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Monday, April 22, 2013

Rest Amidst the Fear

Rest Amidst the Fear
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The Fourth Sunday of Easter

The essential nature of terrorism is that it breaks through the psychological protections of which we are accustomed through the distance of war. Our people are used to sending their sons away to battle in far away lands, not of enduring catastrophe in our own neighborhoods. Consider this – a citizen of certain cities in Iraq or Pakistan would consider neighborhood bombings differently than we do after such atrocities as Boston. It is the frequency and proximity that makes the horror that much more horrible.
            Scott Van Pelt, an ESPN radio host with a daily show, commented on Tuesday that nowhere is safe. He said, “If someone has the intent to harm you, they are going to harm you.” His point is about that essential facet of terrorism – there are not enough police, soldiers, metal detectors, or cameras to prevent evil. Further, there are not strong enough bills or laws to prevent evil acts from being committed. Van Pelt is exactly right – once someone decides to do evil to a person or community, there is little that can be done.
            Evil, as we all have felt, is real. I would not venture into the realm of the little red fellow with the tail and the pitchfork, but I believe that evil has a very real and very powerful presence in this life. This week, more than other times in recent memory, I have been weighed-down with the events of horror we’ve heard of. How do we, the believers, deal with that reality in the face of our salvation in Christ Jesus?

            It takes a certain level of faithful maturity to admit this: bad things happen in this universe. Contrary to what “theologians” like John Piper, Pat Robertson, and Fred Luter may say, there are events in this universe that, on their own, have no moral value in themselves. When a tornado rips across unpopulated Kansas destroying nothing of value, no one calls it evil. Put that tornado in a densely populated area like Hattiesburg, and suddenly God is judging that city. We must be mature enough to distinguish between judgment and tragedy. The former is an act of God against a people, a nation, or an object; the latter is a situation in which morally neutral factors combined to affect human life in a way that usually leads to death.
            We are talking about evil here. We could say that evil is “any act or event that is contrary to the good and holy purposes of God. Moral evil refers to acts of creatures that are contrary to God’s holy character and law. Natural evils include harmful or destructive events in nature that occur throughout the course of history and that negatively affect creaturely life.”[1] When we talk about evil we must be careful not to misrepresent the Gospel. No longer should Christians respond to the horrors of terror or accidental tragedy that “God has a plan.” To do so implies that the horrors we endure serve the “greater good” of some inscrutable divine plan. Further, such language masks our culture’s fundamental desire to “move on” in the face of horror; we pledge to rebuild and bounce back as soon as possible, regardless of our need to grieve, mourn, or heal. Lumping every evil event into a Divine scheme too high for man to understand is a copout; it’s the Christian equivalent to “walk it off” when a youngster is injured at play.
            The mature Christian must hold in herself the volatile compound made of one part hope, one part grief, and one part faith. In the face of evil in this world, whether the intentional, orchestrated acts of those who would do damage to the legs and feet of those who run or the accidental, natural, and unavoidable events that break people apart, the believer cannot, must not, succumb to the easier way of God’s inscrutable plan. No, such a position does nothing to ease the pain or grief of the ones afflicted, nor does it testify to the God who suffers for and on account of God’s chosen people. In fact, such a position tends toward a Christian fatalism – when the bombs go off or the hurricane hits it is the fate of those afflicted to suffer under the horrible gaze of an unknowable God.
            What I would encourage the mature believer to live into is our calling to hold grief and hope simultaneously in our hearts, neither discounting either nor ignoring one in favor of the other.

            Such a point is masterfully illustrated in the “when bad things happen to good people” story from Acts 9. Here is Tabitha, a good, Godly woman who is beloved by her church and her community. She has died, an unfortunate and tragic event in the little community of Joppa as testified by the presence of so many widows who eulogize their dear sister by showing Peter the garments Tabitha made. She had died and the people were sad. We can understand that. When Peter shows up and raises her from the dead, we can’t understand that. Why this woman? Why this moment? Why not raise every person who died in Joppa from that point on? Just what were all these people in Joppa believing in as a result of Tabitha’s resurrection?
            They were living witnesses to the reality of Christ’s victory over death made real in their lives. They were witnesses to death and tragedy and to the hope of life made so real in their sight.

            We are called to do no less that this. We are called to testify to the reality of evil and death in this world AND the reality of Christ’s defeat of that evil and death. We are to bear in ourselves the marks of CRUCIFIXION, that is, we are to bear witness to the fact that God has no eliminated evil or suffering from our world but has rather shown us that overcoming that evil might just mean death. The grief of the Cross and the Hope of the resurrection are the essential elements of the Christian faith.
            If we discount suffering in favor of our hope of resurrection we cheapen the cross and render the Church impotent to speak to the tragedies of our world, whether intentional or accidental. If we discount our hope of resurrection in favor of sounding more relevant to the social and humanitarian needs of the world we lose our Christian testimony of a God who has indeed defeated death on our account. We must find a way to live in that tension between the grief of this week and the hope that God is has not abandoned us. We must have a vision of the Kingdom: we must, in our grief, be transported for a moment to that place where the hot sun does not beat upon our necks, where there is no more hungering or thirsting, and where every tear is wiped from our eyes. A vision of a time when there is no more mourning, or crying, or pain. Then, though, we must come back to the now: we must, in our hope, be transported to the limbless and to the shocked, to the scorching fires and smoldering communities to stand as a witness to that Kingdom.

I believe that it is only in this powerful tension between the reality of evil and the hope of salvation that the believer can find authentic rest. That’s what we need – rest. We need to find a moment, just a second to catch our breath and find a place of solace among the evil. You see, the lesson of the disciple’s life is the same as that of the Psalmist. Even though we walk the valley of very real death and terror, we hold in our hearts the hope of God’s salvation. We walk onward finding rest in that hope as we journey onward to the world.

[1] Grenz, Stanley J., David Guretzki, Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, “Evil,” 48.

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