that the battle proceed such that Bathsheba’s husband is killed. This is done with the assistance of David’s general Joab, who is the one afield executing the work that was properly David’s. Now Joab is drawn into the intrigue as it is his order that leads to Uriah’s death. Uriah’s name literally means ‘my light is God’, and that light is extinguished through brutal conspiracy.

The initial violation of Bathsheba through a kingly peeping tom quickly leads to offenses against a large number of people. This is the inverse of the integration that restorative justice seeks and confirms that the act of violation or offense is never victimless or limited to a particular victim. An offense against righteousness impacts an entire community. David co-opts his messengers, his servants and his soldiers in his pursuit of something which was never meant to be his, drawing them all into to the act of either violating, or being violated. David’s betrayal rings particularly harshly for a soldier because he not only assaults the wife of one of his soldiers, but actively participates in his betrayal and murder – two things which a commander is honour-bound to not do.[5] One of David’s attempts to cover up his crime is to get Uriah drunk, which also fails, marking that Uriah is more ethical drunk than David when sober (Gordon, 1986, 254). So the web of violation spreads wide and even acts to poison people distant from the physical events. The process of restoration, if it is to be effective, must undo that wide web of damage. We are left understanding that this disruption has lasting impact leading to the end of his kingship and ultimately the downfall of Israel as a nation.

When the king fails, it falls to a prophet to pronounce judgement on the offender (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 645). Nathan arrives and proceeds to tell a judgement narrative to David about a rich man who steals a poor man’s only lamb, a lamb that the poor man loved as a daughter (2 Samuel 12:3). When a guest arrives the rich man is unwilling to slaughter from within his flock, and so steals the poor man’s lamb and serves it as a meal for his guest. The violation here is strikingly similar to that of David’s, in that one with plenty has stolen the only wife of one with little, and done so callously and capriciously. The rich man’s offense draws in others, as his unwitting guest has participated in the destruction of tsedaka. As David reacts with fury at the injustice of the story, he pronounces judgement: the rich man deserves to die, and must restore the lamb four times over because he had no pity. What follows is a classic prophetic reversal as Nathan reveals that the judgement David has just passed actually falls on his head as he is the breaker of shalom.[6]

David’s response is to confess his actions, and because of this he is saved from death. It appears that the only voice which could shame the king, that of a prophet, has been successful. There is a hint of reintegrative shaming (Elliott, 2011, p. 161), but it stops with David and does not extend to the greater web of those impacted. That web encompasses the entire nation and reflects a fundamental failure by David to make full amends to the community which Nathan represented (Sherman, 1993, p. 448). David has an apparent lack of empathy and is unable to move to the space where he recognizes that his grasping narcissism has caused harm to his people, empathy identified as a key skill needed to transcend violence (Pepinsky, 2007, p. 197).  Nevertheless, his repeated violation results in considerable impact to his legacy: the rape of his daughter by one of his sons (2 Samuel 13); the rising of his son Absalom in an attempt to overthrow his father (2 Samuel 15-19); and finally Bathsheba’s son will die. While it would be comfortable to dismiss this death of an innocent as a literary device to raise emotion, there is a harsh reality reflected in the impact of any violation: it is usual that the innocent suffer even when separated from the initial event. The intergenerational impact of the Canadian residential school system on indigenous families is a stark reminder that violation and injustice impact widely without restoration and reconciliation both externally and internally (Ross, 2014, p. 143).

While David displays remorse, and there is an aspect of reintegrative shaming, this is not extended to the community, leaving us to question the sincerity of his remorse as he continues to fail to show mercy broadly as required (Braithwaite, 2002, p. 570). There is no indication that the community, who would be aware of David’s transgressions, are engaged in the process, which curtails the community ability to achieve restoration (Ross, 2012, 147). Zehr’s (2015, p. 34) three pillars of restorative justice, harms and needs, obligations and engagements are not completely engaged (Elliott, 2011, p. 89). While the central actor has shame and remorse, the full restorative ability of restorative justice is not allowed to act.

In this narrative restoration is only seen between David and Nathan with no outwards extension. Elliott cites Braithwaite (Elliott, 2011, p. 74) that one of the powerful aspects of restorative justice is that it offers meaningful space for individual democratic participation, which brings healing broadly. Equality of voice is at the heart of restorative processes. She offers Braithwaite’s comment that the popularity of restorative justice comes partly in that it hands a, “little piece of power back to the ordinary people.” This is particularly crucial if the offender occupies a place of great authority, as restorative justice also requires addressing root causes (power imbalance and abuse) and leveling of status to create safety for all impacted (Harris, 2004, p. 124). Dekker (2017, p. xxxi) also emphasizes this “view from below” to include those who have little ability to voice their injury and a lack of misuse of power to deflect responsibility as key to restoration. If David had turned his incipient restoration outwards this empowering restoration could have spread to all those injured in the web.

A final point relates to the concept of the “second victim” present in restorative justice applications in organizations where a failure has caused harm to others, identified as the “first victims”. The second victim is the person who committed the error, an acknowledgement that those who are responsible suffer deeply and differently than those directly impacted. This is discussed partly in the work of Dekker (2017, p. xxiii-xxiv) who notes that treating error as crime ensures there will always be losers. Dekker highlights that restorative approaches refrain from pleonexia (greed or avarice) where personal gain is achieved by blaming another. David’s failure to continue the process of admission of guilt and restoration with the balance of his kingdom is perhaps due to his limited vision conditioned by power, by dwelling within pleonexia as the reality of a monarch. By failing to act David causes further harm to himself as the “second victim” as he is unable to undertake restorative actions with the greater community. He allows himself to remain insulated from that greater community of first victims, and so guarantees his continued suffering (Doolin, 2007, p. 433). Failing to act on the general duty to forgive through not engaging the other first victims perpetuates the chaos and discord that will follow David’s remaining time as king (Radzik, 2003, p. 336).

