The Vulnerable God
William Placher writes,
Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross — condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”
This week we reflect on the pinnacle of the vulnerably of God … the death of Jesus.
Pulled Into the Narrative of Suffering
In Matthew 20: 20 – 23, the mother of disciples James and John asks Jesus this question, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Jesus’ response turns the whole conversation on it’s head. James and John’s mother assumes that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem to set up his Kingdom, whereby Jesus will claim the thrown of David and push the Romans and their rule out of the land of Israel.
The disciples see Jesus’ entering Jerusalem as a power play and they want a piece of the power.
It was evident that James and John, their mother and the disciples had yet to understand the nature of the Kingdom: freedom, vulnerability, love and often suffering.
Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” In the Old Testament “the cup” was a metaphor for suffering … the very opposite of power. In fact, power is the human response to suffering. Power is the human response to vulnerability. Suffering is the divine response to vulnerability.
Jesus then states, “You will indeed drink from my cup ….”
And although they didn’t understand it, the disciples eventually would understand the brokenness of God over the world. They would eventually re-narrate the vulnerability of God in their own suffering … a re-narration that God invites all of his followers to embrace. As we’ve prayed so often, “Lord, break my heart with the things that break yours.”
Simon of Cyrene
Perhaps that re-narration is nowhere more visually clear than in Simon of Cyrene. It seems that Simon is actually forced into helping Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. Mel Gibson portrayed Simon in “The Passion of the Christ” as being unwilling to carry the cross.
And I think most of us respond in the same way. When God asks us to help him carry his burdens and we realize that his burdens are the weak, the poor and the sinful, we all turn our heads in disgust.
“You mean you’re calling me to weakness?”, we ask. “I thought you saved me in order to give me strength?” we snark.
And we find ourselves like Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry a cross that isn’t ours.
“But, you’re God … why can’t you carry this on your own?” we retort. ”Aren’t you all-powerful? Aren’t you the one who created the world?”
The truth sets in.
God needs our help.
HE CAN’T CARRY THE BURDEN ALONE.
Some final thoughts from William Placher,
If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something about how we might seek our own fullest humanity — not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and the willingness to be vulnerable in love.
We become human when we become Simon of Cyrene and embrace the vulnerability of God by carrying his cross with Him.
Floyd McClung had just finished teaching at a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) school, which involved speaking, personal ministry and personal counseling—18 hour days. Physically and spiritually exhausted, and simply “tired of people,” McClung boarded his plane back to his home in Amsterdam where he encounter the last thing he wanted—a needy, drunk man wanting his attention:
After a few minutes his head came around the corner. “Whatcha reading?” he asked as he peered over my shoulder. “My Bible,” I replied a bit impatiently. Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone? I settled back in my seat, but a few minutes later the same pair of eyes were again looking over the top of my seat. “What kind of work do you do?” he asked.
Not wanting to get involved in a long conversation, I decided to make my answer brief. “A kind of social work,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t be interested. It bothered me a little that I was verging on not telling the truth, but I dared not tell him I was involved in helping needy people in the inner city of Amsterdam. That would be sure to provoke more questions.
“Mind if I sit by you?” he asked as he stepped over my crossed legs. He seemed to be oblivious to my efforts to avoid talking to him. He turned to face me and he reeked of alcohol. He spat as he spoke, sending a fine spray over my face.
I was deeply irritated by this man’s obnoxiousness. Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone? All my plans for a quiet morning were destroyed by his insensitivity. “Oh God,” I groaned inwardly, “please help me.” The conversation moved slowly at first. I answered a few questions about our work in Amsterdam, and began to wonder why this man wanted so desperately to talk to someone. As the conversation unfolded it dawned on me that perhaps I was the one who was being insensitive.
“My wife was like you,” he said after a while. “She prayed with our children, sang to them and took them to church. In fact,” he said slowly, his eyes misting over, “she was the only real friend I ever had.”
“Had?” I asked. “Why are you referring to her in that way?”
“She’s gone.” By this time the tears were beginning to trickle down his cheeks. “She died three months ago giving birth to our fifth child. Why?” he gasped, “Why did your caring God take my wife away? She was so good. Why not me? Why her? And now the government says I’m not fit to care for my own children, and they’re gone too!”
