Saturday, June 22, 2013

Burning Alive

I wanted to share some of the things I’ve been pondering the past few weeks. This is not to be “preachy” or even be a conclusive idea: it is just what has been rolling around in my mind.

After reading a book about female Noble-Peace Prize winners, I was motivated to read about other Noble-Peace Prize winners, and with the famous Nelson Mandela in the news for being hospitalized, I figured he was as good a figure as anyone to start with.

My understanding of the South African struggle to end the apartheid government was minimal, somewhat loosely based on a movie I still remember; where a white South African girl visits a black American family, and some basic understanding that at one time blacks were oppressed and whites had the power, and then, somehow that changed and then they had a democratically-elected black president. Yay!

As I read about the life of this man, what I kept rolling over and over in my mind was the length of time Mandela spent in prison and how somehow, he did not give up, did not lose hope. Instead, he continued to fight with everything he could, using every resource available- writing letters often seemed the only possible way. Even from prison, he maintained a leadership role in the movement to end apartheid. That is how fiercely dedicated he was to this cause – imprisonment would hinder and slow, but it could not stop.

However, while I remained awed, I was also frustrated. And it’s a conundrum Christians meet again and again – how an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Merciful, loving God could allow so much injustice in the world. It is not easily answered by cute responses, or even targeting humans as the rightful culprits, that doesn’t answer everything. This God who sometimes steps in with miracles and frees people, and sometimes doesn’t. It’s a frustrating concept that I will probably never grasp.

It’s been on my heart for a great deal of this year, actually – the suffering of others in the world. Impoverished workers dying in a building collapse in Bangladesh, and knowing God loves each and every one of them, yet still, they died. Enslaved children on cocoa plantations just so the West can have chocolate cheaply and that God wants their freedom – both spiritually and physically. The ruthless killing of Congolese for minerals to make cellular devices and believing that God hates that and wants it to end. And, too, natural disasters: I remember years ago in Thailand, looking over a huge trench where approximately 700 bodies were washed together by the huge wave; being told that people still alive, suffocating under the bodies of drown victims, screaming for help but unable to be rescued in time. And I looked at the then-empty trench and wondered where the loving, powerful God I served was as these people died – all because of a natural disaster. Putting aside human effect on the environment, it’s not direct human evil that contributes to earthquakes, super storms, floods and tsunamis that claim innocent lives. Why does our All-powerful, All-knowing, All-loving God not always intervene!?!

When I read the story of Nelson Mandela, whose last words on the stand at the Rivonia trials clearly showed he was prepared for the death penalty. He believed that the sentence would be capital punishment for treason. And I hear the Spirit of God say, “that was the miracle – imprisonment” because Mandela and his fellow freedom-fighters were NOT executed. They were imprisoned. They were allowed to live. And even in prison they continued their campaign for a democratic, race-less society. It wasn’t easy or immediate, as sometimes we are told to expect miracles to be, it took approximately 3 decades before Mandela was freed.
            But even in that – the world, without Facebook or Twitter, managed to rally together for the cause of a democratic and race-less South Africa, and half-way around the world people protested the unjust imprisonment of Mandela and did what they could to stand up for equality. Another miracle!
            But the battle is not completely won, not yet. There are still injustices to fight, and it’s a myth to believe it will happen speedily or without sacrifice. I don’t mean that there requires human casualties, but that people will be required to sacrifice something for the freedom of others.

            This brought me around to a young adult service I visited last week. I’m an unapologetic optimist; I look for the good, hope for the best, believe that second chances are available and seek the bright-side of all things. Now, given that, I found the service to be overly-cheerful, not realistic. A typical message for young adults on their mission in the world, the impact they can have with their open, bright futures and that God will, without hindrance, carry out his plan for their lives. On the surface, it sounds wonderful, inspiring! But not realistic. There WILL be hindrances, things will not always go as planned. Even as God planned.
            I know, so sacrilegious for me to say.
Exibit A: the Fall of Adam and Eve.
            Exibit B: King Saul and God regretting he had ever made him king.
            Exhibit C: In Isaiah, God talks about how he has planned to rescue Israel by a supernatural means and for him to get the glory by saving the small, weak people, but instead, they lean on protection from Egypt, so God does not rescue them.
            We CAN go against God’s will, it is an ability humans have. But before I go off on THAT rabbit trail- back to the young adult service: It was too shiny for me and I left pondering the actual life of Jesus and the call of the Kingdom of God, without all the flash that was provided in that small, mid-twenties-filled room.
            And as I thought about how God comes to earth, and the way in which he shows up, presents himself in the Bible. Sometimes it really does look like disaster, like chaos; just like Nelson Mandela’s lengthy imprisonment.

