Embodying Hope for Those in Pain: a ★★★★★ book review

There are a number of recent treatments on the problem of suffering. Christian writers and theologians have reflected on losing loved ones, trying circumstances, diagnoses of debilitating, chronic, and terminal diseases, and natural disasters. Many of these theologians seek to trace the place that suffering has within the purposes of God.  In Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic offers his theological and pastoral meditation on pain, prompted by watching his wife battle chronic pain and fatigue for several years. He doesn’t guess at the ‘why’ behind suffering but describes the reality of pain, and the resources available to those of us who suffer.

5179Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and an author of several books. He stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, but unlike some of his Calvinist friends, you won’t find him tweeting about ‘God’s greater purpose’ in the wake of profound tragedy. Embodied Hope doesn’t attempt a theodicy—a defense of God in the face of evil’s existence. His first chapter opens, “This book will make no attempt to defend God. I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in the world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles. How should we live in the midst of this pain-soaked world? How do we relate to the God whose world this is?” (7-8).

In the pages that follow, Kapic examines the reality of pain, wrestling honestly with the experience (part 1), before examining the resources we have in the midst of suffering: Jesus (part two) and Christian community (part 3).

In part 1, Kapic takes an honest look at the problem of pain, describing its debilitating effect on our spirituality. In chapter one Kapic notes how the problem of pain causes us to ‘think hard things about God.’ In chapter two, he discusses the need for Christians to develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts (24), by not attempting to untangle the ‘why’ behind suffering but instead seeking to love others well, even in our theologizing (26). In chapter three, Kapic advocates the place of lament and grief in Christian spirituality. He notes:

We will only discover hope when we are ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. At least such truth telling is required if we are ever to know the true hope of the ancient Christian confession. The church denies the power of the gospel when it trivializes grief and belittles physical pain, overspiritualizing our existence in such a way as to make a mockery of the Creator Lord. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the Christian community to deal with the messiness of human grief. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from physical pain or to belittle the darkness of depression and death but rather invite us to discover hope amid our struggle (41).

Chapters five and six invite us to a spirituality that embraces our physical embodiment and the ‘questions that come with pain.

In part 2, Kapic describes the resources available in Christ Jesus for Christians suffering and in pain. Chapter six discusses how Jesus’ incarnation involved God’s self-identification with us in our embodiment. In chapter seven, Kapic explains how Christ on the cross, entered fully with us, into the experience of pain and death. In chapter eight, Kapic explores how we enter into Christ’s resurrection and the hope of redemption beyond our pain and death. Kapic writes, “Christian affirmation of resurrection is not chiefly about escaping this world but righting it. Resurrection is not about denying this world but rather enabling believers to have an honest assessment of their experience and yet to have a real hope for restoration beyond it. Pain is real, but it is not the only reality” (115).

Part 3 describes the resources available for sufferers within Christian community. In chapter nine, Kapic discusses, through the lens of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther, the ways fellow Christians enliven our faith when we are in a weakened state, proclaim hope to us when we are unable to proclaim hope for ourselves, and demonstrates to us the matrix of divine love by walking alongside us in our pain and suffering. Chapter ten reflects (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) on the resources of confession for those who suffer (e.g. forgiveness, cleansing, healing, restoration, release from shame and condemnation and false images of God that compound psychological suffering, and mediating Christ’s presence). Chapter eleven describes faithfulness in the midst of suffering.

Kapic offers these reflections as a gift to the church. Pastors, pastoral counselors and all who walk along side Christians in pain, will find Kapic’s counsel to be both wise and sensitive. He avoids clichés and offers an embodied hope to those suffering. I appreciate the way he wrestles with the reality of pain and takes an honest look at it. He honors those who are suffering by describing with sensitivity the difficulties they face, but also acknowledges how destructive pain may be for their spiritual lives:

Christians struggling with physical pain often develop defense mechanisms that are destructive in the long run. Denial, for example, can take many forms, like the cultivation of detachment from pain. By deadening their affections and repressing their frustrations, some seek to carve out an inhabitable and safe place. Not only is this strategy partly successful, but the colors of life soon dissolve into the blandness of grays and whites. . . .Although the one who closes off the pain this way may not literally lie in the grave, those who know them whisper concerns about how ‘dead’ they have become (58).

