Monday, April 04, 2016

God or some other power?

Explaining suffering and the terrible things that happen to people in life presents a formidable, intellectual challenge. 

My mind goes to this dark place because I have the dubious privilege of speaking at Church at the Square on Sunday, May 1.  You see, that's just 3 days before the City of Dallas intends to close down Tent City, the large homeless encampment located just a block away from CitySquare's Opportunity Center where the church meets. 

Most members of the church have no place to call "home."  Many have been directly connected to the encampment in one way or another.  Many pitch their tents and live there. 

My mind moves toward Lamentations, as I consider the sermon six weeks from now. 

Reading this text unsettles me. 

Clearly, the writer subscribed to a robust "deuteronomic" understanding of God.  The formula behind the theology turns out to be rather useful when it comes to understanding human suffering and pain.  Simply put, this view of reality says that if a person obeys the rules, blessings will surely follow.  If on the other hand, a person defies the will of God and disobeys, then punishment follows in due course as an expected outcome of pursuing evil.  Here God assumes the role of both grantor of blessing and perpetrator of punishment.

The author and readers of Lamentations didn't give due credit to the machinations of a warrior culture that delivered conflict and death in a period of history when conquering, punishing armies vied for control of ancient kingdoms, not unlike today!  Somehow a perverse comfort emerged from blaming a very involved God who meted out punishment and suffering because of their own sinfulness and for God's own purposes.  At least purpose in the face of horrid pain and suffering might be discovered in such an understanding, no matter how damning or inadequate. 

So, all of the intense, gruesome suffering and death described in Lamentations is in fact the work of the God whom the people worship. 




And, inadequate for sure. 

I've found this theology at work under the bridge that I can see out my office window right now.  People praise God for "all their blessings."  People transform their very real pain into a praise chorus that seems shrill at times, as if prompted by unimaginable difficulties. 

Outside observers tend to believe that the suffering in Tent City is the result of the failure of its residents.  While not often uttered, many believe that the suffering to be observed here is punishment from God's hand, not blessing.  I suppose it all depends on your perspective and your housing status.


But buried in the middle of this curious little chapter of the Hebrew Bible, I have a feeling that I'll find my text here somewhere.

Try this relief from chapter 3:

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,[g]
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
28 to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
29 to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
30 to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.
31 For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Or, try reading the version Eugene Peterson's The Message offers:
I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
    the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
    the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:
22-24 God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left.
25-27 God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits,
    to the woman who diligently seeks.
It’s a good thing to quietly hope,
    quietly hope for help from God.
It’s a good thing when you’re young
    to stick it out through the hard times.
28-30 When life is heavy and hard to take,
    go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions:
    Wait for hope to appear.
Don’t run from trouble. Take it full-face.
    The “worst” is never the worst.
31-33 Why? Because the Master won’t ever
    walk out and fail to return.
If he works severely, he also works tenderly.
    His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.
He takes no pleasure in making life hard,
    in throwing roadblocks in the way:
34-36 Stomping down hard
    on luckless prisoners,
Refusing justice to victims
    in the court of High God,
Tampering with evidence—
    the Master does not approve of such things.

Still struggling with the theodicy before us in Dallas.
For now, I'll commit to simply wait with my friends who will soon suffer more indignity. 

Is it God who strikes the poor? 

Or, could it just be God's people?

Mercy, Lord, mercy.

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