Conclusion

The use of ancient narrative cycles as a means of exploring restorative justice theory has been explored through the David and Bathsheba account from the Hebrew book of 2 Samuel 11-12. This powerful account reflects numerous serious violations against Bathsheba, and against an expanding web of people who are drawn into the impact of David’s lack of righteousness. While David experiences a partial restoration through reintegrative shame at the hands of the prophet Nathan, he does not continue that process outwards in order to bring restoration to the greater community. We are told in later portions of the historical book that David’s rule began to fail the day he gazed unrighteously on Bathsheba as she underwent ritual purification.  The impact of incomplete application of restorative justice at the community level can result in lasting impact through a failure to heal. This review has helped to confirm the benefits of exploring ancient narratives from diverse traditions as a way of better understanding the developing modern philosophies and values that guide application of restorative justice. While we are modern practitioners, we are necessarily inheritors of many ancient traditions.

Endnotes

[1] I will reference some sources in referring to indigenous teachings, but will also rely on traditional teachings which I hold personally as Métis.

[2] When reading Lederach I found it helpful to visualize his process model as a medicine wheel repeatedly circled.

[3] A personal experience of shalom was related by the sister of a murder victim reflecting on how unspoken forgiveness had been a burden, “…unspoken forgiveness does not actually weigh you down like guilt or shame.  It is almost like a sack of balloons. Because it does not often affect in a negative way, it is easy to dismiss the importance of it.” (Whistance-Smith, 2017, p. 1) That light yet ever-present weight was removed when they voiced their forgiveness of the offender, achieving the start of shalom for family and offender while restoring community.

[4] Other commentators note that Bathsheba may have been a willing participant in this sequence. I have preferred to focus on David’s actions rather than Bathsheba’s as it will ultimately be David who is convicted. There is also the potential of misogynist biases in those assertions, as Bathsheba is demonstrably without power (and name) throughout the narrative, contrasted with the king who holds literal life and death authority over her.

[5] Modern officers are still taught that they always eat last, so important is the honouring of people you command.

[6] The work of Victor Turner on liminal space associated with rituals of transition may have some direct application in restorative justice work. The entry into an effective restorative “ritual” is an entry into liminality, a place where real transformation may occur. Turner, V. W. (1970). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Reference List

Alter, R. (1999). The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: W.W. Norton Company Inc.

Braithwaite, J. (2002). Setting Standards for Restorative Justice. British Journal of Criminology42, 563-577.

Brueggemann, W. (1997). Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Brown, F., Driver, S. & Briggs, C. (2003). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc.

Diamond, J. (2012). The World Until Yesterday. New York: Penguin.

Dekker, S. (2017). Just Culture: Restoring Trust and Accountability in Your Organization (3rd ed.). New York: CRC Press.

Doolin, K. (2007). But What Does it Mean? Seeking Definitional Clarity in Restorative Justice. The Journal of Criminal Law. 71(5), 427-440.

Donne, John. (1839). The Works of John Donne. vol III. London: John W. Parker. Pp. 574-5. Retrieved from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/meditation17.php.

Elliott, E.M. (2011). Security with Care: Restorative Justice & Healthy Societies. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Gordon, R.P. (1986). I & II Samuel: A Commentary. United Kingdom: Zondervan Publishing.

Harris, M.K. (2004). An Expansive, Transformative View of Restorative Justice. Contemporary Justice Review 7(1), 117-141.

Jane, P., Bopp, J., Bopp, M., Brown, L. & elders (2012). The Sacred Tree (4th ed.). Wisconsin:Lotus Press.

Lederach, J.P. (2003). The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Pennsylvania: Good Books.

Pepinsky, H. (2007). Empathy and Restoration. In Tifft, L and Sullivan, D (eds.), Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective (pp. 188-197). Kentucky: Routledge.

Pranis, K (2007). Restorative Values. In Gerry Johnstone & Daniel W. van Ness (eds.), Handbook of Restorative Justice (pp. 59-74). London: Willan.

Radzik, L. (2003). Do Wrongdoers Have a Right to Make Amends? Social Theory and Practice, 29(2), 325-341.

Ross, R (2012). Telling Truths and Seeking Reconciliation: Exploring the Challenges. Contained in Volume 2 of Aboriginal Healing Foundation (Canada), Rogers, S., DeGagné, M., & Dewar, J. (2012). Speaking my truth: Reflections on reconciliation & residential school. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Ross, R. (2014). Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths. Toronto: Penguin.

Sherman, L (1993). Defiance, Deterrence, and Irrelevance: A Theory of the Criminal Sanction. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30(4), 445-473.

Walgrave, L., Aertsen, I., Parmentier, S., Vanfraechem, I. and Zinsstag, E. (2013). Why restorative justice matters for criminology. Restorative Justice: An International Journal, 1:2, 159-167, DOI: 10.5235/20504721.1.2.159.

Whistance-Smith, N. 2017. Forgiveness in Christ’s name – a family’s journey. The Messenger, March 2017. Retrieved from http://edmonton.anglican.org/wpsite/wpcontent/uploads/2017/02/17_March_MessengerWeb.pdf

Zehr, H. (2015). The Little Book of Restorative Justice (revised). Contained in the collection: The Big Book of Restorative Justice.  Pennsylvania: Good Books.

Zinck, A. (2013). Love Knows No Bounds: A Christian Response to the Omar Khadr Story. Chester Ronning Centre Current Briefings – 1. Camrose, Alberta.


Appendix A

2 Samuel 11-12 English Standard Version (ESV)

David and Bathsheba

11 In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab was doing and how the people were doing and how the war was going.Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10 When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” 11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” 12 Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. 13 And David invited him, and he ate in his presence and drank, so that he made him drunk. And in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.” 16 And as Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant men. 17 And the men of the city came out and fought with Joab, and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite also died.18 Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting. 19 And he instructed the messenger, “When you have finished telling all the news about the fighting to the king, 20 then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, ‘Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21 Who killed Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? Did not a woman cast an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?’ then you shall say, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.’”

22 So the messenger went and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell. 23 The messenger said to David, “The men gained an advantage over us and came out against us in the field, but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. 24 Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall. Some of the king’s servants are dead, and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.” 25 David said to the messenger, “Thus shall you say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter displease you, for the sword devours now one and now another. Strengthen your attack against the city and overthrow it.’ And encourage him.”

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. 27 And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.

Nathan Rebukes David

12 And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms,[a] and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned theLord,[b] the child who is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house.

