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I wrote yesterday about a friend’s bad experience with a visiting evangelist at an American church. She highlighted two key areas that really bothered her about that evangelist. I am sharing it here because it reminds me of similar occurrences here. I think there is something we can learn and I want to address those two issues. First being the evangelist’s one sided preaching and secondly, the judgmental and insensitive way with which he preached his message. I reproduce my response to my friend here, with a little editing to fit the local context.
I hear you. As I was reading your response I thought of criticisms my own pastor had received for preaching the grace of God. I know it might come across as defending the other side but it is not the case at all and I hope you understand my heart. I have been on both sides in my own experience, so I feel I can offer some insight from both perspective. You see, when outsiders criticize my pastor’s preaching, although it is distressing to hear, I can understand where they are coming from and frankly, I don’t blame some of them for misunderstanding my pastor’s heart and intent. After all, they do not know my pastor like I do. I have heard him every Sunday for 12 years. Although I do not know him personally, I know much of his background, his stories, his struggles, his family and hear from people who know him personally and been on vacations, leadership retreats and teh tarik sessions with him share about their experience together. All these help me know him better and have a more complete picture of the content and intent of my pastor’s message than someone who has only heard him once while checking out the church or a few sessions during an overseas conference, for example. The reason why I highlighted this is because in order to understand the message of a person, we need to know his heart. Just like how God’s word is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us it is the power of God unto salvation. We can’t hope to understand the Bible without first knowing God. We also need to interpret it in the right context. So my point is, that evangelist may appear to not have preached the whole counsel of God because you have only heard him on one or two occasions. He may have preached about the resurrection, the Holy Spirit and other important aspects of Christian living and doctrine over the years to his own congregation where he is based but for that particular occasion, as he is a visiting evangelist, he felt led to focus on a particular area. One point of caution though, beware of ministers or ministries that do not have a home church. This is not to say that they are immediately suspicious. Just that usually little is known about the minister and there may be a lack of accountability since they do not have a regular congregation.
I personally believe God gives different gifts to different teachers. My pastor is good with preaching radical grace, Seth is good with discipleship and getting us out of our comfort zone. Likewise, other preachers are good with some other aspect of God’s complete counsel, etc etc. Together, we make one powerful body. If only we would stop tearing each other up and start recognizing our various gifting. We need not the baby out together with the bath water. There is always something we can learn even from people we don’t agree with most of the time. It is not unlikely that God may have called some to expose heresy in the church. It is a calling that will draw persecutions for sure. It is never easy to tell people they are wrong. Nobody likes that. But imagine if there really is heresy in the church and nobody exposes it, what will happen then? On whether someone is a self-proclaimed heresy hunter with the express intent to divide, damage, confuse and tear down the church or if indeed he is following God’s call to confront the brethren out of love and for the good of the kingdom, we can follow the Bible’s counsel to look for the fruits of the spirit in that person’s life. It says in Matthew 7:16, ” you will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”is there evidence of fruits? This leads us back to the first point above on knowing the person. Since your friend feels very positively about that evangelist and his message, why not have a talk with her and ask her what is it about the man or the message that grabs her spirit.
Among all that you’ve shared about your experience, what made me uncomfortable was not that he was putting too much focus on Jesus and the cross but that he was quick to call those who do not give the same emphasis, ignorant and unsaved, and his mocking of other ministries. I do not feel that was in line with the spirit of God. But then again, if I were to give him the benefit of doubt, he could be doing the right thing the wrong way.
Sorry, no clear answers here from me as I have not heard the man myself. Hope my sharing above helped at little.
Have a blessed weekend everyone!
These days, to avoid the church queue, I attend services at our overflow room at Gallery West instead of the main auditorium. Who knows, there was a long queue there as well. Reason? Pastor’s sermon overran by almost half an hour. He always does that! I was bored from the waiting and started playing with my mobile camera. Later on, I felt a little mischievous and decided to go against the church rule of “no unauthorized photography and audio/video recordings within service premisses.” I secretly turned on the video function on my mobile as I made my way into the service venue when the queue started moving. Unfortuantely it is no good to show you because it is lopsided. It’s almost impossible to keep the camera upright and undetected. Who knows, I might attempt again if I am ever in one of those moods again. Shh…don’t tell anyone.
Outside Gallery West. The bright yellow lights on the left is actually Pearl River Restaurant. Poor thing they had to deal with this every Sunday.
The other part of the queue. Right below is the ballroom where we usually hold our Chinese service but it was reserved for another event yesterday.
Looking down from where I was. That’s the atrium next to Balaclava.
