My Son Needed the Love of the Church. I Wasn’t Sure It Was Possible.

Including the cognitively disabled in ministry is a chance to live in a cross-shaped way.

Jennifer Brown Jones| May 8, 2019

“NO! I NOT QUIET!” The meltdown began—of course—just as the prayer was starting. My husband grabbed our son Mischa’s hand and left the sanctuary, as quickly and quietly as possible. It wasn’t quiet. I have no idea what the worship leader was praying, but my own desperate cry had become almost rote: “Lord, I can’t do this. Help. I’m so tired. I don’t remember not being tired. I can’t do this.” The lights came up and people began greeting one another. I took a breath, preparing to apologize. Again. We wouldn’t be able to come back to this church.

First appeared on May 8, 2019 on Christianity Today where the rest of the article is available.

Sitting in Silence

Journeying Together

As I’ve reflected on trusting God and seeking His presence when life doesn’t make sense what keeps coming to mind for me is that we aren’t called to do these things alone. We climb the mountain tops and tread the shadowy valleys with others. We all have fellow travelers. Who are yours? Family? Friends? A church community? Coworkers? For me, today, these include a close friend who is dealing with life-threatening health problems and another whose daughter was assaulted. A third has unexpectedly lost her husband. It seems like all any of us can do right now is to sit in stunned silence.

When tragedy strikes I think most of us want to say or do something to make things better, but often words aren’t the answer. Just look at Job’s response to his friend Eliphaz:

Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.

Job 6:21

I wonder if Job hasn’t picked up on something fundamental. Maybe our words aren’t only an effort to comfort or encourage. Maybe they are our way of dealing with our own underlying fear that we could be next. I know that I need to be slower to speak (James 1:19), but maybe I’m not the only one.

Sharing Silence and Suffering

Speech wasn’t the first response of Job’s friends, though:

When Job’s three friends . . . saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job 2:11–13

While teaching us how to help our friends who are in pain isn’t the point of the book of Job, these verses do offer us food for thought. Before the friends speak, they grieve for and with their friend. Their actions echo mourning rituals found not only in the Bible, but throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, from Egypt to Syria. Their tears and torn garments are a way of identifying with Job in his grief and loss.

The sprinkling of dust evokes the idea of death:

For dust you are and to dust you will return.

Gen 3:19

In Job 2:12, though, the sprinkling of dust not only points to the death that is every person’s fate, it also points to the friends’ willingness to suffer with Job. Here, C. L. Seow observes that the specific Hebrew expression for the sprinkling is used only one other time in the Old Testament:

Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.

Exod 9:8–10

The “festering boils” that result from Moses’ action are described with the same Hebrew word that is used for the sores that cover Job from head to toe in Job 2:7 (šeḥîn). These parallels suggest that the friends aren’t simply participating in a typical mourning ritual (Josh 7:6; Ezek 27:30; Lam 2:10), but that the sprinkling of ashes is their symbolic way of asking God to afflict them with the same sores. They don’t only share Job’s silence. They are willing to share his pain.

The sprinkling of ashes is their symbolic way of asking God to afflict them with the same sores. They don’t only share Job’s silence. They are willing to share his pain.

How are we responding to our friends’ pain? Are we willing to share that pain or are we trying to comfort them with trite theology? Are we responding out of love or reacting out of our own fear? Maybe we should consider starting with practices that transcend time and culture: shared silence, companionship, and a willingness to walk in their darkness. In these, we let them know that they aren’t alone. We listen without judgment, allowing their genuine, heartfelt expressions. We lift them into the presence of God and may, with time, become a source of His comfort in their lives.

Or maybe we are the ones struggling. How are we responding? We see in Job, the Psalms, and Lamentations that we can express our anger, fear, disillusionment, and loss. That may be appropriate, but sometimes we need to sit silently in God’s presence, making room for Him to speak into our circumstances.

What other practices might we engage in when we struggle or a friend grieves? How else might we show God’s love and our support to those around us? I’ll talk about one possible approach in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Finding Peace When Love Hurts

Do you ever feel like God’s hitting you upside the head with a 2×4? You know what I’m talking about—a family member brings something up. Then a friend describes how they are struggling with that same thing. Next thing you know you’re hearing songs about it and you’re absolutely certain that someone must have called your pastor and told him or her that you needed to hear a sermon about it.