David’s Child Dies

And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. 16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Solomon’s Birth

24 Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the Lord loved him 25 and sent a message by Nathan the prophet. So he called his name Jedidiah,[c] because of the Lord.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles


Appendix B

Brown, F., Driver, S. & Briggs, C. (2003). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc. p. 842.

הצְדָקָ noun feminine righteousness; — absolute ׳צ Genesis 15:6+81 t.; construct צִדְקַת Deuteronomy 33:21+5 t.; suffixצִדְקָתִי Genesis 30:33 +, etc.; plural צְדָקוֺת Isaiah 33:15+3t.; constructצִדְקוֺת Judges 5:11+; suffix צִדְקֹתֶיךָ Daniel 9:16, etc.; —

1 righteousness, in government:

  1. of judge, ruler, king:“” משׁפט Isaiah 5:7Isaiah 9:6Amos 5:7Amos 6:12; ׳משׁפט וצ 2 Samuel 8:15, עשׂה David executed justice and righteousness = 1 Chronicles 18:14, compare 1 Kings 10:92Chronicles 9:8; Jeremiah 22:3,15Jeremiah 33:15Ezekiel 45:9; יִכּוֺן כִּסֵּא ׳בּצ Proverbs 16:12, compare Isaiah 54:14; ׳עֲבֹדַת השׂ, ׳מַעֲשֵׂה הצ Isaiah 32:17, compare V:16; ׳נֹגְשַׂיִךְ צ Isaiah 60:17.
  2. of law, “” משׁפטים, ׳צִדְקַת י Deuteronomy 33:21.
  3. of Davidic king, Messiah, “” משׁפט, Psalm 72:1Psalm 72:3;Isaiah 9:6Jeremiah 23:5Jeremiah 33:15.

2 God’s attribute as sovereign Psalm 36:7Psalm 71:19; in government, עשׂה ׳משׁפט וצ Psalm 99:4Jeremiah 9:23; administering justice Job 37:28; punishment Isaiah 1:27Isaiah 5:16Isaiah 10:22Isaiah 28:17Daniel 9:7; vindication of his people Micah 7:9.

3 righteousness, in a case or cause, בצדקתי החזקתי Job 27:6 on my righteousness I hold fast; ׳מה ישׁ לי עוד צ 2 Samuel 19:29 what right have I yet ? of God’s judgments, ׳הגיד צ Isaiah 57:12 (iron.);׳השׁיב צ 1 Samuel 26:23Job 33:26; ׳כּצ, השׁיב 2 Samuel 22:25, גמל2 Samuel 22:21, נתן 1 Kings 8:52 2Chronicles 6:23.

4 righteousness = truthfulness, ׳באמת ובצ Isaiah 48:1Zechariah 8:8; in word Isaiah 45:28Isaiah 63:1, oath Jeremiah 4:2.

5 righteousness, as ethically right: Genesis 30:33 (J) Deuteronomy 6:25;Isaiah 33:5Isaiah 41:18Ezekiel 14:14,20Proverbs 10:2Proverbs 11:4,5,18,19+17 t., +צִדְקַת (ה)צַדִּיק(יםׅ Isaiah 5:23Ezekiel 18:20;Ezekiel 33:12; ישׁרים ׳צ Proverbs 11:6; ׳אֹרַח צ Proverbs 8:20;Proverbs 12:28; ׳דֶּרֶךְ צ Proverbs 16:31; ׳עשׂה צ do righteousnessPsalm 106:3Isaiah 56:1Isaiah 58:2Ezekiel 18:22; ׳עשׂה משׁפט וצEzekiel 18:5 6t. Ezekiel; ומשׁפט ׳עשׂה צ Genesis 18:10 (J) Proverbs 21:8; ׳רדף צ Proverbs 15:9Proverbs 21:21; ׳הלך באמת ובצ1kProverbs 3:6; ׳חשׁב לוֺ (ל)צ Genesis 15:6 (JE) imputed to him (for)righteousnessPsalm 106:31; וָחֶסֶד ׳צ Proverbs 21:21 (twice in verse) (strike out ᵐ5A B Toy).

6 righteousness as vindicated, justification, salvation, etc. (compare צֶדֶק6):

  1. of God“” יָשַׁע, תְּשׁוּעָה, יְשׁוּעָה Isaiah 45:8Isaiah 46:13Isaiah 51:6 7t. Isa2; “” בְּרָכָה Psalm 24:6; “” נַחֲלָה Isaiah 54:17; “” חֶסֶד Psalm 36:11Psalm 103:17; ׳שֶׁמֶשׁ צ Malachi 3:20 sun of righteousness (with healing); ׳בִּצ, ׳י delivers, guides, exalts his people Psalm 5:9Psalm 31:2Psalm 71:2Psalm 89:17Psalm 119:40Psalm 143:1Psalm 143:11; אַליָֿבאֹוּ בְּצִדְקָתֶ֑ךָ Psalm 69:28 (of wicked); as accusative after verbs of declaring, etc., his saving (deliveringrighteousness Psalm 22:32;Psalm 40:11Psalm 51:16Psalm 71:15Psalm 71:16Psalm 71:24Psalm 98:2Psalm 145:7; also ׳יִוָּדַע צ Psalm 88:13; עֹמֶדֶת ׳צ לָעַד his righteousness endureth for ever Psalm 111:3; compare Psalm 119:142.
  2. of people, = prosperity, “” הון, עשׁר Proverbs 8:18; ׳מוֺרֶה לצearly rain for prosperityJoel 2:23.

7 plural righteous acts:

  1. of GodJudges 5:11 (twice in verse); 1 Samuel 12:7Micah 6:5; vindication of right Psalm 103:6; redemptive Isaiah 45:24Daniel 9:16.
  2. of man’s moral conductIsaiah 64:5Jeremiah 51:10, also probably Ezekiel 3:20Ezekiel 18:24Ezekiel 33:13 (Kt singular) Psalm 11:7 (? gloss), Daniel 9:18; as adverb accusative, הֹלֵךְ צְדָקוֺת Isaiah 33:15.