It is only after describing the dangers and realities implicit in pain, and encouraging sufferers to examine themselves honestly, that he describes the embodied hope we have in the midst of pain: the Jesus who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose and ascended and the body of Christ which mediates His presence today.

This book will be a helpful aid for pastors, sufferers of chronic illness and for their supportive community. I recommend this book highly. Five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

Only Love is Credible: a book Review

Brian Zahnd was a big fan of the Angry God. As a young pastor, he carried around a handwritten copy of Sinner’s in the Hands of an ANGRY GOD, Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon. He memorized portions of the sermon, in order to give preaching more of an edge, so he could draw sinners to repentance as Edwards had done. However, Zahnd since discovered the Father revealed to us through Jesus Christ is not the violent, angry, retributive monster god articulated in Edwards’s sermon.

SinnersWrestling with issues like Old Testament genocide, Jesus crucifixion, eternal punishment in hell, and the final judgment, Zahnd re-presents to us the Christian God—a God who is Love, not wrath. But just because the God Zahnd now preaches is loving, not angry, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deal with sin. We are Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. The monsters are the things that keep us from finding our life in Him. Zahnd writes:

Today my handmade copy of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is stored safely away among other memorabilia. I’m no longer mining it for material to terrorize sinners. The monster god has faded away and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ. But that doesn’t mean there are no monsters.  The monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, racism, genocide, and every other form of antihuman abuse continue to inflict  our species with unimaginable suffering. If we try to manipulate these monsters for our own self-interest, they eventually turn on us and destroy us. (22).

Zahnd’s book unfolds in 10 chapters. Chapter 1 describes Zahnd’s shift from believing in the mere angry God, to believing in the loving God. Chapter 2 examines how Jesus closed the book of vengeance by emphasizing the “Jubilee good news of pardon, amnesty, liberation, and restoration” (44) in his reading of the Old Testament.  Chapter 3 discusses the importance of interpreting the violent and troubling passages through the lens of Jesus.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. Zahnd eschews interpretations of the cross that appeal to fear-mongering, instead, the cross emphasizes the love of God:

I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but I am no longer. I am no longer afraid of God because I have come to know God as he is revealed in Christ. I have come to know that God’s single disposition toward me is not one of unconditional, unwavering love. The knowledge of God’s love has made it impossible for me to be afraid of God. (97).

As such, Zahnd does not believe that the Father was a blood-thirsty God demanding Jesus death in order to save some. No, Zahnd argues:

When we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving our sins. By saying “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are politically religious systems that orchestrated Jesus’s death. At the cross we see how Adam and Eve’s penchant for shifting blame and Cain’s capacity for killing led to the ultimate crime : the murder of God (109).

In chapter 6, Zahnd describes the doctrine of Hell. As with the Angry God, Zahnd used to like Hell a lot but observes that many (evangelical) interpreters make Jesus’ word’s of judgment about the afterlife when he intends to talk about injustice and consequences in this life. He also challenges as fundamentalist fiction the notion that the sufferers of Auschwitz or godly non-Christians (like Abraham Heschel) are consigned to eternal torment (144-45).

chapters 7 through 9, describe Jesus, the Lamb of Revelation and the final judgment. Chapter 10 forms the conclusion: “Love alone is credible.”

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is similar to other recent books which question the traditional Angry God of evangelicalism. I think of recent publications from Brad Jerzak, Greg Boyd, Thomas Oord, Keith Giles, Rob Bell.  People who love John Piper (and are therefore more Reformed than God) will not like this all that much. If you feel, as many of my Reformed friends, that we are only drawn to God by feeling the weight and cost of our sinfulness, then you won’t enjoy this book. However, if you believe, as I do that, that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance(Rom.2:4), then you will be challenged and inspired by Zahnd’s words.