I reached out and took his hand and we wept together. How selfish, how insensitive I had been. I had only been thinking of my need for a little rest when someone like this man desperately needed a friend. He filled in the rest of the story for me. After his wife died, a government appointed social worker recommended that the children be cared for by the state. He was so overwhelmed by grief that he couldn’t work, so he also lost his job. In just a few weeks he had lost everything, his wife, his children and his work. It was December so he had decided to leave; he couldn’t bear the thought of being at home alone for Christmas without his wife or children, and he was literally trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol.
He was almost too bitter to be comforted. He had grown up with four different step-fathers and he never knew his real dad. All of them were hard men. When I mentioned God he reacted bitterly. “God?” he said. “I think if there is a God he must be a cruel monster! Why did your loving God do this to me?
As I flew on the airplane with that wounded, hurt man, I was reminded again that many people in our world have no understanding of a loving God – a God who is a loving Father. To speak of a loving God, a God who is a Father, only evokes pain for them. And anger. To speak of the father heart of God to these people, without empathizing with their pain, verges on cruelty. The only way I could be a friend to that man, on the trip from Oslo to Amsterdam, was to be God’s love to him. I didn’t try to give pat answers. There were none. I just let him be angry and then poured some oil on his wounds. He wanted to believe in God, but deep inside his sense of justice had been violated. He needed someone to say that it was okay for him to be angry too. By the time I had listened and cared and wept with him, he was ready to hear me say that God was more hurt than he was by what had happened to his wife and family.
No one had ever told him that God has a broken heart. (8)
From “The Father Heart of God“
What does a broken hearted God imply?
It implies that God is not the victimizer… He’s not the master puppeteer behind this world of evil, but rather that HE HATES EVIL!
His grief reveals that God doesn’t have control over evil, for, if God controlled the evil, why would He grieve Himself?
God’s broken heart attests to his innocence, justice, hate of sin and effort to do everything in His power to stop sin. God is not the one inflicting suffering, He is the ultimate one who sufferers! Recognizing this alone has often staved my heart from losing faith in the goodness of God.
And maybe the cross is the pinnacle of that suffering. A suffering so intense that His body was unable to handle the grief and he died, not from the wounds of the body, but the wounds of the heart (more thoughts on this tomorrow).
Ash Wednesday isn’t suppose to be comfortable. It’s a day when the church takes repentance public. A day when something we usually reserve for the private sphere get’s pushed into the public sphere. It’s a day when repentance becomes corporate. When repentance is there for all to see, with the sign of the cross inscribed in ash on our foreheads.
And it’s not just a time of repentance, but it’s also a time of relinquishment … relinquishment of our project of immortality.
As I wrote earlier this week:
Denial of death, for Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker, is an all encompassing explanation for human endeavors.
Death, though, for Becker has two levels of meaning: The first level is phyiscal death. After all, how many times a day do we attempt to distance ourselves from death? Do you eat healthy? Do you wear a seat belt?
The second understanding of death plays more into our discussion. This type of death can occur during life. It’s the type of death that takes place when we experience a loss of meaning, worth or affirmation. And this type of death, though it will happen eventually for us all, is what most of us work so hard to deny.
Ash Wednesday is an acknowledgement of Ernest Becker’s second type of death. It’s an acknowledgement of our mortality; an acknowledge of our finitude; and an acknowledge of our depravity.
It’s the day we repent for our denial of death. Essentially, it’s a day when we prove Ernest Becker wrong.
It does us good to remember the old saying that is found on some tombstones:
Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
It’s good for us to remember that the works of our hands will not last forever. That our kingdoms will fall. That America will one day be no more. That our bodies will die. That our jobs, our business, our children, our name, our political ideals, and even our religion will one day — if they are lucky — find themselves in the annuls of history. That even our Christianity as we know it will one day be rendered dead.
And maybe this type of doubt is the reason few evangelicals partake in Ash Wednesday. After all, we have fervently engaged in the project of death denial as we’ve built theological buildings that we believe will last for time eternal.
And maybe it’s right to even press this farther.
Maybe Ash Wednesday is a day when the church should allow ourselves to doubt in the life after this one. That maybe our hopes of heaven are misinterpretations of Jesus’ words. That maybe all we have is today to love and be loved. And maybe, in forgetting this next life, we might strive for life now. We might find eternal life before our death.
Ash Wednesday isn’t suppose to be comfortable. No, there’s nothing comfortable about this day.