Written by sameo416

March 20, 2017 at 1:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Suffering Unto Death – Final

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Lent 1, 5 March 2017, SJE ©2017 Job 1:8-22, Ps 32, John 9:1-7 (preaching series pain and the abundant life)

Our second sermon in the series on pain and suffering and abundant life.  This is a journey all about theodicy, the question of the justice of God, and today were addressing why there is suffering in the world. There is also a question of the blessing of pain that I’ll speak to in a few weeks’ time in the series.

I’ve mentioned several times in this community that pain is a particularly ever-present aspect of my existence.  My departure from the military 14 years ago was the result of a motor vehicle accident that left me with chronic nerve damage in my lower back, resulting in chronic pain, for about 18 years in total.  I literally cannot remember the last time in my life when I was not in some sort of pain.  I’ve spent much time reflecting on the experience of pain, and the experience of suffering as a result of that pain.  I will not hold myself up as an expert as I have not mastered this – I still get down, sometimes despair, rail against God and others, but I will share some of the insight I have gained walking that road.

I need to kill one sacred cow right up front: any discussion about pain and suffering that attempts to demonstrate that a person suffers as the punishment for sin is not something that is grounded in Christ.  This is not to say our choices do not have consequences – the excessive use of alcohol will ultimately result in liver problems.  But, to ascribe a personal tragedy to God’s judgement is frankly contrary to the New Testament.  We hear this clearly through the Gospel today.  The disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Their world view is explicit in that question as there is no room for other possibilities.  The man was born blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin.  If you think about that, how is such a thing even possible – did he sin before birth that he could be born blind?  The disciple’s world view can only conceive of such a disability as the consequence of an offense against The Law.  Jesus puts that to rest by stating clearly that the blindness has nothing to do with sin.

If you remember nothing else from this bit of narrative remember this: our pain and suffering is not inflicted on us as punishment.  This is a refrain hospital chaplains hear constantly, “I don’t know what I did to make God so angry with me.”  Don made this clear last week as he spoke about how the ‘why’ of pain can only be answered by a return to the first principles of the Old Testament, and the point at which creation becomes corrupted resulting in the introduction of suffering.  Now, while God does not inflict suffering, He will certainly make use of it – as Christ continues to say, this man was born blind so that God’s kingdom could be made manifest.  Any suffering will absolutely be used by Almighty God in order to make the works of God apparent.  The pain of a believer is ultimately a tool of evangelism which convicts a dark world.

One of the particular facets of modernity and post-modernity is the manner in which we approach such questions.  CS Lewis, in his book, God in the Dock, points out that ancient man approached God as a criminal might approach a judge in court, with fear and trembling.  There has been a shift with modernity, as we now see ourselves as the judge, and constantly make assessments on how God is failing to meet our expectations of the way He should behave.  God is in the dock, that is, the accused’s chair in the court of the culture.  Our expectation is that God owes us an explanation for everything we wonder about, and so our first response when faced with pain and suffering is to ask the question, “Why God?” Why me?  Why this? Why now? And inevitably, “What have I done to deserve this?”  These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in the face of pain, mostly because the answers tend to lead to more pain.  If we trace the lineage of suffering back to Genesis, the answer to pain rests in the actions that led to a fallen world.  Pain and suffering are not a part of the intended design of the creation, but they were admitted into our reality through the fall of humankind.  The reality downstream of those distant actions is that suffering is a part of the fabric of reality and a part of every person’s life.  The explanation is already there, and to ask the question of God about a particular personal context is nearly meaningless.

Now, our understanding of the ‘why’ of pain is corrupted by the cultural perception of pain and suffering.  Stated directly, first world culture has no understanding of pain and suffering beyond the imperative to eliminate them.  The enduring message of the Enlightenment is that science, and particularly medical science, will eventually solve all problems.  Our attitude to pain is to find the quickest way to remove it, which can be done a variety of ways: pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise; alcohol or other licit or illicit drugs; extreme sports; overwork; sexual addictions, and the list goes on, to find anything that removes our need to deal with pain.  This is a modern understanding of pain.

When you look at the development of western society, it was not that long ago that things like infant mortality and disease caused much higher rates of death. Walk through the infants section of an old cemetery sometime, it’s shocking.  People in earlier times, and not much earlier times, lived in the reality that there was frequent widowing, frequent death of children, and frequent death of siblings.  A second change has been the institutionalizing of suffering and dying, as it was not long ago that an ill family member would be cared for in the home, and palliative cases were almost always a family affair. We have been fleeing suffering for decades.

‘Why?’ is the wrong question to ask and it’s also the wrong way around.  A better question to ask is, “Why am I not suffering more?”  “Why not me Lord?”  Suffering is the default setting of the creation and so it is unusual to be free of pain – painlessness is the exceptional condition.  We have come to expect this as a right in the first world, as we are usually successfully oblivious to the reality that most of the world does not live the way we do.

Our first world right to be free from suffering is not really about pain but about control. The worst thing you can do to a first world dweller is to take away their sense of control.  In an article in the Miami Herald about physician assisted suicide laws the author states that the use of the law was not primarily the result of fear of pain. Rather, it is because they fear the loss of control more than anything, and so the final act of self-determination, the final proclamation of control, is to choose the time and manner of one’s death. In Oregon and Washington 90% of those who opted for hastened death under the new law did so because of the fear of loss of autonomy.  This pathological fixation with control is really a first world aspect but it is not new. The lie of control took the Israelites 40 years to unlearn, as set out in Deuteronomy 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” It is a lesson that we need to learn anew repeatedly, and one of the ways we learn that lesson is through suffering.

Theologian Ephraim Radner highlights this when he observes that today the absence of Jesus in the discussion about suffering and pain obscures the truth and, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” The idea that pain may have benefit is a culturally heretical thought, because there is nothing in modern western culture that is prepared to accept that there is any possible benefice in the question of pain.  We have a huge pharmaceutical industry that bases much research on trying to answer the question of happiness, or at least freedom from suffering, with chemicals. This is because the world sees naught in suffering except waste and despair, and a major focus of the modern world is the ending of pain by any means possible.

