Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Some theodicies, rather than focusing on the nature of God or the nature of the world - and as such arguing that suffering is a necessary consequence of the interaction between those natures - focus instead on the nature of suffering itself. More pastoral in tone, these theodicies seek to find some redeeming good in suffering. While they may not outright say that suffering is better than not suffering, they do at least say that suffering is not unambiguously bad.

It seems to me that while these may be the least philosophically powerful theodicies, if their tone is carefully monitored they may be the ones which come closest to solving the problem of pain. That is, if they are truly and sensitively pastoral in tone, they can do what any Christian or even human approach to the problem of pain must do: help alleviate suffering.

One of my favorite bands as an evangelical Christian teenager was a group called Luxury. Listening back to them now, I can see them as - in their first incarnation - a kind of sillier Radiohead. They had a limited appeal, and so traveled across the country from dump to dive, in a van, unable to afford the luxuries that they so wittily mocked in "rock stars."

In the summer of either 1995 or 1996, I can't remember, on the road after playing at a Christian rock festival, they flipped their van. Each member of the group suffered many serious injuries, including broken backs, broken necks, and extreme blood loss. They were in grave condition, but all four of them eventually survived.

In 1999, to everyone's surprise, they released their third album. Scarred physically and emotionally from their collective near-death experience, this self-titled album had the lyrical depth which was so painfully absent from their first two effort. Their previous albums were witty and clever, sure, but juvenile and immature - which in rock isn't always a bad thing. But this third album, emerging from the ashes of the wreck which wracked their bodies and souls with pain, was a true work of art.

The last song on the album, "To You Who Gave Me Hope and Were My Light," most overtly deals with the emotional and physical residue of the wreck. The lyrics read:

I would that I were made new
These scars on my belly undo
And the blood that I have in my veins
Could be mine and not stranger unnamed

'Cos I once was perfect as you
Pink-skinned and full flaming youth
as the wind on a terrible sea
as a pillar of ivory

With six angels at my back
Two to sing
Two to pray
Two to bear my soul away

I would that I were made new
I would that I were made new
These scars on my belly undo
I would that I were made new

Hearing that song for the first time, I realized how pain can make one a little deeper, a little wiser. This band that had once nearly revered their own youth, and the perceived immortality which accompanied it, could now write a song that almost laments the passing of that youth. Time is precious, life is precious. Neither are to be wasted or taken for granted.

Just before noon today I headed out to pick Adam up from preschool. On the way out the door I grabbed this cd and stuck it in the car. Listening to it on the other side of my own life-changing wreck, I could see that while the final song may have been most overtly about the wreck, the entire album was colored by that innocence shattering experience.

I started this blog, though I didn't admit it at the time, as a kind of self-therapy. Having just resigned my pastorate, and with it having given up my life-long dream of being a United Methodist minister, I had a great deal to process. While I voluntarily left ministry, the circumstances surrounding the loss of my vocation were anything but voluntary. I was stuck between several wills, nearly unable to insert my own will into the conversation. My congregation was rejecting me and my ministry, rendering me unable to do my job. My wife was miserable both with that church, and with her broader role as a preacher's wife. I was just trying to hang on to my dignity and my sense of self-identity.

On the way to pick Adam up from preschool, for perhaps the first time, I really listened to the song "Mincemeat." Sure, I'd heard the song before, in the sense that I had been by the speakers when it was playing, having the sounds emitted from those speakers resonate in my ear-drums, and go through the usual process of being processed and interpreted in my brain. I even thought that I liked the song. I, for instanced, loved the interplay between the percussive guitar part and the string quartet - a first for Luxury. I was most impressed with the combination of acoustic and digital percussion, giving what began as a sparse bit of emo-rock a nearly symphonic feel as it raced toward the climactic crescendo. But I'd never really listen to it.

When you listen intently, intentionally, you are able to hear the things that you didn't expect to hear. You are able to be surprised, and even transformed. You are willing to consider a new perspective. Having heard the song without really listening to it, I was unable, until today, to hear in it the voice I never expected to hear. I was never able to hear it as a prayer, uttered in a moment of desperation, from someone struggling with the same sort of brokenness I have struggled with since my pastoral career ended.