I miss worship songs. Have not been listening to them for a while, except in church on Sundays. I grew up with Hillsongs as a young Christian. After a while I found some of their praise songs too noisy and loud for me. However, I love their worship songs, which are beautifully written and never fail to usher us into God’s presence. Worship songs are especially mesmerizing when sang together in a congregation. I have this vision that one day I will sing together with multitudes from all over the world, every tongue and tribe. What a marvelous time that would be. What we have now is but a glimpse of the future. Already it is enough to burst our hearts open. Imagine what it would be like when the fullness of the time comes.
Hillsong United, the youth music ministry of Hillsong Church in Australia will be here this Saturday at The Zone Youth Conference @ Max Pavilion.
This is one of their newer worship song. I love the drum beats in the background (not very audible in the video) and the violins and cello. It’s hauntingly beautiful.
Check out also this praise song called Desert Song. But just before that, a word from the lead singers. May we find strength and hope in the desert times of our life.
19 million in the kitty in less than 24 hours.
That was in reference to funds collected on the Sunday of 15th February for our building project at One-North. In the midst of so much bad news about the economy in recent months, that was certainly good news, or so we thought. I had wanted to write about it the week following the update by the church leadership. I thought it would be an encouragement to all, especially believers, that people can be joyful and willing givers in times of deep recession. However, I chickened out for fear that my church would be misunderstood and criticized by people who will not understand. I am usually weary of too much publicity about my church because I know of man’s tendency to criticize things that are counter-culture, especially when it comes to money and religion. And I was right. Critical, mean-spirited, judgmental response did come. Sigh……
It all started a few Sundays ago. Our church collected close to 19 million in one Sunday for its church building fund. The intention for the collection was announced to us only two weeks before. When the day came, we gladly opened our checkbooks, emptied out the ATM machines in the Suntec vicinity, and arrived in droves in response to what God had placed in our heart. We recorded our highest attendance that Sunday. Over 80% of the congregation gave. It goes to show that people came with the express purpose to give. We were in this whole-heartedly and with our eyes opened. There was no coercion or pressure from our pastor or the leadership in any way. The only thing that came close to giving this a little push was a couple of excellent, heart enlarging, soul liberating, poverty-mindedness dispelling and biblically supported sermons on God’s provision and His way of rising above a famine. (Gosh, that was a mouthful!). Pastor was addressing the current economic crisis; lifting the people’s spirit and vision to a place where the crisis cannot touch. One-North was mentioned a couple of times in those sermons but it was not the focus. If people wanted to call that coercion, pressure, or even fund-raising, so be it. As far as NCC-ers are concerned, it was a great opportunity and privilege to give. So fired up was I, and I believe many others too, that I made it my goal this year, to free up more money in order to support God’s work. I am not just talking about One -North here. I am talking about funding the work of fighting poverty, slavery, disaster relief and missions. I have started making a list of Christ-centered ministries that cater to these needs which I can support on a more regular basis. So you see, it did not produce a bunch of people who were just hyped up about a building, it produced people whose heart are into giving. If that offends people, so be it.
We were told that giving towards One-North might not be the call for everybody and we should each hear God for ourselves and give according to what God has directed in our heart. There was no guilt-inducing tone in the sermons and no threats of God’s wrath and curses if we fail to give. For heaven’s sakes, we are a church that preaches grace! Threats and guilt-trips are not our way of doing things. Pastor whole-heartedly believes that if One-North is really of God, then God himself will convince the people’s heart to give. We were not there just to support our pastor and his 280-million-dollar vision, we were there to sow into God’s kingdom through a building project that we believe not only makes practical logistic and sound financial sense but also one that will see many souls saved and lives changed. You can find some of these testimonies here. One-North is a commercial building. It is not fair to draw judgments by comparing it to a church building. I could go on and on but I won’t. I don’t expect people outside NCC to understand our position. For those who are genuinely interested to understand the rational behind this mega-project, may I direct you to this blog instead. I have personally read it and am fully in agreement with the response to every point raised.
I heard this story while watching Charlie Wilson’s War a few days ago. It’s the story of a Zen master who observes the people of his village celebrating a young boy’s new horse as a wonderful gift. “We’ll see,” the Zen master says. When the boy falls off the horse and breaks a leg, everyone says the horse is a curse. “We’ll see,” says the master. Then war breaks out, the boy cannot be conscripted because of his injury, and everyone now says the horse was a fortunate gift. “We’ll see,” the master says again.
Is One-North really God’s directive for NCC? Maybe or maybe not. All we know is that, right now, we believe it is God’s word for us.