Well, it hasn’t been that bad for me, but over the past week I have sensed a gentle tap on the shoulder here and a little nudge there. It wasn’t about something I was doing, but rather about a theme: Jesus’ ascension, which the church celebrated last week.

Until a few years ago, I had never really thought about the ascension too much. Like many, I was focused on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. What has really been at the front of my mind this week, though, is that the resurrected, fully human Jesus ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of our Father (Mark 16:19). Yes, Jesus is fully God, but He is also still fully human. It is this fully human Jesus, the one who understands our struggles and pain (Hebr 4:15), that sits interceding for us with our Father (Hebr 7:25). (This was driven home for me when I read Andrew Purves’ Reconstructing Pastoral Theology several years ago.)

This observation may be theologically interesting, but so what? I guess the “so what” is different for each of us on any given day. But I was thinking about all these things as I drove past a friend’s house the other day—a friend I might have received five texts from in the past six months. She’s been in a rough place and has distanced herself from a number of people. I’m one of them. Honestly, it hurts. Each ignored text and each call sent to voicemail is like salt in an open wound.

Why do I keep calling and texting, then? I keep asking myself that. Ultimately, I’m not in any danger and God keeps prompting me, saying “do it again.” So, I do it. Maybe not as frequently as I did at first, but I still do it. Each time I reach out I can’t help but remember that Jesus kept seeking me when I was in a bad place. Maybe I’m getting just a tiny glimpse of how God feels about us.

At the end of the day, my friend may never respond. I may never see or hear from her again. But what God is teaching me is that her response isn’t the only thing that matters. Just as importantly, He’s calling me to be more like Him: loving even if it hurts.

What does all of this have to do with the ascension? Well, just as Jesus sits interceding for me with my Father, so I’ll keep bringing my friend before that same throne. I’ll keep reaching out with the hope that she will let me help and encourage her. Because each time I extend that hand fully expecting to be ignored, each time I pray, I participate in Jesus’ ongoing ascended life and ministry. Slowly, I’m becoming just a teeny tiny bit more like that ascended Jesus—the same Jesus who still understands how that salt feels. Remembering that Jesus understands how I feel helps me to trust Him here. It brings peace in the pain and loss.

Back to those 2×4’s, maybe God is using them to build lives that honor Him. We do that when we love others in spite of the cost to ourselves. Loving sacrificially can only be done one day—sometimes only one moment—at a time.

I’ll be the first to admit that the example of reaching out to my friend is pretty small. What she’s dealing with has crushed others. So I’ll continue to pray that God will meet and strengthen her where she is. I’ll keep asking Him to show me if there’s something I can do to make a tangible difference and act on it if He does.

What about you? Maybe you’re taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s. Maybe your spouse has died and you’re just trying to hold what remains of your family together. Maybe, like me, you’re taking care a special needs child. Maybe you’ve been betrayed by a business partner.

In the midst of our very real struggles, how might the ascension and the idea that the still-human Jesus understands how we feel help us on our paths? How might Jesus’ ongoing ministry bring us to a place of peace and joy? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe together we can all live looking just a little bit more like Jesus.


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My Apologies!

I’m so sorry! I’ve been having some problems with the video in my latest post, but I think that I have them resolved. Thanks for bearing with me while I figure this out. Here’s the post again just in case you missed it or have had a problem. (That said, if you still have trouble, please let me know!)

Rethinking Blessing

While the description of my journey starts to explain where “Life Beyond #Blessed” comes from, my friend Megan Nesson was the real inspiration. In the video below I draw heavily on Megan’s original video clip, which I highly recommend, and start developing my own thoughts on the topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts, input, and questions!

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you use #blessed? What comes to mind when you think of “blessing”?

Rethinking Blessing

(My apologies for the earlier posting problems. Thanks for bearing with me as I figure out how to incorporate videos!)

While the description of my journey starts to explain where “Life Beyond #Blessed” comes from, my friend Megan Nesson was the real inspiration. In the video below I draw heavily on Megan’s original video clip, which I highly recommend, and start developing my own thoughts on the topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts, input, and questions!

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Seeking God in the Rubble

About five years ago I was standing in line for coffee in the Vancouver airport as I waited for one of those really early flights that I avoid whenever possible. The sun still wasn’t up and I didn’t want to be. In a complete fog, I glanced around and did a mental double take. The man standing right in front of me looked like an actor from one of my old favorite TV shows—let’s call him John. (No, that’s not his real name.) As we started chatting he asked me what had brought me to Vancouver. When I told him that I was an Old Testament scholar and had been attending a seminar he just looked at me for a long moment and then said, “I’d love to talk to you about Job.” My heart broke. I don’t care who you are or what you do—anyone who wants to talk about Job with a complete stranger is probably in a really bad place.