“From dust you were made and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19
Holidays can underscore everything that is wonderful in life. Especially in America, where life is so busy, where there’s rarely time off from the grind, holidays allow us a chance to be human, to enjoy our relationships … to enjoy our family and friends.
For many, it’s a time when we come home. Maybe our jobs have taken us away from our extended families, or our wanderlust has created a land distance between the place we grew up and the place we’ve planted ourselves.
Holidays allow us to touch … again. Touch, hug, and kiss our parents. Embrace our brothers … tightly hug our sisters. It fills what Facebook and Skype can’t provide.
But the same thing that underscores life also underscores what’s missing.
Parents, who only a couple years past were welcoming you home for the holidays with their embrace, their holiday feast, are now gone. Siblings, spouses, maybe even children … people who were mainstays in our lives … are no longer there to share in the life of Christmas morning, of New Year feasts, of presents.
And what is meant for rest … what is meant for life … becomes a time that creates unrest as it all accentuates what’s missing … or rather who’s missing … from the family table, from the celebrations. The busyness of work, of kids, of our schedules comes to a screeching halt during the holidays and all of a sudden we have time to remember.
We remember the holidays past. The joy. The hugs. The love. The life that is now missing. And all the grief that we thought was over all comes flooding back into our hearts and our minds.
If that’s you. If you’re the person who will be met with the unrest of death during this holiday season, I want to ask you to do something.
When you’re with your family and friends this season, take time to remember your loved one who has recently passed away. Before the meal, or during the game, speak up and share something like this, “Hey guys, I just want to say that I love you all and I really miss ______ this year.” That’s it. Or, if you want to go on, share your favorite holiday memory of your loved one.
And if you haven’t lost a loved one recently, I encourage you to love EXTRA HARD this holiday season. Live! Hug! Speak your love over your family and friends! And when the festivities are done and they’re leaving to go home, make sure you tell them that you love them.
If you really want to be an angel this holiday, visit or call or send a card to someone you know who has recently lost. A simple “I’m thinking about you this holiday” goes a very, very long way.
And one final thing – and this comes from the authority that only funeral director possesses – if you’re at odds with a family member or a friend, no matter how ugly the dispute or no matter how hurt your pride, life is simply too short to hold a grudge. Give your family, your friends and yourself the greatest gift you could possibly give this Christmas – a gift that reflects the real reason of Christmas – and forgive.
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas! I love you all.
Today, the Catholic Church around the world will remember the saints who have died.
In some Protestant churches this Sunday, the names of the recently deceased will be called out in a roll-call fashion and with each name called, there will be a candle lit in the church.
In other churches, plaques will be raised in memory of all those who have passed within the last year.
Today, the international churches will remember the dead and thank God for their lives.
But, like many my age, I’m not a part of any such a church tradition. In the milieu of change that has taken place in church recently — change of worship, change of preaching style, change of traditions — we’ve managed to be so concerned about touching the present that we’ve lost touch with our past.
In fact, many churches are so young they simply don’t have a past.
About a year ago we had a service for a middle-aged man who committed suicide. The pastor was in his late 30s, he had pastored his small, young church for 10 years and this was the first funeral service he had ever done for a congregant.
If you’re like me, and your church is so young it doesn’t have a history of death, I want to challenge you today.
Remember. In your own way. Remember.
Remember publicly. And if you’re young, the best way to remember publicly is through social media. Facebook. Your blog. Start an email chain with your family.
Embracing our past creates health for our present and clarifies the future.
So let me start:
Today I want to remember my Mom-Mom Wilde and my Pop-Pop Brown.
In 1992, my family suddenly lost my paternal grandmother at the age of 59. I’m the oldest of her grandchildren and my memories are at times fuzzy. And from what I understand and from the little memory I have, she had a deeply caring heart for others, always giving of herself and her time. And while I know my compassion doesn’t rival hers, I do know that this heritage was passed down from her, to my dad to me. Mom-Mom, I remember you today and I thank you for all the love you poured into my father, which he has in turn given to me! We miss you!
A couple years ago, my maternal grandfather passed. He was a gentle man whose business savvy provided for his family when he was alive and continues to provide for his wife, my grandmother, years after he’s gone. I’d like to believe that those attributes are something that he sowed into me, that still live on today.
My love of ice cream was inspired by you. My love of foresight and prudence was instilled in me by you. And the way I love and care for Nicki … you will always be one of the prime examples of how a man should love his wife. Thank you. I miss you. We all miss you.