Related post- With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
I just realize today what a hopeless failure I am at explaining my faith to others.
During lunch today, a co-worker spotted my Bible lying on the table next to me. I didn’t put there on purpose I swear. I have run out of books to read again and thought I’d read a few chapter of Romans during lunch yesterday. I forgot to put it back into the drawer and that was how it became a conversation topic. He started asking me questions about spirituality and religion and wanted to know if I am a staunch Christian. It is very refreshing to have someone interested enough to want to know I feel about spiritual matters. This is probably one of the very few rare encounters I have with someone who seems genuinely curious. Usually people either wanted to avoid the topic altogether or they try to undermine your beliefs in order to convert you to their views. Perhaps it’s because he admitted himself that he is a nonpracticing Muslim. This is what is refreshing about nonreligious people. They speak from their heart, without an agenda. While I truly enjoy such honest and open conversations because it is rare and because my faith is truly something very close to my heart, I also tend to feel helplessly inadequate expressing my thoughts. Every attempt I make just comes out as one big confusing mess to my listener. There is that familiar puzzled look on their faces. But in the eyes of my heart and mind, I can see these concepts clearly in a sort of a mind-map fashion. They are reasonable and coherent to me because I could see the big and small links that connect one thought to another. So it’s extremely frustrating when I couldn’t express them the way I wish them to be understood. How does one explain a mind-map anyway?? It’s just too overwhelming.
Spirituality and faith is complex enough in itself. What more when these words tend to mean different things to different people. Even worse is the assumptions that we attach to them. For example, my friend couldn’t see how I could be staunch but not religious. This why I am reluctant to call myself a staunch Christian because most people automatically assumes that I am also religious, which I certainly am not. To me, religion is more like a set of rules that I must follow in order to be good enough to reach God but my faith, Christianity per se, is not a religion in that sense because Christianity is about God reaching down to us out of His love for us and not because we are good enough. However to most people, religion means a kind of attempt towards spiritual connection with God or a higher power and they have a tendency to link it to attitudes of self-righteousness. It is not entirely their fault for thinking that way because a lot of religious people behave in self-righteous ways. The cause of that, I think, is because religion has to do with achieving holiness by our own efforts (via the do’s and don’ts) so people who are religious tend to see themselves as better or holier than someone who is not religious. You see the difference? When I say I am spiritual but not religious I simply mean, how I live my life and how I relate to people and situations is directly connected to what I believe about God and his creation. It has nothing to do with any attempt to attain holiness.
So we kept going round and round without making much progress because we both have different ideas about what spirituality and religion means. And I am just very lousy when it comes to explaining such things, or anything for that matter. Not teacher material definitely. Besides, there is this sense that there is just so much more that I still do not know about God, about His world and everything else in between.
All of us at New Creation Church received the looooong awaited news last Sunday – we will finally be moving into our own building! Yay!! No more queues and shuttling between different locations. God is good! For 7 years since we moved into The Rock Auditorium at Suntec City, we have been split over several locations within that area. Let me briefly recall – the main auditorium at the Rock, two overflow rooms on levels 4 and 6, another overflow at Gallery West, children’s church between Suntec Convention Centre and occasionally at Marina Mandarin Hotel and Pan Pacific Hotel, mandarin/hokkien service between Swissotel Stamford and Suntec Convention Centre, the nursery at Suntec Mall, Tower 3. Wouldn’t you say it’s quite a mess? Imagine the logistics involved in moving equipments and supplies between these locations. But thank God for efficient and dedicated servers (most of whom are volunteers), everything went smoothly every week. It’s pretty amazing. My hats off to these people really. But all that will hopefully come to an end by 2011 when we move into our new location. That’s another 4 years to wait out. I will be almost forty by then! Seems like such a long wait. Our pastor is a firm believer in not rushing into things and working with God’s timing. You can read more about this upcoming project in this article that appeared in the Straits Times today.
$660 million lifestyle hub to go up at Buona Vista
5,000-seat theatre, shops part of Rock productions, CapitaLand project
By Joyce Teo, property correspondent – The Straits Times 10th September 20007
Come 2011, a futuristic-looking lifestyle hub with a 5,000-seat theatre, restaurants, shop, chill-out wine bars and even dance clubs will emerge in Buona Vista.
Property giant Capitaland and a church-linked business company, Rock productions, announced yesterday that they will jointly develop an integrated complex in Singapore’s one-north science hub at a costs of $660 million.
CapitaLand’s share of the proposed development, including the ownership of about 1,000 carpark lots, will be about $380 million.
Rock Productions – the business arm of the 16,000-strong New Creation Church – will invest $280 million.