Matthew 1:18 “This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant.”
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born.
Luke 2:6 “And while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for the baby to be born. She gave birth to her son… and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.”
This is how Jesus the Messiah came into the world.
Matthew 2:13 “the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother.’…Herod sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.”
This is how Jesus the Messiah was received. 

            It’s tempting to add flash, to make Christianity more appealing – see, God will come through for you! Look! Look at the evidence!
            But we present biased evidence; Daniel in the lion’s den, the 3, then 4 in the fiery furnace. We glaze over Peter, who was crucified upside down, Paul who died in prison, Jeremiah who was thrown into a well, Abel who was murdered in his field.
            Following God will not equal ease or that he will always come through for you. Actually, he promised the opposite – that following him would mean suffering, persecution. He did not promise ease. He promised life, abundant life and eternal life but never, never an easy life. So where is this message on Sunday morning or any other church service? “What it means to follow Christ – the promise of suffering!” Instead, we want to assure people that God will bless them, he will pay their bills, he will provide all they need to be comfortable, to uphold their reputations and keep them in good rapport.
            Look at Mary: what about her reputation? What about the shame she faced from her community?
            Look at the birth place of Jesus: God did not open up a room in an inn, or make use of a kind person’s hospitality. Joseph and Mary stayed in a barn; that is where Jesus entered the world.
                When we say “God will come through for you” are we looking at the whole of the Bible? Or picking and choosing the aspects we like? Does it make God easier to follow, with the belief he will reward our devotion? And what if he does not?
            Remember, we serve a God who willing DIED. Who allowed himself to be unjustly sentenced to death and given the most torturous of death penalties. His concept of “salvation” is brutal and painful and bloody. That is the God we worship and we surrender to. Not because we believe he will reward us and always, always come through for us, but because we believe him to be Truth.
            Pain and suffering does not mean that we are being judged or punished by God, nor does power and money mean that we are being blessed by God. We have to re-think things, because we are part of an upside-down kingdom that understands power and might and meekness in completely different ways. A kingdom that points to sacrifice as good, brokenness as beautiful, says monetary riches are like dust.

            I have an idea about writing a story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego with an alternate ending: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, that we will never serve your gods.” (Daniel 3)
            We know the ending, we know how God displayed his power and received the glory and even changed the heart of the most powerful king. But what if God would have received more glory had the three men died in the fire? What if God had not rescued them?
            Even if he doesn’t.
            They were still completely willing to die for their faith, to uphold God as the only one worthy of their worship. So what if they had died? What if that was how the story ended?
            Even if he doesn’t.
            What would that do to my faith? To my belief? Not only in this one story, but all throughout the Bible. What if we began to highlight the way people suffered for their faith, when God received more glory in their dying than in a miraculous rescue? Would I still stand, would I still refuse to bow and therefore suffer, maybe die, because of my belief in a God who lets me burn alive in a fire?
            While it is easy to immediately respond – ‘Yes! My faith is sincere!’ That’s not what I’m actually getting at. What I’m getting at is how I read the Bible, what is highlighted to make Christianity more appealing, but is actually quite biased. It’s what I hear ‘marketed’ to people that God will always come through and nothing will hinder his plans for us. It’s a nice thought, but right now, in this moment- it is NOT TRUE for the child enslaved in Gabon, or child who just became orphaned in Iraq.

            The question, coming back around to a heroic man lying in a hospital in South Africa – if you believe the Gospel and you worship this All-powerful, All-knowing and All-loving God who sometimes chooses not to intervene against injustice, but is a God for peace and justice – what are you (and I) going to do about it? And to what extent are you willing to go for that belief in God and in the Kingdom of God; knowing that sometimes God allows people to die in the fire and sometimes he miraculously saves them?