When you think of Job what comes to mind? His story? The way he lost everything? His friends’ unhelpful words? The way everything was ultimately restored? Or maybe you don’t know much about the book, but instead think of that famous phrase “the patience of Job.” If you’ve (tried to) read Job lately, though, you would be justified in asking where that description comes from—and you wouldn’t be the first. Once you get past the opening narrative (Job 1–2)  to Job’s dialogue with his friends, Job seems angry, frustrated, demanding—anything but patient—whether it was with his circumstances, with his friends, or with God. The phrase actually comes from the KJV’s rendering of James 5:11:

Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.

What?!?! This translation may raise as more questions as it answers! First, who says “ye”? Second, Job doesn’t seem particularly patient when you read beyond that introduction into his conversation with his friends. Where on earth did James get that idea? Third, what is the “end of the Lord”? Finally, how is God “pitiful”? Does the translator mean the same thing we do by it? While consulting a commentary is a good idea at times like this, in this case just checking a translation that uses more contemporary English can really help:

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (NIV)

Or

Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (NRSV)

OK, that makes a bit more sense. There’s really quite a bit to unpack here, but for now let’s focus on Job’s endurance or perseverance.  While James specifically uses Job as an example of endurance in the face of oppression by wealthy landowners, Job’s original situation was more personally focused. He lost almost everything: his possessions, his health, his entire family except for his wife and, if we’re honest, still having her may not have been all that helpful (Job 2:9). These two different contexts—communal and individual—suggest that Job’s endurance might be a model for us whether we are facing social or individual issues.

So, what is it about Job that we are to imitate? What in his endurance or perseverance could lead to James suggesting he was “blessed”? We might say that the blessing was in Job’s eventual restoration, but this conclusion wouldn’t necessarily fit with James’ other example: the prophets who spoke in God’s name (James 5:10). Some have suggested that we should imitate Job’s tenacious clinging to what he knew to be true. This may be partially right, but since Job’s understanding of the world and of God was being turned upside-down, I think there’s more to it than that. Time and time again we see Job challenging God and His justice as he talks with his friends. Job isn’t focused on clinging to his theological understanding. What Job is clinging to is his knowledge of how he has lived his life, the reality of his suffering, and his perception of God’s injustice.

While holding onto our faith and a belief that ultimately God will right every wrong may be part of James’ message, when we consider James 5:11 in the light of the book of Job I think we may see another response that we should imitate. Job persistently sought God. In spite of his grief and anger, in spite of his pain and suffering, in spite of God’s silence and perceived injustice, Job kept seeking:

I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. (Job 30:20–21)

Job craves relief; he wants understanding; he insists on justice; he demands that God explain Himself. Job crawls right up to the line of sinning in what he says (Job 2:10). But he keeps seeking God. Job’s loss has taken him to a place where his understanding of God is no longer adequate, but that doesn’t matter. He persistently seeks an audience with the only one who can resolve the dissonance. Job seeks the One that he holds accountable for his suffering (Job 16:7–14).

You may know the story: God eventually shows up. He responds to Job, but He doesn’t answer Job. Instead, God questions Job, confronting him with the reality that we all face sooner or later: God doesn’t fit into any of our neat theological boxes. God’s answer doesn’t turn the world right-side up, but Job finds comfort anyway. Maybe the blessing James mentioned is found in an encounter with God that brings a new understanding of the God that we worship.

We can tackle God’s response another day, but for now let’s focus on what happens next: God affirms Job’s speech. This is the same God whom Job has blamed and attacked, and if you’ve carefully read all that Job has had to say, you’re doing your own double take. You know the backstory (Job 1–2): God didn’t attack Job in anger (16:9); God didn’t marshal his terrors against Job (6:4). What is God affirming in Job 42:7, then?

After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Elihaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (NIV)

Here, scholars have noted that the Hebrew word that is translated “about me” (ēlay) can actually be translated two different ways: “about me,” which you see above, or “to me.” The latter may actually fit the context of the book better: Job is the only person to engage with God. Job’s friends talk about God and His ways in abstract theological terms. Job himself talks to God from the midst of his personal experiences.