The complex, which will be connected directly to the Buona Vista MRT station, will be sited within the 17ha Vista Xchange, the business service centre as well as lifestyle and cultural hub of one-north.
Designed by Mr Andrew Bromberg of Aedes Hong Kong, it will have eight levels of civic and cultural space and four levels of retail and entertainment space.
The project came about after JTC Corporation last Friday awarded Rock productions the tender to build, lease and operate and integrated civic, cultural, retail and entertainment hub at Vista Xchange on a 60-year lease at a land price of $189 million.
Rock productions had spoken to a few partners and decided on CapitaLand, which entered into an agreement through its indirect wholly owned subsidiary One Trustee to acquire the hub’s retail and entertainment zone, which has a gross floor area of more than 24,000 sq m.
CapitaLand Retail will also manage the entire development of the integrated hub.
It is proposing an open concept for the retail and entertainment zone, which will be spread over two floors above the ground and two basement levels. the basement levels will house chic tenants that will include restaurants, cafes, thematic dance clubs, a concept food hall and a gourmet supermarket.
CapitaLand Retail chief executive Pua Seck Guan said the zone presents a unique opportunity for CapitaLand to extend its presence to the Buona Vista area. The zone will cater to the affluent crowd from the nearby Bukit Timah, Holland and Rochester park areas,as well as the visitor catchments from the one-north communities, surrounding estates and tertiary institutions, he said.
Rock productions will own and manage the hub’s civic and cultural zone, which has a gross floor area of 30,000 sq m. This zone will have a 5,000-seat state-of-the-art theatre designed by world renowned performing arts facility design consultants, Artec consultants and Bromberg.
Among Artec’s best known projects are the Lucerne Cultural centre in Switzerland and the concert hall and opera theatre at the Esplanade here.
Rock productions has engaged IMG Artists, a global performing arts management company, to work on the marketing and programming efforts for the zone.
A major tenant has already been secured.
New Creation Church, which now holds its services at The Rock auditorium at Suntec City, will be the anchor tenant of the theatre, using the space on a large part of Sundays and one mid-week night, said Rock Productions director Matthew Kang.
Rock Productions also owns and manages The Rock Auditorium and marine Cove, the recreational and dining establishment at East Coast Park.
Just in case some of you are confused, Rock Productions is the business arm of New Creation Church. How exactly does the relationship work, I’m not too clear. What I know is that Rock Productions manages the auditorium we are currently in, Rock Auditorium, and New Creation Church is it’s main and permanent tenant. But because the church only requires the space 3 days in a week, Rock Productions also rents out the auditorium space to organisers of events like concerts, seminars etc.
Some of you might be wondering if it’s “ok” for a church to have a business arm. I understand the concern about mixing business with church. It invites gossips for various reasons. At first I was a little apprehensive too but after looking at it objectively, I see no reason why it cannot work for the glory of God and the betterment of the overall community, not only it’s members. As far as I know, we have an integerous leadership. Besides, I have never been pressured to “give” to the church for any other reason than it is an honor and privilege to honor God for what He has blessed me with. The church has never spoken to us of any lack. If any, they have been thanking God all these years for His abundant provision. Pastor always believe in following God’s leading. Wherever God leads, He will provide, he says.
Nevertheless, we will have our fair share of detractors, especially from the Christian community, which is not unexpected. A big portion of Christendom doesn’t believe a church can be prosperous and impactful for the right reasons and yet remain integerous, genuine and be a great blessing to it’s people and the local and global community. Just take for example the amount of criticism directed at mega-churches around the world. Yes, some of the complains are valid but we should not assume that ALL mega-churchers are power and money hungry. Why do we have to assume that something is wrong if a church is growing? Why do we have more confidence in evil than in good? Is it not possible for God to raise different churches of different sizes to serve different groups of people? Each serves its own purpose in God’s timing. Together, we serve the universal church as well as be a witness and a blessing to the community around us. All these we can acomplish regardless of our numbers. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to know that *our church had given SGD70,000 to the Mendaki Fund as a blessing to the Malay community. Wouldn’t you call that being a blessing to the local community? The wonderful thing is that the church has never trumpeted their “acts of charity” to the public. Maybe that’s why people on the outside have the impression that all these $$$ is used for selfish reasons.
Now having said all that, I do realize the dangers and temptations that a church will be open to if they’re growing too rapidly. There will be a temptation to feel superior, indestructible and prideful and soon God is nothing more than an accessory in their empire. This is why from now on, I will pray more often for the leadership of my church, that God will always draw their heart and vision back to Him and that they will always remain humble before Him and the people. The wonderful thing about belonging to a church is the accountability we give to one another, the leadership to it’s people and vice versa, and to God whom we are all ultimately accountable to.
