Category Archives: Suffering

Mysteriously Upheld

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72Experiencing the known world as falling apart is no new thing. That’s what reading Dead Wake, in which Erik Larson tells of the German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and how this drew the U.S into World War I, reminded me. To be suddenly plunged into World War I or II would stun us.

Still we live amid our own sense that normalcy is not holding. That’s why stories about the end of civilization are popular. Of many apocalyptic novels I’ve read, a favorite is Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s elegiac account of disease striking all Earth, grounding the planes, leaving her main characters living in an airport before finally they must see what’s left beyond.

Her vision sears my heart. This is because she shows in fast-forward what we fear is already unfolding in slow motion. It’s also because, even post-apocalypse, she spies hope. Her final pages gleam.

Mandel inspires me to keep pursuing hope. Even now. Especially now. That’s what I’m pointing toward with “Unseen Hands,” the title of my new quarterly column for Mennonite World Review (which will also appear as Kingsview & Co blog posts). I want to pursue the unseen hands in personal experiences; larger church, cultural, and global dynamics; biblical resources.

The image itself, which comes from a dream I later heard echoed in Marty Stuart’s “The Unseen Hand” gospel song, launches me on the journey. Unseen hands are for me first of all personal. They came to me in that years-ago dream when the mountains seemed too many and high. I was climbing what in waking moments is the steepest grade I regularly encounter. Suddenly unseen hands, giant invisible hands, supported my back. Same hill. Same life. But newly walkable.

Years later an invitation to an assignment that scared me came by cell phone just as I was climbing that same hill. I remembered the dream. I felt the hands. I said the yes that might otherwise have been no.

Meanwhile in the larger culture I glimpse unseen hands in, of all places, those richly layered, streaming TV shows suitable for binge watching. Two examples: The Killing and River. Both touch on painful issues of the day, whether racism, immigration, tensions across cultures and religions as diversity soars. They address sin, shadows, sickness of soul. Yet also, quite strikingly, they ask about atonement, forgiveness, healing. Main characters in both are broken people, grappling with addictions, abuse experienced and inflicted, abandonment. Both show tussles with mental illness that simultaneously scar and strengthen sufferers.

And both, so sparingly yet so movingly that when the moment comes it outshines most sermons, point toward unseen hands. Each offers scenes in which golden light breaks through not only metaphorically but literally. Yet what could be cliché makes the soul shiver—maybe because earned by the unsparing (if perhaps over the top in latter episodes of The Killing) portrayals of streets and characters drenched in rain, violence, wrong turns, and sorrow.

I sometimes wonder how the Jews survive their own apocalypse. As exiles by the rivers of Babylon they weep, hanging up their harps rather than, as Psalm 137 indicates, singing God’s song “in a foreign land.”

Walter Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms, 75-76) says they do it in ways I recognize from The Killing and River: honestly naming their bitter realities, including their raging thirst for vengeance, while maintaining a “resilient . . . . hope against enormous odds.” They stay true to a vision of the Lord’s unseen hands through which “There will be a homecoming to peace, justice, and freedom.”

They have much to teach us.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Disbelieving in Wonder

BalloonKCPost-MAKThe horrors keep mounting up. Even at a distance they trigger disbelief, “This can’t be happening” exclamations of shock and dread. The trauma for those onsite must splinter hearts and souls and sometimes sanity itself.

On Sunday my wife Joan and I took a walk. We spent much of the time talking about the terrors of recent days, terrors made all the more terrible because for so many months now we have taken so many walks after so many awful things have befallen our human brothers and sisters, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any of the other forms of faith through which we long for God.

We reached few conclusions. We agreed that some of the things some people are saying are so beyond the pale we can’t believe we’re hearing them. We especially can’t believe we’re hearing them so often from Christians that we shudder, time and again, at even being associated any more with our own tradition.

We noted the problem of speaking up for the truth when everyone these days means to be speaking for the truth. How are we called to speak when we all, as we utter the things the others consider blasphemous and obscene and yes, beyond belief, do so in the name of God?

As we thought about this, we saw on the far horizon a hot-air balloon begin to drift in. Wow, cool. Hey, look, it’s coming this way.

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Wouldn’t it be great if it came across those trees and even closer? It did!

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And closer. Closer. Closer. Close enough to make us nervous. What if it got too close to the power lines overhead and to us?

Closer. It drifted past, just feet away. It slowed. It hovered. It landed on the lawn right beside us. The pilot in an orange vest seemed to be training a passenger.

BalloonLanding

Children lived at the property the balloon had landed on. Their parents came out and greeted the balloonists. After some cheerful chatting, lo, the pilot asked the children if they wanted to get in the basket. The parent in me imagined them jumping in and the balloon jumping up and away and who knew what next. But their parents, sturdy sorts, accepted this moment of grace. The children climbed in.

Carefully, so carefully, the pilot let loose a sliver of flame. The balloon rose, just a foot or two above the lawn. Slowly slowly the pilot took it across the lawn. Then ever so gently he set it back down again.

Another few moments of cheerful chit-chat, more flame, and up the balloon soared, headed east in the fading glow of the west-setting sun.