Zahnd does emphasize the here and now sometimes at the expense of the Hereafter. Of course, historically evangelicals have done the reverse, speaking only of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-when-you-abide-in-the-great-by-and-by. Both this age and the age to come are part and parcel of the gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus preached, and I think it is appropriate to speak of the former alongside the latter. I also wonder if Zahnd under-emphasizes some of God’s anger. It is always the loving who get angry, and I think it makes sense to still speak of an angry God in that context. Still, it is not as though Zahnd ignores human sinfulness and its destructive power for human souls.

I have talked with too many people whose experience of evangelicalism is one of judgment, anger and wrath. I recommend this book (along with books like Brad Jersak’s A More Christlike God) as representative as a more gracious depiction of biblical orthodoxy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review

Can We Get More Resurrection?

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, the day the resurrected Jesus broke forth from the tomb and broke the power of sin and death. If the Lenten season was about walking with Jesus the road to Calvary, the Christian life is about coming out the other end. We proclaim with the Apostle Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).  And yet . . .

And yet death still stings.  We feel it as we age, time decays and slows our pace. We feel it in the face of a troubling diagnosis or when we have to have our cat put down on Good-Friday morning. We feel its sting when we grieve the loss of a family member or close friend. Where O death is your sting? You don’t have to tell us. We feel it.

And yet death still looks pretty victorious. It still claims us all. We don’t need to look beyond last week’s news cycle to see the threat of death that looms over our heads. The Cleveland broadcast killer, Palm Sunday Massacres, Bombs dropped, another youth gunned down by police in Fresno, executions lined up for this week in Arkansas, and 45’s threat and show of strength against North Korea. Where O death, is your victory? Ubiquitous and persistent, we see death everywhere.

I know everything changed Easter morning. Death died and when love stronger than death broke its hold on our souls. We have hope because of Jesus’ resurrection and we await our own. Still, can we get a little more resurrection? We could really use it.

Z is for Zarathustra (an alphabet for penitents)

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3)
“DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.”—Let this be our final will at the great noontide!— Thus spake Zarathustra.
Z. We’ve reached the end.  A journey that began with ash, a reminder of our mortality, ends in the death of God. When Jesus had died, about the middle of the afternoon, they took his limp body off the cross and laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61).
The gospel writers are silent about the events of Holy Saturday and the emotional state of the disciples. Certainly, they were raw with grief and carried shame for deserting and denying their Master—the man they had invested three years of their life following. They likely didn’t visit the Temple on that Sabbath. It is difficult enough to pray and share space with other worshippers while in the midst of grief (who wants to sing happy-clappy songs of God’s deliverance when you are hurting?). It is all the harder when we consider that they believed Jesus would be God’s deliverer and they mulled over his strange sayings about how he embodied the Father (John 14:9-10). Now Jesus was dead.  My guess is that they holed up in the same room we find them on Sunday morning.
Zarathustra was the ancient, Iranian founder of Zoroastrianism. A man by the same name is Fredrick Nietzche’s mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 19th-century philosophers, like 19th-century novelists, could seldom write anything without preaching at their readers.  Zarathustra is Nietzche’s  preacher and the populizer of the phrase, “God is dead” (along with the madman in Nietzche’s The Gay Science). He preaches a new way of being in the world, freed from the confines of religious belief in a god. Kathleen Higgins suggests that:
“Nietzche’s basic goal in Zarathustra is to explore the question of the meaning of individual life. . . .The perspective that renders life meaningful is the tragic perspective, Nietzche contends. The tragic perspective does not denigrate individual life by urging the individual to associate meaning with notions of survival or perfect contentment. Instead it finds individual life to be meaningful in the way that art is meaningful—meaning emerges from the artist’s arrangement of limited material (“Reading Zarathustra” in Reading Nietzche, OUP, 1988, p146).
Nietzche has his fans, especially among athiests, philosophers and the children of Christian fundamentalists in teenage rebellion. Christian apologists love to quote Nietzche and use him as a foil for theism. But if truth is contextual, then today of all days we say with Nietzche and Zarathustra, “Gott ist tot.” God is dead.
Can we inhabit this space? The disciples are hiding out, wrecked with grief. Their religious illusions, beliefs about God, and hopes for a Messiah were dashed on the previous day. We may not, with Zarathustra, do away with God and put our faith in our own human potential. But the prophet and the madman understood the death of God has far reaching consequences. How now shall we live? 