A different ‘why?’ question of more use is why is there suffering in God’s broken, but very good creation?  CS Lewis does a marvelous job outlining this in his book, The Problem with Pain. It has to do with the gift of free-will, and the reality that pain and pleasure exist as a result of freedom, freedom which tells us something of God’s love, but even more about us. Why does freedom cause suffering? Because freedom allows us to choose to do evil over good, and this tells us far more about humanity than about God. Humanity is in need of a remedial or corrective good, which continuously points us back to the direction we are intended, by design to be heading.  Lewis writes these truly awful but startlingly true words, “…pain insists on being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (91) So pain exists at least partly because it has a corrective effect.

An example offered by Lewis is the narrative of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Issac. If God is omnipotent, would he have not already known Abraham would decide to go through with the sacrifice? So could the whole unpleasant thing have been skipped over, saving us the pain of trying to understand such a story?  Lewis quotes Augustine in answering that challenge by noting that the test was not to prove something to God, but so that Abraham would learn that his obedience could endure such a command. (101) Such suffering is not good in of itself, but this does not stop the suffering from being turned to the good by God.

The real question which pain should prompt us to ask is: ‘who?’  Writer George MacDonald set this out clearly in one of his unspoken sermons, “The Consuming Fire” when he notes that, “[The Son of God] suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.” This is the focus we learn throughout Scripture, and it is key to being able to deal with pain and suffering in our lives, for it places those nasty realities in a framework which allows some comprehension of the purpose for pain in the creation.  The lesson: we should expect suffering as a part of life, and particularly as a part of a life of faith.

This moves us from the unhelpful ‘why?’ question to the critical question of ‘who?’  There is only one answer needed to the question of suffering in the world, and that answer is Christ upon the.  Who has already suffered cosmically for the entirety of the brokenness of creation past, present and future?  Jesus.  Who has already born the spiritual, emotional and physical pain to the greatest extreme possible?  Jesus.  Who has already born all of our personal pain of all kinds?  Jesus.  The answer to the question is contained entirely in God the Father’s answer to the Son’s cry on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  The answer to that question is silence, as all the pain possible in us and the entire creation is poured onto Christ.  Our answer to the question of suffering is Jesus, for we do not stand alone. (this is from Barry Parker’s sermon on the same subject, noted below)

We are called to model the radically different approach to reality.  It is one of the things that should make non-believers see us as lunatics, in that we not only acknowledge and embrace suffering and pain, but also that we ultimately at the core of our faith celebrate such things.  We understand that suffering is a part of the reality not only because of Don’s explanation from Genesis, but also because of the New Testament teaching, for example in Romans: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  This groaning is a normal part of the creation, and particularly for Christians because we know what the ultimate destination for the creation looks like.  And we know that God helps us in that suffering creation because Paul goes on in Romans to tell us that, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  Our suffering is brought constantly before God in the groanings of the Spirit. Literally, as we lay in a hospital bed groaning in physical pain, and our loved ones standing around that bed also groan in emotional pain, the Spirit translates our groaned prayers into spiritual prayers that are too deep for words.  This is the first point of consolation in a Christian understanding of suffering, that we know God is present and experiencing our suffering along with us.  So those times when all you can do is “roll with the blast” of suffering and death (Mountain Goats), you know that God is with you.

Jesus dies, and leaves for three days.  Then he returns to the family he left, the disciples, and greets them with the peace of God (John 20:19).  This forms a model for us, and follows what intense suffering can feel like: a descent into hell, but for the Christian that is always balanced by the giving of the Peace of Christ.  In this we stand alongside Job, who also provides a model for us.  What struck me out of that reading was the physical impact of the arrival of each of the messengers, for I can remember times like that when you dread the next ring of the phone because of what it might bring.  Job tears his garments, and immediately we’re told, “20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and [and did what? Wept? moaned? no, Job] worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.””  Is it not amazing that Job’s first response after being told that all his herds, all his wealth, all his children are all gone or dead, is to fall to the ground not in despair, but to worship.

The problem of the world’s approach to suffering is that it attempts to understand the question without the fellow-sufferer of Christ.  This is the reason that an end to suffering is sought at any cost, even if that cost is destruction of the life that bears it.  Suffering bereft of Jesus has no meaning, no context, and no possible solace or succor when the wonders of science finally fail, as they always will.  Those who take God out of suffering have removed the only real source of relief.  This is why one writer can say with confidence that “The loveliest thing in the whole world is the Hill where Jesus died.” (V McNabb, 3)

What does a God who deals squarely with the question of suffering look like?  Author Tullian Tchividjian answers the question this way: “So what would a God who was present in suffering look like? First and foremost, He would be a God who suffers Himself. Maybe even dies. A God who meets people in their suffering rather than on the other side of it.”

It is this perspective that keeps me going through chronic pain, because I can always turn to the example of fellow-suffers.  So like Job, sometimes I can tear my clothes but then fall to the floor to worship the Almighty.  Like Jesus, in my loneliness of the Garden moment, I can pray to ‘take this cup away’ but also comes the critical balancing statement, ‘not my will, but thy will be done’.  And even when I feel that it is all ending – those cross moments – I know that the three days of darkness and death are always balanced with “My peace I bring, my peace I leave with you.”

Let us pray, “May God grant us, in the hour of suffering, whatever it may be, the consolation of accepting it and of having thereby the reassurance that we love Him.  May we love Him not just in the day, lest it be the day we love rather than Himself; not just in health, lest it be health of limb we love; but when the night of darkness and pain comes to limb or mind, may we think of His wounded limbs and His sufferings, and then, in our love, our suffering will seem but little to accept beside His.” Amen.  (Fr V McNabb, p 6)


My most recent blog post on pain, identity and indigenous life.

Most excellent article on pain by Ephraim Radner – certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.  Anyone talking about physician-assisted suicide should read this, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/02/15/the-craft-of-suffering/

CS Lewis’ equally excellent book, The Problem of Pain.  This, along with A Grief Observed, set out Lewis’ theology of suffering, and then how he lived it after the premature death of his wife, Joy.

A book (just arrived yesterday) mentioned in Radner’s article, The Craft of Suffering, Fr Vincent McNabb.  This was published in 1936, and I had to go to a used bookstore in the UK to find a reasonably priced copy.  Most interesting thing that Radner expands on is McNabb’s use of the idea that suffering is a craft which must be learned by the Christian.