It is my hope and the hope of all at NCC that we will be a church that will make a difference in a positive way. With great power comes great responsibility.
All the information here, besides the quoted article, are to the best of my knowledge as an ordinary member of the church since 1999. By ordinary I meant that I am not part of the leadership.
* Solid Rock Sept 07- quaterly publication of New Creation Church.
I just finished Silence by Shusaku Endo. It is highly recommended by Philip Yancey, whom I greatly respect. Years ago, I endeavored to read every book and author he introduced his book Soul Survivor; a book about the people and their writings that have made an impact in his life. Silence is one of them. I was delighted to find it sitting in a local library the other day.
Silence turns out to be an intense, disturbing and emotional historical novel. It is set in 16th century Japan and tells the story of a Portuguese missionary, Rodrigues, who travelled to Japan during the height of Christian persecution. His mission is to locate and provide encouragement to the persecuted Christians and to discover the truth about his former spiritual mentor, Father Ferreira, who is rumored to have apostatized under the tortures of the Japanese feudal lords who are determined to drive Christianity out of Japan. Their modus operandi is to strike the shepherd in order to scatter the sheep. They pay a sum of money to anyone who would betray a priest to them. Once captured, they would inflict the most heinous torture in order to get the priests to apostatize. Another example of their cruelty is seen in their torturing of the Christians, whom are mostly simple-minded peasants, in order to induce great distress and guilt upon the priests to force them to renounce their God for the sake of their sheep.
While the theology of pain and suffering is not new, a lot of what had been written take a somewhat detached view; they were either an apology for God’s permitted suffering, rants against God for permitting suffering, or pep talks for believers going through suffering. Unlike these, Endo wrote from within the grasp of suffering, giving us a heart-wrenching account of the internal and external distress and abuse these early Christians and missionaries had to endure. As a reader, I am forced to grapple with issues of doubt and faith, of God’s sovereignty, of forgiveness, of the purpose and effectiveness of prayer and to question the rationality and relevance behind the Christian fervor to fulfill the great commission. Are we doing more harm than good? The Korean church must have asked the same questions at some point in the recent hostage crisis in Afghanistan. Mid-way through the book I was almost convinced that the young priest’s faith which was strong and unshakable in the beginning would start to crumble with every unanswered prayer and needless suffering of the people and finally giving up on a God who choose to remain silent through it all. It is difficult for us who live in a time and place of peace and freedom to comprehend the extent of their anguish as they face their tormentors but the greater anguish is their sense of abandonment by God. Finally they wrestle with public apostasy and with whether or not they could ever be forgiven if they commit such an act.
There are words on many pages that will pierce your soul but none more so than when Rodrigues, agonizing over whether to trample on the bronze fumie (an act required by the feudal lords as a sign of apostasy) to end the agony of the peasant Christians, suddenly heard the Lord calling from the fumie, “trample! trample!…..I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. It was to be trampled on by men that I came into the world. It was to share in men’s suffering that I carried my cross.” Suddenly a whole new Jesus forms in your mind. In the end, Endo uncovered to us a true theology of the cross. The young priest had learned the hard way that the power of Christ is not in displays of supernatural powers but who in sacrificial love, chose to suffer with those who suffer.
Silence is one of the best book I’ve read in a long while. Highly recommended!
Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) was a renowned 20th century Japanese author who wrote from the eunique perspective of being both Japanese and Catholic. (The population of Christians in Japan is less than 1%.) Silence (1966) is Endo’s most famous work, generaly regarded as his masterpiece.
This is not going to be a well thought out piece where I go through a few rounds of editing. It’s just going to come out as it is.
I’m angry, upset and disappointed with the way things are turning out in Afghanistan with regards with the Korean hostages. The whole situation has been met with indifference, insensitive criticisms and mindless blaming. I’m sick to my stomach. If some of you don’t know what I’m talking about, it just goes to show how silent the media has been.
If I dare to admit and be totally honest, I am even angry, upset and disappointed with God. But that’s something I will sort out in my own private time with God later.
I urge you to please do what is within your ability. Be it to spread awareness, sign petitions, gather together or privately to pray, just…. whatever you can in your own way, that you think can help in some small ways. May I direct you to this blog by Eugene Cho. He has got pretty extensive coverage on the situation. You’ll find lots of details there. If you feel criticism or an impulse to blame, rising up within you, I beg you to stop. There will be a time for you to voice that. Now is not it. Now is the time to contribute something positive.