X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us. 

W is for Waste (an alphabet for penitents)

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”” (Matthew 26:6–13, NIV)

Whenever the gospel is preached people remember her. John alone of the gospel writers remember that her name was Mary and that she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus (cf John 12:3). But Mark and Matthew also remember this costly anointing: An alabaster jar filled with nard poured over the head of Jesus.

The disciples sitting around the table saw this as wasteful. Why dump expensive perfume all over Jesus? He was not a 20th-century middle school boy and this was not Axe Body Spray.™  Shouldn’t she have sold the perfume to some other conspicuous consumer so that the money could be used to care for the poor?  Wouldn’t that be better?

John’s gospel puts the disciples’ objection in the mouth of Judas Iscariot’s and ascribes to him ulterior motives (John 12:4-5). Matthew and Mark both follow up their rendition with Judas making arrangements to betray Jesus into the hands of the chief priests. Yet, presumably, there were those around Simon the Leper’s table who just thought the money should just be better spent. Why with waste? There is absolutely nothing useful about dumping out a whole jar of nard.

Jesus response to Why this waste? is “Leave her alone! She has done a beautiful thing!” He acknowledges the ongoing plight of the poor. The poor you will always have with you . . . .These words allude to Deuteronomy 15:11, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  Jesus wasn’t saying do not care for the poor, but he was acknowledging that there was a place for extravagance and beauty in the spiritual life.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”As Christians, we call Jesus our Messiah—the Christ, the Anointed One.  This extravagant act was Jesus’ anointing before he would be arrested, tried and killed as an enemy of the State.

The woman with the alabaster jar did what Makoto Fujimura describes as a generative act (Culture Care, IVP 2017).  Her ostentatious and generous anointing was something beautiful in the middle of Jesus’ most trying and difficult week. Fujimura describes how as a young struggling (and starving) artist, his wife bringing home a bouquet of flowers fed his soul (15-16).  Could it be that this one wasteful act fed the Son of God’s soul and gave him the strength to face the hard days he had ahead?

Do something wasteful today, something extravagant and beautiful that feeds your soul and gives you strength for the hard days ahead.

[The picture above is the Anointing of Christ, by Julia Stancova].

 

V is for Vulnerability (an alphabet for penitents)

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. -Matthew 26:55

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. -2 Cor 4:7

Very few things are as important to the spiritual life as vulnerability. The vulnerable are those capable of being wounded and are open to attack. As in other aspects of the spiritual journey, Jesus is our chief exemplar and enabler. When he rode into Jerusalem, Jesus, the True Human, was vulnerable to the Roman authorities and the religious establishment. He also revealed his heart.

Jesus came to town teary-eyed (see Luke 19:40-44). Then he flew off the handle at the exploitation of the poor in the temple court.  We already knew Jesus to be a man of sorrows equated with grief (Isaiah 53:3) but in the same week, he would brave rejection and hatred, knowing that the crowds’ welcome cries would turn to calls for his crucifixion. The scribes and religious leaders tried to trip him up in his words when they saw him in the temple courts. When they finally arrested him it was in a night garden, through the betrayal of his disciple and friend—someone he shared his life and heart with. Jesus was vulnerable because of the risks he took in coming to Jerusalem and he was emotionally honest.  Had he opted for self-protection and self-preservation instead, we wouldn’t have a savior and wouldn’t know what it means to be truly human.

Personally, I find vulnerability one of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual life. I tend to keep my emotions close to my chest (though I’m quick with a joke). I like security as much as the next guy and want to leave myself open to attack. I can recall moments where my vulnerability was trampled on. But I have learned the hard way that it through the cracks in my clay-jar life that the light of Christ shines in me. I’ve learned that hidden wounds fester and get infected, but opening up, though risky, allows for healing and deeper relationships with others.

We cannot expect to be transformed, renewed, resurrected unless our true self shows up; we have no depth in our relationships (and the with-God life is a relationship) unless we learn to share who we really are. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” Christ is the head of the new humanity. He shows us a new way to be human and enables us to be our vulnerable,  true-selves without shame.