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Joan and I returned to our walk. Excitedly we shared our disbelief. When we came back past the balloon-landing lawn, the children’s mother was working outside. We asked how her children were doing.

She grinned. They were inside, she said, watching and watching and rewatching the video of themselves being taken up in the balloon that came out of nowhere to transport them into a moment of disbelief, of adventure, of joy they would likely remember the rest of their lives.

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The one doesn’t fix the other. A fantasy that descends from the sky to make imaginations dance and spines shiver doesn’t atone for the terrible things that have been descending from above and flaring from guns. But they were haunting moments of grace, those fleeting minutes of disbelieving not in dreadful things but in the unbelievable fact that this wonder—hinting at the sort of treasure for which all God’s suffering, frightened, terrorized children so ache—had descended from on high.

—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Water Spouts and More, by Renee Gehman Miller

KCGuestPost-ReneeMillerOf all the bedtime Bible stories, Jonas had picked the story of the healing of the lepers, so on a recent, unstable kind of day, I found myself reading:

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten men were very sick. They were so sick, the doctors couldn’t make them better. They were so sick they couldn’t be with their mommies or daddies or boys and girls.”

I didn’t think he noticed a waver in my voice, but after I finished the story and we were lying in the bed, he said, “Tell me the truth, Mommy.”

I panicked a little. He was likely just trying out a new phrase he’d heard me say, but I was nervous about what was to come when I asked, “Tell you the truth about what?”

“Umm. . . .” He took a moment to fish in his mind for something he wanted to know the truth about before saying, “Um, about the water spout.”

Now I was trying not to chuckle. Of course I had no idea of what possibly could’ve brought his thoughts to “the water spout” in this moment (no, it wasn’t in his story of the 10 lepers, nor had it rained that day), but here we were.

“Well,” I said, “The truth about the water spout is that it helps catch the rain that runs down the roof so that it can all flow right down one road to the ground.”

“Oh,” he said, satisfied. “Okay.”

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Thus were the pleasantries of bedtime held intact for the night, even as my thoughts lingered on the men who were so sick the doctors couldn’t seem to fix them.

Nine days before, I had received a phone call to come in for an impromptu appointment with the doctor, which is never good.

It was an appointment during which the doctor left at one point because she wanted to give me time to punch the wall if I so desired. Not because I appeared to want to, but because she was concerned about my stoicism in the face of her words and thought maybe I might find some needed cathartic relief if she left for a moment.

It was an appointment during which Anthony and I exchanged words in what ought to be considered a foreign tongue for 31-year-old people who are not certifiably insane. (Or are we?)

And just like that I was scheduled for a return to chemo, something I never thought I’d do. Lung surgery been planned for the prior Thursday was canceled, apparently not because anything changed about my lung nodules but more because of the general up-in-the-air-ness of my case.

There will be two new (to me) chemo drugs, a loathsome ten weekdays on, five weekdays off per cycle, four cycles (until right before Christmas, I think), then scans, then determine if more chemo is the way to go or not.

I have a sort of post-traumatic-stress type association with chemo. It takes up a lot of time that is precious, it destroys what’s healthy while maybe getting rid of the bad.  While I am very skeptical of its ability to do much (any) good for me, I will proceed simply because this is the door we are in a position to access at the moment. I’m not quite sure, though, how I will return to the third floor, sign in, sit in that chair, and say “yes” when they hold up that bag of poison and ask me to verify that I am the person whose name is printed on the label.

Right now if you looked at me, you’d probably have no idea anything is wrong with me. Starting chemo again feels like unveiling truths that may start to become as plain as with the water spout. The truth you can see when Mommy has to rest so much, and her hair is falling out (again), and she goes to the doctor’s almost every day, and she can’t be out in public, and her leg that hurts seems to be having such a big effect on the rest of her, too.

And I wish he could face the transition to a big-boy bed or to school before learning about cancer. I want to create a masterful façade out of it all like the father in the Italian movie, Life is Beautiful, who convinces his son that the concentration camp is all one big game for which they must wear uniforms and strive to win the most points by following the rules.

If we are going to talk about the truth, let’s please just talk water spouts.

ReneeJonasAnthonyFence

We have disciplined ourselves to live one day at a time these past couple of years and will continue on in this way, one uncertain step at a time in an ever-changing plan. We continue to look into options for treatment, and flew halfway across the country recently to begin that process. We learned of a possibility to pursue that comes with a bigger price tag and no guarantees or refunds, but it sure sounded better than our alternatives. We still have a couple places we’d like to check out, but in the meantime, we go to chemo.

In a time when all the doors seem either closed or opened to the wrong way, we knock on Jesus’ door and say, “Tell me the truth,” and that is the happy ending to this otherwise Eeyore-esque journal entry.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

The reality, for me, in light of these truths, is that even though we have had some really bad days recently, we are still finding that in our days there is joy, and hope, and faith, and a good deal of love.

—Renee Gehman Miller, writer and editor, was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in 2013. Kingsview & Co readers who once subscribed to the blog’s prior incarnation, DreamSeeker Magazine, will remember Miller’s lively and creative contributions to DSM as former assistant editor and columnist. Her “Ink Aria” columns can still be searched for and read at DreamSeeker Magazine online. “Water Spouts” is adapted from one of the many eloquent CaringBridge posts through which she has shared her journey since 2013.