I read this piece on Christianity Today’s site not too long ago and found my heart deeply comforted. It just goes to show that what we need most in times of suffering is not pet answers and hasty promises but an acknowledgement of our pain and the proclamation of hope. I’m posting it here mainly for myself, as a reminder, if and when I do walk through the valley of the shadows.
A sermon given on the Virginia Tech campus two weeks after the shootings.
Philip Yancey posted 6/06/2007 05:31PM
We gather here still trying to make sense of what happened in Blacksburg, still trying to process the unprocessable. We come together in this place, as a Christian community, partly because we know of no better place to bring our questions and our grief and partly because we don’t know where else to turn. As the apostle Peter once said to Jesus, at a moment of confusion and doubt, “Lord, to whom else can we go?”In considering how to begin today, I found myself following two different threads. The first thread is what I would like to say, the words I wish I could say. The second thread is the truth.
I wish I could say that the pain you feel will disappear, vanish, never to return. I’m sure you’ve heard comments like these from parents and others: “Things will get better.” “You’ll get past this.” “This too shall pass.” Those who offer such comfort mean well, and it’s true that what you feel now you will not always feel. Yet it’s also true that what happened on April 16, 2007, will stay with you forever. You are a different person because of that day, because of one troubled young man’s actions.I remember one year when three of my friends died. In my thirties then, I had little experience with death. In the midst of my grief, I came across these lines from George Herbert that gave me solace: “Grief melts away / Like snow in May / As if there were no such cold thing.” I clung to that hope even as grief smothered me like an avalanche. Indeed, the grief did melt away, but like snow it also came back, in fierce and unexpected ways, triggered by a sound, a smell, some fragment of memory of my friends.
So I cannot say what I want to say, that this too shall pass. Instead, I point to the pain you feel, and will continue to feel, as a sign of life and love. I’m wearing a neck brace because I broke my neck in an auto accident. For the first few hours as I lay strapped to a body board, medical workers refused to give me pain medication because they needed my response. The doctor kept probing, moving my limbs, asking, “Does this hurt? Do you feel that?” The correct answer, the answer both he and I desperately wanted, was, “Yes. It hurts. I can feel it.” Each sensation gave proof that my spinal cord had not been severed. Pain offered proof of life, of connection—a sign that my body remained whole.
Love and Pain
In grief, love and pain converge. Cho felt no grief as he gunned down your classmates because he felt no love for them. You feel grief because you did have a connection. Some of you had closer ties to the victims, but all of you belong to a body to which they too belonged. When that body suffers, you suffer. Remember that as you cope with the pain. Don’t try to numb it. Instead, acknowledge it as a perception of life and of love.
Medical students will tell you that in a deep wound, two kinds of tissue must heal: the connective tissue beneath the surface and the outer, protective layer of skin. If the protective tissue heals too quickly, the connective tissue will not heal properly, leading to complications later on. The reason this church and other ministries on campus offer counseling and hold services like this one is to help the deep, connective tissue heal. Only later will the protective layer of tissue grow back in the form of a scar.
We gather here as Christians, and as such we aspire to follow a man who came from God 2,000 years ago. Read through the Gospels, and you’ll find only one scene in which someone addresses Jesus directly as God: “My Lord and my God!” Do you know who said that? It was doubting Thomas, the disciple stuck in grief, the last holdout against believing the incredible news of the Resurrection.
In a tender scene, Jesus appeared to Thomas in his newly transformed body, obliterating Thomas’s doubts. What prompted that outburst of belief, however—”My Lord and my God!”—was the presence of Jesus’ scars. “Feel my hands,” Jesus told him. “Touch my side.” In a flash of revelation, Thomas saw the wonder of Almighty God, the Lord of the universe, stooping to take on our pain.
God doesn’t exempt even himself from pain. God joined us and shared our human condition, including its great grief. Thomas recognized in that pattern the most foundational truth of the universe: that God is love. To love means to hurt, to grieve. Pain is a mark of life.
The Jews, schooled in the Old Testament, had a saying: “Where Messiah is, there is no misery.” After Jesus, you could change that saying to: “Where misery is, there is the Messiah.” “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said, “and those who hunger and thirst, and those who mourn, and those who are persecuted.” Jesus voluntarily embraced every one of these hurts.
So where is God when it hurts? We know where God is because he came to earth and showed us his face. You need only follow Jesus around and note how he responded to the tragedies of his day: with compassion—which simply means “to suffer with”—and with comfort and healing.