This understanding of God’s affirmation in Job 42:7 fits well with Scripture’s invitation to live lives of unceasing prayer (Acts 1:14; Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17). This invitation isn’t to continually talk to God—sometimes words fail us. Sometimes the pain and loss are too great. No, this is an invitation to a life lived in constant communion with God and, as in any relationship, it’s important to be quiet and listen too.

Talking to God is a part of a prayerful life, though, and Job models one possible portrait of what this can look like. Just like Job, we can endure and persist, seeking God no matter the darkness we or our loved ones walk in. While it has become somewhat cliché to say this, Job shows us that we can be honest with God. God can handle our reactions when the loss is too great or when everything that we thought we knew about God and the world has been turned upside-down.

When the pain is agonizing, keep seeking God’s presence. When life doesn’t make sense, keep asking. When the loss is unbearable, keep making space for God to speak into your darkness. When God seems distant, keep looking for His fingerprints and listening for His whispers. You may see His hand in a small act of kindness by a stranger or a sunset. His voice may echo in a song on the radio or the quietness of a friend who simply sits with you, saying nothing. His gift may be in a single good night’s sleep. Endure. Persist. Seek. As you are able, speak. Find the blessing of God’s presence.

Thinking back to John, we never did have that conversation about Job. After he ordered his coffee—and yes, he was that actor—we went our separate ways. I wound up spending that flight home praying for him and wondering what I might have said if I had had the chance. At times like that, though, maybe it’s more important that we listen and carry those who are hurting into the presence of God, praying for them in case words have failed and they can’t do it themselves. Pray for God’s comfort. Pray for God’s presence—because at the end of the day Job didn’t get the answers he wanted. God’s presence was what made all the difference.

Trusting God in the Rubble

This Is Now: 3 Things I Wish I’d Done Then

It was an Easter I’ll never forget. Standing in church and singing about the resurrection I was ambushed with an overwhelming sense of anger. Not the irritated with the in-laws type of anger or the ticked that I tripped on a plastic Easter egg anger. No, this was that deeply rooted anger that seems to create a red haze over everything. It took me by surprise because I can count on one hand the number of times that it’s happened. This time I was angry at God.

You can’t just talk yourself out of that kind of anger. I thought I was in a good place. Apparently not. As I stood there, no longer singing, I felt a wave of resentment. I had followed all “the rules.” I loved Jesus and had done what I was supposed to do. It didn’t matter. I still had to deal with the devastating fallout resulting (at least in part) from the depressive side of my bipolar disorder.

Logically I knew that I was out of line. I definitely hadn’t “done it all right.” I could spot my sin and shortcomings from a mile away. That didn’t change how I felt, though. Why had God allowed the nightmare I found myself in? Why hadn’t He intervened in the broken relationships or brought emotional healing? The anger faded within hours, but left a bad taste in my mouth for a long time to come.

It seems funny that I didn’t remember that day this past Easter. Instead it teased at the edges of my memory about a week ago as I drove home from a conference, singing along with Casting Crowns’ This Is Now a bit off-key and reflecting on the apostle Peter’s story.

Just when I thought my sin has closed the door
I see my Savior standing on the shore
With arms wide open
Just like the first time You called my name
You said that was then
And this is now

My child, I bore your cross, I wore your crown
When you couldn’t come to me, my love came down
So take My hand, I’ll lead you out
‘Cause that was then
And this is now .
~Casting Crowns

Now I can hear the words of Jesus and know that He was there all along. Working quietly. Molding me into someone that looks just a bit more like him. Now I have hope that He can still use me. Now I actually believe that He can use me better because I am more aware of my utter dependence on Him. Now I trust Him again. But it took a long time to get here.

Listening to the song and thinking about how God had brought me from that place of anger to a new place of trust, I thought about how Peter’s expectations and understanding changed. Just like today, in Peter’s time there were a variety of religious beliefs and ways of interpreting Scripture. Each of the disciples began their journey with Jesus with certain expectations that had been shaped by their religious traditions, political history, and culture. They were hoping for a political deliverer who would end the exile and bring about national restoration as God had promised.

“At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,”
says the LORD. (Zeph 3:19-20)

For three years, the disciples walked and talked with Jesus. They heard him teach about the kingdom of God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3)

They witnessed miracles.

Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (Luke 11:43)

They experienced miracles themselves.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on
the water and came toward Jesus. (Matt 14:29)

They still didn’t get it. Focusing on status and privilege, James and John request to sit on Jesus’ right and left, positions of authority and honor.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other
at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:37)

Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying that

“the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders,
the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be
killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31-32)

It’s easy to judge them, but how different are we? Our upbringing, religious traditions, and culture influence us, too. We have certain expectations about what the Christian life looks like and how we are to relate to God. Do we believe that our faith is only a private matter? Do we believe that our happiness is God’s priority? Do we believe that God won’t give us more than we can handle? How many of our beliefs about the “abundant life” do we tie to material provision or physical well-being, even unintentionally?

On the surface we may deny that we believe any of these things. After all, when put that bluntly, the obvious answer seems to be “no” or “none.” But the question here isn’t what we think the right answer is or what we believe in our heads. The issue is what we believe in our hearts—it’s what we really expect God to do or to be like deep down inside. Before that Easter Day I would have told you that I “believed” that everything I had was a gift of God’s grace, but my anger suggests that deep down in the quiet, dark, and unacknowledged recesses of my heart I might have believed something else entirely. How about you?

Have you ever felt disappointed or betrayed by God?

I hope you can honestly say “never”! I hope you never experience the anger and devastation I faced that Easter. I’m guessing, though, that even if you haven’t, you know someone who has. But if you can name even one time, you’re not alone.

It can hurt and even be kind of embarrassing to admit that you aren’t the “good Christian” others might think you are. But without honesty, how do we move forward? Do you wonder why God allowed your spouse to die in spite of all the faith and prayers of your community? Do you face systemic injustices because of the color of your skin? Do you still suffer from debilitating pain or are you watching a parent be ravaged by Alzheimer’s? Do you fear for your children’s safety because of where you live? Will you go to bed hungry tonight, wondering where the rent will come from next month? Sometimes in these places we can join the prophet Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength. (Hab 3:17–19)

But sometimes we join Job instead.

Even today my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.
If only I knew where to find him;
if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
and consider what he would say to me. (Job 23:2–5)

On those days that we’re more like Job, what is our real problem? The situations we face can be very real, even unbearable. I don’t want to minimize them in any way—my path may be a cakewalk compared to yours! But when you’re ready, let’s approach the problem from a slightly different angle: What is driving us to respond like Job instead of like Habakkuk?

Only days after that Easter I could see all of the theological problems with my perspective, but that clarity wasn’t possible in the moment. However, that moment did reveal a great deal to about what I really believed about God and how He works in the lives of those who follow Him. I won’t outline all of my misconceptions right now. They’ll still be here to dissect another day. Instead, I want to focus on one particular problem:

I didn’t trust God’s character. I trusted His provision.

Part of it was that I was walking by sight and not by faith, but that wasn’t all of it. In some respects, I had the same problem Job had: God hadn’t met my expectations.

Back to you. What was your answer to the question about disappointment or betrayal? Can I suggest that when we have these feelings about and reactions towards God they can be fundamentally related to our underlying understanding and expectations? Just like Job, we expect God to act in a certain way.

(Let’s pause a moment hereif you’re thinking about a friend, don’t be like Job’s friends. They did more harm than good by trying to correct him!)

Ultimately, it may well be that your or your loved one will need to seek professional help, but I also believe that in these places God invites us to do (at least) three things:

  • Seek His presence. My focus here may stem from my own experience, but I think we also see a Scriptural precedent. Job demands explanations and answers, but God doesn’t give them—maybe that’s why I used to find the book so frustrating! God doesn’t explain Himself. Job didn’t get what he wanted, but he got what he needed: an encounter with God and a greater depth of understanding about God’s wisdom and his own limitations (Job 38–41).
  • Identify our preconceptions. With the help of the Spirit we can look at our specific circumstances to try and understand what expectations we have that haven’t been met. Sometimes a friend, counselor, or spiritual director can be an important part of this process.
  • Seek understanding. Having identified our preconceptions, allow our faith to seek understanding, something that Saint Anselm talked about. Here we can let our love for and commitment to God drive us to prayerfully seek a deeper and more nuanced knowledge of Him.

We’ll dig into these ideas more in the coming weeks, but my hope is that this list will give you a starting point—whether the struggle is yours or someone else’s. My prayer is that God will bring each of us to a place where the “now” isn’t one of failure, betrayal, or disappointment, but one of a deeper knowledge and experience of life with Jesusa place where we can joyfully say “This is now.


All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.