Saturday, August 20, 2011

Where is God when we suffer?

Statue of Anne Hutchinson at Boston
Why does God allow suffering, even with children? Why aren't God's people shielded from persecution and death?

That's the current question in the novel I'm writing on Mary Barrett Dyer. On August 20, 1643, Mary's mentor and close friend, Anne Marbury Hutchinson (the antinomian religious leader exiled from Puritan Boston), and five of her children were massacred by the Siwanoy Indians they'd come to evangelize. One daughter was abducted by the Indians and returned a few years later in a negotiated settlement.

Mary Dyer heard about it a few weeks later, and the news probably brought on labor and childbirth. She named her newborn son "Maher-shallal-hash-baz," and called him Maher. (The other children had "normal" names like Samuel, William, Mary, Henry, and Charles.) I went digging for the meaning of Maher's name. It comes from Isaiah 8:4, and means, in Hebrew, “suddenly attacked, quickly taken” or “swift to plunder and quick to carry away.”

Mary Dyer named her son in a time of grief and despair over the deaths of Anne and the children, in a sudden and vicious attack where an innocent girl was carried away. Mary's question surely would have been, Why did God allow such a tragedy, when Anne was such a strong witness for him?

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. Hebrews 10:32-36 NIV

What was the promise?

Long before Mary Dyer died on a gallows in 1660 for civil disobedience and in the cause of religious freedom, she had found the answer for herself. Mary knew what sustained Abraham, Job, Moses, David, Solomon, and all the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11. She understood that God is sovereign, and we are his trusting children. And she knew the Bible promises were not of a mansion or riches in heaven, not of a bubble of safety and prosperity, but of intimacy with God, for all eternity. Intimacy begun in a garden where Adam and Eve walked with God and talked face to face. Intimacy restored in part by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the temple veil to the Holy of Holies being torn to allow us access to God's mercy, and the miracle of the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts. And intimacy restored fully by the reunion we'll celebrate when Immanuel, God With Us, tenderly wipes away our tears and takes us to his heart forever.

Mary Barrett Dyer knew that although suffering in this life is terrible for both victims and the survivors who love them, that God brings us through it together with him, that one day we'll know why the pain was allowed, and that because of the surpassing glory of that day, we'll look back and consider our human suffering as a split-second of learning and growing deep in trust.

Mary was already experiencing the bliss of that intimacy while she was lying on a prison's dirt floor before her execution, when she wrote "he gloriously accompanied with his Presence, and Peace, and Love in me, in which I rested from my labour..." 

Where was God? Inside her. All around her. Holding her in his arms. Welcoming her to eternity with him. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Friends and Family

"Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are."
— Markus Zusak, Australian novelist

It used to be a viral marketing campaign for the MCI telephone company: “Friends and Family” was a friend circle of free long-distance calling. The point was to recruit your friends and family to subscribe to MCI so they could call more friends and family, who would add their friends and family, and so on, and so on… Having worked in PR and marketing for years, I’m disinclined to use marketing phrases in my writing or conversation. It’s trite. I won’t wear statement apparel, and am actually anti-designer label. If they want me to wear their logo or advertise their company, they can dang-well pay me for it.

But back to the friends and family thing. I have some great ones. There are some who pray for me regularly without needing a reminder. Some who are sensitive to the things I don’t say, and go out of their way to help. Some who will water my plants and take care of my pets so I can get a much-needed break. Some who are faithful to keep in touch, or send me messages about news or jobs or ideas. Some who actually believe and encourage my claims or hopes. Some who have sent gifts of money when I’d given no hint I was desperate. Some who have grieved with me and listened to my rants. Some who are professional colleagues but who like me as a personal friend. Some who say they’re inspired by my comments at Bible study, my writing, or my Facebook comments. Some who admire my opinion of what politicians ought to be doing. Some who sense or observe a need, and fill my need with the gifts of time, skill, expertise, and even cash. Some who, when I make a 350-mile trip back to visit my former life, lay down other plans in order to take me out to lunch, dinner, the movies, a drop-in chat, and (are you ready for this?) thousands of dollars’ worth of dental treatments at her expense. [post continues below images]

Every one of those gifts is evidence of their love and commitment to friendship—with me! I treasure the givers more than the gifts.

It’s not that I have such terrible self-esteem (well, not usually, anyway), but probably like you and many others, I wonder what in the world they’re thinking, that they should show me such love and honor. Is it because they have big hearts, or that their spirits are open to God’s prompting, or that they see a need they can fill and take initiative, or what? Am I so entertaining or such a valuable social asset?

While thanking a couple for treating me to a three-hour lunch and delightful conversation, I asked one of them what made her decide to come all that way. She looked surprised that I asked. “It’s because we love you, Christy!” she said.

This scripture is meant to be a proverb about the superficiality of people who value you only for what you can do for them, but just this once, I’m going to turn it around and upside down. I’m without income, and struggling with finances. But rather than being despised, I'm loved. The poor are despised even by their neighbors, while the rich have many “friends.” Proverbs 14:20 NLT  It’s true. I do have many friends. Therefore, I must be rich. Woo-hooooooooooo! 

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. 1 Cor. 13:4-7 NLT


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