I would also like to answer the question why? Why this campus rather than Virginia Commonwealth or William and Mary? Why these 33 people? I cannot tell you, and I encourage you to resist anyone who offers a confident answer. God himself did not answer that question for Job, nor did Jesus answer why questions. We have hints, but no one knows the full answer. What we do know, with full confidence, is how God feels. We know how God looks on the campus of Virginia Tech right now because God gave us a face, a face that was streaked with tears. Where misery is, there is the Messiah.
Not everyone will find that answer sufficient. When we hurt, sometimes we want revenge. We want a more decisive answer. Frederick Buechner said, “I am not the Almighty God, but if I were, maybe I would in mercy either heal the unutterable pain of the world or in mercy kick the world to pieces in its pain.” God did neither. He sent Jesus. God joined our world in all its unutterable pain in order to set in motion a slower, less dramatic solution, one that involves us.
One day a man said to me, “You wrote a book called Where Is God When It Hurts, right?” Yes. “Well, I don’t have much time to read. Can you just answer that question for me in a sentence or two?” I thought for a second and said, “I guess I’d have to answer that with another question: ‘Where is the church when it hurts?'”
The eyes of the world are trained on this campus. You’ve seen satellite trucks parked around town, reporters prowling the grounds of your school. Last fall, I visited Amish country near the site of the Nickel Mines school shootings. As happened here, reporters from every major country swarmed the hills of Pennsylvania, looking for an angle. They came to report on evil and instead ended up reporting on the church. The Amish were not asking, “Where is God when it hurts?” They knew where God was. With their long history of persecution, the Amish weren’t for a minute surprised by an outbreak of evil. They rallied together, embraced the killer’s family, ministered to each other, and healed wounds by relying on a sense of community strengthened over centuries.
Something similar has taken place here in Blacksburg. You have shown outrage against the evil deed, yes, but you’ve also shown sympathy and sadness for the family of the one who committed it. Cho, too, has a memorial on this campus.
The future lies ahead, and you’re just awakening to the fact that you are an independent moral being. Until now, other people have been running your life. Your parents told you what to do and made decisions for you. Teachers ordered you around in grammar school, and the pattern continued in high school and even into college. You now inhabit a kind of halfway house on the way to adulthood, waiting for the real life of career and perhaps marriage and children to begin.
What happened in Blacksburg on April 16 demonstrates beyond all doubt that your life—the decisions you make, the kind of person you are—matters now. There are 28 students and 5 faculty members who have no future in this world.
That reality came starkly home to me nine weeks ago today when I was driving on a winding road in Colorado. Suddenly, I missed a curve and my Ford Explorer slipped off the pavement and started tumbling side to side at 60 miles per hour. An ambulance appeared, and I spent the next seven hours strapped to a body board, with duct tape across my head to keep it from moving. A cat scan showed that a vertebra high on my neck had been shattered, and sharp bone fragments were poking out next to a major artery. The hospital had a jet to fly me to Denver for emergency surgery.
I had one arm free, with a cell phone and little battery time left. I spent those tense hours calling people close to me, knowing it might be the last time I would ever hear their voices. It was an odd sensation to lie there helpless, aware that though I was fully conscious, at any moment I could die.
Samuel Johnson said when a man is about to be hanged, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” When you’re strapped to a body board after a serious accident, it concentrates the mind. When you survive a massacre at Virginia Tech, it concentrates the mind. I realized how much of my life focused on trivial things. During those seven hours, I didn’t think about how many books I had sold or what kind of car I drove (it was being towed to a junkyard anyway). All that mattered boiled down to four questions. Whom do I love? Whom will I miss? What have I done with my life? And am I ready for what’s next? Ever since that day, I’ve tried to live with those questions at the forefront.
I would like to promise you a long, pain-free life, but I cannot. God has not promised us that. Rather, the Christian view of the world reduces everything to this formula: The world is good. The world has fallen. The world will be redeemed. Creation, the Fall, redemption—that’s the Christian story in a nutshell.
You know that the world is good. Look around you at the blaze of spring in the hills of Virginia. Look around you at the friends you love. Though overwhelmed with grief right now, you will learn to laugh again, to play again, to climb up mountains and kayak down rivers again, to love, to rear children. The world is good.
You know, too, that the world has fallen. Here at Virginia Tech, you know that as acutely as anyone on this planet.
I ask you also to trust that the world, your world, will be redeemed. This is not the world God wants or is satisfied with. God has promised a time when evil will be defeated, when events like the shootings at Nickel Mines and Columbine and Virginia Tech will come to an end. More, God has promised that even the scars we accumulate on this fallen planet will be redeemed, as Jesus demonstrated to Thomas.