A book titled, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian.  Barry Parker quotes from this author when he says that in the crucible of trial we find the bareness of why or the grace of who. “So what would a God who was present in suffering look like? First and foremost, He would be a God who suffers Himself. Maybe even dies. A God who meets people in their suffering rather than on the other side of it.”

This series was conceived and first preached at St Paul’s Bloor St, Toronto.  Their sermons are marvelous, preached some by our own Barry Parker.  http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermons  This particular series is available: http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermon-series/path-through-suffering Podcast subscription too.

Some thoughts in exchange with a dear coworker over the question of suffering after we read Radner’s article.  Her thought, “When it comes down to it, we’re all in pain, whether it’s physically or mentally.  The bible says that nature itself is in pain, just waiting to be reborn.” “The mentality upheld by a startlingly large amount of people is that any life that is less than perfect is not a life worth living.  It’s been very apparent in the whole ‘vaccine debate,’ where a bunch of Facebook MD’s spout poison that equates a life with autism as worse than a life risked by a slew of fatal and totally preventable diseases.”

Scriptures appointed: Job 1:8-22, Job loses everything, literally. Psalm 32John 9:1-7, Healing of a man born blind, ‘who sinned, he or his parents?

Groaning creation. Romans 8:  18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[g] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[h] for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

And guess what God’s response to a groaning creation and groaning believers might be?  The Spirit groans along with us, putting to voice things too deep to be spoken.

And if your reaction to the idea that suffering is redeemed in Christ, and has purpose, indeed is crucial in the life of a person of faith, to the extent that if you don’t see suffering as a path to holiness, you can’t develop as a Christian. Read 1 Corinthians 1 “18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

We are fundamentally engaging a question of mystery and ambiguity.  Listen to Steve Bell’s redition of a Gord Johnson song, “Embrace the Mystery”.  http://stevebell.com/product/devotion/ and a reflection written by a priest friend, Jamie Howison: http://stbenedictstable.ca/2009/10/a-song-and-a-story/

Interesting article in the Miami Herald about PAS – it’s mostly white, well to do that are using the law in the USA.  They have always been in control of their lives, and seek to extend that to death.  It’s all about control, and much less about pain control.  http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article111472797.html   Boy, that’s telling, given that the pro-PAS rhetoric is all about ‘intractable suffering’.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/macdonald/unspoken1.pdf “the face of the Son of God, who, instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; who suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection;”

Finally, one of the best songs about dying I’ve ever heard from The Mountain Goats, Matthew 25:21. https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858795051/

Written by sameo416

March 4, 2017 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Suffering Unto Death – First Draft (this will be shortened for time)

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Lent 1, 5 March 2017, SJE ©2017 Job 1:8-22, Ps 32, John 9:1-7 (preaching series pain and the abundant life)

Pray.  Our second sermon in the series on pain and suffering and abundant life.  We are working firmly in an area of holy mystery and ambiguity, an area that is directly counter-cultural.  As we walk through the Word today it should become abundantly clear that what we are about as the Body of Christ is sheer folly to the world.  This is a journey all about theodicy, the question of the justice of God, and why there is suffering in the world. Our specific question today is the ‘why’ of pain. There is also a question of the blessing of pain that I’ll speak to in a few weeks’ time in the series.

I’ve mentioned several times in this community that pain is a particularly ever-present aspect of my existence.  My departure from the military 14 years ago was the result of a motor vehicle accident that left me with chronic nerve damage in my lower back, resulting in chronic pain.  The most common question I’m asked about that is, “Are you really in pain all the time?”  Yes // always.  Sometimes it’s a 3/10 like today; and 2 weeks back it was more like a 7/10 – I literally cannot remember the last time in my life when I was not in some sort of pain.  How that pain translates into suffering, our response to experienced pain, is an important question.  I’ve spent much time reflecting on the experience of pain, and the experience of suffering as a result of that pain.  I will not hold myself up as an expert, as I have not mastered this – I still get down, sometimes despair, rail against God and others, but I will share some of the insight I have gained walking that road.

I need to kill a sacred cow right up front: any discussion about pain and suffering that attempts to demonstrate that a person suffers as the punishment for sin is not something that is grounded in Christ.  This is not to say our choices do not have consequences – the excessive use of alcohol will ultimately result in liver problems.  But, to ascribe a personal tragedy to God’s judgement is frankly contrary to the New Testament.  We hear this clearly through the Gospel today.  The disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Their world view is explicit in that question, as there is no room for other possibilities.  The man was born blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin.  If you think about that, how is such a thing even possible – did he sin before birth that he could be born blind?  The disciple’s world view can only conceive of such a disability as the consequence of an offense against The Law.  Jesus puts that to rest by stating clearly that the blindness has nothing to do with sin, but everything to do with making God’s kingdom manifest in the here and now.

If you remember nothing else from this bit of narrative remember this: our pain and suffering is not inflicted on us as punishment.  This is a refrain hospital chaplains hear constantly, “I don’t know what I did to make God so angry with me.”  There is no causal relationship here; we disappoint God does not equal inflicted pain.  Don made this clear last week as he spoke about how the ‘why’ of pain can only be answered by a return to the first principles of the Old Testament, and the point at which creation becomes corrupted resulting in the introduction of suffering.  Now, while God does not inflict suffering, He will certainly make use of it.  A given person’s suffering will absolutely be used by Almighty God in order to make the works of God apparent.  The pain of a believer is ultimately a tool of evangelism which convicts a dark world.

One of the particular facets of modernity and post-modernity is the manner in which we approach such questions.  CS Lewis, in his book, God in the Dock, points out that ancient man approached God as a criminal might approach a judge in court, with fear and trembling.  There has been a shift with modernity, as we now see ourselves as the judge, and constantly make assessments on how God is failing to meet our expectations of the way He should behave.  God is in the dock, that is, the accused’s chair in the court of the culture.  Our expectation is that God owes us an explanation for everything we wonder about, and so our first response when faced with pain and suffering is to ask the question, “Why God?” Why me?  Why this? Why now? And inevitably, “What have I done to deserve this?”  These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in the face of pain, mostly because the answers tend to lead to more pain.  If we trace the lineage of suffering back to Genesis, the answer to pain rests in the actions that led to a fallen world.  Pain and suffering are not a part of the intended design of the creation, but they were admitted into our real through the fall of humankind.  The reality downstream of those distant actions, is that suffering is a part of the fabric of reality, and a part of every person’s life.  The explanation is already there, and to ask the question of God about a particular personal context is nearly meaningless.