So you thought
I looked a little unhealthy
A little weak in the knees
Well, why not?
Since you made mincemeat out of me

I thought I knew you
You were clean and cold
You did just what you were told

I thought I made you
Easy to behold
Easy to let go

Then you speak to me
That voice that made the seas
Those words never heard
That light never seen

All the times I was in the same room as this song, thinking that I understood it, that I liked it, it somehow escaped me that the song was directed at the God who had literally reduced the author's body to mincemeat. But while there is some bitterness hear, ultimately the voice of this prayer is not the voice of one who has rejected God. It is, instead, the voice of one who has come to understand that God transcends all of our thoughts about God.

We are the authors of theology, of concepts of God. But if there is truly a God, while we might craft a description of that God (a description which is doomed to be inaccurate and almost idolatrous) it is God who is continually making us, rather than the other way around.

The author/s here looks back to his childish understand of the God that he created in his own mind, and contrasts it with the incomprehensible majesty of the voice which made the seas. In that contrast, the suffering for which he/they blamed begins to make sense. The brokenness which followed that hellish moment becomes the lens through which God can be more clearly seen.

Finally listening to this song, hearing what I didn't expect to hear, was very inconvenient for me. I was driving, on my way to see the people who care for my son four mornings a week. I want them, for some strange reason, to like me, to admire me. I almost need them to approve of the job I've done so far in raising him. But driving there, with this song filling my car, the pure sound of it pushing down the walls that I construct to protect my precious bitterness and resentment like the trumpet blasts which felled the mythic walls of Jericho, tears welled in my eyes. I could no longer deny how broken I am. How directionless I've been since I left ministry.

As I pulled into the preschool parking lot, forcing back the tears which almost never come, I must have looked like a mess. And then, as quickly as that vulnerable moment arose, it subsided. I remember who I was, and where I was. I remembered that I need to pretend to have it all together. I remembered that adult life consists primarily of bluffing. And so I bluffed a well adjusted adult, pretending to be whole, all the while knowing just how broken I've been since I laid aside my vocational dreams.

Under my breath I muttered the closest thing to a real prayer I've been able to come up with in a long time: Fuck you! I admitted what I've been keeping to myself the whole time. I blame God for the state I'm in - a state which I don't often even admit to myself. But being able to admit that blame is perhaps the first step to recovery. Being able to - even if it is ultimately only directing curses to a steering wheel - admit how much I hate God, how much I blame God for the direction of my life, may be the beginning of being able to authentically worship God again. And they may be the beginning of reclaiming my life.


ursasmaller said...

great post.

crystal said...

I'm struggling with this stuff too. sometimes I feel almost crushed by how things are going... latest installment, a big scar down the front of my face. I think it's why I'm reading about theodicy lately.

Liam said...

Wow, Chris, a brutally honest and beautiful post.

I wonder how many times we as Christians think we are achieving a kind of inner peace when really we are just repressing rage at God, at the world, at our lives. That rage finally coming out may have a lot to do with the violence with which some people reject their faith. The more difficult path must be to recognize it and really deal with it -- to really exorcize it one way or another.

I listen to the stories my social worker girlfriend tells me about the people she helps, and it can embarass me to talk about about my suffering compared to theirs. But damnit, you can't live forty years without suffering a certain amount. I think it has made me somewhat wiser and more compassionate. I'm not sure that makes it good -- the things that triggered my suffering, like my father's untimely death, are certainly not good -- but to use a trite phrase, they do "form character." They make you grow.

Anyway, thanks for another great post, and know that you and your family are in my prayers (so are you, Crystal).

crystal said...

Sorry - last night when I wrote my comment, I was in a pretty bad mood. I meant to say that I appreciated the honesty and vulnerability of this post. And also that I resist the idea that suffering is good in any way. Maybe what doesn't kill us makes some people stronger, but I think it maims many more.

Anonymous said...

You have some great taste, Mike Knott, Luxury, etc. ;) Thanks for this post!