Losing Seth, Part 2: In the Heart of God, by Larry Dunn

KinsgviewCoGuestPostSethLarryDunnAs I shared in “Forever,” Part 1 of “Losing Seth,” the death of our son Seth four years ago raised many questions for me. Most remain unanswered. Foremost has been the question of God’s presence in this experience of immeasurable loss and suffering.

In his well-known book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on the death of his own son Eric, noting the connection between suffering and love. I shared some of his thoughts along with those of my own at a memorial service at Bethel College in Kansas, where Seth was set to return for his senior year:

To the why of suffering the Christian gospel gives us no answer. It eludes us. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it. For some unknown reason love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony.

When I called one of my closest friends that day to give him the news, he simply repeated, “No! No! No!” Suffering is the shout of no by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers—the shout of no by gut and gland and heart to pain, to death.

Thank you for your no. Thank you for your suffering—alongside us, alongside one another, alongside God. And thank you for your love—your love for God, your love for one another, your love for us, and your love for Seth.

In a chapter I wrote for the book A Road Too Short for the Long Journey potentially to be published by a colleague on grief, I tried making sense of the “mysterious presence” of God which I had experienced largely as absence. There I wrote,

Where is God in all of this? My youngest son Isaac said, “God was the first one to cry when Seth died.” Such an idea, if thought about too carefully, might throw many into a crisis of faith. But without another explanation, I need this to be true. How else to understand God’s silence? How else to account for God’s absence?

Sometime later, during Lent, the solidarity I had felt with God was wearing thin. The God I thought I knew had been completely, delinquently, irresponsibly absent. I desperately wanted to give God a chance to break the silence, and decided there was only one thing left: to match God’s silence with my own. To listen. To sit quietly and wait. After some weeks, I spent two days at a Catholic retreat center to continue my vigil. The spiritual director there, a compassionate and wise nun, suggested that I write this Absent God a letter. Through anguish and tears and nearly an entire box of tissues, my soul groaned:

God, I’m tired. I’m tired of the pain and the sorrow. I’m tired of walking down this path alone. Tired of the grieving. Where have you been? You’ve been absent since that day, that day I prayed like I’ve never prayed: “Please God. Please.” And what difference did it make? None. I have a lot of questions and you have a lot of explaining to do.

About a year after Seth’s death a friend and his family were involved in a terrible car accident in which a passenger in another vehicle was killed. Later, as he spoke to some others about this traumatic experience, he referred to God’s provision of safety for his family.

Still unable to find anything of God in my own tragedy, I became sensitive to the inadequacy of talk about God. Knowing he would understand and not take offense, I wrote a long email inviting my friend into a conversation:

I have wondered why—if God can and does act in such ways—he chose not to (or was not able to) in Seth’s case. I have yet to come up with an answer that is satisfactory or even makes much sense. Other than the fact that God allowed it and would no doubt desire good to come from it, I can see no other part for God in what happened to Seth. I have prayed often for my sons’ well-being and can imagine a dozen, a hundred, a thousand good reasons why God might want each of them to live long lives.

But if God desires such good, and indeed acts in the world in the way your comment implied, then why would God not protect Seth (or, for that matter, the person in the other car of your accident whose family was also praying at the side of the road) in the same way as he protected your family?

Not everything happens as God would wish it to. I believe that God was indeed happy that no greater harm came to your family. But certainly God found no joy or purpose in the death of the other person or in Seth’s death as some like to suggest about such tragedies. I’m beginning to think that God is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful as we like to think. Perhaps God experiences and responds to what happens in the world just as we do.

What I had previously accepted as reasonable was becoming problematic in light of Seth’s death, and as a seminary graduate I felt foolish that I had not questioned it sooner; that God’s relationship to the evil and injustice of the world—what theologians like to call the problem of theodicy—had to become personal before I more seriously considered what John Caputo refers to as the weakness of God.

Old, inadequate notions of God were being discarded. New ones would take more time. Faith reconsidered. I was reminded of something that C. S. Lewis had written following the death of his wife:

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

There is no danger in saying no to the dreadful belief in a magical deity who arbitrarily intervenes on behalf of some and abandons others. That is not a mystery but a misconception about the Divine. There is no reward, no gain, no redemptive outcome, no compensation or justification, no sacrificial exchange for some higher good, no rationale or explanation—theological or otherwise—for an irreparable loss such as ours.

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Susan, Eli, Larry, and Isaac Dunn

 My no to that event four years ago is a yes to a future hope, one still unimaginable in Seth’s absence. But God is nothing if not the possibility of the impossible. I do not yet know what the promise of God offers for me, or for Seth. But for now, perhaps Ann Weems, in her book, Psalms of Lament, describes that hope best:

O God, in your mysterious power
you make the oceans roar
and the starfish
wash upon the shore.
And my son lives
in the heart of heaven,
and I live
in the heart of earth,
but we live together
in the heart of God.
(From Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems. © 1999. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press)

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.