Similarly meaningless is the usual starting point to engage the question of suffering in the world.  It’s usually phrased this way: If God is good, and all-powerful, and loves his creation, he would not permit that creation to suffer.  Therefore God is either not good, not all-powerful, or does not love his creation.  Out of this reasoning we have books like Rabbi Harold Kushner’s, When Bad things Happen to Good People.  Kushner works through the death of his son Aaron and arrives at the conclusion that God was not omnipotent.  This is a difficult position for a Christian, as it undercuts large portions of the Bible’s teaching on the nature of God.  These questions of theodicy, the justice of God, are not helpful in approaching the question of the presence of evil because they start from a faulty assumption: that the removal of pain and suffering from the world would be a “good” thing.  I will suggest, along with a long line of writers on this question, that suffering, through Christ, is equally transformed into a vehicle of grace.  The fundamental problem we have with pain is that we constantly seek to judge God by human measures.  If you really loved me, I wouldn’t hurt so.

That question misses much of the reality of the nature of God, and you can see that clearly in the experience of parents.  How many times does a parent decide that a child, or an adult child’s choices have to be allowed to come through to ultimate consequences?  Or, how many times is a parent’s caution ignored until the child learns first hand why they were warned?  On one of our first camping trips with our daughter, who was 3 or 4, I gave her a safety lecture about the raised metal fire pit, and how she was not to touch it because it was dangerously hot.  No sooner had I finished speaking then she reached out a hand and laid it on the fire box with a smirk (before I could stop her)!  And, of course, quickly withdrew it and began crying.  Our adult children sometimes set themselves on paths which we know to be heading to disaster, perhaps because they have entered a relationship with an abusive partner convinced that they can change them. Sometimes the best we can do as parents is to pray for understanding to come quickly before too much damage is done. Ultimately, the existence of free will in the creation means that all sorts of evil, pain and suffering is allowed to exist, and this has very little to do with God’s nature – but everything to do with the nature of humankind. Don addressed this when he mentioned that the coming of Christ reveals our default positions on pain.

Now, our understanding of the ‘why’ of pain is usually corrupted by the cultural perception of pain and suffering.  Stated directly, first world culture has no understanding of pain and suffering beyond the imperative to eliminate them.  The message of the Enlightenment taken to the extreme it is presently is that science, and particularly medical science, will eventually solve all problems.  Our attitude to pain is to find the quickest way to remove it, which can be done a variety of ways: pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise; alcohol or other licit or illicit drugs; extreme sports; overwork; sexual addictions, and the list goes on, to find anything that removes our need to deal with pain.  Some of that can be traced back to the pharmaceutical industry providing medications with the highest profit potential, which sometimes means promising happiness or at least peace with minimal side effects.  This is a really modern understanding of the place of pain.

When you look historically at the development of western society, it was not that long ago that things like infant mortality and disease would cause much higher rates of death.  One of the challenges of doing family genealogies is that there was so much death, and reuse of proper names, that it is easy to get a child of 6 months mixed up with a subsequent adult of the same name.  People in earlier times, and not much earlier times, lived in the reality that there were frequent widowing, frequent death of children, and death of siblings happening all the time (without even considering the impact of two world wars).  A second change has been the institutionalizing of suffering and dying, as it was not long ago that an ill family member would be cared for in the home, and palliative cases were almost always a family affair.

As I mentioned, the first question usually asked by someone who is dealing with significant pain or suffering is the question of ‘why?’ This question is the wrong one to ask, and it is also the wrong way around.  A better question to ask when you’re not in pain or suffering is, “Why am I not suffering?”  “Why not me Lord?”  Suffering is the default setting of the creation, and so it is more unusual to be free of pain – this is the truly exceptional part of the human condition.  We have come to expect this as a right in the first world, as we are usually successfully oblivious to the reality that most of the world does not live the way we do.  Freedom from pain is our right, and so we ask the question, why?

Our first world right to be free from suffering is not so much about pain, it is really about control. The worst thing you can do to a first world dweller is to take away from them their sense of control.  In an article in the Miami Herald reflecting on physician assisted suicide laws in several US states, the author reveals that most people that support the law are not ultimately doing it because they are afraid of pain. Rather, it is because they fear the loss of control more than anything, and so the final act of self-determination, the final proclamation of control, is to choose the time and manner of one’s death. In Oregon and Washington 90% of those who opted for hastened death under the new law did so because of the fear of loss of autonomy.  This pathological fixation with control is really a first world problem, created because of a series of lies which we have been told are the truth: all suffering will ultimately be eliminated by the magic of science’s irresistible progression to total knowledge. This is not just a first-world lie, but it’s also a lie of the affluent…people who are starving or dying at the hands of despots have no ability to believe that autonomy is something they can claim. Discretionary wealth is what leads us to believe that we are the ones who are totally in control. This was the primary teaching that took the Israelites 40 years to learn, as set out in Deuteronomy 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” It is a lesson that we need to learn anew repeatedly, and one of the ways we learn that lesson is through suffering.

Theologian Ephraim Radner highlights this when he observes that today the absence of Jesus in the discussion about suffering and pain obscures the truth and, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” The idea that pain may have benefit is a culturally heretical thought, because there is nothing in modern western culture that is prepared to accept that there is any possible benefice in the question of pain.  We have a huge pharmaceutical industry that bases much research on trying to answer the question of happiness, or at least freedom from suffering, with chemicals. This is because the world sees naught in suffering except waste and despair, and a major focus of the modern world is the ending of pain by any means possible.