I once was part of a small group with a Christian leader whose name you would likely recognize. He went through a hard time as his adult children got into trouble, bringing him sleepless nights and expensive attorney fees. Worse, my friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Nothing in his life seemed to work out. “I have no problem believing in a good God,” he said to us one night. “My question is, ‘What is God good for?'” We listened to his complaints and tried various responses, but he batted them all away.
A few weeks later, I came across a little phrase by Dallas Willard: “For those who love God, nothing irredeemable can happen to you.” I went back to my friend. “What about that?” I asked. “Is God good for that promise?”
I would like to promise you an end to pain and grief, a guarantee that you will never again hurt as you hurt now. I cannot. I can, however, stand behind the promise that the apostle Paul made in Romans 8, that all things can be redeemed, can work together for your good. In another passage, Paul spells out some of the things he encountered, which included beatings, imprisonment, and shipwreck. As he looked back, he could see that somehow God had redeemed even those crisis events in his life.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us,” Paul concluded. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37-39). God’s love is the foundational truth of the universe.
Clinging to Hope
Trust a God who can redeem what now seems unredeemable. Ten days before the shootings on this campus, Christians around the world remembered the darkest day of human history, the day in which evil human beings violently rose up against God’s Son and murdered the only truly innocent human being who has ever lived. We remember that day not as Dark Friday, Tragic Friday, or Disaster Friday—but rather as Good Friday. That awful day led to the salvation of the world and to Easter, an echo in advance of God’s bright promise to make all things new.
Honor the grief you feel. The pain is a way of honoring those who died, your friends and classmates and professors. It represents life and love. The pain will fade over time, but it will never fully disappear.
Do not attempt healing alone. The real healing, of deep connective tissue, takes place in community. Where is God when it hurts? Where God’s people are. Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and on this earth, the Messiah takes form in the shape of his church. That’s what the body of Christ means.
Finally, cling to the hope that nothing that happens, not even this terrible tragedy, is irredeemable. We serve a God who has vowed to make all things new. J. R. R. Tolkien once spoke of “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” You know well the poignancy of grief. As healing progresses, may you know, too, that joy, a foretaste of the world redeemed.
Philip Yancey is a CT editor at large.
I have observed with concern, mixed with a bit of frustration, how you have been late for church with alarming regularity lately. At first I thought it was me who was too early. Or me, who has a housekeeper to manage the chores and kids so we could all leave on time. Then I realize I have been managing these on my own for weeks since our helper left, and have not been late once.
I really don’t mind if you prefer to stride into the auditorium while praise and worship is in full swing, with people on their feet, clapping and lifting hands, to find your way around this crowd. I really don’t mind because I would have warmed one of those red velvet seats somewhere in that auditorium. I would have already entered into sweet communion with the Lord.
You see, I really don’t mind….except when I needed to watch the other red seat beside me, with my phone on mute in the palm of my hand, trying to manage a half clap, so that a friend could afford to be late and not have to squirm her way through that massive crowd. And what of the questions I had to endure from ushers who could not help but notice that the seat with a Bible on it is still, well….still has a Bible on it and not a person. Surely they would have known by now, the reason behind my verbal acrobatics. How many excuses can one come up with? “She’s stuck at the tape counter, in the washroom, with the pastor, in the queue, at the food court, in the car park, etcetera etcetera….. My most common excuse? “She’s on the way.” That’s about the best I can manage without feeling like I have defiled the place with my lies. Minutes ticked by and the Bible will still there. Ever so often, I’d turn to look around to see if you’re coming.
These revelations are so you get an idea of what it is like at my end. I have put up with them as long as they do not disrupt too much of my worship time with the Lord. But the last straw came that Sunday when I had to pick-up your calls in the middle of worship, to direct you to that empty seat beside me. The music and singing drowned me out so you could not hear. I had to text you your seat number and the direction in the middle of How Great Is Our God. Using the phone in the presence of God is something I really want to avoid. It bothers me when you answer calls and reply messages during service. It bothers me even more if I have to do it.
Therefore, in keeping with my desire for a distraction-free church service and with my promise to not let the little communication device control my life, may I propose two solutions. One, set your alarm clock to wake you half an hour earlier. Two, find your own way around once service begins as I won’t be contactable then. Thank you for your kind understanding. As you have been such a dear friend, I will continue with pleasure, to reserve a place for you in the queue.
Your dear friend,
This letter is a response to my observation of what has often be taken for granted during church services. In a broader sense it applies to everyone of us who has made a habit out of making our friends wait on us and who has allowed our mobile phones to interfere with our life.