Once people decide to abandon the question of ‘why?’ the next focus is on the ‘how?’ of surviving the suffering. Here we cast our eyes directly to science, usually in the person of our physicians, to seek something to remove the pain. It is again the wrong question to ask.  For most of human history, the ability to medicate away pain has not been an option which was available.  CS Lewis marvels that the world which generated a number of major religions did so entirely in a time when there was no general anesthetic.  Think about that – effectively everything that has been written about the question of suffering was done throughout times when there was no real chemical option. This has all come in the modern era.  So, the next question is the ‘how’ I am going to get through this pain.  This is perhaps also an unhelpful question.  Let me tell you why. When I started on my journey of chronic pain 18 years ago, I went through the usual few years of exploration of medical intervention. My point of hope in those years was the next intervention. If classical physio didn’t work, maybe acupuncture might. If acupuncture makes me barf, maybe manual manipulation, and so on. The ‘how?’ question kept me going for a few years, but there came a point where I had to face the possibility that this might be a life-time issue. The ‘how?’ becomes less pressing at that point, because the only answer to the how question is putting one foot in front of the other, day in and day out. That leads to another how question: how is it that you intend to survive for the next, say 50 years? That question leads to little more than despair and an overwhelming sense of futility – something I saw literally 100’s of times with Workers’ Compensation Board cases involving disability and chronic pain. The only real question of ‘how?’ is ‘How will you fix me?’ and when the answer is that there is no fix, usually sensitively stated as, ‘it’s about time you just learned to live with this.’ (which is probably the least helpful thing you can say to a person in prolonged pain), or ‘let me put you on massive doses of narcotics’ (which is ultimately equally unhelpful).  So ‘how?’, like ‘why?’, are questions that lead to nothing but further pain and suffering.

A different ‘why?’ question we should stop for a moment to ask is why is there suffering in God’s broken, but very good creation?  CS Lewis does a marvelous job outlining this in his book, The Problem with Pain. It has to do with the gift of free-will, and the reality that pain and pleasure exist as a result of freedom, freedom which tells us something of God’s love, but even more about us. Why does freedom cause suffering? Because freedom allows us to choose to do evil over good, and this tells us far more about humanity than about God. Humanity is in need of a remedial or corrective good, which continuously points us back to the direction we are intended, by design to be heading.  Lewis writes these truly awful but startlingly true words, “…pain insists on being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (91) So pain exists at least partly because it has a corrective effect.

An example offered by Lewis is the narrative of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Issac. If God is omnipotent, would he have not already known Abraham would decide to go through with the sacrifice? So could the whole unpleasant thing have been skipped over, saving us the pain of trying to understand such a story?  Lewis quotes Augustine in answering that challenge by noting that the test was not to prove something to God, but so that Abraham would learn that his obedience could endure such a command. (101) Such suffering is not good in of itself, but this does not stop the suffering from being turned to the good by God.

The real question which pain should prompt us to ask is: ‘who?’  Writer George MacDonald set this out clearly in one of his unspoken sermons, “The Consuming Fire” when he notes that, “[The Son of God] suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.” This is the focus we learn throughout Scripture, and it is key to being able to deal with pain and suffering in our lives, for it places those nasty realities in a framework which allows some comprehension of the purpose for pain in the creation.

What is more is we don’t have to get hung up with the culture on the ‘why?’ question about suffering, and can move right past the ‘how’? to the critical question of ‘who?’  There is only one answer needed to the question of suffering in the world, and that answer is Christ upon the cross – and that answer is the reason why people reject our faith.  Who has already suffered cosmically for the entirety of the brokenness of creation past, present and future?  Jesus.  Who has already born the spiritual, emotional and physical pain to the greatest extreme possible?  Jesus.  The answer to the question is contained entirely in God the Father’s answer to the Son’s cry on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  The answer to that question is silence, as all the pain possible in us and the entire creation is poured onto Christ.

We are called to model the radically different approach to reality.  It is one of the things that should make non-believers see us as lunatics, in that we not only acknowledge and embrace suffering and pain, but also that we ultimately at the core of our faith celebrate such things.  We understand that suffering is a part of the reality not only because of Don’s explanation from Genesis, but also because of the New Testament teaching, for example in Romans: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  This groaning is a normal part of the creation, and particularly for Christians because we know what the ultimate destination for the creation looks like.  And we know that God helps us in that suffering creation because Paul goes on in Romans to tell us that, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  Our suffering is brought constantly before God in the groanings of the Spirit. Literally, as we lay in a hospital bed groaning in physical pain, and our loved ones standing around that bed also groan in emotional pain, the Spirit translates our groaned prayers into spiritual prayers that are too deep for words.  This is the first point of consolation in a Christian understanding of suffering, that we know God is present and experiencing our suffering along with us.  So those times when all you can do is “roll with the blast” of suffering and death (Mountain Goats), you know that God is with you.

Jesus dies, and leaves for three days.  Then he returns to the family he left, the disciples, and greets them with the peace of God (John 20:19).  This forms a model for us, and follows what intense suffering can feel like: a descent into hell, but for the Christian that is always balanced by the giving of the Peace of Christ.  In this we stand alongside Job, who also provides a model for us.  What struck me out of that reading was the physical impact of the arrival of each of the messengers, for I can remember times like that when you dread the next ring of the phone because of what it might bring.  Job tears his garments, and immediately we’re told, “20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and [and did what? Wept? moaned? no, Job] worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.””  Is it not amazing that Job’s first response after being told that all his herds, all his wealth, all his children are all gone or dead, is to fall to the ground not in despair, but to worship.

The problem of the world’s approach to suffering is that it attempts to understand the question without the fellow-sufferer of Christ.  This is the reason that an end to suffering is sought at any cost, even if that cost is destruction of the life that bears it.  Suffering bereft of Jesus has no meaning, no context, and no possible solace or succor when the wonders of science finally fail.  Those who take God out of suffering have removed the only real source of relief.  This is why Fr McNabb can say with confidence that “The loveliest thing in the whole world is the Hill where Jesus died.”

It is this perspective that keeps me going through chronic pain, because I can always turn to the example of fellow-suffers.  So like Job, sometimes I can tear my clothes but then fall to the floor to worship the Almighty.  Like Jesus, in my loneliness of the Garden moment, I can pray to ‘take this cup away’ but also the critical balancing statement, ‘not my will, but thy will be done’.  And even when I feel that it is all ending – those cross moments – I know that the three days of darkness and death are always balanced with “My peace I bring, my peace I leave with you.”

 

Written by sameo416

March 4, 2017 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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